Extreme biological determinism

In my post Atheists who love religion, I spoke about my puzzlement with the views of self-proclaimed atheists like S. E. Cupp, Jesse Bering, and Jesse Powell. Powell has responded with a long essay in the comments explaining his views.

I find his arguments interesting to the extent that they shed some light on the mentality of those who seek to be part of the religious fold but don’t find them persuasive in the least. He takes society at some point in time and asserts it to be the ‘natural’ state and that we should try to return to it rather than progress away from it. This is a common argument advanced by those who despair at the current state of the world, the only variation being the time period chosen as the preferred state, his being one in which ‘Christian patriarchy’ was supposedly dominant.

Powell’s wrinkle is to use evolution to buttress his claims of a ‘natural’ state and it requires a level of biological determinism that is unwarranted. The notion that babies are born either religious or atheist and that ‘cultural atheists’ are those fighting their innate biological nature seems far-fetched.

Also his use of religious labels to represent secular concepts seems to me to be needlessly blurring the issues. For Powell, ‘God’ is not a supernatural entity but merely the label he gives to ‘that which is good’ and similarly ‘The Devil’ represents ‘that which is bad’ or ‘that which destroys’. (Does that make hurricanes and earthquakes the Devil?) When one assigns meaning to words that are so far removed from how everyone else uses them, then pretty soon one is in “Who’s on first?” territory and no one knows what they are even talking about.

If one is not careful, one can get lost in this fog in discussions with accommodationists whose use of metaphors tends to obscure rather than clarify. I have given suggestions on how to avoid getting stuck in that kind of ambiguity.

As far as I am concerned, this exchange has run its course but I recommend Powell’s comment to those who are interested in pursuing that particular discussion.


  1. says

    Also his use of religious labels to represent secular concepts seems to me to be needlessly blurring the issues.

    Yes. Exactly.

    What bugs me about these accomodationist tropes is the implication that there is something worth saving about religion. Oddly, nobody seems to be questing for something worth saving about phrenology, phlogiston, geocentrism, etc. -- which makes me immediately suspicious of their motives. My suspicions tend to run towards the opinion that they’re either cowards who are afraid to confront the religious, or they’re “agnostic” in the sense that they pine for the days when they were credulous mushbrains.

  2. Steve R says

    For all the evil that it has perpetrated, the Cult of the Cross has inspired some wonderful music.

  3. dukeofomnium says

    I accept his word that Powell doesn’t believe in any of the orthodox (small o) religions, and that he’s merely cynically exploiting them to attempt to achieve his own crackpot ends. That being said, the moment you personify “good” into “god” (with a big G or a small), you have stopped being an atheist, by any standard definition of the term.

  4. Jesse Powell says

    “[T]he moment you personify “good” into “god” (with a big G or a small), you have stopped being an atheist, by any standard definition of the term.”

    I wish to dispute this claim. On the internet I found a definition for atheist that reads “a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.” The key term here is “supreme being.” In the definition the “supreme being” is assumed to be a real entity of a supernatural nature. What I promote for atheists is the embracing of a “God concept” where “God” is defined in a way that the atheist can accept, such as “that which is good.” To believe in the legitimacy of a God concept does not violate atheist belief. If the atheist then wants to use the word “God” to refer to this God concept I don’t see anything wrong with that. The important part is the God concept itself, not the language used to describe the God concept. Personifying the God concept to a “God” that can and should be “obeyed” is something easy for a human being to understand and is also emotionally rewarding and satisfying. I don’t see why atheists should deny themselves the benefits that come from personifying the God concept.

    As far as muddying the waters or blurring the line between atheism and religion, I don’t see how atheists using the term “God” presents a problem. The atheist and the religious person simply understand God in two different ways, the religious person understands God in a literal sense while the atheist understands God in an abstract sense; other than that the two meanings of God are compatible.

    The reason why I am arguing this claim is because I think God is a very valuable concept that atheists could benefit from greatly. The problem with typical atheist belief systems at the present time is that they are morally fragmented, the different aspects of atheist belief do not come together to form a greater whole. Religious belief systems are morally cohesive and because of this work much better. The glue or the organizing principle of the religious belief system is God; God is what allows multiple different virtues to come together to form a greater whole. Christians already have a God concept in the form of their God, Jesus Christ. The fact that atheists usually don’t have a God concept is a great disadvantage for the atheist. My promotion of the God concept for atheists is an attempt to rectify this disparity, to give to atheists what religious people already enjoy.

    Atheists most definitely need to submit themselves to something; this “something” is the “externally imposed moral order” or alternatively the “God concept” or alternatively simply God. There is no contradiction to an atheist “obeying God” as long as the “God” that the atheist “obeys” is defined in a way that the atheist can understand.

    Without a God concept the atheist is trapped in moral fragmentation and moral relativism and is at a disadvantage in leading a successful life compared to the Christian. If one is an atheist in order to escape from the moral rules that religion imposes one is an atheist for the wrong reason.

