There has been a wonderful and long discussion going on over at Augean Stables “On Atheist Morality,” proprietor Richard Landes’s post building upon a column by Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe entitled “Created by God to Be Good.” I am mostly going to address Jacoby’s argument, though I will comment on some of Richard’s additions. There are really two different cores issues in dispute. One is whether atheist or Humanist (conflated in the discussions) moral conceptions owe a debt to and can subsist independent of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The other is the more fundamental question of whether, indeed, we must posit the existence of a Supreme Being in order to have a basis for moral values.
Jacoby’s upset begins with the American Humanist Association’s disparagement of religion. This actually focuses the issue less on Humanistic atheism than on assertive atheism, a form that goes beyond any individual’s considered disbelief in God to intellectual or programmatic campaigning against theistic religions. (It is important to note that it is theistic religion that is overwhelmingly responsible, post antiquity, for the record of intolerance and sanctified slaughter that critics of religion attack.) Writes Jacoby in the tactical concession that launches the counter attack,
Religion has often been put to evil purposes or invoked to justify shocking cruelty; the same is true of every area of human endeavor, from medicine to journalism to philosophy to the law.
However, this offering of parallel human moral ambiguity in all affairs – which may strike at first reading as eminently balanced – overlooks a crucial distinction that is at the conceptual center of Humanistic critiques of religion; none of these but religion claims an ultimate metaphysical and infallible authority. Of course, medicine, journalism, and even philosophy have erred; they are human endeavors. But theistic religions make claims of, literally, God-given truth. What should it mean to us when any of their teachings – what Jacoby calls “cherry-picking” in Humanist arguments – are now found so objectionable to so many, and to have led so many so long astray?
Can people be decent and moral without believing in a God who commands us to be good? Sure. There have always been kind and ethical nonbelievers. But how many of them reason their way to kindness and ethics, and how many simply reflect the moral expectations of the society in which they were raised?
That is a very relevant question, but simply in raising it Jacoby presumes to have provided a determinative answer.
In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization.
No doubt, but among the varied philosophically proposed origins of human moral sense – clearly violable, as are all the other proposed foundations – is also empathy. And as some among the many commenters at Augean Stables remind us, our Hellenic philosophic legacy, with one person quoting A. C. Grayling:
What we think of as distinctive of western morality has its roots in the non-religious secular tradition of ethics that comes from classical antiquity.
There was not a neo-Christianity informing Plato, but a neo-Platonic influence on Christianity. I think Jacoby, and Richard too, in calling Humanists “free riders,” are too quick and too neat in their sweeping attribution of the Western moral sense to Judeo-Christianity. But at this point Jacoby makes his ultimate, and deeply flawed, argument.
For in a world without God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil. There is no way to prove that even murder is wrong if there is no Creator who decrees “Thou shalt not murder.”
This is the most circular of reasoning. Of course, whether there is a Creator to “prove” that murder is wrong is the proposition under discussion, but to claim, first, that without a Creator there is no basis for moral distinction, then, that we need such a Creator for the establishment of value, with, finally, the entailment that the assertion of such a Creator’s existence has provided a successful basis for a moral system – this itself is not to prove the existence of that Creator, which is still in question. What one might conclude from such an argument, at best, which is a very different notion, is that in a world without the idea of God, there is no obvious difference between good and evil.
But what are the implications of that claim?
First, it must be said that the existence of a Creator, and certainly the merely unfounded belief in the existence of a Creator (even when claimed as morally necessary) does not “prove” anything about moral value, not in any normal evidentiary and reasoned sense of the word. What it provides, indeed, are commandments, with which many people over the course of human history have been happy to live, if not, often, able to obey. It is increasingly so, though I suggest nothing like a tidal wave, that numbers among humanity require more, or paradoxically less, upon which to draw existential purpose, something merely, incompletely human rather than inexplicably, yet commandingly divine.
Second, there is embedded in Jacoby’s conclusion above a kind of reverse or mirror slippery slope argument. We might call it the fallacy of infinite divisibility or the Zeno’s paradox fallacy: because one cannot (so far, it must be noted) reach the top of the slope, one cannot, then, advance one step upon it at all. This fallacy holds that since we cannot achieve complete knowledge, we cannot possess any knowledge. It has multiple variants, such as that the referentiality of language is ambiguous and uncertain and thus carries no stable meaning or pointer to reality. Curiously, this is a postmodern and relativistic argument, which, no doubt, Jacoby gladly accepts as further argument for the cultural and moral imperative of positing a divine, omnipotent and omniscient Creator. However, an argument from moral imperative is no argument to existence.
Jacoby elaborates on his conclusion that
[o]ne might reason instead — as Lenin and Stalin and Mao reasoned — that there is nothing wrong with murdering human beings by the millions if doing so advances the Marxist cause. Or one might reason from observing nature that the way of the world is for the strong to devour the weak.
