CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

It is often argued that theism provides a basis for a coherent system of morality, whereas atheism offers no such guidance and indeed suggests that there can be no such thing as morality traditionally understood. It is just as often responded that atheists are moral people too and there is no evidence that conversion to atheism leads people into gross immorality or crime.

True enough, but that is not really the point. The issue is not, as I put it in my article Is it Possible to be Good Without God?, whether an atheist can be a good person, but whether goodness and evil are concepts sustainable in an atheistic milieu.

However, if atheists are just as moral, if not more so, than self-identified Christians, is this a distinction without a difference? Does it matter that the atheist's morality system may not be coherent so long as he acts morally?

Such thinking is shortsighted. Today's atheists have the benefit of 1500 years of Christian morality. This morality has affected all, not just strict Christian adherents. It has shaped an entire society's norms and expectations. The real question is not whether an atheist raised with morals framed by Christian influence will be moral, but what society will look like after generations of atheist triumph.

This issue was ably addressed by a recent article in Biblical Worldview Magazine, "Why Atheists Are Theocrats," by Gary DeMar. Here is how DeMar puts it:

If atheists get their way, they will be running the world in terms of some ultimate principle. At the moment, atheists have the benefit of a vibrant Christian worldview where they can borrow moral plugs like compassion and kindness to keep their hole-filled materialist boat afloat. Given time, future generations of atheists will logically throw off these moral precepts that at one time had been mined from "ancient literature." Consistency will lead these newly empowered atheists to conclude that "kindness" is a superstitious remnant of an ancient book-led religion that once proposed that immaterial entities exist. Science will show that there is no way to account for these religion-defined virtues given naturalistic assumptions.... When atheists no longer have Christianity to borrow from, from what bank will they draw their moral capital?

18 comments:

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Your post assumes that goodness or moral behavior can only come from Christianity, even in the West. There are plenty of reasons to hypothesize that morality has been evolutionarily developed as a means of helping the survival of the family/tribe/species. I refer you, as starters, to Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-674-3, by primatologist Frans de Waal.

Paul,

It is not true that my post assumes that goodness or moral behavior can only come from Christianity. I speak of a coherent system of morality and how "theism" provides one. So I was not speaking of behavior, but coherence, and not just Christianity, but theism. I concede that atheists can be moral people, I just dispute that they have any real reason to be so beyond personal preference.

And the survival of the species is not really the point, here. The species has survived extreme cases of genocide, such as the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and the millions killed by atheistic communist regimes in China and the Soviet Union. I presume you would agree these are "immoral" though they did not threaten the existence of the entire species?

The question is whether a coherent case can be made for a moral system in a culture dominated by atheism. I do not believe you have made that case or even tried to.

Most people do not make moral decisions based on what memes they think evolution has given them, they make it on beliefs about wrong and right. In the West, those beliefs are heavily informed by Christianity, though the influence is dissipating. The further distant Christian influence becomes and atheist beliefs prevail, the less coherent--and therefore persuasive--the case for morality becomes.

The last sentence of your post, "When atheists no longer have Christianity to borrow from, from what bank will they draw their moral capital?" sure sounds to me like saying that Christianity is the only source of morals. rhetorically.

Just because a certain act doesn't threaten the survival of the entire species, and we would still call it immoral, doesn't mean that there isn't an evolutionary basis to it. Please note that my original comment didn't limit evolutionary influences to survival of the entire species, but included survival of the family, tribe, [nation], etc. Each of those will *tend* (not perfectly, and sometimes contradictorily, so you can find counter-examples) to help the survival of the species, and if it does so just enough, it will tend to continue and influence succeeding generations.

I also didn't mean that people make moral decisions with a conscious awareness of evolutionary influence.

Lastly, can you give me a little more detail by what you mean by "coherent?"

Paul,

{{I also didn't mean that people make moral decisions with a conscious awareness of evolutionary influence.}}

Not yet; but in a hypothetically atheistic society (not counting actual atheistic socities of the 20th and 21st centuries, in case you consider those to be bad data examples), are the people to make moral decisions with a conscious awareness of evolutionary influence? Or not? I mean as a principle--of course there will be people with a lack of education, but in principle are they to be educated that their moral decisions are to be made on grounds of survival of the fittest, etc.? Keeping in mind that evolution supposedly proceeds by random copy errors producing behavioral effects and capabilities which happen to allow individuals to breed more efficiently in their environment.

If the people are not to be instructed to make their moral judgments based on this ground--why not?

