I was listening to some Protestant philosophy podcast recently, and was interested in a line of reasoning they had regarding atheism. The story goes that when considering the source of ethical values, the atheist claims to have arrived at them by purely rational principles, and the theist claims that those very rational principles are the product of thousands of years of Judeo-Christian cultural development and cannot be extricated from God. Naturally, I think they’re both wrong.
I encourage respect for history and tradition, and it’s true that Judeo-Christian influence is inseparable from Western history as a whole. But just because God was valuable in reaching this point, doesn’t mean we can’t rebuild ethical values without using God. The key detail to me is that when rebuilding them in this way, you should be able to explain why it is easier (or more natural) that they were built with God first. For our history is clear that philosophy first used God as a foundational axiom, and given the effectiveness of that approach it is unlikely to be a coincidence.
Rebuilding the axioms of ethical values I start by rejecting the earlier atheist claim. Values cannot be arrived at by purely rational means. I see purely rational means as being purely mathematical, or following logical rules, like a computer program. Mathematics defines a set of abstract values and transformations upon them. These abstract values in isolation cannot define values, merely transformations that could be applied to values. One is a purely abstract concept until you can answer “one of what?”
So when you try to explain ethical values using a series of rational transformations, the question is what concrete real values you started with. Truth, Beauty, Love, even Suffering are all just abstract proxies as evidenced by the failure of humanity to come to a concrete definition. You just “know if when you see it.”
I postulate that the real values here are innate, products of the unconscious mind and thus difficult to define (as the barrier between our biological brains and the curious consciousness, the unconscious is designed to protect against introspection). The animal nature of humanity is paired with conscious intelligence, but this intelligence is just a tool that evolved for the animal’s benefit. Our animal nature is in charge, and it does so by sending values out through the unconscious mind for our consciousness to implement maximally. Those rational transformations are powerful, the mechanism for how humans have dominated the natural world over other, similar animals.
So the underlying concrete ethical values arise, not out of pure rationality, but from our animal instincts. A topic that our conscious minds are designed not to think about too much. You don’t want every program to be tracing out the operating system, the conscious mind is a user level program and every syscall is a potential exploit (in this metaphor, the unconscious is the kernel and the biological brain is the hardware). This is why beauty correlates to things good for our animal bodies, green pastures and healthy mates. This is why suffering is defined primarily through the understanding of a pain response in others like us (predominantly humans, but another human trait is to empathize with other species in order to use them as allies).
This approach defines human values as evolved animals, without needing the divine or religion. So back to an earlier point, can this explain why religion is an easier option, and therefore explain its abundance despite not being strictly necessary? I would say it does, in fact that both Eastern and Western religions specifically address the primary pain point here in their own ways. That pain point is that introspecting your own unconscious is hard. It’s designed to prevent you from doing that, and given that it is part of your mind it is able to effect this very directly. We don’t want to think about our unconscious minds, about our physical brains controlling us and defining us, and it is very difficult for most conscious minds to stay focused on any line of inquiry that introspects that deeply.
Eastern religion (here I am referring specifically to Dharmic religions), with its focus on meditation, addresses this concern directly. Meditation helps to focus the mind, and helps to directly perceive the inputs from the unconscious without filtering it through words or conscious thought. My understanding of the concept of spiritual enlightenment through meditation is that it hones the conscious mind into a perfectly efficient tool, acting directly on the desires and values that are innate manifestations of the unconscious. To do this you must understand directly the meaning of your innate desires, this requires the wisdom of insight, while not distracting oneself with artificial desires, which requires the discipline of training. Innate desires include hunger, compassion, and love, when you eat because you are hungry or you step around sharp rocks instead of on them you are acting out the values of your innate desires directly. Artificial desires come from the conscious mind transforming innate desires in invalid ways (for while math and logic may be perfect in theory, our implementations of them can easily introduce human error), like when hunger turns to gluttony, or the desire for a safe nesting place turns into a desire for the biggest house with the most Christmas lights. Eastern religion speaks of understanding the self on a deeper level, and then acting “without thinking”, for these direct actions on the desires that define our innate values are the very definition of good.
Western religion (here I am referring specifically to Judeo-Christian religions) has a different approach that I only recently fit into this model. A central tenant of this religion is that God made man in his own image, which I interpret as actually being that man devised the concept of God in man’s own image for that was what is familiar. I think now it is more than just familiarity, that God is a construct made in man’s own image to take the role of the unconscious mind in arguments; since it is too hard to directly wrestle with your own unconscious for reasons described earlier. God gets around the defenses of the unconscious mind, and serves as a man without all the trappings of conscious thought. While God lays down commandments, similar to the innate values laid out by the unconscious, there are key stories of man wrestling with God. I see this as an easy way for man to contemplate the innate values coming from the unconscious; ascribing them to the Divine and then wrestling with the Divine and its commands. The creator is a perfect metaphor for the biological brain that gives rise to the unconscious and then conscious minds, without triggering the same mental blocks that make this kind of introspection challenging. Again, this metaphor (when used properly) assists in honing the mind into a more efficient tool for the body. Less time worrying about inevitable death and events beyond your control, more time focused on the love and compassion that are key innate values for a herd animal.
A further reason that religion makes this easier, and this reason applies equally to all religions, is the written word and the unifying nature of humanity. The innate values from the unconscious mind are uniquely individual for each person, but genetics and evolutionary pressures across the entire species mean our biological brains are far more similar than different. By writing and sharing their interpretations of innate values, religious leaders provide a more and more developed metaphor for continued introspection over time. A metaphor that is easily accessible, and shared, and can be taken up without fighting the mental blocks that keep you from introspecting your own mind.
This theory recognizes the value of religion, how it makes it easier and provides valuable tools for interfacing more efficiently with our innate values. But it defines religion as a construct, made by man for the dispersal of these tools, and defines ethical values as innate to the biological brain. Thus it provides an atheistic source for ethical values without neglecting the immense influence that religion has had over thousands of years of human history.