Blinders on, people! »« What theists don’t ask

Again with the “theism = morality” thing

A lot of theists place great store by insisting that theism is somehow necessary for a comprehension of the concepts of right and wrong. This is fairly baffling, as, if it were true, you would expect to find, around the world, theists behaving in a consistently more ethical and moral manner than unbelievers. One does not in fact find this. One finds believers in the middle east strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up hundreds of innocents. One finds believers in the US verbally haranguing members of “wicked” faiths not their own in public; passing laws telling others whom they cannot or cannot marry based upon some specious fear that their own marriages will somehow be placed at risk; and shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars in cash settlements as a way of apologizing for sexually molesting children placed in their care by naively trusting parents.

Meanwhile, the world’s most high-profile atheists are castigated as “militant” and “fundamentalist” for the heinous crime of — hold on to your hats — writing books.

Also, if God is the source of my morality, then I have to wonder why this God is less moral than I am. Even if I had the power to do so, I would never condemn a person to an eternity of torture because they did not love me to my satisfaction. Indeed, to even consider the idea would be a sign, not merely of immorality, but psychosis. Also, if I were a military general, even one not bound by, say, the Geneva Convention and rules of engagement, I would probably be disinclined to tell my men to annihilate literally every single living thing in a given town, with the exception of the young women, whom they would be free to capture, enslave, and rape at whim. God’s a little more easygoing on the whole mass-rape thing than I am.

Over in this comments thread, a Christian named kevin h is making an attempt at arguing for the necessity of theism to morality. His argument, such as it is, consists of dismissals of the possibility of morality as an evolved instinct, which appear to be rooted in little more than his distaste for the idea. These are married to assertions about the nature of God in which nothing is given as backup. But moreover, most of his assertions are so baldly wrong I’m given to wonder exactly what world kevin lives in. In his last comment, he asserts:

Once one realizes that moral values are nothing more than social convention and “herd instinct” they are reduced to illusions of nature. Therefore, they are descriptive and not prescriptive, and the only reason one should rationally be “moral” is for manipulation…

First off, I find it more than a little baffling that a fellow attempting to argue that the source of morality is an invisible magic man in the sky is complaining about “illusions of nature”. To find nature illusory is, I submit, one of the more intellectually damaging side effects of embracing religion. But in any event, in previous responses to kevin, I had repeatedly pointed out that one can learn sound moral precepts by observing the consequences of actions. Observable consequences can hardly be considered “illusory” by anyone who hasn’t intentionally abdicated the use of reason. What does kevin even mean by this phrase? What exactly is illusory about learning lessons from experience and observation? kevin doesn’t say. His way of arguing, as with many theists, is to make the assertion without feeling the need to back it up.

As for his claim that the sort of morality I am arguing for is about manipulation, this is a real irony-meter breaker. Christian morality — in the way in which a great many rank-and-file Christians practice it (remember, I’ve spoken with these people) — is about pleasing a deity in order to get a ticket to Heaven. If this isn’t a tit-for-tat arrangement that could give a damn for the greater good, I don’t know what is. In contrast, secular morality, rooted in rationalism and an understanding of the consequences of actions (you know, what kevin thinks is illusory) is primarily about the greater good, about creating a stable and safe society to better ensure species survival. kevin is just plain screwed up here.

kevin goes on:

In addition, if one got control of the society, one could punch whomever one wanted. Especially “undesirables”.

Because kevin had been having a hard time understanding how people could just, you know, figure things out on their own, I had given the example of punching random strangers in a grocery store as a good, quick lesson in why people should be moral for practical reasons.

What is funny about this remark of kevin’s is that this kind of behavior is exactly what we see — all together now — believers engaging in all over the globe. If anyone’s out there trying to make life miserable for whomever they consider “undesirables,” whether they’re Islamist suicide bombers targeting Jews or American right-wing Christians wallowing in their hate for gays and lesbians, it ain’t the atheists!

