Category Archives: Moral Argument

Fatalism Excuses Nihilism?

ImageMaterialist Alex Rosenberg is convinced that a society full of nihilists would get along as well as any other.

By the same token, adopting nihilism as it applies to morality is not going to have any impact on anyone’s conduct. Including ours. (“The Atheist’s Guide to Reality”, p. 96)

He claims because all people have the same moral “programming” due to evolutionary pressures, it, therefore, doesn’t matter what one actually believes.

I expect that even the most passionate of evolutionary psychologists is bound to hesitate here. Surely, not every single thought in our heads is simply dictated to us by our physiology, completely apart from our professed beliefs?

But the materialist might have a hard time arguing against Rosenberg. As he discusses in his book, a consistent materialist should reject the idea that thoughts or beliefs exist at all. And it is certainly hard to argue that non-existent things affect behavior.

I’ve discussed some of the problems with this already. But part of what is going on here, I think, is that Rosenberg and others seem to dismiss the power of cultural pressures. This might seem an odd thing to say about a group that makes frequent use of the word “indoctrination”, but many of them don’t seem to be aware that the same force works equally well in secular circles.

What does this have to do with morality? Social pressure does a lot to influence people, even moral nihilists. This being the case, it simply does not follow that, because there is a small minority of well behaved nihilists in a culture, that a culture filled with them would not decline in their moral standing.

Because Rosenberg is so focused on the physical, he fails to note, let alone answer, this argument. Yet it is the primary concern about the growth of moral nihilism in modern culture.

Of course, none of this is to say that nihilism is untrue. It may well be that morality is a fiction (though I’ll be arguing otherwise in the future). Even then, a nihilism that finds so much time for moral indignation at religious believers seems something of a contradiction.

And that may be Rosenberg’s biggest issue. He can’t seem to give anyone either an intellectual or a moral reason to accept the scientism he so fervently pushes.

In fact, the view leads him to reject the existence of both thought and morality.

An Irrational Life-Approach for the Sake of Rationality

nothing-written-in-stone-relative-moralityIf there is a moral view I find completely out of touch with all real-world experience, it is nihilism.

This is not simply that nihilism is morally repulsive (though it is), it is that it is grounded in ignoring some obvious facts about life–the same sort of facts which are ignored by materialism.

As is often the case, Alex Rosenberg makes an excellent example:

In a world where physics fixes all the facts, it’s hard to see how there could be room for moral facts. In a universe headed for its own heat death, there is no cosmic value to human life, your own or anyone else’s. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, pp. 94-95)

To those in thrall to the long-discredited verification principle (that is “we shouldn’t believe anything without physical evidence”), nihilism is simply the logical end point. Utter meaninglessness is the foregone conclusion when one rejects from the outset any part of reality that could possibly reveal meaning.

But most materialists, trying to soften the blow of so dark a proclamation, tend to play up “subjective meaning”, or something of the sort. In fact, Rosenberg does so himself:

The bad news first: We need to face the fact that nihilism is true. But there is good news here, too, and it’s probably good enough to swamp most of the bad news about nihilism. The good news is that almost all of us, no matter what our scientific, scientistic, or theological beliefs, are committed to the same basic morality and values. (ibid, p. 95)

It doesn’t matter, so the argument goes, that there is no objective morality, because even people who think this will behave as if there were such a thing. Rosenberg calls this “nice nihilism”.

But I’m not convinced that a cute nickname deals with the real issues. Certainly, it doesn’t deal with the existential dread so many face, and that thinkers like Rosenberg simply wave off. But I’m not about to argue personal reactions; I doubt that there is a way to convince a complacent nihilist that others genuinely find his position deeply unconscionable.

Rather, I’d like to draw attention to the blatant irrationality of all this. Rosenberg points out that all people will try to be “good”, regardless of whether or not they believe there really is such a thing as good. While this is true, one suspects that something has been missed.

