Monday, September 04, 2006

Newsweek on Atheists

Newsweek has an article by Jerry Adler on some current well-known atheists entitled, “The New Naysayers”. Pharyngula posted a critique of this article titled “Infidels”, and I found another at Daylight Atheism called “Newsweek Discovers Atheists.”

My interest has not been with “atheism” per se but with morality. My interest with atheism rests in the belief that there is an objective morality (as there is an objective science) and that many contemporary religious texts do as poor a job on morality as it does on science. Because these religious texts reveal more moral error than moral truth, they tend to promote wrong actions far more often than they promote right actions.

So, I have an interest in this Newsweek article as well, not for what it says about atheism, but for what it says about morality.

Harris and Dawkins on the Problem of Religion

On this topic, while speaking about Sam Harris, Adler wrote,

On Sept. 12, he began a book. If, he reasoned, young men were slaughtering people in the name of religion—something that had been going on since long before 2001, of course—then perhaps the problem was religion itself.

In a posting I wrote called, “A Problem with Faith?” I criticized Harris’s view that faith itself is a problem, since atheists can acquire false beliefs while insisting that theirs is not an article of faith, but an article of reason. I mentioned two “moral theories” that can be found among atheists, all of which are just as problematic and just as capable of justifying violence as religious faith.

These are:

(1) Common subjectivism (that I have no qualms against doing harm to others than it is not wrong for me to harm others).

(2) Evolutionary ethics (that the wrongness of murder is contingent on my having evolved a disposition not to murder. Without such an evolved disposition, it would not be wrong).

Also, in a posting called “Dim-Witted, Hypocritical, Hate-Mongering Bigots” I condemned those who produced the documentary, “Darwin’s Deadly Legacy” for using the argument, “Some who believed in evolution did evil; therefore, evolution is a problem.” It is no less problematic to argue, “Some religious people do evil; therefore, religion is the problem.”

Another quote in the article attributes the same attitude to Richard Dawkins.

After hearing once too often that "[t]o blame the attacks on Islam is like blaming Christianity for the fighting in Northern Ireland," Dawkins responded: Precisely. "It's time to get angry," he wrote, "and not only with Islam."

These are invalid inferences – instances of the informal fallacy “hasty generalization” where specific instances are being expanded further than strict reason would allow. I think that it is absurd, for example, to hold that an Amish citizen in Pennsylvania is to be held responsible and to be condemned for 9/11. Yet, this is what Harris and Dawkins seem to suggest.

This is not to deny that there are things worthy of criticism. But the criticism comes from any attempt to justify harm to others based on faith. When one person comes after another with the intent to do harm – whether it be with a conventional bomb, a weapon of mass destruction, or legal burdens and statutes, those being harmed have no obligation to submit just because the attacker users God to justify his actions.

Stephen Jay Gould

The article also mentions that Harris and Dawkins criticize Stephen Jay Gould’s position that science and religion should confine themselves to two separate spheres.

Adler described Gould’s position as follows:

Gould proposed that science and religion retreat to separate realms, the former concerned with empirical questions about the way the universe works, while the latter pursues ultimate meaning and ethical precepts.

Against this, Adler reports, But, Dawkins asks, unless the Bible is right in its historical and metaphysical claims, why should we grant it authority in the moral realm?

Even if the Bible is right on historical and metaphysical claims, why should we grant it authority in the moral realm. Certainly, we would not argue that if the Bible is right on moral matters, that science should then infer that the earth is the center of the universe and is less than 10,000 years old. Each claim needs to be judged on its own merits and according to its own evidence. Of which, we see that the Bible provides a poor authority.

The first chapter of my online book Desire Utilitarianism describes several reasons to reject the idea that scripture provides any type of moral authority. Two of these are:

(1) Different religious texts suggest different moral principles, and (as with science) they cannot all be right. Somebody has to be wrong, and we have no reliable way through scripture alone to determine who it is. We must appeal to an outside authority to resolve these questions.

(2) There is a history of error – people turning to the Bible to discover a moral truth and discovering, instead, a justification for a Crusade, an inquisition, burning scientists at the stake, executing witches, slavery, the subjugation of women, and all sorts of evil. With so many people turning to scripture and emerging with moral falsehoods, we have good reason to doubt that an appeal to scripture can provide a reliable guide to moral truth.

(3) Even religious people do not appeal to scripture to determine the difference between right and wrong. There are stacks of inconsistencies between what any particular theist says is right and wrong and the scripture that they appeal to. They pick and choose; accepting some claims and rejecting others. To do this picking and choosing they must be comparing scripture to an outside source. It seems absurd to argue that religion be named the master of morality and meaning if even theists are using some outside source to pick and choose among religious principles.

Evolutionary Ethics

Adler describes Dawkins’ position on morality in terms of “instinctive acts of goodness”.

I have raised objections to evolutionary ethics in the past, such as the posting “Evolution and Moral Justification.”

We may well have an instinct to be kind and generous, but the question that evolutionary ethics fails to answer is: What makes this right? If we had evolved a disposition towards rape (because rapists were evolutionary successful) or racism (a disposition to kill of those who were not part a part of our tribe to leave more food and land for those who are a part of our tribe), would these then become “right?” If not, then why not?

The only thing we need to understand ethics is to recognize that desires, like beliefs, are learned. Each of us has reason to encourage others to adopt desires that tend to fulfill other desires – because the “other desires” they would tend to fulfill would include our own. Each of us has reason to discourage others from adopting desires that tend to thwart other desires, because the desires they would tend to thwart would include our own. The tools that we have to teach these lessons are praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

The terms consistent with this view are already a part of our moral language. When we punish somebody we seek to “teach him a lesson” and to “make an example out of him.” It is bizarre, at best, to hold that through punishment we week to teach people to commit “instinctive acts of goodness.” These must be learned dispositions to do good for our moral institutions to make any sense at all.

We do not need God to have a morality – we only need to have a reason to promote desire-fulfilling desires and to inhibit desire-thwarting desires, and we have that without God.


Jerry Adler’s article had a lot of shortcomings. I have no objections to what was posted in Pharyngula or Daylight Atheism criticizing Adler’s understanding of atheism. Adler approached his article with a clear intent – to warn the public about atheists while, at the same time, soothing their fears by explaining that atheists are (and properly should be) marginalized outcasts who lack real power.

However, Adler’s understanding of morality is even worse than his understanding of atheism. He never really addresses the central concern of those he wrote about – the use of religious principles to justify harm to others.

Adler wrote of Dawkins, But for all his erudition, he seems not to have spent much time among ordinary Christians, who could have told him what God has meant to them.

God almost certainly meant a lot to the 9/11 hijackers as well. One thing we can trust is true of a vast majority of the suicide bombers killing people from London to Madrid to Cairo to Jerusalem to Baghdad to Bombay, that they were telling us what God means to them.

But the real issue is not what God means to them. The real issue is the implication of attaching so much meaning to God (and a particular view of what God demands, adopted in faith, and beyond reason or questioning) for their victims.

What should we do about the fact that so many people attach so much meaning to a God that they think is telling them to take actions – either with bombs or with laws – that adversely affect the lives of so many people?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

AMEN to all that!