  5. anat says

    Atheists most definitely need to submit themselves to something; this “something” is the “externally imposed moral order” or alternatively the “God concept” or alternatively simply God.

    Not true. Atheists are claiming we can be moral without god(s)/ess(es) of any kind. There are moralities that are not about submission. Consequentionalist moralities are about figuring out which actions are likely to have the more desirable consequences. (In specifics they vary in how to resolve conflicts when actions have desirable consequences for some and undesirable for others.) I do not ‘submit’ to anything when I figure out moral behavior, I empathize with the various people who are going to be affected by the action in question.

  6. Jesse Powell says

    Do you “submit” to your duties and obligations towards others? I like the emphasis on submission because it implies service to others or “duties.” “Duties” tend to be more positive for society than “rights” because “duties” are outwardly directed to benefit others while “rights” are inwardly directed to benefit oneself. I’m figuring “consequentionalist moralities” are akin to utilitarianism or the greatest good for the greatest number. I am not opposed to such ways of trying to make moral judgments in principle; the problem is you end up with an overly complicated mess trying to judge the consequences of your actions on all the people that your proposed action will affect. Things are then made even more complicated when considering all the different courses of action that one might choose instead. Basically, utilitarianism is unworkable without a set of rules to follow to make things simpler.

    So, to deal with this problem the atheist then makes a list of virtues for themselves to follow. Things like equality, fairness, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, the rule that the most affected person should make the decision; these things then become the “list of virtues” that the atheist tries to uphold. The problem is that this “list of virtues” end up coming into conflict with each other. The “list of virtues” approach leads to the moral fragmentation I talked about earlier. The “list of virtues” approach is better than straight utilitarianism but it is still dysfunctional.

    The “obey God” approach that religion is based on and that atheists can construct for themselves is the best approach because “obedience to God” serves the role of placing the “list of virtues” into a hierarchy and into a network of relationships that leads to the creation of a unified whole in one’s moral approach to life. “Obedience to God” is what creates moral cohesion.

    It needs to be remembered, religion has spent a long time trying to develop codes of conduct that work for their members and that work for the religious community as a whole. The “God formulation” as I would refer to it is really quite brilliant. I think it is something atheists would be wise to imitate.

    I will furthermore add that I believe that the moral values I advocate are fully consistent with utilitarianism or “the greatest good for the greatest number.” The problem with social liberalism is that it involves a large amount of harm to others that is not recognized. This “invisible harm” shows up as deterioration in the various social indicators such as the divorce rate and the out-of-wedlock birth ratio. Social conservatism takes into account the interests of all parties involved in regards to family behaviors much better than social liberalism does.

  7. Katkinkate says

    Jesse said: “This “invisible harm” shows up as deterioration in the various social indicators such as the divorce rate and the out-of-wedlock birth ratio.”

    Not all divorce and “out of wedlock’ births are harmful. The social conservatism that sees them as harmful is the kind that would have people locked into dysfunctional families when they could have happier and more productive lives with others. Sometimes divorce is a very good thing and you don’t have to be in a modern nuclear family to raise kids well. There are lots of combinations, including single mums and dads that successfully raise kids to be well-balanced productive and happy members of society.

  8. Jesse Powell says

    I will focus on this part: “[Y]ou don’t have to be in a modern nuclear family to raise kids well. There are lots of combinations, including single mums and dads that successfully raise kids to be well-balanced productive and happy members of society.”

    In general, the greater investment that is put into the well being of children the better off the children are. Part of investing into the well being of children is providing for children a family situation that is as close to ideal as possible; where the maximum amount of investment into the child’s well being is facilitated. The ideal family situation is a married couple with their own biological children where the mother is a stay-at-home mother. The whole point of patriarchy is to maximize the amount of investment into the well being of children. Patriarchy provides a mechanism where the man invests in the woman so that the woman can focus her attention on the children. It is a system of division of labor that allows both the man and the woman together to invest in the well being of their children to the maximum extent.

    I found a study giving the results of some research into the outcomes for children from different family situations:

    Are both parents always better than one?

    The first paragraph reads:

    “Growing up without both parents is associated with a host of poor child outcomes, such as higher poverty rates and lower levels of educational and occupational attainment. Compared to children living with their married, biological parents, children in single-parent and stepparent families also report greater substance use and risk-taking behavior, such as smoking, drinking, and drug use. They are more likely to have sex at an early age, to be young and unmarried when they form their families, and to experience the dissolution of their own romantic relationships.”

    The report on the study includes a very interesting table; “Table 1: Averages on key outcomes, by family type.”

    Below are three lines from the table. “HSD” means High School Dropout, “NF” means Nonmarital Fertility, “UD” means Union Disruption, “L/C” means Low Conflict, “M/C” means Medium Conflict, “H/C” means High Conflict. All the conflict levels refer to Continuously Married Parents. “SF” means Stepfather Families and “S” means Single Parent Families. The numbers in the table are percent of children affected by the negative outcome.

