Tag Archives: 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.

The Sugar-Coated Nightmare

chernobyl-the-destruction-of-the-nightI don’t usually agree with the philosophy I hear out of the atheist novelist Terry Pratchett.

I agree with this:

Rincewind stared, and knew that there were far worse things than Evil. All the demons in Hell would torture your very soul, but that was precisely because they valued souls very highly; evil would always try to steal the universe, but at least it considered the universe worth stealing. But the gray world behind those empty eyes would trample and destroy without even according its victims the dignity of hatred. It wouldn’t even notice them. (The Light Fantastic, p. 256)

On a Christian view, this is the core of all evil–nothingness, the tearing apart of reality, the end of things. And, given naturalism, this is exactly what all things will become, and what much of what we care about already is. The forces, not of evil in the fairy-tale sense, but of unthinking indifference will rip us apart, and rip apart everything we’ve ever known.

Not that I think most naturalists view life this way, and that is my point. Most prefer to avoid the topic of our ultimate fate, proposing instead that we focus on more short term thinking. I have to say that, like most philosophers, I find it hard to accept a position that answers fundamental questions with a kind of denial. It seems both more honest, and more courageous, to face them squarely.

Years ago, I found myself unable to turn away. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name a piece of writing that reminds me so much of the last months before I became a Christian than the paragraph quoted here. At that time, even more than now, I would have been appalled at the pleasant glosses being put on naturalism. In fact, I was appalled when I was first accused of raising the subject disingenuously–as if the years I spent horrified by this prospect hadn’t actually happened.

But none of this is to say that naturalism isn’t true. It may well be that everything and everyone we’ve ever loved is being slowly destroyed by something that can’t understand the value of life and won’t remember us once we’re gone. But only a failure to face up to the reality of the situation, to stare into the darkness without blinking, could lead one to think that naturalism is anything but bleak.

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.

“Reject This Idea, Because I can Make Unfair Accusations About It.”

Handling-the-Stress-of-RejectionIn arguing against religion, Bertrand Russell turns to the claim that religion should be supported on the grounds that it encourages good behavior.

Initially, I found myself ready to agree with Russell, as I thought he’d make the perfectly valid point that a belief system isn’t true simply because it gets people to behave. Instead, he said this:

One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.

That is the idea — that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked.

While I’d quickly agree with anyone who claimed that religious people are not nearly so good as we know we should be, studies on the effects of religion have not turned up anything like what Russell and others claim. Quite the contrary, it has more often been a positive influence on believers and communities.

This is especially problematic for the New Atheists, who tend to put such stress on trusting and respecting science. The fact that the findings of the relevant sciences run counter to their arguments here does not seem to have phased them. In fact, many of them seem to have developed a selective deafness on this point.

But, of course, none of this addresses the question of whether God exists.

Saying that we should reject God’s existence on the grounds that Russell (or anyone else) can make the unsupported claim that religion makes people bad should not make anyone question religious belief. In my view, there is only one interesting thing about this idea: that it isn’t immediately obvious to everyone that it is a worthless argument.

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 XVIII: The Human Self-Destruct Button

Self-Destruct-ButtonIn his speech “Why I am not a Christian”, Russell has quite a bit to praise about Christ’s teachings. However, he asserts that belief in Hell cannot possibly be held by a great moral teacher:

There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.

This is a classic, and unfortunate, misunderstanding of Christ. There are, of course, many interpretations of Hell, but any traditional teaching points out (among other things) that it is a natural consequence of separation from he who is the source of all love, life, and goodness.

In attempting to interpret the Bible for us, Russell (and, indeed, the New Atheists) seems to imagine a place in which God directly and vindictively tortures people for all eternity. I agree that this paints God in a terrible light; I merely wonder what this has to do with Christianity as it is actually understood by theologians.

If one understands the severity of the self-inflicted damage caused by separating from the source of all love, it is easy to see why “leaving God” and “hell” are two terms for the same unthinkably awful experience.

One can choose not to believe in Christianity, of course, but to say that it is morally wrong for Christ (or anyone else) to believe that it would be bad for people to reject God is not cogent. It is to say that Christ should not make judgements if they are apt to strike others as negative.

But this seems very strange. This very speech by Russell has told me that the masses aren’t capable of much in the way of rational thought, that it may well be a comfort to think that humanity will be annihilated, that even the most brilliant people are hopelessly indoctrinated, that there has been a severe degeneration in our ability to form rational beliefs, that the horrors of pain and death are natural and irrevocable, that the injustice of this world will never be corrected, and, in some strange inversion of logic, that those who disagree with these claims (i.e. theists) have far too judgmental a view of life and humanity.

Rather than follow a series of cynical statements with the accusation that one’s opponent has been too judgmental, Russell (and the New Atheists) should see what the doctrine of Hell actually teaches: that this path of judgmentalism, of demanding that everyone who disagrees with one’s position is wicked and delusional, will lead one into absolute torment if it isn’t stopped.

That is no easy task, I’ll grant. I speak from experience when I say that it is far easier to judge (and grow bitter in that judgment) than to accept the idea that someone (even God) may be a better judge than one’s self. That this is so natural for us, in fact, is exactly why Christ was morally obliged to warn us. To say that he should have let us suffer without warning is the attitude I find morally unconscionable.

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.

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.