The inherent immorality of religions

Previous: Book review: Sense & Goodness Without God Next: The Presumption of Agency

Human minds are moral computers

Contrary to what some religions claim, primates, apes and especially humans are not depraved and wicked by nature. Under normal, stress-free conditions, many animals show moral behavior such as altruism, empathy and reciprocity. We see stuff like defense of the weak, fairness, and cooperation. Humans, of course, have the most complex and wide-ranging evolved moral features. Some clever experiments have even managed to demonstrate moral behavior in infants.

Non-psychopathic humans, therefore, tend to act morally: they try to do what is best for their own survival and that of others around them. For a while, psychologists had trouble explaining on purely evolutionary grounds why humans are even kind to strangers but recent experiments help to explain this too.

While much of animal behavior is mostly reaction to their environment, humans have superior abilities of planning and abstract thought, allowing them to tackle complex projects involving large numbers of actors. The human brain is adapted to make complex rational decisions to determine the optimal actions for accomplishing its goals. At a pragmatic level, a human's whole life can be seen as one instance after another of considering, planning and performing actions that lead to human thriving, welfare and happiness; mostly his own, but where possible also those around him.

All that said, evolved human morals only get us as far as pack survival; a few "human pack" behaviors tarnish the "noble savage" idea a bit: blind obedience to authority can have bad consequences, and the same goes for in-group bias and pre-emptive attacks (remember the Operation Iraqi Freedom?). So what do we stand on when we make such judgments?

Because of our ability for abstract reasoning, we've recognized that morals are about well-being and harm. We can extend our evolved moral code by examining our behavior in terms of well-being and harm. It turns out that essentially all the actions we consider "good" is helping ourselves and/or other people to be healthier, happier, more secure... better. Actions we consider "bad" injure or otherwise harm people, or make them unhappy or insecure. Sam Harris examines this in considerable depth. Modern societies, therefore, give a lot of thought to what could be done to ensure the well-being of people in societies. Animals too, while we're at it - they can feel too, so they should at least get some consideration. Popular awareness of moral issues keeps improving. We've meanwhile even assigned stages to moral development.

Getting back to the human brain: you could say it is a biological machine for observing its environment and gaining knowledge from it, reasoning with that knowledge and considering and planning actions. As Richard Carrier explains in Sense & Goodness Without God (pp. 181-185), it generally does a good job both of perceiving reality and reasoning with it. The proof (grossly simplified) is in human survival: If the brain failed at either task, humans would have been eaten by tigers.

Garbage in, garbage out

But apart from often working less than rationally thanks to its emotional component, biases and inherent limitations, the human computer shares a "fatal weakness" with other computers: The quality of its decisions depends on the quality of its data. Given a smoothly working rational process, the "best" decisions require the best data, i.e. a collection of knowledge (or beliefs) that most closely mirrors the reality of the world. In general, there is no set of incorrect, i.e. reality-defying beliefs such that a human operating on those beliefs can reach "better" decisions than on the most realistic beliefs available, just like there is no alcoholic drink that will make us a better driver than being sober. If we accept that humans try to act in a "good" moral way, then the most moral possible human behavior requires the most realistic possible knowledge of the real world.

The moral obligation to truth

William Clifford's essay The Ethics of Belief illustrates how it is every human's moral obligation to assure himself of the truthfulness of his beliefs. Highly recommended reading!

Alan Sokal says similar things in a different way:

If you are sloppy about evaluating evidence, then you are ethically liable for the mistakes that you’ve made. [ ~45:00 mark ] The main point is … it’s important when you make claims about factual matters in the world, to understand clearly what is the evidence on which those claims are based and to and try evaluate that evidence as impartially as possible. [ ~45:50 mark ]


So if someone ignores or rejects the best available evidence -- or worse, they preemptively reject it -- then they are making an ethical error, not just a factual one.

How to find the truthiest truth

How can we arrive at the "truest" truth possible, the most credible assertions about reality? Let's look at what epistemology has to say about our mechanisms of quality control for beliefs. This is pretty standard philosophic fare, but I'm taking the following list from Sense & Goodness (pp. 53-60). Here, in descending order of reliability, are the methods of discovering truth, with summarized explanations:

  1. The method of reason. Within the realms of logic and mathematics, reasoning leads to the broadest, most complete and most consistent success. Basically, a proof based on reasoning, unless it contains errors, leads with certainty to a solidly correct result. Alas, pure reason only works this way on abstract concepts. Out in the real world, we need other methods:

  2. The method of science. Science is actually a collection of methods that take all the other methods of finding the truth and works very hard at quality control to achieve the highest standard of truth about reality attainable outside the method of pure reason.

  3. The method of experience. "Seeing is believing," so this method is "better" than anything that comes below. But human observation is open to some errors, such as hallucination or misperception, that make one's own experience less reliable than experience validated by scientific investigation.

  4. The method of history. If we can't observe an event ourselves, as is the case with historic events, our best bet is to apply critical historical analysis on reports from the past. We look for the most reliable sources and corroborate their information with other information, and that's the best we can do for past events.