    L/C M/C H/C SF S
    HSD 6% 8% 12% 19% 25%
    NF 6% 7% 10% 15% 16%
    UD 32% 38% 41% 43% 57%

    Not all the negative indicators given continuously increase in the same way the above indicators do but it is clear that the continuously married couples have better outcomes for their children on average than the Stepfather families or the Single Parent families do. In addition there are many indicators where even High Conflict marriages prove better for the children on average than the Stepfather or Single Parent alternative.

    The most important point is that not all family structures are the same. In the past family structures were much more frequently in accordance with the ideal than they are today. This leads me to think that the cultural rules and expectations of the past were more conducive to positive family outcomes than the modern liberal culture of today.

  9. anat says

    Do you “submit” to your duties and obligations towards others?

    I wouldn’t phrase it like that. I take duties and obligations upon myself. Actively. And it is I who determines, ultimately, what my duties and obligations are. Society, my boss and others can decide what they would like me to see as my obligations and duties but I don’t automatically agree. And I may decide that there are things that are my obligations which nobody else demands of me. When I disagree with an authority about an obligation I have several options -- sometimes I can negotiate, sometimes I go along anyway, sometimes I change the situation such as that authority no longer applies (by moving to a different country or changing my workplace), and if the demand is unreasonable enough I might try to find a way to get away with not following it or rebel openly.

    Not only do I determine which are my obligations, I occasionally re-examine my chosen obligations and update up or down as the situation changes and as my thinking changes.

    I’m figuring “consequentionalist moralities” are akin to utilitarianism or the greatest good for the greatest number.

    There are many forms of utilitarianism. And there are consequentionalist moralities which are not utilitarian. I actually put more emphasis on avoiding harm to individuals rather than on how much benefit the many can get.

    I agree that working out right and wrong takes thinking, and isn’t always straightforward. But everyone does that, whether they are atheist or not. It’s just that as an atheist I don’t have to care about things like whether some despotic disembodied intelligence might be offended by my choices and sentence me to unlimited suffering after my death. I can focus on consequences for which we have evidence. And I don’t have to accept a rule simply because people followed it in the past. Millions of dead people can actually be wrong. And even millions of living ones.

    It needs to be remembered, religion has spent a long time trying to develop codes of conduct that work for their members and that work for the religious community as a whole.

    I disagree with this. More often than not religion was used to benefit the powerful at the expense of the less so -- the clergy at the expense of the laity, the rich at the expense of the poor, men at the expense of women, the in-ethnicity at the expense of others etc.

    The problem with social liberalism is that it involves a large amount of harm to others that is not recognized. This “invisible harm” shows up as deterioration in the various social indicators such as the divorce rate and the out-of-wedlock birth ratio.

    We are now better than we were in a long time in many ways and getting better yet. Even in the US. Western civilization, despite ongoing problems, is the most peaceful society humanity has known, and it has become so via liberalism and recognizing everyone’s rights. Read Steven Pinker.

    Increased divorce rates are inevitable with increased life expectancy. Staying in a relationship that looked like a good thing when in one’s 20s when it no longer works isn’t a good idea. As for out-of-wedlock births -- they are increasing among the poor because in the current economy a husband isn’t much of a benefit. Fix the economy, make better job opportunities that don’t require higher education, make higher education available to the poor, stop the war on drugs and marriage will become a better option for the poor.

  10. Jesse Powell says

    “And it is I who determines, ultimately, what my duties and obligations are. Society, my boss and others can decide what they would like me to see as my obligations and duties but I don’t automatically agree. And I may decide that there are things that are my obligations which nobody else demands of me.”

    Now certainly, people possess free will. However, what an individual’s duties and obligations are are not determined by the individual. It is not determined by society either; or the culture, or the government, or your parents, or your boss, or your wife (assuming you’re a man), or by any other individual or group. The one that determines your duties and obligations is God and God alone. Now, I will admit, this presents a problem because God is not a material entity that tells us what to do. As mere human beings we have to struggle to discern His Will and His Purpose for us. The tools we use for this purpose are our brains, our ability to reason, and the material reality of the world around us. With these tools we can never determine what God’s plan for our life is exactly but we can at least make educated guesses about what our mission in life is and approximate what it is we are supposed to do to best serve God.

    Human beings possess free will. What this means is that we have the capacity to either obey or disobey God; we may choose to live in sin or we may choose to live in virtue; to disobey God is sin and to obey God is virtue. That is all that free will signifies. Of course, it is not only oneself that possesses free will; everybody else possesses free will as well. This means that others may choose to reward you for your actions or in the alternative they may choose to punish you for your actions. God works through the collective action of each individual’s free will. When people choose to obey God other people will have a tendency to reward them and when people choose to disobey God other people will have a tendency to punish them. Still, the point is to obey God regardless of what others want you to do and regardless of what punishments or rewards your obedience to God will be met with.

