Quantcast

«

»

Jun 29 2013

My remarks at #ewts2013

(This is roughly what I said in my panel this morning at Empowering Women Through Secularism. The topic was Secular Values in Society; my fellow panelists were Leonie Hilliard, Nina Sankari, and Farhana Shakir.)

I’ve been campaigning for atheism for about 20 years now, and I have a terrible confession to make. In the beginning, I had this naive optimism that leaving religion behind would make people better people — maybe not perfect, but it would set them on the right path to reasonable lives. Obviously, I’ve been increasingly disillusioned, as it has become clear that many atheists are, well, jerks. There’s nothing about atheism that is sufficient to make a good person: atheism is not enough. But also, I would add that there’s nothing about secularism that is sufficient to make a good state. Secularism is not enough; we also have to select good secular values.

But still, secularism is necessary. It’s the floor of basic decency, it’s the start, and not the be-all and end-all.

Religion is, and always has been a tool for authoritarianism. By its very nature it imposes a vision of our interactions with each other and the world that is hierarchical and ordered and linear — the orders come from above. You will obey them. And further, the concept of faith is antithetical to transparency — you cannot question those orders, because there is no path for verification. You are expected to trust but not verify, and accept without reason.

Secularism is the rejection of the validity of divine authority as a source of any kind of values: moral, material, political, social, or intellectual. Truth and justice are not meted out by a singular authoritative source, filtered through the interpretations of priests and religious leaders, but are instead derived from we, the people, and anchored in reality by a pattern of continuous assessment against measurable real world effects: not, “how does a god feel about this decision?” but “does this decision improve human welfare?”

Secularists are often told that without a central authority in a god or gods, we lack a source of an objective morality. And I would agree with that — we don’t. I’d go further, and say that believing in divine source of truth and justice doesn’t mean it exists, so even the believers lack a source of objective morality as well. Instead, all values are personal and subjective; you can choose to believe whatever you like, and adding “in the name of God” to a belief does not make it any more valid.

This all sounds rather free-wheeling, and it is: you can have a secular tyranny or a secular democracy. In and of itself, secularism doesn’t imply a particular form of government or relationship between citizens, it only knocks away a prop that supports an authoritarian form of government. But it also says that values have empirical consequences.

As a scientist, I am of course entirely comfortable with the idea of empiricism; it’s a good thing to progress by trial and error. As an evolutionary biologist, I also recognize a metric for “progress”: does a behavior increase the viability of individuals and of a species? It’s actually rather cut and dried: we should promote values that increase the stability and success of individuals and populations, because the alternative is extinction.

And I think I can safely say that any set of values that limits the potential of half the population, that reduces the health and happiness of one gender, or race, or class, is empirically detrimental to the long-term viability of the whole. I can definitely say that there is no objective reason one could argue that being born a woman, or black, or poor should make any individual a lesser contributor to our fully shared humanity.

In short, one significant effect of secularism is that it means we have the freedom to make choices, and more: if we care about the success of individuals and of our society, it means we have an obligation to make choices that benefit humanity, all of humanity, and not just the privileged few. Secularism is about the responsibility to better ourselves, instead of simply accepting the status quo. Ultimately, secularism must be revolutionary and progressive, because it encourages change and improvement — it is an empirical model of governance that demands responsiveness to the real world consequences of our actions.

And that’s really why I am here at all. As a white middle-class American male, I am the recipient of a vast amount of privileged benefits. As an atheist and a secularist, though, I realize that I simply won the cosmic lottery — there is no objective source of my privilege, it’s not that I deserve all of my good fortune, and having a sense of fairness and justice — other good secular values — it is my choice and my obligation to advocate for greater equality of opportunity for all human beings.

54 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    irisvanderpluym

    any set of values that limits the potential of half the population, that reduces the health and happiness of one gender, or race, or class, is empirically detrimental to the long-term viability of the whole.

    I *HEART* this so much.

    Religion is, and always has been a tool for authoritarianism. By its very nature it imposes a vision of our interactions with each other and the world that is hierarchical and ordered and linear — the orders come from above. You will obey them.

    The question that endlessly puzzles me is why people — okay, conservatives — are compulsively drawn to hierarchy, while others find the very idea repulsive and abhorrent. Of course it would not be as big a deal if they kept their predilections to themselves, but it appears that part of the syndrome is to impose one’s hierarchical views on everything and everyone.

  2. 2
    eyeoffaith

    Nicely said. I enjoy your writings very much even though I rarely comment. I also enjoy the comments of many others here. I have learned a lot and I try to be a better person.

