Tag Archives: Ethics

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.

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 XV: Judging Christ

judgeThe next section we’ll examine in Russell’s speech, “Why I’m Not a Christian” deals with the teachings of Christ:

Then there is another point which I consider excellent. You will remember that Christ said, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” That principle I do not think you would find was popular in the law courts of Christian countries.

Of course, the idea that what Christ meant by “judge” is the same thing as is done in court is questionable at best. Personally, I’m more inclined to think that it is obviously untrue.

Still that is not Russell’s biggest mistake. It goes without saying that no Christian follows Christ’s teachings as she should. The apologist could completely agree to every accusation of hypocrisy leveled by the atheist and it wouldn’t advance us one step toward rejecting either God’s existence or his goodness. At most, it would show us why people need God’s grace so badly.

This has been a consistent mistake among the New Atheists. Reading their published work, it is legitimate to wonder if they understand that “Does God exist?”, “Is God good?”, and “Is religion socially healthy?” are different questions. They (and, much more, their fans) seem to think that answering any one of these questions in the negative settles the others in the same way.

Nor do they understand that none of these questions have been decided in the negative, we are much closer to the opposite with all three of them.

For his part, Russell at least admits that the same charge of hypocrisy could be leveled against himself and, presumably, any other atheist:

All these, I think, are good maxims, although they are a little difficult to live up to. I do not profess to live up to them myself; but then, after all, it is not quite the same thing as for a Christian.

Why it is different for Christians, he does not say. But it is difficult not to think it is because Russell believes Christians claim to have been granted some kind of supernatural power for perfect behavior, rather than what we do claim to have: forgiveness for our failure to live up to these high standards.

Why Russell was Wrong IV: The Good, the Bad, and the Morally Relative

moralContinuing on in my discussion of Bertrand Russell’s speech “Why I’m not a Christian”, we now get to an argument from morality. This is of particular interest in considering Russell as the intellectual grandfather of the New Atheists, in that it is a group of such strong moral pretensions.

As to the issue of morality, theists have often said that, while belief in God is not required to behave morally, the existence of God is required to explain how any objective morality could exist.

Russell’s response is, essentially, a version of what is typically called the Euthyphro Dilemma:

[B]ecause even supposing that there were [objective morality], you are then faced with the question “Why did God issue just those laws and not others?” If you say that he did it simply from his own good pleasure, and without any reason, you then find that there is something which is not subject to law, and so your train of law is interrupted. If you say, as more orthodox theologians do, that in all the laws which God issues he had a reason for giving those laws rather than others — the reason, of course, being to create the best universe, although you would never think it to look at it — if there were a reason for the laws which God gave, then God himself was subject to law, and therefore you do not get any advantage by introducing God as an intermediary.

So, is something good because God commands it, or does God command it because its good? Proponents of this argument would say that this shows that either God’s morality is arbitrary or God is irrelevant to what is moral. This seems a very good argument, so long as one does not consider it too closely.

I, of course, intend to do just that:

Monotheists have never maintained that God selects moral law the way a shopper selects a box of cereal in a grocery store. The first option can easily be set aside.

The second option can likewise be set aside, at least unless the atheist can give some argument in its favor (which Russell has not). Theists have no more maintained that there is some ethical standard, somehow existing above God, than that God arbitrarily decides on morality.

In fact, I have no idea where Russell gets this idea that most orthodox theologians claim that God’s morality is based in creating the best possible world. There is simply no standard of “best” until we already have a basis of moral law. Theologians, ancient and modern, understood this point–which is why none of them, so far as I can tell, ever took this position.

Rather, what Christian theism has always claimed is that the moral law flows from God’s nature. It is neither a whim nor something external to him, but God himself that is the standard of goodness. To ask whether something is good because God wills it or God wills something because it is good is completely wrong-headed. God wills the good because he is goodness itself.

In other circumstances, we understand this point. No one would ever ask if you look like your reflection because you had altered it to look like you (arbitrary) or because you had plastic surgery to look like it (you are subject to the reflection). Here, it is perfectly obvious that you look like your reflection because it is an image of your physical nature. Likewise, morality is a reflection of God’s ethical nature.

This also answers the question as to why God didn’t will some completely different set of morals. Any “God” who can will any set of morals has no set moral nature and, therefore, is not the God Christians actually believe in.

It is also very significant that proponents of this dilemma so rarely offer a foundation for morality of their own. On the contrary, I get a lot of claims of moral relativism, or simply refusals to take a position on morality, from those who claim to be morally indignant at God. This, of course, begs the question “why should those of us who don’t accept your relativistic (or unnamed), anti-theistic morals be concerned?”.

