How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

If you’re an atheist, you are no stranger to the notion that you probably don’t have morals.  Or at least good ones.  The idea shared my many theists, and why electing a Muslim as president (at least historically) has seemed more palatable than electing an atheist, is that without a belief in divine guidance there is no proper moral path for you to take.  In a related argument many theists believe that science has nothing to say about morals or ethics.  And my life of thinking science can lead me to a moral life is a waste of time.  If I’m moral it had to have come from somewhere other than science.  I’ve argued often that morality can be explained by science and it can be derived by science.  The idea is rejected so immediately by theists that I am sure they are as shocked by the suggestion as I am shocked that they don’t understand.

The real answer is in evolution, but I thought it would be fun to look at it from a research perspective and imagine we were in a situation where we really didn’t have any moral guidance and we didn’t know why something like murder was morally wrong.  Imagine a godless world.  One where we know about evolution, and we know all the things that we currently know about humans and behavior, but all of a sudden everybody is unaware about what morally right actions are.  Scientists still exists and some study human behavior and society and they are watching us.  Let’s start with the most universally agreed upon moral: murder.  Thou shalt not commit it.  Ending another person’s life. In this world without any moral touchstone you might just kill anybody.  Randomly.  Without provocation.  Because there is no God thus no divine punishment after you die, there is seemingly no earthly reason to prevent you from murdering anybody.

Our scientists are out looking at what life is like in the suburbs, and they see Jim out in his yard trimming the evergreen bushes in his front yard.  Cathy, the neighbor, walks out of her house and sees Jim there.  They’ve chatted a few times.  Jim has seemed a reasonable person, but Cathy all of a sudden says to herself, “You know what let’s just kill Jim.  There is nothing wrong with it, and there is no punishment in this life or the next one for it.”  She walks back into her house and gets her pistol she keeps in her purse and walks out shooting Jim, quite unaware, and kills him.

The scientists watch in amazement.  Suddenly Jim’s front door opens.  His two young boys are there and immediately start screaming in grief and terror at the sight of their father on the ground bleeding.  Cathy in a moment realizes what she has done.  Deprived his two boys of their father.  She is deeply affected by their grief, and begins sobbing herself.  Suddenly Jim’s wife Susan comes the door.  She sees Jim dead, and sees Cathy, her gun now dropped to the ground as Cathy’s empathy has kicked in and she’s buckled over in horror at what she’s done.  Susan’s anger though is understandable.  Her husband whom she loves his dead, her kids are traumatized, in pain and will grow up without a father.  She walks into her house and gets a big knife and walks over to Cathy and stabs her in anger.  The scientists scribble away at their notes at all this.  A week later, Cathy’s father completely distraught by Susan killing her daughter, decides to go after Susan.  One of the boys who saw what Cathy did has grown up now, and felt like Cathy deserved what she got, and that Cathy’s father had no right to kill their mother, Susan.  He now decides to go after Cathy’s father. The scientists see a cycle of vengeance possibly without end.   They note that the kids, who had been good at school, now have an education that suffers greatly.  Both of them end up having addiction problems.

As they tour other cities they see similar events unfold.  They notice a growing distrust in their fellow humans.  They notice people being more cautious, less interactive, unable to even form coalitions given that someone they thought they knew might murder them because murder is simply not something that occurs as an immoral act.

They fly to a city in another country, let’s say Paris.  In Paris they’ve newly figured out the harm of stealing people’s stuff, but they still don’t recognize the morality or immorality of murder.  Now they find murder is happening more often.  Some of those who want to steal or feel like they have to steal from others realize they are going to be punished if they are caught and decide that if they murder any witnesses they can get away with their crime.  This creates even more tension in the society and people are even more fearful.

The scientists wonder whether or not these “civilized humans” are just weird so they go observe a hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea.  There while one member is gathering berries with their child, they are killed by another tribesmen, Poku, who saw no harm in just murdering somebody.  The tribe feel that cannot punish Poku as they no law that murder was wrong.  Poku is one of the strongest and fiercest of the group and while he had previously been one of the stronger members of the tribe, he is no longer trusted and people in the tribe sleep further away from him.  Some of the tribe say they should keep watch and lose some sleep keeping guard.  The tribe had loved him and are in grief that he has betrayed them.  They are also in grief at the loss of the victims.  The one who was picking berries was also one of the best storytellers in the tribe and weaved baskets well.  The loss will be felt.  They note that despite Poku’s strength he is still finding it difficult to get enough food on his own.  To hunt animals is a group activity and he struggles to find enough other food all the time.  The scientists note that none of the women in the tribe wish to mate with him.  Being one of their best hunters and being of impressive stature his genes, and abilities would have been helpful to the tribe.

As a couple more years go by observation they see the breakdown of communities and people notice the change too.  Many feel the pain of seeing loved ones being killed, they remember times when they used to get along with their neighbors and that they use to work together and collaborate to do more than they could on their own.  The scientists conclude:

  • there must be laws against murder to discourage those who commit smaller crimes from committing greater ones
  • people can work together more and solve problems that impact their lives
  • PTSD and other mental illnesses are lessened when there is less murder in the society which impacts each person’s individual ability to prosper
  • murder eliminates people with important skills that might be needed.  The chance of knowledge being lost before being passed on increases when murders occur unabated
  • a free pass to murder increases the chance that genetic material might be lost before reproduction can occur.  In extreme cases, this loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental

The consciousness of the people to accept such findings would be increased as they too see what has become of their society without an initial idea that murder is good or bad.  Society embraces the laws, and their own desire to not live in a society with endless cycles of violence to increase their own chances of survival, leads to a change in culture.

Thus concludes my little thought experiment.  I would welcome those who wish to pick it apart.  Of course it all might seem quite horrific to you, and that’s good.  There is a reason why we don’t conduct experiments in this way.  The point is that A) It wouldn’t take very much observation by an objective outsider to see how harmful murder would be to a society and B) For those of us living in the experiment our emotions, our intuitions would also be able to pick up the harm quite easily.

The good news of course is that we don’t need such an experiment.  We’ve been living in the experiment for millions and millions of years.  The slow march of evolution inching us in the direction of social cooperation, the development of more and more complex emotions, and the development of empathy and love to help us bond with fellow members of our species to increase the chance of survival of ourselves and our offspring has required only a dim awareness of the direction we were headed.  Science explains this all quite well, and we could do a similar thought experiment for many other ethical and moral practices.  And if you can’t find a scientific explanation for, let’s say, why eating pork is an immoral as compared to other meats.  Then you probably have found something that probably shouldn’t be considered immoral.

Finally it’s important to note that the reason we have the morality that we do is because of the particular evolved species that we are.  Mammal – primate – human.  We might expect a very different set of moral principles were we intelligent being who evolved from spiders or frogs.  And while I’d like to believe that any species who had reached our level of intelligence and realized the effectiveness of cooperation and reducing suffering in other life would converge into a similar morality in the end, the path to get there is certainly not going to be the same for every species that could evolve our level of intelligence.

107 thoughts on “How Can Science Inform About Whether it’s Okay to Murder?

  1. Some good points. In fact, some very good points. But there are others that I find difficult to swallow. Yes, I’m sure you would like me to elaborate, but the topic is much deeper and intense than I care to tackle. Primarily wanted to let you know I read and thought about what you said … so your efforts weren’t wasted. 🙂

    I do want to emphasize that I personally believe the “natural” approach to life and morality is far superior than one based on spirituality/faith/religion.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes I am curious. I actually don’t think I’ve presented anything controversial, other than I’ve painted these atheist humans as willing to kill rather spuriously intentionally in order to demonstrate how science might be used to analyze the impacts of murder. I don’t pretend that humans are the type to randomly just kill people, but this is the argument often supposed by theists for humans without a Godly guide to help us.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. jim-

    I like the idea of the study but I think you don’t give much credit to a more peaceful nature of man without god. Like the natives Columbus encountered living very peaceful beautiful lives with no religion, and the fact that about .1% of U.S. prison population is atheist. A problem designed morality has is it creates divisiveness and piety and sets ones perceptions above that of another. And by the way, can you name a genocide or murder that would have been prevented by “thou shalt not kill? Wow your points have a lot to cover! I could go all day but alas…. I’m at work. Lol.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Hey Jim. Thanks for following and thanks for the comment. I quite agree with you and my thought experiment here was purposefully extreme. I was sort of trying to put things more in context of this notion that theists often have about morality that if you didn’t have a God, or didn’t believe in God that there would be nothing to prevent you from just going around and sinning. Keeping the rest of our emotions in tact, I simply wanted to prove that the act of murder would weigh pretty heavily on us and that we could observe this pretty quickly. I agree with you that we are in fact much more peaceful than I have made us out to be, and that killing isn’t something we’re just bound to do easily. But even if it were, we would figure out quickly that we probably shouldn’t.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. jim-

        Naturally so. Your context was well explained and definitely put the notion in thought motion. I just did a post about killing and WWI and WWII soldiers had to be desensitized to killing before trigger pulls hit an acceptable level. Even soldiers being fired on wouldn’t kill another human. But we get around that with simulations and VR now that makes kids a shoe-in for battle. Quite telling.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Yeah, in a podcast I listened to this guy said that in the civil war evidence shows that only about 50% of the soldiers fired their weapons because most were just too scared. That number is up to 90% now, because the military has become better at better a desensitizing. And you’re exactly right. The way we can kill now means that one doesn’t even really have to do much desensitization because our empathy chips are unlikely to be activated without seeing the destruction we’ve wrought. Your last line makes me think of Endar’s Game. Likely you’ve read the book, but if you have not you’d find it a fantastic read.

