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Nov 02 2012

Just one?

I’m still wondering about this question of what is “religious morality”? Most people seem to think it’s just plain morality that’s (partly or wholly) motivated or endorsed or decorated by religion.

I think that’s completely wrong. That’s not because I think nobody is really motivated by religion. It’s because that’s not enough to make morality religious.

I think morality is secular. I haven’t been able to think of any morality that isn’t secular – any moral content that is religious as opposed to secular.

Can you?

Religions have rules, but they’re not particularly moral. Rules about diet or what to wear or taking a day off to honor a god – those aren’t moral.

Morality applies to what people do to each other, and to animals, and perhaps to the planet. None of that has anything to do with a god or with another (different, non-material) world.

People try to go the other way around, and say the good is what pleases god and therefore morality is religious, but that falls afoul of the Euthyphro dilemma. What if what pleases god is parents dousing their daughters with acid? Then god would be bad! Therefore god would never do that. Ok but then you’re deciding what god is according to what you think is good, so it’s what you think is good that actually counts. See?

Is there anything we think is good that has nothing to do with the secular – nothing to do with humans and their needs or feelings, nothing to do with animals or the earth? If there is anything like that, maybe it’s religious, but I’ll be damned if I can think of anything.

Can you?

59 comments

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  1. 1
    Aratina Cage

    Hitchens made this same point by challenging religious believers to name something moral they could do which a non-religous person could not do.

  2. 2
    KP

    Ophelia, I don’t understand what you mean by morality. It seems to me as if you are discounting certain religious rules as not possibly qualifying as moral rules by implicitly using some sort of secular standard. Moral rules may be stupid or quaint (and since I believe in objective moral truth I would add that they can be incorrect and even immoral), and having religious content may be a form of such stupidity or quaintness. And moral rules can be based on false beliefs (as I think belief in a morality-dictating god is). You ask “Is there anything we think is good that has nothing to do with the secular – nothing to do with humans and their needs or feelings, nothing to do with animals or the earth?” but that suggests a false contrast. I too believe the answer to be “no”, but unfortunately religion assumes reign over such matters. Eating certain foods can be a sin according to some religious morality or other and that motivates some people not to eat those foods. The origins of such moral beliefs, like the origins of religious beliefs in general, are nonetheless to be found in the real world and not inspired by some actual supernatural beings. Isn’t that your real point?

  3. 3
    unity

    Can I? No, but then this is hardly surprising given the origins of most of what religion regards as being ‘moral’ rules.

    Take burial customs, for example. Islam has a ‘moral rule’ that burials should take place within a day or so of death but when you look at where in the world Islam originated then its obvious that the origins of this rule lies not in and of religious belief but out of altogether more pragmatic and practical concerns. If you live in a hot climate and haven’t invented refrigeration then leaving a corpse lying around for several days while you decide what to do with it is a pretty badly idea – it’ll smell, attract flies and people will quickly start getting sick if you’re not careful.

    If we think in terms of Judaism as the root of both Christianity and Islam then what we know, from the work of academics studying the historical development of Judaism, is that the codification of the Torah begins around the time of the first exile and ends, more or less, with the end of the second exile and the return to Jerusalem.

    Knowing that, it becomes pretty obvious that the central concern, and driving force, of Jewish ‘moral’ law, as set out in the Torah, is that of creating a clear demarcation line between Jews and non-Jews during a period of history in which the Jewish people had been forcibly removed from their own land and transplanted into the middle of an alien society, putting them in a situation in which they could easily have been assimilated, losing their identity, as happened to so many other cultures that were overtaken by the imperial powers of the time.

    Jewish ‘morality’ is, at heart, about trying to preserve a distinct cultural identity by creating clear boundaries often by taking an oppositional stance to the society which surrounded it at the time the rules were codified, hence all the rules relating to food, sexual practices, etc. which stand in opposition to the mores of, in particular, Persian society.

  4. 4
    Hein

    I think rules about sexuality come close. How often do we hear that any sex other than between a man and a woman who are married to each other is immoral? Sex within a (hetero) marriage is considered good and non-straight or non-marital sex bad, because god said so. I’m not really sure this qualifies though because the true motivation is probably disgust and perhaps control, with religion just being used as a smoke screen for bigotry. I suppose it could also be argued that this properly falls in the same category as rules about diet etc.

    Mind you, I actually tend to lean towards the view that nobody is really motivated by religion. Firstly, I think that for any action for which religious motivation is claimed*, one can find purely secular motivations that are at least as plausible (and who’s to say which is the true motivation?). Secondly, I think the fact that nobody has ever actually hear from a real god means that all religious morality is ultimately secular, with gods being invoked only as authority figures to enforce the rules by intimidation.

    I suspect the problem is that religion has so thoroughly co-opted morality and has dominated the conversation on morality for so long, that to many they have become inextricably linked. So much so, that even many non-believers associate morality with religion and have a hard time separating the two.

    ———————
    * Perhaps with the exception of purely religious acts, such as prayer. Although I think public prayer often does serve a secular purpose (addressing people while ostensibly speaking to god).

  5. 5
    Eamon Knight

    I think @3 has touched on the same thought that I’ve been having throughout this discussion: if you push it hard enough, *every* religous rule, ie. not just the obviously “moral” ones, can be attributed a secular origin, and is only put in the mouth of God to give it gravitas. Even the trivial arbitrary rules about diet or clothing — things that do not affect relations among persons, nor regulate sexuality — often arose as tribal markers to differentiate Us from Them. So I’m not convinced this attempt to separate morality from religion really works. (By which I mean no more than: if a particular morality is delivered with divine imprimateur, then it is de facto religious. I certainly think there are purely secular moralities, and that we can be moral without religion).

  6. 6
    jonjermey

    The more I hear about ‘morality’, the more it seems to me to be a way of justifying things people want to do when they know it’s not rational. I lead a fairly ordinary life, and I don’t do most of the things that are generally described as ‘immoral’ because a) I don’t particularly want to do them and/or b) the chance of negative consequences is too great to make it worth the risk. I can’t see what the notion of ‘morality’ adds to that stance. It just wouldn’t be rational to do anything else.

    If you have to be TOLD that, say, killing people is bad, then something’s already gone seriously wrong with your brain. What you need is medical attention, not a moral education.

  7. 7
    Jeff D

    I suspect the problem is that religion has so thoroughly co-opted morality and has dominated the conversation on morality for so long, that to many they have become inextricably linked. So much so, that even many non-believers associate morality with religion and have a hard time separating the two.

    Bingo. This co-opting has happened dozens, if not hundreds, of times in human cultures all over the planet and throughout history, but most prominently on three occasions (because the results were enshrined in “holy scripture”): among Jews between the 8th and 6th centuries B.C.E., in the power vacuum in the Mediterranean in the 4th century C.E., and among the Arabian tribes of the 7th and 8th centuries C.E.

