Fake Morality

by Eliezer Yudkowsky2 min read8th Nov 2007104 comments

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Ethics & Morality
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God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes.  If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from murdering each other left and right?

Suppose Omega makes a credible threat that if you ever step inside a bathroom between 7AM and 10AM in the morning, he'll kill you. Would you be panicked by the prospect of Omega withdrawing his threat?  Would you cower in existential terror and cry:  "If Omega withdraws his threat, then what's to keep me from going to the bathroom?"  No; you'd probably be quite relieved at your increased opportunity to, ahem, relieve yourself.

Which is to say:  The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not.  If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.

If Overcoming Bias has any religious readers left, I say to you: it may be that you will someday lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral direction.  For if you fear the prospect of God not punishing some deed, that is a moral compass.  You can plug that compass directly into your decision system and steer by it.  You can simply not do whatever you are afraid God may not punish you for doing.  The fear of losing a moral compass is itself a moral compass.  Indeed, I suspect you are steering by that compass, and that you always have been.  As Piers Anthony once said, "Only those with souls worry over whether or not they have them."  s/soul/morality/ and the point carries.

You don't hear religious fundamentalists using the argument:  "If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from eating pork?"  Yet by their assumptions - that we have no moral compass but divine reward and retribution - this argument should sound just as forceful as the other.

Even the notion that God threatens you with eternal hellfire, rather than cookies, piggybacks on a pre-existing negative value for hellfire.  Consider the following, and ask which of these two philosophers is really the altruist, and which is really selfish?

"You should be selfish, because when people set out to improve society, they meddle in their neighbors' affairs and pass laws and seize control and make everyone unhappy.  Take whichever job that pays the most money: the reason the job pays more is that the efficient market thinks it produces more value than its alternatives.  Take a job that pays less, and you're second-guessing what the market thinks will benefit society most."

"You should be altruistic, because the world is an iterated Prisoner's Dilemma, and the strategy that fares best is Tit for Tat with initial cooperation.  People don't like jerks.  Nice guys really do finish first.  Studies show that people who contribute to society and have a sense of meaning in their lives, are happier than people who don't; being selfish will only make you unhappy in the long run."

Blank out the recommendations of these two philosophers, and you can see that the first philosopher is using strictly prosocial criteria to justify his recommendations; to him, what validates an argument for selfishness is showing that selfishness benefits everyone.  The second philosopher appeals to strictly individual and hedonic criteria; to him, what validates an argument for altruism is showing that altruism benefits him as an individual: higher social status or more intense feelings of pleasure.

So which of these two is the actual altruist?  Whichever one actually holds open doors for little old ladies.

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God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes. If we did not fear hell and yearn for heaven, then what would stop people from murdering each other left and right?

many (most officially i believe) believe that we are justified by faith alone and that divine grace comes without our own action. this is why calvinists generally accept predestination. there are some really byzantine logics which allow believers in this to still live lives which accept a de facto element... (read more)

2thatoliver8yCertainly in the British charismatic mainstream, of which one of my parents is a member, the accepted notion is that the only decision which has any bearing on your eventual judgement is whether or not you "accept Jesus as your saviour". I get the feeling that this is an even less useful philosophy than the "bad folks go to hell" line, as God -in his infinite wisdom- has essentially cancelled himself out. However, the result is that Christians who accept this tend to be more genuinely altruistic than those who still believe the celestial carrot-and-stick are in play, because they at least follow their own moral conscience rather than a set of fixed laws.

The point about the two philosophers is fantastic! Using religion in an attempt to make people act right out of fear saddens me.

If I thought there were a God, then his opinions about morality would in fact be persuasive to me. Not infinitely persuasive, but still strong evidence. It would be nice to clear up some (not all) of my moral uncertainty by relying on his authority.

If you think there is a God, you should only regard Its speech about morality as direct evidence (that is, bring your own opinions into correspondence) if you have reason to believe that Its utility function or other moral criteria resemble your own and that It is being honest with you. Natural selection has some goddish properties (such as being our creator), but we don't say regard the outputs of evolutions as evidence because we don't regard inclusive fitness as a good validator of moral arguments. In other words, some particular process being labeled "God" doesn't suddenly create a free ride with respect to moral advice, any more than Suicide Rock.

0ochopelotas9yTrue but on the other hand, we're left with moral relativism as you yourself pointed out in your babyeaters parable. The only reasonable thing we can say about morals wrt to any posited God is that morals given by a God are an absolute guideline as defined by a "higher authority". The systems of laws we have evolved as guidelines today in western countries are not bad in terms of maximization of benefits for most of the population, but they are subject to corruption by free-riders and those who seek to change the rules for their own benefit even if others lose. Any case, good post.
2thomblake9yAppeal to God doesn't really push in either direction on moral relativism, as Socrates showed with the Euthyphro question [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euthyphro_dilemma]. If X is moral because God says so, then morality is just whatever God says it is, and thus morality is just as objective or relative as it would be in the case where morality is whatever I say it is. And if God says so because X is objectively moral, then I could just as well say so because X is objectively moral.
-5blacktrance7y

Robin, and that would be a good use for religion. I had to lose one (a religion) because of the fear factor-- I didn't lose my morality (as Eliezer predicts), but I'm not sure anybody knows God (assuming existence) well enough to speak for him. That was incredibly difficult for me to accept for a while.