          Liked by 3 people

          1. Swarn, today I think the military — i.e. Special Forces or those infantry units in close combat — defines that as “Follow your training/simulation and you’ll survive and complete your objective.” When a soldier is able to act quick, composed, and robotically/desensitized, to the commanders that is a success (in their results-defined assessment), a mission-accomplished.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Sadly this is true. Although I guess if you are in the job of killing, you have to figure out a way to do it well. It feels though that a lot of times they are only partially successful and this is why so many suffer from PTSD. Not to mention the fact that there is a problem afterwards in that it won’t turn on back again. Ensuring that you can use an individual again, even when the war is less than necessary, and then of course not being able to turn it on again impacts their ability to function outside of a war zone.

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  3. Hi Swarn,

    I have little difficulty agreeing with your premise. I do think honest reflection of the type science demands can provide a great many insights into what we term morality. That said, reading this piece brought up a few other questions. I’ll aim for brevity this week! 🙂

    First, leading with the disclaimer that I’ve not studied any particular data, it strikes me that murder is often a spontaneous and un-premeditated act. I’m not saying this to take exception to your thought experiment–merely to say that I don’t suspect many murderers are very rational when the so-called heat arises. So the question, and perhaps science can assist in answering this, is how do we take the results of a logical process, and transform them into the “machine language” at the heart of ourselves. How, in other words, do we move this decision from the purely rational space of the head, to whatever you wish to call the deeper set of parameters that alone can temper our occasionally wayward spontaneity? I think religion maybe afforded something here, at least at one time.

    Second, I’m not convinced evolution has yet ruled out the conclusion that by a) uniting in groups we can cultivate the strength and power necessary to compel our desires on others to our personal and collective benefit, and b) that this wouldn’t result in greater likelihood of safety, stability, etc. for our particular group, and by extension, those who are members of that group. Again, I suspect there could be some interesting scientific research on this. How does our sense of self-identification contribute to our willingness to judge, demean, exclude and even behave poorly towards members of another group? It strikes me again in asking this that we’ll have to find a way to promulgate these findings in a deep way.

    So if you only respond to one question, I’d be most curious about your thoughts with regards to translating intellectual level findings to the deeper tissue of our being, which appears generally to be quite active, even when our intellectual brains are otherwise occupied?

    Thank you,

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your comments Michael. I am not sure I’m quite understanding what you’re asking so if my response seems off the mark, please correct.

      You are right that of course not all murders are premeditated. I was not able to find any statistics on the proportions of pre-meditated or impulsive. However for purposes of the argument this wasn’t really relevant as the question was more one of morality. A pre-meditated murder or an impulsive murder I think can be agreed is still immoral, even if the ways of preventing the two different murder types also differ. I would argue that perhaps the punishment should also vary, and in law that does seem to be the case. But you seem to be asking more about the prevention aspect, particularly in regards to impulsive murders. That such people might morally find murder wrong, but still might get into a situation where they might murder, and so what are the ways in which we might address that. Religion might be an answer to that question, I don’t disagree. But any sort of agreed upon cultural values would do. It need not be a set of divine principles. Provided the message is right, it might come from numerous sources. Either way it still seems that code in which people live by would be a human endeavor and that humans would devise such a code through their observations about how societies seem to work better or worse based on behavioral practices. And such a code should be revisited and probably revised as we learn more about how we work.

      In regards to your second question I guess I am less sure what you are asking. I would think that evolution is rather quite supportive of the ideas that groups can cultivate the strength and power necessary to compel our desires on others to our personal and collective benefit. And evolution would also support that idea that we would be more stable with in our group. That’s sort of tribalism in a nutshell. Of course I believe we need to move out of the mode of tribalism despite our evolutionary hardwiring for it. Or hijack our tribalism tendencies and recognize that we are all really one tribe. All humans are much more similar to each other than we are similar to anything else.

      Again, my purpose for this argument was really to rebuff the many theist who claim that science has nothing to say about morality, or that we couldn’t make an accurate determination of moral and immoral behavior based on the collection of empirical data and analyzing that data to make inductive conclusions. There need be no a priori assumptions about what is moral, we can run an experiment and come up with a pretty good map in which to navigate moral and immoral actions.

      I’m not sure I answered your questions but would be happy for further discussion!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I think I have to disagree with, “There need be no a priori assumptions about what is moral, we can run an experiment and come up with a pretty good map in which to navigate moral and immoral actions.”

        I’m pretty sure that everyone’s ultimate “a priori” assumption is that life is good, and therefore anything that benefits or improves life is good, and that which causes unnecessary harm is bad.

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        1. I guess I don’t see it that way. For me life is just life. Just as a stone is a stone. Life survives. That is what it does. Stones do what they do. I make no value judgement about whether a universe with life is better than a universe without life. All I know is that we have life, and what life does is survive. Different types of life carry out that imperative in different ways, and they continue to evolve to do it better.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. It’s not about what the universe wants. The universe is an inanimate object that, like all inanimate objects, lacks the capacity to take an interest in anything.

            Living organisms, on the other hand, behave “purposefully” to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Those that lack this built-in, “biological will” have presumably gone extinct, and no longer have any vote in the matter. Those that survive are biologically driven to acquire the basic needs of survival: food, water, and all the other items on the bottom layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

            This “purpose” is not necessarily a “conscious” intent”, that comes later in evolution when intelligence emerges in living organisms. With intelligence we get things like imagination, evaluation, and choosing, the stuff of “free will”.

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            1. I don’t think I implied anywhere that the universe wants anything. I simply was addressing your point that we are making an a priori assumption that life is good. That’s a value judgment that need not be made. Life exists for good or ill and all life has a nature to it.

              I would also disagree with you in regards to the mechanism for evolution. I know you put “purposefully” and “biological will” in quotes and I think it’s easy to sort of fall into that line of thinking. I do it myself at times. But I think it’s important to remember that evolution is simply producing minor random mutations that give some advantages or disadvantages given a current environment. Animals that go extinct don’t lack such a will they are simply unlucky in the genetic lottery and/or the environmental conditions in which they are born and diminish. But not for a lack of trying to survive the best they can.

              I would also say that intelligence is a matter of degree, not a binary and all the things you describe are things that living things have to some degree, even consciousness. There is evidence that even plants have a type of consciousness. Our intelligence and consciousness might be the most developed, but it’s all on a continuum.

              Liked by 1 person

            2. Correct. Evolution does not act purposefully. It is likely that among the variety of mutations there were also some that lacked “hunger”, and failed to survive simply because they were never motivated to eat.

              Within the entire universe, purposeful behavior can only be found within living organisms and their species. A tree sends roots into the ground and leaves to the sky “in order to” produce the energy it needs to survive and reproduce. A virus enters a living cell and hijacks its nucleus to reproduce. A lioness brings down the buffalo to feed her cubs. All of these behaviors “serve a purpose” in terms of that specific living organism and its species.

              And the botanist can provide us with a list of objective moral rules for each variety of plants (morality is species specific). She can tell us that direct sunlight is “good” for this plant, but “bad” or “harmful” for this other species.

              The biologist and the medical doctor can also provide objective moral rules that if broken will likely shorten our lives or reduce its quality.

              The same would apply to the sociologist studying group and individual behavior of different species and drawing conclusions as to when strategies of cooperation or competition aided or impaired that specie’s survival. The strategy, in a given context, would be morally judged to be “good” or “bad” as it relates to the underlying purpose: to survive, thrive, and reproduce.

              Liked by 2 people

            3. I suspect we agree on most things. 🙂 I like to defend the notion of “objective” morality as a theoretical shared goal, even if it is one that is impossible to reach in practice. It gives us hope that, as all moral people seek the same goal (best good and least harm for everyone), the means for approaching that goal are likely to converge.

              Morality is subjective in that it is species specific. What’s good for the tree, such as a high concentration of CO2 in the air, would be bad for us. But our respective behaviors (CO2 to oxygen on their part and oxygen to CO2 on our part) compliment and benefit each other.


      2. Thanks, Swarn. I understand the original intent of your piece, and agree. What I would generally be in favor of is a world with less dogma, fundamentalism, and ideology. What remains, I think, is the space for thinking freely, ideally within an environment of basic mutual respect. Science may even help us understand what sort of codes or perspectives would allow open-minded persons of varying metaphysical inclinations to live together non-violently, for instance.

        It is hard for me sometimes to understand my own point, until we start to dialogue. The back and forth can help to sharpen my awareness of the original feeling that led me to open the comment box. Here is one of the questions I was really wondering about: how do we use science to assist us in moving from where we are now to where we desire to be? This gets to Marvin’s point I think. We sort of have to agree on where we want to be… But that aside for the moment, in my two paragraphs, I was suggesting that it seems clear we don’t always follow good advice–meaning that we’re not entirely logical are we? Just because something is logically presented doesn’t mean it’s going to gain traction in a deep way. And we are clearly more complex and inconsistent behaviorally than we’d like to think. The other point, which you seconded, is that science supports the notion that tribalism is an evolutionary product. You also immediately grasp that this is problematic, but don’t say why. In a sense you don’t need to. One extreme thought experiment is sufficient: tribal warfare is likely not a good idea for anyone when we are talking about tribes with nuclear weapons.

