Fri | Dec 2, 2016

Morality doesn't prove God exists

Published:Monday | March 30, 2015 | 12:00 AM
White

In 'Why God might exist', published in The Gleaner on March 8, 2015, the Reverend Ian Boyne challenged the secular community to debate atheism versus theism. He proposed using morality to motivate the debate, based, perhaps, on his assumption that Darwinism, the alternative 'belief system' he uses to handicap atheists, could not explain morality.

The pastor's claim that God may exist seems to be built on the following circular argument: God is responsible for morality, morality exists; therefore, God exists. Obviously, the premise is based on God existing, which reduces the conclusion to nothing more than a rephrase of the premise. Who finds that persuasive?

There are no easy answers to Boyne's self-inflicted conundrum. Even a weaker corollary, morality has no natural sources and involves proving a negative, which is always difficult. And there are numerous counterexamples, hinting at a natural origin, which he would have to address. Take a core principle like 'Do unto others as they would do unto you'. It doesn't take much to conclude that if this principle were completely absent, humanity would likely be solitary. Who would live in a social grouping where insider attacks are arbitrary and constant?

Taking this further, we know that humans lived in societies, indeed large powerful civilisations, like the Chinese, the Sumerians, and the Mesopotamians, long before the mythical seance at Mt Sinai. We also know that civilisations existed before the arrival of Christianity in Europe, Africa and the Americas. Consequently, we can safely conclude neither the Ten Commandments, nor other biblical laws, could have been relevant to humans becoming social.

 

moral gaps

 

Everyone can point to the gap that exists between what we consider moral today vs what we see in the Bible. For example, we would consider Lot, the only supposed 'righteous' man in Sodom, to be especially immoral, and criminal, based on his willingness to facilitate the rape of his daughters. We treat mass murder, especially collective punishment, as fundamentally immoral and criminal. Yet, in the Bible, we have God, who should be setting the example, perpetrating The Great Flood, a global-scale mass slaughter. We also have God engaging in collective punishment, the mass murder of Egyptian firstborn, including innocent babies. And we have God appearing to aid and abet the mass murder of Canaanite populations, including domestic animals, only to facilitate a land grab.

It is possible biblical writers considered these acts moral. After all, they lived during the Early Iron Age, a time noted for its savagery. Today, through science, our lives are no longer nasty, brutish and short; we can afford to be more magnanimous. This is why most people, including apologists, pay lip service to moral absolutism. They know some principles must be adjusted to keep pace with the changing environment around us.

 

natural origin case stronger

 

If the case for a supernatural origin for morality is infinitesimally weak, unworthy of serious discussion, the case for a natural origin is much, much stronger. This is further bolstered by the observation of the precursors of morality in the behaviours of many non-human social animals. Ants, for example, without exposure to the Ten Commandment, seem to obey the 'Thou shalt not kill' in much the same way some of us do; they will not arbitrarily kill members of the same nest (family), although outsiders, even of the same species, are not extended the same courtesy. Chimpanzees and bonobos, fellow great apes, which share more than 90 per cent of their genes with us, are even known to display a rudimentary form of empathy and altruism, which is at the core of 'do unto others ...'.

This means that when we speak of morality in humans, we are not talking about a unique characteristic. We are talking about a characteristic with antecedents in other animals. Our form of morality is definitely more complex, but that could only be because we have evolved more complex brains. It is not necessarily an indication, as Boyne hypothesises, that we are a special creation, made in the image of a God he cannot prove exists.

- Patrick White holds a doctorate in engineering and led research groups at Bell Laboratories and Bellcore (Telcordia). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and rasta49@me.com.