    Most importantly, what our duties and responsibilities are is not our choice; these things are imposed upon us by the “externally imposed moral order” or God. Free will and the capacity to reason does not mean that we decide what our duties and obligations are and it does not mean that we decide what is true and what is false. What our duties and obligations are is external to us just like what is true and what is false is external to us.

  11. anat says

    Your post is barely comprehensible and it seems we are using language very differently.

    Now certainly, people possess free will.

    This statement from you is laughable in light of the title of this thread. Mano started this thread in response to your claim that you lack the capability to believe in God. If you had a will that was truly free you should have been able to will yourself into belief. While people certainly have wills, I doubt will is free. The fact that behavioral sciences such as psychology, sociology and economics exist and are capable of predicting behavior of people to some approximation suggests that our respective wills are at the very least seriously constrained even if they may not be 100% determined.

    Your claim that people have duties that are determined by ‘God’ requires evidence. How do you know such duties exist? And since you claim not to believe in a personal god then how can whatever it is that you label ‘God’ make demands of anyone? Only entities with agency can make demands -- only entities with minds, whether individual or collective.

    The rest makes even less sense.

  12. Bill Yeager says

    What a load of bollocks!

    “Obedience to God” is what creates moral cohesion.

    Does it fuck. “Obedience to God” is what creates conflict and terror for those who interpret ‘obedience’ differently from the fundamentalist loon holding the gun.
    You want to know what creates moral cohesion? Being a decent fucking person who doesn’t metaphorically crap all over other people in order to validate themselves.

    Khrist, you sound like one of those ‘Atheists are just people who are angry with God’ dimwits. It’s all about submission isn’t it? You don’t believe it’s possible for someone to simply be an intellectualised atheist who lives by a decent moral code purely because, in doing so, life is generally better. No, for you we are just one nihilistic, self-destructive act away from mass murder in a cinema, right?

    Oh hang on, you’re that arse who calls himself a “devoted atheist” and claims that we should all aspire to the ‘good’ parts of Xtianity, right?

    Cognitive dissonance much?

  13. Jesse Powell says

    I seek to be a “devout atheist”, not a “devoted” atheist. My commitment is not to atheism but to God. By “devout” I mean to be devout in the worship of God and devout in obedience to God. “God” in this context being “the externally imposed moral order.” So, a “devout atheist” is an atheist who devoutly worships and obeys God (the externally imposed moral order). I encourage all atheists to either become “devout atheists” or in the alternative to convert to Christianity (or some other well established religion), hopefully a form of Christianity (or other religion) that teaches complementarity or patriarchy. An atheist that does not recognize a source of moral authority that is above them and external to them does have a problem.

  14. Jesse Powell says

    I will respond by trying to define “free will” and “God” more precisely in terms of how I am using these concepts.

    “Free will” simply means the ability to choose how one will react to any given situation. I have the free will to step outside of my house and take a walk. I alternatively have the free will to instead sit down in a chair and watch TV. I have the free will to take on some project of self-improvement such as to lose weight or alternatively I have the free will to eat a whole bag of cookies instead. Free will does not apply to beliefs (at least not in a direct or obvious way). If I look outside and see that it is bright and sunny without a cloud in the sky I cannot will myself to believe that it is raining no matter how hard I try. If one sees that they have $100 in their bank account after looking at their bank statement they cannot will themselves to believe that in reality they actually have $1,000,000 in their bank account even though such a belief would bring them great euphoria and joy if only they were able to convince themselves that they were in reality rich as opposed to their actual state of being poor. In the same way as these examples I cannot believe in a supernatural God, I do not have the “free will” to believe in God if I so choose because belief in God is a belief and beliefs about the nature of reality can’t be altered at will.

    In the religious way of viewing things the most important aspect of free will is that free will allows someone to obey God or not; free will is what allows someone to either express their devotion to God (through obedience) or alternatively to express their rejection of God (through disobedience). Free will does not alter “who’s in charge”, it only allows someone to either obey or disobey The One who is the ultimate authority.

    Onto defining “God.” In the Christian sense God is Jesus Christ who is literally a man. However, I am not speaking from a Christian context; I am instead speaking from an atheist context. For me “God” is “the externally imposed moral order.” The source of this “externally imposed moral order” is nature, the process of evolution, the way that order arises from chaos. Regardless of the source however “externally imposed moral order” is a real thing. This is what I personify as “God.” God is “that which is good.” For instance, life is good. Survival is good, happiness is good. Morality is that which promotes life, that which promotes survival, that which promotes happiness. Since God is good (by definition) God is therefore in favor of that which is good (life, survival, happiness). Since God is in favor of good things to perform good deeds is pleasing to God as performing good deeds leads to good outcomes; good outcomes being what God desires (since He is good).