    I’m no expert on ancient Chinese (Confucian) culture or classical Greco-Roman pagan culture, but from what I’ve read, morality and ethics in these cultures seemed to have philosophical roots in ideas other than religious ideas. Heaven or Elysium or Olympus or Hades was claimed to exist, and gods, goddesses or spirits of dead ancestors were claimed to exist, but by and large, morality and ethics were not handed down or dictated to be people by these supernatural beings.

    If I were asked to define “morality,” I’d call it the mixture of philosophy and interpretive social science that collects, tests, refines and organizes principles (discovered, invented, whatever) for how human beings should treat each other in order to maintain a fair, just and peaceful society. No paticular set of beliefs about non-existent magical beings or forces is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for any group of human beings to develop or adopt a particular morality . . . and in this sense, all morality is “secular,” or simply “human” and “social.” But if one tries to make this argument using words like “secular,” one will get strange, uncomprehending reactions from most folks in the parts of the world settled and conquered by Peoples of the Book. That’s how strong and how complete was the co-opting of morality by religion.

  8. 8
    Stacy

    unity brought up burial customs, which made me think of Antigone. She risked her life to bury her brother, which (had they been real people) wouldn’t have made any change in his real situation–he’d remain just as dead–but according to their religion he needed to be buried, or at least have some of the formalities performed, in order to be at peace.

    Objectively, materially unnecessary, yet, given the belief system of the actor, it was the right thing to do–does that count?

  9. 9
    Martha

    I enter into this discussion with some trepidation, as I’m struggling to articulate my thoughts on these issues. Before I started reading atheist blogs, I would have defined religion independently of god, as series of practices evolved over the centuries to help us live more in keeping with our values. Yes, I know that’s not the only thing religion does in the real world– but I think that’s what liberal religion strives to do.

    Having been raised a Unitarian in the Bible belt, I’ve seen both sides of religion, but with a certain degree of privilege, which I should probably put on the record before I proceed. My parents are both atheists, and although I’ve watched the pain that’s caused them, especially my mother, with respect to her family, I’ve never experienced it myself. Nor have I ever had to worry that my job was at risk because I don’t believe in a deity. I do understand why many atheists want to throw off all the trappings of religion, even those I find useful (like meeting with others who share my values; or, more accurately, knowing where I can find some of them on the odd Sunday morning I decide to join them). I understand that my response is less visceral than those of others because of my background.

    So feel free to send me to 101-level discussions if I’m derailing the discussion. Or just ignore this comment altogether. I greatly value the intelligence of the discussions here and do not wish to detract from them.

    Anyway, I’ve since become convinced that the ability to appeal to the notion that “God wants x” really is a dangerous component of religion that can shroud moral wrongness on an enormous scale. Obviously other ideas can do this, too– nationalism, Communism– and they may all stem from our evolutionary history as a tribal species.

    Perhaps I’m struggling a bit with the definition of “religion” as opposed to “organized religion.” The latter is clearly an authoritarian construct designed/evolved to enhance cultural stability by the elites who benefit from this stability. That, I have no problem in challenging. Indeed, as I understand it, many of the more patriarchal aspects of Christianity were added later, as Christianity moved from a religion that met in people’s houses– where women could speak– to a more public sphere.

    On the other hand, part of religion is a celebration of beauty and wonder– not just in the natural world, which is pretty damned amazing– but also in the courage and generosity of which human beings are capable. I once participated in a UU adult RE class called “building your own theology.” Some were theists, others were not. I still find the G-word a little unsettling, but I’m prepared to treat it as a metaphorical concept for the sake of discussion. In one of those discussions, we were asked to draw our concept of god. Well, I can’t draw worth beans, but if I could, my response would have been a picture of the Freedom Riders, bloodied from the day before, getting back on the bus. Here, I have the iconic picture of John Lewis and James Zwerg, which I routinely show to my classes before or after MLK Day, in mind.

    Whence did these Freedom Riders draw their courage? I suspect a large number of them would say that they drew it from God. Nonetheless, I agree with many here that their moral vision would survive a conversion from Christianity to atheism. Still, they had tremendous faith that if they turned the other cheek, the bullies would grow ashamed of themselves– or at least that those silently supporting the bullies would withdraw their support. From a purely Skeptical viewpoint, they were dead wrong, as many survivors of Nazi Germany pointed out to them. Nonetheless, they changed the world. No, it’s not fair yet, but their accomplishments are nonetheless remarkable, and one of the greatest examples of courage in all of American history.

    To me, celebrating that kind of courage is religious, with a small r. It has nothing to do with a deity, but it does have to do with a visceral human instinct. Perhaps my difference with you, Ophelia, on this matter is purely semantic. It might be. I often wonder if my differences with liberal religious people are similarly semantic. By no means do I want to invoke a deity, nor do I want to perpetuate the notion that only those who believe in a deity can behave morally. That’s utter and complete nonsense.

    On the other hand, I’m wary of relying on logic as a moral tool. I believe that all human beings should be treated as worthy of dignity. I cannot justify this claim rationally, but I do not wish to live in a world that works under a different assumption. I’m comfortable calling it moral philosophy instead of religion, but whatever we call it, it’s awfully damned important– and it deserves to be celebrated.

  10. 10
    sqlrob

    if a particular morality is delivered with divine imprimateur, then it is de facto religious

    And when it overlaps? Thou Shalt Not Kill / Commit Murder – Religious or not?

  11. 11
    Zinc Avenger (Sarcasm Tags 3.0 Compliant)

    I try to approach the question of religious morality from the other side in conversation with Christians.

    They say only God is the foundation for morality, and that there is no non-God basis for morality. I then ask them if other religions are capable of acting morally. At that point I close in with “but if their god is false, how can they have morality?”.

    I tried that twice, and so far it tied them up in knots. The best answer I got was “Aha! Allah is Satan in disguise!”, to which I asked “So Satan can be a basis for morality?”.

    Sadly we atheists just can’t admit the truth, which is the great goddess Athe came down from the Internet bearing the Truth on tablets of silicon to give us morality.

  12. 12
    Bjarte Foshaug

    Religions have rules, but they’re not particularly moral.

    Exactly, those rules that are religious, are not particularly moral, and those rules that are moral are not particularly religious. For example I still think the Golden Rule is just about as good as it gets in ~15 words (and I don’t think retorts like “What if you’re a suicidal masochist?” deserve a serious reply. This is sophistry, not an argument), but this is precisely because it’s an inherently secular principle which stands on its own merit without any reference to God. Indeed, I would argue that adding a religious motive like “Because thus says the Lord” would take away the whole point.

    People try to go the other way around, and say the good is what pleases god and therefore morality is religious, but that falls afoul of the Euthyphro dilemma. What if what pleases god is parents dousing their daughters with acid? Then god would be bad! Therefore god would never do that. Ok but then you’re deciding what god is according to what you think is good, so it’s what you think is good that actually counts. See?

    If you define “good” as “according to God’s nature” or “whatever God happens to be/do/want” (thus making a sentence like “God is good” into a meaningless tautology), you have only shifted the problem from whether nor not “God is good” (true by definition) to whether or not being “good” is anything to strive for anyway.