Well, one might reason whatever one likes. “Reason” as used here – in, shall we say, a slippery manner – means, actually, argue, and one, of course, may argue anything. That doesn’t mean it has been argued, or reasoned, well. One of the features of our imperfect reason is that it is easier to find logical error, to successfully reason in the negative, than it is to offer a logically unassailable argument in the affirmative. Poking holes and all that, as I do here. Yet the former is a basis upon which to develop the parameters of possible knowledge. As far back as Plato’s challenge to Thrasymachus, we have seen the failures of arguments that “might makes right.” Prime divider societies, as Richard tells us, may enjoy their realms and periods of domination, and they may yet, because they are, well, prime divider societies, but that is not a moral argument. Add poor reasoning, or, more basely, simple rationalization, and you have a case against an act of reasoning, but not against reason itself – any more than child-abusing polygamous Mormon sects are a case against a spiritual sense of the world.
Jacoby states near the end,
No, reason alone is not enough to keep human beings humane. Only if there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. Otherwise its wrongfulness is no more than a matter of opinion. Mao and Seneca approved of murder; we disapprove. Who are we to say they were wrong?
This is more argument-serving relativism, with an enormous, circular hole in the middle of it. None of this tends to prove God’s existence, so if, hypothetically, Jacoby may reasonably assert this on the evidence, what he is really asserting is that only if we claim there is a God who forbids murder is murder definitively evil. This is a vastly different proposition, for in the absence of actual knowledge of God’s existence, the claim becomes instead a moral first principle by convention. It is first not because we know it to be so, or we find it irreducibly self-evident, but because we wish it and believe it so, though we cannot find a way to deduce it.
Those who wrote the great religious testaments and texts, if we cannot circularly argue that they achieved a moral sense because God does exist and he did infuse them with His knowledge – from whence, then, did they divine the moral principles they have handed down to us? Somehow, through empathy, through reason applied to experience, through the moral codification of the socially advantageous, e.g. the adultery prohibition, grand principles were arrived at and monumentalized in the name of God. Such developments may be many things, including evidence of God’s utility as a binding convention, but they are not proof that our moral principles are derived from God. Absent proof of His existence, we will have arrived at them – and the sense of their both humanizing and numinous power – on our own.
What this leads us to is the kind of cultural and developmental argument that Richard finally makes.
It’s one thing to argue that we should be good “for goodness” sake. It’s another thing to disparage everyone else, in this case, religion for arguing another path to goodness.
The Humanists seem trapped by the same zero-sum thinking that had the Enlightenment and the French Revolution convinced that not only were they legislating for all mankind, but that their genius superseded that of any previous legislators. (And that hubris contributed to the Terror which found murder a suitable “tool” for political order.) In the end, the Enlightenment shared with Christianity and Islam the deplorable notion that they replaced, erased that which came before.
We stand, in our moral aspiration, on the shoulders of those who preceded us, and it behooves us, for the sake of knowledge and even wisdom, not to pretend an act of levitation. Interestingly, just the other day, my libertarian-conservative blog buddy ShrinkWrapped wrote in a similar vein. SW and I have been trying over more than a year to find any common ground between us. So far, we have Lexington Avenue and Seventy-Ninth Street. (You can catch the cross-town bus.) Now, Shrink was commenting on my Hitchens-Blair debate post. He concluded,
The second problem with the debate is that rational man stands upon an edifice built over thousands of years based upon a foundational belief that the universe can be rationally understood, a belief that is inextricable from the belief in the monotheism that established it, though we have become increasingly able to hide that connection from ourselves. We have spent several thousand years trying to tame our irrational desires and the idea that we are now ready to jettison the entire edifice upon which we stand as unnecessary because we do not fully appreciate its unconscious determinants and utility, is to risk disasters greater than those already seen in the last century.
The only reasonable resolution to the debate question is that at this time, in this place, in those social structures that are built upon the Judeo-Christian morality, based on a superordinate G-d, our current ability to have this debate could not have taken place without religion. It is true that a great many religious men have behaved in amoral ways … and a great many Atheists have behaved in a highly moral manner (despite many of them having a problem acknowledging the debt they owe to the G-d they disbelieve in); this does not alter a logic problem that has become difficult to manage:
Our modern Western Culture and Civilization are emergent structures that rest upon a Judeo-Christian G-d; while religion may not be necessary for any one individual to behave in a moral manner, it has not yet been shown that any society can behave morally without religion.
I don’t quite agree with all of that, and I see every reason why Humanists should continue to challenge religious irrationality and to expose the record of religion’s organized offense against the humanity it proposed to improve. That activity, too, is part of our developmental progress. But if, as atheists will assert, there is no God, that is not the full accounting of our spiritual inclinations and potential, nor would it reckon, then, with our continuing need to invent Him.
- Good God. Or Not. (sadredearth.com)
- Consider Humanism: The Largest Atheist Ad Campaign In History (friendlyatheist.com)
- Elevating the God discussion (theglobeandmail.com)
- Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be (nytimes.com)
- Amarnath Amarasingam: How Should Religion Behave in Public? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Consider Humanism – Richard Dawkins – Press Release – American Humanist Association (richarddawkins.net)
- The Future of Secular Humanism (superscholar.org)