After all, what is this statement but the direct claim that materialists are consistently irrational in their daily lives?

Nearly every materialist I’ve encountered has demanded that beliefs be based on evidence. That is, I hear the demand until we begin speaking on moral issues, in which case believing anything that strikes one’s fancy is generally held to be permissible.

The logical issues with this approach to morality are legion, but let us set them aside. For, under them all, there is the fact that these individuals, after insisting that evidence is the only legitimate ground for belief, are willing to completely abandon the concept when it comes to a massive area in the living of life.

This is not simple hypocrisy. This is the best example of the fact that this position is simply unlivable–even for its most fervent supporters. It is the utter failure of this philosophy to address the real issues of life.

Thus, it is one more piece of evidence that materialism is simply denying the existence of what it cannot explain, rather than expanding its view in order to explain it.

Moral Truth and Rationality

450px-the_thinker_closeWhy does one believe in anything?

Unless one is a cartesian skeptic, one accepts some things that haven’t been proven absolutely. Presumably, the basis of our core beliefs is perception of things. One accepts that the physical world is real, after all, because we perceive it. While it is true that one may be wrong to do so, it seems far more reasonable than to believe that reality is all simply a delusion.

Many who are deeply committed to the reality of the physical world, however, are hostile to this same reasoning process when applied to other areas.

In this case, I’m speaking of moral truth.

Many insist upon “evidence” for objective morality, by which they seem to mean something that can be shared via the senses. Apparently, we need no evidence that the senses are reporting (however imperfectly) a real world, but we need evidence that the moral sense is (again, imperfectly) a touchstone of the real.

This seems completely inconsistent, and the only response I’ve ever been given is descriptions of moral beliefs in terms of the physical (i.e. sociobiological evolution). Surely, one can do this. But one can equally explain the physical in terms of the mental (or even the moral). This disproves the reality of neither. Nor does it establish that one simply reduces to the other.

All this seems to show is that the truth is difficult for humans to understand. But this seems a reason to be more, not less, open to seriously considering multiple facets of reality. Walling one’s mind off from anything which doesn’t fit into a particular category which is easy for us to investigate is not seeking truth.

I suspect that, were it not for the current zeitgeist, it would be next to impossible to believe that having a physical explanation of a thing precludes the validity of any other kind of explanation. That is rather tidy, but isn’t any more defensible than a similar argument against the physical.

That being the case, I’m inclined to think that (while I may misperceive it, as I do the physical) moral truth is as real as the physical universe.

Taking a Stand for Relativism

Batman-vs.-Relativism-Part-4“Good and bad are simply concepts in your mind.”

I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered this sentiment. Obviously, I disagree with it. I’ll explain why in a later post. For now, I’m more interested in a particular fact about the people who make the claim.

No, it is not that these people are committing themselves either to open nihilism or a large amount of irrationality in their daily actions. True as that is, there’s something else that is pointed out far less often:

This statement, in the context of debates on religion, almost always comes from people who insist that they are not claiming that God does not exist.

Many atheists have put a lot of energy into defining their position as “a lack of belief in God”, rather than a belief that there is no God. Such people tend to be very insistent that they need not make a case against God’s existence. Since they aren’t claiming God doesn’t exist, so the argument goes, they needn’t support their position–that is for the theist to do.

I’m not one to argue definitions, so I’ll not comment on the validity of this one. But, under any definition, there are severe problems with this tact. Most pertinently, the claim that morality is subjective presumes that God does not exist. Such a statement should, therefore, be supported by reasons to believe that God does not exist.

Of course, the atheist in question could simply avoid making such claims. She could simply introduce moral relativism as a possibility, rather than state it outright. This would be a perfect solution, so long as she is solely interested in winning debates without regard for behaving in a logically consistent manner.

This is to say that, unless one is abdicating all right to make any statement in a moral discussion or hold any position about morals at all (even in daily life), one is going to have to take a position on God’s existence. One simply has no room to say that this or that religious moral is wrong, even in a subjective sense, until one has shown the religion in question to be false.