  13. 13
    thephilosophicalprimate

    The important distinction to make here is between content and enforcement. I’m fairly convinced by various arguments (evolutionary, anthropological, sociological, and psychological) that one of the important functions of religion — if not THE primary function — is to provide enforcement mechanisms for social rules. However, as an enforcement mechanism, religion is clearly very flexible as to the content of the rules it enforces: Those rules might be morally neutral customs, useful pragmatic rules, rationally defensible moral standards*, or outrageous transgressions against human rights. Of course, religion provides no more substantial basis for evaluating which of those four categories any given rule belongs in than it does for evaluating or justifying any other claims. Instead, each religious tradition treats all of the rules it enforces as moral requirements, even the ones that are morally reprehensible or matters of utterly pointless tradition (or traditions that once had a practical importance in a long-irrelevant context).

    Thus, the question “What is religious morality?” is ambiguous. If you’re talking about rationally defensible moral claims, religion simply isn’t in the rationality business, so it cannot be in the morality business. At best, religion dabbles in rationalizations for already-determined conclusions, not honest evaluation of evidence and reasoning leading to whatever conclusion is most warranted. But if you’re talking about enforcement of moral norms — motivation, encouragement, discouragement, punishment, etc. — religion is definitely in the morality business. Unfortunately, the “morality” it enforces is not rationally defensible, so it might be morally irrelevant, or morally reprehensible.

    —–
    *Of course, not everyone believes that moral claims are rationally defensible. Moral anti-realists might, for example, take the position that value claims are ultimately rooted in no more than preferences, or that at best they are generalized pragmatic recommendations for realizing some widely shared (but not necessary or universal) subjective values. But since such positions are still matters which can be rationally disputed, faith can only be an obstacle to such conversations rather than a positive contributor to them, and so everything else I said still stands.

  14. 14
    Bjarte Foshaug

    Another point I would like to add is that even if some religious people are indeed motivated by their religion to do good deeds (which I don’t doubt), doesn’t mean there aren’t better secular reasons for doing those very same deeds (i.e. the same reason we think of them as “good” in the first place). Without religion we would still have all the good reasons to be good, while at least some of the bad reasons to be bad (following evil commandments because they are thought to be the will of God, defending the faith from infidels and heretics, punishing theological “sins” etc.) would lose all meaning.

  15. 15
    Jeff D

    Without religion we would still have all the good reasons to be good, while at least some of the bad reasons to be bad (following evil commandments because they are thought to be the will of God, defending the faith from infidels and heretics, punishing theological “sins” etc.) would lose all meaning.

    Yes. Sometimes expressed as “Religion gives people bad reasons to do good things, and bad reasons to do bad things, when good reasons to do go good things are available.”

    Once, in a debate with Hitch, Rabbi Wolpe said, in essence, that the point of the Decalogue and its delivery to Moses was not that the Jews were unaware that murder, theft and perjury were wrong before the they got to Sinai, but that their incentive to obey such moral prohibitions was weak and and would leak away unless they had a divine command as an enforcement mechanism. So, I think the distinction between content and enforcement (thanks to thephilosophicalprimate) is a useful one.

    I disagree with Wolpe, because of how the idea of divine commands can be twisted and misused; its efficacy as an enforcement mechanism isn’t worth the cost. For my money, the notion that invisible supernatural agents give moral or ethical commands to human beings has to be the Worst. Idea. Ever. I see no theoretical limit to the wicked, cruel, destructive things that humans can do when they believe they are carrying out a deity’s orders.

    There are moral and ethical rules that religion co-opts and that regulate how we behave toward other people, and then there are distinguishably different rules that religion co-opts (or, more rarely, invents) that are concerned not with how we treat other people, but with maintaining group identity, sanctity, purity, and honor. I don’t consider most of the rules in the latter category to be “morality” at all; I’d prefer to call them “ritual practices.”

    “True morality means doing the right thing, despite what the rules say.”

  16. 16
    kevinalexander

    Martha, @9

    On the other hand, I’m wary of relying on logic as a moral tool. I believe that all human beings should be treated as worthy of dignity. I cannot justify this claim rationally, but I do not wish to live in a world that works under a different assumption.

    I like how you said ‘I cannot justify this claim rationally’ then in the next half of the sentence provided a perfectly rational justification.

    We are all in this world together. Morality is just the basis for behaviour that maximizes our well being . It is goal oriented.

  17. 17
    Verbose Stoic

    Ophelia,

    Is there anything we think is good that has nothing to do with the secular – nothing to do with humans and their needs or feelings, nothing to do with animals or the earth? If there is anything like that, maybe it’s religious, but I’ll be damned if I can think of anything.

    The problem with this is that your definition of “secular” co-opts far too much of what is important to people. Your definition seems similar to the one Russell Blackford uses in discussion the separation of Church and State, and runs into the same problem that it risks ignoring the fact that motivation plays a major role in behaviour, and motivation derives from worldviews. It is reasonable to say that a secular state should focus only on this-world issues and not say anything about other-world issues, but it is not reasonable to ignore that religion doesn’t only address other-world issues, but also this-world issues.

    For your question, if God exists, then God is a moral agent, and if God is a moral agent, our obligations morally to God would come under moral reasoning, and so would not be at all secular, even under your definition. That, I admit, is a very cheesy way around your question, but it strikes at the heart of your Euthyphro example: if people really believe that all of their moral obligations derive solely from their obligations to God, then their morality is entirely religious even if they come up with the precise same rules that secular reasoning comes up with.

    I talked about Hitchens’ point at my blog a while ago, pointing out that his question only works for theists who HAVEN’T chosen an answer to the Euthyphro dilemma. For those, as above, who really do say that the only basis for morality is religious, atheists by definition cannot perform any moral act, even if they act in precisely the same way as the theist does. That’s because it’s the motivation that matters in determining whether you act morally or not, and not the specific action. If I end up saving someone’s life by pushing them out of the way of a bus, but I was really trying to push them into the path of one and missed, surely we can agree that what I did was not moral even if I saved their life. The same thing applies here: if you didn’t do it out of duty to God, then you didn’t do anything moral, even if you acted in a way consistent with how you would act if you did it out of duty to God.

    Now, I’m firmly in the OTHER camp on Euthyphro. I think that morality is something that we can come to know, and so God knows it because God knows everything. But that means that we can ourselves come to know it, and would have to be capable of that if we are to be moral agents. But then I want to know the motivations for your actions and the precise moral system that you are using to justify that. If you justify — as so many do — morality based on a social idea that says that you benefit from being in a society and these are the rules that we need to produce a stable society, I can easily deny that you are acting morally because those are PRAGMATIC reasons, not necessarily moral ones, and so you’d need a move from the pragmatic to the moral. The same thing applies to happiness; everyone wants to be happy, but why is that moral?

    Thus, at the end of the day, it seems to me that what determines what for a specific person/worldview what is “moral” is the underlying motivation, and not the action taken. Thus, if you take a specific action for secular moral reasons, and someone else takes it for religious moral reasons, I would argue that your view of morality is secular and theirs is religious, even though you took the same action. And that, I think, is what people like Stedman and Timon were after in the original posts.