If so--has an amoral non-rational unconscious process become a moral basis in itself when I wasn't looking? If we try to appeal rationally (not to say morally) to such a ground of behavior, how are we to do this without either abandoning our rationality in favor of reacting to whatever natural feeling we have at the moment; or judging over against that ground by distinction from our own rationality-not-to-say-ethicality (which can only work by accepting a tacit implication that our rationality is _not_ in fact only more of that non-rational reactive behavior-toward-more-successful-breeding being complexly expressed in a different way); or else smuggling rational motives into our accounts of the non-rational behavior, such as through metaphorical induction (which introduces the externalist fallacy)?

This would be a little more detail about what _I_ would mean by a lack of coherency, btw. {s}

JRP

Addendum:

Which is not to say that I don't recognize that theists have their own problems when it comes to ethical justification theories. (Among other things, I think orthodox Christians have traditionally been a little too ready to agree that mere theism would be sufficient; an observation I make on technical grounds which I won't go into here, yet.)

Nor, fwiw, am I making a theistic Argument from Morality. But the hypothesis should be principly tested 'if atheism is true'; if people believe they have better grounds for that than for accepting not-atheism (much less for accepting orthodox trinitarian theism), then that's just how it is and the best of the matter has to be made.

As a _historical_ fact Western society is coming from a very long period of Christian influence; Chris' question then (that's "Layman") is both historically and practically pertinent: is Christianity to be kept as a mere cultural artifact, an opiate for the masses while the 'real' cognoscienti know better? (But that simply limits the practical question of atheistic moral grounds to the cultural elite; it doesn't get rid of the practical question.)

Or is a truly atheistic society to be brought about? If so, then on what coherent ground are we to base our moral decisions, which isn't ultimately an amoral ground after all?

Or, if it is ultimately an amoral ground (and under atheism it would obviously have to be so), on what coherent ground are we to keep supposing that our ostensibly 'moral' behaviors are anything more than, say, mere social convenience at best? And where mere social conveniences conflict, what is to be the arbiter of decision between them?--mere survival of the fittest? Had the Nazis won, their 'morality' would be ascendent, and there would be no ground other than perhaps your own personal annoyance to contest them.

And so in that case it comes down to a question of mere strength and ability: 'might' makes 'right'.

Which is certainly very 'natural', per biological evolutionary theory. But is this what you intend to be promoting? (And if not, why not? On what atheistic ground would you dissent from that; or if you prefer, on what evolutionary ground?)

JRP

Jason, I don't think that it is a matter of principle whether people should make moral decisions consciously in an atheistic, evolutionary morality, so it's hard for me to answer your question.

If you're looking for atheistic morality to provide a grounding or foundation that is as secure as, say, mathematics or logic, or provides the surety of an absolute morality, it won't happen. Evolutionary morality is a scientific hypothesis of what is, not what should be (it's not a contradiction that this is a theory about morality, which is a code that says what should be).

We may at times let rationality rule, or at other times allow our natural feelings to rule. We are probably more rational when we seek to impose our morality *within* our own group that is assumed to share our morality, as a matter of consistency (if you're for freedom, as an American, then you should favor specific policy X), and more likely to let what seems to be our natural feelings hold sway, against rationality, when we direct our moral judgments *outside* of our group (take, say, female genital mutilation in certain other cultures). If you call that not coherent, I'll agree. It is the way it is, though, in my opinion. But that's a limited definition of coherence, especially given the moral judgment of consistency that is possible within a culture or group.

Paul,

(As a sidenote, Chris is off this week with his wife and new baby, which is why he isn't in a position right now to continue the discussion. He may pick up with it later in a new post, though.)

Clearly there is a is/ought or fact/value disjunction that is being respected here. Thus, evolutionary morality is a scientific hypothesis of what _is_, not what _should be_; and there is no contradiction in saying that this is a theory about what morality is: a code that says what should be.

But what this means in practical effect is that evolutionary biology is surrendering any claim about ethical grounding per se. It isn't simply a case that most people will be ignorant that atheists can provide no moral grounding but only explanations _about_ morality--although the practical question will still be raised: should people be taught this? (Call it a question of mere pragmatism if you wish. I don't think the answer can be that it doesn't matter. It does matter, because people are going to use given knowledge for grounding where they can, at least in their own favor. That's human nature, in any of several senses of that phrase. {s})

Chris' question (via his quote from DeMar) was about where atheists will draw their moral capital from, when they no longer have 1500 years of Christianized culture to borrow from? Apparently it will be from nowhere rational not to say ethical in behavior, or from merely apparent reasons (such as for instance a belief in a Christian God of a particular character) which the cognoscienti reject as proper explanations. Let it be granted that evolutionary biologists can come up with a workable explanation: it is an explanation that cannot be used as a ground for making the decisions the explanation is supposed to be about.