    So basically you take “that which is good” and call it “God.” You then assign to the God you just created human characteristics such as the possession of a will, having desires, and having goals. You then place this God above yourself, worship it, and obey it. As far as the contents of the will, desires, and goals of this God these things are determined and then assigned to God according to what is right and what is wrong in the material actual world we all live in. Now, of course, in order for the moral structure of the world to be complete there also has to be a Devil to account for “that which is bad.” The Devil is then constructed in the same way God is constructed except that all the negative attributes are assigned to The Devil while all the good attributes are assigned to God. God wants “that which is good” while The Devil wants “that which is bad.”

    Now, you may wonder, what is the purpose of constructing a “God” in the first place? Why create an intermediary called “God” to “tell you” what is right and what is wrong, why not just directly make such moral decisions for oneself? The reason why the concept of God is so important for religious people and atheists alike is because the God concept provides order and purpose; it takes a chaotic moral environment and turns it into something that is understandable and manageable. The God concept creates moral cohesion; obedience to God allows a society to function at its highest potential and it allows all the different individual members of society to work together as a team.

  15. Anat says

    Your post fails to disabuse me of the impression that you are a very confused person indeed.

    On the free will side-issue:

    Yes, people can make choices on how they act. This does not necessarily mean they have free will -- views vary.
    One’s belief is formed based on one’s understanding of the evidence. In order for one’s belief to change one has to either receive new evidence or form a different understanding of existing evidence. Is it not the same regarding choice of action? For me to change my choice of what to do I must change what I want. And for me to change what I want something needs to happen. Choices aren’t entirely random nor are they formed in vacuum, they are the outcome of the interactions between external conditions and people’s personalities, histories and other things influencing their mind-states. If all these remain the same, would anyone choose a different line of action than they actually did? Why would this be and how would anyone prove or disprove this?


    On the ‘god’ issue: No, there is no ‘externally imposed moral order’.

    While most people generally agree that in most cases life, survival and happiness are good things (though very quickly they’ll disagree that everyone’s life, survival and happiness are good things -- like your self-righteous colleagues on that other board, people who didn’t particularly care for the happiness of some of their neighbors) it isn’t obvious that the same things will promote life, survival and happiness for all people at all times and places. Calling things ‘God’ and ‘Devil’ obscures this. It also creates miscommunication. Nor does it help one bit in clarifying what things promote well-being. You still have to examine them one by one, under each and every condition. Your perception of simplification is illusory.

  16. Jesse Powell says

    The purpose of the God concept is to prioritize competing values and to understand better the relationship between different values so that different people can play different roles in a cooperative fashion. The thing is that “God” has an overall plan and each person plays their role in the overall plan. Each individual’s moral responsibilities only make sense in reference to the other people they are in relationship with. The individual doesn’t decide unilaterally what role they will play; their role is determined by their gender and their particular strengths as individuals, their particular strengths as individuals being heavily influenced by their gender. People do not exist as stand alone entities; they exist as members of a community.

    As to your claim that there is no such thing as “the externally imposed moral order” of course I disagree. For instance, animals have instincts. Animals like to eat; they get hungry if they don’t eat. Furthermore some foods taste better than other foods. Animals like to have sex. Furthermore some mating partners are more attractive and desirable than other potential mating partners. Animals fear predators that might eat them. Now, why do these instincts exist? The answer is obvious. These instincts allow the animal to survive and pass on its genes to future generations. For these animals the “externally imposed moral order” is that they should eat, they should mate with attractive members of their own species, and they should run from predators. Furthermore, it is “God’s will” that these animals should eat, mate, and run from predators. In fact, when the animal eats, mates, and runs from predators what they are doing is “obeying God’s will.” God “tells them” what “His will” is by implanting instinctual desires and fears in them. When the animal then follows their instinctual desires they are acting in accordance with “God’s will”, they are “obeying God”, and in that way that animal survives and passes on its genes to the next generation. Now, what would happen if an animal decided “There is no God, therefore I don’t have to follow my instincts anymore; I am free to choose what’s right for me!” Well, the answer is very obvious. Once the animal stopped eating, stopped mating, and stopped running away from predators they then died very quickly and failed to pass on their genes. In this way the problem of “atheism” in the animal world is solved very quickly.

    You would agree that humans are a species of animal, Homo Sapien, correct? Furthermore, human beings have instincts. Humans like to eat, humans desire sex, humans are afraid of dangerous predators. In this way the “externally imposed moral order” among humans is much like it is among other animals; to eat, have sex, and avoid danger is good. Now, are these “values” something that humans choose or are they something that was born into us through instinct, something that is “externally imposed” upon the human condition? What happens when humans disregard the “externally imposed moral order” that originates from instincts and inherited characteristics?