        So, the question I closed with initially I think ties these two ideas together by asking: what does science have to say about how we actually produce the transition in our thinking that helps us get where we want to go? Given our natures as human beings (not entirely logical) and our evolutionary history (wielding power against one another has a survival advantage perhaps), is it enough to be right? Is it enough to have good data and sound arguments?


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        1. If I may, I’d like to share this brief post from my blog:

          Why Religion?

          Humanists may consider themselves secular or religious. Many of us who grew up in a church may miss the spiritual support it provides. In college, I often went to the Unitarian Coffee House, an area for talks, games, and snacks on Friday nights.

          When it was time to marry, we called on Reverend Gold from the UU church in Richmond who counseled us and performed the service in the park.

          A church, any church, provides spiritual support for moral people seeking to be good and to do good. The camaraderie, the music, the message, all contribute to maintaining a “holy spirit”, that is to say, “feeling good about doing good and being good”.

          And it helps to have that support in a world where the wicked often profit at the expense of the rest of us.

          But a formal church is not a necessity. We also have the camaraderie of the authors we read, the discussions with like-minded people, and even discussions with people who disagree but help us clarify our faith.

          And, yes, it is a matter of faith. All churches that claim to follow God, also declare God to be Good. And it is our faith in Good that sustains us.

          Liked by 4 people

          1. Those are good words. And I don’t really disagree. As I said, I am not anti-theist, or anti-spirituality.

            I guess though I would still argue that our notion of what good is, is subjective. Some people might feel it is good to kill unbelievers. Some people might feel it is good to make sure women remain chase by clitoral circumcision. But I would still argue that all these things which we deem “good” are part of our survival mechanism. Because what we deem as good in general is still very much a function of the type of evolved beings we are. It seems to me quite possible that intelligent beings evolved from some other species type than primate might have different notions of what good is. As I said, maybe all intelligent beings might converge on a notion of what good is to some degree, but they might take different paths to get there based on how their brains are wired, and I would still argue that the “good” is still something that would benefit survival but would simply extend to more universal desire for all things to be able to survive and thrive and live in some sort of harmony and to reduce suffering.

            I still learn and search for what “good” is, and it’s not something I have faith in, but rather something that I feel is natural to want to search for and understand: How to make the world as good as possible for all life.

            To strive in other directions would simply be in conflict with the nature of life in my opinion.

            Liked by 4 people

        2. Thank you! I understand your point better. Unfortunately I am not going to get to it today, but just wanted to let you know that the question you pose is an interesting one, and I think one that drives both of us! lol I do think science has a lot to say about this question, but perhaps one of the things science might say about it, is that we could use a religious movement. lol More later!

          Liked by 1 person

        3. So let’s see. I think, for me, we can perhaps break your question up into two parts (which might have some overlap). 1) Given that there are situations which any rationality goes out the window in the heat of the moment, how can we deal with those situations to still get a more moral world. And 2) If scientific reasoning seems to often be ineffective at persuading people, even if it is true, then what good is it and how, then, do we persuade people into what is hopefully better point of view?

          So first let me say that science informs us on both of these parts just by acknowledging their existence and looking at why this is. Much of this can be explained from an evolutionary point of view that says we were creatures in the wild and avoiding danger often required us to act instinctually and quickly without little pause for rational thought. And more related to #2, a lie that keeps you alive is useful and that’s all that really matters from an evolutionary point of view. Knowledge of the laws of thermodynamics make no difference as to whether you should touch a boiling pot or not. You can just as easily assume that fire is an element and is being activated within the metal of the pot. Or that fire spirits inhabit it. As long as it prevents from burning yourself that’s fine.

          In the moment reactions are unavoidable regardless of whether you are a person of faith or science. You might do something completely irrational as a result of overwhelming emotions. I think things like mindfulness meditation, or perhaps even prayer can have this meditative quality that can shorten the half-lives of a completely chaotic emotional state to at least bring some quick reasoning into the picture. I do believe to a certain extent that incorporating what we are conscious of from a knowledge point of view into a stressful situation can be improved with practice. The dichotomy between emotion and rationality is a false one and that we are always using both to a certain extent.

          The other way I believe in which we can reduce the amount of these “in the moment” actions is by collectively as a society creating environments where less stressful situations happen. Where we have more time for rational thought. In a way this is what we’ve been doing ever since we invented farming. Giving more time on average for humans to turn their attention away from just trying to get enough calories in the day, and reducing our exposure to dangers. Education also helps us learn more about how things work, and understanding means less fear. Less fear means less opportunities for a high end emotional state to dominate our actions.

          It regards to how we can persuade people, this is where I do think that belief systems play an important role. We know that emotions play a big role in getting us to change our minds and motivate us. So very often you have to make an emotional argument. This is something science isn’t very good at, because science demands an honesty and objectivity that should remove emotion from what it finds. Even if the scientist themselves has a strong emotional attachment to their work.

          I listened to a podcast where they said that really to get people to care about climate change that a religious movement is necessary. I find it hard to argue with that. Of course it makes no claim about any particular religion being true, but simply as a tool to move people emotionally and spiritually to do the right thing and to be willing to make the sacrifices that many of us would have to make to address this problem. So as I said briefly yesterday, that science would inform us that something belief based that we could unify around would be an effective tool to addressing important scientific issues.

          I don’t know if you ever read Asimov’s Foundation series, but in it, science sort of becomes a religion. In that people simply have faith that science will lead them in the right direction, and consider those who speak the “word of science” priests. It feels weird to say but I actually don’t mind science being referred to as a religion overall. I think in the world of ideas of what to believe in and what leads to better solutions overall, I’d choose science. Maybe you would not. But if we can use science to answer questions about morality as it pertains to intelligent conscious beings and we can use it to help us understand how the world works I find no problem in that. There is also just more accountability, because science has to answer to contradictory evidence, where as religious leaders don’t seem to have to be held to a similar standard, they choose a new denomination. But all that aside, I do think that there is value to belief systems (whatever they might be) to push society in a certain direction. As a society becomes more secular it seems to be a lot more like herding cats…which would be fine if the world was doing great, but there are still a lot of problems that we need to work together to solve. I think science is pretty clear about the advantages of cooperative effort are. Religion does tend to be a good binding force. But it’s a little like holding power in your hands if you are the one in charge of those now bound humans, and power does seem to corrupt. Which is why I am for a belief system that has within it checks and balances. Religion does not seem to support the challenge of authority very well.

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          1. I am restating your answer to the second part of the question into the idea that what is needed to promulgate the findings of science with regards to improving the world is a story. (I enjoyed your answers to the first part of the question as well, and agree about mindfulness practices and the beneficial effects of a changing environment.) We could also call it a myth perhaps. Something that appeals to the emotions of people everywhere. I wouldn’t disagree. The challenge is that scientists tend to be more analytical and such an appeal may not move them much. I think the challenge here is that in order to work well it would require some compromise, while at the same time it wouldn’t work for the scientific community to go around calling it a bunch of poppycock, and for the religious leaders to view it as a watered down version of the real thing or some evil delusion.

            While there is considerable pushback against religion, I’d say what is really damaging is close-mindedness and fundamentalism, e.g. intolerance for ideas that don’t fit one’s own worldview. We need freedom of thought and a little room for people to maneuver as they come to terms with new ideas. The Dalai Lama is a religious figure, and I believe he has beliefs of the type outspoken critics of religions might criticize him personally for espousing, (such as reincarnation and his occasional consultations with the state oracle I once mentioned), but he has done things like invited scientists to conduct brain scans on his monks, and he is interested in what science has to say. It seems more of that would be helpful. And I know it is happening in various areas.

            Scientific research on how to message in ways that actually encourage people to participate and produce lasting change would be interesting, but I don’t think we need the research to know that respect and tolerance for differences is essential. And in my opinion there is still far too little of that in various corners. I believe research has shown that when a particular belief system with which we identify comes under threat, the brain is activated in ways essentially similar to moments when we, e.g. our bodies, come under threat. Our beliefs are somehow part of our identity. And we threaten one another all the time like this. Given the neuroscience, proving one another wrong on ideas dear to us is unlikely to produce a fruitful collaboration. It seems to me that one of the largest obstacles to progress is the unwillingness of our thought leaders in various fields to resist the need to be right, and instead understand the terms on which they can be effective. Science could perhaps speak to this…

            For instance, I have no qualms about accepting the validity of evolution and natural selection alongside of the validity of the idea that we live in a loving universe. I don’t think there is any real inconsistency there. I also think that is a potentially effective vantage to have if one desires to have meaningful conversations with the maximum number of people, without embracing fundamentalism, dogma, etc. But I do know that at least some of the outspoken advocates of science are unwilling to entertain that sort of ground, insisting that ideas not based upon materialist approaches to knowledge are insane. My belief in a loving universe would be scoffed at. Religion, for its part, has a certain element of people, obviously, who refuse to believe in anything not written in their holy books. Equally absurd to me. I view both positions as unproductive and logically untenable, yet quite similar in many respects.

            So I think the question is: can we even craft a story that works for both types of human? You said in your last note, “I’d choose science. Maybe you would not.” And I think the notion that it is a rigorous either/or is both premature and debilitating. Can you conceive of a story people on both sides of this seeming divide could perceive as meaningful?