There of course have been irreligious societies that have committed similar acts of oppression. However, as Sam Harris has pointed out, not all irreligious movements have been enlightened or rationalist movements. Atheism can take a very bad form when it is only a reactionary rejection of religion. This is why, in previous posts, I’ve talked about the difference in development between eastern atheism and western atheism, the latter of which was informed by Enlightenment values and philosophies. It’s telling that those irreligious cultures in which rulers felt they could “punch whomever they wanted” have been mostly failures. Act without reason whether you’re religious or not, and you aren’t going to find life very successful. Again, you don’t need an invisible man to understand this. Well, I don’t, but I guess kevin does.

kevin is also fond of assertions like this:

God is the Good. His ultimate nature enjoys the ontological status which anchors morality.

Which is fine, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that God’s existence has yet to be established, and a statement like this scarcely constitutes evidence for him. It amounts to an attempt to define God into existence by attributing qualities to him the arguer finds desirable. But the statement is fundamentally empty. What is meant by God’s “ultimate nature”? In what way does this nature “enjoy the ontological status which anchors morality”? This, I suspect, is why Dawkins blew off going into in-depth critiques of theology when writing TGD. It’s all so much rhetorical smoke and mirrors. kevin’s statement has no greater meaning, and brings us no closer to an understanding of what morality is, what function it serves in a culture, or how it aids the survival of our species, than if he were to have made exactly the same statement but substituted “Harvey the Invisible Rabbit” for “God”.

Indeed, reading over kevin’s comments, it appears he considers such an understanding of tangential relevance at best. Understanding morality is less crucial than simply assuring that his God gets the credit for it. kevin’s habit of dismissing prefectly sound questions asking him to elaborate on his views doesn’t help him much, either. When I asked him (I thought quite reasonably)…

And why isn’t the fact that we’re genetically hardwired toward group cooperation a good foundation for a moral theory? We know that ethical behaviors exist not only in humans but in other species of primates. So if our genes are responsible for developing just about everything else that makes us “us,” why wouldn’t they play a role in determining our behaviors, and which of those behaviors were the most beneficial in the interest of species survival?

…his only reponse was:

Because it amounts to delusion.

Uh…oh yeah? Like…why? How? Remember, this is a guy arguing for an
invisible deity, telling me it’s delusional to attribute real-world phenomena to real-world causes. With no explanation. I call “lame”!

The easiest way to wrap up, I think, is to offer the same challenge to kevin h that Christopher Hitchens has offered to Michael Gerson, who authored that drivel in the WaPo that Kazim fisked in the post immediately preceding this one. Can kevin…

name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever?

Where, exactly, are the moral precepts that are unique to Christianity, that no one in the world understood prior to Christianity’s formal development as a church in the first few centuries of the Common Era? This is the problem faced by apologists like kevin. In arguing for the necessity of theism for morality, the presence of millions of morally upstanding atheists around the world must present a measurable element of confusion.

Comments

  1. astutebee says

    “One finds believers in the middle east strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up hundreds of innocents. “Giving that line of argument is just likely to make the believers reach for the “they’re not true believers” panacea, especially since “strapping bombs to themselves” primes images of muslims, an outgroup that’s easily vilified.