    I tend to put my focus on family related problems and gender roles. To me the breakdown of the family is the most serious problem America (and much of the rest of the world) is facing. Now, it makes perfect sense that men and women should have different characteristics and different roles. Men evolved to please and be attractive to women and women evolved to please and be attractive to men. If a man was lacking in “masculinity” he would be rejected by women and if a woman was lacking in “femininity” she would be rejected by men. Religion puts a strong emphasis on the differences between men and women and the different appropriate roles for men and women are laid out and defined in great detail in religious teachings.

    When looking at family indicators one finds something very interesting when comparing secular communities to religious communities; that is that religious communities have far better family indicators than secular communities do. For instance, for the nation overall among whites 78.1% of own children live with married parents. If you look at the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Lakewood, New Jersey you find that 98.3% of white own children live with married parents (2010 Census). This kind of radical difference between secular communities and insular devout self-segregated religious communities is universal; the highly religious communities always have much better family indicators than the secular communities. If all religion was was irrational superstition then why is it that religious communities do so much better in keeping their families intact?

    I think the answer is that religious communities have a much better social organization because “obedience to God” provides a social glue that secular communities lack. The “externally imposed moral order” is indeed a real thing that people and societies ignore at their peril.

  17. Anat says

    I’m sorry to take so long, though I haven’t forgotten about this exchange.

    How can ‘God’ have an overall plan if ‘God’ isn’t an intelligent being? And even those who believe in sentient, purposeful gods have different understanding of what their respective gods consider the right thing to do. Generally, people’s gods tend to correspond with those people’s inclinations (which are the product of a combination of personality, culture, experiences and other things). Forgiving people believe in forgiving gods, vengeful people believe in vengeful gods, authoritarian people believe in authoritarian gods, liberal people believe in liberal gods and so forth. Using a single word to describe all these disparate things does not provide any means to prioritize values, it just adds another level for disagreement.

    The individual doesn’t decide unilaterally what role they will play; their role is determined by their gender and their particular strengths as individuals, their particular strengths as individuals being heavily influenced by their gender.

    Huh? Sure, people are limited by their means at any given moment but they can change their means to a significant extent. And many of the limits are cultural, not set in stone. Few individuals can impact culture in a major way but some do -- MLK did not submit to the role the society he grew up in attempted to limit him to. Others increase their and others’ choices by joining forces with like-minded people. Once a career in politics or science or anything much at all was unthinkable for much of the population -- now, while great inequalities persist the degree is significantly less. It isn’t that people’s genders or characters changed, society did. And it didn’t happen by magic, it happened through the work of many determined individuals.

    Also, to some degree people can change their abilities -- via education, exercise, practice, physical and psychological therapy and so forth. Often economical means may limit access to such means of change -- but in countries with properly functioning social systems accessibility is broader.

    Now, why do these instincts exist? The answer is obvious. These instincts allow the animal to survive and pass on its genes to future generations.

    This is bad thinking. Forces of nature have no intentionality. A better way of stating it is ‘because those animals that had such instincts in the past were able to reproduce those instincts persisted in further generations’. Note that some behaviors, however instinctive, undergo evolutionary change in the long term. Not all species have the same behaviors. Among higher primates each species has a different social structure: gibbons live in pairs that mate for life but have no contact with other adults of their species; orangutans are solitary, gorillas live in small harems, chimpanzees in large troops with no stable pair-bonds. Humans have lived in many social patterns, though the most common appears to be serial monogamy (with some exogamy thrown in), within some kind of larger group composed for the most part of related individuals. Yet all are rather closely related species, which means at one point ancestors of all these species shared behavior patterns. If the living conditions of a sub-population of a species changes in a consistent manner the old behavior pattern will no longer work and may eventually be replaced with a new one. This means that many animals die while following their instincts. Only those instincts are no longer suitable.

    Also, remember that the majority of attempts at reproduction fail. Most of the time animals do *not* do the things that promote their chances at having more offspring. They fail to attract a mate. They build their nest in an unsafe place and the eggs get broken or eaten. They challenge a higher-ranking troop-member when they aren’t ready and get injured. They fail to find food. They mistake a non-food item for food. etc. That’s why we aren’t up to our knees in every possible species of animal. This isn’t because some animals don’t follow their instincts, it’s because instincts, even under the best conditions, only promote an animal’s health and reproduction statistically, and only just barely so. Built-in behaviors are an inadequate way to plan for all of life’s contingencies.

    Also, instincts are more complicated and less obvious than you might think. A pregnant mouse will abort her pregnancy if she smells a male that is not the father of her fetuses. And she will eat her newborn offspring if they smell ‘odd’. A sow will abandon her smallest offspring and encourage its larger siblings to eat it. These are instinctive behaviors. Another mistake of yours is to claim that animals that stop eating, seeking mates, etc are acting against instincts (or other built-in behaviors). That is not true. A mammal that is ill with an infection will not eat while the disease lasts because of the action of cytokines (such as IL-1) in the brain. Why did such a behavior evolve? Possibly because an animal weakened by illness would be at risk of predation while it seeks food. Better risk skipping some meals -- apparently the risk of being killed by a predator is worse than the risk of starving before recovery from illness. Statistically speaking. Which again means some animals will starve to death while following its natural instincts.

