Religion is not a motivator for good, part 2

In the first part to this post, I defined religion as an influencing factor in terms of people doing good. This is opposed to the idea of a motivating force. I compared them as such:

There is a key difference between a motivating force and an influencing factor. The former is the direct cause for something that happens (or said, thought, etc) and the latter is an indirect cause. To put it into other terms, my hunger is a motivating force for why I might buy a sandwich. An influencing factor, however, would be a commercial I saw for Subway. My procurement of food is directly motivated by my hunger, but my specific purchase is influenced by another factor – that is, my motivation exists independently of a given influence.

The reason, I’ve argued, that people do good deeds is that it’s in human nature to have empathy, sympathy, concern, and interests in the well-being of others due to our evolutionary history and status as a social animal. That isn’t to say we don’t have good reasons for those good deeds, but I am saying our tendencies as humans should not be viewed as fundamentally different on a biological level than the tendencies of any other animal.

As it happens, religion has had a long history of getting people to do good things. I would hazard that most charities are religious in their nature, and if not, then they at least make up a sizable portion of the total. We see church and mosque and synagogue groups traveling to help out developing nations and other places and people in need every day. It isn’t uncommon for someone to help out a neighbor while citing God’s will. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do good things.

Unfortunately, as it also so happens, religion has had a long history of bringing people to do bad things. We have The Inquisition, the Crusades, yet another war brewing in the Middle East, the current situation in Nigeria, Northern Ireland for quite some time, the Church’s devastating restriction of science for so many centuries, and on and on and on. The fact is, religion has influenced a lot of people to do bad things.

But here’s the kicker: There isn’t anything to stop a person from being influenced by religion to do bad things. The two primary reasons for this are 1) the subjective interpretations that are demanded by holy texts and 2) faith. Let me quickly break these down.

Subjectivity in Holy Texts

Unlike science or history or a number of other legitimate fields, theology and religious studies have no objective methods for determining what any piece of holy writ is meant to convey. Sure, there are textual critics, such as Bart D. Ehrman, who do perfectly valid work that has perfectly valid conclusions, but that’s because they have a real methodology and objective argumentation. The biggest advocates of what this or that piece of holy text means are little more than literary critics. That isn’t to say literary criticism is necessarily vapid, but there is a lot of empty air in the field. I mean, there’s a reason why two people can write two conflicting theories on a Shakespeare play and yet each have acceptable arguments. Or fifty different people with fifty conflicting theories. It all comes down to personal, subjective interpretation. Really, that’s art. And there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, but problems do arise when people begin to pretend they’re using objective means to come to their conclusions – which is exactly what we see with theologians and priests and others of the like.


I still haven’t heard a better definition of faith than “belief without evidence”. Because that’s exactly what it is. Stories in the Bible (and presumably other holy books) support this (but maybe arguments can be made against this claim and I can’t really say boo, what with the subjectivity of it all), and the words and sermons of believers are overwhelmingly in favor of believing x could be true, even when there is no good reason to suppose it actually is. So given this fact, it isn’t surprising that we see religious people influenced by their religion to do bad things every day. Because, why not? If a large premise of religion (and belief in God) is that one doesn’t need to use reason and rationality to come to bold conclusions, then what stops a person from going a step further and saying that God wants his followers to take x’s land, or oppress y’s people, or kill people of belief z? Indeed, arguments leading to these conclusions have all been made using religion – Christian and Muslim invasions, Christian-based slavery, 9/11. It may be argued that these are incorrect conclusions, but 1) there’s no objective way to determine that and 2) if the religion says faith is a virtue, then there is no need to enter something as wacky as reasons into the debate, is there?

So to conclude, it is our humanity – our very nature – that leads us to the tendency to do good things. Everything else is sauce for the meat – though, to be clear, not all sauces are equal. Some will tend to bring us to do more good than bad, to even be restricted from doing bad because of those crazy things called reasons. Others, however, are not so positive. Enter religion. This influencing factor is subject to the interpretations of countless people who have come to countless conclusions. (Just imagine if science worked that way, where two scientists working independently with the same information rarely came to the same conclusion. It would be mayhem.) Moreover, religious belief has this awful tendency to be underpinned with faith. Faith, as described earlier, is nothing more than belief without evidence. And if a person is willing to believe something for no reason other than hope or wishful thinking or fear or whathaveyou, then what sort of basis is that for doing good? More importantly, what sort of basis is that for not doing bad? The fact is, it isn’t a good basis for either – but anyone can (and has) made it a basis for any number of acts, good or bad. That’s what faith inherently allows.

