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Why morality is not dependent on religion

12 July 2012, 07:16
To begin your process of introspection and philosophical growth as an atheist, it is important to ask yourself two questions — what the author D, Cancilla calls 2Q. These questions are based on philosophical concepts most atheists would already agree with, so you should have no trouble accepting their validity.

During the course of each day, as issues of philosophy, morals, and opinion come to mind, apply these two questions to them. If the answer to each question is “no,” then you are well on your way. If either answer is “yes,” then odds are that your opinions are in need of further consideration.

Q1: “Does My Philosophy Contradict Itself?”
You should not have two beliefs that contradict each other. That just makes sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that you might think it’s silly to even consider — how could you have two beliefs that contradict each other? In the real world, this happens more often than you might expect. In fact scarily so. Although humans are capable of duality - but that's not really what I am getting at here.

For example, your philosophy may contradict itself if:
You think gambling is immoral but you buy lottery tickets.
You never leave voice mail messages but chastise those who don’t leave messages on your voice mail.
Your opinions on murder, suicide, assisted suicide, capital punishment, and abortion don’t form a cohesive whole.
You teach your children that it’s wrong to lie, but you are less than honest with them about certain subjects.

Sometimes contradictions are more subtle. For example, you may be contradicting yourself if you believe in freedom of thought but chastise your teenage child for questioning something she was told in church. The post-modern attitude of "Everyone's opinion is valid because we're all flawed" is a messed-up thing. "Kill em all and let God sort it out" is not just a bumper sticker, it's the natural order. How do you know who's right and who's wrong? By who  is still standing at the end, that's how! If my ideas are wrong, and it matters, I will die from my ignorance. If I don't, then it doesn't matter that I was wrong. Or you might think that stealing is wrong but justify some little thefts as “not really stealing.”

This first question — Q1 — is usually the easiest to ask yourself. Just take a mental step back from the topic at hand and ask yourself if your opinion on this matter contradicts your opinion on related — even loosely related — matters. It can be applied to politics, personal relationships, moral issues, religious philosophy, or pretty much any topic you come across where an opinion is needed. If you find that your philosophy contradicts itself, then you are committing what Cancilla and I call “Q1 violation.”

Q2: “Would I Condemn Another for Reasoning as I Do?”
If you are reasoning in a logical, rational way, then you shouldn’t have any problem with other people reasoning in the same way, right? For example, if you think that your child should not be allowed to wear a shirt with a certain slogan on it because it offends you, then you shouldn’t criticise another parent who doesn’t want their child to wear a shirt with a slogan that offends them. But what if the slogan the other parent objects to doesn’t offend you? It doesn’t matter. You might argue that the other parent shouldn’t be offended (that’s a different subject), but you can’t argue about how they’re acting on their feelings since you are doing the same thing. Although this does suggest tolerance, even if tolerance is a luxury.

As you can see, this second question — Q2 — is a little more abstract than the first, and it may take a little practice before asking it becomes second nature.

Ask yourself Q2 any time you are drawing a conclusion. If you might consider someone wrong if they were reasoning in the same way, then you have committed what is a “Q2 violation” and need to reexamine your thinking.

Let’s say you keep kosher and won’t eat at a restaurant or fast food joint because they don’t keep their meat and dairy products separate. Now let’s say you invite your friend to lunch, but he won’t go to "Ernie’s Deli" because he’s a vegetarian and Ernie’s doesn’t use separate preparation surfaces for meat and vegetables (your friend won’t eat at the non-kosher restaurant either). Even if you’re not a vegetarian, you have to respect your friend’s reason for not eating at these restaurants because he’s following the same line of thinking you are, just with different premises.

Emotions, Intuition, Moral Sense, Faith, and Degree of Skepticism
You’ve got 2Q under your belt, but before you start putting the questions to use you need to know one more thing: 2Q is a great way to detect bad thinking, but that doesn’t mean that everyone using the system will reach the same conclusions.

The reason for this is that opinions are based on more than just reasoning. They are also based on emotions, intuition, moral sense, faith, and degree of skepticism (among other things).

