Sunday, February 5, 2012

Ethics vs. God

Part of my Approaching Atheism series.

In my previous post I discussed the issues that some specific types of theists have with the findings of science. I this post, I intend to approach the conflict that many more theists have with atheists regarding matters of ethics or morality.

Similarly to the previous discussion, this is at least as more important. Today, gay marriage, womens' rights to their own reproductive decisions, the basis of our system of justice, and whether and whom we should go to war with, are all currently being challenged from the position of religious faith.

More generally, people of faith repeatedly claim that only through God can anyone know what is right or wrong, with the implication that all atheists must run wild in the streets raping and murdering anyone they come across. I intend to address and explain the simple observation that this is not presently occurring.

In the politics of the United States, it has become popular for Christians to claim that the U.S. was intentionally founded to be a "Christian nation." This is so frightening and absurd to deserve some mention here. The founding documents of the United States are practically a crib sheet of concepts, terms, and even whole phrases lifted from enlightenment philosophy. It is unimaginable that they could be more clear in their assertion of a secular state. Yet no matter how clear they are on this point, theists still choose to insist the opposite; that the founders secretly intendend to establish a theocracy while claiming the opposite (as a side note, Turkey also confronts similar issues regarding theist misinterpretation of its otherwise clear founding documents).

The Body Count Game

First of all, in common arguments between atheists and theists, it often comes up that one belief system or another has been used as an excuse to slaugher and subjugate millions of people throughout history. Typically, an atheist will bring up the Crusades, the Inquisition, and later witch trials, and the theist will angrily counter with Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Hitler will be batted back and forth, claimed by neither side.

When one actually sits down to tally who has been killed in the name of what belief system, it doesn't take much to realize that the number of belief systems in contention for the greatest slaughters of humanity might be considerably more broad than a cursory inspection might admit. More significantly, it isn't just religions, but rather any social belief system, which gets to play: Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Imperialism, Nationalism, Manifest Destiny, Mercantilism, Capitilism, Communism, and (more recently) Corporatism are all belief systems responsible for the subjugation, torture, and slaughter of six-to-seven figures of innocent people, or perhaps even more.

However, it should be mentioned regarding Stalin, Pol Pot, etc. that even though they may be considered "athiest" in terms of officially having no belief in historical religions, they A) created a kind of religion of their own dogma, which shows no similarity whatsoever to the position of rational skepticism, and B) could no more be associated with rational skeptics any more than one religion could be associated with another. It would hardly be fair of me to add up the total body-count of all religions and assign that to any one of their totals. Similarly, it would hardly be fair to add up the totaly body-count of all regimes which claimed to be "atheist" and assign that to the position or rational skepticism. If I must bear the slaughter of everyone who claimed atheism, then you (whatever your religious position might be) must also bear the slaughter of everyone who has ever claimed theism, of any form, throughout all of history. Back to and including the purported Noahide flood (whether you're a member of one of the religions that reveres Genesis or not).

In any case, what one is left with is the mere impression that dogmatic belief structures of any kind regarding social organization, have led to the wholesale slaughter of all potential dissidents as well as the merely inconvenient. Any attempt to count up a grand total and thus anoint a winner or loser based on the results leaves one feeling like merely another participant in the massive slaughter and oppression of millions throughout history, rather than a judge of it, from any perspective that could claim to be moral.

In the end, this sort of argument is what I call "the body count game." It ultimately proves nothing (except perhaps that all human beings are capable of immense horror), and even merely trying to play it should leave all decent persons (whatever their position) feeling tainted by the association of even trying to tally an account in order to prove a point.

Can we really measure truth by stacking up mountains of corpses and comparing their heights? If we could, should we? According to the rules of this game, the person with the smallest mountains of corpses wins. But at the end of the day, there's still a mountain of corpses created in the name of what you believe, no matter how small it might seem compared to others. Any truly ethical person should want no part of it, and should claim no corpse-mountain merely in order to prove a point.

I say this not because I fear that atheism would lose the contest (I'm confident we'd do fine, given all of history) but rather because it's a disgusting basis for argumentation regarding the comparative merits of belief systems. I have no scripture that tells me so, only my own sense of human decency.

Genesis 3

Approaching the larger question of how ethics could arise in the natural world independently of a God who exists as the constant arbiter of defining good and evil at every moment, it's worth mentioning that even a scriptural account from the Bible itself contains the answer for how it could be that people could have their own independent, inherent moral compass.

Genesis 3:22
And the LORD God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

"Like one of us." Per scripture, our knowledge of good and evil is independent of God; we need not check back with Him to find out what's right or wrong at any given moment, or for any given situation. Even if we take Genesis 3 to be metaphorical or allegorical to some degree, this point is quite clear: at some point, humanity has obtained completely independent and innate knowledge of morality. We need no longer refer to God to know the difference between right and wrong.

