What drives us to be good? How do we even know how to be good? Philosophers and theologians have dealt with such questions for millennia, but Dan Barker thinks the answers are not so complicated. In Mere Morality, he argues there's no need to appeal to supernatural commandments or the fear of some higher power when considering morality. Stripping “good" and "evil” down to the basics, he offers a simple compass for navigating life's most difficult moral and ethical dilemmas.
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About the Author
Dan Barker served as an evangelical preacher for nearly 20 years until he decided to leave Christianity. Today he is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation and co-host of Freethought Radio. A widely sought-after lecturer, debater, and performer, he is author of Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists and God: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
Read an Excerpt
The beginning of wisdom and the greatest good is taking care to avoid undesirable consequences.
Why Did I Do It?
I was in the Detroit airport when I saw the baby fall. Heading to New York City to be a guest on the Phil Donahue Show in 1988, I was standing in line waiting for my connecting flight to board. I was probably thinking about what I wanted to say on the show the next morning — the topic was life after death — and was not paying much attention to my surroundings. Another group was waiting to board at the next gate, and I may have noticed the young couple in that line. They had placed a baby carrier on top of a luggage cart, about three or four feet off the ground, and the father must have stepped away for a moment.
The corner of my eye saw the baby kick, my leg made a quick stride to the left and my finger tips caught the edge of the carrier as it was rolling toward the hard floor. About a second later the mother grabbed the other side. She would have been too late. "That was scary!" I said. Neither of us wanted to let go for a few seconds, but I finally realized I should give the baby back to the mother. She took the child out of the carrier and held it close.
You should have seen the look she gave her husband.
A couple of minutes later their group boarded the plane. As they were disappearing into the jet bridge, the mother with baby in arms turned and briefly glanced at me with no expression, a quick look that I took to mean, "Thank you." I can imagine the story that mother might have later told her child about the angel in the airport. They didn't know the angel was an atheist.
What I did was not special. You would have done the same thing. Who wants to see a baby fall to a hard floor? Few people would be able to resist acting in such a situation. I surprised myself. It was instinctive and automatic, with no conscious deliberation, as if I were watching someone else. It was immediate emotion. As I was holding onto that carrier, I felt a huge relief, as if I had just saved my own child. My body was on full alert; my breathing and heart rate sped up.
Why did I do it? I didn't know those people. We might not have liked each other. Should it matter to me if someone else's child gets hurt? Was it reciprocal altruism? Did I say to the mother, "Okay, lady, I did you a favor, now you owe me one"? Before acting, was I calculating the risk and the payback, the cost and the benefit? Did I analyze the relative merits of the consequences of acting versus not acting, or consider that I might get sued if I erred and contributed to the injury? None of that went through my mind. There was no time for analysis. What happened was an immediate, apparently subconscious impulse to act. If there were any decision to be made, it would have been whether not to act. It was truly a split-second reaction.
Before the baby kicked, I had not been standing there contemplating Jesus, Yahweh, Muhammad, or Joseph Smith. I was not thinking, "What can I do today to bring glory to God?" or "How can I be a moral person?" or "How can I show the world that atheists are good people?" The action was beneath the level of rational moral judgment. It was biological.
We are animals, after all. We come prepackaged with an array of instincts inherited from our ancestors who were able to survive long enough to allow their genes — or closely related genes — to be passed to the next generation because they had those tendencies. An individual who does not care about falling babies is less likely to have his or her genes copied into the future.
Suppose instead of acting, I had dropped to my knees and prayed with a loud voice: "Dear God, help that baby!" What good would that have done? Faith is irrelevant to morality. Prayer might give believers the illusion they are doing something meaningful, but it is no more effective than random chance. Prayer is inaction. Believing in God is not the way to be good.
Three Moral Minds
How do atheists know how to be good? How does anybody know how to be good? Should you simply "give a little whistle, and always let your conscience be your guide," as Jiminy Cricket counseled Pinocchio? Conscience is defined as a "moral sense," but what is that, exactly? Is it a physical sense? Do we simply perceive the right thing to do? If so, why do so many people do the wrong thing, and why is it often so hard to know what is right? If our "conscience" is so dependable, why do we need laws? Why do we have moral dilemmas? Jiminy Cricket had a sweet idea but it sounds simplistic, like something you would hear in a movie. How exactly does a "conscience" guide us, and why does it not always work very well in reality? Luckily we are not puppets-turned-human or we would all have very long noses.
Should we follow a code instead? Is morality a lookup list of prescribed rules? Can it be reduced to obeying orders? Should you "always let your bible be your guide"? If so, why do believers disagree about moral issues, and why do so many of them act immorally?