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            1. I don’t really disagree with you here, although I feel like sometimes you seem to take the least charitable view of scientists.

              If it feels like there is a pushback against religion, keep in mind, that for many years, and still in many places, pushback against religion was/is not tolerated. It literally result in torture, imprisonment, and death. Scientists are used to challenging ideas on the marketplace of ideas. For a long time those ideas were simply not part of a set of ideas that could be challenged. Challenging religious beliefs was something you weren’t supposed to do. Beliefs were sacred. You don’t question them. No explanation ever given. Now scientists have their ideas challenged all the time, no matter how passionate or even biased they might be. This is allowed, and always have been. This is how it should be. This is how we self-correct as a society. Even if it gets emotional, we have conversations and we learn and improve. But when religions (and I’m not talking just about Christianity) say these ideas are not questionable, these texts are not changeable I do see that as a fundamental problem. You can’t expect people to take theism as a rigorous enterprise when if something is proved to be incorrect it simply remains as part of the religious cannon. If it was all just admitted to be a story that one can take figuratively and extract value that would be fine, but this is typically not been the case for religion. I’m all for deriving value from fiction, but when no part can be admitted as a fiction until it’s convenient to do so from the point of view of the religion.

              When I said I’d choose science, it’s not because I just prefer cold analytical realism over figurative narratives, it’s actually because I think it’s a better story. I think the big bang and evolution is a far more interesting narrative than any creation story I’ve read from any religion. It’s possible to enjoy the rain and see the equations behind what made the thunderstorm. It’s possible to enjoy a rainbow and see in your mind the white light bouncing in and out the droplets and spreading it’s colors into the sky. I find the miracle of child birth infinitely more beautiful because of my knowledge of DNA and how it works. And what makes science the best story is because it has no end. The heart of the scientific method is that ideas are always open and the story might change.

              And one might say, well if a story gets you the result, like people doing something about climate change, then what’s the problem? We should all be happy about that. In an emergency situation, which we could be facing with climate change, I would probably take it. But the problem is that the story that works for one crisis, might not work for the next one. It might not work when there is no crisis. The story has to change. And religion does not easily let you change the story. If you could keep adapting the story based on current and relevant information, well then you are no longer in the religion business really. Because who wants to put their heart and soul into some story, believing it’s real, only to find out that it was only useful at the time, but no longer applies? My point is that whatever narrative or story we craft, embedded in that must value the notion of change. This is the only truth in the universe is that things constantly change and that things that even if we’re pretty sure they are true still might not. That they are open to be challenged, and that it’s going to be okay if it’s not true, because then something else is more true, and we can build on that and go in a different direction. It seems to me that a religious movement doesn’t have to built on a construct of certainty. We can be certain that things are uncertain, but that we better directions to go in that others.

              Most scientists I know love art, they love music, they love stories, they see value in all of it. They are okay with this space of uncertainty and that there is no precise meaning to the things we enjoy. They are also quite receptive to new ideas, but also are interested in understand if it’s a good idea, or a bad idea, or whether there might not be a better idea out there. I don’t think that’s an unhelpful way of looking at the universe and overcoming the obstacles we have in our way as a species.

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            2. Swarn,

              I want to say first how much I appreciate and am enjoying this exchange, and second, that despite that, we may well be talking past one another in some ways. We are proving, I think, how difficult it can be sometimes to have a conversation about what is actually here now. I suspect you and I are sometimes addressing those who we perceive to be standing in line behind the other. I often feel as though you think I’m advocating on behalf of religious fundamentalism, when I’ve made considerable pains to present you with the contrary. I’m not for religion in general.

              With regards to your feeling that I take the least charitable view of scientists, I have consciously intended to be clear about my specific difficulties with some points of view and don’t believe anything I wrote above cast a particular negative or acerbic aspersions onto science in general. As well I’ve pointed out many shortfalls of conventional religion. And these are all my true feelings. I am a big fan of science and perhaps that hasn’t been clear enough. But I don’t think I can do much more to convince you I’m actually not an apologist for organized religion. It could be that in sharing my belief the universe is the expression of Love, you think it is reasonable to assume I also believe the Earth was created in 7 days and the Bible is extremely holy to me. That would be false. Love would not write the Bible.

              Now I’m with you on the pitfalls of a story. There’s no use in trying to invent a story that doesn’t make sense to anyone. In my last comment I was really trying to point out that whether we keep on trucking as we are, or we try to message things in a way that may result in greater collective synchrony, it may require a certain widening of the statistical band associated with “being right” in order to include the maximum number of people. I was attempting to be clear that there are problems with the extreme positions of both the religious and the scientific. An axiom of science (according to me, for the purpose of this discussion, I admit) is that Love does not exist except as it is instantiated in biological organisms. That makes it precious and astounding. I see that completely. But axioms are choices of where to begin. They are the starting points for a system of inquiry. Another axiom could be that Love is the condition in which existence arises. This cannot be proven either. It can be considered unnecessary to certain lines of inquiry, and that makes perfect sense. I’m not asking you to say which is right, nor to deny your preference. I’m simply suggesting that all people might do well to acknowledge that both are reasonable beginnings, that nothing you or I decry really hinges upon this particular preference. Healthy systems of thought can arise from each. And now there is a lot more room for interesting dialogue.

              So you have a preference and I have a preference. I accept your preference completely as a good one. I fully accept your decision to prefer the path that science offers, as well as the richness of thought and feeling it affords you. I think those feelings and meanings are genuine, and good for the world. I think people should follow their own hearts and stick to what is most valuable to them. What I disagree with strongly is the fundamentalist religious people trying to tell others how to live, forcing their intolerance on those outside of their communities, etc. And I disagree equally with it when it comes from scientists who lump all persons of faith into a common class of the intellectually inferior, which some do sometimes. There needs to be room to breathe in the middle I think. I’m not sure if you agree with me or not. Because you see, I don’t think it much matters what I think about Love. I think what matters is what we think about one another, and what that sets up for our relatedness and interactions.

              You wrote: “Because who wants to put their heart and soul into some story, believing it’s real, only to find out that it was only useful at the time, but no longer applies?”

              Agreed completely, if you caveat it by saying nobody “knowingly” wants to do this. But this is in many ways the beauty of science isn’t it? To disprove, revise and even explode previous worldviews, only to later do it again perhaps? The story does change. The sort of timeless wisdom that resonates with me agrees that change is the only certainty—that we are participating in an open-ended creation without a final state.

              This isn’t about religion or science to me, Swarn. It’s about a basic respect for all human beings, and the ability to treat as equals those with differing points of view. I’m not suggesting you personally don’t do that. But some outspoken scientists don’t. And I think the findings of science are more likely to be heard by a wider audience if there is a focus on inclusion. Now we’re at the end and you’re wondering why I’m bitching about a small group of “bad” scientists to you, whom you don’t feel you represent. And I get that. So all I can say is thank you for listening, Swarn! Certainly scientists are wonderful. People are.

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            3. Hi Michael,

              I don’t think I did the greatest job last reply in letting you know, that in no way do I think that you are some fundamentalist or a creationist or a literalist. I know that quite well. I was speaking about religion in more general terms because, for me, and perhaps I am incorrect in thinking this way, I see belief as a bit of a sliding scale. We all have beliefs and we are all going to form them, but you need sort of tool to hijack the brain into reminding you that beliefs are subject to change. For me science is that tool.

              Now religion can certainly have that emotional impact we are looking for in eliciting change but for me it opens the door to a way of thinking that sort of closes the door on conversation. I guess it wasn’t clear that you were talking about scientists who lump all religious people into one category. I thought you were talking about science in general as being simply dismissive towards people of faith. As I’ve argued before, I do think faith is important, but that we should be willing to change what we have faith in, in light of new evidence. When it comes to a belief in the divine it seems like most people are long a scale within their particular religion. Some hold it very loosely like yourself, some are fundamentalist about it. But there is a spectrum there, to me, that I think can be pernicious in general. Because no matter where one is along the spectrum, for most people (maybe not you) there is a line in which science cannot cross. For me there is no place that science doesn’t have something to say. Even when it says it has nothing to say about a subject, this says something in my opinion. 🙂 So perhaps I misunderstood what you said before when you said:

              And I think the notion that it is a rigorous either/or is both premature and debilitating.

              I took that to mean that science lacks an emotional edge, and that it doesn’t acknowledge the rigor of theism. Sorry if that’s not what you meant.

              There was a conversation with Sam Harris and Fareed Zakaria where Sam was going off on his dislike of radical Islam and taking the Koran literally and Fareed Zakaria did a good job by shutting him up and said “Yeah you’re right, but you’re not helping.” I agree with you in that even if one is right, the way that message is delivered can be unhelpful and doesn’t lead to the change you seek. So I would agree that many scientists can be unhelpful in that way.

              As far as a narrative that will sway both sides, I am not sure the answer other than there is enough to marvel at in this universe to be fairly impressed regardless of whether there is a creator or not, and that we all have to be a lot more comfortable with “We’re just not sure”. It has to be a story where you aren’t so focused on getting to the end of the story, but just enjoy the journey along the way. A book is readable within our lifetime, the story we are living in…well sadly none of us are going to get very far before are time is up. But it’s good writing. I’ve always felt if there was a creator we are just so far away from understanding it, that it just doesn’t seem worth my time to worry about the nature of such a being. If I spend my time trying to understand the universe, that’s the closest I can get to knowing that being. When you start perceive how complex the universe actually is, what you find is that anything that could create it, well we are like an ant to it. Ants don’t spend their time trying to worship us or figure us out…they just go about their business. I personally think we should too.

