A Monopoly on Morality

Posted: April 19, 2015 in atheism, morality, religion
Tags: , ,

I have always had a very strong sense of morality. As a child, this actually proved somewhat problematic, as I wanted the world around me to reflect what I thought was “fair”. Trusting my instincts in distinguishing between right and wrong came naturally, but determining the best route for obtaining fairness, equality was not so easy. This is because nothing in the world is distributed evenly. That’s just part of nature. For every resource, tangible and intangible, the distribution ranges from a tropical rain forest of wealth and diversity to the scarcity of the barren deserts.

Food. Shelter. Energy. Jobs. Access to health care. Monetary wealth. Intelligence. Creativity. Wisdom. Genetic fitness. In all these things and more, there are individuals with an abundance and individuals barely scraping by. These dynamics are what have driven the processes of life. The struggle for survival means that those with greater access to resources or greater ability to obtain resources in scarce environments will outlast the “weak”, and over time life evolves to take advantages of the many niches which specialized adaptations allow individuals to take advantage of.

Even when I did not fully understand these processes, it was simple enough to recognize that life is hard for some and relatively easy for others. Less intuitive was the recognition that while circumstances may never be entirely fair, finding some semblance of balance is entirely possible and even necessary for the survival of the human species. If everyone were to act selfishly, seeking only their own best interest without thought of others, the “strong” would quickly overtake the “weak”. We are, however, a social species and we form collective communities. In these communities the weak usually outnumber the strong and can together place pressure on the strong to share resources for the greater good of all.

This makes it beneficial for the strong to be receptive to the needs of their peers, as failure to share could lead to their being ostracized from the community. While that individual may be adept and capable, survival alone is far more difficult than when provided the added protections and support of a herd or flock. It makes sense then that highly social species adept in tool use and reasoning skills would develop an ability to feel empathetic and have an entirely natural desire to help and support members of their community.

I understand this now, but as a child, I couldn’t possibly fathom these concepts. I had no way of knowing that my “moral compass” was an intrinsic part of my own being, a natural evolutionary adaptation increasing chances of successful interactions within my community and survival of the species as a whole. So it should come as no surprise that I believed my parents when they told me that my “conscience” was not really my own, but rather a “still small voice” that communicated with me what was right and wrong. As I listened to that voice and followed it’s instructions, I would become more sensitive to it and more in tune with what was right.

Sound familiar? It is a common teaching across all Christian denominations, and a few other religions, that there exists a moral absolute. That communication of the choices that will be in keeping with these absolutes comes from a divine being outside ourselves. It then follows that this divine being is intimately interested in our lives and wants to guide us toward success. It also follows that we must be naturally prone to choose wrong, or this divine being would not need to communicate with us and guide us in the right direction.

The idea of a God likely stemmed from the attempts of early humans to understand how they intuitively “knew” which choices were “right” and which were “wrong”. The “Ten Commandments” of the Old Testament could ultimately have been derived from the “common sense” of those who felt a sense of empathy for their fellow man. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness. Thou shalt not commit adultery…. — Just think about each of these for a moment, and even if you come from a background with no familiarity with the commandments, you can intuitively recognize that these “commandments” are “right”.

Your instincts tell you that it is BAD to kill your neighbor. But early man did not have the understanding of ecology, psychology, evolution, behavior, etc to explain why everyone felt the same little “voice” telling them its wrong to kill. And “God” was born… Unfortunately, the idea that morality comes from a God instead of coming from ourselves results in some terribly erroneous assumptions about human nature. It has led to the almost universally accepted idea (within religion) that people are wicked, disgusting, horrible, terrible, sinful, EVIL creatures. It has led to the belief that “God” holds a monopoly on morality.

This is a dangerous, dangerous belief. Since it is assumed that only God is truly moral and good and perfect, and since humans have a natural desire to BE and DO good (because of empathy), then individuals will find themselves particularly driven to follow whatever doctrine they’ve been raised to believe accurately portrays the desires of their divine authority. It takes a charismatic, manipulative, and at least somewhat crazy individual to take up a position of power and authority on “God” which individuals will gather around. As such, belief systems are littered with false teachings that empower the individuals who’ve claimed leadership and convinces followers to go through with actions they would otherwise recognize as immoral.

Furthermore, when persons within a religious community come to recognize the inherent problems and seek to regain harmony with their personal moral compass, these individuals are accused of rejecting the “only” right path, the “only” truth, the “only” moral code and painted as evil, sinful offal to be avoided and ostracized. Those who’ve been heavily indoctrinated are often incapable of even entertaining the concept that morality comes from within. To them, the idea that empathy is all it takes to make a determination between right and wrong is preposterous. They do not realize that these individuals rejecting the concept of God are not rejecting moral character. Quite the opposite.

We are inherently moral creatures. Empathy is a common trait in social species, as this produces an evolutionary advantage. It is time to cast aside superstitions and fairy tales. The voice which tells you the difference between right and wrong is YOUR voice, and it is empowering to know that you are good… all on your own.

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