CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Over at the thought-provoking Dangerous Idea, Victor Reppert, author of C.S. Lewis' Dangerous Idea, put forth a syllogism relating to atheism and homosexuality that I found interesting. The underlying thought I had heard before, but Dr. Reppert was the first person I had seen put the argument into a syllogism. It goes like this: 

Premise 1: If God does not exist, then something like Blind Watchmaker Neo-Darwinian Evolution (hereafter just “evolution”) is a fact.
 Premise 2: If evolution is a fact, then, objectively, my only purpose in life is to survive, reproduce, and spread my genes to the maximal extent (this premise is taken, essentially, from the mouth of Richard Dawkins).
 Premise 3: Homosexuality makes it impossible to reproduce and pass on our genes.
 Premise 4: Therefore homosexuality prevents us from achieving my only purpose in life.
 Premise 5: Therefore homosexuality is wrong, and should be discouraged.

Of course, this syllogism plays on the fact that people who believe in the type of evolution described in the syllogism tend to believe that the greatest good is the passing of genes to the next generation so that the group (whatever the group may be) will survive. This type of thinking is essential for atheists to explain concepts such as altruism. Consider: if life’s goal (and hence, its highest good) is simply to pass one’s genes onto the next generation then it would seem to make no sense that people would find altruism or self-sacrifice to be “good.” In fact, they would be bad as they would stop the one sacrificing himself or herself from passing along his or her genes to the next generation. In order to make sense of a world where both the passing of genes and self-sacrifice make sense, those who believe in an atheistic world view must posit that the real good is passing along at least some of the genes of the group to the next generation.

An example of this kind of thinking can be seen in an article from the New York Times entitled “The Moral Animal” by Jonathan Sacks. While Mr. Sacks makes the case in the article that religion is needed, he does set forth fairly succinctly the argument being made by atheists to account for altruism. Mr. Sacks writes:

Altruists, who risk their lives for others, should therefore usually die before passing on their genes to the next generation. Yet all societies value altruism, and something similar can be found among social animals, from chimpanzees to dolphins to leafcutter ants. Neuroscientists have shown how this works. We have mirror neurons that lead us to feel pain when we see others suffering. We are hard-wired for empathy. We are moral animals. The precise implications of Darwin’s answer are still being debated by his disciples — Harvard’s E. O. Wilson in one corner, Oxford’s Richard Dawkins in the other. To put it at its simplest, we hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole. Our unique advantage is that we form larger and more complex groups than any other life-form.

So, what Dr. Reppert argues is actually quite sensible given this line of thinking. After all, if our function is to make certain that at least some (if not all) of the genes in our group make it to the next generation then there is a problem that homosexuality presents. Obviously, sex between two males or two females cannot possibly produce offspring and prevent any possibility that the genes will pass to the next generation. This would appear to plainly go against the function that we are “hard-wired” to do. So, if atheist adopt this viewpoint of the function of organisms, on what basis should they find homosexuality – which plainly opposes this main function – to be acceptable?

The form of the argument appears valid. However, I would rewrite it, at least in part, to make it clearer. I would write is as such:

Premise 1: If God does not exist, then something like Blind Watchmaker Neo-Darwinian Evolution (hereafter just “evolution”) is a fact.

Premise 2: If evolution is a fact, then, objectively, my only purpose in life is to survive, reproduce, and spread my genes to the maximal extent (this premise is taken, essentially, from the mouth of Richard Dawkins).

Premise 3: Heterosexual sex is the only natural means of reproducing and spreading my genes to the maximal extent.

Premise 4: If my only purpose in life is to survive, reproduce and spread my genes to the maximal extent, then heterosexual sex is the only natural way to achieve that purpose.

Premise 5: Homosexuality cannot naturally lead to the reproduction and passing on of our genes.

Premise 6: Therefore homosexuality prevents us from achieving my only purpose in life.

Premise 7: Anything that prevents us from achieving the only purpose in life ought to be discouraged.

Premise 8: Therefore homosexuality should be discouraged.