Of course, I have not at this point fully given an account for morality beyond scripture, having merely raised a scriptural objection. However, what this point manages to accomplish is to shift the scriptural position from God as a constant arbiter of good and evil, as the eternal source of morality, to magic fruit. And magic fruit is a somewhat easier rhetorical position to argue against. I'd certainly like to hear a theist defend morality from that position alone within the context of a serious theological/philosophical debate.

But in light of Genesis 3, they certainly can't claim from a scriptural basis that God needs to give us laws for us to have morality, that we don't have the innate ability to distinguish good from evil. From either a scriptural or a philosophical basis, we do.

Atheist Ethics

So, let's confront the challenge in a positive way. If not instructed by an almighty being, how can concepts of morality arise in the world?

Well first, there's selfish gene theory. Well before we even consider intelligent life forms, altruism (the basic concept of all ethics) comes into play. One might suffer risk of harm at the organism level in order to promote the survival of relatives, and thus the survival of some of one's genes. So long as the genes themselves perpetuate, evolution is satisfied. Rather than go into detail, I'll merely point (waves finger vaguely) at the massive wealth of research regarding altruism among various animal species.

Next, there's game theory. A statistical analysis of the positive or negative outcome of many interchanges between participants may be set up to model and produce the moral outcome for any number of precepts. Again I'll just point (vaguely waving) to a massive wealth of research showing that statistically speaking, the sorts of behaviors that we view as criminal are detrimental in the long run, and the sorts of behaviors that we view as morally laudable are beneficial in the long run.

"The age of enlightenment was a cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th-centery Erope, that sought to mobilise the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge" - so says Wikipedia. John Locke, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Thomas Paine, and many others wrote extensively regarding how to derive moral and social remedies from first principles. They developed and applied concepts such as natural rights and social contract, by which human interaction could be judged, with no reference to scripture or to religious precepts at all. In seeking to derive morality from basic philosophical principles, they also set the conceptual stage (and much of the language) for the founding documents of the United States of America, as well as many other nations to follow.

To anyone who doubts the massive wealths of research that I have vaguely waved my finger at in the last three paragraphs, please review my previous post regarding why it is not my job to provide you with a comprehensive education in any major field of study merely to convince you of some specific point. If you are ignorant of it, that doesn't mean I lose; that merely means that you already have.

Fixed vs. Changing Ethics

One of the theist's favorite claims to make regarding a god-centric vs. secular philosophical ethical system is that God's rules regarding morality never change, whereas the secular philosophers' do over time.

If that were presumed, then the theist must come out in favor of the divine right of kingship over democracy. The theist must advocate the social construct of slavery. The theist must come out against the suffrage and equal rights of women. All of these three principles are supported by (or are at the very least considered morally neutral by) scripture.

Also: civilian control of the military, right against self-incrimination, an independent judiciary, checks and balances between independent branches of government, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of belief and/or conscience, freedom of expression of religion, human rights, civil rights, and (last but not least) due process in search and seizure. The Bible has absolutely nothing to say about any of these principles. Secular enlightenment philosophy has a great deal to say about them. If you believe they are good, then you believe so not because of the Bible, but because of secular ethical arguments to be made regarding them. If you believe that the Bible is the only source of moral truth, then you must deny all of the pillars upon which stable free societies rest in the modern age.

For each of the above points, our morals have changed. We have determined that democracy is good, that slavery is evil, and that women are persons, having intrinsic value as human beings rather than as mere bearers for some sort of ancient hymen-based currency system. If one agrees with any of these precepts, then one cannot have gotten those notions from scripture. To the degree that our concept of morality has changed, in every critical respect, it has changed for the better. And what it changed from is the unalterable law of God.

We discovered these new moral truths over time, starting many centuries after the last word had been penned in the Bible. It is precisely secular thought that has led us to realize these moral truths. Therefore, yes, our morality does change. But by and large, it changes for the better over time, and it certainly has changed to become a vast improvement on what was originally set down in scripture.

If you disagree, then the next time your kid goes out to a kegger, kill him. If your daughter gets raped, sell her to the rapist. Then come back and dare to tell me how moral you are. Or else admit that your personal sense of morality comes not from the Bible, but from your own ability to distinguish good from evil - because the Bible mandates exactly the opposite. Everything that we now know as good or evil in society, was either already obvious (murder, theft, adultery) or has been determined as good or evil well after scripture was last set down (literally everything else).

There are only two possibilities for this state of affairs: 1) ethics is well-grounded in reason, or 2) magic fruit. It just so happens that ethics is indeed well-grounded in reason.

Next Up:

I address the primary historical attempts to prove the existence of God, many variations of which still flourish to this day.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home