Saturday, February 6, 2010

My Imaginary Friend

The view that you can’t be moral without God is one of the most widely held among believers.  The claim is muddled by ambiguities, however.  Does it mean that people won’t behave morally unless they believe God exists?  Billions of non-believers on the planet who are perfectly decent people prove that wrong.  Does it mean that people wouldn’t have a moral conscience if it weren’t for God?  Animal research that has discovered remarkable proto-moral behavior in animals from rats to monkeys shows that that’s mistaken too, although I expect that once this research becomes too widely known to reject or ignore, believers will start claiming that the animals got their morals from God too.  Does it mean that unless a person believes, they won’t have the right motive for doing the right thing?  No, doing the right thing because you think you’re being watched or threatened with punishment isn’t being moral; that’s utterly selfish.   

Any way you parse the claim, it comes out absurd.  But what’s even more difficult to sift from the believer’s confused assertions is any clear account of what God wants us to do.  Even a casual read of the Bible or other religious doctrine makes it immediately clear that what believers typically do is emphasize the passages that suit them and ignore the ones that don’t.  They’re all sure that we have to consult God to find out what’s right and wrong, but thousands of years of bickering makes it quite clear that there’s no agreement about exactly what those rights and wrongs are.  If their example is any indicator, God wanted us all to cherry pick the rules that we agree with and then find ways to explain away the ones that we don’t. 

For some firsthand evidence that you don’t think, reason, or consult the Bible to get your moral values, go to http://yourmorals.org/, create an account, and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, the Sacredness Survey, and the Disgust Scale survey.   The results will be quite revealing, and it shouldn’t be hard at all to imagine that your moral reactions to challenging situations is the product of evolutionary forces. 

These may sound like snarky over-generalizations, but new empirical research shows that people are more prone to project their own ethical judgments onto God and attribute them to him than any other agents.  That is, when people are asked to make estimations of the ethical views of other humans and of God, they are most egocentric about God—whatever they think is wrong, it just so happens that God does too.  And whatever they think is morally right, it just so happens that God endorses that too, even when their own views about what is right or wrong change.  Claiming that your moral judgments have a divine foundation amounts to little more than dressing up one’s instinctual or visceral reactions and giving them a supernatural stamp of approval.    

Epley, Converse, Delbosc, Monteleone, and Cacioppo  conducted a series of surveys and studies to get people to give estimations of the moral judgments of others.  In one case, people were asked to predict the views of people whose moral beliefs are well known, like George Bush’s, and people whose views are not well-known like Barry Bonds.  They were also asked to speculate about God’s views.  Other studies they conducted found ways to bring out the subjects’ moral views and then test the subject’s estimations of God’s beliefs.  The researchers even devised a way to map the regions of the brain that were most active during thinking about other people, self, and God. 

What they found was incredibly revealing.  It turns out that it you’re a liberal, then God is too.  If you’re a Republican, then so is God.  If you are opposed to abortion, or same-sex marriage, so is God.  Subjects consistently made the most egocentric attributions to God.  No matter what their views were, God shared them across the board.  But these same subjects would not do that when making estimations of the moral views of other humans.  Even fMRI scans showed that when people were thinking about God’s beliefs the brain activity was most similar to that when they were reflecting on their own views, in contrast to areas of the brain that were active when subjects thought about other humans’ beliefs.  Who would have thought that God is just like me, no matter who I am or what I believe?  How could that be?  Maybe it’s because God is imaginary?    

The authors say,  

In both nationally representative and more local samples, people's own beliefs on important social and ethical issues were consistently correlated more strongly with estimates of God's beliefs than with estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 1–4). Manipulating people's beliefs similarly influenced estimates of God's beliefs but did not as consistently influence estimates of other people's beliefs (Studies 5 and 6). A final neuroimaging study demonstrated a clear convergence in neural activity when reasoning about one's own beliefs and God's beliefs, but clear divergences when reasoning about another person's beliefs (Study 7). In particular, reasoning about God's beliefs activated areas associated with self-referential thinking more so than did reasoning about another person's beliefs. Believers commonly use inferences about God's beliefs as a moral compass, but that compass appears especially dependent on one's own existing beliefs.

What this suggests, of course, is that people don’t really get their moral judgments from God at all, despite their insistence that all morality comes from God.  There’s too much variation in what different people think they are getting from God.  The arrow is really going the other way—God (the imaginary being) gets all of his views from people.  And one of the reasons that it’s so easy to attribute so many conflicting ethical judgments to God is that the sources of information about God’s views like the Bible are so hopelessly vague, scattered, and contradictory.  People were much less likely to attribute their own views to people like Bush or Obama because we actually know what they think about the issues.  But the vagaries of religious doctrines surrounding God make him a more or less blank slate for people to write themselves upon. 