I think that the additions I have made to the syllogism (while possibly adding nothing that was not implied) helps to clarify the argument. After all, the point of the syllogism is that homosexuality, by the very nature of the act, cannot lead to offspring that can pass genes to the next generation, and if that is the purpose of life then we need to discourage that activity.

Having said that, I think that the biggest problem with the syllogism is that Dr. Reppert adopted Dawkins’ language of “purpose.” In a mindless, unguided universe, it is not possible that there is any transcendent purpose. This is why any atheist will discount this argument: it assumes that there is good or bad – a position that they flatly reject, especially in matters that involve sexual morality.

So, while I think that Dr. Reppert has made an interesting argument and it is quite possibly sound, it will not convince atheists who are already committed to a world view with no rules when it comes to how we act in the area of sex. 


14 comments:

Vic's argument is simplistic

He forgets that Dawkins also knows that humans do more than reproduce but also spread culture and ideas, it's called social evolution. Gays can find their purpose there.

Dawkins even knows that a single bacterium will continue to eat and reproduce in an agar-coated petri dish until it dies in its own excrement, and that's evolution too, and something that does not promote continued evolution. Knowing that there are natural limits to growth is part of cerebral social evolution, and gays seem to have that covered, naturally.

The Bible however, does not. It gives the same command to humans and bacteria, "be fruitful and multiply" without any warnings or proposed limits. God even tells humans they have dominion over everything that moves. But now we know it's better, healthier for the planet if humanity leaves large tracts of nature alone.

Oh, hi, Edski. You must be in the wrong place. This isn't the site for the FACA (Fundy Atheist Coalition of America).

I used to be a Christian, but broke off all association with Christianity when I discovered to my absolute horror just how anti-gay the vast majority of Christians world-wide are and realized that Christians are basically the sole opponents of gay rights in the Western world. I considered that an utter and complete failure by modern Christians to actually be Christian and love their neighbors, and help the persecuted and oppressed, and instead they have become the haters and oppressors and everything they are supposed to be against. Atheists, by contrast, are an order of magnitude more supportive of homosexuality and of gay rights than Christians are. They don't parrot bible verses about homosexuality being a sin and are instead tend to treat gay people like any other person.

So it is extremely ironic, that you, BK, who have written at length on this blog opposing gay rights, should try to claim that it is atheists who ought to be the bad guys. In reality it is you who is anti-gay and it is the atheists who aren't. Obviously atheists as a whole do not buy your line of contorted logic. I imagine very very few people would accept your quoted second premise, I don't. Your 3rd premise is a half-truth. And the 5th premise doesn't logically follow from anything - why should someone choosing not to fulfill their 'purpose' (as you call it) be wrong?

Starlight, I'm sorry you feel that way, but don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Christianity isn't supposed to be as intolerant as that, and Atheism is a moronic stance. Ol' Babinski above is a perfect example.

JB, It was a matter of it being the final straw that broke the camels back, as it were. I'd long since lost all the supernatural Christian beliefs I grew up with, but I'd retained the identity of a "nominal Christian" as I thought that the biblical teachings of love for one's neighbor were sound moral teachings, and thus thought that Christianity generally did more good than harm overall to society.

However, watching the gay-rights issue unfold worldwide has convinced me that most Christians wouldn't know love for their neighbor if it smacked them in the face, and that instead of promoting love and kindness, Christianity is instead having the effect of promoting judgmentalism, intolerance, self-righteousness, hatred, fear-mongering, legalism, and condemnation. As a result, I eventually concluded that on this and other subjects, Christianity has become morally detrimental to Western society rather than helpful. This has recently been reiterated by a widespread acceptance and endorsement of torture among Christians. Likewise the more I learn about slavery in the US, the more the fault seems to lie pretty squarely with Christians. George Whitefield, for example, the founder of evangelicalism successfully campaigned to get slavery reintroduced in Georgia after it had been banned there.

Secular morality is now vastly superior to 'Christian' morality as commonly taught, and even though I would say that a liberal interpretation of the bible can still yield moral teachings of love and compassion, it has become clear to me that the vast majority of Christians do not actually follow such teachings and instead prefer to emphasize and focus on more morally dubious parts of the bible.