  3. 3
    Wilhelmina Selby

    oh irisvanderpluym, if you haven’t read it already you may wish to poke your nose into The Authoritarians by Bob Altemayer. it’s free online and the tone is not academic – it’s more as if a person very comfortable with engaging the attention of first year uni students was talking…and considering that the author is a retired professor of psychology, I see where it comes from.

    I don’t know if i can link in comments but if you start typing The Authoritarians in google it’ll likely be the first result that pops up. I think it’s a very valuable book for skeptics/atheists/secularlists who give a damn about social justice to read, as it provides some insight on some baffling people.

  4. 4
    Sastra

    Excellent speech.

    irisvanderpluym #1 wrote:

    The question that endlessly puzzles me is why people — okay, conservatives — are compulsively drawn to hierarchy, while others find the very idea repulsive and abhorrent.

    Since even liberals are drawn to “spirituality” — and all forms of spirituality/religion are inherently hierarchical in that they all align reality on a moral/mental continuum — I think the motivation has less to do with political force (imposing your views) and more to do with certainty (philosophical force.) Everyone instinctively wants to anchor the notion of “good” into a foundational Source which can’t be questioned because it’s simple and easy. We like simple and easy. And we want an objective truth to appeal to for instant approval.

    The sacred is always on the side of the person who worships it. An authoritative original Source of right and wrong which exists outside of humanity gets to rule on which disputing factor is right — but without having to do any work. It’s correct because it is. No convincing, no persuading, no striving towards a consensus between people. Nothing needs to be built on reason and evidence by working with the other side.

    Nope. One side is right and the other side is wrong because Daddy came and said. Private mystical ways of knowing rule out any self-doubt. Case closed. There’s no need for argument and even liberal believers tend to mistake this for peace. The other side can’t be reasoned with — and this means that even the most woo-ey gooey “God is Love” version of religion is a kind of force. It’s Truth from above, beaming down like a benevolent parent if you’re on the right side … and like an avenging angel if you’re not. .

    As PZ points out, secularism levels the playing field. It forces people to abdicate the use of the Higher Authority which elevates them above the need for argument and grounds everyone into human equality. It’s no accident that science, democracy, and human rights grew out of a view which no longer craved the certainty of appealing to a hierarchy of moral truths structured into reality and instead made us start from the bottom. Cranes vs. skyhooks.

    Feminism wins because the arguments against it don’t work.

  5. 5
    redwood

    Great talk, PZ. “Viability as progress” is an interesting concept and it brings to mind a question I’ve never managed to find a good answer to: How does humanity’s advancement in science and knowledge affect how we evolve? For example, in the bad old days, we lived much shorter lives and some people that would have died young because of various mental or physical problems can be helped and allowed to live better and longer lives now. So does this mean that, like PZ says, it’s up to us to make the choices that decide how the human race progresses? It’s no longer “simple” evolution like it was in the old days, but “guided” evolution? Sorry if this seems simplistic and there are probably good sources to explain it out there somewhere, but I haven’t quite known where/how to look.

  6. 6
    Barefoot Bree

    Slight tangent…

    Religion is, and always has been a tool for authoritarianism.

    Yes, this. It is an even greater tool for ingrouping. Put the two together and we get horrors like the people being killed for apostasy, or insulting religion, or tearing pages out of a holy book, etc. I have had many frustrating arguments with people who say “it’s not religion’s fault, those are manifestations of natural (albeit ugly) human instincts”, and thereby give religion a pass.

    Sorry, but that last phase just doesn’t work. If your power drill tends to go out of control and wreck your project by drilling gaping, unusable holes everywhere, why then, you toss out that drill and use a more suitable and controllable tool. If religion is just a tool – and I agree that it is – it’s wrecking the human project, and needs to be relegated to private, individual little spheres where it doesn’t affect others.

    (Irisvanderpluym, I strongly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion for one answer – one I think works – to your question. He argues that some people, who can largely be labeled “conservatives” in the modern US – seem to have an extra couple of dimensions to their moral compasses, one of which is an ingrained respect for authority, which leads to the authoritarianism.)

  7. 7
    petejohn

    Very well said, PZ. Well said indeed.

  8. 8
    Owlmirror

    I’d go further, and say that believing in divine source of truth and justice doesn’t mean it exists, so even the believers lack a source of objective morality as well.

    I think it needs to be emphasized more that not only do believers lack a source of objective morality, they don’t even really know what an “objective morality” is or entails, even if such a thing could exist.

    There was a blathering godbot here a while back who insisted that since a bible was an object, it contained an objective morality.

    I suspect that many religious philosophers would facepalm on hearing that one. But the “objective morality” of religious philosophers disappears as well, almost immediately, when examined closely.

    The entire point of an objective morality is that there is no possible universe that exists where an action performed by an agent (or knowingly not performed by that agent when it is in their power) that affects other agents negatively can be moral.

