Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Cosmic Policeman's Influence on Moral Behavior

I would like to comment to the following proposition:

Religion might bring comfort to some or allow them to behave morally because they think a cosmic policeman is looking over their shoulder...

This statement was made in a comment to a post a couple of days ago. I am taking this quote entirely out of context. As such, I am not responding to the comment specifically. Instead, I want to use it to point to an often-heard statement about the relationship between morality and religion.

The claim is that we need religion – or, at the very least, religion is a great benefit to us - because the threat of an omniscient all-powerful inflictor of harm on those who would act immorally motivates us to do good and avoid evil. Without this motivation, people will do less good and more evil.

Some will question whether an action is genuinely good if it is motivated by a desire to avoid personal suffering. However, that is not relevant to my current subject.

My interest is in an unspoken assumption often built into this claim - an assumption that has to be questioned. It is the assumption that the cosmic policeman is actually motivating people to behave morally.

In fact, it is often false.

God does not exist.

Most of my readers, I suspect, already believe this. However, sometimes an obvious premise needs to be stated.

God does not exist.

The cosmic policeman is not handing out some type of perfect moral virtue. He is handing out the moral beliefs of the people who invented him - rather ordinary human beings with ordinary human virtues and vices. Only a human with perfect moral knowledge can invent a perfectly moral god. Less perfect human beings invent less perfect gods. This is why when we take a serious look at the gods people invent we find beings that fall far short of claim of having perfect moral virtue.

If I were a less than respectable human being trying to control others, then I would need to worry about people disobeying my commands whenever they think they can get away with it. One way to remedy this problem is to say that I have an all-knowing, all-powerful invisible friend who they cannot hide from. He will know of their treason and he will ensure that they are punished severely. Those who believe me will then be motivated by this cosmic policeman to obey my commands.

However, this does not imply that those who believe me will be motivated to do that which is moral. This is something entirely different.

Of course, in my attempt to manipulate people, I would certainly insist that what I command is moral - that they have a duty to obey and that their life only has meaning if it is a life lived in service to my interests. These would be powerful motivators.

However, my claim that - let's say, attacking the next village and taking its people as slaves - is moral does not make the claim true. When I add that I have an invisible cosmic policeman who will punish anybody who fails to take part of this invasion or who undermines it, these beliefs will not generate moral behavior. They will motivate people into doing that which is immoral.

Finally, it takes just a very small shift to go from, "Do as I say, or my all-knowing, all-powerful friend will make you suffer," to "Do as my all-knowing, all-powerful friend says or he will make you suffer; now, let me tell you what he says." For all practical purposes, these are the same. Only, in the last case, I can add the claim that my all-powerful friend is a perfectly moral being so that, now, obeying him (actually, obeying me) becomes synonymous with doing what is right.

This gives us a situation where people believe that they have a cosmic policeman looking over their shoulder and believes that its commands are the model of morality, but the cosmic policeman is still nothing but an agent in service to the interests of the people who invented it. You cannot get from this to the conclusion that the behavior it motivates is actually moral.

Consequently, I am not at all comforted by the claim some people make that they believe this cosmic policeman is looking over their shoulder motivating them to be moral. People under the watchful eye of this cosmic policeman can be described as serving the interests of the god's inventors far more often than they can be described as doing what is moral. Let me provide an example of how easy it is to believe that there is a cosmic policeman who nonetheless helps a person behave in ways that are immoral. Our hypothetical case involves the pedophile priest who tells himself, "God must have made me this way for a reason. God works in mysterious ways that I, a mere mortal, cannot hope to understand. Obviously, He wants me in these sexual relationships with children. And though I run the risk of social condemnation, I know in my heart that I am doing what the cosmic policeman wants me to do."

We have a cosmic policeman looking over one's shoulder. However, the cosmic policeman this person invents is precisely one that gives him permission to do that which he wants to do anyway. It provides no motivation to do good or avoid evil.

The world is filled with people today who believe that they have a cosmic policeman looking over their shoulder who are motivated to do great amounts of evil - because this is the type of policeman they invented. In America, many these people are motivated to consider nothing in the world more important than acts harmful to the interests of homosexual couples in forming a marriage. They promote ignorance and stupidity in science and history classes, thwart the faculties of reason, ignore scientific evidence of potential future harms, and block all attempts to avoid those harms. They do all of this under the watchful eye of their cosmic policeman. They simply invented a policeman that considers these acts to be virtuous.

They struggle to create a nation that is "under" God. However, since there is no God to be under, for all practical purpose they are seeking a nation that is "under" those people who invent God - and they inevitably invent gods that serve their own interests. They pretend that they are asking us to pledge allegiance to God, when in practice they only seek to have us pledge our allegiance to them.

