No problem for atheism 9

We much admire Dr. Jordan Peterson when he talks about politics. We agree with all we have heard him say on political issues.

We do not agree with him on the subject of morality as he discusses it here;

Our arguments against Dostoyevsky’s young villain-hero Raskolnikov are too numerous to set out here. Enough to say that one person’s need for something is not a reason why another person should give it to him.

But to come to why Dr. Peterson cites the novel:

He agrees with Dostoyevsky’s declaration (made in the novel by Raskolnikov) that “if there is no god then you can do whatever you want”. He is willing to substitute the word “higher value” or “transcendent value” for “god”.

To explain why he agrees, he asks: “What the hell is irrational about me getting exactly what I want from every one of you whenever I want it at every possible second?”

He adds:  “It’s as if the psychopathic tendency is irrational.”

He asks: “Why the hell not ‘every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’?”

These are arguments very often put against atheism. They are not difficult for an atheist to answer.

He thinks that atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins* do not realize that the ethics they take for granted are predicated on a long tradition of moral principles encapsulated in the myths of religion. The myths convey, down through the ages, the “higher”, the “transcendent” morality – which, he says, “can be personified in the idea of God”.  Those moral principles, he suggests, are not just divinely revealed, they can be said to define and constitute the Divine itself.

The implication is that at certain moments in ancient history, revelations of some “transcendent” moral truths were imparted to certain men. If not by a god at least from some source of divine wisdom. And because these come from that “higher” source, they are the right guides for human behavior.

He is referring of course to the “moral religions”. Most religions contain no moral precepts whatsoever, if the meaning of “moral behavior” is behaving well towards our fellow human beings.

So let’s examine the moral precepts of the moral religions. Convention has it that there are three of them: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Some oriental religions such as Buddhism and Jainism command your right behavior towards others, but to serve a different end: not in order to benefit them for their own sakes, but entirely in order to put a shine on your own soul.)

Islam may as well be excluded straightaway. It commands Muslims to be good to other Muslims, not to anyone who is not a Muslim. Dr. Peterson is unlikely to include that idea in his notion of transcendent values.

What does Judaism command? That you love (respect) your neighbor as yourself, and that includes even the stranger in your midst. That is sensible. Enlightened self-interest requires the same thing. Judaism is essentially a religion of law. Law is good. The Mosaic laws forbid murder, theft, false testimony, adultery, and covetousness. Divine revelation was not needed for law to forbid murder, theft, and  false testimony. They were forbidden in far more ancient secular codes of law, such as the Hammurabi Code which was written down some 600 years before the Mosaic law is alleged to have been revealed by Jehovah through Moses to the Children of Israel. As for adultery and covetousness, they are not punishable by law or despised by custom in our time. As to the rest of the Jewish religious laws, a reading of the “books of Moses” is very unlikely to support the view that they are of “transcendent” value, fixed stars in the moral firmament by which we may be rightly guided forever. They forbid homosexuality, for instance. Is that a transcendent value?

And then there is Christianity. It too forbids murder, theft, false testimony, adultery, covetousness and homosexuality. It commands you to love (love) your neighbor, to love everyone, to love all mankind however unlovable your neighbor, or your enemy might be. It commands you to forgive sinners, though you may condemn the sin. It demands, in other words, the impossible, and discards the genuinely and supremely moral idea of justice. It recommends self-abasement and self-denial. It asks human beings to act against human nature. Transcendent and eternal values?

No. The bodies of myth that compose the scriptures and moral commandments of certain religions do NOT set a guide to right behavior, or supply a bedrock of moral values.

To answer Dr. Petersons’ remaining arguments:

What is stopping you from getting anything you want (“forcibly” is implied) from everyone else whenever you want to, is the will of everyone else. Your self-interest is best served by taking into account that everyone else is necessarily serving his own self-interest just as you are, and your survival and the satisfying of your needs depends on taking this fact into consideration. Or, as we put it in our own Articles of Reason: My liberty should be limited by nothing except everyone else’s liberty. That is rational. Mankind would not long have survived if many people had not understood the selfish need to tolerate and co-operate with other people. Rational self-interest keeps most of us  from living by the maxim “every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost”, because if we did we would be likely to die by it.

Finally, to want to get what one wants from everyone else is, he suggests, a “psychopathic tendency”, and that, he says, is not irrational. But what does “psychopathic” mean if not a sickness of the mind – a breakdown of sanity, of the capacity to reason? If psychopaths are the example of what we should not be, who would disagree?

Our final answer: no god ever spoke to any man. No moral precepts come from a divine source.

All are man-made.

None are set in stone.

Every moral idea, like every other idea, needs to be examined by reason.



* In the case of Richard Dawkins, we would concede that his Leftist principles derive from Christianity. In our opinion they are not good.

Posted under Atheism, Ethics by Jillian Becker on Wednesday, June 28, 2017

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This post has 9 comments.

  • Pingback: The Atheist Conservative: » The moral messages of religious myths (2)()

  • Cogito

    I offer two points to consider.

    First, as I have posted earlier – is an action good or bad because god commands us to do it or not, or does god command us to do it because the action is good or bad in and of itself? If the latter, then whether something is good or bad is a standard that is outside of god. Therefore, god cannot be the source of morality. QED.

