A counter to the objectiveness of religious morality

Video version of this available here.

Some theists have argued that atheists lack morality, because objective morality can only come from a deity like Zeus (supposedly). Atheists might act like they are moral, but really they are selfish and would do awful things if they could get away with it. Only the arbitrary rules their god(s) has given them are objective, from which they derive their moral realism.

Let’s grant for a moment that Zeus is real, sits atop Mount Olympus, and has rules that we must follow in life or we will go to the underworld when we die. A follower of Zeus might claim that this set of rules is objective, and constitutes moral realism. What makes their version of moral realism more real than my version of moral realism?

In what way is this any more or less arbitrary than when a human says ‘utilitarianism is the best code of ethics because it focuses on felt positive and negative felt experience, which are the only things a sentient mind can actually care about intrinsically’?

A god, if one exists, is just another being. That they demand we do something does not in itself make it objectively good or bad. I don’t think there is a way to convince someone that obeying Zeus is good and disobeying Zeus is bad without the carrot/stick of heaven and hell. In what way is following their arbitrary rules objectively good? If one claims that we cannot get moral realism from any human argument, how can we get it from an argument made by a god?

The god will send me to heaven or hell depending on what I do, but a parent may give their child dessert or send them to their room depending on what they do, but this reward/punishment system has no basis on morality.

What is special about the nature of a god that makes their word moral realism? The mere fact that they created the universe or have power over it and the afterlife doesn’t actually seem sufficient here. Consider someone creating a simulation of a universe, within which sentient minds will live out their lives. The creator of this simulation may as well be a god of it, and they might ask their creations to do certain things like worship them or they will put them in a different simulation full of suffering rather than a different simulation full of pleasure (for some reason???). In what way is the arbitrary list of rules this simulation creator comes up with objective morality?

In conclusion, I argue that ones’ view of moral realism should be consistently applied whether talking about morality as defined by a human or by a god.

As an additional related thought, I find it odd that a theist might call an atheist selfish or immoral when they are (often, I think) primarily doing what they see as ‘good’ to get heaven and avoid hell. Atheists do this without the carrot and stick reward/punishment system of afterlife. Wouldn’t this make theists more selfish?

The best steelman I can think of for the actions of a theist is that, if their god(s) were real, they might very well constitute a utility monster. Maybe keeping their god happy and not upsetting them becomes the most important thing they can do, and it would be worth not optimally reducing suffering (or actually causing suffering) in this universe to optimise for how good their god(s) feels. For example, imagine if donating $100 to your church instead of feeding 10 starving children makes your god feel so good that it outweighs the suffering of the children. Kind of abhorrent, but this is one of the strongest cases I can make for theists.

In addition, converting people to their religion can be seen through a new light. If it is indeed the case that we will get infinite suffering or bliss, a theist convincing other people about this and getting them to do ‘good’ things may very well be the most utilitarian thing they can do. This might make theists who don’t try to convert everyone selfish and awful (assuming their whole religion is true, of course) for robbing people of infinite bliss.

I’m genuinely interested in hearing from some theists about these thoughts. Is there something relevant that I’m missing that would make a gods’ morality objective if they did exist? ‘They are a god’ is not an answer.

How I renounced Christianity and became atheist (or, my ongoing struggle with the fear of oblivion)

Above photo is me taking communion in a church some 16 years ago.

You can find a video version of this post here.

Switching from Catholicism to atheism in around 2012/2013 was a rather major point of my life, so it’s a little strange in hindsight that I haven’t spoken much about it. I recently wrote about why I think atheists shouldn’t feel afraid to tell non-atheists about why they think there are no deities, but here I want to talk about my own journey.

As I started to write this, I realised I don’t know exactly how I came to believe in ‘god etc.’ (I’ll use this as short hand for believing all the typical Catholic beliefs). As far back as I can remember, I took the existence of god etc. for granted. I found I had to ask my parents for some of the answers. Here is what I’ve been able to recall and gather.

