How do we make moral decisions without God guiding the way?
That’s the question at the heart of Dan Barker‘s new book Mere Morality. Barker, the co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a former preacher, dismantles one of the core arguments of Christian apologists — that we need God to be good (even if we don’t believe in one). To the contrary, he says, we can rationalize our way to morally sound judgment.
In the excerpt below, Barker describes the “Three moral minds”:
How do atheists know how to be good? How does anybody know how to be good? Should you simply “give a little whistle, and always let your conscience be your guide,” as Jiminy Cricket counseled Pinocchio? Conscience is defined as a “moral sense,” but what is that, exactly? Is it a physical sense? Do we simply perceive the right thing to do? If so, why do so many people do the wrong thing, and why is it often so hard to know what is right? If our “conscience” is so dependable, why do we need laws? Why do we have moral dilemmas? Jiminy Cricket had a sweet idea but it sounds simplistic, like something you would hear in a movie. How exactly does a “conscience” guide us, and why does it not always work very well in reality? Luckily we are not puppets-turned-human or we would all have very long noses.
Should we follow a code instead? Is morality a lookup list of prescribed rules? Can it be reduced to obeying orders? Should you “always let your bible be your guide”? If so, why do believers disagree about moral issues, and why do so many of them act immorally?
C. S. Lewis tried to define a “mere Christianity,” a core set of beliefs that remain after all the nonessential doctrines are stripped away. In its place, I would like to propose a Mere Morality, a ground-level understanding of what it means to be good. A well-rounded life will involve much more than the moral minimum, of course, and each of us can choose how far to go beyond that, but I would like to suggest Mere Morality as the starting point. It is a C, a passing grade, a driver’s permit. Mere Morality is what allows all of us, believers or not, to get out of class and start living a grownup life out in the real world where the hard moral lessons are to be learned. It is a model, a framework that can help us visualize what we are doing when we make moral choices.
Have you ever seen one of those cartoons where the character is trying to make a decision with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other? We often find ourselves torn between what we want to do and what we feel we should do. Since there are no devils or angels, I suggest we replace the image of those silly supernatural symbols of “good” and “evil” with something else. Instead of cartoon characters competing for your attention, picture instinct on one shoulder, law on the other, and reason in the middle. These make up your three “moral minds,” and none of them, by itself, tells you what to do. None of them is good or bad. Actions are what we judge to be good or bad. Your moral minds are guides that help you do the judging.
Of course, you don’t really have three separate minds; there are not three little people fighting for attention in your brain. Just like the Feynman diagrams are not intended to represent what is actually happening in quantum physics — they are a way to visually “stand for” the effects — the three minds of Mere Morality are a way to help think through moral decisions. Philosopher Daniel Dennett might call this an “intuition pump,” a tool for critical thinking. Your own mind is certainly multilayered, with levels of perceptual, emotional, and cognitive activities (as the story of the falling baby shows), with hundreds of separate simultaneous functions operating as modules, or “minds” within your brain above and below the level of consciousness. Emotion, for example, is more primitive than reason, and much stronger, but taking all of the different parts as a whole, we can talk about the aggregate as your one individual mind composed of separate smaller “minds.”
Mere Morality considers the mind of reason to be the head on the shoulders, with instinct on one side and law on the other. Instinct and law are the results of minds. Instinct is the biological outcome of decisions made by the minds of your ancestors, and law is the result of the collective decisions made by the many minds of the social group in which you live. Law can also be the result of a single regal mind, or a small group of minds, and such nondemocratic governments tend to be tyrannical, but those laws nevertheless originate outside of your own mind, and the way to determine if they are good guides is to use reason. Instinct and law (one on each shoulder) are past judgments while reason (the head in the middle) is present judgment. When you are making a moral decision, you have three “minds” at your disposal: instinct, reason, and law. One mind is real; the others are metaphorical.
Your three moral minds are not mechanical producers of goodness. They are guides. You can’t use them to “give a little whistle” and presto, Jiminy Cricket jumps out with a tiny umbrella saying, “Do this!” Any one of those three moral minds — or all three — can be faulty. Many of our biological instincts are nurturing, but some are thoughtlessly violent. Reasoning may be based on untested premises or inadequate information, resulting in bad conclusions. Some laws derive from primitive tribal fears or the privilege of power and may have nothing to do with morality. In order for any instinctive, law-abiding, or rational action to be considered morally good, we have to know what “good” means. I think the simple measure of morality is the harm principle:
The way to be good is to act with the intention of minimizing harm.
