Making sense of religion, science, and morality

Here’s an interesting discussion. And unlike many in this area – one that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it’s because the participants are all non-theists so are not encumbered with ideological baggage.

Atheists On Religion, Science, And Morality (The Point)

The discussion is between Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine, Theoretical Physicist Sean Carroll, and Edward Falzon (author of the parody Being Gay Is Disgusting). There are also brief video inputs from James Randi, PZ Myers, and AJ Johnson.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist: A Panel of Atheists Discuss Religion, Science, and Morality.

17 responses to “Making sense of religion, science, and morality

  1. My favorite bit was: “we start with nothing, so we start with the presumption of equality”


  2. Funny, I heard that as a statement, followed by a correction. After all equality is not nothing, is it?

    I think Sean is basically correct in saying that while religious ideas on morality are a disaster atheists have not yet developed their own ideas sufficiently and that is a lack. Mind you I don’t think that or anything else is a task for a atheist “movements” as such.

    My feeling is that a lot of progress has been made in understanding human morality (and we can’t separate that understanding completely from a prescriptive moral system). It’s been made in fields like psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience. We should be starting to pull those separate trends together. I think a very reasonable and sensible understanding of morality can result from that.

    In the process I believe we can provide an objective basis for human morality which is satisfying from an emotional viewpoint (and concepts of “right” and “wrong” have a huge emotional component).

    I am quite pleases Sean made the criticism he did, although I think many atheists could have one more to advance a realistic moral system.


  3. I don’t think moral behavior and moral systems are the same thing. Regardless of system, we have evolved to have virtually the same behavior.

    So we need codification of moral systems. There I think secular moral systems are virtually complete on the societal level – democracy (promotes societies with well being together with free markets and social medicine according to Hans Rosling’s Gapminder statistics), social medicine (as per the previous), legal and policing systems, human rights.

    The complement, which isn’t necessary but seems to be a social need, is private moral systems akin to our forming our own purposes. I don’t think ethical systems can ever pretend to sufficiently guide moral behavior, they are too inflexible, but they are great at an institutional level. (Say, ethical codes for research or other works.)

    I’m quite settled with “tit-for-tat with slight forgiveness”, it works well in game theory. (But see the new results on forcing behavior and how to force back.) If that is too high brow and too little emotional, I can recast it as “do unto others, respond in kind, but be kinder”.

    Now this won’t fill the social need, it likely it is the discussion more than the results that people feel is missing. Also, having the framing goals (say, human right policies) is not the same as having the strategies and tactics, so there is that vital discussion to be had.

    But atheists are barely starting to organize themselves, while maybe humanists have been there for a long time. So maybe there is where the discussion is at.


  4. Also, we should keep in mind there is this current meta discussion of atheist and skeptic movements and gender equality & sexism. While there is no statistics that I know of, it is likely that these movements are as bad as the society in general. However that may be, the perception of these social behaviors or their lack thereof apparently is a let down for many involved.

    While others like me would not be surprised about any result when and if it gets quantified. Being intellectual and/or tending towards intelligence, as these movements tend to be, just means you have a higher capacity for deluding yourself and others. Wishing something doesn’t make it so.

    But we have also the greatest invention ever available to us, or as Feynman points out, science is the means that we have to avoid fooling ourselves. So with some actual data, there is a moral meta discussion to be had. What can we do, not to discuss morality at large, but to improve our own morals? Having a better basis than the religious, and having a better outcome in secular societies, is not enough in the reticulate case – we need specific empirical feedback too.


  5. “Funny, I heard that as a statement, followed by a correction. After all equality is not nothing, is it?”

    You may be right. Still “equality” is a pretty random starting point, and I uspect not one all (or even most?) atheists would agree upon. Where did he get his respect for the idea of equality from I wonder? Was it from some cultural influence? It is certainly not a universal cross-vcultural value historically or even in modern times.


  6. “Where did he get his respect for the idea of equality from I wonder? ” – you would have to ask him seeing the question is specific to him.

    Most people develop moral intuitions through passive learning, via their culture, reading, etc. Some others do it more actively.

    However, there is an objective basis within human nature – we are an empathetic, social, intelligent and sentient species. We have developed values based on initial biological values which enable us to draw logical conclusions if and when we rehearse the arguments and consider the situations.