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            4. Thanks, Swarn. All good stuff here.

              What I meant when I said I don’t think this is an “…either/or…” situation–and translating this clarification into your own most recent analogy–is that I don’t think there should be a line drawn arbitrarily on the religious spectrum of belief beyond which science cannot enter. But nor do I think science should push the line beyond what it reasonably knows. That’s a great way to describe the situation for which I’m advocating.

              That said, the truth is that I would rather we had empirical science at one end and spirituality (or culturally specific knowledge) at the other—not religion per se—and I think we should consider that one day, as both sides respond to new evidence, the line might become unnecessary altogether. I see that as not only a legitimate possibility, but a necessity, for knowledge is knowledge.

              In the meanwhile, being not sure sounds quite good to me. Being not sure affords us all that wiggle room to respect one another in the very long interim we may be living in.


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  4. Superby argued. Couldn’t help but thinking how utterly fantastic it’d be if turned into a video, or an animation. Maybe you should fire this off to UK Humanists (who do seem to have a sizable media production budget) and see what they can do in that regard.

    The thing is though, theists genuinely don’t want to hear about empathy and fair play experiments with dogs and chimps. You can show them a million short videos, like the one below, and they’ll just ignore them because, well, it doesn’t fit in neatly with their pantomime.

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    1. Thanks John for your kind words. I wanted to try to spell it out a bit. Often in argument it seems like a waffle between thinking “Isn’t it sort of obvious that science could distinguish between moral and immoral behaviors, to alright if I really have to spell it out, it will take a little bit more explanation than what I would normally fit in a comment. I’ll look at your suggestion and appreciate that you feel that I’ve put down a good argument here.

      I loved the video. That was entertaining. It’s true that theists don’t usually want to hear the argument anyway. I think again that to have a rational discussion about it, would require admitting that there is at the very least some role for science to play in morality and that would imply less of a role for their Creator. Some people are willing to give some ground, but the fundamentalist seem to play an all or nothing game. And since a creator can’t have nothing to do with morality, they must everything to do with morality.

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    2. And SURPRISE John!!! Dogs and chimps are not the only species that exhibit remarkable forms of empathy and fair play. As you know, me and Dr. E.O. Wilson can list off numerous species that show phenomenal forms of compassion, empathy, eusociality, fair play, and Superorganism behavior — and they’ve been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years if not millions! 😉

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  5. The consequentialists write the rules, then the deontologists make them “the Word of God”.

    We need to keep in mind that “gods” and “God” are also evolutionary products, evolved to serve a practical human need: how to pass on our acquired moral values to our children.

    Heaven and Hell are allegorical representations of actual potential states of the world. As the percentage of those who seek good for themselves at the expense of others increases, we move closer to Hell. As the percentage of those who seek good for others as well as themselves increases, we move closer to Heaven on Earth.

    But the statistical view tends to minimize the effect of a single immoral act. The ideas of Heaven and Hell, and an all-seeing God, make that act personal and relevant. So, I’m in no hurry to rid the world of religious beliefs.

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    1. Marvin, thank you so much for reading and for your comment.

      I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said. I too am in no hurry to rid the world of religious beliefs. I do see their value. I do think it’s something that can only slowly drift away rather be overcome in an instant. Because I think to do so would not only be unrealistic but likely unhelpful.

      At the same time, I also don’t feel that those who don’t hold a religious worldview should be seen as people who would have no moral foundation. The thought of killing somebody, knowing the pain I might cause to those who loved that person, to know that I am ending someone’s life who, no matter how angry I might be at them, are a product of their environment, their parents, their genes, their education (or lack thereof). My empathy also makes me feel that an immoral act is personal and relevant. No God’s necessary. Furthermore the same God might also be used to justify what are actually immoral acts, and shed the weight of responsibility off oneself. Religion often asks one to ignore their human empathy and do acts in their God’s name. This to me seems far more dangerous.

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  6. Interesting thought experiment, Swarn. It made me wonder if we couldn’t simply dispense with the construct of morality. [I don’t believe in the objective/ontological nature of it.] After all, if we can know the minds of others (which is Cognitive Empathy) and project into their emotional states (which is Affective Empathy), then is that sufficient to dispense with the notion of morality? If it isn’t, then why not? Must there be some meta-level abstraction which we deem the domain of morality?

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    1. I think I agree with you. At least I can’t find any reason not to agree with you. There might be some beneficial intuitions that derive from more than empathy, but I agree those two categories of empathy should be enough. Morality might just be a useful word that just captures a lot of what we are, but I think the main point is that if we look at what humans have generally agreed on as moral behavior that behavior is traceable back to our biology. The impacts of that moral behavior or the lack thereof are observable and measurable. The emotions and intuitions serve purpose for survival as a species. In the end there seems nothing surprising about any of those moral behaviors that don’t seem predictable based on what we know about a social primate species. No one really had to write them down for us to recognize their truth. Now not working on the Sabbath, or eating shellfish, that needed to be written down. 😉

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    2. I like to distinguish morality from ethics. A moral person seeks the best good and least harm for everyone. An ethical person follows the rules. So, in the case where the Nazis come to the door and ask if you’re harboring Ann Frank’s family, the ethical person would tell the truth, but the moral person would lie.

      Rules serve morality. We judge between two rules, for example, between (a) the rule that you must return escaped slaves to their owner versus (b) the rule that no one can own slaves, according to which rule is estimated to produce the best good and least harm for everyone.

      Jesus was making this point in Matthew 22:35-40, which, as a Humanist, I would paraphrase as, “Love Good, and love it for others as you love it for yourself. All other rules are derived from these two.”


        1. The actions of the guards at the concentration were immoral because they created unnecessary harm, but they were ethically required to follow the orders of their commanders, because that’s what they signed up to do.


            1. “Sociopath” makes a meaningful distinction, therefore, it cannot logically be the case that “We’re all sociopaths”. Your earlier suggestion that empathy is often self-serving would be more correct. We all share the same needs, and cooperation is usually the best means to satisfy those needs.

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            2. Well, when you get right down to it, all of reality is a construct. We translate sensory experience through several layers of abstraction to get to an effective collection of models. When the model is accurate enough to provide a means of dealing effectively with reality, we call it “real”. When the model is inaccurate or misleading, we call it an “illusion”.

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            3. Yeah, I saw that. The interviewer was hopeless. Even got struck dumb at one point failing to carry her own argument. She kept paraphrasing him in a most disingenuous manner. I watched a three-hour long interview he did with Joe Rogan afterwards, which was more informing of his ideas once it got going. He seems overly disposed to Jungian archetypes, to my mind, but that’s not my territory. Bela would know. What was dubious about his comments on Feminism? You mean when he says women are attracted to powerful men?

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            4. Dubious is how he laid out the argument on the gender pay gap. First he denies its existence, then goes on to explain why it exists. It’s a very clever trick which allows him to hold onto his academic credibility whilst pleasing a niche of deplorables.


            5. Ah, sorry, no; he didn’t deny the pay gap existed; he asserted that it was not solely due to gender; saying rather that there were multiple factors in play. He stated that there were 18/19 measurable contributing variables, and that only a multi-variant analysis is credible — i.e. the uni-variant gender analysis is insufficient as an explanation for the gap. I know Milo has used this argument, but Peterson isn’t an Alt Right twit. 🙂


            6. Are you saying that you think gender discrimination is the sole cause of the pay gap? And without needing or wishing to defend Peterson, he is very clear that gender discrimination is indeed one of the 18/19 contributory factors. The uni-variant ‘analysis’ is clearly too simplistic, too narrow.

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            7. Not sole cause, but certainly an important enough factor as it’s the precursor to a whole range of other causes.
              I can speak to this personally as homophobia doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s the extension of a social hierarchy which defines any and everything relating to women as inferior to that relating to men. That has an infinity of consequences.

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            8. Yes, I’m aware of that conflating of his ideas with certain of those on the Alt Right agenda, which is why I previously mentioned that Milo uses the same argument on the GPG. The Alt Right trolls have gone crazy, just as have the SJWs. What can you do when people are hearing only what they want to hear?

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            9. ‘Dissect’ 13 words on Twitter? I’d rather you did if you’re suggesting he’s some sort of Far Right bigot. If he is, prove it. It’s not for me to disprove aspersions I myself don’t cast.

              I’m not sure what you’re arguing over, as your ground seems constantly to be shifting. 🙄


            10. Shifting? In that comment he sets up a narrative. First that feminists are a monolith. Second that *they* the monolith somehow endorse female genital mutilation. It’s a very clever way to manipulate the reader. Feminists then cease to be women who want social equality, but are people who have some sort of hidden agenda. “Their silence reveals their true motivations” ? What true motivations?


            11. ‘Shifting’, yes, because the post is about the capacity for humans to be iniquitous and immoral, and whether religion is needed to counter those traits. And yet you’ve taken us onto Feminism, FGM and all that. Not my territory. Signing out now Pink, good sparring with you as always. HX


    1. Pink,

      1. Life is good. Sometimes it’s better than at other times, but the hope of better times sustains us. And, of course, at the end of a good life, we all hope for a good death.

