Thursday, March 22, 2007

Believing in God is Immoral

It’s frequently argued that unless a person believes in God, they can’t or won’t be moral. If the threat of divine punishment and the promise of heavenly reward are removed, humans, sensing that no one is minding the shop, will rape, pillage, plunder and otherwise misbehave with wild abandon. Alternately, many people think that moral prescriptions cannot arise from purely natural sources—if we are only fancy, evolved monkeys, if we are nothing but physical creatures, then there can be nothing governing us except the law of the jungle. So many people think that only by believing in God will we be restrained enough to be moral.

We need to turn that argument around completely. Not only is it possible to be a moral person without a belief in God, there are some very good reasons for thinking that in many cases believing in God is itself actually immoral.

In general, isn’t it a bad thing to believe a claim that :

  1. you know is false,
  2. contributes to the confusion or false beliefs of others,
  3. encourages supernatural, spooky, non-critical, fuzzy-headed thinking,
  4. fosters fear and anxiety.
  5. creates complacence about social problems, social policy, and the future of humanity on this planet.
  6. undermines the advancement of science
  7. contributes to the stagnation of human progress.
  8. encourages a historically outdated, over-simplified worldview.
  9. stalls our progress in dealing with new, complicated and important moral issues
  10. has no good evidence in its favor.
  11. encourages cultural and ethnic strife.
  12. gives people false hopes.
  13. is self-deluding.
  14. fosters fear, confusion, and fuzzy, magical thinking in children.
  15. fosters false beliefs in children.
  16. impedes children’s acquisition of our most important, modern advancements in knowledge.
  17. is a case of akrasia:
The ancient Greek concept of akrasia is acting against one’s better judgment or having a weakness of will. Consider the heroin junky, or the smoker who is trying to quit, or the alcoholic. In their clearer moments, they can see what's wrong with their lives. They know that quitting is the sensible thing to do. But those needs creep up, the rationalizations start gaining traction, rational thought lapses, and he finds himself with a hypodermic or a cigarette in his hand. The psychological, emotional, and physical desires are too strong, and the intellectual habits, the fortitude of will, and his resolve are too weak.

Isn’t it true that one does something blameworthy or bad if one succumbs to believe those things that we want to believe when we know full well that the belief is undermined by the evidence. If out of a weakness of will, you allow yourself to believe something because of your emotional, psychological, or social needs, but not because you see good reasons in the form of evidence for it, aren’t you letting yourself down? You are letting all of us down. You are condoning believing in that way, you are lowering the bar for yourself and for everyone else, you are acknowledging that you cannot or you will not submit your beliefs to the arbitration of reason.

And isn’t it also true that your belief in God fits many, most, or all of these conditions? The problem for those with the religious urge is that culturally we have widely endorsed sloppy, indulgent, irrational thinking, especially when it comes to religion. There's a church on every corner trying to draw them in. And we've all elevated the abdication of reason in matters of God to a noble virtue instead of rejecting it for the dangerous and demeaning practice that it is. Most people, when they are being clear headed and thoughtful, know that there are no good evidence in favor of theism, and there is a lot of evidence contradicting it. But, many people want there to be a God. They hope that he's listening to their prayers. They don't think they could face life without him.

So they permit themselves to "believe in" God in the "hope" sense of "believe." ("I believe that my husband will make it home safely from Iraq.") But we don't usually distinguish carefully between that sense of "believe" and the "I believe because the evidence indicates that it is true" sense of believe. (NASA says, "We believe that there is no water on the moon.") And the comforting, hoping kind of belief settles in naturally. Then we find ourselves surrounded by like minded people who feel the need to believe(h). No one is comfortable acknowledging their weaknesses, and no one wants to attribute flagrant irrationality to themselves. So in time, hoping beliefs slip into a stronger kind of belief. We talk ourselves into thinking that it really is true that God exists. We hear others acknowledging our belief and our needs. And they encourage us to be strong, to have faith, to sustain that belief. We rationalize, we blur, and we feel more and more strongly that this thing that we want to believe really isn't just a hope, it's correct, it's the truth.

What originated as something that we knew wasn't true but we hoped was true anyway exploits a weakness of the will and becomes a belief that we think is true and that we think there's good evidence for. The drug works its way into the crevasses of your reason. You find a way to get what you want and placate your reason: you believe because you hope it is true, and you enslave your reason to making it seem like it’s a legitimate claim to the truth.


What we need is a twelve step program for God beliefs and religiousness.

"Hi, I'm Matt and I've been clean since 1982."

7 comments:

Paul Hicks said...