  5. The method of expert testimony. If we don't ourselves have direct access to sources of information, we can consult experts for their knowledge and interpretation. That's essentially applying methods 2 through 4 second-hand. This method can be strengthened by ensuring our expert has the qualifications, agreement with other experts and so forth.

  6. The method of plausible inference. If we have incomplete facts, it's permissible to try to reach generalizations from those, if we're careful. Inductive logic, extrapolation, and interpolation of evidence and facts is how this is done. Sometimes this is the best we can do, but where one of the above methods is available, we should scrap our results for those from the "better" method.

  7. The method of pure faith. To quote Carrier: "... refers to basing beliefs solely on tradition, hearsay, desire or mere speculation. That is, faith in this sense is trusting what we are told, or just 'guess' or want to be true, without requiring any proof. In other words, believing an ungrounded assertion."

The wording of this last and least trustworthy method of arriving at ideas about the world of course leads us into... religion.

The dubious truthfulness of religions

For the purpose of this discussion, religions satisfy this simple dictionary definition:

The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, esp. a personal God or gods.

That handily includes the Abrahamic faiths, Hinduism and a few others, but excludes some forms of Buddhism and Taoism that are essentially philosophies and do not involve supernatural entities.

There is no way to prove the supernatural claims of religions, because if they were available for verification they would be part of the natural world, and thus not supernatural. At their most honest and when pressed for proof, all religions break down to admit: "you've got to have faith."

In other words, the ideas of religion come to us via the weakest of all the seven methods listed above!

Outside of pure faith, there is no reason to believe that Yahweh or Vishnu pre-exist the universe, any more than Zeus or Thor or Ra. On the other hand, the anthropology of religions yields strong evidence that religions (and their deities) are the inventions of humans:

In 1841, Ludwig Feuerbach was the first to state the anthropologic principle that every religion is created by the human community that worships it.

Faith-based beliefs and their effect on moral behavior

Thus, when we include religious claims in our belief systems, we run a high risk of including false information, especially when such claims contradict information that we arrive at by one of the other methods. On a basis of false beliefs we cannot act more morally than on beliefs based on reality. Any of the other methods of arriving at knowledge are better suited to yielding correct data than pure faith is.

So what happens when we accept beliefs on faith? Let's look at Christianity simply by expedient of it being familiar to me and a majority of readers. Here are a few examples, of beliefs once held by earlier, less enlightened Christians:

  • Women are less valuable than men, and should be subservient to them.
    Today we consider such an attitude as misogyny.
  • Raising obedient children calls for corporal punishment.
    Evidence-based research shows that children who were routinely beaten tend to grow up to be violent, often criminal adults.
  • Black people are tainted by God's punishment, and fit to be slaves.
    Biology yields a more plausible explanation for skin color, and modern society has realized that the concept of slavery is immoral.
  • Jews are the murderers of Christ and therefore evil as a group.
    This Christianity idea has led to a lot of antisemitism and persecution.
  • Black cats are witches' familiars and/or demons, and bring plague.
    Another faith-based idea, though not biblical, ironically led to large-scale killing (a genocide, if you will) of one of Europe's few defenses against the plague.
  • Belief in Protestantism/Catholicism is so abhorrent that its practitioners must be converted at all costs or killed.
    This belief led to the European wars of religion and more.
  • Gays are an abomination and should be stoned.
    This view is still held uncomfortably close to "modern" societies.

These are all beliefs that were held, on faith, by the majority of Christians; some Christians still hold some of these beliefs today. Most of us consider the actions advised by these beliefs immoral, and condemn them. So it's easy to see that, in this indefinite Christian past we're looking at, beliefs held on faith led at least some people to act in ways we now consider immoral. All else being equal, people without these beliefs (at that time) would have acted more morally than those with.

Where do our morals come from?

Many, but not all, of these old, "evil" ideas come from the Bible. Those of us who consider these ideas "bad" and outmoded are obviously not applying the Bible as a standard and source of our morals. Where, then, do our morals come from? Simply put, societies learn - often from what works and what doesn't. So in terms of morals, we've often applied methods 2-6 and kicked faith-based method 7. But having already discarded the Bible as an authority in many cases, why not honestly take the next step and discard it in all?

The Bible contains a few universally recognized morals, attributed by Christians to Jesus: "Do unto others" is the best known example. Of course, this particular idea arose long before Jesus, and it's meanwhile been refined into Kant's Categorical Imperative. Because of its few useful lessons, many Christians consider the Bible an invaluable moral reference. My guess is that this essentially comes down to lacking study both of the Bible and history.

The future of morality

I think it would be conceited to believe that we and our societies have arrived at the pinnacle of moral consciousness. Rather, I predict that the past trend will continue and societies will jettison even more Biblical morals. In other words, I'm convinced that, just as today's society condemns some of yesterday's Biblical morals, so will tomorrow's society condemn some of today's.

Why wait for this future when we can move to act more morally (and improve the human condition) today?


Because faith-based beliefs are epistemologically of the lowest quality, Christians and other theists stand only to gain from kicking them to the curb. Until they do, they will always run the risk of acting less morally than people who base their beliefs and actions on reality.

Reddit companion post • also in DebateReligions

Previous: Book review: Sense & Goodness Without God Next: The Presumption of Agency

changed December 14, 2012