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"I'm Your Deity, That's Why"

Will Wilkinson raises the old question of whether non-religious morality is possible. The claim as he states it is a factual one (whether people actually would act morally without God) rather than a moral one (whether morality can be justified without God) -- though people often use a sort of vulgar pragmatism to slide from the former to the latter. Such a move is basically a "noble lie" position -- it assumes that you and I agree that morality exists (whether for secular or religious reasons), but only religious reasons can keep the masses in line.

I can say anecdotally (corroborated somewhat here*) that the factual claim is untrue, as I know a large number of quite moral secular people. But I can see there being a little something to the religion-only viewpoint during a transitional phase from religion to a secularism. If all along you're hearing that God's decree is the sole basis of morality -- particularly if it's framed in the selfish-Santa Claus way of "if you're good you'll go to heaven, if you're bad you'll go to hell" -- then it's not surprising that an initial reaction upon deciding that God doesn't exist would be to give up on morality as well. (Indeed, I suspect the temptation of giving up on morality can be a motivation for questioning God's existence.) The fault here, though, lies not with the transition to secularism, but with the crude way that popular religion teaches ethics. A more mature ethical position, one going beyond an arbitrary "because I said so," would be more robust in the face of theological doubt. This is not to go so far as to say that religious people must justify their moral beliefs in purely secular terms, or even to give up on the divine command theory's central idea that God's can make anything he pleases moral or immoral. God's say-so need not be the only evidence of an obligation that he created any more than his say-so is the only evidence of a physical fact that he created.

While a person's morality can be expected to change when they undergo a religious change, they would be unlikely to decide they can kill babies and so forth. This saps the force behind the pragmatic appeal, since it's based on the threat that without religion, people will do things that even atheist hearers will agree are really really bad. So you're left with the relatively trivial assertion "if people don't believe in my religion, then their behavior won't match the details of my religion's commands."

*The Wikipedia article seems to be using evidence about the factual claim regarding how atheists actually do behave to address the moral claim that atheists have no justification for acting morally. This is an argumentum ad popularum ("millions of atheists can't be wrong about whether their behavior is justified").


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