For better or worse, the murder of innocent children is a contentious debate topic between Atheists and Christians. This is usually in relation to Old Testament commands from God, and how modern people should “instinctively know that premeditated / brutal murder of innocent children is wrong.” A lot could be said about whether events recorded in the Old Testament really happened or not, but that is a post topic for another time. I wanted to briefly dig into how “instinct” is mis-used here.
Whether killing children is wrong or not is a question of morality, not instinct. Instinct is a pattern of behavior in response to stimuli. Instinct would not look at a child and say “it is wrong to kill this child, so I won’t.” Instinct would kill the child if it was perceived as a threat, or otherwise just leave the child be. To instinct, murder is not right or wrong – it is only a response to certain stimuli.
This is important because we have to realize that morality is not something we are born with like instinct. Morality is a social construct that we can give a definition for at any given time, but that definition also changes over time. The people that recorded the premeditated / brutal murder of children in the Bible did so because their social construct of morality at the time did not see this as wrong, or even “brutal” per se. Again, this is a huge topic to explore, as the ancient world was often dog-eat-dog, might-makes-right, you-died-too-bad-who cares. But the reality is that they had a different moral standard back then.
The point being: morality is not some absolute truth that we are just now figuring out the one right construct to apply to it. In order for there to be one right moral code that we have to figure out as a species, morality would have to be a rational being that can understand thousands of languages and historical culture changes in order to let us collectively know what is “morally correct.” In other words, in order for there to be a universal morality, this morality would have to be able to understand new inventions like the Internet, and let us know how moral codes apply to our actions there. It would also have to have learned English at some point in order for us in America to understand it, as well as for it to understand the unique way Americans think about morality in our language.
Some would say that this is proof that God exists. Well, not really. it just proves that you can’t reject the idea of God while relying on the concept of “Universal Morality” as a global guide for humanity. Universal Morality would need to be a rational being – i.e., a god – in order to do so.
The more accurate way to look at morality is that it is a social construct that is evolving all the time. For example, the ancient Israelites had a different moral view on the killing of innocent children than we do now. Did you know that term “genocide” wasn’t coined until the 1940s as a way to describe the atrocities committed by Germany in World War II? Why didn’t Universal Morality have us label it a thing before that? Because Universal Morality is not a thing – we evolved the social construct of morality to say that this thing Germany did was wrong, and then we gave it a new word (genocide).
I know that some people are really convinced that across all time and all cultures, certain moral codes have remained true. Kind of… but also not really. It is true only if you generalize these concepts to gloss over important cultural norms. But that was not day-to-day reality for most people that had to live with those norms, and there are also still big differences across the globe and back through time. Overgeneralizing practical morality to derive Universal (historical and cultural) Morality erases cultural differences than made each culture unique.
It also means that in 100 years, people will look back at even the most enlightened among us and say “wow, did they get morality wrong!”
To me, this does not prove God exists in the least, but it also makes it pretty inappropriate to take 2019 Western American sociocultural normed moral codes and apply them as proof for or against God or Goddess or gods or supreme beings. Calling your sociocultural moral codes “instinct” is just passing the buck to some nonexistent Universal Morality or Supreme Being, claiming that one of these genetically programmed you to believe what is right and wrong. You and I need to take responsibility for how we have been influenced by our modern sociocultural context, and how we have chosen to follow those influences as a guide for what we do or do not believe in.