Category Archives: morals

Morality is no new thing

Religious people think that they ‘corner the market’ when it comes to morality. They believe in an absolute morality obtained directly from god. They believe that only humans have morals.

Religious people are wrong on all accounts.

I, and many others, have discussed the ‘absolute moral’ concept before and shown it is false and baseless. Morals, whether the religious like it or not, are not absolute and change (hopefully for the better) as societies change. The only moral that does appear to be relatively universal is the one commonly called “The Golden Rule” “an ethical code that states one has a right to just treatment, and a responsibility to ensure justice for others”, which despite what some religious people believe was not invented by the authors of the bible.

I, and many others, have also discussed the fact that religious people (in particular members of the Abrahamic faiths who assert this the strongest) did not invent, or discover, the foundation of morals. Morals came about because societies would never have flourished without them.

Today I’d like to direct the religious to the article in the UK Telegraph titled Animals can tell right from wrong, which discusses a new book which says that:

Scientists studying animal behaviour believe they have growing evidence that species ranging from mice to primates are governed by moral codes of conduct in the same way as humans.

There have been documentaries and articles before which discuss how some animals demonstrate that they help each other, or work together towards some common aim, but the book this article’s information comes from claims

that morals are “hard-wired” into the brains of all mammals and provide the “social glue” that allow often aggressive and competitive animals to live together in groups.

Whilst this book has its detractors, many of them still admit that some animals share many of the psychological qualities previously only attributed to humans. As  Professor Frans de Waal, a primate behaviourist at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, said:

“I don’t believe animals are moral in the sense we humans are – with well developed and reasoned sense of right and wrong – rather that human morality incorporates a set of psychological tendencies and capacities such as empathy, reciprocity, a desire for co-operation and harmony that are older than our species. (emphasis mine)

“Human morality was not formed from scratch, but grew out of our primate psychology. Primate psychology has ancient roots, and I agree that other animals show many of the same tendencies and have an intense sociality.”

The article then discusses various animals and shows examples of their ‘moral’ behavioural traits.

Elephants

In 2003, a herd of 11 elephants rescued antelope who were being held inside an enclosure in KwaZula-Natal, South Africa.

… example of animals showing empathy for members of another species – a trait previously thought to be the exclusive preserve of mankind.

Diana Monkeys

A laboratory experiment trained Diana monkeys to insert a token into a slot to obtain food.

A male who had grown to be adept at the task was found to be helping the oldest female who had not been able to learn how to insert the token.

… there was no benefit for the male monkey …

Rodents

Experiments with rats have shown that they will not take food if they know their actions will cause pain to another rat.

There are several other examples in the article of reciprocity, ethics, morals, a sense of justice and other traits commonly thought to only exist in humans. It just demonstrates to me that morals, ethics, etc. are some primal instinct that may be there in all animals to some extent. Morals (as I have pointed out before) are a societal necessity, not something handed down by some mythical being.

Whilst the book may have some questionable conclusions I think it would be a good read, and the principles behind it warrant further study. From the brief review in the Telegraph and at New Scientist it certainly appears that the authors have some very valid propositions.

What do you think, do animals have a moral code, are they capable of showing empathy; and what does this mean to the way we treat them?

Hat Tip to toomanytribbles for blogging the Telegraph article.

PS. I realise I may have generalised in my opening statements, but I have heard all those statements from so many religious people.

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The Charter for Compassion

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A global campaign to apply religion’s "golden rule" — treat others as you would like them to treat you — has been launched by Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Religion’s “golden rule”? More on that later.

The campaigners, claiming that compassion is at the heart of most religions, have launched an online Charter of Compassion and invited atheists and others to join them.

EVEN invited the atheists, how noble of them.

Karen Armstrong, …, says many people associate religion with violence, intolerance and dogma rather than compassion.

Surprising that.

Because compassion is not confined to religious people, the charter’s founders hope that atheists and agnostics will help work for a more compassionate world rather than berate religion. [emphasis mine]

Ah, now the real reason they want is involved.

(quotes from The Age.com.au)

The organisers of the charter want people from all over the world of all faiths, or lack thereof, to participate and have their input into the final document.

The Charter for Compassion is divided into four segments as follows, each open to public input at various stages over the next four weeks:

  • Preamble – open for comment now
  • Affirmations – open for comment Nov 20
  • Actions – open for comment Nov 27
  • Final Declaration – open for comment Dec 04

So sign in now, have a look at the sample wordings and have your say.

The following is the first sentence of the suggested preamble:

Compassion is a key and universal value in all faiths.