  2. says

    KH> Some comments:A lot of theists place great store by insisting that theism is somehow necessary for a comprehension of the concepts of right and wrong. This is fairly baffling, as, if it were true, you would expect to find, around the world, theists behaving in a consistently more ethical and moral manner than unbelievers. One does not in fact find this.KH> Again, the question is not “can one be moral without belief in God?”. I think one can. The question is, what accounts for the objective nature of moral values and duties? Also, if God is the source of my morality, then I have to wonder why this God is less moral than I am. Even if I had the power to do so, I would never condemn a person to an eternity of torture because they did not love me to my satisfaction. Indeed, to even consider the idea would be a sign, not merely of immorality, but psychosis. Also, if I were a military general, even one not bound by, say, the Geneva Convention and rules of engagement, I would probably be disinclined to tell my men to annihilate literally every single living thing in a given town, with the exception of the young women, whom they would be free to capture, enslave, and rape at whim. God’s a little more easygoing on the whole mass-rape thing than I am.KH> The question is not what constitutes the source of “my morality” in particular. Rather, what is the source of objective morality – and the common values and duties we universally recognize? While moral values can be applied subjectively, it still remains that at least some things are really right and some things really wrong.Secondly, it is simplistic to declare hell as a threat concocted to gain control or devotion. Jesus said he did not come to condemn anyone, but came because we were already condemned! Christianity is internally consistent on the falleness of man requiring reconciliation to God, rather than to remain seperated. Hell is, at bottom, seperation. It is not “torture” (external), but torment (internal). It is being cut off from the only Source of love and life.Thirdly, let it be understood, at least from an internal consideration, that God used the (now defunct) theocracy of Israel to judge nations steeped in horror and corruption. God gives life and takes life according to his wisdom.In addition, rape is not condoned in the Scriptures. A captive woman an Israelite wished to marry was given two months to mourn. She was to shave her head (which would “cool the jets” of an over-eager Israelite – she ain’t so pretty now!) and if the whole thing fell apart, she was allowed to leave. Over in this comments thread, a Christian named kevin h is making an attempt at arguing for the necessity of theism to morality. His argument, such as it is, consists of dismissals of the possibility of morality as an evolved instinct, which appear to be rooted in little more than his distaste for the idea. These are married to assertions about the nature of God in which nothing is given as backup.KH> As above, the belief in God is not required for a person to be moral. This is a meta-ethical consideration. Evolved morality is not merely “distasteful”, it just does not account for the peculiar properties of objective moral values and duties. At best, a Darwinian view would only describe what we do morally, it does not prescribe what we ought to do morally. The “backup” would be a discussion on the existence of God; otherwise I’ve only offered a third option splitting the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma.But moreover, most of his assertions are so baldly wrong I’m given to wonder exactly what world kevin lives in. In his last comment, he asserts:Once one realizes that moral values are nothing more than social convention and “herd instinct” they are reduced to illusions of nature. Therefore, they are descriptive and not prescriptive, and the only reason one should rationally be “moral” is for manipulation…First off, I find it more than a little baffling that a fellow attempting to argue that the source of morality is an invisible magic man in the sky is complaining about “illusions of nature”. To find nature illusory is, I submit, one of the more intellectually damaging side effects of embracing religion. But in any event, in previous responses to kevin, I had repeatedly pointed out that one can learn sound moral precepts by observing the consequences of actions. Observable consequences can hardly be considered “illusory” by anyone who hasn’t intentionally abdicated the use of reason. What does kevin even mean by this phrase? What exactly is illusory about learning lessons from experience and observation? kevin doesn’t say. His way of arguing, as with many theists, is to make the assertion without feeling the need to back it up.KH> It is difficult for me to continue when a Category Error as large as “magical sky man”. That is Village Atheism at its worst! I’ll give it a pass. L.D. Rue said those embracing scientific naturalism should hold to “The Noble Lie”. That is, we must pretend there are objective moral values and duties in order for society to function, even though in reality it is a trick of genetics and survival mechanisms. In other words, illusion!On your view, if one can escape the negative consequences of one’s moral desires (“actions”), the act is not immoral. Right?As for his claim that the sort of morality I am arguing for is about manipulation, this is a real irony-meter breaker. Christian morality — in the way in which a great many rank-and-file Christians practice it (remember, I’ve spoken with these people) — is about pleasing a deity in order to get a ticket to Heaven. If this isn’t a tit-for-tat arrangement that could give a damn for the greater good, I don’t know what is. In contrast, secular morality, rooted in rationalism and an understanding of the consequences of actions (you know, what kevin thinks is illusory) is primarily about the greater good, about creating a stable and safe society to better ensure species survival. kevin is just plain screwed up here.KH> Your “talking to people” does not prevent it from being a Straw Man. Religion is typified by man’s attempt to reach, find, and appease deity. Christianity is God