A true fundamentalist would say that you're not rationally justified in behaving morally - you just do it because of force of habit or social convention.

Any idea where the lie that rationality equals self-interest comes from?

Overcoming Bias DOES have a religious reader left. Me. I'm a philosopher with strong interests in political philosophy and philosophy of religion. I had several problems with the post:

You say that if we lose our belief in God that we won't lose our moral compass altogether. But that isn't the only issue for the theist, it's also whether the moral compass will point in the right direction all the time. If I become an atheist, I might still believe that murder is wrong, but I won't believe that a respect for the sacred is particularly important, and I'll pro... (read more)

4rocc5yWhen theists worry about losing sexual morality, it is because we are theists. Some of the reasons we think the world would be better if we are chaste depend on us preferring God to be happy than to be sad, the world being equal. If God could take some happiness pill, we'd want Him to. That reason to be chaste would apply less if God were less important than He is. As such, our actions would displease the real God more if we believed God was less important. That means that believing God is less important would cause us to act in ways that we now consider worse, if we acted as would be right if God mattered less.
3RichardKennaway5yClearly, the most important work for humanity is to invent a wireheading machine for God. After that, we're free to do anything we like.

Selfreferencing, I know that there are many religious people who would declare that God cannot, even in principle, convert torture into an act of inherently positive value. That's why I specified "religious fundamentalists" on this particular post.

Calling it a "caricature" is unfair, though, because there are sincerely religious people out there who use that argument.

The point about the two philosophers reminds of what Nietzsche wrote:

"He that humbleth himself wishes to be exalted."

There's really no downside to letting people use the bathroom more often. It doesn't harm me at all if my neighbor decides to violate the stricture.

If the punishment for murder is removed, or the belief that murder will be punished ceases to be generally retained, then it is entirely likely that my neighbor may wish to murder me, and that decision has lots of consequences that concern me greatly.

People who believe that societal indoctrination is necessary to get people to accept certain principles, and that religion is an essential part of that indoctrina... (read more)

2danlowlite10yIf your neighbor uses the bathroom more often, they use more water (not only by flushing, which may be considered inevitable), but by washing their hands perhaps more than necessary (going to the bathroom twice instead of once) and using anti-bacterial soap, which could lead to stronger, resistant bacteria. Of course, the use of said soap might result a long-term difficulty and the results would not be immediately apparent. So not only must an act have consequences, but those consequences must be reasonably immediate and apparent (and, as stated in Eliezer's main post, necessarily negative). A current human morality system could not track the actions and the consequences. An omniscient god (or being) would be able to measure the harm. Further it would be able to track the consequences of ones actions. My use of anti-bacterial soap could cause a MRSA infection in someone else and kill them. I do not think anyone (except aforementioned omniscient being) would be able to say I caused that infection on purpose. And yet, that person is still dead. A key here is intention. But unfortunately, we can harm and even kill others without intending to and yet we are held responsible. I would rarely think, say, a drunk driver would intend to get into an accident, but we punish them anyway because they intentionally increased the risk we all experience on the road. But that risk (one that includes drunk drivers) is something we all assume, anyway. So wouldn't an accident victim also be culpable. That seems distasteful. So, an immoral action must have a negative consequence that is reasonably immediate and apparent and must have been done intentionally, or at least without an undue amount of risk outside normally applicable ranges. But that's probably not right. Does it exclude god? No, because that belief isn't necessary. It doesn't exclude unicorns, either. I guess the gist of what I'm saying is that you need to be careful with your soap.
0ochopelotas9yGod punishment isn't needed, just punishment is. It's simply that God-punishment is more difficult to challenge in the courts.

Selfreferencing: unfortunately there is an enormous gulf between "most theists" and "theistic philosophers". If you don't believe this then you need to get out more. Perhaps in the U.S. South, for instance. It might be irritating that most theists are not as enlightened as you are, but it is a fact, not a caricature.

I'm pretty sure, for example, that almost everyone I grew up with believes what a divine command theorist believes. And now that I look back at the OP and your comment, I notice that in the former Eliezer continually says "religious fundamentalists" and in the latter you continually say "theistic philosophers", so maybe you already recognize this.

I'm a theist...and I'm not offended.

