An Atheist Town Council Prayer

The town of Greece, NY, as a result of their recent court decision, is going to have a town council opening prayer delivered by an atheist. This has left a segment of the Christian population utterly befuddled; when the bible is the only book you need, you are not likely to have a dictionary handy. As both articles and comments show an astonishing lack of imagination or understanding on the part of these concerned Christian citizens, I offered the following comment at the link above (for whatever reason, though, my comments never show up, so I have reproduced it, with additional comments in verse, here): [Read more...]

Three Cultures (Easter?)

Student 1—”This weekend is Easter! I’ll be with my family, celebrating, together… That’s what Easter is for!”

Student 2—”in [her culture], we celebrate all the holidays! Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and some you’ve never heard of! Embrace all the belief systems, and celebrate all the holidays!”

Student 3—“in [his culture], there are no holidays—if you want to give a gift to someone, why wait? If you want to tell someone you care, why wait? If you want to recognize a special occasion, what does a calendar have to do with it? Every day is special! Every day is precious! Why would you limit yourself to a handful of days?”

I love having students of multiple cultures.

On The Futile Search For Universal Morality

The study of morality would vastly be improved
If god could be removed

Without the false assumption that a culture’s moral laws
Had supernatural cause

There’s no Platonic heaven where morality is found
But rather, look around!

Morality will not be seen expressed as an ideal
Morality… is real

So, yeah… I guess this one is based on a report of a debate or disagreement or something, between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig, on the topic of morality—or rather, on “objective moral values”. Interesting, or tedious, or whatever. Craig wants morality to be based on God’s revelation, Harris will find it in our brains, our DNA, or some such.

Of course, they are both wrong.

Both want universals, though of a different sort. It’s as if “universal morality” is the all-or-nothing position—and it is certainly the case that (some, at least) theists will pounce on any sort of non-universality as taking the “anything goes” position. But the fact that these theists frame the question that way is no excuse for looking for an atheist equivalent, when none is required. And indeed, the site reporting the argument appears also to be looking for a universal morality:

Gravity is not dependent upon our worldview. And if objective moral values exist, neither should they.

At any rate, Harris argues that something is morally good if it promotes the flourishing of conscious creatures. Craig counters by saying something is morally good if God says it is. With Craig, we are back to the question of which god. As for Harris, I tend to agree with him, but even he has to admit his starting point is wholly arbitrary self-interested.

But why should objective moral values be universal? Let us suppose our needs are universal (even “promotion of the flourishing of conscious creatures”, though I don’t honestly think that’s it)—our environments are much varied, and the ways our needs may be filled are necessarily dependent on our varied environments. And morality is (when you look at what it is and does, rather than what is claimed) a means of controlling behavior, promoting some things and prohibiting others, independently of any sort of governmental law. From here (Hocutt, 2010, an excellent analysis of morality):

What, then, is morality? Protagoras, the greatest of the Greek sophists, got the answer right when he argued that morality is social practices. Morality in the real world consists not of a priori principles but of customs and conventions, tacit understandings about what conduct will be accepted and what will not. Members of diverse groups, we human beings are each of us subject to rules made by our group for our group, so applicable to our group and no other. These rules, some more important than others, are not written down anywhere and, being ad hoc adjustments to contingent circumstances, are always unsystematic and ill defined; furthermore, they are subject to change. They exist, however, in the form of more or less regular practices reinforced by more or less effective sanctions.

Looking for universals in a varied environment is a fool’s errand (which is every bit a strike against those who claim a genetic morality as against those who claim to speak for a god—in both cases, the incontrovertible fact of differing moral standards across cultures speaks against any sort of universal morality).

Because of the contingency and fallibility of these rules, we cannot discover them by thought alone or by using the test of utility. Instead, we learn our moralities by being rewarded for complying with them and punished for contravening them—methods that teach us to feel good when we ―do the right thing, guilty when we do not. Furthermore, our duty to obey these rules has nothing to do with culturally transcendent standards. Duty consists entirely in the fact that obedience to the rules is a condition of good standing in the group. We human beings are certainly rational animals, but we are even more fundamentally tribal animals; and while prudence is a dictate of reason, morality is largely tribal instinct and group custom. We are bound to it in the first analysis by a genetically based need for the approval of our fellows and in the final analysis by their coercion to behave as they desire—not, as Kant erroneously claimed, by choice of an undetermined will. In fact, as even the intellectually honest Kant admitted in the end, the idea of such a will is unintelligible.