    So let’s talk about humans. Yes, we have instincts. Is it a good idea to follow them all the time? Well, we have an instinctive preference for foods high in sugar, fat and sodium. No wonder, as these are useful resources which were hard to come by for our ancestors. Where does following these instinctive preferences lead us? To the current obesity epidemic. Because we live under conditions very different from those under which our ancestors lived. Fortunately we have the ability to ignore, circumvent or manipulate these instincts. We can learn different food preferences and to limit our intake. So when are we acting in accordance with ‘God’s plan’? When we gorge on any sugary foodstuff available to us or when we limit our intake?

    So to answer your question:

    What happens when humans disregard the “externally imposed moral order” that originates from instincts and inherited characteristics?

    We gain the ability to survive and thrive under conditions that differ significantly from those in which our ancestors lived.

  18. Anat says

    The correlation you claim between religiosity and social outcomes does not hold outside the US. For example see http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=pzuckerman_26_5 -- countries with a more secular outlook have better social outcomes than the US. I think what we see here is countries with better social services and safety nets doing well, and within the US religious communities taking up some of the slack created by the absence of decent healthcare and other support. Countries with so called ‘socialized medicine’ and real pro-family services (such as paid parental leave and ensuring basic income for all) don’t need gods.

    As for divorce in the US, see http://atheism.about.com/od/atheistfamiliesmarriage/a/AtheistsDivorce.htm which quotes data from the Barna research group. Looks like the religious group within the US with the highest divorce rates are Baptists and other born-again Christians, whereas atheists and Jews -- 2 largely secular groups -- have low rates (as do Catholics). But I doubt religion has much to do with it. A big risk factor for divorce is poverty -- especially with respect to one’s peers. And not because poor people take marriage less seriously than the more well off, but because poverty is a huge source of stress -- see http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1112653642/divorce-rate-high-for-low-income-couples/ BTW divorce rates in the US have been declining since 1980, while secularism has been increasing.

    And teen-pregnancy? Secular European countries with comprehensive sex ed are better off than US, and within the US areas with ‘abstinence only’ education are the worst. (But even there, a big reason for teen pregnancy is that girls raised in poverty lack options to advance in life. Teen pregnancy doesn’t cause poverty, it is caused by poverty. See http://www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2012/05/teen_moms_how_poverty_and_inequality_cause_teens_to_have_babies_not_the_other_way_around_.html Policies that predominantly hurt the poor, such as the so called ‘war on drugs’ make things worse.)

    The American family isn’t breaking up, it is changing. Family structure in human societies can take many different forms and with our changing economic system it is changing again. We need to adapt to these changes so that everyone’s needs will be provided.

  19. Anat says

    What happens when humans disregard the “externally imposed moral order” that originates from instincts and inherited characteristics?

    You do realize that had we followed the behavior that originates from instincts and inherited characteristics we wouldn’t have ever ended up with societies that have lifelong monogamy even as an ideal?

  20. Jesse Powell says

    I am claiming that a high level of religiosity or “devoutness” is necessary for a society to function well. The most common source of devoutness is religion (in the West Christianity) though it is possible for an atheist to also be “devout”; “devout atheism” being what I advocate for atheists. Devoutness is a commitment to obedience to God, a commitment to serving others.

    All traditional cultures across the world were pretty much the same in terms of their family relationships 200 and more years ago. All were patriarchal, all had men working for money much more than women, all had high fertility, all had women in the “domestic sphere” and men in the “public sphere.” Pathological behaviors such as divorce and births outside of marriage were very rare worldwide. Most importantly, all societies had very strict rules governing family behaviors compared to what we see today in the West. Strictness in social rules is what comes from devoutness; devoutness forms the basis and justification for the strict social rules necessary to hold a society together. Religion then is the organizing principle that the devoutness is directed towards and it is the religious teachings that make up the content of the strict social rules that people are supposed to live by.

    Any society founded upon “personal freedom” or “individual choice” in its family behaviors will deteriorate and ultimately collapse very rapidly; in a couple of generations. When looking at America for the past 100 years you will find that parents as a collective whole have never been able to pass on to their children a cultural environment as functional as the cultural environment the parents themselves were born into. In other words there has been no consistency from one generation to the next regarding what social norms should be followed. Furthermore each succeeding generation has always been worse off in its family indicators than the generation that preceded it. This means that the culture that exists today is not performing the role of socializing children into a positive productive life path; that the culture is failing in performing the basic functions a culture is supposed to serve.