In one of the most revealing studies, the researchers manipulated the subject’s moral views about some topic by having them write and deliver speeches for or against some position.  The subjects’ attitudes about the position varied in parallel with the position they were assigned to defend not suprisingly.  When you have to actually think hard about the other side, you tend to soften your stance or change your mind.  Have them deliver a speech in favor of the death penalty and their views shifted in favor of it, and vice versa.  And when they were tested before and after the manipulation, it became clear that their assessment of God’s view of the position shifted too.  According to the subjects, God (and the subject) favored the death penalty more before the subject wrote and delivered a speech opposed to it, and then God’s view of it shifted against it afterwards along with the subject’s. 

It’s very difficult not to be cynical about what this is suggesting.  Apparently when believers make declarations about God’s moral judgments, what that really means is something like, “Whatever I happen to be thinking at the moment about what is right and wrong, well, that’s what God wants.”  Or, “not only do I hold the correct moral views, but mine are endorsed by the creator of the universe himself.”  And sometimes even, “If you disagree with me, then that means you’ll be punished for eternity in hell.”   Furthermore, it pretty clear that if someone thinks that they’ve got divine sanction for their peculiar list of moral rights and wrongs, they are not going to be receptive to the suggestion that they could be wrong, or that there could be subtleties in the issue that they are missing, or that they might come to have a more sophisticated and intelligent view if they reflected on the topic with an open mind.  But there’s no need for an open mind or any constructive reflection on your views when you’ve got God on your side and he’s already settled the issue once and for all. 



There’s a form of moral narcissism going on when believers righteously proclaim God’s will.  They aren’t offering a moral opinion with some reasons to support them—they are issuing God’s own commandments.  Their views are views of the almighty creator of the universe.  Take heed or burn for eternity.  But we must listen closely because my/God’s views are subject to change at any time. 

The view that morality comes from God suggests that there is a single source of infallible moral guidance, and that ultimately the responsibility for figuring out what is right and wrong is not on our shoulders.  Our position is merely to be obedient to God’s higher authority.  So the appeal to God’s authority to settle moral questions effectively cuts off any real and careful analysis of the vital details.  Our job isn’t to figure out what is right and wrong, after all, it’s just to do what God tells us.  So what’s particularly dangerous here is how a set of unreflective moral intuitions are getting promoted to the status of divine command with the introduction of God into the picture.  If we were realistic and conceived of moral problems as falling squarely on our shoulders to solve with the resources we have, we would give them the sort of in depth consideration they deserve and we’d work harder to figure out what makes some things right and some of wrong. 

26 comments:

Matthius said...

This makes sense. As I slipped into unbelief, I kept making up more and more liberal wishy-washy versions of god to satisfy my need to believe but not suffer for what I knew were pretty egregious departures from dogma. Right before I de-converted I believed I was going to Hell but that Hell was where all my idols and heroes dwelled and it was a place without annoying fundies.

In that sense, I guess my parents failed to raise me in a proper religious manner because I can't for the life of me remember what exactly I believed or was supposed to believe before I deconverted. I think the moment I became aware of my religious beliefs I began the slide.

Tristan D. Vick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tristan D. Vick said...

It almost seems as if those who claim you can't be moral without God, or religion, have never considered the time when their religion wasn't around.

When Christians say this to me, I ask them to imagine a world without Christianity. I ask them to explain what sort of world that would be like.

They inevitably paint a picture of paganism and Satan worship, a world of obscene cruelty and sin (giving me serious reservations about their moral character in the first place), and then after listening to their imaginative Dante's Infero of horrors in a world without religion, I hit them with this question... "Really? But what about all the peaceful Buddhists who lives without God for thousands of years before your religion was even an idea in the head of an illiterate goat herding bronze aged patriarch?"

They never look amused after such a question. So I like to follow it up with, "And what about the advanced civilizations of China, of philosophers, tea brewers, inventors, dancers, and rich culture when the Jews were off in the desert committing genocide?"

They get angry at about this time, not because I'm challenging their blinkered position, but because they know I'm right.

Then they either ask to know more, or else, angrily storm off to pout about it, and some just deny it flat out. As if China and Buddhism never existed in the first place. In fact, I find it rather insulting that anyone could suggest it when the obvious truth contradicts their assumption before the assumption is ever made! Talk about ignorance... but I guess the adage is right, ignorance is bliss.

mikespeir said...

"No, doing the right thing because you think you’re being watched or threatened with punishment isn’t being moral; that’s utterly selfish."