I will be recommending that be changed to the following:

Compassion is a key and universal value.

A simple but vital change, don’t you think?

From their about page:

… the Charter seeks to remind the world that while all faiths are not the same, they all share the core principle of compassion and the Golden Rule.

Problem being that deep down none of these faiths really have any compassion for the other faiths. Go read some literature on what Islam really thinks of other faiths and non-believers then come back and tell me if they really have compassion and can share this “dream” with other faiths. Don’t think the other religions are any better either.

Now back to the Golden Rule.

As John Perkins from the SPA said in his letter to the editor:

The fact that all religions may agree on the Golden Rule does not make it a religious ethic, as Barney Zwartz maintains (18/11). It is actually a universal and secular ethical rule.

As John, the Wikipedia entry and my FAQ 1 state, the Golden Rule, or the Ethic of Reciprocity, has been around for a long time before modern Christianity. It has also been mentioned in many ancient eastern religions and philosophies. It has to be apparent to anyone that thinks about it that this “Golden Rule” is no divine religious imperative, but rather just a humanitarian imperative.

Hence any world-wide “Charter of Compassion” should be based on secular humanist foundations for all humankind, with no religious undertones or overtones.

Compassion, Honesty, Fairness and Tolerance – all part of any “Golden Rule”. All principles able to be conducted by anyone, without need of any influence from some sort of deity.

John Perkins has drafted a “Universal Statement of Moral Obligations” which expounds further on a secular version of the “Charter for Compassion”.

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One has to wonder WHY religious faiths have to make a point of writing a “charter for compassion” in the first place. Isn’t religion ‘supposed’ to be compassionate? Is it perhaps that the recent critical review of religions, and horrific events carried out in the name of religion, have made sane, critical thinking, right minded, people question the role of religion in modern society?

What do you think of this Charter? Are you going to provide input to it? What are your thoughts on the “Golden Rule”, especially that it’s “religions ethic”?

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Book Review – The Atheist’s Guide to Religion

by William Harper, self published

This book is a mix of brief but informative facts, coupled with light hearted quips which makes for an easy read.

There are quite a few ‘facts’ quoted in this book but unfortunately no bibliography or references at the end. There are also several hypothesis to which there are no references, but in the most part, IMHO, they are quite feasible.

Bill’s writing style can be quite laconic in parts and he likes to use stories to demonstrate arguments. For instance, he invents Gorak the caveman to demonstrate the development of government and religion in early society. Whilst Bill obviously has no facts to back up Goraks story, the hypothesis is sound.

Sections of the book reminded me of shows like ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ where they extrapolate known facts and develop a ‘what might of happened’ scenario. Some people may find this a more entertaining way of learning, I did.

The book covers the invention of god(s), evolution and the brain, the rise of various religions, the growth of Theology, philosophy and the Church, where religion is today, ethics and morality, and what to replace God with.

Highlights from the book:

The new found skills of logic, art and speech would take religion from a purely instinctive pastime into an organised one.

Indeed, one might say that from that point on, all religious history has been a process of mere tinkering.

  • Plug in god (A),
  • Select sacrifices (B),
  • Offer prayer set (C), and
  • Embellish with rituals (D).

How true is that?

I liked Bill’s take on all those sports stars that pray for God’s help, his theory:

For every winner, there must be a loser that God prevented from winning. … Think of the Headlines!

God arraigned on match-fixing charges!

I had quite a chuckle at that one.

When discussing the historical Jesus, I think Bill missed one possibility. He states there is “a contradiction between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of the Christian faith.” What about a third possibility; the Jesus of Myth?

I found the Philosophy chapters most interesting. Again only a brief outline but gives an idea how some modern day thinking originated – both in and out of the church. His discussions on altruism, selfishness, racism, self-sacrifice, humility and self-worth are quite though provoking (students of philosophy and ethics may not get as much out of these chapters as I did).

The next section where Bill discusses alternatives to ethics, morality and the State are, for me, the best sections in the book. His new virtues:

  • Rationality
  • Pride
  • Justice
  • Integrity
  • Benevolence

are well argued, as are the criteria he uses to justify them. I’d like to expand on this but fear I’d breach copyright. The book puts a big, and probably justified, emphasis on self-worth.

Bill surmises that an alternative to God and religion is vital as the religious instinct is too strong to merely cast it off. His answer:

to replace religion with Objectivist Agnosticism

He argues that the need for spirituality and religion is an instinctive need. A need which can be deflected by teaching a new set of ethics “based on the logical analysis of the human condition” and without any organised religious dogmas.