    In the article you linked to, “Is Faith Good for Us?”
    the point is that countries with high levels of what it calls “organic atheism” have many positive social indicators. There are two different issues here that are being conflated together to make it look like “organic atheism” leads to positive outcomes. When I look at social statistics and how they relate to religiosity my conclusion tends to be the exact opposite; that “organic atheism” and negative social indicators are highly correlated with each other. From the “Is Faith Good for Us?” article it states “Furthermore, fundamentalists agree that, when large numbers of people in a society reject God or fail to make him the center of their lives, societal disintegration is sure to follow. Every societal ill-whether crime, poverty, poor public education, or AIDS-is thus blamed on a lack of piety.” Later it says “In reality, the most secular countries-those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics-are among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations-wherein worship of God is in abundance-are among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.” In a concession to religion the article admits “A country’s suicide rate stands out as the one indicator of societal health in which religious nations fare much better than secular nations.”

    Positive social indicators, “social indicators” being broadly defined, are associated with atheism and low-religiosity in a society. This is because atheism is associated with wealth. All the advantages that the atheistic countries have are derivative of the country’s wealth; they are not derivative of the country’s atheism. Indeed the countries’ atheism works against the countries’ wealth and works against the many advantages that the wealth provides for. Wealth leads to social disruption that in turn leads to atheism. The advantages of wealth are still there for the society to enjoy but the negative consequences that are the result of the disruptions caused by wealth are negative factors. The negative factors end up being associated with wealth since the wealth caused the negative factors in the first place but the negative factors remain negative factors. These negative factors are the indicators of social breakdown such as increased divorce rates, increased out-of-wedlock births, increased married women working, and the myriad social pathologies that are derivative of these primary indicators of social breakdown.

    Regarding the divorce rates of various branches of Christianity versus atheists in the United States referred to in this link, “Divorce Rates for Atheists are Among the Lowest in America”
    the first thing to keep in mind is that the divorce rates given for atheists are likely low because the marriage rate for atheists is low. The statistics used refer to the proportion that “have been divorced.” If atheists overall marry less then automatically the proportion that “have been divorced” will be less since you can’t have had a divorce if you never got married in the first place. It is not very relevant if a person merely describes themselves as being a Christian; what is important is that the believer be devout in their faith. Devoutness to Christianity makes for good social indicators such as a lower divorce rate, merely being Christian doesn’t go very far. This is explained in the article “The Christian Divorce Rate Myth”
    As the article states “Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, explains from his analysis of people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, that 60 percent of these have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced.” When you go to the extreme end of religious devoutness in America, the insular heavily religious communities that keep themselves segregated from the wider culture around them such as the Ultra-Orthodox Jews or the Amish, you find that the social indicators of these populations are radically better than the social indicators for the society as a whole. For instance, going back to the example I used before, among whites in 2010 78.1% of own children lived with married parents. In the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Lakewood, New Jersey the equivalent ratio was 98.3%. Phrased differently in 2010 21.9% of white own children did not live with married parents in the nation overall but in Lakewood this ratio was only 1.7%. This is the amazing power of religion to create social order and make a society function well.

    The key distinction is the difference between freedoms and duties. A culture based on duty in its family relations will persevere and function well. A culture based on freedom in its family relations will self-destruct and degenerate. There are three different ways this dichotomy between freedoms and duties can be presented. One is obedience to God versus atheism; God representing duties and atheism representing freedom from God imposed duties. Another form of the dichotomy is social conservatism versus social liberalism; social conservatism representing a list of rules to follow which equates to duties, social liberalism being “anything goes” which equates to freedoms. The third form of the dichotomy is patriarchy versus feminism; patriarchy being the submission to male authority which represents duties, feminism being in rebellion against male authority representing freedoms. I am in favor of obedience to God, of following socially conservative principles, and of patriarchy; I am in favor of duties. Atheism, social liberalism, and feminism are all forces against social order and are therefore bad. I am an atheist but I do not support “atheism” in the sense of denying one’s duties to the “externally imposed moral order” or God.

    One last thing I will address, the importance of patriarchy is that it allows men to protect their investment in women which therefore provides a mechanism for men to invest in their children. Under patriarchy men set the overall rules within the family setting and men collectively set the overall rules for the society. At the same time under patriarchy men work outside the home for money and women don’t; women are financially provided for by their husbands. Male authority and the man providing for the woman are linked together. The purpose of the male authority is so that the man’s investment into the woman will be directed towards the goals the man wants to achieve thereby making his investment in the woman worthwhile and rewarding. If men no longer invest in women the whole engine of society starts to break down. When men no longer invest in women women in return reduce their investment in children. The reduced investment in children then leads to the children not being able to function as well as adults. The generational cycle of diminishing investment in family life then has been launched. This is a set up for ever increasing family deterioration and social disorder. This is why patriarchy is the foundation of all durable cultures. Remove patriarchy and you remove male investment in family life; after that the social order will collapse in a few generations.

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