    But, Max, there was not a basic presentation of ideas of human morality in that discussion. I think everyone agreed with Sean that this still requires a lot of work.

    Personally I think it is possible to put together what we already know to present a realistic and rational picture of human morality, its origins and its objective basis. I personally think we have made more progress than Sean implied.


  7. “Most people develop moral intuitions through passive learning, via their culture, reading, etc.”

    Which for most of the peope you or I know is Christian culture. We often take forgranted things like “equality” and care for the weak as though they were “natural” or “neutral” starting points. Often atheists will state their “neutral” starting points with no awareness that the only reason they have these startingpoints is due to centuries worth of culture which they reject! Somewhat ironic.


  8. Yes, Max, you just illustrate how Christian chauvinism prevents understanding because it prevents seeing reality as it is.

    Consider over the years how many people have learned passively about racial equality, gender equality and sexual preference equality by reading and watching TV. They certainly haven’t got it from a church – most don’t attend a church.

    Our modern moral norms have resulted from a struggle against Christian culture. And it continues even here today with marriage equality. In front of your eyes if you will only open them.

    For most people morality is not a conscious issue. It’s very much an intuitive, emotional issue. We operate in the auto, subconscious mode most of the time (all the time for some) and that is influenced over the years by our cultural experience, TV films. Literature, etc.

    As for “starting points” – where do you think they come from? Surely it’s a case often of current ideological organizations reflecting natural intuition rather than forming them.

    The commonly recognized values, like our holidays, existed long before Christianity. The later has simply stolen them and claimed them as their own – how dishonest.


  9. “They certainly haven’t got it from a church – most don’t attend a church.”

    Lol. I said nothing about going to Church. I said that the whole culture is influenced by a Christian history. Including television and news papers.

    What you think of as “intuition” is in fact a result of growing up in this culture.

    Atheists often appeal to ideas like “equality” as their starting point, but can give no reason other than “it feels rights” or “my intuition tells me” or something else as wishy-washy. Not much of an answer to the culture which says that the strong should dominate and enslave the weak and that their intuition tells them this is right.

    It would be nice to think that our nice middle class anglo-saxon values are timeless and all people in all places have shared our intuitions… but I have to burst your bubble. Study some classica – or just read the Old Testament and you will get a pretty good idea that in other places and times what you see as “intuition”: was not intuitive to anyone.


  10. > Interesting admission – “the whole culture is influenced by a Christian history” and ” > the culture which says that the strong should dominate and enslave the weak and that their intuition tells them this is right”.

    Atheists often appeal to all sorts of things. The word simply describes a tiny feature of a huge number of people with all sorts of values and irrational beliefs and values. It’s amazing to me how some people are so arrogant they think they”know” what all these people think and do. Mind you, I also observe the same people know what their god, who is undetectable and outside space and time, thinks. And strange how he always thinks the same way they do.

    Yeah right.


  11. Weak Ken – weak. Why take two things I have said and place them together as though I had linked them? Very weak and dishonest. Hardly worth carrying on.


  12. Come Max, don’t sulk.

    I thought you were on a high after attending Sunday church and wanted a wee argument.

    Don’t back off now.


  13. OK. Fine. We can keep talking if you are lonely. So why did you edit what I said to misrepresent the point I was making?


  14. Lety me try:
    Interesting admission:

    “Atheists often” ….”irrational” “arrogant” “and outside space and time”

    Wow Ken – that is an astounding and strange admission of yours!

    (see what I did there? Chopping out bit of what you said and making it seem like you said something weird…. clever huh?)


  15. Sorry Max. Sunday’s over. It’s now a working week so no time for childish sniping.

    This week I want to write a few posts developing Sean’s ideas on morality a bit. He has a recent post on his blog discussing subjective morality which is interesting but I think the ideas should and can be developed further.

    You are welcome to comment on those posts – hopefully seriously.


  16. Good,. I will wait until next weekend for more of your childish sniping,. Look forward to it.

    My post was serious. Your unwillingness to read what I wrote and your silly editing to make it look like I said something else just kills what could otherwise be an interesting discussion. Why do that?


  17. Max, my first post of a series of 3 or 4 is up tomorrow. Hopefully these will provide something more substantive to enable more relevant and meaningful comments.


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