Unlike my fundy brethren, my understanding of faith has been largely formed by the writings of 20th century existentialist theologian Paul Tillich, who conceptualized faith as the state of being ultimately concerned. Meaning, in essence, that faith is that end or purpose towards which we direct our lives, and which provides a framework from which individual actions can be given valuation. Clearly, non-theists can have faith and normative structures, but their morality is contingent. It is by necessity grounded in eith... (read more)

Eliezer said: "If Overcoming Bias has any religious readers left, I say to you: it may be that you will someday lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral direction."

He's addressing all religious people here, right? I responded to this comment as a theistic philosopher.

Further, specifically to Eliezer, I consider myself a religious fundamentalist (many Christian philosophers do), so I took him to be addressing me on that score as well. I guess I don't know what you mean by it. Plantinga suggests that most people who us... (read more)

The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not. If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.

What a religious person realizes with such a fear is that truth matters – just not in a sense one would assume intuitively.

Phi... (read more)

You wield the word fundamentalist like an accusation, as if fundamental principles are to be avoided. Stop that.

Also, please be aware that very few people will assert that our moral compass comes wholly from a fear of punishment. Biblically speaking, people were generally expected to know the difference between right and wrong. That is our inheritance, of course. Mankind has eaten the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, see? ;)

When God-worshiping fundamentalists say that God is the source of all morality, we do not mean that we are conscienceless crit... (read more)

selfreferencing, skyfort, David Williams, Thank-you. I've always been an immortal spiritual being. Unfortunately my experience with religions has not always been all that religious and I can relate to what Eliezer is saying here. (using religion to spread fear bugs me-- I don't feel the need to be afraid at all.) It is a pleasure to read that you have gotten a better understanding from your theological studies than I got--perhaps I have some bias to overcome before I can see what you do. Thank-you again.

Hmmm. I used to be a Southern Baptist and since my turning to atheism I most certainly have lost much of my sense of morality. I'm far more of a moral relativist than I ever thought I could become and I find myself seldom convinced by anything that attempts to appeal to morals based on tradition. But by and large my actions in my day to day life have not changed one bit. God (and what my parents taught me) was my moral compass. Now that compass is gone and I have no moral navigation, but I'm still walking in the same direction I was before out of habit. I'm not sure how I feel about that at all. =/

Religious communities of people seem to have more of a "moral compass" than non religious ones, judging by my experiences of living in the UK and the US. The poor in the US South are far better people than those in the UK, I think as a result of still having some kind of religious identity. Wealthy middle class intellectual workers are pretty much the same anywhere, whether religious or not, but the poor and struggling need an emotionally satisfying story which gives them a reason not to turn to drugs, desperation and violence far more than they need welfare handouts.

Eliezer Yudkowsky says: "If Overcoming Bias has any religious readers left, I say to you: it may be that you will someday lose your faith: and on that day, you will not lose all sense of moral direction. For if you fear the prospect of God not punishing some deed, that is a moral compass. You can plug that compass directly into your decision system and steer by it. You can simply not do whatever you are afraid God may not punish you for doing. The fear of losing a moral compass is itself a moral compass. Indeed, I suspect you are steering by that... (read more)

This is a strawman.

You seem to be suggesting that "fundamentalists" (whatever that means) believe God's rules for moral behavior were printed out single-sided, double-spaced and delivered as an appendix to the ten commandments or something. This isn't how religious people, at least Christians, think about morality at all. A Christian would say that God has imprinted his concept of morality on you, so when you talk about "natural law" or "aversion to murder," you're talking about God's word on the subject.

Also, the emphasis o... (read more)

@ Jacob Stein:

What do you mean by control, and what are your criteria for it? Modern Europe doesn't seem to be experiencing much mass murder right now, for instance. If you mean a society with no theists at all, then you're making a rather narrow claim that doesn't really have many implications.

Also, why do you think "atheistic" is the relevant category? Stalin and Hitler didn't kill millions out of a lack of direction; they did so out of bad directions: Communism, and racist Fascism, respectively. Why aren't their positive political beliefs... (read more)

"You know, in some ways your post boils down to the same silly thing you hear when Christians, say, oppose marriage for homosexuals. "You're anti-gay, you're probably afraid you ARE gay." You're saying, "You're afraid without God everybody would commit murder. You probably think YOU would commit murder." Yawn."

Darin, if being gay is a choice for you, and you enjoy sex with men, but choose to abstain only because God says it's not OK, you're not just afraid you're gay, you are, in fact, at least bisexual.

Which is OK, man, it's ... (read more)

You're saying, "You're afraid without God everybody would commit murder. You probably think YOU would commit murder."

"You" element-of "everybody".

Again, this is not a strawman, this is an argument put forth by (admittedly only some) theists that without believing in judgment everyone loses their moral compass, therefore you should believe in God.