C. S. Lewis tried to define a "mere Christianity," a core set of beliefs that remain after all the nonessential doctrines are stripped away. In its place, I would like to propose a Mere Morality, a ground-level understanding of what it means to be good. A well-rounded life will involve much more than the moral minimum, of course, and each of us can choose how far to go beyond that, but I would like to suggest Mere Morality as the starting point. It is a C, a passing grade, a driver's permit. Mere Morality is what allows all of us, believers or not, to get out of class and start living a grownup life out in the real world where the hard moral lessons are to be learned. It is a model, a framework that can help us visualize what we are doing when we make moral choices.
Have you ever seen one of those cartoons where the character is trying to make a decision with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other? We often find ourselves torn between what we want to do and what we feel we should do. Since there are no devils or angels, I suggest we replace the image of those silly supernatural symbols of "good" and "evil" with something else. Instead of cartoon characters competing for your attention, picture instinct on one shoulder, law on the other, and reason in the middle. These make up your three "moral minds," and none of them, by itself, tells you what to do. None of them is good or bad. Actions are what we judge to be good or bad. Your moral minds are guides that help you do the judging.
Of course, you don't really have three separate minds; there are not three little people fighting for attention in your brain. Just like the Feynman diagrams are not intended to represent what is actually happening in quantum physics — they are a way to visually "stand for" the effects — the three minds of Mere Morality are a way to help think through moral decisions. Philosopher Daniel Dennett might call this an "intuition pump," a tool for critical thinking. Your own mind is certainly multilayered, with levels of perceptual, emotional, and cognitive activities (as the story of the falling baby shows), with hundreds of separate simultaneous functions operating as modules, or "minds" within your brain above and below the level of consciousness. Emotion, for example, is more primitive than reason, and much stronger, but taking all of the different parts as a whole, we can talk about the aggregate as your one individual mind composed of separate smaller "minds."
Mere Morality considers the mind of reason to be the head on the shoulders, with instinct on one side and law on the other. Instinct and law are the results of minds. Instinct is the biological outcome of decisions made by the minds of your ancestors, and law is the result of the collective decisions made by the many minds of the social group in which you live. Law can also be the result of a single regal mind, or a small group of minds, and such nondemocratic governments tend to be tyrannical, but those laws nevertheless originate outside of your own mind, and the way to determine if they are good guides is to use reason. Instinct and law (one on each shoulder) are past judgments while reason (the head in the middle) is present judgment. When you are making a moral decision, you have three "minds" at your disposal: instinct, reason, and law. One mind is real; the others are metaphorical.
Your three moral minds are not mechanical producers of goodness. They are guides. You can't use them to "give a little whistle" and presto, Jiminy Cricket jumps out with a tiny umbrella saying, "Do this!" Any one of those three moral minds — or all three — can be faulty. Many of our biological instincts are nurturing, but some are thoughtlessly violent. Reasoning may be based on untested premises or inadequate information, resulting in bad conclusions. Some laws derive from primitive tribal fears or the privilege of power and may have nothing to do with morality. In order for any instinctive, law-abiding, or rational action to be considered morally good, we have to know what "good" means. I think the simple measure of morality is the harm principle: The way to be good is to act with the intention of minimizing harm.
What else is meant by morality? Morality is not a huge mystery. Ethics is simply concerned with reducing harm. (There is a difference between ethics and morality — one is theory and the other is practice — but most people informally use the two words as synonyms, so I will too. Some nonbelievers don't even think we need the word "morality," and they have a point, but I am using the word in the informal sense of "how should we act?") Morality is not a code. It is not following rules or orders. It is not belief or dogma. It is not pleasing an authority figure. It is not "bringing glory" to a god, religion, tribe, or nation. It is not passing a test of virtue. It is not hoping to be told someday that "you are my good and faithful servant." Humanistic morality is the attempt to avoid or lessen harm. It is the only real morality because it uses human values in the natural world, not "spirit values" in a supernatural world, as its measure. It is the opposite of religious morality because it is based on real harm, not the imaginary concepts of "sin" and "holiness."
People should be judged by their actions, not their beliefs. Actions speak louder than faith.
I think most believers are good people. Although religious doctrine is generally irrational, divisive, and irrelevant to human values, some religions have good teachings sprinkled in with the dogma, and many well-meaning believers, to their credit, concentrate on those teachings. Surveying the smorgasbord of belief systems, we notice that they occasionally talk about peace and love. Who would argue with that? Sermons and holy books may encourage charity, mercy, and compassion, even sometimes fairness. These are wonderful ideas, but they are not unique to any religion. We might judge one religion to be better than another, but notice what we are doing. When we judge a religion, we are applying a standard outside of the religion. We are assuming a framework against which religious teachings and practices can be measured. That standard is the harm principle. If a teaching leans toward harm, we judge it as bad. If it leans away from harm, it is good, or at least better than the others. If a religious precept happens to be praiseworthy it is not because of the religion but in spite of it. Its moral worth is measured against real consequences, not orthodoxy or righteousness.