That's true, of course. Unfortunately, too often people just won't do right unless they're under at least some mild form of duress. I think it's a pie-in-the-sky philosophy that suggests people can be taught to always behave out of the goodness of their hearts. Religion tries to fix the problem by asserting an all-seeing Voyeur who will smack you if you get out of line. That doesn't always work, either, because it's too obvious that the good too often suffer and the bad too often thrive. Still, I'll admit that as an atheist I don't have a good solution. It seems to me that we atheists can come up with elegant ethical theories--that are probably right or close to right, by the way--but that don't always go much beyond theory. It's one thing to say, "This is how we humans seem to work." It's quite another to get us humans to actually behave ourselves.

Rich Griese said...

I hate the term "believer" used in the coded sense. All people over 6 are believers, ie, they believe in things. non-supernaturalists should not promote this coded usage. Whenever possible use more clear terms, like "Christian believers", etc..

The war of words is important, and those like yourself that do such great work in the field, might keep in mind.

Cheers!
RichGriese.NET

Anonymous said...

I don't think this evidence really carries the weight you give it. Christians believe axiomatically that God is good and approves all good things. Therefore the syllogism:
X is good
God approves all good things
Therefore that God approves X
is valid for them. If they change their mind about X being good, hey must logically also change their mind about God approving X

Anonymous said...

Oops, sloppy editing. Sorry

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks anonymous. This is an interesting point. The problem with it though is that we've got lots of empirical evidence that people change their minds quite readily and because of outside influences about moral matters, but they fail to notice that they changed their minds. They typically insist that they believed the same thing all along.

David N. said...

Matt,

I notice that you didn't include the only sensible and defensible Christian position in your first paragraph, namely that without God there can be no objective foundation upon which to ground moral propositions, and thus that without God a person cannot meaningfully call anything "right" or "wrong."

Obviously non-Christians can be very moral people. The Apostle Paul makes that very argument in Romans 1 and 2, when he teaches quite clearly that all men have God's law written on their hearts. This is the basis for cooperation between Christians and non-Christians in the public, civil arena.

And yes, many Christians falsely believe that the Bible explicitly teaches on every subject, from foreign policy to healthcare, and that only explicitly Christian morality belongs in the public square. I would argue that they are both wrong and unbiblical here. If you're interested, look up Martin Luther's doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (which is the basis for the separation of church and state).

Eric Sotnak said...

David N wrote:
"without God there can be no objective foundation upon which to ground moral propositions"

Do you think you could explain exactly HOW God provides objective foundations for moral propositions?

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks for the input, David N. Eric Sotnak is right. This slogan gets repeated again and again but we rarely get to hear exactly how it is that the existence of God is the only possible explanation for human moral sensibilities.

Put it another way: If God is the only objective foundation of morality, how come not a single one of the greatest moral philosophers in human history: Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Mill, Bentham, Hobbes, Rawls, Singer, Epictetus, Nietzsche, Socrates, Sidgwick, Anscombe, and Ross EVER NOTICED IT?

You're 2,500 years behind on your moral theory--read the Euthyphro.

Reginald Selkirk said...

"Animal research that has discovered remarkable proto-moral behavior in animals from rats to monkeys shows that that’s mistaken too, although I expect that once this research becomes too widely known to reject or ignore, believers will start claiming that the animals got their morals from God too."

With interesting implications for the important question of whether animals go to Heaven.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Tristan D. Vick: "But what about all the peaceful Buddhists who lives without God for thousands of years before your religion was even an idea in the head of an illiterate goat herding bronze aged patriarch?""

I take your point, but your timeline is questionable. Most reputable scholars place Siddhartha Guatama, aka the Buddha, at around 560 - 400 BCE.

M. Tully said...

Hey David,

When you wrote, "without God there can be no objective foundation upon which to ground moral propositions," I think you missed the key point to the studies that were cited.

With each person seeing their own morality always reflected in their own conception of a deity (even when they must change their conception of a deity to match changes in their morality), the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn is:

"WITH god there can be no objective foundation upon which to ground moral propositions."

I personally don't think there is "an objective moral standard." But then again, objective to me means the same results for all observers or no observer at all (morality without conscious observers is pretty much moot). But, should moral philosophers discover such a standard, based on the evidence to date, it would definitely have to be independent of any deity.

M. Tully said...

Rich,

If we're going to discuss semantics (which by the way, I do think is important despite my own frequent failure to take it into account), why "non-supernaturalists?" It seems to almost shift the burden of proof away from those making a positive supernatural claim.

Can't we just leave at "naturalists?" After all, there is quite the consensus that the natural world does in fact exist.