That's just it: Atheism and secularism can't provide a basis for morality in a million years. And, I know that a lot of Christians seem hateful towards gays, but those people are like the Pharisees were. They aren't real Christians. Don't judge us by the republican, bigot kooks.

In terms of a 'basis' for morality, God adds nothing - sure, he can give commands and enforce them, but might doesn't make right.

Morality is about our interactions toward others and whether they are loving or not. So I would say 'good' and 'bad' are descriptive words which describe whether an action is carried out as a result of loving motives, ie with a desire to help others, or with hateful motives, ie with a desire to hurt others. There is sometimes also merit in distinguishing outcomes from motives, so something done from loving motives can potentially go badly wrong and be very harmful. Likewise there is almost always merit in acknowledging shades of gray and that social situations can be complicated, so there may be no action that doesn't harm at least somebody, or that doesn't have conflicting pros and cons, and in such situations a loving and kind person considers the various harms and benefits in deciding how to act.

To my mind, 'morality' is simply a measure of love for others. A person who cares about others and acts accordingly is moral/good, and a person who hates others and acts according is evil/immoral, with various shades of gray in between. It's a measure of love and positive interpersonal behavior, it doesn't require God to give it a basis or a green light, but we can certainly judge God's actions as loving or unkind.

I dismissed anti-gay Christians, and the Republicans, and the bigots, as 'not real Christians' for years. Then I realized just how big a majority of Christians are anti-gay. For example, my country legalized gay marriage more than a year ago, today less than 1% of churches here will hold gay marriage ceremonies, the rest still ban it. I realized I had reached the point where I was essentially saying that 99% of Christians aren't real Christians. At that point I had to concede that I don't really get to define 'real' Christianity myself based on what I think the bible says, and that what the vast vast majority of people calling themselves 'Christian' think is indeed highly relevant to what 'Christianity' is.

Wow, Edward, that is the most convoluted arguments I have seen. Where does this desire to advance culture come from? Is man the first to develop it? How did it come to be?

The petri dish example is horribly flawed. If the bacterium did not reproduce and multiply, it would still die in its environment because a petri dish is not a renewable eco-system.

Finally, you seem to have not completed the quote regarding "go forth and multiply." The quote, in part, says "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth...." Thus, there is a limit on growth (albeit vague in terms of numbers) for mankind -- when the Earth is full. I doubt full in this context means when every square inch of land is covered by humans, but the exact limit is for us to decide because God also gave us the responsibility to responsibly care for the land.

Starlight, I have to admit that I am confused about where you are coming from. You say in one quote that you broke off your relationship with Christianity when you "discovered to my absolute horror just how anti-gay the vast majority of Christians world-wide are and realized that Christians are basically the sole opponents of gay rights in the Western world." You say in your second quote that you " long since lost all the supernatural Christian beliefs I grew up with, but I'd retained the identity of a 'nominal Christian' as I thought that the biblical teachings of love for one's neighbor were sound moral teachings."

What it sounds to me like is that you had already lost any real semblance of Christianity but were willing to go to church until you found out that one of the teachings of the Bible conflicted with your new secular sensibilities. Is that right?

Now, I admit to taking stands that oppose the present secular stance in favor of gay marriage, but that does not make me anti-gay any more than saying that people shouldn't lie makes me anti-lying. I am in favor of people following God's law of being truthful and I am in favor of God's law that says how marriage and sex should be practiced.

I also note that you tell me that I am wrong on points 2, 3 and 5 (although point 2 came from Reppert). Rather than tell me where I'm wrong, please explain why I am wrong. That would be much more enlightening.

Finally, your statement that "Christianity is instead having the effect of promoting judgmentalism, intolerance, self-righteousness, hatred, fear-mongering, legalism, and condemnation." I feel the same way about secularism. The most judgmental, least tolerant, most self-righteous, hateful, fear-mongering people who promote legalism and condemnation that I have ever met live and thrive in the secular community. I suspect that there are some Christians out there who are like this, but I think that it is only on issues like homosexuality that you really feel that way about them because of a prior commitment you have made to the secular world-view on this issue.

