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The Source of Morality

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

One of the most common defenses of god belief involves the claim that a god is necessary to explain man’s innate morality. Personally, I think this is just another case of people getting carried away with their feelings and not testing a theory rigorously. We need to ask - what does history tell us about man’s innate morality, and what does the Bible tell us about “god’s morality?”

About a year ago, Leah Libresco, an atheist blogger on the Patheos Atheist Portal, announced that she had decided there really was a god and that she was in the process of becoming a Roman Catholic. Now Leah is no dummy; she is a Yale graduate and an obviously smart and articulate writer, so what was at the root of her conversion?

If you doubt that she was a committed atheist to begin with, then you are not alone. As this article, by another atheist blogger shows, there are abundant signs that she was already leaning toward god belief and Catholicism when she started her blog:

In that fateful article where she announces that she has converted to Christianity, she makes it clear that the overriding cause of her transformation involved the question of morals. Speaking of her friends with whom she had debated, she wrote: “I could see where they were coming from, but I stayed put. I was ready to admit that there were parts of Christianity and Catholicism that seemed like a pretty good match for the bits of my moral system that I was most sure of, while meanwhile my own philosophy was pretty kludged together and not particularly satisfactory.”

She describes her startling epiphany thus:

“My friend pressed me to stop beating up on other people’s explanations and offer one of my own.

“I don’t know,” I said. ”I’ve got bupkis.”

“Your best guess.”

“I haven’t got one.”

“You must have some idea.”

“I don’t know. I’ve got nothing. I guess Morality just loves me or something.”


“Ok, ok, yes, I heard what I just said. Give me a second and let me decide if I believe it.”

It turns out I did.

I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth. And there was one religion that seemed like the most promising way to reach back to that living Truth.”

Apparently, she decided that god IS morality, or, at the least, is the ultimate source of morality. I would argue that she missed the obvious as she she didn’t seek the counsel of history, nor did she examine closely the testimony of the foundational document of her new religion – the Bible - against her new theory.

Libresco claimed that those who explained human morality in terms of evolutionary psychology, “Usually . . . radically misunderstand a) evolution b) moral philosophy or c) both.” Either those who attempted those explanations were complete dunderheads, or she wasn’t really listening, since the need for development of morality in the evolution of intelligent, social animals is a no-brainer. Man is weak against nature and the larger predators when alone. He has no fur against the elements, is, on average, a mediocre problem solver on his own, and is – compared to lions, tigers, etc. – weak and slow. Only by living in groups can he survive and compete successfully, and those groups (tribes, nations, whatever) would not hold together if man acted totally selfishly and had no sympathy for his neighbors. Could anything be more obvious?

Thus, a moral tendency, i.e., a sympathy for others, is indeed innate in man. Yet, history shows that that tendency exists with a very wide range of expression. As the Bible clearly illustrates, what passed for moral behavior was considerably different in Biblical times. The Bible portrays slavery, racism, arranged marriages, gay-bashing, absolute authority of men over women, and women as property as perfectly standard morality. Today, we in the developed world find such a “morality” abhorrent and our laws reflect that fact.

Now, if our morality came directly from god, how is it that what we call moral has changed so drastically over the past 2,000 years?

What passed for moral behavior was considerably different in Biblical times. Further, if our morality is god-given, then why do we disagree on so many moral questions like abortion, gay marriage, premarital sex, capital punishment, etc.? And how does one explain sociopaths, those born without conscience, without sympathy? Where is god in this? Also, there is a vast literature on people whose moral outlooks were totally shifted because of brain damage, tumors, or other disease.

In short, while the normal man or woman does have an innate sympathy for others, the expression of that tendency has changed dramatically over time, and exhibits considerable variance across individuals and cultures. If man got his moral sense from a god, then man has dramatically improved on god’s original plan. Who among us would willingly return to the moral landscape of the Western world of the early 20th century, when women did not have the vote or other equal rights, racism was rampant, and gays stayed in the closet for fear of ridicule or physical harm?

I suggest that Leah Libresco turned to Christianity and Catholicism from purely emotional drives, not from clear-headed consideration of human morality from the facts of human existence and human history. Now, emotion can be good, but when judging how the world really works, the value of hard evidence and logic should never be ignored. The evidence of a god as the basis of human morality adds up to something between scant and none. In fact, I find the evidence overwhelming that nature, through evolution, planted the seeds of human morality, and from there (as Pogo might have put it),
“We have met the morals-maker and he is us.”