    Apologists rely on arguments that actions that God performs or commands that affects humans negatively are not evil because of [handwaved or vague] “good” reasons. But there can be no good reasons if morality were actually objective.

  9. 9
    Alex

    PZ, I agree almost completely, but I feel queasy about you appeal to evolution, survival of the species, and the common good as the source of secular values. I think this is dangerous and does not capture human rights sufficiently. in fact such arguments can be used to take away individual freedom.

  10. 10
    Sastra

    Owlmirror #8 wrote:

    I think it needs to be emphasized more that not only do believers lack a source of objective morality, they don’t even really know what an “objective morality” is or entails, even if such a thing could exist.

    Exactly. Let’s say for the sake of argument that God does exist: what makes God’s moral views the right ones? What if God’s “objective” morals — once they are clearly revealed and understood — appear cruel, unfair, and wicked to humans in general or to our popular ethical heroes … or just to you and me?

    Is God still ‘right’ because He created us (the Ownership Principle?) Or is God still right because it can punish those who disagree (the Force Principle?) Now defend those. Unless you can get a consensus, you’re still dealing with ‘subjective’ truths.

    Sure, God has the right to an opinion on ethics just like anyone else. But we still have to arbitrate any disputes — and do it on common ground. Personally, I think the only way we’re going to come close to ‘objective’ is to aim at ‘inter-subjective.’ And that requires dealing with ourselves in this world before we drag in any god from another.

  11. 11
    Owlmirror

    Instead, all values are personal and subjective; you can choose to believe whatever you like

    Of course, all of my #8 notwithstanding, I’m not sure I agree with this, either.

    Rather than being completely personal and subjective, values are often intersubjective; they arise not just from one’s own mind, but from the interaction of one’s self with one’s family and society.

    A person can have values and beliefs indoctrinated by their family and religious sect; they can be deprogrammed (or reprogrammed — some people convert from one religion to a different religion) by interacting positively with other people with different values.

  12. 12
    Owlmirror

    Sastra @10: Jinx!

  13. 13
    Sastra

    Tyrant #9 wrote:

    PZ, I agree almost completely, but I feel queasy about you appeal to evolution, survival of the species, and the common good as the source of secular values.

    I don’t think PZ was quite doing that. He said

    As an evolutionary biologist, I also recognize a metric for “progress”: does a behavior increase the viability of individuals and of a species? It’s actually rather cut and dried: we should promote values that increase the stability and success of individuals and populations, because the alternative is extinction.

    Evolution cares nothing for the survival of a species. It actually works through a process which involves extinction. So the only ‘source’ of secular values is going to be our shared desire that humans do NOT go extinct. That’s the ‘scale’ — and it comes from us.

    The metric for progress on that scale can be informed by science: what has worked and does work to help slow down the ‘progress’ of evolution and keep some species around longer than others?

  14. 14
    PDX_Greg

    Very well said and a nice read to start my weekend. It is sort of a synopsis of what I have learned about the world since I arrived at FTB (thanks to Jen McCreight). I came to the party oblivious to how living with my in-born steaming heap of privilege was truly blinding me to their perspectives of others, even though I considered myself a feminist and human rights advocate. And man, I still have a lot to learn, but at least now my eyes and ears are open.

    By the way, the paragraph that begins with the word “Secularists” seems to have some linguistic wonkiness in the first two sentences that’s probably a result of fatigue and posting rate (I have no idea how you can travel, teach, participate in debates, and post as much as you do). It stands out because the rest of the post is so well-written.

  15. 15
    irisvanderpluym

    Wilhelmina Selby: I am well-versed in Altemeyer’s work. (For those interested the free book is here, and highly recommended.) He documents very well the existence of the phenomenon, but barely even speculates as to the cause(s). My question is why it happens. What triggers it in some minds, or perhaps inoculates against it in others?

    Sastra:

    I think the motivation has less to do with political force (imposing your views) and more to do with certainty (philosophical force.)

    I agree, although we should note that the right can and does use violence to impose and enforce their certainty.

    You (and PZ) are exactly right about secularism, and this is beautifully stated:

    secularism levels the playing field. It forces people to abdicate the use of the Higher Authority which elevates them above the need for argument and grounds everyone into human equality. It’s no accident that science, democracy, and human rights grew out of a view which no longer craved the certainty of appealing to a hierarchy of moral truths …

    Equality is anathema to hierarchy, which is why right-wing conservatives are opposed to equality in principle. And by extension, opposed to science, democracy and human rights (women’s rights, minority rights, children’s rights, etc.).

    Barefoot Bree: I am familiar with Haidt’s work as well, but I find his paradigm and analyses… less than convincing. (PZ wrote about it in detail here here, if you’re interested.)

