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.