A Question of Morality


 Tavian Oladapo

We are often told more times than we care to remember that our morality is derived from god or gods and the adherents of the Abrahamic god in particular, arrogantly and without shame or a sense of irony continue to repeat the same tired old mantra. The question we must ask is this, is there any evidence for these claims and should they be taken seriously?.

Earliest human attempts to furnish moral codes can be traced all the way back to ancient Sumer and ancient Egypt. The Code of Ur-Nammu from Sumer is dated to around 2100 BCE whilst The law Code of Hammurabi is adjudged to have preceded mosaic law by about a thousand years, although the code is notoriously severe, it did introduce two of the most important tenets of modern justice: the presumption of innocence and the opportunity for the plaintiff and defendant to present evidence.

The Code of the Neslim  from the Hittites in what is now modern day Turkey regulated several aspects of their rapidly expanding empire. One of its most significant topics concerned the treatment of slaves. When compared to how other societies treated slaves, the Code of Nesilim was surprisingly fair, allowing them to marry whomever they wanted, to buy property, to open businesses, and to purchase their freedom. But most significantly, under the Code of Nesilim, slaves were not treated as human chattel, or property that could be used and abused by their masters however they saw fit. They had a limited number of rights that guaranteed them a level of dignity and protection.

One of the oldest recorded systems of human morality was the ancient Egyptian concept of ma’at. Evoking concepts of “straightness, evenness,  correctness … rightness … truth, justice, righteousness, and order,” ma’at was central to the development of ancient Egyptian religion and ethics. Ma’at extended to virtually every aspect of ancient Egyptian life and death. According to the Egyptian Book of the Dead, a freshly departed soul would have to recite 42 Negative Confessions as part of their trial in the underworld. Some examples include “I have not slain man or woman” and “I have no uttered evil words.” If the soul had not fulfilled all 42 Negative Confessions, then their heart would be eaten by Ammit, the “devourer,” .The 42 Confessions were memorized by every Egyptian citizen, and therefore can be seen as a kind of institutionalized system of ma’at. As such, they can be interpreted as the first recorded laws in Egyptian history.

The Kang Gao law code from China is dated to around the 11th century BCE, the Dharma sutras from India ,the Gortyn Code from ancient Crete, the 12 Tables of Roman Law, the Annals of Confucius and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are just a few examples of our attempts to evolve and shape our morality and our laws over time

More than 2 millennia before the French Revolution introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens, a Persian monarch issued a charter that is considered to be the oldest known declarations of human rights. This charter is known today as the Cyrus Cylinder.

The Cyrus Cylinder was discovered in the ruins of Babylon, in modern Iraq, in March 1879. The ancient relic, which was a foundation deposit at the city’s main temple, the Ésagila, was made of baked clay, and measured 22.5 cm (8.85 in) in length. On the cylinder is an account detailing the conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C. by Persian king Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire, who had created the largest empire of the era.  It also describes the capture of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon. The account was inscribed in cuneiform text, and has been dated to between 539 and 530 BCE,What is remarkable about the inscriptions is that it displays a measure of tolerance and benevolence that seems highly unusual for  rulers of that era.

The Inca have a saying “Ama Sua. Ama Llulla. Ama Quella”  which translates as “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not be lazy, “What is palpably obvious is that numerous peoples and cultures made concerted efforts to live by a strong moral code irrespective of their beliefs or gods they worshipped. Does this negate the idea that our morality is derived from the Abrahamic god or any god?

Do we really derive our morality from religion or does our morality precede the gods we invented?. We now have very good evidence that archaic humans like Homo erectus cared for their old and infirm, we are also gleaning compelling evidence that Neanderthals cared for their sick, buried their dead ritually like humans. What does this all mean?, Dare I suggest that it is palpably clear that a sense of morals is innate in not just humans but other life forms on earth. Empathy and compassion drives morality and this is not unique to modern humans.

We have seen examples of altruism in the natural world.

A Bear saves a Crow from drowning.

An Orangutan saves a chick from drowning

We have numerous examples of Dolphins saving swimmers from sharks and occasionally saving stranded dogs, what is clear is animals did not read this in a book or perform these acts of kindness for a reward or for fear of being roasted in a celestial oven. The case can indeed be made that the kind of morality proposed by religion demeans and dehumanizes us. The idea that we derive morality from a god or gods that would advocate slavery, misogyny, infanticide, genocide and all the innumerable horrors found in religious literature is insulting and obscene. The suggestion that a belief in these gods is the prerequisite to be saved and admitted into some Disneyland in the sky is repulsive.

Belief is not a virtue but a good character certainly is. It is highly suspect that an ideology purporting to be divine would espouse the virtues of belief over that of a good character. An in depth study of ancient  African ethics reveals a value system that is essentially humanistic and the emphasis is on character. Can a case be made that even if gods do exist, that humans are perfectly capable of discerning right from wrong? Have we often not seen children display an innate sense of fairness without being told?.

Can we conclude that humans knew not right from wrong until we were introduced to the Abrahamic god ?,I think the answer is we obviously did and to suggest that we derive our morality from gods that often seem less compassionate, less tolerant, and more malevolent than we are is simply astonishing.

SURA   4.56: (As for) those who disbelieve in Our communications, We shall make them enter fire; so oft as their skins are thoroughly burned, We will change them for other skins, that they may taste the chastisement; surely Allah is Mighty, Wise.

The above passage taken from the Quran is quite revealing, this is what Allah promises  those that do not believe. We are told that those who do not accept Yahweh and his son will be roasted in a celestial oven for eternity; this is precisely why it is obvious that the morality of these religions are suspect, why is belief so highly sought after?. I submit that the truth should not require coercion but should gently persuade you with the beauty and profundity of its contents.

Our morality is innate and not derived from the gods we worship and this is a good thing. The belief in gods does not speak to a good character and it is obvious that humans are already evolving and shaping moral values that are significantly more humane and admirable than those we glean from various religions that are nothing more than a legacy from the infancy of our species.

Tavian Oladapo

June 26 2016

Tavian Oladapo is a singer/songwriter, a keen science enthusiast and currently employed in the Microbiology in the NHS Trust in London. Tavian also writes his own science blog at curiosityfeedsthecat.com .Having discarded religion at the age of 15 after reading the Bible in its entirety, he went on to study ancient history in the United States. This was the beginning of a marvellous journey of inquiry that has that has sparked an interest in genetics, archaeology,  paleontology,  geology, cosmology and various other disciplines of science.
He continues to write songs whilst writing scientific articles and giving lectures on the latest discoveries.
Facebook:Tavian Oladapo
Twitter: Curiosity Feeds The Cat

7 responses to “A Question of Morality”

  1. I hope you can accept me as your member, considering that I know I am also black, even though of American of Mexican decent. This is because I’ve known now for some time that we’re really all black, or just mutations of back.

    • Audrey Simmons says:

      Dear Mario

      We at London Black Atheists welcome all who want to be a part of us. We welcome those who are Atheists, non-believers or those who are questioning religion, and more importantly Blackness is not a prerequisite to being a member. As you say, all life began in Africa, so welcome.

      I look forward to meeting you at one of our events.

      Kind Regards

  2. This is one awesome article.Really thank you!

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