One’s position may be tentative, of course, but simply “not believing” isn’t enough.

Personal Feelings Trump Divine Revelation

6_satan-cast-outThough Bertrand Russell makes very standard  (if extremely overstated) accusations of Christianity’s past, he also makes a comment about the present that I find at least as strange.

I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.

Supposing that in this world that we live in today an inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church says, “This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together”.

Russell promises us that there are many more examples that he could have named. Of course, this really does nothing to prove that the negative examples outweigh the positive ones. Rather, this is simply a case of anecdotal evidence. Russell would be right to dismiss my argument if I claimed that Richard Dawkins’ rather callous position on the sexual abuse of children proves that secularism is evil, and his claim here is no different.

The New Atheists, for all their professed commitment to science, are even more prone to this mistake than Russell. In fact, they rarely seem at all interested in actual studies on the matter of religion. After all, these studies contradict, rather than support, their position.

Of course, this all assumes that the Catholic church is clearly in the wrong. While I can empathize with Russell’s concern, his objection seems to be based on a few assumptions, the most pertinent of which is the idea that a marriage relationship is based on sex, rather than the sex being based on the relationship. At least, singling this out as his choice example of the “principle enemy of progress in the world” seems to imply that a celibate marriage is an affront to basic human rights–even more, apparently than the subjugation of impoverished nations by wealthy countries (which seems to bother neither him nor the New Atheists).

Even if one disagrees with the Catholic position, then, he has hardly made a case that religion is the greatest force of evil in the world. Rather, it seems simply a complaint that religious institutions don’t agree with Russell’s personal scruples.

In fact, he says so almost directly:

There are a great many ways in which, at the present moment, the church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering.

On what grounds, one wonders, can Russell claim to judge the morality of a religion? What is considered “unnecessary” depends on what one accepts as moral. While it is obvious that some things are unnecessary from a secular, western, caucasian, post-enlightenment cultural view of reality, no religious group is obligated to agree with that position. And it seems entirely odd that Russell should think his culture should trump all other views.

As such, it isn’t possible to even make this complaint without being guilty of what one accuses the church: declaring that everyone should accept one’s own moral system.

Lying in the Name of Reason

blind-to-truthIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian“, the philosopher Bertrand Russell is completely willing to state wild fiction as if it were sober truth:

You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world.

If this were true, historians would report that the nineteenth century deists led the abolitionist movement, rather than Christians. We’d find that charities in our present time would be overwhelmingly secular, rather than overwhelmingly religious. We’d find that the early Christians were less, rather than more, open to racial mixing than the pagans. We’d also find that no real social progress was made until secularism became a notable force in society, rather than finding otherwise.

That such a blatantly, factually false statement can be made (and continues to be made) by persons who claim to base their positions on facts and reason is something of a scandal. As much as cultural stereotypes lend enough rhetorical plausibility to this claim, no one doing so can be relying on science or following the evidence where it leads.

But, even granting the highly dubious claim that churches are inherently resistant to change in the moral consensus (which seems to be Russell’s position), three issues remain:

First is the question of whether “opposition” can be assumed even when it is a tiny minority of churches. That seems to be Russell’s basis for making this claim, but this would definitely open him up to accusations based on the behavior of a tiny minority of atheists.

Second is the fact that Russell offers no standard of “progress”. He needs to explain why his view of progress is superior to the view of the churches he criticizes. He does not do so here, and I’ve not heard an answer to this problem from the New Atheists.

And third is the simple point that there is no logical way to get from “churches have impeded progress” to “Christianity is false”. If anger at the wrongs of churches is truly a reason why Russell rejected Christianity, then he is simply admitting to a certain amount of irrationality. Christ is not judged by the actions of the church. Rather, we are judged by him.