  16. 16
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ Owlmirror

    values are often intersubjective

    Actually more than that. They are pretty damn objective (though perhaps not as clear-cut as goddists would like) and can be clearly ascertained by empirical means. What is also interesting, is that the moral intuitions of humans are quite well defined (and ubiquitous!) from a very young age. One might rather say that the intersubjectivity you mention has adverse effects. It distorts the commonality of moral impulses.

    Important also to note that morality precedes the gods. We know the gods laws are moral, not through their authority, but through their congruence with our existing moral impulses (at least those “divine laws” that are actually taken seriously).

    You raise an important issue: intersubjectivity . We have as basis of our morality, our nature as social animals. But we are also political animals. We can distort our social deserts. We can cheat. It is that cheating which “morality” ( an evolved cognitive phenomenon ) addresses. It is in no way arbitrary, and is particularly related to the exigencies of our development as social animals.

    Authoritarianism addresses the issue of opting out. Obviously, by running a tight ship, a group of humans can achieve great things. Be it hunting a mammoth, winning at soccer or taking out Bin Laden. But this requires commitment to the group. Even to the point of self-sacrifice. It is all about strict co-ordination and groupthink. Apostasy, any attempt to differ from, or renounce the group, must be crushed at all costs.

  17. 17
    chrisv

    Amen, Brother PZ. A big AMEN.

  18. 18
    rorschach

    I thought it was important that PZ stressed that secularism
    isnt the holy grail but rather a fundament among others on which to build a
    evolved society. As he pointed iut, there can be secular theocracies.

  19. 19
    rorschach

    *Last message obviously sent from my mobile*

  20. 20
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    secular theocracies

    Mobile screwed up? … ;)

  21. 21
    Jack Krebs

    Excellent, inspirational remarks, PZ. I’m passing them on.

  22. 22
    Owlmirror

    [Values] are pretty damn objective

    Language: how does it work?

    What do you mean by “objective”, here?

    (I could probably agree that it might well be an objective fact that values exist in human minds, but that doesn’t mean that the values are themselves objective)

  23. 23
    rorschach

    Mobile screwed up? … ;)

    Pretty sure he meant the USA. And a good point it is. Secularism, like atheism, can be done and run by assholes.(The rest of his talk was a bit more PC than I would have liked, but hey, when in Rome…)

  24. 24
    playonwords

    Just posted a few excerpts in Democratic Underground’s “Religion” forum hope that’s OK

  25. 25
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    I think, irisvdp, that there is also a sort of concern for the invalidation of the hierarchy.

    That is, if I’m in this hierarchy that my invisible friend and his grifters priests say exists, then if I can see you existing outside it, how will I know the hierarchy I’m suffering for is real?

    Y’know, I’m not eating pork, not drinking, not having sex when I feel like it with whomever I enjoy (and who consent to it), wasting hours every $DAY_OF_WORSHIP listening to boring gits witter on about how awesome the invisible friend is, and how much punishment I’ll get forever and ever and ever if I transgress one of the hierarchy-approved Sins (but not the unimportant ones – as decided by the “priests”)…how am I going to feel, doing all this stupid, unpleasant stuff, if I can see you swanning about and having a happy, joyous life doing what pleases you?

    Yeah, sure, my invisible friend says you’re going to burn forever and ever and ever for your hedonism, but I’ve never actually met the invisible friend, and on some level, I’ve got to have some doubt, some worry, that the hierarchy is bullshit to make the high priests’ lives easier than actually working, and that there is no actual reward for giving the priests their tithe, or doing all the other stupid stuff.

    We, we atheists, doing our “getting-on-with-the-only-life-we-get” thing, we are a terrible threat, because by our existence, we bring the invisible friend’s hierarchy into question.

    That’s my guess, anyway. Take it for what you will; I was raised atheist, have never believed in fairies or sky wizards, so my ability to see into the minds of those who have may well be occluded by the privilege of never being made to do the ritual obeisances to the fairies and/or sky wizards.

  26. 26
    irisvanderpluym

    Wait, I’m confused.

    iutmay stand for:

    -The Islamic University of Technology in Bangladesh.
    -The Isfahan University of Technology in Iran.
    -Implementation under test, a term used in technological vulnerability analysis, particularly Protocol evaluation.
    -Institut universitaire de technologie in France
    -International Union of Tenants headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden

    What? Oh. ;)

  27. 27
    mudpuddles

    I have mentioned here before how I have been dealing with conflicts between secular and “traditional” approaches in my work that deals with nature conservation and associated aspects of human rights. Hearing this talk today was affirming and helped link up a few strands of thought. Great speech PZ.