The idea that ethics and philosophy should be taught in schools from a very early age has excellent merit. For too long ethical instruction has come from the parents and churches who bring their own agendas and warped sense of moralities. A common ethical background that espouses self-worth and rationality and eschews religious overtones may well provide a new era of enlightenment.

Summary

Whilst reading this (or any) book I try to understand the motive and audience. I think Bill may have done himself a disservice by targeting this book strictly at atheists (eg. the title and cover picture, and some of the anti-religious quips). With a different title, and taking out the sarcastic digs at religion, this book could also be an excellent reference to religious people. Especially ones that are doubting their faith or questioning religion. The explanations of why we are like we are and why religion exists, as well as viable alternatives to religion, is of importance to atheists and theists alike.

Overall a good read and a worthwhile addition to my atheist book collection. I would have preferred some references and bibliographies, but I guess Google and Wikipedia are always available.

When I get a chance I intend to research Bill’s ethics concepts further and maybe post on the subject. I certainly agree with him that ethics and philosophy should be taught in schools in a non-judgmental, non-religious manner and from an early age.

If you are interested in getting a copy of this book it’s available on-line from Bills web site (make sure you send him an email if you do order a printed copy as there is/was a problem with the ordering system). The book can be purchased as a printed copy or as an eBook download.


On the book theme, I see Richard Dawkins has got a new book out. It’s called: The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing and is a collection of almost 100 essays by leading scientists covering all sorts of scientific fields.

Also as you can see in my library list I have a copy of The Portable Atheist, which I’m yet to read. Well Breaking Spells has already read it and posted a great reference to all the essays, with links.

(Note: the Australian version of this book has an all blue cover)

Last but not least, I’m currently reading Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? by Morgan Spurlock (the guy who did Super Size Me). An excellent read, quite humorous at times, but also providing a good insight on the mind-set of Islam and how and why Osama and Islam became so dangerous.

(Note: the Australian paperback version of this book has a completely different cover – Morgan riding a camel with warfare in the background)

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Pope and Bush – What a pair of hypocrites

President Bush held a ceremony for the visiting Pope and held talks afterwards. ABC news had this article on that meeting. Wow, what a pair of deluded hypocrites these two are, a comment from Bush:

“In a world where some invoke the name of God to justify acts of terror and murder and hate, we need your message that God is love. And embracing this love is the surest way to save man from falling prey to the teaching of fanaticism and terrorism,” Mr Bush said.

This from the man who said1:

“‘I am driven with a mission from God’. God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.”

Doesn’t sound very loving to me, sure there were some terrible things going on in Afghanistan and Iraq, but are ‘divine messages’ a reason to invade a foreign country? Even other Christians don’t think so2.

and a comment from the Pope:

Pope Benedict has urged Americans and their leaders to base their political and social decisions on moral principles …

Now, I’m all for people to base their decisions on moral principles, but whose morals do we choose? The Pope’s version of moral principles? Are these the same morals that promote homophobia and inequality for women, or cause the spread of disease by preventing condom use, or prevent future medical advancements by preventing stem cell research; just to name a few?

I’m guessing the Pope is talking about the morals he gets from the bible and ‘divine providence’, you can read my opinions on those on my FAQ 1 page.

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The Moral Instinct

There is scientific evidence that evolution has endowed us with ethical impulses. 

So states the sub-heading of an excellent article on ‘the moral instinct’ in this weekends Sydney Morning Herald (Page 26/27 of the Spectrum section) written by Steven Pinker. This article originally appeared in The New York Times on 13 Jan 08, here is the link, recommended reading for all.

The essay starts off by asking:

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug?

Before reading the article, who do you think is the most admirable?

The article also discusses “the trolley problem” (a trolley is a railborne (track) vehicle, lighter than a train, designed for the transport of passengers).

Imagine you are standing at a fork in the track and a trolley is hurtling down the track out of control. There are 5 workers on the main track oblivious to the danger. You can pull a lever that will divert the trolley to the side track, saving the five workers. However, the trolley would then run over a single worker labouring on the side track. Is it permissible to pull the lever killing one man but saving five others?

What would be your answer?

The article then discusses this moral dilemma further by postulating a slightly different scenario.

Consider the previous scenario, but you are now on a bridge overlooking the track. You realise if you throw a heavy object in front of the trolley you will save all the workers. However the only heavy object within reach is a fat man. Should you throw the man off the bridge?

What would be your answer to that dilemma?

The rest of the article discusses humans innate moral sense, and postulates reasons for altruism and fairness. Please read this excellent article and then, if you like, you can discuss it here.

 

 

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