This is why Russell (like the New Atheists) needs to do more than criticize theistic moral systems; he needs (and they need) to present and defend a system as superior to theistic morality–that we might see if it is immune to the criticisms leveled here.

Russell closes the point with this:

The arguments that are used for the existence of God change their character as time goes on. They were at first hard intellectual arguments embodying certain quite definite fallacies. As we come to modern times they become less respectable intellectually and more and more affected by a kind of moralizing vagueness.

Of course, I don’t think he’s shown anything like a definite fallacy in the traditional arguments. Really, this description reminds me of nothing so much as the New Atheists themselves. In this case, actual arguments have very quickly given way to political activism.

After all the bombastic claims of intellectual superiority, the scorn, the ridicule, and, yes, the blatant moral posturing, it’s become clear that the group is far more interested in which slogan is persuasive in a freshman dorm room than what is logically defensible.

In the form of the New Atheists, a devoutly secular form of Pharisee has come to roost in our culture. And I feel that Russell shares part of the blame for this.

Against Relativism

Through my experience, I’ve been left with the impression that the clear majority of atheists are moral relativists. That is, the bulk of atheists believe that ethics are simply the products of socio-biological evolution, which are not a matter of any truth external to our individual and collective opinions.

In general, I’ve always disagreed on two levels. First, I see no reason why moral experience needs any more justification than sensory experience. Second, and more pertinently to this topic, I don’t see how a true embracing of this sort of relativism can be lived.

It seems fitting that moral relativism is almost completely rejected in those places in the world which are facing tremendous suffering, and popular in those cultures which are complicit in that suffering. It seems clear why wealthy and oppressive societies are much more eager to abandon belief in objective justice than impoverished people.

Perhaps, one might say, that the poor believe as they do simply as a psychological necessity, or because they are (formally) uneducated. I hope, however, that we see the imperialism implicit in this. To say that we are somehow immune to being influenced by our culture in a way that the poor are not is neither intellectually defensible nor morally conscionable.

But, what is morally conscionable? The relativist believes that one simply accepts the morals of one’s society – or choses them as a matter of preference. In any case, she asserts that her own morals are not rationally held. As such, I am left to wonder why so many of the moral relativists in my acquaintance are morally appalled at the religious affirmation of faith.

This is not to say that such people have no right to hate those acts they chose to hate. But it seems an odd thing to attempt to convince me (as many have) that the God I believe in is evil while admitting that this is simply a statement of opinion. Isn’t my opinion equally valid?

More than this, on what grounds does the relativist, if she is a materialist, argue that her worldview has more grounding in evidence than my own? Personally, I do not accept that there is no evidence for God’s existence, but this seems moot. The relativist admittedly has no evidence for her moral positions or sense of purpose in life. I don’t, therefore, see this as an improvement in terms of taking a more objective approach.

Rather, this seems to ‘subjectify’ nearly all statements. To say that ethics are not objective is not to support an evidenced-based view of life, but to deny that such a thing could ever exist.

While I personally maintain that a divine reality is needed for an ontological grounding of ethics, not all agree. And it seems to be in the materialist’s best interests to seek grounds on which she can believe in the objectivity of ethics. I see very little future in a view which cannot offer an intellectual, as well as personal, defense of ethics. Such views can neither commend themselves as evidence-based, nor survive the next great crisis to strike our society.

Atheism and Failed Experiments

Most would agree that atheism is Christianity’s greatest rival in capturing western culture. It is hardly a new rival, nor is it an entity in itself.

This last is the danger it poses to Christians and atheists alike.

Atheism represents such a formidable threat to Christianity precisely because it is defined in negative terms. Such a definition not only makes it extremely difficult to critique in a brief statement, but makes it unnervingly easy for current proponents of atheism to divorce themselves from the memory of past anti-theistic movements.

Evolution and MoralityThe first such movement in the west was modernism. Calling themselves the enlightened, its proponents saw history largely in terms of a battle between scientific and religious thought. Though such analysis has since been shown to be false, their ideas were extremely popular. The evil of religion, as well as the inherent goodness of humanity, was proclaimed.

Of course, the Reign of Terror, the effects of Social Darwinism, the First World War and (to add insult to injury) the discoveries of science itself brought an end to such thinking.

Absolute Relativism Many, of course, returned to Christianity in response, but others began to feel that, if science can offer no meaning, then there must be no meaning to be found. Post-modernism as a rejection of all metanarratives, however, proved to be an impossible way to live, and the lives of those who embraced are much more clearly warnings to those tempted than they are tales of the ubermensch.