  28. 28
    oolon

    Advert! #ewts2013 … Since a certain moany Prof complained that the A+ @hashspamkiller didn’t keep up with retweets on #wiscfi its been upgraded a little. So @hashspamkiller is joined by @hashspamkille1 and @hashspamkiller2 and @hashspamkiller3 and @hashspamkiller4 and @hashspamkiller5

    … phew…. So follow that lot and you’ll get no tweets from the Vac… Alternatively install Aratina’s Zapper! into Chrome or Firefox and all the Slyme will be cleaned from timelines and hash searches ->
    http://www.theblockbot.com/?page_id=128

    Oh and sign up to the block bot… Why? Nothing to do with the conference but it annoys the Slimers -> http://www.theblockbot.com/sign_up/connect.php

  29. 29
    jackasterisk

    I feel queasy about you appeal to evolution, survival of the species, and the common good as the source of secular values. I think this is dangerous and does not capture human rights sufficiently. In fact such arguments can be used to take away individual freedom.

    Unfortunately “individual freedom” can be used to argue for the right to be a bigot, or the right not to have to support your society through taxes, or any number of other evils. That’s why deriving your morality from vague platitudes is so fraught.

    This talk unwittingly sketches out a pretty good argument for scientific morality, despite previous writings suggesting that the idea horrifies PZ. The concept is simply that while our values could be anything in theory, in practice the effect of those values can be tested empirically. When PZ says “any set of values that limits the potential of half the population [...] is empirically detrimental to the long-term viability of the whole,” he’s actually making a scientific argument for universal human equality. Human rights are entirely compatible with a conception of objective morality.

  30. 30
    consciousness razor

    I think it needs to be emphasized more that not only do believers lack a source of objective morality, they don’t even really know what an “objective morality” is or entails, even if such a thing could exist.

    I think it needs to be emphasized that PZ doesn’t know what he’s talking about either. If all he meant by there being no “objective source” is that there’s no “divine source,” there wouldn’t be any impression he’s making some kind of ethical claim rather than a metaphysical one. But it’s just irresponsible to pontificate about ethics in these confused terms, if he’s not going to bother understanding the philosophy first. So this is not just about “believers” being ignorant about it.

    The entire point of an objective morality is that there is no possible universe that exists where an action performed by an agent (or knowingly not performed by that agent when it is in their power) that affects other agents negatively can be moral.

    Huh?? You could affect another negatively with a net result which is positive. That sort of thing could be objectively good.

    The “possible universe” language is also pretty confusing to me. Objective means logically necessary? I’m guessing that in practical terms it would be limited by what’s physically possible, but even then…. What gave you this idea?

    If anyone said science is objective, would we hear a big dispute about it here? What would it mean then? Would it mean something more like “inter-subjective” and not actually “objective,” whatever that is? Other than a lot of bullshitting godbots, who says objective means handed down by some authoritarian sky wizard which no one should ever question? Are they really the people we ought to turn to for understanding what philosophers mean by the term?

  31. 31
    irisvanderpluym

    CatieCat – I get exactly what you’re saying. It seems reminiscent of the sunken costs fallacy (or something similar). There is another phenomenon I’ve noticed that may also be in play: if I say, e.g., that I don’t believe in gods, some believers take that as a personal attack. I noticed a similar response in the antifeminist backlash against Betty Friedan et. al: this idea that if one woman says she is deeply unhappy being limited to the role of housewife, that is a personal attack and dismissive judgement against all housewives—and by gawd, they weren’t going to take it.

    Not sure I’m explaining this well, but…yeah.

  32. 32
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Not at all, understood completely, and I agree. Sunk costs is a good way of looking at it, with the added dimension that the costs are going to keep coming!

    And the backlash, definitely. I still hear women saying things like, “Well, I know feminists won’t like this, but I’m a stay-at-home Mom…” – and I’m thinking, “Wow, how do we get the message across that it’s about choosing, not pre-defined ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ roles…?” It’s all more seeking for the reassurance that the hierarchy is real and is good and necessary and so on. Thanks for the insight. :)

  33. 33
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    consciousness razor,

    You are saying that for objective morality to exist, there wouldn’t necessarily need to exist a source of it, it’s just a standard that religionists set so that they could conveniently set their deity(ies) as the right sources of (objective) morality.

    (I think I read you right, I just wanted to clarify)

  34. 34
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    There was supposed to be a question mark in the above comment.

  35. 35
    erik333

    @30 consciousness razor

    I’m unconvinced “objective morality” makes sense in any way, as it is entirely dependent on which values you hold. Given a certain set of already agreed upon values, you could (in principle) find a set of actions which are objectively the best at promoting them – thats basically as far as you can get along the “objective morality” route. God’s values are still subjective by definition, WLC insanity non withstanding, so that doesn’t help either.