      2. Morality is what we call the intent to achieve good for ourselves and others (Kant’s “Good will”). It is that intent which motivated you to post an opposing position.

      3. Empathy helps communicate feelings. The baby copies your facial expression, which helps generate the internal feeling that goes with it. And laughing makes you happy. But morality is NOT based on feelings. Feelings are malleable and can mislead us. Therefore, the correct sequence is to 1) determine what is good and then 2) choose to feel good about it. (And that’s where religion comes in, to help us feel good about being good and doing good).


      1. I find the proposition that life is good somewhat absurd. What evidence do you base that one?
        Almost half the world, that’s 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 a day. At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. Every single day 22 thousand children will die due to poverty related causes. South Africa alone has half a million rapes per year. Every day desperate people die trying to cross the Mediterranean – and the few who make it will probably spend their lives on the margins of society.


            1. As long as there is a reasonable hope of an end to suffering, suffering can be tolerated. I remember when I had a severe lower back issue. I was in so much pain that I was hoping that when I saw the doctor he’d immediately send me to surgery. But he didn’t. He banged on my back a couple times and sent me down to the Pain Clinic. They hooked me up with a TENS device that was supposed to distract me from my back pain, but it only gave me an additional pain to worry about. They also did the shot in the spine to provide temporary relief. But it was their physical therapist who saved my life. She got me moving, and when it was too hard for me to move she marched me over to the Pain clinic and told them to increase my meds. Eventually, over the months ahead, I slowly got better and better, and without surgery. But there were times at home when I was glad I didn’t have a gun in the house because I would have been tempted to use it. Today, I do pretty well so long as I make sure to walk my treadmill regularly. So, overall, it was worth it to continue living.

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            2. I’m pretty sure that “the best good and least harm for everyone” is the universal goto that everyone must ultimately fall back upon, because it the is only one that everyone can agree to. Got anything better?

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            3. The least harm can mean non-existence. The point is, and I repeat, the idea life is good is not based on evidence. Which part of the statistics I cited did you have trouble understanding? Or did you ignore them because they’re not applicable to your life as the citizen of a developed country where you’re not part of a minority?


            4. Responding is different from being able to answer the question. Your responses don’t lay out a substantive theory that understands and accepts existence can be horrendous. Saying life is better than no life is unthinking, careless and to be honest, ridiculous. For millions of people on this planet life is miserable. It involves war, genocide, disease, rape, oppression, hunger – just to mention a few of the difficulties. Your back problem and personal experience aren’t the bar for humanity.

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            5. Well this conversation has gotten away from me. lol

              I would simply say that the value judgement about whether life is good or bad seems an overall irrelevant judgement. It seems mostly human life is being discussed here and earlier I was referring to life in general. Perhaps the universe would be better off without our species. This is possible. But the reason why I find the value judgment in the end irrelevant is because life does exist, there is no getting around it. And if it is mostly bad then I all I can do is try to make it a bit better for those who are suffering in it. The one thing that I do know for sure is that I am in no position to be the one to end it all either. So as long as I can conceive a world that has less suffering than the world I am currently living in, then I don’t have any problem with life existing. I think life has a lot of potential. Many who suffer are brought out of that suffering. There is no sound theory either that says life has to be miserable either.

              So I say again, life is life. The value judgment as to whether it is a good or bad is meaningless. Because it definitely isn’t all bad. To borrow a line from The Shawshank Redemption “It all boils down to a simply choice, get busy living or get busy dying.” I am fortunate enough to be born where I was born and I am going to use that fortune to try and reduce suffering in others. Maybe I’m not doing a great job of it, but I see no palatable alternative.

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            6. I think it’s an issue worth exploring because the traditional religious narrative was one which proposed a world view just like Marvin’s. It either didn’t take suffering into account or praised it (as was the case of Mother Theresa.)

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            7. Oh I agree that we need to be honest about how bad things life can be. We need to be acutely aware of suffering in order to do something about it. We live at a time where we can be more aware of suffering than ever before. Maybe that gives us a greater capability to do something about it. What I mean by the judgment being irrelevant is that whether it is 100% bad, 70% bad, or 30% bad or 0% bad, life exists and just as we can imagine better states of life, we can imagine worse states. We can act to prevent those worth states and I would also argue that even if we thought life was 0% bad, we might want to also make sure that we weren’t deluding ourselves as has often been done. Continuing to learn, remaining vigilant, cultivating compassion those are worthy goals whatever the current proportion of goodness to badness is.

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            8. I did find it surprising. I don’t anymore. I find it sad, or unfortunate, but not surprising. Answering this question was one of the reasons why I became so interested in the brain to understand emotions, how people think, why people believe what they do and can be unswayed by rational arguments. It would take too long to go into here but things like tribalism, the dehumanization of other groups of people that are different, the fact that are brains are very reward oriented so we can easily become addicted to things that bring us pleasure and pay less attention to the things that don’t, the fact that we are still largely influenced by what we see and suffering that happens elsewhere is still not going to make as much of an impact, which is unfortunate because the people who can make the most difference are the ones most sheltered from the truth of the state of the world. It’s like, every time we get a fucking cold spell I’m like dammit there is a whole bunch more people who are going to get confused about global warming again! lol

              I think some people just simply don’t have the emotional fortitude to bear the weight of it all.
              I know I have my limits for better or worse. Sometimes it might be because of too much empathy, which is why I think what is described as effective empathy can actually be debilitating. I also think that there are other mental illnesses that might impact people’s ability to deal. Depression can be because we are aware of suffering but also debilitate us from being able to act to do something about it. I think also as individuals we can simply be overwhelmed by the weight of it all. We get information from all over the world now, which is amazing, but is a bit of a double edged sword that I don’t think we have raised our consciousness enough to cope with the overflow of information. Our evolutionary brains were simply not wired to hear bad news about billions of people. People can simply find this debilitating, not know how to help, or simply let themselves have a pleasurable distraction to not think about. This is not a justification, just an explanation.

              This is the other power that our global connectivity has because we can also organize ourselves to address problems in ways that we couldn’t before. Whether or not everybody donates to some disaster relief in Thailand, a 100 years ago, a disaster in Thailand would not get the kind of global support from citizens around the world making private donations. It is unlikely a 100 years ago, that people would have traveled from even all over the U.S. to go and help disaster relief in Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Right now it’s like being in a room where everyone is screaming and it feels paralyzing at times. Being able to filter patterns through the chaos to direct your energy and attention can be difficult. But I think there is a much greater awareness now than ever before.

              Liked by 2 people

            9. Okay, I said, taking the bait, life is especially hard for some people. If it is truly intolerable one can always die. But the fact that I am hungry today does not mean that I will not have a cheeseburger tomorrow. And if I am raped today then I might not be raped tomorrow (and I’m really looking forward to that cheeseburger). And if I’m killed today, well, then, from your perspective, problem solved. Anything else I can help you with?

              Liked by 1 person

  7. This a great post Swarn and a clever approach to the origins of human morality. Well done!

    As you might remember, I am a big fan of Harvard University’s Dr. E.O. Wilson (retired) and his lifetime work in entomology and sociobiology. In an exceptional 1998 article in The Atlantic** he compares and contrasts the question of the origins and development of morality/ethics and seperates the two popular sides as the Transcendentalists vs. the Empiricists. He states:

    Every thoughtful person has an opinion on which premise is correct. But the split is not, as popularly supposed, between religious believers and secularists. It is between transcendentalists, who think that moral guidelines exist outside the human mind, and empiricists, who think them contrivances of the mind. In simplest terms, the options are as follows: I believe in the independence of moral values, whether from God or not, and I believe that moral values come from human beings alone, whether or not God exists.

    After elaborating in detail about invoking a Deity into the fruits of natural-law theory and noting the many appalling failures of that practice, then suggests the arguments and theories of the empiricist should be taken more serious as each culture’s Code of Principles reaches its precise form according to its historical circumstance. He breaks down in more detail the origin of moral instincts, the scientific approach to moral reasoning, the origins of religion, he compares ethics and animal life, how theology moved toward abstraction, and explains our hunger for spirituality.

    Wilson then concludes (apologies for the length, but I find this critical):

    Which world view prevails — religious transcendentalism or scientific empiricism — will make a great difference in the way humanity claims the future. While the matter is under advisement, an accommodation can be reached if the following overriding facts are realized. Ethics and religion are still too complex for present-day science to explain in depth. They are, however, far more a product of autonomous evolution than has hitherto been conceded by most theologians. Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly most humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility. Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge. That is the only way to provide compelling moral leadership. Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science, for its part, will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of moral and religious sentiments.

