The Problem With Cultural Moral Rules

Guest Contributor: Lee Helms (Communications Director for the Michigan Atheists)

A reply to Cal Thomas’s op/ed piece titled “Atheists don’t realize that faith is a gift from a God who exists.”

(edit: on Jan. 10, this reply was published in the Oakland Times)


In “Atheists don’t realize that faith is a gift from a God who exists,” Cal Thomas criticized Atheists’ insistence on credible, objective evidence, saying, “Two people presented with exactly the same information can respond in opposite ways.  Faith is not based solely on facts.”  The “gift” of faith, then, is a credulous acceptance of assertions that aren’t supported by verifiable evidence.  It’s no wonder that the world’s religions can still assert claims that obviously contradict.

Thomas also questions the idea of godless morality and standards of conduct, saying that godless charitable acts are “devoid of meaning and purpose,” godless people have no standard beyond “survival of the fittest,” and “To object to God is to create morality from a Gallup Poll.”  Baloney.

Humans survive best when we live in groups, and group living requires a certain level of trust.  “Survival of the fittest” says that tribes in which people refrained from behaviors that cause distrust were probably more fit to survive than tribes that ended up dispersing because of distrust.  What causes distrust?  At the most basic level, violence and dishonesty.  Those are universal.  Even chimpanzees and wolves generally refrain from killing or disabling tribe/pack members.

Basic morality is Darwinian.  The survival, or not, of the tribe is the godless “standard by which to judge wrong” that Thomas fails to recognize.  Charity toward tribemates helps the tribe survive.

Men claiming to speak for gods created additional moral rules about tribal worship, sexual, costume and dietary practices.  These cultural moral rules vary randomly, defining tribal identity without enhancing survival.

The down-side of these random, cultural moral rules becomes evident when people are conditioned to see their own particular tribal, cultural morality as equal to, and inseparable from, basic morality.  Such people believe that anyone who would ignore or violate their tribe’s cultural rules must be suspected of being capable of violating basic moral rules.

This paranoid, tribalistic suspicion of “outsiders” matches well with Thomas’ attitude toward Atheists.  Apparently, he can’t imagine that Atheists, with no belief in any afterlife, might obey basic moral rules because spending time sitting in prison would waste our precious, limited years.

We no longer have the luxury of living in separate, homogenous tribes.  Our communities include people representing many cultures, and expecting everyone to adopt Christian culture is unrealistic.  If Cal Thomas’ sense of community does not extend beyond those who share his own tribal worship rules, he is a relic of the past.