    Science OTOH is more reasonably called objective since the universe is the measure of its accuracy rather than completely subjective values. Closer to reality is better, your opinion is irrelevant.

  36. 36
    consciousness razor

    Beatrice, yes, that’s right.

    And I want to qualify what I said before. I don’t mean that you should be some kind of expert on the subject in order to talk about it. But a beginner-level understanding (at least) would generally help more than it would hurt. Here’s what someone could find out by simply checking wikipedia:

    Moral realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:
    Ethical sentences express propositions.
    Some such propositions are true.
    Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion.

    Notice how there’s no mention of a “divine source.” And why the hell would there be, if a god is pretty much by definition some pure form of subjectivity itself with no other objective features?

    And here’s Stanford’s entry. I’m not going to paint too rosy of a picture: there are legitimate problems with the view which people ought to take seriously. Maybe they can be worked out some day. But it’s just ignorant nonsense to say that you need a god to have objectivity: pure, utter bullshit, all the way down. Let theists have their bullshit, if they can’t do any better. We don’t need it.

  37. 37
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    Thanks for the links, consciousness razor.

  38. 38
    Asher Kay

    I’m unconvinced “objective morality” makes sense in any way, as it is entirely dependent on which values you hold.

    I’m comfortable with “objective morality” when it refers to a specific kind of moral realism that’s compatible with naturalism and doesn’t require absolutism. The basic idea is that physical systems that have developed teleology (goal/purpose-based actions) encounter situations and environments in which there are objectively better and worse outcomes. Physical pain, injury, disease and outright dissolution are some of the most clearly objectively “worse” outcomes, though they’re not universally worse in all cases.

    The way I see it, this kind of “objective” morality is tied loosely to evolutionary thinking, because the physical systems themselves evolve sub-systems that conform to the objective better/worse physical reality. You won’t, for example, find a teleological organism without a “survival instinct” because all such creatures would almost certainly have become extinct in short order.

  39. 39
    unclefrogy

    The United States as far as I know started the first secular government because they were practical men and realized that there were many differences of opinion within he states and the people (men) within the states so if they were going to have a successful stable country in which to “”form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,”" needed to make agreements amongst themselves. Relying on some outside authority would not work since there slim chance of there being any consensus on what that would outside source would be of themselves. That idea has grown because it is the only one that really works in the long term. If we are to survive and flourish we need to cooperate. All cultures are basically derived from agreements, secularism approaches that agreement from that same reality that the US was formed. The constant strife and cutthroat competition between individuals, groups and nations, the winner take all, win at all costs mentality is in the long term it turns out detrimental to our prosperity and our survival.
    When will it be recognized and more fully adopted here in the US and the “West” and in the rest of the world?
    uncle frogy

  40. 40
    Asher Kay

    I think the motivation has less to do with political force (imposing your views) and more to do with certainty (philosophical force.)

    This is a great point — and I think this bias toward wanting certainty is as close as we’re likely to get to the psychological root of different worldviews.

    It’s important to note, I think, that hierarchical, authoritarian systems serve us well in certain situations — especially emergencies, where a group needs to be able to act in concert, without a lot of deliberation. This is why groups that respond to crises (fire, police, military) tend to have very authoritarian structures. And I think this is also why conservatives tend to play so heavily on fear. If you have a crisis, you need to bump up the priority of values like loyalty and solidarity.

  41. 41
    unclefrogy

    Asher Key I think you have something there.
    If as you suggest that authoritarian systems tend to thrive in dangerous situations they might have served a purpose in the past. Even though they were self perpetuating my local warlord is protecting me from your local warlord.
    We have reach a level were that is very much less necessary form. We have begun to develop other means but the “warlords” in power or those wishing to be the new warlord are doing there best to perpetuate and if needed to manufacture fears of “the crisis” of (put what ever resonates here). I have never heard anyone who advocates for a more authoritarian power that does not want to be that power at some level.
    no gods to appease for weather or earthquakes or crops or peace or children or health. we just beginning to really understand generally that it is in our hands and has been there all along. We have been blinded by fear mongering authoritarians.

    uncle frogy

  42. 42
    unclefrogy

    feel free to add the articles I left out I swear I heard them as I typed and read them when I re-read it. My brain does not seem to always talk to my hands or it seems my eyes either.

    sorry for any difficulty you may have.
    uncle frogy

  43. 43
    Tony! The Fucking Queer Shoop!

    PZ:
    Applause!
    Well said.

  44. 44
    Azuma Hazuki

    This has to be one of the best threads in a good while on here! Lots of new insights, lots of philosophical bones to gnaw. Asher said something interesting upthread, something I’ve been trying to put words around for at least half a decade.