Thought of the day

People are often confused by the idea of how morality works in a world without God. “Why”, the argument goes, “without God, you have no basis for acting one way or another as a matter of right or wrong.” This is a bad argument and here’s why: It assumes that morality is something which must be objective in order to exist. That assumption is not only unproven, it’s actually incorrect. Morality has always been a purely human affair, and we have plenty of philosophical, logical, and even scientific arguments to bolster that fact. Simply because there is no objective grounding to morality does not mean it ceases to exist. And why would it? It’s something that’s evolutionarily and culturally emergent in the first place. To say it must be objective in order to be real would be like saying finding red heads attractive would need to be objectively grounded in order to be legitimate.

Einstein and Darwin on morality


A moral being is one who is capable of reflecting on his past actions and their motives – of approving of some and disapproving of others.


I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.

It seems so eminently fitting to me that two of the greatest scientists to have ever lived have such enlightened views on just what morality is.

A hugely pathetic understanding of evolution

One of the creationists favorite pieces of bullshit rhetoric is to say to anyone who accepts the facts of evolution, “You are beholden to your evolutionary past! Why would you do anything good if the point of life is to merely survive? Checkmate, atheists.” It’s an awful line that just won’t go away, but I figure if I make a post like this, at least I will have an easy stock response on hand. So here’s why it’s so awful.

First, it is a conflation of descriptive and normative claims. (I am thoroughly convinced most Christians do not understand the difference.) Evolution deals with the facts of biology as discovered via the powerful methodology of science. It’s a description of observation; it does not have a say on how one ought to act. Morality, on the other hand, is nothing but normative claims. It is the way in which we say what is right and wrong. It is the precise opposite of descriptive claims like those made by science.

Second, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution. Simply because the history of all life is marked with ruthless struggle does not mean that we must display such ruthlessness at all times. Or any times. In fact, I think we would want to do just the opposite at most times. But none of that is really pertinent. The facts of our evolution do not mean we must act in this way or that way. It would be like saying all Americans must love the French now and forever because we got so buddy-buddy with them during the Revolutionary War. Could you imagine how upset FOX Noise would be if that were true?

This line of argumentation from creationists is really just an excuse to disengage. Rather than openly debate the merits of this or that moral position, they just appeal to a red herring of an argument. And it isn’t merely creationists. The same tactic is often used by theistic evolutionists. It does a disservice to logical, philosophical debate, but perhaps worse, it undercuts the science at the heart of it all. Ultimately, it is a misunderstanding of the issues: Evolution is a descriptive fact; morality is normative. No matter what moral conclusions one draws, evolution still remains true. Even if one draws conclusions about morality (i.e., not moral positions, but ideas concerning the concept of morality) which conflict with the descriptive fact of evolution, Mr. Darwin’s great idea, with all its modern day modifications, still remains true. And should someone think that evolution leads to particular consequences such as ruthlessness and mayhem (which, incidentally, is an invalid reason to reject acceptance of evolution), even that is immaterial. In addition to those people being wrong on the facts, evolution, once again, still remains true.

So, no, logically inept creationists and friends, you haven’t added anything of value here. As usual. Evolution is descriptive and so has no say on morality. Moreover, even if it did dictate how we ought to live, we would not therefore be beholden to our past anyway. Even if you were right, you’re still wrong. Or as I really need to say more often, you’re wrong in your wrongness.

The origins of morality and Christian arguments

Christians have two primary arguments for the origins of our morality. Both fail to be logically convincing. (That’s sort of a theme with Christianity, isn’t it?)

The first argument I want to address is the one that says we get our morality from the Bible. This is the easiest one to dismiss; simply pointing out that people cherry-pick what they consider to be good and bad in the Bible shows that, at the least, even Christians disagree that the Bible is even entirely moral. (The Christian excuse that some of the evil things in the Bible were only culturally relevant falls on its face. God still commanded evil things, including rape and forced marriages as a result of rape. Christians don’t get to argue for objective morality and then make their figurehead into a cultural relativist.)

The second argument from Christians is one designed to address secular claims. That is, we know that many of the good things found in one religion will be found in another. In fact, such things will be found without any religion whatsoever. Humans converge on common ideas of what is right and wrong quite often (and this, incidentally, also goes to defeating the first argument). The Christian answer to this is that God has put within us an innate knowledge of what is right and wrong – we just need to access it, something Christians presumably have done better than others. What’s amazing about this argument is that its proponents don’t seem to realize that it is entirely vacuous. Let’s break it down:

Bill the Christian: We get our morality from God.

Denise the Skeptic: But what about those who don’t believe in your god? And those who don’t even know of your god?