M. Tully said...

Matt,

"If we were realistic and conceived of moral problems as falling squarely on our shoulders to solve with the resources we have, we would give them the sort of in depth consideration they deserve and we’d work harder to figure out what makes some things right and some of wrong. "

To turn a phrase, Amen. That is a truly powerful statement.

Although I think you should have capitalized and italicized "OUR."

M. Tully said...

Oh, and David N, just so you know...

"When we reflect upon the many values, both ethical and political, which have grown from the separation of church and state into distinct social bodies…"

Cicero, On the Commonwealth. Written about a good 1400 years before Luther was born.

M. Tully said...

Another interesting read on the topic.

http://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/abstract/S1364-6613%2809%2900289-7

The full article can be read by clicking the PDF link on the right hand side.

The more empirical evidence accumulates, the fewer places magic has left to hide.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks M Tully. Looks like an interesting study. I have my doubts about being able to draw many hard conclusions about the exact evolutionary functions that religion may (or may not) have served. These hypotheses are typically very hard to test, and very short on hard data. It's even hard to know how the evidence would differ for us when looking at humans between religiousness having some evolutionary origin and its having a historical/social/culture origin.

MM

M. Tully said...

Yeah Matt,

I would definitely tend to agree with you that it is a tough series of questions (trying to discern any adaptive characteristic about an organ as complex as the brain is going to be tough). But I think what the authors do, and do very well, is take one element of the hypothesis of the adaptive purpose of religion and cast serious empirical doubt on it. That being that religion has an advantage of getting diverse groups to cooperate and thereby improves survival fitness of the individuals practicing it.

But you know I'm pretty convinced that the "nature/nurture" debate is based on a false premise. Nurture is just a segment of nature.

Anonymous said...

"Animal research that has discovered remarkable proto-moral behavior in animals from rats to monkeys shows that that’s mistaken too, although I expect that once this research becomes too widely known to reject or ignore, believers will start claiming that the animals got their morals from God too."

The problem with this is that we need to consider motivation when considering moral behavior. Are animals self interested or altruistic? Are humans? It is a difficult matter to settle whether humans are capable of being truly altruistic but the state of the mind of an animal may even be more troublesome. This research seems pretentious and carries a lot of assumptions about animal behavior to consider. I mean to assume humans are moral you also must also assume they have free will, a rational actor etc. These same assumptions need to apply to animals to show they are moral actors.


I am not sure I understand the main reason why people who don’t believe in God cannot be moral because God made humans with moral capacity whether they acknowledge him or not. This moral capacity is instantiated through the free will of human beings. I think maybe Matt your article alludes to the self righteous religious folk who do not represent true religious expression. Such people are obviously missing the heavenly virtue of humbleness in their character makeup and seem to be false students of piety.

CS

J said...

Anonymous,

You seem to have asked a question and then assumed an answer and moved on to make an argument without ever providing an answer to that question.

You wrote, "The problem with this is that we need to consider motivation when considering moral behavior. Are animals self interested or altruistic? Are humans?"

You never answered that question. So let me ask you, "Why can't self interest result in altruism?"

If being social results in my reproductive success, and being altruistic results in my social success, how could you tell what my motivation was?

I can say with metaphysical certitude that reproductive success must exist for me to exist. What reason would you have to suggest that a god is behind it?

Anonymous said...

J,

I don't know what to say if you think self interested behavior is altrustic. The two motivation states are defined as opposites. The debate about whether humans are capable of altruistic behavior is found in circles of social psychology. But many believe it is self refuting to claim every instance of human motivation is self interested. probably because you need another term to define what is not self interested...

It would be easier if you just considered how animals are moral and the implications that are abound rather then reject differing forms of motivation.

CS

J said...

"I don't know what to say if you think self interested behavior is altrustic"

I didn't say "self interested behavior is altrusistic."

What I asked was, "If being social results in my reproductive success, and being altruistic results in my social success, how could you tell what my motivation was?"

And you haven't answered. How could you tell?

J said...

OK CS,

My bigger point being that altruistic behavior can be reproductively beneficial in social organisms, so why wouldn't I expect it to evolve?

What would make you suggest that it MUST have a supernatural origin?

Anonymous said...

J,

"Why can't self interest result in altruism?"

I am having a hard time understanding what you are trying to say. I believed that you rejected different motivation states for humans, which I cannot fathom since I know you can recognize self interested behavior from altruistic behavior. And both can be argued as benificial for survival

I know that naturalism has a hard time showing that altruistic behavior is more favored for being fit than self interested behavior It is contentious issue and often authors of such papers will admit this. But I have never heard any naturalist argue that self interested behavior results in altruistic behavior...

I believe everything has a supernatural origin that being God. I dont need to give you a reason for believing in God because it is my foundational belief - or faith

CS