Arbitrary Quotes, Arbitrary Morality: Christians Misread Dawkins

Richard Dawkins (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Ending religion is a bad idea, says Richard Dawkins” was a headline guaranteed to elicit a double-take. Why would the man who is arguably the world’s most famous atheist be defending religion? In truth, he wasn’t. But Dawkins probably could have chosen his words more carefully.

While promoting his new book, Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide, at The Times and The Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, Dawkins made the point that if religion were abolished, it might “give people a license to do really bad things.” He referenced evidence that security camera surveillance of customers in shops did appear to deter shoplifting, adding that people might feel free to do wrong in the absence of a “divine spy camera in the sky reading their every thought.”

Dawkins later responded to The Times, frustrated that the reporter had pulled his quotes out of context. But the damage was done; the paper had run the aforementioned headline, and Christian writers who’ve been waiting for Dawkins or any other prominent nontheist to praise religion seized on the quote. “Dawkins is admitting that atheism is totally bankrupt morally,” said Ken Ham, leader of the fundamentalist Christian group Answers in Genesis. “The only way we can have an ultimate standard for morality is if God exists and the Bible is true,” Ham continued. “Without it, morality is simply arbitrary.” It’s a philosophical fallacy nontheists are far too familiar with, but humanists prove it wrong every day by striving (and often achieving) to be good without a God.

Basing your “ultimate standard for morality” on a deity is the truly arbitrary choice. A secular ethic requires careful, reasoned thinking about people’s needs, lived experiences, and the world around us. We do this as individuals, but morals aren’t developed in a vacuum. We arrive at moral conclusions through public discourse and careful evaluation. An exclusively religious morality relies mostly on the random chance of being born into the “right” religion. Which sounds more arbitrary?

Christianity—to focus on just one faith tradition—has had countless contradictory iterations across the centuries. The faith has been plagued by routine schisms, and new denominations with their own interpretation of the Bible arise every day. Christian morals also change and adapt over time. If they didn’t, all Christians would still be refusing to wear clothing of mixed fabrics and using the Bible to justify slavery. If you ascribe to Christian theology, even God himself changes his opinion on morality; if he didn’t, the New Testament would never have been written. Belief in God and the Bible may motivate some people to act morally, but it’s also been used to justify incredibly heinous acts. With all these differing interpretations of the “word of God,” Christians too must make their own judgements on which rules and religious leaders to follow. Is this the “ultimate standard of morality” that Ham and so many others propose?

An ultimate standard of morality isn’t only unattainable, it is unnecessary and dangerous. Humans are fallible, and our ethical development is never finished. Secular morality evolves with time, but that doesn’t make it arbitrary. In this sense, ethical systems develop in much the same way language does. The definition of any word or phrase isn’t set in stone—rather, the meaning is an amalgamation of all the ways that word is used and interpreted around the world. Morals are much the same; they are responsive to the views and needs of the current culture. Secular morality is routinely shaped, tested, and reshaped. It’s not random.

When individuals ground their own morality through careful thought and reflection, their moral convictions are often stronger than the morals of those who are simply told what to believe and how to behave. Religion, specifically Christianity, intentionally conditions children to behave morally (i.e. according to the tenets of their religion) within a system of reward and punishment. Christianity teaches children to follow the rules primarily because God has so directed and any disobedience will earn you a one-way ticket to hell. But you can always ask God or your priest for forgiveness and dodge any real accountability for your actions.

At the Cheltenham festival and in his new book, Dawkins references a social experiment in which an “honesty box” is used in a university break room for people to pay for their coffee and tea in an honor system. Simply introducing pictures of eyes—suggesting that the participants are being watched—nearly tripled the amount people were paying for their beverages. Dawkins states that a “divine spy camera” may deter people from behaving immorally in much the same way. But there is a crystal-clear difference between coercing someone to behave well and willful ethical behavior.

If a person only follows given rules because they’ve been told to do so, without any independent judgement of the validity of those rules and for fear of punishment or an expectation of reward, it logically follows that the same person’s behavior would be influenced by the idea that someone, even a fake camera, is watching. If, instead, people were conditioned to make their own reasoned judgements about the moral value of their actions, their behavior may be less easily swayed. Let’s see a similar experiment repeated, but also test for the donation rate of different faith systems. An even better gauge of goodness would be to use a scenario with a bit more moral weight than taking a free coffee from a multimillion dollar university, like returning a lost wallet or tipping a barista. If humanists came out on top in such an experiment and were less swayed by the idea they were being watched, would that prove that you don’t need a God to be good?

Humanism provides a reasoned, ethical standard that doesn’t rely on the existence of an omnipresent deity. Humanism and Its Aspirations, the third and most recent iteration of the guiding document of the American Humanist Association, and organized humanism in general, represents the efforts of decades of secular ethicists working to develop a reasoned moral code. The AHA Center for Education has expanded on this work by developing the Ten Commitments, a representation of our shared values and principles that promote a democratic world in which every individual’s worth and dignity is respected, nurtured, and supported, and where human freedom and ethical responsibility are natural aspirations for everyone.

As Dawkins notes, some people will rely on threats of a deity or promises of an afterlife to guide their actions, but reasonable people don’t depend on that without proof. Humanists know it is our collective responsibility to behave ethically and improve the world together. We know how to be good without a God.