The so-called Golden Rule, for example, is not a bad teaching. It shows up in many religions. Confucius had a version of it long before Christianity, and phrased it better: "Do not impose on others what you do not wish for yourself." The value of this obviously humanistic teaching derives not from being found within a religious tradition, but from its emphasis on actions, not faith or dogma. Confucius's wording is better than the Christian "do unto others" because it stresses the avoidance of actions that cause harm, which is what Mere Morality is all about. ("Do unto others" is decidedly not a good rule for masochists, psychopaths, or people with kinky sexual preferences, religious obsessions, or simply bad taste.) Religious groups such as Buddhists, Jains, and Quakers that are known for their ideals (if not always practices) of pacifism are more moral than groups such as Christian Crusaders, Muslim suicide bombers, and Kamikaze pilots, whose dogma has led directly to violence. We can make this judgment on the basis of lessening harm, which is a principle available to all of us.
So the good values that a religion might profess are not religious values. They are human values. They transcend religion, not in a supernatural sense, but in the natural sense that they are available to everyone, regardless of one's particular religious heritage or choice. They are shared across humanity, and what makes them good is their humanism, not their theology. This means that the purely religious values — the ones that make a religion unique and supposedly "better" than the others — are not good values, because they are irrelevant to morality. What day of the week you should worship, how many times you should say a certain prayer, what religious texts you should memorize, how you should dress, whether women should wear jewelry or makeup in church (or whether their bodies should be seen at all), what words you can say or pictures you can draw or songs you can sing, what books you should read or music you should listen to or movies you should watch, what foods you should eat, whether you can drink alcohol or caffeine, whether women can take positions of leadership, if and how women should submit to men, how women should control their own reproductive future, who your children are allowed to date or marry, how gays, nonconformists, heretics, or infidels should be dealt with, how a class of privileged leaders (clergy) should be treated or addressed or whether they should be allowed to marry, how much of your money or time is demanded by the religion, how many times a day you should pray, what words should be said or what direction you should face during prayer, what incantations should be performed during certain rites like baptism and death, what side of the bed you should get out of, what specific doctrines you should believe, what "holy books" or scriptures are true, whether a snake actually spoke human language or a man was born of a virgin, how science should be viewed, whether the earth is six thousand or four billion years old, what was the true nature of the founder of your religion, and so on — all of those beliefs that differ among religions are morally irrelevant, or worse.
Purely religious teachings are most often divisive and dangerous. They build walls between people, creating artificial social conflicts, prejudice, and discrimination. They have started wars and fueled persecutions. One bloody example was the violent Thirty Years' War in Europe, which had many causes but primarily began as a conflict between Lutherans and Catholics over infant baptism, transubstantiation, and whether prayers to the Heavenly Father need an intermediary.
If religious teachings cause unnecessary harm — and they often do — they are immoral and should be denounced. If we play C. S. Lewis's game and separate out common human morality, Mere Morality, from religion, nothing is left in religion worth praising on ethical grounds. (We might appreciate religious art or music, for example, but this is irrelevant to morality.) Turn it around and strip each religion of its weird supernatural and ritualistic uniqueness and what is left, if anything — such as peace, love, joy, charity, and reciprocal altruism — is Mere Morality, or humanistic goodness.
We don't need religion to be good. Religion actually gets in the way. Getting rid of purely religious mandates makes life simpler and safer. Rejecting religion filters out the noise to bring a clarity of judgment, making it easier to be a good atheist than a good Christian.
Since harm is natural, not supernatural, its avoidance is a material exercise. Harm is a threat to survival. It is disease, predators, parasites, toxins, invasion, war, rape, violence, theft, parental neglect, pollution of the environment, excessive heat, cold, lack of food, water, shelter, and adequate clothing, unsafe working conditions, accidents, drowning, natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, winds, storms, lightning, mudslides, coastal erosion, wildfires ... you can add to this list, but whatever you add will be natural. If your intention is to end up with less harm — real natural harm, not imaginary "sin," which is supposedly offending the so-called holiness of a fictional father figure — then you are acting morally. And this is true even if you fail; if you truly intend to lessen harm — and the law, for example, considers intention as much as the actual act — then you will learn from your mistakes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Mere Morality"
Copyright © 2018 Dan Barker.
Excerpted by permission of Pitchstone Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
I Moral Minds
Why Did I Do It? 13
Three Moral Minds 16
Pains and Penalties 53
II Fear Morality
The God Book 65
The Sabbath 83
Interracial Marriage 86
God and Evil 103
The New Testament 119
Judging God 125
III Humanistic Morality
Human Nature 135
Moral Conflict 140
About the Author 167