    The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

    (emphasis mine)


    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like this classification. While I do believe that there are better conscious states and that there maybe some moral convergence for all intelligent beings with a high enough level of consciousness, I am certainly under no illusion. Without life, simply do not exist in reality. Since secular people can believe in the divine though, I don’t think one can separate religious and secularists, but I do think that anybody who believes in the divine is likely to be a trascendentalist. God as a concept is something that has no origin, and always was. And thus if there is always a consciousness and a creator of a universe, then there is some morality imprinted on that design. I think that would sort of be the thought process there.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Swarn,

    I don’t know that you’ve addressed the theist position that there is no proper moral path for an atheist to take. If we consider murder more closely there are examples where murder is routinely sanctioned by large groups of people: warfare, capital punishment, genocide, infanticide. Basically, murder that increases the number of my descendants: good, murder that decreases the number of my descendants: bad. It seems to me that you’ve provided a mechanism for how a murder morality might come about, but not a rationale as to whether I should follow my breeding or transcend it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is all killing of other humans murder? One also must separate in group vs out of group killing. It’s clear, when you look at chimps at other primates we will kill our own species. But there is a limit to how often one can do it within one’s own tribe and get away with it. Murder is typically defined this way. It is us who over time have extended the definition of murder and I would say generally for the better. But my example was looking at the clearest definition of murder which is the killing of an in group person for no good reason. I attempted to show that the commandment which was given with very little detail as to what the difference between killing and murder is (and given the old testament, God seemed to have a very narrow definition of murder) can be fairly easily shown, when left unabated destroys societies pretty quickly.

      Again And said at the outset this is not addressed to all theists, but there are millions of Christians here in the U.S. who do completely believe that atheists can’t have moral guidance without a belief in God. There are seven states that say in the Constitution that an atheist can’t hold public office. I think we might have our first openly atheist elected official in the past year. There is a genuine reason (not a good one) why religion as an institution is distrustful of atheists. And the argument that morality could not be derived through evolution is often made by every moderate Christians.


      1. If we define murder as killing needlessly within the tribe, it seems trivial to explain the evolutionary pressures, but I wouldn’t call that a very robust basis for morality. Can science inform about whether it’s okay to kill outside the tribe?


        1. But that is the legal definition of murder, and that is certainly the type of murder the old testament was speaking about. Murdering outside your tribe was almost encouraged, and of course executing people for crimes they committed was also encouraged. But murder has pretty much always been defined as a killing for which reasons to do so have not been sufficient. Again it is only we as a society have slowly broadened the definition for what constitutes murder, And yes I think science can inform us about how the definition should be broadened. Certainly in my example even when the killing turned to revenge, we might say that is a good reason to kill, but revenge killings only tend to result from murders that happen in the first place. I think one can easily see the damage the war has by families losing fathers (and mothers now), homes being destroy, poverty increasing. There might be some positives to at least some wars as well, but these things can be analyzed in the balance. Movements to broaden definitions of what constitutes murder have certainly based on evidence, and not because of some divine guidance.


        2. The point is that many holy books are full of killing which weren’t considered murder, so despite commandments against murder certain killing has always been justified by the religion. There seems to be no God given intuition about murder being an immoral practice. And even if killing does increase my chances of surviving in a certain case, that would still be evolutionary as we know primates also commit murder (but there is a limit to how much a society can tolerate before it gets destructive). If one murder happened in a community once every 10 years, I doubt we could find any deleterious effects in the long run. But again, since the argument against atheists is that without God what would stop you from just killing and raping all you want, the answer is that there are plenty of reasons that would prevent us, and that the evolutionary development as a social species explains why such moral attitudes would be built into us.


          1. I think you explain well why atheists don’t go around raping and murdering, and why religion or philosophy isn’t needed to explain or constrain that behaviour. But it seems to get fuzzy fairly quickly. Can a morality derived from science or evolution guide me in daily living? I think this is closer to the objection that moderate Christians (as you term them) have with atheism and morality. Given the divergent humanist philosophies, it seems like a fair criticism to me.


            1. Well evolution helps us understand how these moral attitudes evolved. As I say, this experiment is something we’ve been playing out over our evolutionary past as we develop as a social species. So it has become part of our intuition that murder is mostly bad (but sometimes good). You don’t need to science to guide you daily on morality, because evolution has already taken care of that. Science however provides an adequate lens to demonstrate why murder, in general, would be something that we want to limit. And science certainly does play a role in informing us about how we might become more humane in the societies we build and the justice we mete out.

              And you keep trying to redefine how theists view atheists, and while, as always, I appreciate your more enlightened views, this isn’t as common as you might think even though it’s getting better.


              Still 42% of Americans think atheists can’t good morals and values. That’s a pretty large number of people. Especially in a country where about 35% of the people determined the president, and 80% of those who identify as evangelical Christians voted for him.

              It continues to not be easy to be openly atheist. Even in this society, depending on where I worked or how I hoped to advance in life. And in many countries being atheist is simply a death sentence. So I’m lucky to be in the country I’m in. I think it’s important to send the message that we need not derive morality from some divine source. That the impacts of our moral behavior is observable and adjustable, and we have done so throughout history.


            2. Sorry for not replying sooner, I’ve been rather busy the last couple weeks, although I can’t for the life of me think of what I’ve been doing…

              I have a last thought, and I’ll leave it at that for my part. I also want to say that I’m not disagreeing with anything you’ve written, I would just like to take it a bit further.

              If I’m searching for moral guidance, knowing that evolution has solved the problem for me isn’t particularly helpful. I want something more formalized. It seems, from an evolutionary point of view, this is demonstrated in the prevalency of religion. Taking that a step further, it’s plausible that religion is the mechanism that most effectively transfers morality. So, although I agree that you don’t need religion to have morality, I don’t believe you can remove religion and not have a detrimental effect on morality.

              As for redefining how theists view atheists, we clearly come in contact and are influenced by very different groups of religious people. Frankly, I resent the way you often characterize Christians, but I accept that your experiences are valid, and I don’t believe that you misrepresent the people that you talk about. So, maybe it just makes me sad.

              Liked by 1 person

            3. You said:

              If I’m searching for moral guidance, knowing that evolution has solved the problem for me isn’t particularly helpful. I want something more formalized. It seems, from an evolutionary point of view, this is demonstrated in the prevalency of religion. Taking that a step further, it’s plausible that religion is the mechanism that most effectively transfers morality. So, although I agree that you don’t need religion to have morality, I don’t believe you can remove religion and not have a detrimental effect on morality.

              I want to dissect this a little bit. I mean obviously. There are definitely parts to agree with so don’t worry. lol I do think that religion has played a role in society to handing down morals to new generations and helping communities cohere. Such a system how is vulnerable to a lot of problems however. I would say the most serious being 1) How do we know the morality espoused by a particular religion is actually moral? 2) Defaulting to religious authority. How do we know that this authority is interpreting the religion correctly? 3) Exploitation. This follows from the last one, but there is also, just like any system the potential for exploitation. For instance if a religion says it is wrong to lie, and we assume all people who identify with that religion embody that moral. It’s not long before somebody takes advantage of that assumption. I mean this is sort of how children get molested by priests. Not only is their an automatic respect of religious authority, but more importantly your moral religious leader is generally the least likely person you’d suspect would molest your child. 3) Fundamentalism. The inability to course correct based on what a religious text says. Granted we find that religious do course correct, albeit slowly, but this isn’t because the text changed, but simply reanalyzed in a way that suits the morality of the time.

              And when we look at how we course correct for morality, it’s clear that we are using reasoning, that we are observing the consequences of our actions, and thus it has been us making the morals all along. People write the religious texts and I believe that they were most likely progressive for their time and making astute observations (given their current knowledge of the universe) to codify moral values that they believed would help people survive, live better lives, and be fulfilled spiritually. But it certainly doesn’t mean they got it exactly right which is why we’ve, on average, been making adjustments throughout human history to make a society that is less violent, has less poverty, and tries to alleviate human suffering. Yes there is a lot of that, but compared to even 100 years ago, the progress has been immense.

              In regards to your last sentence in what I quoted, I might agree that you can’t remove spirituality and not have a detrimental effect on morality, but I am not even 100% of that. I mean listen, do you think your religious tenets are the only thing holding you back from murdering someone? The larger point I made about evolution demonstrates that as a social species we’ve evolved to have a certain morality. Now we might even have evolved the ability to murder, but such acts must be kept to a minimum. Too much murder leads to the kind of problems I discuss in the thought experiment. You had a mom that didn’t murder, she was kind to people, she had empathy and she taught you values, and she wasn’t an overly religious person. I mean all the signs pointed to you not becoming a murderer. The reason that most of us do not murder and don’t recommend it to our children is because of the detrimental impact it would have on their survival.

              And not to belabor the point in regards to the views of Christians, I tried to present evidence that I am not just speaking anecdotally, and that the attitude towards the morality of atheists extends beyond the most extreme fundamentalist. Even Steve Harvey has openly said that he questions the moral character of someone who doesn’t believe in God. Again, 7 states in the U.S. have in their state constitution that an atheist can’t hold public office. This is a fairly common attitude among many theists especially in Islam and Christianity that believing in the divine is a necessary prerequisite to being a moral person. Even moderate Christians, including my mom who I think is a wonderful person (and she is) has told me before that our sense of right and wrong is divinely instilled by the Christian God in every human. Such that if I’m acting moral it’s only because of what God put in me, and I’m just not acknowledging it. So I would say that as a Christian, you don’t believe that, and you know many other Christians who don’t, this would likely be a minority opinion or at least a fairly even split among Christians.


            4. Well, since you asked a couple questions, I’ll talk for a bit longer.

              I don’t have any issue the problems you’ve identified with religions. Those are real and long-standing.