Bill: God put that morality within them at birth. They just need to find it.

Denise: Okay, but how do you know that?

Bill: I just believe it.

Denise: So then do you agree that your argument is equally valid in the hands of anyone? Do you see that anyone can say ‘My god gave us morality. I know so because I believe so.’?

Bill: Well…wait a minute…hm…

Denise: Or I could say I believe our morality comes from unicorns. It’s all the same, isn’t it?

Bill: UNICORNS?! How dare you! I can’t believe you would compare my LORD to unicorns! Why can’t you engage in a civil argument? I don’t even have to answer you because you’ve proven you’re wrong by offending me! So militant…


Okay, that last part took a real wild swing, but I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve had Christians use offense as an excuse for why they are unable to argue their case.

The fact is, arguing that our sense of morality comes from God because he put it within us at birth is a non-starter. Obviously it will not work for a non-Christian because it assumes the existence of the Christian God, but it shouldn’t even work for Bible-thumping Christians. It pretends to have knowledge of something but when push comes to shove, it turns out the entire premise is mere faith. That is literally the furthest possible thing from evidence and is entirely useless to logic.

Ignoring the facts about morality

One of the things that has always bothered me about morality debates with Christians is their common inability to distinguish between normative and descriptive claims. (Really, the issue extends beyond Christians, but it seems especially prevalent within that group.) It’s always possible to quickly identify someone who does not understand the distinction when a question is raised about the morality of a group or individual that has committed great atrocities. For example, “What makes the morality of the Nazis wrong if there is no god?” Oh, no! My worldview has been shattered and the Christians win! Please.

There are two obvious problems with this. First, it’s an annoying argument from consequence. It is being implied that an argument for subjective morality must be wrong because it leads to bad things. Second, and this is the real kicker, the whole point of this post, it confuses value claims and factual claims. Mike at The A-Unicornist has it covered:

Although it is in our nature to desire fairness and to feel compassion, we must reconcile those feelings with objective information about the natural world. So in forming rational moral judgments, it becomes absolutely vital that the information to which we have access is accurate.

And that, quite simply, forms a solid foundation upon which to reject “Nazi morality”: the beliefs underpinning the Nazi’s attempt at global domination and extermination of Jewish people are false. The German people were not a genetically superior “race” of people, but were every bit as human as the Jews they so villainized. The notion that the Jews were partly, if not entirely, responsible for Germany’s economic woes was similarly pure nonsense. That’s how you get Nazi morality: you have people who passionately believe information that is patently false. It’s quite plausible that many Nazis, if not most, took no delight in the suffering of other people; but, by adopting the false belief that Jews were not actually people, they were able to overcome their natural human empathy, to the point that great atrocities were committed.

So the Christian really has asked a non-question. It is trivially resolvable – X group was factually incorrect – and nothing has even been said to advance the discussion. There are far more interesting ways to dig into the question of morality (presuming the theist can avoid begging the question with the assumption that morality is objective), but it takes the right sort of person to ask the right sorts of questions. Someone who may have a background in theology and religious ‘philosophy’ is going to ask shallow, remedial questions, and is far from the right sort of person. That’s why, even though this stuff is not that hard, Christians tend to be more of a detriment than a help in these kind of talks.

Ethics and morality without religion

There are two tactics believers take in regard to the ability to act ethically and morally. The most common is to say that one needs God and/or religion in order to do so. It’s a weak argument that is easily defeated again and again. For instance, Japan has reported rates of atheism near 64%. Another 20% on top of that claim no religious affiliation. Yet they act far and above what we see in many other parts of the world, including the hyper-religious US:

The earthquake and tsunami that walloped Japan left much of its coastline ravaged, but left one thing intact: the Japanese reputation for honesty.

In the five months since the disaster struck, people have turned in thousands of wallets found in the debris, containing $48 million in cash.

More than 5,700 safes that washed ashore along Japan’s tsunami-ravaged coast have also been hauled to police centers by volunteers and search and rescue crews. Inside those safes officials found $30 million in cash. One safe alone, contained the equivalent of $1 million.

The other tactic is to say, why, of course people can be good without believing in God or having a religion. After all, God has instilled within all of us a seed of morality. Believers then usually cite some noise Scripture as proof. It’s a vaguely clever argument in that it gets around the issue of being proven wrong so incredibly easily, but that is the real problem: it can’t be falsified. It is based upon the Bible and is therefore necessarily a faith based claim. Since the Bible provides no internal methods for deciding if what is says is true or not, not to mention the fact that there is no evidence for a key ingredient to the argument anyway (God), this is just a random claim that carries with it exactly zero weight. It’s not even an argument.