The Morality of Atheism and Lying.

One of the biggest reasons why Christians will not consider rejecting their faith has to do the morality of atheism. Christians do not think atheism provides an “ultimate” basis for morality. They will grant that many atheists can and do act morally, in that they can and do behave kindly and truthfully, but they have no “ultimate” standard for doing so. Their claim is that the morality of the atheist in today’s world is a borrowed morality from Christianity. Without the Christian set of morals atheistic morality degenerates into murder and pillage and mayhem as typified by Lenin, Hitler, and Stalin.

Several things can be said about this. I’ve already written about it before. Let me add to it:

In the first place I have argued that punting to God as the standard of morality has many problems. I previously argued the Christian does not have a superior basis for morality. Christians cannot even say “God is good.” They can only say that God is, well, God, and that’s it. If they recoil from the suggestion that “man is the measure of all things,” they should equally recoil at the suggestion that “God is the measure of all things.” I don’t think Christians fully understand this problem.

But let’s say there is an ultimate moral standard based in God and the Bible. Then what? Well, it means little or nothing that I can see. Just as there is no such thing to us as logic in the abstract (we are not logic machines), there is no such thing as an abstract moral standard (it is always a moral standard as understood by fallible humans). It means nothing to say the Bible provides a moral standard that an atheist doesn't have, for what they need to say is that their particular interpretation of the Bible is the ultimate moral standard, and that's something Christians cannot legitimately do, although they have slaughtered many people while claiming this. Which interpretation of Biblical morality is the ultimate standard, given the various ones Christians have espoused down through the centuries? Spell it out for us all. Professing Christians (the only kind we ever see) have justified American slavery, Crusades, and the killing of heretics and witches from the Bible. What makes them so sure they now have it right when the history of the church is a history of atrocities? I just don't think Christians fully understand this problem, either.

In truth, the way Christians interpret the Bible is what I call logical gerrymandering. Sam Harris called it “cherry-picking.” “Christians decide what is good is the Good Book,” he said. And how they do this is dependent on the social/political factors of which they live and breath. Today’s Christians would have been burned at the stake for believing heretics should not be killed, or that witches should not be punished, among a host of other things.

In any case, anyone who tries to show that no society can be a good society without Christianity needs a history lesson. He needs to study some of the great societies of the past, like Greece during the golden ages, or The Roman Empire, or several of the dynasties in ancient China, or the Islamic Empire under Muhammad, or the historic Japanese culture. None of these societies were influenced by Christianity, but they were great societies by all standards of history.

Even if Christianity was the main motivator in starting most all early American universities, most all of our hospitals and many food kitchens, and the like, these things still would have been started anyway, if for no reason other than necessity. Every society has these kinds of things in it, even those not dominated by Christianity. It just so happened to be that Christianity is the dominant religion in America for a couple of centuries, that’s all. Besides, these things were probably not started by Christian churches out of altruism, or any desire for a better society, but as a way for those churches to convert people. After all, who are most vulnerable to the Christian message? They are the sick (hospitals), the poor (food kitchens) and young people leaving home for the first time to enter universities (which were mostly started to train preachers).

Take the moral issue of lying as a practical example. The ninth commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is used as the basis for condemning lying in the Bible, but Hammarabi had already condemned it in law #3: “If any one bring an accusation of any crime before the elders, and does not prove what he has charged, he shall, if it be a capital offense charged, be put to death.” The Code of Hammurabi predates the Ten Commandments by about 500 years. Most scholars think the Mosaic law was adapted from the Code of Hammurabi, and if you look at it you can see why they think this. My point is that even if God condemned lying, humans already knew not to lie.

Even though lying is condemned as wrong, the Bible only gives a few examples of when lying was justified, as in Rahab and Abraham’s cases. How else do we decide when lying is okay and when it is wrong? Sissela Bok wrote the classic book on the topic, which can be found here. She discusses practically every issue raised by lying and makes some very reasonable conclusions about when lying is justifiable and when it isn’t, conclusions that I accepted even when I was a Christian. She makes these points based upon reason alone. We don’t need God to spell out when lying is justified either. Therefore, since we don’t need God to tell us lying is wrong and we don’t need God to tell us when lying is justified, we don't need God to tell us what is good!

Why is lying wrong? Lying is wrong because telling the truth coincides with our own self-interest, and it’s wrong because we ought to tell the truth. Let me very briefly comment on these two reasons why lying is wrong. I’ll save most of my comments about this for a later post.

Just think right now what would happen if you started lying to people, whether they are strangers, loved ones, friends, co-workers, customers, and/or bosses. When you think this through it’s really not in your own self-interest to do so. Why? You might get what you want from people initially, but they would catch on, and when they do you'll lose their respect, just as J.P. Holding has lost my respect for being dishonest. They will no longer trust what you say. So the price for some initial gains would be a greater loss to you down the road. Trust, friendship and social respect is much more valuable to rational people than the ill gotten gains from lying. Eventually you would make enemies, be lonely, and lose your self-esteem due to mental stress and the guilt of it all. If you sear your conscience by lying all of the time you will also lose track of what is real and true.

The more a person lies the less he can trust other people, and trust is the backbone for any relationship. He will think people are lying to him if he always lies to other people. Then too as we help to create an environment of lies people in turn will lie to us, since a liar forfeits his right to the truth. So he is helping to create an environment that does not benefit him, since he still would like people to be truthful to him. Lying to people is also tougher than not doing so, for if we lie to people we also have to remember what lies we told, and to whom. There is also the fear of being found out, and psychologists tell us such a fear is not healthy for us.

For all of these reasons I can also say that we ought to tell the truth, and I think this kind of reasoning can apply to the other basic moral issues we face as people.