To give a crude example, whenever Richard Dawkins expects us to agree with him about the immorality of taking advantage of Australian aborigines, he does _not_ expect us to remark to ourselves, "Ha! Mr. D is venting genetic gas again!" That remembrance of his explanation would ruin his appeal; but it's the only kind of causal explanation he is willing to give. (Though doubtless he would add a lot of complexity to it; at which point one might begin to suspect the complexity is intended to distract us from keeping in mind the character of the explanation!)

Put another way, the problem is not that "atheistic morality" cannot provide a grounding or foundation that is as secure as, say, mathematics or logic, or that it cannot provide the surety of an absolute morality. The problem is that it doesn't provide any such grounding or foundation _at all_.

The practical result is that if anything is to be accomplished morally, the atheist must appeal to a merely useful conceptual fiction. We aren't talking about a case where, for instance, the mathematician can take an easy methodological shortcut for figuring out derivations of mathematical formulae. We're talking about something more like hearing that mathematicians _have to_ use those easy trick methods to do their derivations in calculus, because if they applied or appealed to the real limit-based calculations on which calculus operations are supposed to be based, nothing would be accomplished and (moreover) these could not possibly be acceptable as justifications for the conclusion being attempted.

The end result doesn't look especially favorable to a promotion of any kind of _ethical_ rationalism. To say that goodness or moral behavior can come from something other than Christianity--though that's a category error anyway, since no orthodox proponent should be proposing that goodness and moral behavior come from any belief system per se! (though I also have to admit that this is often how it is presented)--and then to end up having to appeal to Christianity or something like it in order to provide operable and practical moral grounding...

...well, to me it would seem at the very least like something isn't being accounted for in the explanation yet. "It is the way it is," is, in this case, not a very satisfactory answer, in my opinion. {s}

{{We are probably more rational when we seek to impose our morality *within* our own group that is assumed to share our morality}}

But there is no grounding _for_ this 'morality' in the first place. You have just said that there cannot be; only explanations _about_ it. The kind of rationality that seeks to impose 'our morality' within 'our own group' is, in this case, not within the group at all. That group over there (say the majority of Americans) is under a mistaken impression that there is an objective morality that can be discovered, applied and appealed to, even if they have disagreements about particulars; and this group over here (say, the pragmatic politician) who knows there is no such thing to appeal to but who also knows that if he doesn't play the language-game he isn't going to get anything done. His power depends on maintaining and taking advantage of the ignorance and misunderstanding of the people--when that's convenient for him. But on pulling back the curtain and showing there is no man behind it, when _that_ looks more convenient to him, such as when people make claims of this objective moral standard over against _him_ and he can't find any other way to take advantage of their beliefs. It would be trivially true that in the second case he happens, incidentally, to be correct--if atheism is true.

If this pragmatist tries the same thing on someone else who accepts 'his own morality', though, it isn't going to work; the other person will only laugh and suggest the pragmatist drop the pretentious bs and talk to him plainly. The successive discussion will have nothing to do with morality, except by accident--or except insofar one or both parties find some way to sneak it in anyway against the other person.

Survival of the fittest, yo? {s}

{{But that's a limited definition of coherence, especially given the moral judgment of consistency that is possible within a culture or group.}}

Which is much the same as conceding that if another group simply has another standard that happens to work for them--ensuring that they breed effectively, for instance--then we can have no real ground for opposing them aside from our own personal inconvenience--such as the inconvenience of our own women being stolen, raped and impregnated in order to increase their workforce numbers. They is they, and us is us. Whatever we can do to take advantage of them, that other family or clan, then that's what we'll do, so long as we can get away with it--and not, if not. No differently than they-over-there are treating us, except insofar as one of us is more effective at using the other.

If _we_ can enslave _them_, for instance, then that's what we'll do, if that's in our own best interests. Any repugnance about enslaving them is simply that: a mere feeling that was engendered in people by effective rhetoricians who were either operating under a mistaken impression of ethical rationality themselves, or else were simply taking effective advantage of their own people's mistaken ideas or ignorance by convincing them something might be truly wrong with enslaving Africans or Jews or Native Americans or whomever. (That is, the rhetoricians were taking advantage of their _own_ people instead of the Africans or Jews or whomever, for benefit of increasing or retaining the rhetoricians own social power or whatever.)