BK, over the course of 25 years in Christian circles and studying the bible, I gradually became more and more liberal to the point where my Christianity was nominal but I was quite happy to attend church and with the presence of Christianity in society as I regard it as a social good. Myself and my Christian friends had always been strong advocates of gay rights on the grounds that Christians should love others and help the oppressed, and follow the spirit of the law and not the letter. I was utterly horrified to discover the huge majority of Christians who were anti-gay, as I in no way felt such teachings were at all reconcilable with Christianity, and if they were then it was not a 'Christianity' I wanted anything at all to do with in name or otherwise. The more I pay attention to the opinions of the majority of Christians throughout history on issues of torture, slavery, genocide, racism, the more I am convinced I made absolutely the right decision.

So I reject your statement "you found out that one of the teachings of the Bible conflicted with your new secular sensibilities. Is that right?" I found out that the interpretations of the bible followed by the majority of Christians was absolutely unpalatable and horrifying to my old Christian sensibilities. (Although I would point out that there is little/no difference between my old Christian moral sensibilities and my 'new' secular ones, because as I pointed out to JB, God is not relevant to morality - morality is a measure of the positiveness or negativeness of people's interpersonal interactions and no more needs 'God' to explain it than the directions left and right need 'God' to explain them.) And to a large extent it is necessary to blame the bible for being unclear and easy for naive Christians around the world to misinterpret.

If you say people shouldn't lie then of course you are anti-lying, and if you are anti gay-marriage then of course you are anti-gay.

Your talk about being in favour of "God's law" makes me think of a Christianized version of Shariah law, which does seem to be what the religious conservatives in their heart of hearts seem to want. How about simply having laws that are evidence-based and good for people in society? Is that too much to ask? Apparently, because people like you, be they Christians or Muslims, seem to prefer to demand their own interpretation of their own millennia old holy books be imposed on everyone else in society regardless of those people's beliefs.

How are the premises wrong? (Incidentally, my numbering previously referred to the numbers in Rupert's argument, although you share premises 2 and 3) Well premise 2 just strikes me as plain wacko, particularly the use of the words "objectively" and "purpose" in it strike me as implying definitions and assumptions that I would in no way agree with, and joining the two together is conflating all sorts of disparate ideas together. Premise 1 noted that evolution is a fact / a descriptive truth / an 'is'. Whereas premise 2 asserts that it is goal-based / a normative truth / an 'ought'. There's no connection there, one observes an empirical truth which the vast majority of secular people can agree with, the other makes wild claims about goals and purpose.

Premise 3 is a little dodgy insofar as gay people can have children perfectly well by artificial insemination, surrogacy etc. Also the word 'natural' has sneakily appeared in there - there doesn't seem to be a good reason why gay people shouldn't be allowed 'unnatural' forms of reproduction, eg it's probably only a matter of 10 years before scientists are able to use stem cells to make male eggs or female sperm allowing gay couples to have genetic children of their own, which would be 'spreading their genes' to the heterosexual extent.

(continued...)

(...cont)

The problem I have with Rupert's premise 5 / your premise 7 is that if someone chooses not to fulfill their 'purpose' in life as you put it, then that is their problem and only their problem. Why should society want to bully them into it if they choose not to? Society, if it feels the need, can bring the fact to their attention (if indeed it is a fact, which it isn't, since they can spread their genes in plenty of ways via artificial means), and let them make their own free choice with that information. Your argument has gone from beginning with observing that evolution is occurring to implying that we as humans have some sort of moral duty to make it occur, which is just bizarre.

Finally, I have met thousands of Christians in many churches and thousands of non-Christians in society in general, and though overall I would say there is little difference between the two groups on the vast majority of issues, on the whole I would say that the Christians tend to have more of the various negative traits I mentioned and that the more intelligent people tend to be non-Christian.

"it is only on issues like homosexuality that you really feel that way about them because of a prior commitment you have made to the secular world-view on this issue."

