over at the daily detour john has posed a question that i run into often when discussing my journey away from christianity and theism in general:
This … reveals the inherent dilemma of human society that loses sight of Truth. How does a “progressive” society, built around tolerance and individual rights, maintain necessary law and order? Where do a person’s rights end and societal order begin? The answer to such a dilemma remains elusive in a culture that embraces tolerance and moral relativity. In the absence of law-and-order the seeds of anarchic chaos are sown, and the vacuum inherent to such a world is inevitably filled by those with the power.
in other words: how can humans behave morally, if they don’t believe in a moral-giver?
how can rape be wrong unless god says it is?
how can we claim that murder is evil if we also claim that there is no god?
sam harris answers these questions brilliantly in his essay entitled “the myth of secular chaos“.
i’ll round up his points here, but i highly recommend you read it for yourself. (especially you, john 😉
- If a book like the Bible were the only reliable blueprint for human decency that we had, it would be impossible (both practically and logically) to criticize it in moral terms. But it is extraordinarily easy to criticize the morality one finds in the Bible, as most of it is simply odious and incompatible with a civil society.
It is important to point out that we decide what is good in the Good Book.
So the choice before us is simple: we can either have a twenty-first-century conversation about ethics—availing ourselves of all the arguments and scientific insights that have accumulated in the last two thousand years of human discourse—or we can confine ourselves to a first-century conversation as it is preserved in the Bible.
- If religion were necessary for morality, there should be some evidence that atheists are less moral than believers.
According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report (2005), the most atheistic societies — countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom — are actually the healthiest, as indicated by measures of life expectancy, adult literacy, per-capita income, educational attainment, gender equality, homicide rate, and infant mortality. Conversely, the fifty nations now ranked lowest by the UN in terms of human development are unwaveringly religious.
- If religion really provided the only conceivable objective basis for morality, it should be impossible to posit a nontheistic objective basis for morality. But it is not impossible; it is rather easy.
Clearly, we can think of objective sources of moral order that do not require the existence of a law-giving God. In The End of Faith, I argued that questions of morality are really questions about happiness and suffering. If there are objectively better and worse ways to live so as to maximize happiness in this world, these would be objective moral truths worth knowing. Whether we will ever be in a position to discover these truths and agree about them cannot be known in advance (and this is the case for all questions of scientific fact). But if there are psychophysical laws that underwrite human well-being—and why wouldn’t there be?—then these laws are potentially discoverable. Knowledge of these laws would provide an enduring basis for an objective morality. In the meantime, everything about human experience suggests that love is better than hate for the purposes of living happily in this world.