My mum’s mother was religious, and occasionally went to Sunday mass. This rubbed off on my mum, but when asked about it today, she described herself in hindsight as being a ‘closet atheist’. It sounds like my dad’s experience was similar.

I was born in Perth where I was baptised (when pressed, my mum said that this would have been more for the benefit of my grandparents, who were all believers). I took kindergarten in Tokyo, Japan, and had my first few years of primary school at a British international school (Al Khubairat) in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Broadly speaking, both of these seemed to be fairly non-religious. However in Abu Dhabi, I took part in a Christian Sunday school at least once. As best I can work out, I went because some friends went.

We moved to Adelaide, Australia in 1999 and I started going to St Ignatius College, a Jesuit private school. I was there from year 2 to year 12. I think it’s here that any nascent beliefs I had in god etc. were solidified. My mum described it best when she said I was like a sponge and would have readily taken on what the school was teaching us.

We had compulsory mass around once a week. In later years, this became optional, but I still went most of the time since most people did. I prayed in my own time, though not consistently. I believed I was speaking to a god. I discovered in my last few years there that some of my friends were atheist, and that they just didn’t believe. We never really talked about it any more than that, but I recall feeling a little surprised and sad by this.

I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point while I was at St Ignatius, it occurred to me what it might be like if, against all odds, god etc. wasn’t real. Oblivion. This scared me, and in all honesty it still does when I’m not careful and I think about it too hard. I recall once as a child thinking about this in the middle of the night (“But if there is nothing, then that means…“) and having a panic attack. I leapt out of my bed, silently screaming “NO”, and collapsing on the floor outside my room. I never told anyone about this. I did my best to remind myself that this was silly and unlikely. I was getting heaven or hell, but certainly not nothing.

After I left school, I started studying my Bachelor of Science at the University of Adelaide in 2010. I would still describe myself as Catholic, and would still pray sometimes, but I stopped going to church. In 2011, my fears about oblivion were reaching a boiling point. I was having more doubts, and it was starting to seriously affect my life. Desperate, I went to mass a few times with my grandfather, but it didn’t seem to help. I decided that I needed to apply the science I was learning and find out the truth. Did god etc. exist?

I embarked on an online journey of research, reading things from atheists and Christians. I watched debates (in particular Richard Dawkins videos), and even joined an online Christian/atheist text and voice debate platform (I tried finding it to share it here, but couldn’t), where I spent several weeks/months engaging and listening. It was run by Christian preachers, but they welcomed atheists to come and debate. I described myself here as neutral and wanting to find the truth.

The more I listened and engaged, the less it made sense. As one example, I was studying geology, and I asked about how plate tectonics would fit in with a 6,000 odd year old universe. They answered that Noah’s flood smashed up the plates and they’re still moving around a little because of that. I don’t want to strawman all creationists with this one example, let alone strawman all Christians with creationists in general. This is just one example of me realising that none of the arguments for god etc. made any sense when I thought about them through the lens of science.

After this, I rather quickly realised I was an atheist. Unfortunately, this only amplified my fears of oblivion. It was now effectively a certainty – I was going to die, and I was going to be nothing. Incredibly, while writing this I’m not experiencing panic. Perhaps I’ve gotten better at separating my thoughts from my feelings, because I don’t think I’ve actually come to terms with death. As recently as about a month ago, I had a short lived (3-10 seconds) panic over this. They usually only come at night while I try to sleep now, when my mind is most free to be active and think.

Back to 2011 – I opened up about my fears to my parents and girlfriend at the time. I tried counselling, where it was suggested I was experiencing depression and anxiety. Ultimately I wasn’t prescribed medication, but it was suggested I try mindfulness, which didn’t seem to help.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what did help, but something that comes to mind is a conversation I had with my dad in 2012 about my videogame addiction (I’ve had a somewhat unhealthy relationship with videogames for years – often I’ll either play too much or not at all, with little in between), which combined with my depression was leading me to fail some university courses. We spoke about what I want to get out of life, and he said something to the effect of ‘you’re smart and can do anything you want’.