Morality is, fundamentally, about human behavior. And the thing is, we have sciences dedicated to looking at that.

The obvious conclusion is that moral philosophy ought to begin with empirical psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Of course, these behavioral sciences won’t tell us what moralities we ought to have, but unlike gaseous talk of archetypal Justice and theological talk of moral law, they will tell us something about the moralities that we do have and perhaps enable us to understand why we have them, which might enable us to figure out how to improve them. Once we understand the uses and deficiencies of these moralities, we might be able to see how their purposes could be served more effectively.

So, is there an objective basis to morality, or is it all just made up? There is no moral god, there is no moral gene—there is, however, the real world, which varies across time and space. The good news… once we recognize and admit the reality of morality, it becomes something we can improve. The bad news… the (for now) majority currently views morality as handed down by a god some thousands of years ago, and that any change is, by definition, detrimental to morality.

Templeton Funded Research Finds Science & Religion Compatible (or, that evangelicals have their own definition of “science”)

Evangelicals will tell us, they are unafraid of science;
They assume it proves the bible to be true.
There’s a scientific method into which they put reliance
But it looks a little strange, to me and you.

They’ll evaluate hypotheses experimentally
Then, conclusions will be carefully inspected:
Do results remain consistent with the bible? And we see,
If they’re not, then the conclusions are rejected.

Perfect science, thus, can never be at odds with Christian thought,
Clearly, science and religion coexist!
Any finding not agreeing with the bible, as it ought,
Is a finding simply stricken from the list!

When you’re truly doing science, then you do the work of God
He’s the author of the evidence you read
It’s a different sort of science, so at first it might seem odd,
But a Bible/Science mix is what you need!

The latest headline out of this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Chicago is that there isn’t really a any contradiction between Science and Religion… at least, when you (as the Elaine Howard Eklund did, supported by a Templeton grant) poll people to see what they think is the case.

It sounds all friendly and promising… until you look a bit deeper into the results, and realize that a good many people are using a very loose definition of “science”. For instance (as reported by,

* Nearly 60 percent of evangelical Protestants and 38 percent of all surveyed believe “scientists should be open to considering miracles in their theories or explanations.”
* 27 percent of Americans feel that science and religion are in conflict.
* Of those who feel science and religion are in conflict, 52 percent sided with religion.
* 48 percent of evangelicals believe that science and religion can work in collaboration.
* 22 percent of scientists think most religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 20 percent of the general population think religious people are hostile to science.
* Nearly 22 percent of the general population think scientists are hostile to religion.
* Nearly 36 percent of scientists have no doubt about God’s existence.

I regularly read, in comment threads, claims that “actual science disproves evolution”, that there is a conspiracy by atheist scientists, who simply ignore the copious evidence of God’s existence. Science, I am told, has proven an afterlife, and ghosts, and dowsing, and ESP, and free energy, and more. So I am not in the least surprised that a poll of evangelicals shows that most of them have no problem with science as they understand it.

I also once read, in an actual print journal, an explanation of the scientific method that was remarkably like what you might find in science textbooks… but with one further step. After you crunch your numbers and draw conclusions, you “compare your answers to biblical truth.” I shit you not. So, yeah, when you do science this way (the right way!), it is impossible to find disagreement with biblical principles.

I have seen it argued that, were it not for God keeping everything following His laws, we would see pure chaos, so the fact that we can do science proves that God is there, doing His thing. But since God is always there, the laws are constant–that is, since God is constantly and consistently intervening, it looks like He is not intervening at all. And since you can trust God to keep the clockwork going, it is perfectly fine to do science without explicitly invoking (nor denying) His influence.

But that view, in which everything is a miracle, has no place for miracles as explanations for specific phenomena. That first bullet point quoted above would include the possibility that God could intervene at any point. “Then a miracle occurs!” would be a standard model, not the (arguably) most famous science cartoon ever. How exactly would that work? How would incorporating miracles into scientific explanation work? It can’t, that’s how. Can people believe that it does? Certainly, so long as they redefine either god, or science, or both.

Eklund has not found that science and religion are compatible. Rather, she has found that people’s definitions of “science” can be modified as needed to fit.