Having the 'divine judge' to 'help one keep oneself on the strai(gh)t and narrow' doesn't make god the source of the morality, or necessary to it. By the same token, the laws against murder, and punishment under those laws, do not define the morality or immorality of killing, they just enforce it using collective means. Society collectively (or the majority of individuals in it individually, or the leaders individually or collectively) determined/defined/believed that murder is wrong enough to warrant state action. Having murder be banned by law does no... (read more)

I think a genuine altruist, or even most self-professed altruists, would not make the sort of argument described, or at least not primarily. They would argue that the world as a whole is better if more people are altruists, and that therefore people should be altruistic even if each individual suffers as a result of his own altruism.

Actually there is an (almost explicit) contradiction in the way most religions talk about morality and god.

I'm most familiar with christianity (specifically catholicism) but I believe the same goes for most major monotheistic religions.

1) They claim that morality arises from god, i.e., they wish to define morality as obeying god's commands.

2) "God is good," is an explicit part of their doctrines.

The tension here is obvious. Clearly the members of the religion take themselves to be saying something substantive and meaningful when they all intone ... (read more)

The problem with religious belief, as Sam Harris has observed at length in "The End of Faith", is not so much belief in God as belief upon bad evidence in anything. Did Stalin and Hitler champion free debate? Or did they command, as does the Old Testament:

"If your brother, the son of your father or of your mother, or your son or daughter, or the spouse whom you embrace, or your most intimate friend, tries to secretly seduce you, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods," unknown to you or your ancestors before you, gods of the pe
... (read more)
-3MugaSofer8yThat is absolutely true, and yet somehow you just compared him to a nazi. So much for godwin's law.
0MugaSofer8yWhy the downvotes? That wasn't criticism!

If I thought there were a God, then his opinions about morality would in fact be persuasive to me. Not infinitely persuasive, but still strong evidence. It would be nice to clear up some (not all) of my moral uncertainty by relying on his authority.

The problem (and this is coming from someone who does still believe in God, so yes, OB still has at least one religious reader left) is that for pretty much any possible God, we have only very weak and untrustworthy indications of God's desires. So there's huge uncertainty just in the question of "what doe... (read more)

"I'm sorry, Morman was the correct answer."

~South Park

Jacob, cannibalism isn't a religion, per se, and I don't know of any modern religions that include it. Satanism is a worship of self, despite the shocking name, and doesn't have any belief in any diety. Perhaps if you spent half the time reading up on other beliefs that you spend on denouncing them, you'd be slightly more informed.

Jacob Stein:

"Are religious societies better? Cannibals and Satanists, perhaps not, but it's a tough call. Orthodox Jews, Quakers, Mennonites, probably yes."

Well Jacob it's just such a coincidence that you'd say that, because I am a cannibal satanist! Cool, right?

Anyway, the reason I bring it up is you say that Orthodox Jews and the like have better societies, but you are a jew, aren't you? (There's probably a bias or something there, I dunno). But since I think (to paraphrase Selfreferencing) that we're naturally motivated to seek Satan and that ... (read more)

1) They claim that morality arises from god, i.e., they wish to define morality as obeying god's commands.

2) "God is good," is an explicit part of their doctrines.

There's no tension between these two statements, and "God is good" is meaningful. :) Statement #1 follows directly from Statement #2. Swap the numbers on those statements and you'll have the right of it.

Tom makes an excellent point.

eats a baby and fornicates with a goat.

Thank Satan for my moral guidelines.

(Doesn't Leviticus condemn eaters of shellfish and wearers of polycotton blends right next to homosexuals? Why aren't there picket lines at Red Lobster and Ralph Lauren? Doesn't it also outline that having sex with your slaves is ok, as long as you compensate the buyer for any depreciation you caused by doing so?)

Have you ever tried to find a copy of "Lolita" by Nabokov in a public library?

3 copies, 2 available in the Santa Clara City Library.

Tom, clever as it is to substitute antonyms, you're a liar. :)

(When ever people knowingly worship demons, it is because they feel that the "dark gods" will actually get things done.)

Eliezer, if you had been raised a Yanomamo you would not consider murder to be so horrible. You use prohibitions on using the bathroom as absurd, as of course they are because nobody here believes that. If people were genuinely taught to believe that God hates using the bathroom at that time as an abominable sin, we would fear it. Many religious people who do not accept a biological basis for homosexuality think its the result of a decadent and insufficiently religious culture which is turning their precious children gay. Most atheists think this is absurd... (read more)

1Ghatanathoah8yI believe the a sizable portion of Yanomamo killings are revenge killings, which indicates that Yanomamo do think murder is something really horrible. Otherwise, why risk life and limb to avenge/deter it? Chagnon also stated that occasionally Yanomamo tribal leaders took measures to prevent warfare, such as deliberately underproducing and overproducing certain goods in their village in order to give them an excuse to trade with each other, making it easier to cement alliances. He also recounted that more cool-headed, logical members of the tribe (Kaobawa was one he talked about a lot) seemed to better understand the inherent problems of killing and took action to prevent war. This indicates that Yanomamo are probably psychologically normal in their response to violence, and the reason they are so violent is due to local conditions, not because (as I think you imply) humans are blank slates who only dislike killing if they're taught to. Also, there is considerable controversy over whether the portrayal of the Yanomamo as so incredibly violent is accurate, although I did not have time to figure out which side of the debate was correct. No one is disputing that, the question is: Would we keep fearing it if we then learned there was no god? We probably would still exhibit fear behaviors due to cached thoughts, but it seems likely to me that our conscious minds would know that those fears were irrational.
1wedrifid8ySpecifically: It really sucks when it's done to you. "Live by the long-stick-with-sharp-rock die by the long-stick-with-sharp-rock!"