Random Moral Pronouncements

judgenot-thumbIn his speech, “Why I’m not a Christian” Bertrand Russell rejects the idea that Christ was the greatest of moral teachers:

I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history. I think I should put Buddha and Socrates above Him in those respects.

The most obvious question one can raise here is to request a standard by which Russell presumes to judge the great moral teachers of history. Of course, he does not say that he is doing this, but is simply stating his opinion. But if he expects anyone to accept his claim as more than an irrational quirk of his own personality, a standard would be required.

I mention this because it is so similar to the New Atheists’ modus operandi. This particular group is quick to make sweeping (and caustic) moral pronouncements while consistently refusing to give any defense of such statements. This is, of course, doubly problematic in that they so often criticize others for failing to give reasons for what they believe.

But, as for Russell, it is clear from his speech that he judges Christ to be inferior because of Christ’s commitment to justice, rather than simply gentleness and compassion.

It seems odd, then, that appreciation for gentleness and compassion is probably the largest change in moral thinking that Christ’s teaching made to the ancient world. This also reminds me of the New Atheists, who’s references to the “historical atrocities of religion” very often reveal a deep ignorance of actual history.

All this may be beside the point, however. None of this counters the argument that Christ, if he were a lunatic or a charlatan, wouldn’t have been both a great moral teacher and willing to die for that teaching.

This means that Russell’s personal ranking of moral teachers can be set aside. The classic “lord, liar, lunatic” apologetic doesn’t actually require that we begin by agreeing that Christ is undisputedly “better” a moral teacher than Buddha or Socrates (though he was). It merely requires one to accept that he was a great moral teacher (in order to scratch of the “liar” and “lunatic” options). And Russell himself affirms the greatness of Christ’s moral teaching.

So, though I thought it worth questioning Russell’s conclusion, there was no valid point being made against the truth of Christianity by comparing Christ to Socrates in the first place.

Russell XXI: Mercy Without Justice?

33-justice-for-allThere is quite a bit of talk of Hell in Russell’s speech. By my estimation, he includes nearly as much as is in the entirety of the Bible. It is a bit odd, then, that he criticizes the Bible for going on too much about Hell.

Then [Jesus Christ] says again, “If thy hand offend thee, cut it off; it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into Hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched; where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” He repeats that again and again also. I must say that I think all this doctrine, that hell-fire is a punishment for sin, is a doctrine of cruelty.

I’ve already discussed the idea that Hell is a natural consequence of abandoning the source of all goodness. Still, I think something should be said for punishment.

As much as I commend Russell’s commitment to compassion, the scorn he casts on the idea of Hell seems to cross the line into a disrespect for justice. The New Atheist writers tend to do the same (with far more ease). And it strikes me that most people in history have had a very high view of justice. Though we from the modern west have lived more comfortable lives than the overwhelming majority of people in history, I think we can empathize with the idea that the unfairness of this world should be set right.

That is why I find it more than a little distasteful that a privileged white male from a rich nation would scorn the idea that oppressive people should be punished.

Those people groups who are complicit in oppression are always less likely to value justice than those who live under the boot of it. And, much to my dismay, I’ve run across many that confidently declare that it is simply a lack of education that keeps the poor from embracing moral relativism–apparently oblivious to their own cultural lenses.

To the end that one hears cries for justice with sympathy, I think, one begins to see the genius of the Bible. It acknowledges the world’s desperate need for justice, while simultaneously pointing out the need for mercy–that none of us could endure true judgement. If God doesn’t care about justice, what hope is there for correcting the oppression in the world? But, if God does seek justice, what hope is there for us?

A philosophy that can endure across time and cultures must, of necessity, be one that can offer powerful resources to cope with suffering, unfairness, and loss as well as success, power, and comfort. This is one of the great strengths of Christianity and, I think, one of the great weaknesses of the worldview put forward by the New Atheist writers.