  45. 45
    Krishan Bhattacharya

    “Religion is, and always has been a tool for authoritarianism. By its very nature it imposes a vision of our interactions with each other and the world that is hierarchical and ordered and linear — the orders come from above.”

    ————————–
    I couldn’t agree more PZ.

    I think that it would be of great benefit to sketch out a general outline of the origins of our big religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism) as social and political phenomena. Believers can often be led to lose their beliefs once they see how the religion was created. Of course, such work has been done by historians. But we need to find a way of saying it plainly so that if can be obvious to everyone. I think it goes something like this:

    Religions are sets of beliefs which are about historical persons and events, metaphysical claims about the soul, god/gods, the afterlife. The ultimate concern of religion is the fate of the soul. This fate depends, according to religion, on believing in a certain god, and in living under certain moral strictures. Follow these, and you get to Heaven.

    So it appears to most believers. But the reality is that religion, like Communism, is a belief system that leads a double life. Lay believers in Communism thought they had a system of philosophy and politics that would lead to justice, equality, and liberation. The Himalayan irony was that Communism created the opposite of that: a system of tyranny, vertical power structures, and serfdom, all IN THE NAME of justice, equality, and liberation. The ideology, first appearing as nineteenth century philosophy, economics, and polemics, was slowly turned into a full political ideology, complete with parties and magazines, and eventually capturing whole states. Those in power viewed themselves as white knights, who were going to usher mankind into a new era of peace and freedom. They thought that historians would look back on them as the Isaac Newtons of history, who discovered the laws of motion of society and could thus engineer it to ideal perfection. But once in power, they simply behaved in a way so as to preserve their own power, to the exclusion of all other considerations. Animated by the hatred of the rigid, reactionary feudal aristocracies that controlled the lands of Russia and China, they overthrew them…and then simply became the new overlords themselves. Communism thus had a Janus-like face. A belief in one thing can also be a belief in something else, unbeknownst to the lay believer.

    Like Communism, religion also lives a double life. A system of thought that appears to be about history, God, the soul, the afterlife, and spirituality is indeed about those things. But, at the same time, it is also a belief in something else. Religions can be seen as conservative political ideologies which are engineered to uphold the social order of bronze age feudal patriarchy. All of the modes of thinking and behavior that God prohibits are contrary to the social order of tribal and feudal patriarchy in which the big religions were born. It is religion that provides ready arguments for the power of the aristocracy over the peasantry and of men over women, and ready justification for violence against those who do not conform to the absolutist order.

    Nowhere is this more obvious than in the most religious societies. Ask yourself: what nation has the most egregiously unequal feudal social structure? Which nation most resembles France in the 1400′s? The answer, I think, is Saudi Arabia, which is controlled by a class of mindbogglingly wealthy aristocratic families, who rule with impunity of a mass of ignorant and destitute peasants. Ditto Pakistan. Now, which nation is the most fanatically religious? Saudi Arabia and Paksitan. Which nations have the most repressed women? You are catching on.

    The feudal purpose of religion can also be seen quite nakedly in India, where Hindu priests tell women and the poorest castes that their unlucky station in life is the result of their misdeeds in a past life. This idea is similar to that of Original Sin. The metaphysics and theology of it are different, but the social consequences are the same.

    The world needs to wake up to this reality. Perhaps the Muslim peoples are learning of this now, as the internet and travel bring news of other societies, where things are done quite differently than the way they know of.

  46. 46
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ Owlmirror

    What do you mean by “objective”, here?

    As opposed to subjective.

    But yes, I should perhaps be clearer about what I mean:

    We can contrive a large series of well run experiments to research a whole array of situations where the subjects of the research are required to categorise various forms of social interaction. These can be conducted on quite young children, from all manner of places and cultural backgrounds. The results, we shall find are amazingly congruent. People have a natural proclavity to understanding what constitutes a/n im/moral action. These are intuitive and universal.

    That these later become distorted (through education, indoctrination, cultural influences) I do not doubt. But if these can be controlled out, we will come back to the same set of universal moral intuitions. Morality is not a cultural phenomenon.

    Eliot Turiel , has conducted such experiments with children as young as three years old. Their social knowledge categories are quite firmly in place,and stay that way, but are expanded through the experiences of social interaction.

    IMHO, if we were to follow through on the consequences of such research, we could derive a set of moral principles that are empirically based. An objective, scientific morality.

    @ rorschach

    It was more that I couldn’t get my head around “secular theocracies”. It seems such an oxymoron to me. Therefore I blamed your phone.

  47. 47
    playonwords

    This does not belong here but could someone give PZ a heads up about this piece of dirty laundry from the University of Illinois http://phys.org/news/2013-06-christians-tweet-happily-analytically-atheists.html

  48. 48
    theophontes (恶六六六缓步动物)

    @ playonwords

    George Bernard Shaw:

    The fact that a believer is happier than a sceptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.