Seems like a dark future, to me. Not an especially Enlightened one. (Though doubtless it would be called the People's New Enlightenment of Freethinking Rational Responders or some such thing. Good rhetorical effect there, for the masses. {g!} Hopefully not what the current promulgators of those terms are aiming for themselves, but...)

JRP

Jason, if you think morality can only be grounded as well as, say, logic, then you're right. But if you think that morality only has to be grounded as well as, say, the rules of baseball, then it's not a problem. You're making the mistake of thinking that baseball has to make logical sense. It doesn't when everyone agrees to play the game, which is exactly the case that evolutionary morality describes: our culture enculturates our morality into us so that we want to play the game of baseball, er, I mean, morality. I can no more arbitrarily change my moral sense than I can speak fluent Japanese, exactly because of how I was enculturated.

The lack of grounding you speak of is only a problem is you think it's a problem.

So if two different societies have different ingrained Habitus exerting infuence on actors in society, if morality isnt static between cultures and historical periods, how can an appeal to enculturation be any kind of solid objective foundation for morality?

-Cam

Paul,

{{But if you think that morality only has to be grounded as well as, say, the rules of baseball, then it's not a problem.}}

To which I can reply that the only distinction between the 'rules' of baseball and the 'rules' of ethnic purging, is a different expression of social convenience--on this plan.

I am told with some reliability that the fighters in Rwanda and so forth rather enjoy their rapine labors; they can get away with it, so why not? When they can't get away with it any more, or when they otherwise somehow discern that they themselves would be better off to do something else, then very rationally that's what they'll do instead. What is supposed to be our _atheistic_ (or, if you prefer, evolutionary) critique against them?--if any? Not that they would accept the critique necessarily, but if these are the truth, then are _we_ to act, including think, in regard to Rwandan rapist murders according to these fundamental truths? Or according to some socially convenient myth that we happen to know is quite the reverse of the truth? The world is larger than a baseball game. And why shouldn't a person cheat at baseball so long as he can get away with it?

I will also add that the rules of baseball and the rules of ethnic cleansing can be quite coherently self-consistent in themselves. The incoherence I am talking about is not in this or that subordinate system, but in personal application.

If I am an atheist, there are several things I can do in regard to (merely) social morality that are quite logically coherent. But I cannot talk to a woman about true love (to take a less noxious example than attitudes toward ethnic cleansing) and mean what I am saying. It would only be a pretense, at best. "Ohhhh, that's just what we call... _pillow-talk_, baby!" as Ash would say from _Army of Darkness_. {g}

Romantic language used in wedding vows, would be no more real than what might be said at a Live-Action Role-Playing game, and for much the same reason: sex is only another sort of game. If I and the woman think it is a fun game to play, then that is what we will do in our own self-interest. If I would rather be playing a game with somewhat different 'rules' with the woman, then either I must trick her or force those rules onto her; and if I can get away with it, why not? Admittedly, if I don't think I can get away with it, then I would be prudent to play a game she prefers instead perhaps--or go play with someone else where I can get away with the game I happen to prefer instead.

In principle, though, that's all there would be to it. If I said differently--well, that would only be part of the language-game. Or it would be an incoherence on my part to really believe differently: to really believe out of one side of my brain (so to speak) that true love is something more than another flavor of genetic gas; but then when I go to my Freethinker's meeting (or go evangelize among the unenlightened perhaps {s}) to really believe that things like 'true love' are only another flavor of genetic gas. (Perhaps this is why highly public anti-theist Philip Pullman has to elide over into emergent pantheism in order to carry a meaningful weight and hope, at the end of the day in his highly romantic _Dark Materials_ trilogy. But those of us who are _consistent_ atheists will know that that is only a child's fantasy. Though perhaps a good way to seduce a woman into sleeping with us, insofar as she surrenders to that fantasy... An excellent way to spread those genetics around more effeciently!)