  18. 18
    Verbose Stoic

    Zinc Avenger,

    They say only God is the foundation for morality, and that there is no non-God basis for morality. I then ask them if other religions are capable of acting morally. At that point I close in with “but if their god is false, how can they have morality?”.

    I fail to see why this tied them up in knots, unless they didn’t think out their beliefs at all. Here’s my answer (and I don’t even hold that view):

    Other religions are capable of acting morally because they have the right fundamental motivation: duty to God. But in the case of other religions, those people are either trying to satisfy a God that does not exist or are misinterpreting what their duty to God is. Thus, in comparison to the atheist, they have the right fundamental principle for their actions to be moral, but they are merely wrong about what specific moral actions they are to take because they have false beliefs in their worldview. Atheists, on the other hand, reject the fundamental principle, and so aren’t capable of acting morally at all, and so aren’t simply wrong; they are starting entirely from the wrong sort of system to develop true morality.

    Again, I don’t agree with that because I don’t take that view of morality, but it seems a fairly obvious answer.

  19. 19
    Jeff D

    Verbose Stoic:

    . . . if people really believe that all of their moral obligations derive solely from their obligations to God, then their morality is entirely religious even if they come up with the precise same rules that secular reasoning comes up with.

    I agree that motivations are important in understanding behavior (for example, I concede that many theists do charitable giving and do good works as a result of sincere religious motives), but the above-quoted text is just labeling, word games: saying that sincere believers’ morality is “entirely religious,” even though a non-believer could come up with and sincerely commit to the exact same set of moral precepts as a result of common humanism or non-superstitious reasoning.

    What are the implications of the idea that sincere belief in the religious origin or motives of morality makes morality “entirely religious,” even though the base superstitions are demonstrably “surplus to requirements,” as Hitch used to say? If we concede this,are we obligated to pay deference or respect to this notion of “entirely religious,” even to the point of giving devoutly religious parents a complete defense if they act in an “entirely religious” moral manner and withhold life-saving, basic medical care from their ill child, with fatal results? Or can there be a false or bad morality that is “entirely religious”?

    Religious people can sincerely believe that some divine command or other supernatural element is essential to their morality. But if their morality is a morality worthy of the name, and worth practicing, they are wrong in believing that the divine command or supernatural element is essential.

  20. 20
    Bjarte Foshaug

    For my money, the notion that invisible supernatural agents give moral or ethical commands to human beings has to be the Worst. Idea. Ever.

    My prime candidate for the worst idea ever would be the idea that believing things for bad reasons [1] (as you pretty much have to do to believe in God, since no other reasons are available.) is, not just acceptable, but a positive virtue. While I too have some issues with Sam Harris, I think he hit the nail on its head when he said that “faith, if it’s ever right about anything, is right by accident”. JT Eberhard was clearly thinking along the same lines when he referred to “the dice roll of faith”, and Greta Christina hinted at a similar idea when talking about how religon has no “reality check”. And of course William K. Cliffords classical essay on The Ethics of Belief is also highly relevant in this regard.

    As Voltaire put it, “Those who can make you believe absurdities [2], can make you commit atrocities”, because then they [2] can also make you believe the kind of absurdities that would make the atrocities seem perfectly justified. And the best way to “make you believe absurdities” is to persuade you to believe things for the wrong reasons. The same kind of wrong reasons that gave us Jainism also gave us Jihadism. Even if in your case the wrong reasons lead you to embrace the most harmless and benign belief system imaginable, it will be absolutely no thanks to you as long as the only thing that prevents you from crashing planes into buildings is that the “dice roll of faith” happened (by accident) to land with the right side up. Thus the fact that not all religions are equally harmful in practice, is irrelevant with respect to the deeper problem which is simply leaving the most important questions in life up to blind faith (and hence to chance) in the first place.

    Almost every problem I have with religion ultimately comes down to this “original sin”. And this is where I disagree with those atheists who say things like “I don’t have a problem with faith. I’m only against organized religion”. If I could chose between a world without unjustified beliefs and a world without churches, I would chose the former any time. If we could get people to stop embracing ideas for bad reasons, the harmful ideas of religion would die a natural death, and whatever good ideas are in the mix, don’t need the bad reasons to stay alive. If people still wanted to go to church for community and support (which I strongly suspect is what’s most important to many churchgoers anyway), I wouldn’t have really a problem with that. If we could have a “religion” without unjustified beliefs (i.e. faith), it would rank very low on my list of concerns and with unjustified beliefs even secular ideologies have the potential to become the stuff of nightmares.
    ____________________________________________
    1. This is practically the definition of taking something “on faith”.
    2. Off course “those who can make you believe absurdities”/”they” can also be yourself.

  21. 21
    sailor1031

    Religious morality is anything that RCC Inc. does – raping children, stealing babies and selling them, exploiting child slaves in miserable factories, laundering money for the Mafia, helping wanted nazis to escape justice, signing deals with evil dictatore – I could go on but you get the point!

  22. 22
    Argle Bargle

    Verbose Stoic #17

    For your question, if God exists, then God is a moral agent, and if God is a moral agent, our obligations morally to God would come under moral reasoning, and so would not be at all secular, even under your definition.

    By this reasoning nothing is secular since everything ultimately derives from God.

    That, I admit, is a very cheesy way around your question, but it strikes at the heart of your Euthyphro example: if people really believe that all of their moral obligations derive solely from their obligations to God, then their morality is entirely religious even if they come up with the precise same rules that secular reasoning comes up with.

    The Old Testament God is a vicious, sadistic megalomaniac. Religious apologists like William Lane Craig try to excuse God’s immorality by claiming it’s moral just because God does it. But this means that if God orders something like genocide that would be immoral if ordered by anyone else, any action taken or not taken would be immoral.

  23. 23
    dustinarand

    Ophelia
    Here’s how I look at it. We know that other primate species exhibit behavior (like inequity aversion and empathy for the suffering of conspecifics) that are analogous to our own moral instincts. However, we have no evidence – in terms of artifacts or behavior – that other primates believe in supernatural beings. That suggests to me that our moral instincts pre-date supernatural ideas, and therefore very much pre-date any fully worked out theological system.
    Why is it that they seem so bound up to so many people (particularly religious people)? I think there are a number of reasons. The first is that both our intuitive ontological categories and our intuitive moral sense appear self evident, which of course they would if they were to any degree hard-wired by evolution, leading us to conclude that the inferences they permit us to draw are “true” by virtue of their correspondence with some transcendent, ultimate reality, rather than simply being “true” in the sense of being useful with respect to solving discreet problem sets.
    The second reason I would argue is that our moral instincts are at their most efficacious when binding together small, homogeneous communities, and supernatural ideas, because they develop in every society but never in exactly the same way, help to serve as markers of tribal identity. In other words, religion facilitates cooperation among tribal members, even as it also facilitates action against non-members. This is why we see in the history of religion so many extremes of charity towards some and barbarity towards others.