    Also:


    Can we make ourselves happier?

    “In order to have a happy life, a rewarding life, you need to be active. So involvement is more important to happiness than meaning in the sense of the why, why we are here.”

  49. 49
    rasholm

    Bravo PZ, agree with every word.

  50. 50
    David Marjanović

    *applause for comment 45*

    feel free to add the articles I left out I swear I heard them as I typed and read them when I re-read it.

    The same, as usual, holds for all the commas, semicola, and dashes that would make your stream of consciousness so much easier to read. *sigh*

    http://phys.org/news/2013-06-christians-tweet-happily-analytically-atheists.html

    A female Jesse? What, has that name been reinterpreted as short for Jessica or something?

  51. 51
    andrewriding

    Objective morality seems simple enough, in that it’s not derived from a subject, but naturally that’s rarely what people are talking about with this subject. On the religious side they really just want a system of morality that you can’t opt out of, and this makes a fair bit of sense as even a child can see how rules against doing, say, selfish things, won’t work that well if you don’t have anything holding you to the rules when you’re feeling selfish. Game theory and Kant’s moral imperative very nearly take care of that issue completely, and then if you toss in some sort of legal system for how to handle when sneaky folks get caught you’ve got everything except people that were successfully sneaky about their rule breaking.

    Some God’s morality still doesn’t accomplish anything here, as the main concept there is “they didn’t really get away with it because big brother saw and is already doing the paperwork to lock them up forever.” Not really handling people that don’t get caught there so much as rejecting that it’s possible to not get caught, but as we all know TONS of people act like they can fool their god via loopholes or some kind of nonsensical rules lawyer runaround.

    On the nonbeliever’s side we either take objective morality literally or we go with some philosophy technobabble (spiritubabble?) that most people can’t follow and simply isn’t very convincing when you reword it using plain English. Can’t claim to have seen every case of that but so long as I’m grasping the points about as well as I think I am these are almost always answers to questions that weren’t asked.

    The literal interpretation cases are generally air tight via basic physics and some recognition of the human condition, but as usual this isn’t very satisfying to believers because they’re not really asking the right question.

  52. 52
    Delft

    @irisvanderpluym
    ré why some people are drawn towards hierarchy
    My working theory is that individuals vary in their tolerance of insecurity and dealing with unknowns, and a fixed order / god-given truths etc. satisfy a strong need for security. With all this thinking and questioning, you can never really rely on anything! Much safer to trust some authority/ tradition/ old book…

    Of course, those who are privileged under the status quo may also feel they have much to lose, and not see what they stand to gain from an equal society.

  53. 53
    consciousness razor

    A female Jesse? What, has that name been reinterpreted as short for Jessica or something?

    I’m pretty sure I’ve known more women with the name than men. Some variations are “Jessie” or “Jessi” or “Jess.”

    On the nonbeliever’s side we either take objective morality literally or we go with some philosophy technobabble (spiritubabble?) that most people can’t follow and simply isn’t very convincing when you reword it using plain English.

    Most people act like moral realists, because realism includes the sort of intuitive, common sense, folk psychological or even naive views, which align with how they behave and think and talk about it, in plain English or in whichever language. For example, if you claim “people should not be enslaved,” then it’s likely that you’re also willing to claim “it’s true that people should not be enslaved.” You may not have any elaborate theories to support it or evaluate what is a truth-claim or put into context with the rest of your views — which is where the problems start creeping in — but generally those mean the same thing. (What else would you expect to hear, if they haven’t thought much about it? “People should not be enslaved, and that’s neither true nor false.” Nobody thinks like that, without first twisting their mind into knots over this stuff.)

    And it’s worth adding that most moral philosophers, who have tried to think about it further, are also realists of some sort, twisted (or even naive) though they may be. If they can be blamed for trying to make some kind of fucking sense out of all this instead of just making shit up as they go along and ignoring what others have to say about it, then I guess at least some of them are guilty. It’s not as if ethics and epistemology and metaphysics are important, am I right? Yeah, let’s just sneer at them all, about nothing in particular.

    But if left to their own devices, without meddling from philosophers and their endless thinking and questioning and “technobabble,” you think nonbelievers would be taking it “literally” somehow? What does that mean? What’s supposed to be literal, and what’s that supposed to contrasted with?

    Can’t claim to have seen every case of that but so long as I’m grasping the points about as well as I think I am these are almost always answers to questions that weren’t asked.

    Then which questions were almost always being asked, in your experience, and what kind of answers do you think they need?

  54. 54
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    This is exactly my thoughts on the matter, but much more eloquent than I think I could manage. Thanks PZ, it’s a good read.

Comments have been disabled.