What else is meant by morality? Morality is not a huge mystery. Ethics is simply concerned with reducing harm. (There is a difference between ethics and morality — one is theory and the other is practice — but most people informally use the two words as synonyms, so I will too. Some nonbelievers don’t even think we need the word “morality,” and they have a point, but I am using the word in the informal sense of “how should we act?”) Morality is not a code. It is not following rules or orders. It is not belief or dogma. It is not pleasing an authority figure. It is not “bringing glory” to a god, religion, tribe, or nation. It is not passing a test of virtue. It is not hoping to be told someday that “you are my good and faithful servant.” Humanistic morality is the attempt to avoid or lessen harm. It is the only real morality because it uses human values in the natural world, not “spirit values” in a supernatural world, as its measure. It is the opposite of religious morality because it is based on real harm, not the imaginary concepts of “sin” and “holiness.”People should be judged by their actions, not their beliefs. Actions speak louder than faith.
I think most believers are good people. Although religious doctrine is generally irrational, divisive, and irrelevant to human values, some religions have good teachings sprinkled in with the dogma, and many well-meaning believers, to their credit, concentrate on those teachings. Surveying the smorgasbord of belief systems, we notice that they occasionally talk about peace and love. Who would argue with that? Sermons and holy books may encourage charity, mercy, and compassion, even sometimes fairness. These are wonderful ideas, but they are not unique to any religion. We might judge one religion to be better than another, but notice what we are doing. When we judge a religion, we are applying a standard outside of the religion. We are assuming a framework against which religious teachings and practices can be measured. That standard is the harm principle. If a teaching leans toward harm, we judge it as bad. If it leans away from harm, it is good, or at least better than the others. If a religious precept happens to be praiseworthy it is not because of the religion but in spite of it. Its moral worth is measured against real consequences, not orthodoxy or righteousness.
The so-called Golden Rule, for example, is not a bad teaching. It shows up in many religions. Confucius had a version of it long before Christianity, and phrased it better: “Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself.” The value of this obviously humanistic teaching derives not from being found within a religious tradition, but from its emphasis on actions, not faith or dogma. Confucius’s wording is better than the Christian “do unto others” because it stresses the avoidance of actions that cause harm, which is what Mere Morality is all about. (“Do unto others” is decidedly not a good rule for masochists, psychopaths, or people with kinky sexual preferences, religious obsessions, or simply bad taste.) Religious groups such as Buddhists, Jains, and Quakers that are known for their ideals (if not always practices) of pacifism are more moral than groups such as Christian Crusaders, Muslim suicide bombers, and Kamikaze pilots, whose dogma has led directly to violence. We can make this judgment on the basis of lessening harm, which is a principle available to all of us.
So the good values that a religion might profess are not religious values. They are human values. They transcend religion, not in a supernatural sense, but in the natural sense that they are available to everyone, regardless of one’s particular religious heritage or choice. They are shared across humanity, and what makes them good is their humanism, not their theology. This means that the purely religious values — the ones that make a religion unique and supposedly “better” than the others — are not good values, because they are irrelevant to morality. What day of the week you should worship, how many times you should say a certain prayer, what religious texts you should memorize, how you should dress, whether women should wear jewelry or makeup in church (or whether their bodies should be seen at all), what words you can say or pictures you can draw or songs you can sing, what books you should read or music you should listen to or movies you should watch, what foods you should eat, whether you can drink alcohol or caffeine, whether women can take positions of leadership, if and how women should submit to men, how women should control their own reproductive future, who your children are allowed to date or marry, how gays, nonconformists, heretics, or infidels should be dealt with, how a class of privileged leaders (clergy) should be treated or addressed or whether they should be allowed to marry, how much of your money or time is demanded by the religion, how many times a day you should pray, what words should be said or what direction you should face during prayer, what incantations should be performed during certain rites like baptism and death, what side of the bed you should get out of, what specific doctrines you should believe, what “holy books” or scriptures are true, whether a snake actually spoke human language or a man was born of a virgin, how science should be viewed, whether the earth is six thousand or four billion years old, what was the true nature of the founder of your religion, and so on — all of those beliefs that differ among religions are morally irrelevant, or worse.
Purely religious teachings are most often divisive and dangerous. They build walls between people, creating artificial social conflicts, prejudice, and discrimination. They have started wars and fueled persecutions. One bloody example was the violent Thirty Years’ War in Europe, which had many causes but primarily began as a conflict between Lutherans and Catholics over infant baptism, transubstantiation, and whether prayers to the Heavenly Father need an intermediary.
If religious teachings cause unnecessary harm — and they often do — they are immoral and should be denounced. If we play C. S. Lewis’s game and separate out common human morality, Mere Morality, from religion, nothing is left in religion worth praising on ethical grounds. (We might appreciate religious art or music, for example, but this is irrelevant to morality.) Turn it around and strip each religion of its weird supernatural and ritualistic uniqueness and what is left, if anything — such as peace, love, joy, charity, and reciprocal altruism — is Mere Morality, or humanistic goodness.
We don’t need religion to be good. Religion actually gets in the way. Getting rid of purely religious mandates makes life simpler and safer. Rejecting religion filters out the noise to bring a clarity of judgment, making it easier to be a good atheist than a good Christian.
Mere Morality is now available online and in bookstores.