  24. 24
    unity

    I think rules about sexuality come close

    Good grief, no.

    Marriage derives from competition between males for control of reproductive resources, i.e. females, in order secure paternity and transfer their genes to the next generation.

    (Apologies, Ophelia, for putting in such bald terms, BTW)

    As for injunctions against homosexuality, yes disgust plays a part but also, going to the root of Abrahamic religions, to the social and cultural conditions under which Jewish moral was codified. In may pantheistic and tribal societies gay men,in particularly, were viewed as possessing a blend of male and female vital forces which was deemed to confer them with membership of the priestly/shamanic caste and this was certainly true of cults that operated in the Babylonian and Persian empires, taking us back to the roots of Jewish law as a prophylaxis against assimilation.

    In both cases, secular concerns become codified into religious law as moral principles backed up by divine authority.

  25. 25
    Hein

    @unity #23:

    I think rules about sexuality come close

    Good grief, no.

    Yes, you’re right. I didn’t think that through carefully enough (in my defense, I did write that comment at 2:00 in the morning).

    Marriage derives from competition between males for control of reproductive resources, i.e. females, in order secure paternity and transfer their genes to the next generation.

    (Apologies, Ophelia, for putting in such bald terms, BTW)

    As for injunctions against homosexuality, yes disgust plays a part but also, going to the root of Abrahamic religions, to the social and cultural conditions under which Jewish moral was codified. In may pantheistic and tribal societies gay men,in particularly, were viewed as possessing a blend of male and female vital forces which was deemed to confer them with membership of the priestly/shamanic caste and this was certainly true of cults that operated in the Babylonian and Persian empires, taking us back to the roots of Jewish law as a prophylaxis against assimilation.

    In both cases, secular concerns become codified into religious law as moral principles backed up by divine authority.

    Agreed. That’s also much more consistent with the rest of my comment.

  26. 26
    Ophelia Benson

    Great discussion. Damn I’m not going to be able to participate much because of travel – but keep going.

    Content v enforcement. Thanks G. That was my point about the Promised Land sermon – it’s all enforcement and no content – that is, the content is entirely secular.

    I love Martha’s comment. We need a word for what she’s talking about that wouldn’t suggest god – a word with the same kind of meaning as holy or sacred, but secular. Exaltation, maybe. Inspiration. Something like that. I do agree. It’s a big thing, and it’s important to foster it. Another example I like to think of is that guy in New York who threw himself on top of another guy who’d fallen onto the tracks in an epileptic seizure just as an express was coming in. Held him down while the train passed over both of them. Remember that?

  27. 27
    Tim Harris

    Why should God, if he exists, be a moral agent? Because that is how we have defined It. A dogmatic and un-catholic education that teaches that thinking consists in reasoning deductively from immutable first principles really mucks you up for life, it seems. What was it the Jesuits said about getting someone young enough?

  28. 28
    Ophelia Benson

    Don’t miss Bjarte’s comment @ 20, which got held up because of links.

  29. 29
    Hein

    Me #4:

    Mind you, I actually tend to lean towards the view that nobody is really motivated by religion. Firstly, I think that for any action for which religious motivation is claimed, one can find purely secular motivations that are at least as plausible (and who’s to say which is the true motivation?).

    I’ve been thinking about this some more and I think I went too far there. Of course some actions really are purely religiously motivated. People do things for religious reasons that can not be justified secularly. Usually these are bad things though. For example, I can think of no secular reason to refuse to accept the evidence for biological evolution or for otherwise loving parents to let their children die because they’d rather pray for them than get them the medical attention they need. On the other hand, I can not think of any positive or beneficial actions that can only be motivated by religion.

    This is actually one of the most important reasons to oppose religion. On the one hand it motivates many unjustifiable evils. On the other hand all the benefits of religion can be achieved just as well if not better, through purely secular means.

  30. 30
    Tim Harris

    ‘the right fundamental motivation: duty to God’ – so for Verbose Stoic moral behaviour is behaviour that is caused by a sense that what is done is done not out of immediate fellow feeling for that particular child who has fallen in a well, to take an example from Mencius, but done only from obedience to some supposed supernatural being: ‘A servant with this clause/ Makes drudgery divine,/ Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws/ Makes that and the action fine.’ ‘Who kills a Jew as for Thy laws…’? I have huge admiration for George Herbert’s poetry and person, but it is strongly tempered by my dislike of the abjectness that Christianity forced upon an intelligent, sensitive and, I think, very good, man.

  31. 31
    Ophelia Benson

    I can think of a couple of possible exceptions. If you believe in an afterlife (and I’m frankly not convinced that anybody really does, because I have yet to see anyone who really acts as if she does), you may have extra courage and willingness to sacrifice yourself for others. That cuts both ways, obviously – oh I have to take it back about not seeing anyone who really believes in the afterlife, because suicide bombers seem to. But it can cut the good way as well as the bad, I think.

    And if you believe God has a plan and all will ultimately be well, you can avoid despair and cynicism. But at the price of delusion and excessive optimism…

  32. 32
    Tim Harris

    And, of course: ‘Who saves a child as for Thy laws…’ But the action is fine in itself in this case.

  33. 33
    Tim Harris

    Ophelia, I am preparing a performance, here in Japan, entitled ‘Though Amaryllis dance in green: a portrait of William Byrd and his age’, which will consist of Byrd’s music, both song and instrumental, interspersed with poetry of, among others, Robert Southwell, the Jesuit (now a saint). Byrd was Catholic, as, obviously, was Southwell, who was clearly a remarkable, admirable and brave man, and who was tortured horribly and then hanged, drawn and quartered. He knew before he was captured what would probably happen to him, and quite a bit of his poetry does consist in celebrating a state of mind that can withstand earthly torment because it knows it will receive a heavenly reward; the poems were not written merely to cheer himself up, but to cheer English Catholics up. Byrd’s very fine late religious music, too, is designed to shore up the spirits of a persecuted minority. One might also think of Negro spirituals – ‘Let my people go’, for example, which is fundamentally political. Certainly the roots of moral courage do not lie in religion, but religion can be drawn upon for contextual and metaphysical support, as it can be also for flying planes into buildings, sawing kaffirs’ heads off, killing some other people of choice, etc.

  34. 34
    Hein

    I can think of a couple of possible exceptions. If you believe in an afterlife (and I’m frankly not convinced that anybody really does, because I have yet to see anyone who really acts as if she does), you may have extra courage and willingness to sacrifice yourself for others. That cuts both ways, obviously – oh I have to take it back about not seeing anyone who really believes in the afterlife, because suicide bombers seem to. But it can cut the good way as well as the bad, I think.

    OK, that’s true. Though this is where what Bjarte said @ 20 becomes very relevant.

    And if you believe God has a plan and all will ultimately be well, you can avoid despair and cynicism. But at the price of delusion and excessive optimism…

    But again, belief in God’s plan is certainly not necessary and often not sufficient to avoid despair and cynicism.

