Monthly Archives: May 2010

Why Morality Doesn’t Need God

I’ve reprinted below a thoughtful article by Tim Dean, published on May 27, 2010 on the Australian Broadcast Company’s web site, The Drum. Good food for thought.

Why morality doesn’t need God

“If God is not, everything is permitted.” Or so they say. Except they’re wrong. Dangerously so.

This dictum – that without some absolute divine authority, then morality is at best arbitrary, at worst, annihilated – is unsheathed and bandied about all-too-often these days.

Recently, it’s reared its seditious head in response to the trial of an ethics-based complement to scripture in NSW. The church has pulled out all the stops to block the ethics class, and one of the reasons posed is that ethics without God is hollow, that teaching secular ethics is like teaching English without books, maths without numbers, science without observation.

But the notion that God is required in order for morality to have any real clout is demonstrably false. In fact, if you want a comprehensive, robust and flexible ethics that can address the problems we face today, then you need to explicitly look for a morality without God.

This is because the subject matter of morality is very much grounded in the real world: morality deals with real people, real issues and has to navigate real conflicts. And the real world is a complicated place where not everything is as it seems. One of our best tools for understanding the real world is the humble question “why.” But often you have to ask “why” more than once to get to the answer.

Why is the bus late? Why did the driver not leave on time? Why wasn’t his bus ready for him at the depot? Why is the NSW government still in power? And so on.

To get to your answer, you need to be able to ask “why” as many times as necessary – at least until you exhaust all possible evidence (as in the scientific process) or all possible reason (as in the philosophical process).

But religion stifles this process, with dangerous consequences. This is because religion, by its very nature (no pun intended), is grounded in the supernatural. Its teachings hinge on belief in beings, forces or realms that cannot be seen, felt or known without resorting to faith.

This means that when trying to understand the world from a religious perspective, you can only ask “why” so many times before you hit the brick wall of the supernatural. There’s a point where the answer to your last “why” is simply “because God/the Bible/the Space Fairies said so”. And if you’re not happy with that answer, tough. You just lack faith.

Unfortunately, when it comes to constructing a robust and reliable morality, the supernaturalist approach is horribly prone to error. One belief held dogmatically on supernatural grounds can yield moral outcomes that end up causing untold harm, such as the Catholic prohibition on contraception, for but one example.

That’s not to say a secular approach isn’t also prone to error. But, the big difference – the difference that really counts – is that the secular approach is always open to scrutiny. It always allows for others to ask “why” about any of its moral prescriptions. And, as such, it is open to revision in light of new evidence or new arguments, and it’s more easily able to correct its errors.

The suggestion that we need some supernatural authority to compel us to obey the moral law – well, that’s also bunk.

This is because morality – whether it’s justified by reason, nature or the divine – is, and always has been, believed, doubted and argued by everyone. Even the most dogmatic religion has experts – anointed or appointed – who debate the interpretation of the scriptures. And practitioners of even the most dogmatic religions are known to stray from the path, only to be guided back, by carrot or stick, by their peers.

The same is true of secular morality. The reason we behave morally is partly psychological, partly ideological and partly through desire for praise and fear of punishment. Whether the ideology is backed up by some supernatural power makes no difference in practice to whether the morality is persuasive or not; non-supernatural forces can be terribly persuasive, just ask Fergie.

Ultimately, the argument that ‘without God, anything goes’ is just plain false. There might be other reasons to question secular morality, or to support religion, but let it not be that morality requires God. It doesn’t. Morality will only be stronger and better able to deal with the pressing problems that we all face if it is free to question the world and itself. That kind of ethics ought be taught in school.

To not do so would be, well, immoral.

Tim Dean is a science journalist and philosophy PhD student

.Tim  Dean


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Tough To Watch; Important to Watch

I saw this video a few minutes ago. It’s a moving, disturbing, anger-provoking piece. I hope you’ll watch it.

The young woman who wrote and narrates the poem, Nessrriinn, is an ex-muslim. You can find her YouTube channel at

I encourage you to pass the video along. I’ve included the words of the poem below the video.

sharia law
she’s buried chest high
her arms can’t stop the stones that fly
or wipe the tears that have already dried
for a crime she so persistently denied
she’s buried chest deep
the moderates asleep
no matter how hard she weeps
worth half of a man, her testimony’s cheap
Allah subhana wa ta3ala has come up with such a fair rule
dictators of history couldn’t be so cruel
told by mohammed sallahu 3alhe wa salam
teaching us allah’s divine referendum
what becomes of those who have a sip of rum
drinks to forget or wants to be numb
or those who play the game of chance
poker buddies escaping the religious trance
allah’s prescribed in his merciful script
their flesh be ripped their blood be dripped
at the tip of a muslims whip
she’s buried chest high
her arms can’t stop the stones that fly
or wipe the tears that have already dried
for a crime she so persistently denied
and this is allah’s eternal reply
1400 years of backwards law
a tragic flaw of the primitive claw
the tribe of homosexuals
koum lot as they say
sharia is clear on how they should pay
the price for their gay display
life doesn’t matter which way
abu baker got them with a tumbling wall
ali muhammad’s cousin and son in law
had people burned for their sexual call
an entire village children and all
she’s buried chest deep
the moderates asleep
no matter how hard she weeps
worth half of a manher testimony’s cheap
apostates remember those who have bled
to speak the word Muslims leave unsaid
killed for the sake of those mislead
submit now or be left dead
allah subhana wa ta3ala has come up with such a fair rule
the devil himself couldn’t be so cruel
she’s buried chest high half way deep
while the moderates are still fast asleep
while the world stands silent
her testimony’s cheap.
stones thrown by religious sheep.
witches were burned long ago
til the flame of freedom began to glow
and we learned to say the word ‘no’
no know that your laws are unjust
not worthy of respect only disgust
beheading those with a knifes thrust
oh but in Allah we blindly trust
she’s buried head high
in a heap of stones.
no more crying no more moans
all that’s left is skin and bones
Allah has come up with such a fair call
the true justice of sharia law
by nessrriinn.