TGGP,

Utilitarian buys into Pascal's Wager and thinks that Christianity wins in that calculus, but admits that Christianity is almost certainly false in the process of calculation. Most religious people would be unwilling to say that there is less than a 1 in 1000 chance that their religion is correct.

"is less than" rather.

Ramble, ramble, ramble stone. Morals as means of control work quite well. Forbidding drugs and alcohol can be used for keeping people fit for their religious chores. Not killing somebody can mean do not kill anybody from my group but kill the other (the threatening entity). Kill the one who takes away my food (and supposedly my livelihood). Kill the non-believer. Kill the outsider. Happens all the time. Ryman has got a point (Nov 9th, 12.33) … God punishes not murder per se but he punishes murder of a person in his own group. It does not matter if there i... (read more)

gutzperson: good points - it is all about increasing fitness and social control. You will find reading the following paper quite interesting: Selection of Organization at the Social level: obstacles and facilitators of metasystem transitions. Particularly chapter four: Social Control Mechanisms.

For a rationalists reason for going from atheism to a belief in God see www.biola.edu/anthonyflew/index.cfm

For the scientific case for the existence of the soul see the books 1)Mario Beauregard "The Spiritual Brain, A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul" (This book is written by the leading brain researcher on spiritual experience and is suitable for non-experts) 2)"Irreducible Mind" by Kelly and Kelly et.al. (This book is writen for psychologists and advanced students-- assumes some knowledge of philosophy and psychology-- the authors inform me that they have no current plans to write a similar book for the general public. It is worth the trouble 10 times over in my estimation)

I would like to query Flew's 'rationalist' reasons. Please read this article by Mark Oppenheimer about Anthony Flew in the NYT. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/04/magazine/04Flew-t.html

Jacob Stein said:

"I mean societies where the government has officially endorsed and encouraged atheism."

Well, then, we agree! The government should not officially endorse or encourage atheism. I would go so far as to say that the government shouldn't have any opinion on the subject.

Would you agree with me that many other, religious ideological governments share many problems with militantly atheistic ones? (The Inquisition is a classic example.)

I suggest that you read 'Religion in the Public Sphere' by Juergen Habermas.

You can download this as pdf from http://www.sandiego.edu/pdf/pdf_library/habermaslecture031105_c939cceb2ab087bdfc6df291ec0fc3fa.pdf

gutzperson-- I read the article. I am not surprised that there are self-interested parties that are making more of what Flew has said than what he has actully said. (A sad reality when passions are so thourghly engaged.) It seems to me that his basic point, there must be an underlying intelligence to this universe, was shared by Newton, Planck, and Einstein. It appears a belief in God does not hinder one from understanding the universe better than anyone that came before. That is not an arguement for the existence of God though, is it?

2AndyCossyleon10yEinstein was a pantheist. He had no belief along the lines of a personal God meddling with the universe. Quote: "I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." Also relevant: "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death." Einstein belongs solidly in the ranks of the freethinkers and not of the religious.
0byrnema10ydouglas said that Einstein believed in an underlying intelligence to this universe, not that he believed in a personal God. In your opinion, is belief in an underlying intelligence to this universe not belief in God?
0Paul Crowley10ydouglas is clearly mistaken on this point as the quotes Andy produces illustrates - pantheism does not posit an "underlying intelligence to this universe", it is as Dawkins describes it "sexed-up atheism".
0byrnema10yAndy selected a few quotes that show Einstein did not believe in a personal God. Einstein may have been a pantheist, but only to the extent that pantheists can believe in an "underlying intelligence to this universe" -- because from what I can reconstruct from Einstein's quotes, he did believe in something like that. For example, this quote from an atheist site [http://www.atheistempire.com/reference/news/other/Einstein_Religion_spirituality.html] : Also, Theist sites claim that Einstein believed in God, and atheist sites claim that he didn't, and I read the same quotes in both places. Belief in a non-personal God doesn't seem to have its place, and doesn't seem to be well-understood.
1Paul Crowley10yHmm, interesting, thanks! I have to conclude that Einstein wasn't thinking very clearly about the whole thing...