  35. 35
    Ophelia Benson

    Right. I think there are big problems with both ideas. I’m just trying to be fair and not overlook anything.

  36. 36
    Ophelia Benson

    Tim – that performance you’re preparing sounds fantastic. In all senses.

    I found the Mars Rover landing kind of exalted and exalting. I think lots of people did. It’s even other-worldly…

  37. 37
    Eamon Knight

    @sqlrob #10: Then I would say we’re getting the same directive from two different sources, both religious and secular (possibly three: I would count personal conscience and legal consequences separately). In practice, most people don’t differentiate among them as motivators, unless they come into conflict (eg: considering an act of civil disobedience), or are inclined to introspection and analysis. And of course, you get people blithely assuming that murder is forbidden by law in modern society because the Decalogue forbids it, and can’t understand why we don’t similarly criminalize various sexual acts (but that is a stupid and confused way of thinking).

  38. 38
    anne mariehovgaard

    Once, in a debate with Hitch, Rabbi Wolpe said, in essence, that the point of the Decalogue and its delivery to Moses was not that the Jews were unaware that murder, theft and perjury were wrong before the they got to Sinai, but that their incentive to obey such moral prohibitions was weak and and would leak away unless they had a divine command as an enforcement mechanism.

    So he was claiming that the Jews were naturally inclined to be immoral? Sounds a bit anti-semittic…

    As for injunctions against homosexuality, yes disgust plays a part but also, going to the root of Abrahamic religions, to the social and cultural conditions under which Jewish moral was codified.

    I think it’s pretty much all about the social/cultural context. Heterosexual people finding homosexual acts disgusting is not universal even today – ask any reasonably good-looking Western male who has spent some time in Saudi-Arabia ;)

  39. 39
    Paul W.

    I posted this long disquisition about the psychology of morality and motivation in the Is it Racism or Trying to Correct for Privilege thread.

    It might have been more appropriate for this one (but is likely tl;dr for most people either way).

    The gist is a rather Jonathan Haidt-like sketch of differences between “conservative” vs. “liberal” morality and their different instinctual bases, and then an argument about how I think secular morality is in principle usually of the “liberal” sort, based on beneficence and fairness above all, but in practice ends up being much like like the “conservative” and religious sorts in how it actually motivates people—also leveraging instincts related to obedience to authority, order, and dirtiness and contagion.

    I think that secular liberal moral argumentation often uses the very same unconscious motivating schemas as effective conservative/religious argumentation, in very much the same way—when the rubber meets the road, the motivational structure is actually very similar, despite the moral schemes being very different in the abstract.

  40. 40
    Verbose Stoic

    Jeff D.,

    … the above-quoted text is just labeling, word games: saying that sincere believers’ morality is “entirely religious,” even though a non-believer could come up with and sincerely commit to the exact same set of moral precepts as a result of common humanism or non-superstitious reasoning.

    Well, let me compare two completely different but entirely secular moralities to demonstrate why it isn’t just a word game. I lean, obviously enough, towards a Stoic/Kantian view of morality. I think that Utilitarian and hedonistic views of morality are just plain wrong. It is, however, quite possible that for a lot of the moral precepts that I would derive from my viewpoint Utilitarian views would come up with the same answer, especially since I think that a good morality will, more often than not, result in more happiness for more people. My difference with Utilitarians is that I don’t think that that’s what makes the action/precept justified as moral. Now, if we find that the list is very, very similar, and the Utilitarian says that this means that my worldview is “really” Utilitarian, I’m not likely to react well to that, because to me it seems that this is papering over the real difference, which is in how we justify what actions are moral and which are not, which to me is crucial in determining if the morality is right or wrong.

    Now, in general, moralities that start from different base principles will result in some different conclusions. But we do have that for religious moralities as well, even for those of the liberals. So, what we have are different base principles, and so likely different conclusions in some ways. Add in that the base principles are, in fact, religious, and it seems right to say that those people have an entirely religious view of morality, just as I have an entirely Stoic/Kantian one and Utiltiarians have an entirely Utilitarian one, and making that distinction not only therefore reflects the facts, but also serves to make clear what the fundamental difference in the worldviews are. Which, it seems to me, is the important thing to focus on here.

    If we concede this,are we obligated to pay deference or respect to this notion of “entirely religious,” even to the point of giving devoutly religious parents a complete defense if they act in an “entirely religious” moral manner and withhold life-saving, basic medical care from their ill child, with fatal results?

    We have to treat them as holding a different moral view than ours, and respect that as much as we respect any other moral view that is different from ours. Thus, if you expect me to grant a certain respect to the Utiltarian view despite my flatly rejecting it, I expect you to grant that same respect to the religious view despite YOU flatly rejecting it. One of my big pet peeves that drives a lot of this is that I disagree with both sides, and as such don’t see why I should prefer your formulation to theirs. To me, you’re both equally wrong/missing the point. So why should I give your wrongness more respect than theirs?

    Or can there be a false or bad morality that is “entirely religious”?

    Yes, just as there can be false or bad moralities that are entirely secular. The trick is in proving that [grin].

    Religious people can sincerely believe that some divine command or other supernatural element is essential to their morality. But if their morality is a morality worthy of the name, and worth practicing, they are wrong in believing that the divine command or supernatural element is essential.

    They are absolutely right to believe that the divine command or supernatural element is essential to the morality they currently accept. I would agree that they are wrong in saying that they are wrong if they believe that the only moralities that are worthy of the name are ones with that same grounding and that you can’t get morality any other way. The problem is that they argue against that, and I can no more ignore their arguments reasonably than I could yours.

  41. 41
    Verbose Stoic

    Rodney Nelson,

    By this reasoning nothing is secular since everything ultimately derives from God.

    Nope. Ophelia’s distinction was secular being about this-world and obligations to humans, and religious was about other-world and an obligation to God. Under that definition, you cannot make a case that a moral thesis about your obligations to God is secular, but could make a case that obligations to humans are still secular. Of course, the problem of people who think that their obligations to others derive from their obligations to God is still a problem, but that’s why I called those cases entirely religious.

    Religious apologists like William Lane Craig try to excuse God’s immorality by claiming it’s moral just because God does it. But this means that if God orders something like genocide that would be immoral if ordered by anyone else, any action taken or not taken would be immoral.

    Since people like WLC try to mitigate the immorality of those cases, I submit that it is quite the inverse: that they believe that what is moral is simply what God says, but are finding those incidents a bit hard to swallow in terms of that mindset, and so are trying to make them seem less immmoral. In short, they aren’t comfortable taking their worldview the whole way, which is the opposite of using this claim to solve those problems; the claim seems to cause them grief in the precise cases where you claim they introduce it to solve it.

    Tim Harris,

    Why should God, if he exists, be a moral agent? Because that is how we have defined It.

    And therefore, yes, if the God as we have defined Him exists, then that God would be a moral agent. This is basic reasoning, so I fail to see why it justifies the rant that follows it. If God exists, then God would be a moral agent and thus we would have moral obligations to God. What’s wrong with this progression?

