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Ask the Patriarch 190
Do you believe morals exist?

from: Ben Jarvis

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I just have a quick question:

According to Apathetic Agnosticism, or maybe your own personal beliefs, do you believe morals exist, or do you believe that they are simply irrelevant?

Many thanks!

The Patriarch replies:


I don't think you are asking the question you intended to ask.

The word morals is defined* as "standards of behavior, principles of right and wrong as they govern standards of general or sexual behavior."

So to answer the question as you wrote it, yes, morals exist, and yes, at least some traditional morals are irrelevant, particularly with respect to certain sexual behaviours between consenting adults.

But what I think you were really trying to ask is whether a person can know right from wrong and act accordingly in the absence of belief in a god. And of course the answer is yes. Belief in a god has nothing to do with morality.

Humans are social animals. The vast majority of us prefer to live in the company of others, and the only way to do that is by treating each other well. And it is not just a human trait. Consider our close relatives the chimpanzees. Not too many would suggest that they believe in a deity. Yet studies have shown that they remember which of their fellows treat them well, and they reciprocate.

I would suggest that those who actually think about what is right and wrong and act so as to do right understand morality. That applies whether or not they follow any particular religion. However, those that unquestioningly follow rules written down many centuries ago by men who claim to have been writing down some god's rules do not understand morality; they just understand blind obedience.

Spend an hour or so reading Leviticus. If you are prepared to absolutely follow each and every rule (every one of which is the Judeo-Christian god's law) in that book, I don't think you can possibly be moral. However, if you find yourself saying over many of the rules - "that is so wrong" - then you are thinking, you are applying your critical faculties to what is right and wrong independent of any deity.

Best wishes

John Tyrrell


* Encarta World English Dictionary, St Martin's Press 1999