Stefan Pernar Thanks for the links. Interesting texts. I am dreaming of an anarchistic world . Just chaos. Just dreaming. Fearing that anarchy might only work for a metasecond. All this social control scenarios make me feel like an adolescent who wants to break all the rules.

It appears a belief in God does not hinder one from understanding the universe better than anyone that came before.

Since Newton explained away discrepancies between his models and the observations as an example of God needing to adjust the clockwork now and then, he missed the opportunity to realize that his equations predicted the existence of previously-unobserved masses. So I wouldn't be so quick to claim that deistic thinking doesn't impair understanding.

Caledonian- I agree that Newton missed opportunities to improve his models. That was not what I said, only that his belief in God didn't hinder him from doing better than those that came before.
Here's an odd question-- If we took Newton as an example-
Which is currently a greater hinderance to scientific understanding-
A belief in God, or a belief in a materialistic/mechanistic description of the universe?

"God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes."

I suppose this may be a true position for some southern baptists or the like, I won't claim to know the normal religious arguments of every sect or region, but I've never heard it stated from anyone religious, only the "formerly religious" or the non-religious. So it seems like a bit of a strawman argument to me.

From my own "religious fundamentalist" position, a contrasting argument would b... (read more)

1Polymeron10yThis does not negate the proposition that divine command theory is false. By your argument, what is good is not because God decreed it; God decreed it because it was good. That is the opposite of divine command theory. Rather than a contrasting argument, you are actually supporting Eliezer's conclusion - albeit by a different argument.

No library in my area has Lolita and Netflix won't even send me the film. http://www.netflix.com/Movie/Lolita/709389?trkid=189530&strkid=1144472631_0_0

Douglas, how can it possibly be sensible to "take Newton as an example" of what are currently, 400 years later, hindrances to scientific understanding? So yes, it's an "odd question" indeed.

We don't have any way of knowing whether Newton's belief in God made it easier or harder for him to improve on those who went before him, because we don't have access to an alternative universe with an atheistic Newton in it. Is anyone actually suggesting that theism makes it impossible to do good science? That would obviously be insane, so I rather doubt it.

@Jacob Stein:

"Actually, it would be hard to beat Pol Pot's Cambodia and present day North Korea."

Fair point, as far as extent is concerned.

So perhaps there really is something about most religions that excludes the very most evil and dangerous ideologies. On the other hand, that hasn't stopped people from engaging in protracted, bloody holy wars. Religion might act as a brake, but it's not a very strong brake.

And I still don't see why "atheism" and "religion" are the relevant terms, as if atheism were itself an ideology. Ma... (read more)

"God, say the religious fundamentalists, is the source of all morality; there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes."

That semicolon contains a big jump. Most people who believe in some higher power do identify that power with good, or morality, or perhaps merely as its source (morality is a gift from God, therefore, without him there would not be good). However, "there can be no morality without a Judge who rewards and punishes" - you seem to define that as to mean that most religious fundamentalists believe that... (read more)

What's immoral about suicide?

A more appropriate subject of investigation would be comparing the homicide rates of atheistic vs. theistic regions. Care to guess what the results are?

Calcedonian:

The empirical evidence using micro datasets that I have read about does dispute much of the theory about religion and morality. Prison populations are much more religious than average. The Southeast has higher crime rates, etc. There's even the aphorism that "there are no atheists in the foxholes." The people who we, as a society, pay to kill people have higher religious service participation rates. On the other hand, charitable giving is perhaps higher among believers. My point there was that overall is that one of the most com... (read more)

Atheism is not a religion, but its an attitude

No, it's a position on a truth claim.

Jakob Stein
“Atheists simply adopt the teachings of the surrounding culture, since that's the most comfortable thing to do. …
Atheism is not a religion, but its an attitude which tends to include cultural moral relativism, hedonism and narcissism.”

This is a quite damning and prejudiced statement on atheism. There is not one ideology of atheism, though. This is the nice thing about atheism that it does not adhere to an ideology. I am a very cultured, ethical and social atheist who does not want to become part of any ideology that is oppressive. I am a... (read more)

Nabokov: 2,996 libraries have at least one of 107 editions. Three libraries within ten miles of me have copies, including one with an audio edition. You can find your closest here: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/289704

Atheism is not a religion? Tell that to Athe! I could understand saying that agnoscticism is not a religion because it does not make a religious claim, but merely an epistemic claim, but to say that an explicit belief that God is non-extistent (incoherent though that is) is not a religious view, nor a form of religion, expecially when it is organized as a religion and conducts prostelytic campaigns with fundamentalist fervor -- well, that's just disingenuous.

1MugaSofer8yI thought "Athe" is a joke, a fictional goddess worshipped by Athe-ists? Besides which, it could be argued that it is possible to have a religion that endorses atheism - some forms of Buddhism, for example - but atheism itself is no more a religion than monotheism, polytheism, or dualism. I suppose this would change the analogy to "curly is a hair color". Of course, definitions may vary.

