Stochastic Scribbles
Random musings in a variety of subjects, from science to religion.

Being moral is in the eyes of the beholder

My immediate reaction at seeing how a religious believer claimed to have answered Christopher Hitchen’s challenge to name one moral action performed by a believer that can never be done by an unbeliever was to snort at it and wonder on what planet it could be considered a moral action. What makes “loving a god” any different from “loving (blank)”, with the blank filled in with anything? Nothing except for answers that boil down to “just because”, which is sorely lacking for someone who doesn’t even believe that a god exists (for most definitions of a god).

But thinking on it further, prodded by the comments, there did seem to be a point to the claim that there are actions considered moral by believers that would never be considered as such by atheists. The point is supported by the fact that morality is a purely human construct, based on biology and society, so morality can be very different depending on the person. The supposed genocide of the Canaanites by the Jews as commanded by God, the Holocaust during World War Two by the Germans, the crashing of airplanes into buildings by extremist Muslims, these were all considered morally good actions by those who committed them. In fact, it probably would have been considered immoral if they didn’t even try.

WTC collapse

To people such as myself, these acts are considered acts of unspeakable evil. But we often have the tendency to think that just because we think it’s evil, the perpetuators of such acts must have also been gleeful as they committed what they must have thought were evil acts. However, we should remember that this is almost never the case. Large-scale atrocities that are considered the most heinous today by most people happened because the perpetuators thought it was their moral duty to commit them. You don’t get a large population committing unspeakable acts by showing how great it is to be evil, but by claiming that the acts are good.

Most atheists today would probably never even consider decimating an entire population to ever be a morally good action. But even today there are small groups of people that think that certain people should be exterminated, often citing their god as their justification. So maybe genocide is the type of “morally good” action, at least in the eyes of some religious people, that an atheist could never do or have done, so Hitchen’s challenge may have already been met a long time ago.

But then again, I recall the millions that died in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, regimes that were explicitly atheist, so the challenge seems to remain unmet, after all. In fact, even “loving God with all your heart” isn’t particularly unique; replace “God” with “State”, and you have:

The highest moral good a person can do is to worship the living, true, sovereign State — to love It with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Not only will no non-totalitarian ever do this, no non-totalitarian can do this.

This sounds like something that would have been considered morally good in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Perhaps atheists and theists aren’t so different after all, contrary to what some religious people would have us believe. Be it religion or political ideology, as soon as one justifies actions based on a foundation no deeper than “my {god, state, guru, …} says so”, the most heinous evil to most people can become the most virtuous of acts.