Saturday, February 6, 2010
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.
Posted by Matt McCormick at 6:27 PM