It's a religious view, obviously, in the sense that it's an opinion about a subject generally classified as religious. As to whether it's "a religion", equally obviously that depends on your definition since "religion" is so flexible a word, but it seems to me that you have to bend it a long way before classifying atheism as a "religion" starts making any sense. Atheism lacks, for instance, belief in superior spiritual beings; ritual observances; a code of conduct [note: that doesn't mean that individual atheists have no moral... (read more)

“nor a form of religion, especially when it is organized as a religion and conducts prostelytic campaigns with fundamentalist fervor –“
Where are these prostelytic campaigns with fundamentalist fervor? Religious groups are omni-present and they interfere with everybody’s lives and concepts. Sometimes they are quite threatening. I have to come across a bullying atheist yet, who wants to convert others more or less forcefully. There are some atheistic organizations (not religions) in the USA and Europe, but they are not really trying to convert the... (read more)

Selfishness is not in proportion to salary. Satisfaction and general happiness with personal values and their achievement however, is. If a person is happy to accept a job that pays less but that he himself perceives as a personal value is selfish. Accepting the higher paying job which is not in accordance to your values or against them is like selling your values to the highest bidder. If you allow your non-values to feed you and your kids, contradictions will develop. That would be a sacrifice, because in objective reality, good is that which sustains li... (read more)

Which is to say: The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not. If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.

If someone built a complicated morality system around the morality of God and suddenly changed it, they ... (read more)

2byrnema9yWould you be willing to summarize your view in a couple sentences, even if doing so would result in a caricature of your position? The main idea I drew from your comment is that when we think about how murder is immoral, this feels like something different than just that murder is not in our best interest (even after folding in that we have self-interests in being altruistic). Another way of putting this idea is that while I currently have no motive to murder --- you wrote: sometimes people are motivated to murder. Presumably I could be motivated to murder, and in that case, why shouldn't I? If there was a higher moral authority, I might find that the moral authority compelling enough to tip things in favor of not murdering. However, without that moral authority I'm free after all. I think the effects of the absence of a moral authority is more obvious in more mundane aspects of life, especially in cases where you are making a choice and one choice is not obviously more moral. Perhaps it is a complicated choice and there are positive and negative moral consequences with either choice. In these cases, I feel that there are a couple 'moral compasses' working simultaneously. Some of them I would describe as more immediate and pragmatic, some of them are more deontological. There is one which feels quite distinctly different, which may actually point to an action that is not immediately intuitively moral but which nevertheless feels most like the right choice. Religious training causes us to recognize this different compass, call it "God", and trust in it. By studying religious texts that identify this compass and how it is different (mostly through examples) atheists articulate what is special about this compass and determine (individually, I suppose) if this compass is trustworthy and superior to the others. There are spectacular examples of religious people following a terrible wrong compass they've mistaken for God's (mostly in novels that I've read) but on t
1MrHen9ySomeone making a choice to do X is not necessarily making this choice for moral reasons. If (a) they are doing X for moral reasons and (b) you suddenly take away those moral reasons but (c) they continue doing X it does NOT imply that (d) there are more moral reasons lurking behind those mentioned in a. Furthermore, if you replace b with "they fear suddenly taking away those moral reasons", d becomes less likely. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- I don't understand this comment. Some people do murder. Do these people consider themselves immoral? To be clear, I was only talking about murder because the article did. Sure. My point was that the quasi-pragmatic behavior causer-thingy kicks in here, too. So does a complicated morality system. I don't have a problem with either of these things coming into play at a mundane level. What gets interesting is when the two systems collide. For instance, if a cashier accidentally gives me five dollars extra in change, is it more or less moral to return the change? Is it more or less pragmatic? This seems to touch the same topic as EY's last bit about the two philosophers. But I don't consider this terribly relevant to my original point (even though it is interesting.) This is slightly different that what you referred to as two moral compasses. While that is also interesting, I am currently fascinated by what happens when a moral compass disagrees with a non-moral decision making system. How does the contention get resolved? But this is mostly unrelated to my point. My point revolves around the idea that the moral and non-moral decision systems can -- and often do -- work in tandem. Removing the moral system and noting no behavior change implies more about non-moral system (or the alternative compasses) than it does about the removed system. This is similar to EY's point but I think the distinction between a moral reason to not-murder and a non-moral reason to not-murder is
0byrnema9yYou wrote that disbelieving in God is not going to turn someone into a murderer because there are still plenty of good reasons to not be a murderer. And your point was that there is a back-up system while they are rebuilding their morality. But I don't think this back up system is enough or that their morality will necessarily fully recover. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Anyway, I see now your model regarding two separate systems prescribing overlapping behaviors that to some extent would compensate for the other...but I don't see why theu would be afraid of losing one system other than because they are afraid they will lose their morality (and become murderers). What is the other reason for being afraid? I agree. I would guess these are exploring the development of moral intuitions in different directions with different emphasis. I guess each religion is the result of the developed moral intuitions of some group of thinkers, if not just one person, and if their versions of the God-source morality ring true to more people that religion will grow. In tiny towns one pastor can influence a bunch of people to buy into their version through charisma, but that religion will outlast them only if their version teaches itself to some extent thereafter without too much alteration.
0MrHen9yThis was intended to be a counter example -- not a description of how all people work. I can imagine that someone out there would very much become a murderer if they lost religion. Introspection is scary. Dismantling any large area of your belief system is also scary. I would expect that knocking over one's central morality system would (and should!) have drastic effects that would filter down throughout particular behaviors. My only point was that pointing at the fear of becoming a murderer (or any other particular thing) does not imply an external moral system which is what I read out of the original post. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The adaptability of a meme is related to truth but people often follow what they think sounds nice. Is there anything that makes religious beliefs immune to the dilemma of advertising or political rhetoric? A central God-source morality would imply a deeper, er, source. But is it theoretically possible that some other system of morality is at work that is just as (or appears as) common as what a God-source morality provides? (These are honest questions, but somewhat rhetorical.)