Matt are you suggesting that any belief in God is immoral? Surely we can say that most religious beliefs are immoral. However, it seems possible to me that if somebody has a god-sensing experience which they attribute only that they believe God touched them in some personal way and do not attribute any particular religious system to this, they can still have a theistic belief in which they only hold that God exists. They may not preach their belief in God to children. They can still hold a non-divine theory of ethics. They don't use it as a foundation to solving social problems. In fact they can even be a scientist supporting scientific advancements and human progress. The only bad thing, as you claim, they may promote in their own thinking is of a odd supernatural entity, yet they keep their belief personal. They do not put down atheists for their non-belief. Do they necessarily act immorally by simply believing in God? Is it possible that any belief in God be amoral, as in neither moral or immoral? Granted this is a rare theist, but it doesn't seem to be immediately understood as immoral.
Furthermore, your claim that you can believe something which you know to be false is rather odd. Is this even possible. If I claim to know X, I claim to believe X, don't I? It seems odd to say that I can know something is false, yet believe it anyways. It maybe true that I don't have a solid argument for X's existence, except to say that I had an experience which is consistent with a god-like entity. I do not personally hold such a belief, but it seems rather strong to suggest it is never possible to hold a belief in God and be moral at the same time.
Lastly, what about Deists. Those that believe in God, but not a personal God. Are they immoral?

Steve D. Owen said...

There are some good reasons for thinking that belief in "god" is immoral.

One of the most obvious reasons is that belief in "god" typically entails a validation of extreme violence -- see: the Old Testament and the Koran.

See: Rape, murder and genocide.

See: Stoning, cannibalism and incest.

See: Infanticide and the assassination of children.

So, if G entails the validation or promotion of V (cruel/wanton violence), then belief in G is immoral.

What many theists too easily overlook -- probably because they are taught by priests and ministers not to read all of the bible, or to ignore the immorality of it's passages through creative interpretation and apologetics -- is that belief in god typically entails G & V.

One may wonder why this is the case, until one considers what G's primary ontological purpose is -- to control the masses as a kind of invisible hammer.

Therefore, if the very concept of G is actually that of a weapon -- is it any surprise that G typically entails violence in the figure of an angry and wrathful "father?"

G is a patriarchal construct for power and control.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks to Paul and to Steve for their insights. The full version of the essay and Powerpoint presentation I recently did on this topic is at:

Nammour Symposium 2007: Believing in God is Immoral (PowerPoint 2003 version)

Nammour Symposium 2007: Believing in God is Immoral (PowerPoint 2007 version)

Anonymous said...

Again, your argument here only holds sway if one has liberal political beliefs. Godless Pro-lifers exist. Matt Wallace is conservative on most issues.
Some theists also have no specific religion.
Your arguments do not apply to everyone.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to God and morality the point (often missed) is that people need an outside reference to use as their moral compass.

Countries legislate it. People of faith have the morality taught in their faith which normally meshes fairly well with the laws of the land.

Internal moral compasses only work of we all have a perfect grasp of right and wrong. We don't.

As for your basic premise. "Believing in God is Immoral" Since you can change it to "Not Believing in God is Immoral" and use essentially the same argument. It's really kind of a moot argument.

At this point it's clear that your arguments are biased in that they presuppose that you are already an atheist instead of building from the common ground that Believers and Atheists have in common. Logic and Philosophy try to build up their argument from that common ground.

AlmostCertain said...

Great post, Matt!

I would like to address what the Anonymous reader says above with respect to internal and external moral compasses.

Each believer decides for himself what God is and what God believes is right or wrong. The classic example of this is how the majority of Catholics disagree with many of Church's moral teachings (e.g. birth control). So in the end, whether they believe in God or not, everyone ultimately decides what is right or wrong according to their own internal compass.

There is no such thing as an external compass that really provides moral guidance, since everyone uses their internal compasses to evaluate what any external compass says. The fact that we can not all agree on everything is not that bad. We do have consensus about murder, rape, robbery, theft, fraud, etc. being morally wrong, and that's what matters.

That there is no such thing as an effective external compass is further illustrated by the fact that no external compass helps resolve any of the gray area moral issues, like abortion, cloning, gay marriage, death penalty, mercy killing, etc., and, if anything, claims of guidance by religious external compasses only hinders progress on these issues.

Dawkins explains much of this at length in his book The God Delusion, which I highly recommend, especially to anyone who has found this article and has stumbled along this far.

Anonymous said...

Might I recommend 'Why Christianity Fails Christopher Hitchens' on YouTube. It is a illustrated presentation of a brilliant opening rhetoric delivered by the man in a debate regarding the veracity and acceptability of Christianity. He expounds on the concept of Christianity being immoral, focusing on the aspect of Jesus himself, and the attributing of all humanity's sins on him. I quote: "I don't believe that it is true that religion is moral or ethical...Is it moral to believe that your sins can be forgiven by the punishment of another person? Is it ethical to believe that? I would submit that the doctrine of vicarious redemption by human redemption is inherently immoral... The name for that in primitive Middle Eastern society was scapegoating - you pile all the sins of a tribe on a goat, and you drive that goat into the desert to die of thirst and hunger, and you think you've taken away the sins of the tribe. A positively immoral doctrine that abolishes the concept of personal responsibility on which all ethics and all morality must depend."