              My religious tenets didn’t keep me from becoming a murderer, but they did re-order and re-prioritize my values. So, I would say they made me more moral by providing greater clarity and granularity to moral values than I would have had otherwise. As for my mom, she was raised in a religious setting, so to what degree is her morality shaped by religion? How many generations would it take to completely remove the influence of religion on morality? I might guess three, but I don’t know. That was the reason for my original caution. We might decide to become a secular society, and maybe it would be roses a lollipops, but maybe after a few generations new problems would emerge. Maybe after five generations we would invent a new religion. Personally, I’m not overly enamoured by a lot of what organized religion has brought us, and would be happy to see many things go. I just don’t know what the cost is. I’m certain people wouldn’t suddenly become amoral, but I’m very wary to run the experiment. Fortunately France is running it for us, so we can just wait and see.

              I do believe that morality comes from God, but belief in God isn’t a prerequisite. The Bible, in the book of James, says demons believe there is one god, so I guess Steve Harvey makes a better comedian than Bible scholar. I’ve worked with atheists that I considered more moral than me, so my belief in God didn’t provide me an instantly superior morality. I mean it’s demonstrably false that belief in god equals morality. I think it’s the right path and I do believe that atheism can lead to some dark places. As for atheists not holding public office, I don’t know how a restriction like that is even legal.

              Liked by 1 person

            5. Religion can also lead to some dark places though. I mean I just don’t know of any darker paths that not believing in God takes you than religion can. I mean the crimes committed in the name of religion are numerous, even if you want to stack them up against the atheism espoused by communist Russia. Certainly zealotry is bad in any form, atheism itself doesn’t have tenets at all to command anybody to do anything. You are free to take what you like from a self-help book, to any religious text you want that has something that you think is a good idea. Can you perhaps name me a tenet of atheism that would lead one to these dark places you speak of?

              When you look at history in long arc, I don’t see things having gotten less moral as secularism his risen, I see the opposite. So it’s not clear that morality lessens as societies become more secular. My point with your mom is that while she might have been raised by a religious person the values she took from it remain, even if not the belief. And part of the point of the post is that these values are self evident without believing they are divinely given, because the effect of poor values are evident in the impact they have on society. We even see damage at the individual level. Murder, even if you felt you were justified, causes guilty, it causes trauma, it’s not something we are terribly comfortable with at a biological level, because why would such a thing evolve in a social and cooperative species? We know other primates that are social like us do murder, but not excessively because of how it would impact the group. Clearly they don’t exhibit any behavior that suggests they believe in God so it simply doesn’t make sense that a lack of belief in God would somehow lead to the murdering of our own kind in abundance.


            6. As far as I know, atheism doesn’t have any tenets besides ‘there is no god’. So, from a philosophical point of view, it’s fairly unbounded. So things like communism, hedonism, social Darwinism might be philosophically coherent, but ultimately detrimental. I suppose, in the long run, evolution will sort these things out, but society can change pretty fast. I agree that many morals are self evident, but what about something like China’s one child policy. In the absence of religion or a worldview, how can we judge if something like that is moral? Or does it simply not matter, a blip on the course of evolution?

              The point I was trying to make about my mom, is what happens when the memory of the belief disappears. Do the values still remain? Western society is built on many layers, one of which is Christianity. Given the lack of consensus on the results of doing something as mundane as raising minimum wage, I’m proposing that removing religion could be…bad.

              Liked by 1 person

            7. Well that’s kind of my point. Why does atheism have dark places one can go if it doesn’t have any tenets that lead one there? I mean clearly there was a time in our evolution where we had no religion, or at least no religious law and we somehow managed to not murder each other with reckless abandon. Again we see at least as many atrocities committed in the name of religion as we do from atheism, so clearly either of them does not guarantee a cessation of immoral behavior.

              Would any current religion help us understand the morality of the one child law in China? I don’t know that any religion adequately addresses the problem of overpopulation. There is certainly harm that comes from over population, just as there as harm done when parents aren’t free to exercise their reproductive rights, or abort fetuses because they want a specific gender. Of course that has more to do with the immorality of a patriarchy in which one gender is seen as more valuable than another. As hunter-gatherers we did practice population control. Anthropological evidence shows that mothers often committed infanticide (since there was no abortion possible) when resources were low for the population off the tribe. I suspect there are situations were a perfect moral solution exists unless we have perfect foresight. Striving for sustainability will lesson the amount of hard choices like that to make, but even living sustainably requires personal sacrifices for the good of society as a whole. What we would like is for everybody to take that into their consciousness and make that decision themselves, rather than having laws that enforce it. There are certainly ways that we can do that through education, fighting poverty, birth control.

              I think that when we see the impacts of murder we can learn the harm that it causes. Again I don’t think it is our nature to just want to murder people, because our empathy kicks in much more often than our rage. We don’t need the threat of a supernatural punishment for sins against a creator, we simply need to use our empathy and compassion to know that harm that our actions cause in this plane of existence and that this has consequences to us. There are of course some people in this world whose wealth is so massive that they live a life without consequences. These are the people generally causing a good portion of the suffering even if indirectly. Their massive greed is clearly immoral, and no divine decree is also needed to study how greed harmfully impacts a society.


            8. You keep bringing things back to murder, but I agree with your main point that religion isn’t needed to keep us from going around killing each other. I’m not disagreeing with that. I’m asking if you believe that a more complete morality can be derived from evolution. Either you do, maybe something like “I should behave in a way that ensures the survival of my descendants in perpetuity”, or you think that it doesn’t matter, that evolution instills our morals and we just sort it out together. From your comment, I think you believe the latter, that our inborn empathy, compassion, reason, etc. are sufficient to provide as much moral guidance as we need.

              Fair point that atheism doesn’t lead people places. I was looking from the other side, that it’s not prohibitive in any sense. Regarding the one child policy, with forced sterilizations and abortions, it would certainly be deemed immoral by Christian standards.

              Let’s leave the patriarchy and the “who’s committed the most atrocities” contest out of this discussion. I think we’ve gone on long enough.

              Liked by 1 person

            9. My only point is that sometimes one act can seem immoral, because there is a larger immorality that the activity is happening in context of. That is all. I think there are lots of examples of these kinds of things. For instance stealing is wrong, but if someone is in extreme poverty and steals bread, one has to ask what is the larger context that has left a society with the inequality of some people being very well fed and others hungry?

              I think in terms of the two choices you gave it’s sort of both. As I said before another species might simply have a different morality, or might have at least a different starting point based on the way that species survives. For instance a species that just has 1000’s of babies hoping a few live might see things differently than a social primate that has one or maybe 2 children at any one time who are fairly helpless at birth. I would hope that any sufficiently intelligent species might converge towards a similar morality in preserving life in general when possible.

              So evolution does give us the starting point, but clearly we are going to ponder these things more deeply. Context changes, and thus our emotional hardware might lead us in a different direction. The goal is ultimately the same though. Maximizing cooperation for survival requires us to act in a way that doesn’t sow things like mistrust and anger into a society. And as I said the context changes. Abortion wasn’t terribly anti-Christian for a long time in Christianity, it is only recently that this has been in the case, but if we look at why abortion happens, we know that abortion happens far less in societies that support families and with adequate resources to provide for the young. A society that does not make that as an important value is also causing harm. And while I agree that forced sterilization is wrong. I would also say that forced pregnancy is also wrong. And that certainly happens. My point is that there is a lot of complexity to the issue of child birth. Overpopulation and poverty also causes great suffering. It can lead to famine and death. Abortion, at least to me, seems like a less harmful option in many cases. You can ask my mom if she thinks abortion should be a right or not. She would say yes based on what she sees in Pakistan, even if she wishes things could be different.

              That being said there has to be some fluidity to morality as well. Clearly we are going to try to be thoughtful and perhaps even codify our moral values. Religion has been on place for this, but there are also clearly secular sources of trying to decide what is moral and what is not. A lot of those texts have been borne of critiques of religious practices.

              Evolution as a whole has given us some good starting tools. But I do think that we need things like laws. Without a law that says murdering is wrong, I don’t think we’d all go around murdering but it’s important as a group to codify what we value and perhaps just as importantly have an agreed upon solution about what we would do with someone who has committed that crime. There are good and bad solutions to this, and even those solutions depend on context. Because with time we’ve learned of better and worse ways to deal with people who commit crimes. I think historically religion has played an important role in helping to codify moral values, but we can keep the baby and throw out the bathwater. We don’t need threats of hell, or the idea that we are angering some deity by immoral acts. We can see the harm of those acts within the society we live in. And yes I do think that what we feel in our interactions and observations in our everyday life, inform us more than divine revelation on what is moral than what is not.

              Liked by 1 person

            10. Also I forgot to mention that it’s not constitutional (at the federal level) to discriminate against atheists holding public office. And one day it will be challenged at the level of the supreme court and will be removed. However, there is a reason why no one has done so yet, and that’s because people know in those states they have no chance of winning an election for public office as an open atheist.

              Liked by 1 person

  9. I mean clearly there was a time in our evolution where we had no religion, or at least no religious law and we somehow managed to not murder each other with reckless abandon.

    This is a point that just doesn’t seem to “gel” with believers. Believe it or not, folks, there was a time prior to the bible. Even if one insists that “the beginning” is one and the same with the bible story, the people described after A&E were relatively civilized. Yet there are multiple archaeological records of primitive peoples who would hardly be called “civilized.”

    Yes, there were probably murders among these tribes … but no more than those recorded in the bible.

    Liked by 1 person

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