    Second, Jillian states that Judaism is a religion of law. This is true, some laws are reasonable, some are idiotic rubbish. But islam is also a religion of law – sharia law. Christianity likewise is a religion of law. It steals essentials from Judaism and adds other silly notions as loving your enemy. But fundamentally these all are law based faiths. The source of the law in each is (they believe) divine.

    • Your first paragraph, Cogito, bears on your second. Greeks and Romans (Alexander the Great for one if I remember rightly) were astonished to find that what stood in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple in Jerusalem, behind curtains, behind doors which only the High Priest could open, was … scrolls of the Law. Nothing but the scrolls of the Law No statue. No god? The god was there as the spirit of the Law. Only one spirit of the Law could logically exist. Judaism was entirely a religion of the Law. Great. The laws of course were man-made. Some of them reasonable, as you say, most of them ritualistic and some of them, Oh yes, “idiotic rubbish”. Eg. “Thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.” Okay, so no milk may ever be consumed with meat. So no milk may ever be consumed with … chicken. I wonder which of the old law-writers thought he saw a chicken lactating for its young? But that’s by the way. Judaism comes nearest to exemplifying what Dr. Peterson means by the highest values being in themselves divine – fixed, permanent, “transcendent” – or even (“if you will”) the Divinity itself. ‘Fear God and obey his commandments” – fear and obey. Because the people feared, they obeyed.

      St. Paul, the author of Christianity, declared that the law had been superseded by the sacrifice of the Christ. Christianity in its beginnings was antinomian. It was only much later, a century and more after St. Paul’s death, that the Church Fathers found that law was indispensable, and adopted the Jewish moral law into the new faith.

      A brave apostate from Islam who comments frequently, informatively, and intelligently on our Facebook page, explains correctly – in commenting on the Dr. Peterson video clip – that to found his religion (with himself as the big cheese), Muhammad took a whole lot of ideas from Judaism, and “made a mess of them”. Almost the only precept in the Koran that chimes with the moral laws of Judaism and Christianity is the one about “he who saves a single life saves the whole world”. (I am quoting from memory, but that’s the gist.) It is the one quoted as “proof” that Islam is “a religion of peace”, a “beautiful religion” by those Western infidels who desperately try to defend the indefensible. But even the authors of the Koran admit, in the very same sura, that it comes from the Israelites! And the precept is not reflected in sharia, the body of laws inseparable from Islam.

      So yes, Judaism is a “law based faith”. It is a faith soaked through with law. It is all law. Christianity is a religion which somewhat reluctantly included some aspects of Jewish law in its doctrine. Its highest moral principle is love, not justice. That was the nature of its revolution against Judaism. It cannot be accurately described as a religion OF law, only as a religion WITH laws. And as for Islam – yes, indeed it is a religion of laws. Laws that prescribe how its devotees must do every single thing that a person does in his life. It is the most totalitarian ideology ever imposed on poor suffering mankind. It has no highest principle other than obedience to Allah.

      Apart from which, I do not think that Dr. Peterson proves his passionately argued case that there is, for the awakened person, a fixed, permanent, “transcendent” principle or value, borne by a body of religious narrative, down through the generations, through all the ages, a star by which we may be guided to do right.

      • Cogito

        Jillian, I have no significant disagreement here. I think emphasis is the difference. Islam owes a great deal to Judaism. It’s penalty of stoning to death for such offences as apostasy, homosexuality, filial disobedience, adultery are lifted out of the Hebrew Bible. Misogyny too, of course. I’m reminded that many orthodox Jews still thank God daily in a prayer that they are not born a woman.
        But to give Judaism its due, I have yet to find an Old Testament sanction for paedophilia!
        As to Christian love – if love is universally bestowed, it empties love of any meaning I think.
        But all this is beside the point. The original question was if human morality is dependent on divine dictate or divine inspiration. Despite Jefferson’s and Dostoevsky’s affirmation, I believe that Socrates has demonstrated that this is simply false.

        • I agree with all you say.

          Socrates taught mankind the most valuable of all lessons. Scio nescio.

      • liz

        I can think of one principle that has stood the test of time, being first (I think) recorded by the Greeks -(maybe the Egyptians and Persians), then finding its way into both Judaism and Christianity – the “Golden Rule”:
        “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
        It is the basis for such commandments as “thou shalt not kill (or steal)”.
        Of course, we didn’t need a god to teach us that – it’s basic logic and common sense. Seems to have evaded alot of Muslims, though.

  • liz

    Yes, interesting argument, implying we have to rely on religious myths to be moral. He thinks if you take those away, there will be no foundation for morals – but the foundation for the myths themselves was originally the rational thoughts of human beings, which were later co-opted and enforced by religion, as Tim H explained.

  • Tim H

    An excellent post, and lots of food for thought here.

    To assume that the laws of religion predate society is (I believe) a mistake. I believe that the laws that are codified in some religions are the result of the evolution of societies from small family units to groups of strangers living together in communities, and the communities that did not have laws against murder, theft, etc. did not survive. The laws we have now that are considered “universal” or “natural law” are simply the laws that enabled societies to survive.

    The laws were then incorporated into religion as an enforcement mechanism. If your goal is to prevent murder, the easiest was to go about that is to convince potential murderers that they not only will be punished by mortals but they will also be punished by a god or gods.

    Of course, being religious does not stop people from breaking the law. Are the prisons around the world full of atheists?

    • I’m still laughing at the question at the end of your comment, Tim H.

      Thanks for bringing us these interesting ideas – more food for thought.