The Evolution of Morality

Guest Author: Jason Kelley
One thing about theism that has struck me as quite an interesting phenomenon is the idea of morality and the way it evolves over time for different peoples. When we look at history we can see several different paradigms of morality, starting with the ancient Greeks and the morality that existed there. The civic belief that duty to ones city was of the utmost importance or the sexual belief that laying with young men was not only pleasurable for both, but also beneficial. The application of slavery was acceptable and often necessary in order for a society to move forward or to punish an enemy. We can move to the Western European societies of the Middle Ages where the divine right of kings to rule with absolute authority was acceptable, and that it was not only socially unacceptable to peak out of your social status but immoral as well as it “put out” your “betters”. Again we an view some societies that even exist today where women are not expected to participate in public discourse in any way shape or form other than of the property of a man. Even in our society in the United States we struggle with moral choices that may seem to us so obvious in the year 2010, but were not always so.

The one thing that each of these examples has in common is the introduction of a theistic worldview, or the view that a personal deity or deities presided over the earth and dictated what was right and wrong to humanity. If anyone were to ask the Greeks why it was acceptable to enslave your rival they would point to the justice of the gods and how if they were not meant to be enslaved, they would have won. To ask a king why he was chosen to be king, he would explain that god gave him the power and wealth necessary to achieve a lofty position. Again with the treatment of women as property, a divine law by the supernatural instructs us to relegate women to mere objects rather than people. So how is it in the year 2010 most of the modern world has moved beyond these archaic thought processes and taken on a morality that is more beneficial to a great number of people?

The answer can be found not in religious texts but rather in secular philosophy and ethical studies. Rather, the answer has been found in spite of religious ideals. In every single one of the examples above we have religious texts espousing the very ideals of slavery, totalitarianism, chauvinism, violence, and a general rule of “us versus them”, with “them” being anyone that you happen not to like. We can take for example Mr. John Stuart Mill and his work with the idea of utilitarianism. His ideals are not perfect, in fact far from it, however we can see a moral and political philosophy that does not require the existence of a theistic being, but one that is founded on reason and the idea of utility to society by and large. Without going into detail on utilitarianism, it is plain to see that the ideals of this philosophy advocate the equality of women, the abolition of slavery, and the advancement of society as a whole as opposed to a few. This is but one example of a secular philosophy achieving a better moral standing than that of the theists.

How this is relevant to our world today in a modern society in a country founded on the equality and liberty of all is all too clear. It took until the 1700′s for rumblings for a free society and equality of women to begin to burst through the surface into mainstream political dialogue in the Western world. This movement away from theological law has taken us to a place where women have the right to vote and attend schools, slavery is outlawed in all developed countries, minorities have equal status as citizens, the divine right of kings is known for the farce that it is, and pedophilia is looked down upon and for good reason. However, when we look for an answer as to what took so long, when we stop and ask ourselves “what stood in our way to such an obviously better world?”, all one must do is turn back the page to the Greeks, to the Feudal Lords, to the antebellum South, or sometimes cast a glance to the Middle East.

The answer is religion. Clinging to religious ideals has retarded the moral progress of the human race beyond measure. True, there are several religious figures that have fought and died for the rights of the oppressed, but for every martyr there are several more that held their religious belief high and proclaimed moral authority. One doesn’t have to look beyond the Catholic church in our current times to see the pains that archaic law have inflicted upon the world (especially the worlds young Catholic children). We can turn to the Middle East where women are treated as objects due to thousand year old writings on what a man can and cannot do to his property, or how much he should sell his daughters off for. We can turn to the United States, the most religious country in the world where homosexuals are denied their Constitutional rights or where in some parts of the country you may find yourself under attack for laying to rest a deceased serviceman or woman.

There is hope for our world though, a hope that morality can evolve beyond Bronze Age mysticism and absolute authority from the supernatural. History shows that as secular philosophy advances, so too does theistic morality. Where once it was necessary to slay a non virgin bride this is no longer always the case. Where once it was against the law to take a slave from his master it is now against the law to own a slave. Where once it was the norm to be jailed for speaking out of class lines, we are now encouraged to. Theists claim absolute morality and that they have the incontestable word of god and that this god’s morality is absolute. Funny how god’s moral code changes over time after secularists introduce a new morality, isn’t it? Make no mistake, all of these changes are secular first, and romanticized into religious ones after the fact.

Addition added by AtheismResource.com from a reader (TONY) in regards to bad parenting…

GOD IS A BAD PARENT

I have a child, and, as much as possible, when she was far too young to really understand why I forbid her certain “options”, I did my best to limit her access to them. Such as, for instance, rather than simply declare, “Do NOT stick the fork in the power outlet!”, I covered the outlet with plastic plugs that she could not remove. Or, instead of “Don’t drink the blue juice!”, I locked the Windex® in a cabinet she could not open.

This was, of course, done out of love for her, and the desire to protect her from harming herself. I think that makes sense, and, it seems to have worked. She’s 11 years old now, and knows not to stick a fork in the outlet or drink Windex, for rational reasons, now, so I no longer need to limit her access to Windex, forks, or power outlets.
On the other hand, handing her a fork at the ripe age of 2 and painting a smiley face on the outlet to make it enticing to feed, well…How much sense would that make?
That would be a lot like, say, making sex feel good and making women beautiful, and then telling me not to copulate with them, or, even something as simple making shellfish and bacon tasty, and then burning me in Hell for eating them…

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  • George O'Brien

    Moral relativism is mostly a philosophical dead end, but saying that does not mean that theistic based ethics based on written scriptures are better is not better.

    If we thought of ethics as system people use to define the "rules of the game", it is not that hard to find a starting point in a mutually agreed upon code. Almost every culture has a set of rules for everyone and a set of rules for particular people. You don't need Moses giving you a commandment that says "Thou Shall Not Steal" or "Thou Shall not Murder". Without such rules no society can survive.

    What is not universal are those people you can ethically rob or kill. It is not surprising that mutuality is not enough for those who want exceptions IN THEIR CASE. Take the beliefs of every society and take what they all believe out and what is left is typically the basis of conflict. "Go ahead and kill your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend. Do it in in the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end."

    Truth is not found in written documents, but in looking at whether the ideas make sense.