Does morality need a God?

I’m re-posting and extending an FB post from yesterday.

In a recently viewed online ‘conversation’ a contributor agreed to be arguing that as an ‘atheist’ (I’m actually an atheist, so I’m not quite sure what he is) he could interpret social morality to his own advantage.  He appeared to be arguing that he could appear to conform, appear to be the nice guy, by making use of conventional moral expectations essentially to screw other people.

Somewhere in the turbid rationale there appeared to be an idea that for morality to exist it had to have some supernatural element – a God or, in the terms of the on-going argument – a Santa Claus.

As someone who was raised in the Christian tradition but went on to discount the existence of the Christian – or any other – God, defining a morality involved a lot of thought and heart searching. I knew that doing what was right did not depend on the expectation of an afterlife or on being afraid of some boogeyman who, as a god, was represented as being less merciful and less forgiving than I was as a mere human.

Yesterday I finally put some of my thoughts on record. I was over-tired, awake with insomnia and had imbibed/was in the process of imbibing a tad more alcohol than is usual for me, so I wondered if what I had written was affected. It doesn’t appear to have been. Essentially – I may tweak a little here and there – this is what I wrote:

Real morality has nothing to do with the supernatural. Real morality is simply pragmatic. For me it comes down to this:

All animal species are at some level social species. Humans are possibly the most social species of them all. According to the leading lights of ethology (the study of animal behaviour {I think}) there are far more instances of co-operation in the animal kingdom than there are of predation. Look at pilot fish attaching themselves to whales, the oxpecker bird on the back of a rhino, bees carrying pollen, birds transplanting seeds and many, many, many more.

We are a co-operative species, a species in which each individual is inexorably connected to others. Imagine, for instance, being born and – whilst having your physical needs met – never named, never spoken to, never interacted with. You would never know who you were, never form an identity. Others give us our names at the start, others define our sexual identities (congratulations – it’s a boy/a girl) and from that point on we are dependent and we are vulnerable.

Very simply put, that interdependency results in this: I cannot steal from you without, in effect, sanctioning stealing. I cannot rape without sanctioning rape. I cannot lie without sanctioning lying. It is the key to the concept, here expressed in Christian terms only because it is memorable and succinct, that you must do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

I cannot judge you for doing to me what I have done, or allowed to be done, to you or to others. I cannot steal a man’s land or his wife without implying sanction to anyone who would steal another’s land or wife.

That is how I know what is right. If I wouldn’t want it done to me, I don’t do it to anyone else. No god, no spirituality has anything to do with this, it is merely a method of living life in some degree of comfort and security.

I cannot live entirely for myself, simply because there have been and will be times when I will depend upon others. Given the richest parents in the world and the most comfortable surroundings, fed on the best possible diet, receiving the best of medical attention, one could not survive without the input of other people and if one were the socially ignored individual without a name, receiving no words, no thoughts of others, clinically tended but socially completely isolated, no amount of wealth would undo the psychological damage of being cut off from what, in the end, is most human.

Nor, given that wealth, given great material success and comfort, can I live to the end of my life without having to depend on other people. Ill or old I will need others’ care and support, and in a society which consisted entirely of the self-serving I might pay for that support, but its quality ultimately depends on the nature of those providing it.

To live selfishly and self-aggrandizingly under the pretext that the non-existence of a supernatural power means that morality is a fiction I will, ultimately, pay a price for it. Not on a day of judgement among the clouds, but among my fellow men. Unsympathetic, I should expect no sympathy. A taker, I should expect to have taken from me. And it will be my doing.

Moreover, to live so, I would deny myself that which is actually best about being human, the ability to give, the pleasure of receiving from those who wish to give, the ability to love and to be loved.

My morality is real. I have behaved, in my own view, immorally on occasion in the past and will not repeat the same mistakes. I will not do to another, or watch done to another without some attempt at intervention, that which I would not want to have done to me.

As to what is moral, the starting and principal question for me is; who is harmed?

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