Everyone has emotions. You love, you hate, you like and dislike. Some things make you feel creepy; other things scare you, thrill you, make you laugh, or fill you with inspiration. Your feelings are impacted by your life experiences, personal preferences, culture, genetic disposition, and tastes, and they are unique to you.

No two people have the same feelings, and you can’t say that one person’s feelings are more meaningful than another person’s feelings.

Intuition is the feeling that you suddenly know something — a sensation of knowledge, if you will. When we talk about a police officer playing a hunch or the feeling that there’s someone you can’t see in the room with you, that’s intuition.

Some people believe that intuition is knowledge sent from a higher power. Others see it as your brain reaching a conclusion based on knowledge not in your consciousness’ foreground — such as a barely heard footstep or recognition of a subtle pattern. Whatever you think intuition is, most people agree that it is not a source of compelling knowledge unless you have a track record of accurate intuition in a specific area.

So if you have a feeling that there is someone standing in the shadows, you might be justified to go check out the shadows. You would not, however, be justified to testify in court that you were not alone in the room. But if a firefighter with decades of experience tells you not to open a door in a burning building because something doesn’t feel right to him, you probably shouldn’t open the door.

Moral Sense
Most people have a moral sense — the feeling that certain things are right or wrong. Philosophers often appeal to the moral sense by asking how you would feel in a certain situation. For example, “Would you slap a baby to save a kitten?”

Moral sense should not be mistaken for morality, even though it is part of how we form our morality. There are times when our sense of right and wrong must be overridden by our intellect for the sake of reasoned morality. For example, you might feel a sense of moral repulsion at the thought of stabbing another person, but a nurse must override that repulsion when taking a blood sample.

Moral sense should be looked at carefully, much the same way intuition must. Some people believe that the moral sense is a gift from a higher power, some believe it evolved, some believe it is a product of our upbringing, and some believe it is a combination of these things. Because it may be difficult to identify the origins of moral feelings, care must be taken when assigning these feelings moral weight.

Faith comes in many forms, but for the moment we’re just concerned with the kind of faith that is characterised by belief without evidence. Pretty much everyone has faith in something; some people have faith in many things. Religious people might have faith in god or in cosmic justice. Even atheists generally have a certain amount of faith (that the universe is real, for example). Although the universe is real. Not a leap of faith.

Your personal faith is going to have an impact on how you reason. For example, if you believe that there is a soul that survives after the body’s death, then you might reason very differently about the possibility that ghosts exist than would someone who thinks that death is the end of existence.

If you have faith, you will also automatically disagree with someone who has conflicting faith, even if their reasoning is otherwise identical to yours.  If you can say that your reasons for having faith are better than someone else’s, then you’re not talking about belief without evidence any more — you’re talking about having a superior rational argument, and that’s a different animal all together.

Degree of Skepticism
Your degree of skepticism is a measure of how much evidence you need before you are convinced that something is true. On some topics, you will need very little evidence to prove something true — for example, if it’s a cloudy day and you hear what sounds like rain outside, you’ll likely say it’s raining even though there are other possible explanations for the sound. On other topics, no amount of evidence will suffice — for example, a mother might believe her child’s protest of innocence no matter how much evidence there is against him. Not me. I call them on it.

Some people have wildly differing degrees of skepticism. For example, you might believe that visitations by beings from other solar systems are highly likely, so any time you see something in the sky you can’t explain you assume it’s an alien spacecraft until it is proven otherwise. Or you might believe that alien visitation is so unlikely that you won’t believe extraterrestrials have visited earth until definitive proof is offered.

Another example: if one person thinks it’s highly likely that a creator god exists and one thinks it’s highly unlikely, both opinions have equal weight unless some kind of evidence can be offered.

You must be careful, though, if you find your degree of skepticism varying widely. For example, if you are not skeptical of evidence that agrees with you but very skeptical of evidence that disagrees with you, you may be experiencing a Q2 violation.

A lot of this post is based on a book, which changed my life as an atheist called: Ask Yourself to be Moral, by D. Cancilla, available at

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