    ‘the right fundamental motivation: duty to God’ – so for Verbose Stoic moral behaviour is behaviour that is caused by a sense that what is done is done not out of immediate fellow feeling for that particular child who has fallen in a well, to take an example from Mencius, but done only from obedience to some supposed supernatural being …

    You seem to have missed the part where I clearly stated that I don’t hold that view. It is true of their view, not mine, and thus is a good reply to his argument for them, not me.

    For me, moral behaviour is not that which is done out of obedience to some supposed supernatural being, NOR is it behaviour done out of immediate fellow feeling. The former IS just obedience, and we should learn to have the right motivations beyond just obeying what we’re told to do (although that’s better than NOT doing that) while the former is far too error prone to produce proper morality, as our feelings can guide us to help when we shouldn’t and not help when we should. I prefer a purely reason-based approach where we consciously know why each action is or isn’t moral and where if feelings are involved at all they are carefully conditioned to produce the rational result at all times. Hence, I’m Stoic-leaning.

  42. 42
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Religious morality is excusing or justifying things when they’re done for religious reasons that would be justly condemned if they were done for other reasons.

  43. 43
    Jeff D

    Verbose Stoic:

    Now, in general, moralities that start from different base principles will result in some different conclusions. But we do have that for religious moralities as well, even for those of the liberals. So, what we have are different base principles, and so likely different conclusions in some ways. Add in that the base principles are, in fact, religious, and it seems right to say that those people have an entirely religious view of morality, just as I have an entirely Stoic/Kantian one and Utiltiarians have an entirely Utilitarian one, and making that distinction not only therefore reflects the facts, but also serves to make clear what the fundamental difference in the worldviews are.

    People can decide that “base principles” for their morality or for someone else’s “are, in fact,religious,” in a somewhat arbitrary or lazy way, according to how deeply or carefully they want to look, or how far back into history or prehistory they want to inquire. Were the ancient proto-Hebrews’ practices of male circumcision and not eating pork founded on “religious base principles,” or did religious commands or justifications get attached to these practices later, because elites of priests or leaders wanted better enforcement or wanted to use the notion of divine commands, communicated through a clique of spokesman, as a means of getting and holding political and social power?

    How is accurate understanding improved, or made easier, by adding the modifier “entirely” to “religious morality” or to “secular morality” or to “Kantian/Stoic” or to “Utilitarian”? Seems like word-games, again, to me.

    Verbose Stoic (in response to my example of devout parents who withhold life-saving and effective medical treatment from their ill child as a result of sincere belief that withholding treatment is religiously mandated):

    We have to treat them as holding a different moral view than ours, and respect that as much as we respect any other moral view that is different from ours.

    Depending on what forms such “respect” should take and how far it should go . . . No, sorry, I do not have to “respect” that “different moral view,” beyond saying to those homicidally irrational parents, “You’re entitled to your opinion, and I’m entitled to criticize it.” When I am faced with “moral views” held by others and different from my own, or with superstitions held by others and either demonstrably false or not demonstrably true, the most that I feel obligated to do, and the most that anyone else should feel obligated to do, is to practice live-and-let-live tolerance to the holding and the expression of those views and superstitions by others, so long as that “expression” does not affect my life, my safety, my rights, or the lives, safety and rights of others (e.g., children) who cannot protect themselves.

    I have no obligation to pay greater deference than that, because going beyond live-and-let-live tolerance will lead to what Simon Blackburn justifiably calls “respect creep.” To hell with that.

    If I find out that some real, devoutly religious parents (or some amoral, sadistic, or egregiously neglectful but non-religious parents), living down the street from me, have embarked on a fatal course of withholding effective medical treatment from their helpless and ill child, I am damned well going to do more than “respect” that they hold a “different moral view”: I am going to report them to the authorities with the aim of saving that child’s life and protecting him or her from those parents; in some states I may be committing a felony if I do not report them.

    So far as the imminent risk to the child’s life is concerned, the criminal omissions of the child’s parents are substantially the same, whether the withholding of medical care is occurring with a religious motive or as a result of sadism or criminal recklessness without any accompanying religious belief. In my opinon, the difference is that when religious belief is the motivator, it is significantly more resistant to change; clinging defiantly to the irrational religious belief becomes a virtue, or a “test of faith,” administered by the deity.

  44. 44
    Tim Harris

    Whenever I read Verbose Stoic, I am reminded of Thomas Hobbes’s words (conveniently quoted by Eric MacDonald this – Japanese – morning):
    ” Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the
    money of fools, that value them by the authority of an Aristotle, a Cicero, or a
    Thomas, or any other doctor whatsoever, if but a man.”

  45. 45
    Alan Cooper

    I agree with those who say that what distinguishes religious moral rules is not anything specific about their content. But rather than enforcement, I would say that the key distinction is authority. Religion bases moral rules on claims of external authority whereas the rules I choose to obey are dictated by my own conscience.

    Of course not everyone has the same conscience, and so some people will not be moral by my standards, but humanism as I see it entails having faith that most people will be sufficiently moral of their own accord and that the behaviour of most of those who will not can be controlled by threats of punishment.

    But in enforcing behaviour that I find acceptable, I do not presume to require acceptance of the moral superiority of that behaviour, whereas the religious position really requires that its moral rules be agreed to rather than just being followed. Of course I would prefer to have such agreement if that agreement were based on finding the rules in one’s own conscience, but the key distinction of the religious position is that the required acceptance is not by rationalizing with one’sown conscience but by the complete abandonment of that conscience in favour of an external source of moral authority. This has the effect of masking the coercive aspect, which may look good in some ways, but has the fatal flaw of requiring delegation of moral authority.

    To me, that delegation of moral authority is the main problem with religion as it sets the stage for usurpation of that authority by unscrupulous parties. Once one gives up the primacy of one’s own conscience one becomes available as a puppet for whomever can grab the mantle that you have laid upon some idol or prophet, and history shows that such mantles are all too easily grabbed by villains.

  46. 46
    'dirigible

    “if you believe God has a plan and all will ultimately be well, you can avoid despair”

    Not always, and not always at less cost than simply despairing without the added burden of having to restore one’s faith.

  47. 47
    Alan Cooper

    Despite what I said above about content not being the distinguishing factor of religious moral rules, I guess the one moral rule that I would say is essentially religious is “serve God” in any of its various manifestations – which all seem to mean in one way or another “do not rely entirely on your own conscience for moral guidance but look to the authority of (your own religion’s particular) scriptures and priests”.

    By the way, I think that there are also possible humanistic moral rules that do not specifically refer to actions and their consequences but rather to attitude with which we approach life in general. So your suggestion that morality applies to(just) “what people do to each other, and to animals, and perhaps to the planet” may be overly restrictive.

  48. 48
    Timon for Tea

    ‘Religious’ is too broad a category, because no two religious moralities are the same, but one thing that religious morality can supply, which is unavailable to materialists, is the idea of universality, that is that an action is wrong regardless of the local conditions, that right and wrong are discovered, rather than invented. You can have a coherent, materialist morality, of course, but it can only be local (if you want to be logically consistent), it only makes sense to apply it to the actions of the particular moral community, not humankind in total. The implications are the obvious and usual ones: Who are you to say it is wrong for them to kill/punish their women/homosexuals/slaves etc?