It absolutely disgusts me that you think your evil position on this issue is in any way 'Christian'. Here is some scientific analyses to read about how many people discrimination and prejudice against gay people ends up killing. The main effect is that propagating a general view in society that being gay is 'wrong', and the idea that gay people are inferior to straight people or are 'sinning' by what they do, is extremely stressful and demeaning to gay people and drives them to alcohol, smoking, drugs, and suicide in massive numbers, as well as causing chronic stress and anxiety which have their own severely negative medical consequences. The first link estimates the number of premature deaths resulting from social prejudice against gay people at over 2000 people per year in Canada alone (as of 2003).
The cost of homophobia in Canada
The Royal College of Psychologists (UK)
American Anthropological Association etc
APA, AMA, AAP etc
There's a lot of reading in there, but it's very informative.

Even a back of the envelope calculation based on the vastly greater rate of gay people committing suicide (based on other publicly available data and studies) as a result of social prejudice shows that anti-gay sentiment kills the same order of magnitude of Americans as 9/11 did. Although I personally think that making people so miserable that they kill themselves is even worse than outright killing them, so I think that what the US Christians are doing to their own is far more evil than anything the Muslims ever did. (Although, of course, the Muslims are equally guilty or worse when it comes to being anti-gay)

Thank you for your response. Let me tell you what I understand you to be saying. You are saying that you were forever a person who trusted your secular sensibilities more than the Bible. You don't agree with the Bible on some of its prohibitions and you also believe that you (since you were part of some liberal denomination which did not take the full teaching of the Bible seriously) have a better knowledge of good and evil than God (at least, if God is as the Bible teaches). You therefore accuse me of being wicked because I don't agree with your viewpoint. But, of course, you can do that because I am anti-gay and not as intelligent as the people you hang around with (because atheists are generally smarter than Christians in your limited world). Of course, the quick shot of comparing my belief in the Bible to Sharia law just shows the lack of discernment that you are employing.

I don't dispute that there are people out there who misuse the Biblical teaching and that some gay people have been hurt as a result. People have a bad habit of misusing the Bible because we are fallen. (That's a Biblical teaching, by the way, and since I am not sure if that was part of the teaching that your liberal church taught I just thought I would share it with you.) That is not the kind of reaction that the Bible teaches, and if you have read what I have written in the past, you should know that. So, pointing out that people have been hurt because some people misuse the text is nothing new or surprising. But, unlike you, I am also worried about all of the people who are being hurt by believing that their sexual choices are irrelevant and not harmful.

More could be said, but I don't see any reason to do so at this time. Sorry, we're not going to agree here, but that's because we're apparently coming from different planets on this issue.

"you were forever a person who trusted your secular sensibilities more than the Bible."

Absolute BS. I was a person who took seriously what I believed to be the teachings of the bible. And those are primarily to love God and love one's neighbour. I also took seriously Paul's statements that it is the spirit of the law and not the letter that matters. I also took seriously the fact that the NT discards a lot of OT laws, and reinterprets them in the light of Christ and the commandment to love others. I also believed inerrantists were naive, and that by their focus on the letter of the law they were actually missing and neglecting the primary message of biblical teaching, all too often getting hung up on their own dubious interpretations of individual passages rather than paying any attention to the bible's overall teachings.

I get upset at your position because it hurts people and is therefore immoral and evil because that is what those words mean to me.

I am also worried about all of the people who are being hurt by believing that their sexual choices are irrelevant and not harmful.

BS. There is nothing harmful that comes of being gay in and of itself. Gay couples who fall in love and get married can and do live out their lives perfectly happily. That is, apart from any homophobia and discrimination they suffer at the hands of others. Being gay doesn't hurt people, but being anti-gay sure does. Have a read of some of the links I supplied above. In a couple of them, all the major scientific organisations in the US are testifying to the US Supreme court as to why they support gay marriage: Because it has lots of benefits and zero harms.

Just to be crystal clear: I think a careful and critical analysis of biblical texts leads to a positive, not negative, response to homosexuality. I am currently discussing it in an ongoing thread starting here.

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