{{You're making the mistake of thinking that baseball has to make logical sense.}}

Exactly what people who cork their bats might say! Or, to take my own sport, if I can rig my sword to land a 'point' without being caught, so what if it violates the 'rules'? True, if I get caught by people who have mistakenly believed that fencing rules should make logical sense (in a particular way--after all, my rigging the sword makes perfectly logical sense as well), then I will be ejected from the game. How competent do I think they are at catching me, though? ehh... {weighing relative liklihoods there}

From fencing to actual war: those people who carp about 'atrocities' and so forth, are making the mistake of thinking that war should make logical sense. Or one kind of logical sense and not another. Really, so long as I live and my enemy dies, who cares? And if I can enjoy their deaths in my own little way--why are those other people bothering me about that? Sigh! I mean, if I have to be out here risking _my_ life, I might as well get as much out of it for my own wants (whatever those happen to be) as I can achieve. So what if some people call this 'barbarism'? That's only another language-game--though I may have to respect (for now) that they have more power to enforce the game that they want to play, than I have power to enforce the game that I myself would prefer.

There's nothing strictly inconsistent about this. The only people being inconsistent are the ones who accept this out of one side of their brains, in certain situations, and then turn around and really (not just in convenient social pretense) accept something else quite different about fundamental reality out of the other side of their brains in other situations.

{{our culture enculturates our morality into us so that we want to play the game of baseball, er, I mean, morality.}}

Which means (since 'culture' is an abstraction description of behaviors of actual humans) that some humans train our morality into us so that we want to play the game of morality. And they get _their_ ideas of morality, from...?

You may not be able to change your 'moral sense' very effectively, but insofar as you are (or could be) a consistent atheist you must realize that this training is about nothing more than (at best) a genetic froth. It admittedly generates a lot of sound and fury; but it signifies _nothing_.

But admittedly, perhaps this is only a problem insofar as someone thinks this is a problem.


Cam,

I don't think Paul (to do him justice... whatever he may think that is {s}) was appealing to enculturation to be any kind of solid objective foundation for morality.

JRP


PS: I see Bill is prepping a draft for a new Original Post on what appears to be the same topic, so I suggest witholding further comments until the new post is up and then continuing there (with callbacks here where applicable).

Today's atheists have the benefit of 1500 years of Christian morality. This morality has affected all, not just strict Christian adherents.

So many things can be said in response to this post I don't know where to begin. But let me just say that you need a history lesson. Yep, that's right, a history lesson. As good as you are in delving into the historical foundations of Christianity may I suggest you study some of the golden ages of civilizations that had no influence from Christian morals, like Japan, China, Greece, Rome, and Isalm under Mohammed.

That's all for now.

Today's atheists in the West have the benefit of 1500 years of Japanese, Chinese, Greco-Roman Islamic religious morality as dominant parts of our current Western cultural heritage, within which today's Western atheists are operating, and from which they are trying to escape??!

{shrug} Oooookay, if you say so. (Some wacky "history lessons" you've been smoking there, though I might see you the Greco-Roman portion and raise you a Norse/Gothic ethos to boot.) Doesn't really change, much less challenge, Chris' point, though.

Granting atheists are trying to escape from the more-or-less theistic generalities behind the vast majority of world history (a point I recall bringing up in our own recent... well, I won't call it "discussion", since there was a notable deficit of actual "discussion" on your part... exchanges, perhaps), what are they going to have to draw from ethically when they get to where they're trying to go? That was Chris' question, and the topic of this discussion John. (Notice, btw, that Paul had an actual respectable _discussion_ with me on this. PS: "John Loftus is not Socratic Cole Slaw.")

JRP

"{{But if you think that morality only has to be grounded as well as, say, the rules of baseball, then it's not a problem.}}

To which I can reply that the only distinction between the 'rules' of baseball and the 'rules' of ethnic purging, is a different expression of social convenience--on this plan."

Yup, we'd better get used to it.

"I am told with some reliability that the fighters in Rwanda and so forth rather enjoy their rapine labors; they can get away with it, so why not? "Because we, for no absolute reason, don't want to let them. I admitted in a previous comment that, ultimately, with the properly drawn example, differences in morality come down to a question of will, not absolute right and wrong.

Don't blame me if that's the universe we find ourselves living in. It's a jungle out there.

Oops, I did some bad formatting above, my 2nd comment begins with "Because we, for no absolute reason. . . ."

may I suggest you study some of the golden ages of civilizations that had no influence from Christian morals, like Japan, China, Greece, Rome, and Isalm under Mohammed.

Unless you are going to argue that these places and time periods were atheistic, I fail to see your point. I did not argue that only Christianity could fill the role of transcendent morality provider, just that atheists can make no such coherent appeal. My focus on Christianity was regarding our culture, America and the West, rather than a claim that Christianity is the only morality-granting game in town.

Loftus says in his usual snide manner: "But let me just say that you need a history lesson. Yep, that's right, a history lesson."

And for some reason he thinks he doesn't come across as arrogant. *sigh*

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