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Listen Up! – My Recent Debate on Air Concerning the Pope and the Paedophilic Scandal

Hi again. A few weeks ago, I appeared on John Oakley’s segment, “The Culture Wars” on AM640 in Toronto. It was definitely a “spirited” debate. I hope you enjoy the recording and I’m very interested in your responses.


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You’re such a Neanderthal!

It turns out that that statement is probably true of the person whom you so labeled.

And it’s probably true of you too! Awesome.

Here’s the story, as told by National Geographic.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.

A Neanderthal-female reconstruction based on both fossil anatomy and DNA (file photo).

Photograph by Joe McNally, National Geographic


Inside of the Vindija cave, Croatia. Image courtesy of Johannes  Krause MPI-EVACroatia’s Vindija cave, where Neanderthal bones used to assemble genome were found. Image courtesy of Johannes Krause MPI-EVA.

Ker Than

Published May 6, 2010

The next time you’re tempted to call some oaf a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

According to a new DNA study, most humans have a little Neanderthal in them—at least 1 to 4 percent of a person’s genetic makeup.

The study uncovered the first solid genetic evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbors, who mysteriously died out about 30,000 years ago.

What’s more, the Neanderthal-modern human mating apparently took place in the Middle East, shortly after modern humans had left Africa, not in Europe—as has long been suspected.

“We can now say that, in all probability, there was gene flow from Neanderthals to modern humans,” lead study author Ed Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a prepared statement.

That’s no surprise to anthropologist Erik Trinkhaus, whose skeleton-based claims of Neanderthal-modern human interbreeding—previously contradicted with DNA evidence—appear to have been vindicated by the new gene study, to be published tomorrow in the journal Science.

“They’ve finally seen the light … because it’s been obvious to many us that this happened,” said Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who wasn’t part of the new study.

Trinkhaus adds that most living humans probably have much more Neanderthal DNA than the new study suggests.

“One to 4 percent is truly a minimum,” Trinkaus added. “But is it 10 percent? Twenty percent? I have no idea.”

Surprising Spot for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The genetic study team reached their conclusion after comparing the genomes of five living humans—from China, France, Papua New Guinea, southern Africa, and western Africa—against the available “rough draft” of the Neanderthal genome.

The results showed that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA, versus, for example, 98.8 percent for modern humans and chimps, according to the study. (Related: “Neanderthals Had Same ‘Language Gene’ as Modern Humans.”)

In addition, all modern ethnic groups, other than Africans, carry traces of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, the study says—which at first puzzled the scientists. Though no fossil evidence has been found for Neanderthals and modern humans coexisting in Africa, Neanderthals, like modern humans, are thought to have arisen on the continent.

“If you told an archaeologist that you’d found evidence of gene exchange between Neanderthals and modern humans and asked them to guess which [living] population it was found in, most would say Europeans, because there’s well documented archaeological evidence that they lived side by side for several thousand years,” said study team member David Reich.

For another thing, Neanderthals never lived in China or Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific region of Melanesia, according to the archaeological record.

“But the fact is that Chinese and Melanesians are as closely related to Neanderthals” as Europeans, said Reich, a population geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University.

Neanderthal-Human One-Night Stand?

So how did modern humans with Neanderthal DNA end up in Asia and Melanesia?

Neanderthals, the study team says, probably mixed with early Homo sapiens just after they’d left Africa but before Homo sapiens split into different ethnic groups and scattered around the globe.

The first opportunity for interbreeding probably occurred about 60,000 years ago in Middle Eastern regions adjacent to Africa, where archaeological evidence shows the two species overlapped for a time, the team says.

And it wouldn’t have taken much mating to make an impact, according to study co-author Reich. The results could stem from a Neanderthal-modern human one-night stand or from thousands of interspecies assignations, he said.

More DNA Evidence for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The new study isn’t alone in finding genetic hints of Homo sapiens-Homo neanderthalensis interbreeding.

Genetic anthropologist Jeffrey Long, who calls the Science study “very exciting,” co-authored a new, not yet published study that found DNA evidence of interbreeding between early modern humans and an “archaic human” species, though it’s not clear which. He presented his team’s findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month.

Long’s team reached its conclusions after searching the genomes of hundreds of modern humans for “signatures of different evolutionary processes in DNA variation.”

Like the new Science paper, Long’s study speculates that interbreeding occurred just after our species had left Africa, but Long’s study didn’t include analysis of the Neanderthal genome.

“At the time we started the project, I never imagined I’d ever see an empirical confirmation of it,” said Long, referring to the Science team’s Neanderthal-DNA evidence, “so I’m pretty happy to see it.”

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