Blank out the recommendations of these two philosophers, and you can see that the first philosopher is using strictly prosocial criteria to justify his recommendations; to him, what validates an argument for selfishness is showing that selfishness benefits everyone. The second philosopher appeals to strictly individual and hedonic criteria; to him, what validates an argument for altruism is showing that altruism benefits him as an individual: higher social status or more intense feelings of pleasure.

The selfish argument for selfishness, or the altruist... (read more)

The fear of losing a moral compass is itself a moral compass

Doesn't this sound like a belief in belief?

I don't want God to be my moral compass, because I don't believe in it and I don't want my good behaviour (and others' behaviour, too) to be built upon a sand castle. But I don't like this foundation of morality, too: it sounds absolute, which makes it incomparable with others'. Also, what about sociopaths who don't have this moral commanding hard wired in their brain? Should them be allowed to kill?

I prefer to give value to human life, *just because I... (read more)

They're probably both actual altruists.

The second guy is just an altruist who doesn't trust that everyone else is altruistic, so he's trying to convince selfish people to be altruistic using selfish logic.

1spookyuser2yThe second guy is this guy https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0qjK3TWZE8
2elityre1y[removed]
3Raemon1yI think it's like, he trusts fear more than altruism. If he had said "hey, let's split, that's fair", the person might have just said "okay, sure", while lying. It wouldn't have been a hard lie, because the whole narrative is basically set up to facilitate it. By instead doing what he did, he throws the guy for a loop and gets him to commit to split out of fear, in a domain he didn't have an easy script for.

The first philosopher sounds like an egoist trying to convince altruists. The second philosopher sounds like a sophisticated egoist trying to convince vulgar egoists. I have to question the terminology, though - the goal of egoists is to win, so "acting selfishly" is whatever behavior benefits the egoist, even if it requires benefiting others.

To be fair the religious argument does make some sense. Even if the religious person does have a sense of morality that is separate from their own faith, other people might not. They could claim that the fear of hell, or weekly preachings about morality at religious institutions, or religious charities, etc, make many people far more altruistic than they would otherwise be and therefore makes the world better off.

I don't agree with this actually, but it's a very reasonable argument that is separate from the truth of religion or what moral values the person arguing it actually has.

[-][anonymous]7y 1

Blank out the recommendations of these two philosophers

Actually, this is precisely what I object to. Humans are rationalizing animals: without careful training in actual reasoning, we make up reasons for the conclusions we want. If one man finds ostensibly prosocial reasons to be selfish and another ostensibly selfish reasons to be prosocial, I conclude that the one recommending altruism is much more likely to actually hold the door open for little old ladies, but has perhaps been taught to believe that "altruism is irrational" or some such nonsense.

This article is part of Eliezer's anti-religion series, and all of these articles have the pre-written bottom line that religion is horribly evil and cannot possibly have any good effects whatsoever.

In reality, of course, being false does not prevent a religion from doing some good. It should be clear to everyone that when you have more and stronger reasons for doing the right thing, you will be more likely to do the right thing, and when you have less and weaker reasons, you will be less likely to do it. This is just how motivation works, whether it is mo... (read more)

2Raemon5yI think the rest of the series makes it pretty explicitly clear that Eliezer DOES think religion accomplishes the things you mention, and that there are important lessons we should learn from that.
The very fact that a religious person would be afraid of God withdrawing Its threat to punish them for committing murder, shows that they have a revulsion of murder which is independent of whether God punishes murder or not.  If they had no sense that murder was wrong independently of divine retribution, the prospect of God not punishing murder would be no more existentially horrifying than the prospect of God not punishing sneezing.

Well, not necessarily.

They may not have a revulsion to murdering, so much as a fear of being murdered. A religiou... (read more)