It is ironic that the type of person who would invent a truly good god is precisely the type of person who does not need one looking over his shoulder. While, at the same time, the people who would benefit by a god looking over their shoulder motivating them to do good are the people who will not invent such a god. They will, instead, invent a god that gives them permission to do the evils they are already inclined to do.

There is no comfort at all to be found in the fact that some people think that there is a divine policeman looking over their shoulder. That divine policeman is simply going to tell them what they want to hear anyway.

6 comments:

Gaius Sempronius Gracchus said...

Bertrand Russell was reportedly amused at religious people who claimed that if they didn't believe in God they'd rob banks and kill people.

Moral believers seems often to react in just that same way to skeptics who claim that morality is bunk.

By that I mean people who say they simply do not believe in morality, that there is nothing to it but taboo, and that claims (for instance) that murder is wrong are no more meaningful or genuinely relevant to conduct than the claims of some superstitious Polynesian that sitting on a certain rock is taboo.

That is not to say, of course, that you might not do well to avoid outrage to the sensibilities of that Polynesian, however true it is that they are grounded in nothing but nonsense.

Have you ever commented on moral skepticism, so understood?

Canadian Atheist said...

"God does not exist."

I would like to caution you (or point out) that when an atheist says there is no God, they're basically making a faith based claim. It's a faith based claim made using the available evidence, but still not provable.

I usually get around that roadblock by saying I'm not claiming that there is no God, just that I give him the same consideration as I would any other claim that is not proven. If someone told me a gnome was circling our sun and he was invisible to our current technology, I would give it the same consideration I would a God claim - pretty much not at all.

As for your main premise, I think it was Hitchens that said belief in Christianity is like living in North Korea, except in North Korea, you can die. The idea that a cosmic policeman is looking over your shoulder and is about to punish you for every transgression is terrifying, which is probably the reason it works so well.

In many debates I've had, the believer will say something like: if you believe and you're wrong, you lose nothing. If you don't believe and you're wrong you get to go to hell.

This position doesn't make sense. Presumably, anything that can read your mind will know that you believe out of selfish reasons and you'll still go to hell. Also, they do lose something - they lose out on the time they've spent investing (and money) into something that isn't true.

I really enjoy your blog. I'm new to Blogger, but I'm going to add you to my friends list.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Canadian Atheist

I would like to caution you (or point out) that when an atheist says there is no God, they're basically making a faith based claim. It's a faith based claim made using the available evidence, but still not provable.

What is your definition of "provable"?

I hold that the proposition, "There is no such thing as God" to have the same status as "There is no invisible elf hiding in my closet." I can say that, and nobody questions the legitimacy of that statement.

If somebody comes along and says, "You cannot prove that there is no invisible elf hiding in your closet," I note that no competent English speaker takes that to discredit the claim that there is no elf. That there is no reason to believe that there is such an elf is sufficient to justify the proposition, "There is no elf."

And I apply the same standard to the God statement.

There is no invisible elf hiding in my closet. There is no God. These are perfectly ordinary English language sentences. Neither requires any type of qualification.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Canadian Atheist

In many debates I've had, the believer will say something like: if you believe and you're wrong, you lose nothing. If you don't believe and you're wrong you get to go to hell.

My standard response to Pascal's Wager is that it draws on an unwarranted assumption about what type of beliefs will send one to hell.

Here's another version.

There is a God. He gave us a brain so that we can study the world and learn from our experiences.

One thing that this God absolutely hates is faith-based thinking; thinking that abandons evidence-based reasoning. He considers it an insult to his creation. He is so insulted by faith-based thinking that those who practice it go straight to hell.

On the other hand, those who base conclusions on the evidence - who use their brain - are pleasing to God and are admitted to heaven after death. He enjoys having intelligent conversations with them, and is proud that they have actually used and appreciated his gift, even if they came up with the wrong answer.

So, in this case, it is the atheist who goes to heaven and the faith-based theist who goes to hell.

This type of possibility puts the agent making a Pascal's wager in a bind. "What makes you think that those are the beliefs that will send people to hell. Maybe it is some other set of beliefs?"

Canadian Atheist said...

What is your definition of "provable"?

I would settle for any convincing evidence.

I hold that the proposition, "There is no such thing as God" to have the same status as "There is no invisible elf hiding in my closet." I can say that, and nobody questions the legitimacy of that statement.

Precisely. That's what I think too. However, if you ever debate a theist, they will point out that saying there is no God is a faith based claim because you can't prove a negative. It's easier just to go with the explanation you provided. I usually find they try to find gaps where they can place their God.

Reminds me of how I had a theist tell me that Einstein was a Christian because some pastor told him so.

Evidence doesn't seem to matter.

Prof.M.Browne said...

Pascal's wager is perfevt for our 'have it all' society. You can't lose at cosmic roulette. Place your money on black and white at the same time - result! LOL
Happy new year.