reaching to man.Jesus said the greater good is to love God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor. Being in fellowship with God (“ticket to heaven”) is a byproduct of the greater good. And what exactly is the “greater good” for an atheist? There is no objective standard! There is a movement on now that the “greater good” is for man NOT to survive! We screw up the planet! Why are they less moral than you?kevin goes on:In addition, if one got control of the society, one could punch whomever one wanted. Especially “undesirables”.Because kevin had been having a hard time understanding how people could just, you know, figure things out on their own, I had given the example of punching random strangers in a grocery store as a good, quick lesson in why people should be moral for practical reasons.What is funny about this remark of kevin’s is that this kind of behavior is exactly what we see — all together now — believers engaging in all over the globe. If anyone’s out there trying to make life miserable for whomever they consider “undesirables,” whether they’re Islamist suicide bombers targeting Jews or American right-wing Christians wallowing in their hate for gays and lesbians, it ain’t the atheists!KH> In other words, such activity is really wrong!There of course have been irreligious societies that have committed similar acts of oppression. However, as Sam Harris has pointed out, not all irreligious movements have been enlightened or rationalist movements. Atheism can take a very bad form when it is only a reactionary rejection of religion. This is why, in previous posts, I’ve talked about the dif
    ference in development between eastern atheism and western atheism, the latter of which was informed by Enlightenment values and philosophies. It’s telling that those irreligious cultures in which rulers felt they could “punch whomever they wanted” have been mostly failures. Act without reason whether you’re religious or not, and you aren’t going to find life very successful. Again, you don’t need an invisible man to understand this. Well, I don’t, but I guess kevin does.
    KH> You’ve probably figured out by now we agree on this. Obviously, the major problem I’m addressing is the fallacy of Might Makes Right. (Before anyone jumps the gun, the third option of the Euthyphro is not God engaging Might Makes Right). kevin is also fond of assertions like this:God is the Good. His ultimate nature enjoys the ontological status which anchors morality.Which is fine, if you’re willing to overlook the fact that God’s existence has yet to be established, and a statement like this scarcely constitutes evidence for him. It amounts to an attempt to define God into existence by attributing qualities to him the arguer finds desirable. But the statement is fundamentally empty. What is meant by God’s “ultimate nature”? In what way does this nature “enjoy the ontological status which anchors morality”? This, I suspect, is why Dawkins blew off going into in-depth critiques of theology when writing TGD. It’s all so much rhetorical smoke and mirrors. kevin’s statement has no greater meaning, and brings us no closer to an understanding of what morality is, what function it serves in a culture, or how it aids the survival of our species, than if he were to have made exactly the same statement but substituted “Harvey the Invisible Rabbit” for “God”.KH> For the second time, God’s existence is another topic. The internal consideration of God’s anchoring objective morals and duties is addressed by examining his nature. Indeed, reading over kevin’s comments, it appears he considers such an understanding of tangential relevance at best. Understanding morality is less crucial than simply assuring that his God gets the credit for it. kevin’s habit of dismissing prefectly sound questions asking him to elaborate on his views doesn’t help him much, either. When I asked him (I thought quite reasonably)…And why isn’t the fact that we’re genetically hardwired toward group cooperation a good foundation for a moral theory? We know that ethical behaviors exist not only in humans but in other species of primates. So if our genes are responsible for developing just about everything else that makes us “us,” why wouldn’t they play a role in determining our behaviors, and which of those behaviors were the most beneficial in the interest of species survival?…his only reponse was:Because it amounts to delusion.Uh…oh yeah? Like…why? How? Remember, this is a guy arguing for an invisible deity, telling me it’s delusional to attribute real-world phenomena to real-world causes. With no explanation. I call “lame”!KH> As I stated, genetic survival mechanisms only possibly describe morality. It does not account for what one ought to do! Why ought I care about species survival? Especially if I am tired of my species paving my park! What makes the group calling for the ceasing of human reproduction more or less moral than anyone else?I’ll cease using Hitler as an example after I’ve used him 6 million times. So, Hitler and those like him, have their own ideas for “species survival”. Even if such regimes fail, that does not mean someone else could not come along and be more efficient at eliminating “undesirables” and making a “better” world.The easiest way to wrap up, I think, is to offer the same challenge to kevin h that Christopher Hitchens has offered to Michael Gerson, who authored that drivel in the WaPo that Kazim fisked in the post immediately preceding this one. Can kevin…name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever?KH> Again, I can’t think of one. And it’s not the question.Where, exactly, are the moral precepts that are unique to Christianity, that no one in the world understood prior to Christianity’s formal development as a church in the first few centuries of the Common Era? This is the problem faced by apologists like kevin. In arguing for the necessity of theism for morality, the presence of millions of morally upstanding atheists around the world must present a measurable element of confusion.KH> Not at all. On Christian Theism it is understandable. On atheism, it is not.Kevin H

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>