Posted in Agnosticism, Atheism, Everyday life, Morality, Neuroscience, Religion, Science, The Conscious Disbeliever

Borrowed Morality

Code of laws of Hammurabi. Louvre museum, Middle East antiques.

Most Christians say that Atheists borrow their morality from the Bible. Without the enlightened teachings of the Bible, we would be no more than instinctive animals, killing and raping, our daily deeds.

Well, let us take a brief step back in time. The revelation to Moses at Mount Sinai took place around 1312 BCE or another possible time was 1280 BCE. It is assumed by modern biblical scholars that the written books were done during the exile from Babylon 600 BCE and it took around 200 years to complete.

It looks like the Torah has been around for a very long time. If we take the earliest possible time for the revelation to Moses, that would be 3324 years ago. So that would take us to believe that humanity before this was nothing but an uncivilized rabble.

So let us concede, for the sake of argument, that there were no moral codes before the era of the beginning of written history in Mesopotamia around 3100 BCE. What happened from this point on, until the revelation and later writing of the Torah? Did humanity live as savages for close to 18 centuries?

The Egyptians had Maat as a concept of truth, balance, order,law, morality and justice around 2375 BCE and 2345 BCE, although there are little surviving writings on the way of practice of ancient Egyptian law.

We don’t know about earlier codes, but the first legal code in recorded history is attributed to Urukagina, who reigned Lagash in Mesopotamia from 2380 BCE to 2360 BCE.

Assuredly the most famous set of laws from antiquity must be the Code of Hammurabi, enacted by the sixth Babylonian king, Hammurabi about 1772 BCE. It had 282 laws dealing with a diversity of situations of daily life, including things like marriage, commerce, slavery, divorce, among others. It also has one of the most famous laws in article 196:

If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out. [ An eye for an eye ]

So it seems that long before the revelation to Moses and even more so than the written Torah, there were codes of conduct not derived from  this text.

Well, the problem is you are not using the Christian Bible and are forgetting the Golden Rule.

OK, lets take a look at the most famous of rules, the ethics of reciprocity, that has been attributed to Jesus of Nazareth: “Therefore all things whatever you would that men should do to you, do you even so to them: for this is the law of the prophets.” Matthew 7:12 or “And as you would that men should do to you, do you also to the likewise.” Luke 6:31.

Well, it seems others got to that conclusion a bit before the times of Jesus of Nazareth.

Zigong asked, “Is there a single saying that one may put into practice all one’s life?”

The Master said, “That would be ‘reciprocity’: That which you do not desire, do not do to others.”

Confucius(551–478 BCE) Analects XV.24

“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”

Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama 563 – c. 483 BCE )Udanavarga 5:18

Or maybe, just maybe, Confucius and Buddha were the so called prophets Jesus referred to in scripture?

Most inevitably, even in tribal societies well before the bronze age, there was an intuition towards this rule. It would not be a very large stretch of the mind, even the primitive one, to consider that being killed is not very good. So if I don’t want to be killed, I suppose that my neighbor does not want to be killed either. It is just plain common sense; although I have heard that common sense is the least common of the senses. And the list would go on and on of things that we would not like done to ourselves.

Understanding morality as a set of rules, a code to determine what is good or what is bad for an individual and a group, makes it easy to see how this can come about without divine intervention. A sense of fairness , the so called “Fellow-Feeling” of Adam Smith, must have evolved as a necessity of human groups as a means to achieve more cooperation between its members. This has been imprinted on our brains.

Being fair, moral, is evolutionarily sound as it benefits the collective.

As I stated in a previous post called Freewill, the network within our material brain is hardwired through nature and nurture to respond and have the ability to acquire new information and adjust the decision process accordingly. The areas that intervene in this decision making process are mainly the posterior superior parietal lobe (pSPL) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) in value-guided decisions.

Aside from the aforementioned cortical areas, there is another cortical area called the insula, that has been shown to have a critical role on the onset of this fairness, this egalitarian behavior.

This has been studied in an article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS April 9, 2012),and I quote from this paper:

“The fact that the insula is directly involved in physiological, food, and pain-related processing supports the general notion that prosocial behavior, which is important for survival of both the individual and the group/species, is implemented on a fundamental physiological level similar to breathing, heartbeat, hunger, and pain.”

And the fact that this was grasped in the writings of Hippocrates back in 400 BCE is astounding.

Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs, despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear, and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet, and what unsavory; some we discriminate by habit, and some we perceive by their utility.

          HippocratesOn the Sacred Disease

So why look up to the  heavens looking for a set of rules, or wait for somebody to give us “divinely dictated” rules on a set of stone tablets, if we have them written down on our evolved cerebral cortex? We can and do have morality without deity. Morality comes from mankind.

Yes my morality is borrowed, but not from a religion, rather from each and every human that has walked the face o the earth and has given his little grain of sand in the ongoing hourglass of evolution and progress.

see you next time.


Dawes CT, Loewen PJ, Schreiber D, et al. Neural basis of egalitarian behavior. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2012

Hippocrates (400 BCE). On the Sacred Disease. Francis Adams.


Family man, gamer, neurosurgeon, "Born Again 6.9 Atheist" and of course, Coffee aficionado

10 thoughts on “Borrowed Morality

  1. Thank you – a very thorough summary (dare I say “chapter and verse”?) of different moral codes and teachings.

    I must admit, the argument I find most peculiar in this vein is that it’s better to have an objective moral standard, therefore implying that atheists are wrong. Even leaving aside the dubious implication that the Bible is objective in any way, the argument amounts to wish fulfilment: I want to have money/a big house/lots of fluffy kittens, therefore I must have them. Life doesn’t work like that.

  2. Once again, thank you for commenting on my posts.

    My intention was to point out than mankind does not need a deity to have a set of rules that norm social conduct and interpersonal relations. By no means do I consider the Bible or any religious book objective. If it came across that way, I ask for your leniency and that of the community.
    I do believe that as a society, we do in fact need an objective standard of behavior, otherwise we would live in anarchy, much as many religious people believe that we atheists in fact would live, if not for our “stealing” of ideas from their precious fairy tale.
    I agree that life is not fair and does not fulfill wishes and in no manner would a set of rules, a moral standard, be a way to satisfy said wishes.
    I do take issue with what you wished for, as I personally do not care much for fluffy kittens and would much rather have cuddly puppies.

  3. I think you achieved your aims very well. I didn’t mean to suggest that you regard any particular book as objective, and I ask your leniency in return if it came across that way.

    I was musing tangentially, as I tend to consider the two assertions (atheists borrow morality, and atheists make up their morality as they go) to be very similar in the way they attempt to discredit any moral framework that isn’t directly derived from a particular holy book.

    I’m not much of a dog person, but in deference to your preferences, I’ll add some excellent coffee to my wish list instead of the kittens.

  4. Excellent post! The problem with the religious claiming morality’s source can only to be their god is the existence of nearly identical moral stances in religions that predate theirs and cultures that developed in parallel and isolated from the culture from which their religion emerged.

    Even The Golden Rule is flawed. I, for example, have gotten violently ill when I eat liver so if guests come over I prepare a nice steak or roast turkey dinner for them. My heart might be in the right place but would this be the moral thing to serve my vegan sister? The Golden Rule assumes that is moral to impose our preferences on others.

    I humbly put to you The Platinum Rule, “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them (as long as everyone involved is OK with it).”

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