Where the Christian Gospel builds up the weak with the idea that one is a forgiven child of God, New Atheism tends to embitter the strong with the idea that one is an innocent victim of fools in an unjust world.

Russell XX: “I Don’t Think I Like Your Tone”

keep-calm-and-be-politeIn his speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, Russell makes a point of his distaste for the tone of certain passages:

It is not really to my mind quite the best tone, and there are a great many of these things about Hell. There is, of course, the familiar text about the sin against the Holy Ghost: “Whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven him neither in this World nor in the world to come.” That text has caused an unspeakable amount of misery in the world, for all sorts of people have imagined that they have committed the sin against the Holy Ghost, and thought that it would not be forgiven them either in this world or in the world to come. I really do not think that a person with a proper degree of kindliness in his nature would have put fears and terrors of that sort into the world.

While one couldn’t accuse this speech of hypocrisy in criticizing harsh tones, the New Atheists have made harshness their calling-card. It is odd, then, that arguments about the “horrors” of guilt-inducing passages are still popular.

But, if it really is the New Atheists’ intent to convince religious people that our source of hope in life should be scornfully dismissed as an unparalleled evil, then it is their intent to invoke horrible feelings of guilt and shame in countless individuals.

Such people could, I suppose, make the case that guilt over what one has done is sometimes appropriate, but this would serve at least as much to defend the offending passages of the Bible as anything they have written.

Of course, I’m not convinced that these passages are so offending. Russell has given us no good reason to think that “an unspeakable amount of misery” has been caused by this teaching. Religious young people consistently show higher self-esteem than their secular counterparts. I’d wager that, among more significant reasons, this is because it is impossible to be disturbed by a correct understanding of the quoted passage.

It seems to be a pattern that any passage in the Bible which can be reinterpreted to sound evil will be used as “proof” that religion of any kind is evil. A real desire to understand is, of course, conspicuously absent from such tactics.

As for Russell, I’d merely suggest that what counts as the proper tone in twentieth century British academia may not be the same as what was proper in first century rural Palestine. It seems deeply culturally narrow, almost to the point of imperialism, to dismiss a moral teacher from another continent, and another millenium, based on a personal reaction to tone.

Russell XIX: Sticking Up for the Pharisees

PhariseeAfter misrepresenting the doctrine of Hell, Russell goes on to misrepresent Christ’s reasons for teaching on it:

Christ certainly as depicted in the Gospels did believe in everlasting punishment, and one does find repeatedly a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching — an attitude which is not uncommon with preachers, but which does somewhat detract from superlative excellence.

You will find that in the Gospels Christ said, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Hell.” That was said to people who did not like His preaching.

Russell seems confident that he knows exactly how to interpret Christ’s motivations. This dubious assumption seems to be at the heart of so much of New Atheist thinking. In fact, most theists agree that we’d consider Christianity to be false if the straw man presented by the New Atheists was much at all like actual teachings of Christ.

In attempting to criticize religion, Russell opposes Christ for criticizing the religion of his day. Russell is so confident that Christ uses the phrase “generation of vipers” simply out of anger at those who don’t accept his teaching that he fails to notice that Christ reserves this kind of talk for corrupt religious leaders. He is consistently gentle with those who aren’t smugly self-righteous.

Anyone who is deeply angry at corrupt religious practices, as Russell and the New Atheists claim to be, ought to love these words of Christ. He made it clear, in no uncertain terms, what he thinks of judgmental religious attitudes. And, yet, the bombastic, anti-religious writings of the New Atheists have complained that Christ should have been gentler toward the self-righteous religious bullies of his day.

Unintended though it is, I think it is fitting that Russell and the New Atheists end up attempting to defend the Pharisees from Christ, in that they act so much like Pharisees themselves. To me, they stand as an excellent reminder to constantly turn the finger of accusation inward. Failing to do so, on a long enough timeline, will allow self-righteousness to fester and, indeed, drive us away from the love and truth of Christ–Hell by another name.