Of course, modernism also brought Marxist thought into the world, which likewise collapsed due to its own tendency to destroy, rather than foster, a culture of human equality and liberty.

These, and other, ideas have come and gone, but I find myself shocked to be faced with a popular movement of atheists which seems to combine all of the most dangerous aspects of these beliefs. Had I not seen it, I’d never have believed such a movement was possible.

Richard DawkinsI am speaking, of course, of the so called New Atheists, who seem to have taken their first cue from the Enlightenment. Calling themselves “Bright”, rather than “Enlightened”, they have thoroughly absorbed the blind trust that a particular person’s metaphysical opinions can somehow be called a “scientific mind”.

From the postmodernists, they have learned that our values need not be anchored in anything objective, and seem blithely oblivious of the possibility that this could be used to justify horrific acts.

Last, the lesson they seem to take from reading on communism is that these governments were, of all things, too religious. They demand that these beliefs degraded into “personality cults”, all the while pandering to screaming fans and generating an atmosphere of unchecked hubris.

The moment one looks at any real-world attempt to produce anything like the world this particular group of atheists demand, one gets a sense of foreboding.

Communist IdealsPlease don’t misunderstand, I don’t remotely mean to say that any of these people are pining for the terrors we know in history. But, then, neither were the Social Darwinists, Communists, or French Revolutionaries.

Personally, I doubt that this current movement in atheism is either popular or violent enough to force its position on any country. Still, I’m stuck wondering how those involved can have such long memories for the Crusades (which we rightly decry) yet such short memories for the horrors of secular movements.

As often as science is praised by this group, one would expect the New Atheists, in forming the terms of their movement, to note the striking data of past secular experiments.

Religion and Evil

On the intellectual edge of the current debate over religion, but very near the emotional core of it, is the claim that religion is not only false, but evil.
There are a number of objections that may be raised to such a vast condemnation. Only very rarely, however, do I see the most obvious. One would think, given the ethos of science with modern atheists, that theists would be faster to point out the lack of evidence for such an assertion – or the evidence to the contrary.
This is not to say that I am terribly proud of the evidence. The correlation between religious commitment and altruism should be much stronger than it is. But, if sociologists and anthropologists have established that believers need to be better at practicing the truths we claim, they’ve completely undermined the idea that religion is a cause of great evil.

For myself, it is this evidence (and not perpetual references to the crusades and atheist regimes) that settles the matter. What is more interesting is the shyness of both sides to actually engage with the data. But one should think that those who reference science so frequently on the issue of God’s existence would be interested in science on this point as well.
While I have my suspicions about the reasons for this omission, it does not do to dwell on them. But I think it fair to conclude from this that, whatever is said, the current anti-theist movement is grounded on something other than science.
Nor is it grounded on history. Only the most sophomorically Manichean understanding could lead one to the condemnation of religion as some singular force of evil in history. Or, for that matter, to any conclusion about religion as a singular force of any sort. Any critique of religion which begins under the assumption that all religions can be spoken of in the same breath is bound to fail – yet, this is only the first in a long series of factual errors leading to these conclusions.
But I find some solace in that the deepest problem with condemning religion as evil has been pointed out. This is the simple question of the basis for such condemnation. The pagan can understandably condemn Christianity for upsetting the divine order, the Muslim may do so for it’s rejection of Allah, and the Platonist for rejecting the universal good. Whatever we may think of these views, they are consistent with themselves.
The modern critic of religion en masse, however, is almost universally a moral relativist. And one cannot, if she is rational, summon moral outrage at religion while simultaneously claiming that morality is simply a matter of social convention.
Oddly, most atheists with whom I have debated answer this by pointing out that they are not wholly rational. That such morals are simply a matter of their cultural background. How much such morals are owed to Christianity is a matter for another time. Still, the sting seems here to be gone. If I am being asked to believe in something (all religion is evil) on the grounds of a standard that is admittedly irrational, I see no reason why I should be expected to produce a rational defense of my own moral system (God is the source of good). Much less do I see why I should abandon God on the grounds of culturally relative ethics when the majority of people in my culture claim that belief in God is a good thing.
In the end, we are both proselytizing. It is a matter of no small debate whether my theistic beliefs are rational. It seems, however, to be a settled matter that the current secular position, insofar as it makes a moral claim against religion, is irrational.
The last thing I desire, however, is for atheists do abandon their ethics in favor of pure rationality. Quite the contrary, it seems to me that ethics are both as undeniable and unprovable as the physical universe. Rather than crying foul for want of proof, let us look to the most rational (that is, the most consistent) explanation for morality and the universe.
In my view, that would be the divine maker of all ethics, and all rationality.