  49. 49
    Ophelia Benson

    No, that’s not right.

    Timon, you have heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, haven’t you?

  50. 50
    Timon for Tea

    “Timon, you have heard of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, haven’t you?”

    I have, it assumes there are moral rights that extend to all humans by dint of their humanity. But it cannot be defended rationally without something like a religious basis. What is the materialist basis for human rights (that is not to say that they cannot be asserted, of course, but anything can be asserted).

  51. 51
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    But it cannot be defended rationally without something like a religious basis.

    Funny thing that, since religion is usually the basis for various violations of human rights. Wow. Religion really is all-powerful.

  52. 52
    Timon for Tea

    Nobody can deny that religion has motivated lots of evil (although it is questionable whether it has been responsible for more evil in its thousands of years of history than humanism in its communist form over a mere 150 years) but the question is whether the idea of human rights is coherent without a religious or, at least, non-materialist basis. Doesn’t all our morality assume things that the materialist philosophy discounts as fictions? The idea of human rights, for example, assumes universality in values, an idea of humans as autonomous selves that are continuous over time, and free will, none of which make any sense in a materialist world view. So doesn’t it look like those values actually have an assumed non-materialist basis? We don’t have to call it religious, but all religious people would. What else can we call it? Spiritual? Is that an improvement?

  53. 53
    Eamon Knight

    @52: As a moral non-realist (unless and until someone like Dan Fincke convinces me otherwise) I concede that the idea of universal rights is incoherent, except as a social construct (FWIW, I take a quasi-Rawlsian view that it is rational for me to want maximal rights for everyone because they also accrue to me, without me having to worry about being attacked by someone jealous of my freedom).

    But I don’t agree that theism solves the problem (ie. of making the idea coherent), any more than I agree that it solves any of the “hard” problems in evolutionary biology or cosmology or any of the other usual “stumpers” raised by the ID/creationist crowd. For one thing, theism itself has coherence problems — and you can’t solve one coherency problem by invoking a second incoherent idea; that just moves the problem elsewhere. Second, just as with the creationist arguments, theism is being used as an arbitrary and essentially magical “fix”. Can’t evolve an eye? Can’t justify morality or human rights? You need God The Universal Solver, brought to you by $OUR_SECT (accept no substitutes). How can you know that God can solve your little problem? Because we say so!!

    If human rights is, as Bentham put it, “nonsense on stilts”, then rights guaranteed by God is doubly so.

  54. 54
    Timon for Tea

    ” For one thing, theism itself has coherence problems — and you can’t solve one coherency problem by invoking a second incoherent idea”

    I am glad that we agree about the incoherence of human rights from a naturalistic standpoint at any rate. It will depend on what we mean by ‘theism’ as to whether the same incoherence is a problem across the board. At its furthest margin the theist position may just be that there is a real non-material aspect to human life, and it is an essential aspect (the fundamental stuff, less illusory than the material) and we know it is there because we fell it and we can make no sense of our lives without assuming it. Morality involves acting according to the nature of this aspect, and knowing how involves reason but also using our moral instincts (which are not 100 percent reliable, but still give us true information). I don’t think that is so incoherent, it is, after all, the experience that most of us have, even if we think the experience is an illusory one. It may just be wishful thinking, but it is wishful thinking of a different order than the straw man religious belief that is most often set upon on the interwebs.

    What is strange is that dedicated materialists will sometimes insist that religious believers are absurd or worse for believing in this non-material aspect while themselves acting as if it is real and demanding that others act as if it were real too.

  55. 55
    Eamon Knight

    At its furthest margin the theist position may just be that there is a real non-material aspect to human life, and it is an essential aspect (the fundamental stuff, less illusory than the material) and we know it is there because we fell it and we can make no sense of our lives without assuming it.

    I probably wouldn’t call such a minimalist position “theism” — it’s barely even deism — but never mind the label. If it passes the coherence test (but: “less illusory than the material”? Are you seriously going to argue that’s anything but word salad?) it’s only by refraining from saying much of anything , and it’s still just an arbitrary “magic” solution to the problem. And we certainly don’t all feel it, and if we can’t “make sense of our lives without it”, well tough for us. That’s not a justification (except possibly in the sense that make-believe can have psychological utility) for accepting it as true.

    What is strange is that dedicated materialists will sometimes insist that religious believers are absurd or worse for believing in this non-material aspect while themselves acting as if it is real and demanding that others act as if it were real too.

    And some dedicated materialists (just like non-materialists) have not thought their commitments all the way through, or they subscribe to a theory of moral realism that doesn’t require dualism, or they assume as background one of the non-realist theories that, in their view, yields the particular rights and morals under discussion. Individuals in the latter two categories may all be mistaken, of course, but pretending they don’t exist is just straw-manning the opposition. You have to do the work of showing they’re mistaken.

  56. 56
    Bruce Gorton

    But it cannot be defended rationally without something like a religious basis.

    Yes it can.

    I hold that I have specific rights.

    It is rational that I hold this, as without those rights my wellbeing may be threatened.

    However, other people hold that they too have rights owed to them on the basis that without those rights their wellbeing may be threatened. These people are the primary threats to my rights.

    Thus I have a choice – rationally I could either work to lower there expectations of their rights, or I could work to enhance and extend their rights, with the understanding that such extends mine, turning them into allies should someone threaten my rights.

    The results of the former I can see in much of the third world, and lets face it I am not charismatic enough to be a dictator so I wouldn’t be the guy in the Mercedes Benz.

    The results of the latter I can see in the first world, where the standard of living is quite high.

    On a pure self-interest level, rights are rational. On a strictly risk-benefit level, it is rational to assign people rights on the basis of their common humanity, because such allows me to maintain my rights on the basis of my humanity.

  57. 57
    Bruce Gorton

    there should be their. Sorry, just spent all day in the car.

  58. 58
    md

    I think humans have a desire to be moral…to be good, sometimes. Morality is word varnish for behavior. How shall we have sex, marry, eat? Call that ‘moral’. They also have a desire not to be argued with about their moral behavioral choices, so they invented god, who can’t be argued with, and said morality came from god.

  59. 59
    Bjarte Foshaug

    What “cannot be defended rationally without something like a religious basis”, cannot be defended rationally with “something like a religious basis” either, since that basis itself cannot be defended rationally.

    I can sympathize with anyone who doesn’t feel entirely satisfied with any of the secular attempts at an ultimate justification for morality or knowledge (not that I have heard them all…). What I can’t understand is how anyone can look at those very same problems and think “Wait, I got it! What if we invented a supernatural Big Brother character and said it’s all justified because he made it so? That would solve the problem!”. It wouldn’t. It only shifts the problem to how we know the celestial Big Brother exists in the first place, and why we ought to follow his will.

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