This, more than anything else, I think, put me on the path to recovery. I decided I wanted to save the world. Climate change looked pretty serious, maybe I’ll dedicate my life to that. I haven’t really told anyone this either, but part of why this mostly worked was because I decided I might just try to live forever. If I could set the world on a path of blindingly fast progress, maybe we could develop the technology to become immortal (the work of Aubrey de Grey was of interest to me here). In any case, this did seem to motivate me to go from failing my degree in 2012 to completing honours at the top of my class in 2014.

Over time, this ‘live forever’ motivation transitioned in to a ‘reduce suffering in the universe as much as possible’ motivation, and that seems to be where I remain today. I have a mission to do, and life is too short for me to spend any more time thinking about what comes after than I have to. I still go through slumps, and I suspect depression and anxiety will never fully leave me, but I am committed to this goal.

Some things I wrote about here are things I’ve never told another person. Most of it is at least stuff I’ve mentioned to very few people. I hope this inspires you to share your stories of how you came to no longer believe in a religion.

On facts and religion

I’ve made a video version of this post, available here.

I think facts matter, but sometimes I find this hard. If someone were to tell me that they believed the Earth was flat, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. If someone said that a green chair was actually a blue basketball, I’d be happy to tell them they are wrong. The same goes for someone telling me Zeus sits atop Mount Olympus and casts judgement on us.

But when someone tells me they believe they will go to heaven after they die if they do certain things, I instead say ‘well I don’t personally believe that’. Why? This is also false, but we feel uncomfortable with certain facts just because a certain number of people have believed that that particular fact is not true for a certain amount of time.

You can say that you can’t prove a negative (which is an oversimplification), and that it is not correct to say that a deity doesn’t exist when you can never really know for sure. The reality is that we just don’t act like this for most things. Some examples:

We can’t know for sure that Zeus isn’t on Mount Olympus and will smite us down for doing certain things, but we tend to act like he isn’t (there’s no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that eating cucumber won’t give us cancer, but we tend to act like it won’t (no evidence for it). We can’t know for sure that there isn’t a tea pot floating in space somewhere near Mars, but if someone were to claim that there were, the burden of proof would be on them to prove it, not on us to disprove it.

I want to expand a little more about this last one, an analogy known as Russell’s teapot, with some quotes. Russell said:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.

In some ways, this analogy is not representative of popular modern religions. There is not a large population of people who believe it teapotism, nor is there a major organised religion behind. Believing in Christianity is not quite the same think as believing in teapotism. But where it is absolutely relevant is in the burden of proof, and how we should feel about dismissing its existence.

There seems to be a great discrepancy in society between how willing people are to say that their religious worldview is correct (many even saying that all the others are wrong), and how willing people are to say that the non-existence of deities is the most likely situation. I think we should change this. People also broadly seem happy to publicly dismiss very new religions (say formed in the last 50 years), often calling them cults. The definition of a cult is:

a system of religious veneration and devotion directed towards a particular figure or object

With all possible due respect, that sounds like the definition of a religion. The only real difference I can see is in its public perception.

I deliberated whether or not to write this post. But this hesitation is exactly the thing I’m talking about. I think people who believe the Earth is flat are wrong, so I’m happy to write about it. I think non-humans don’t deserve to suffer for human gain, so I write about that despite public resistance, and am happy to do so. I think that no deities exist, so I should write about that too. We shouldn’t be afraid to write about what we think is true and right.

For the sake of mentioning it, I was raised Catholic, and went to a Jesuit school for 11 years of my education (I used to read the Old Testament for fun, had a favourite New Testament book, and went to mass most weeks). I renounced this and became an atheist (not without some difficulty and personal challenges – perhaps I’ll write about this in the future) when I was around 19. However, I don’t think this should make me more or less qualified to talk about the Catholic god’s existence, any more than it should change how I’m qualified to talk about the existence of any particular thing.