Monday, March 05, 2007

Moral Reasons for Religion

I promise that I will be getting off of the “religion and morality” theme in a couple more days. However, there are a couple more things that I would like to add.

I assume that the vast majority of my readers are atheists, so I have no intention of repeating arguments that are already a mainstream part of the atheist community. Instead, I seek to provide arguments that I have not seen even among atheists, in the hopes that those arguments will help you, my reader, make your own way.

On Wednesday evening, I will be on “Faith and Freethought” webcast to discuss some of these issues.

One issue that I want to discuss is the claim that atheists have no ground for morals; therefore, there is nothing to prevent an atheist society from sliding into tyranny. There is nothing to say, “This is wrong. Let’s not go this way,” so the atheist society can slip into the most horrendous decay.

I suppose, Baghdad would be a good example of the type of society we can have without a belief in God to prevent it.

The standard response to these claims is to point out that atheists can be just as moral as theists. This response treats the claim as an empirical theory. It then makes a set of predictions based on that theory – such as the likelihood of atheists committing crimes and ending up in jail. It then uses these empirical observations to verify or falsify the original thesis.

Recently, the Bush Administration has given a whole stack of empirical evidence for falsifying this theory. The most religious (and religiously backed) American President in our history has given us a war of aggression, spying without a warrant, arrests without an indictment, imprisonment without trial, cruel and unusual punishment, a unitary executive who seeks at every opportunity to bypass and marginalize the legislative and judicial branches of government, and a host of other crimes. Where theism is supposed to give its adherents a moral compass that says, “we should not go this way,” the religious right in this country seems to recognize no limits on where the government may go and what it may do when it gets there.

However, this is an argument that has already been made.

The argument that I want to examine is a deeper problem with the “theism prevents moral lapses” claim.

What does the argument say, exactly?

(1) If not for religion, then there is nothing to prevent us from entering into either into a state of tyranny or anarchy.

(2) We certainly have many and strong reasons to avoid a state of tyranny or anarchy.

(3) Therefore, we have many and strong reasons to prefer religion over atheism.

The problem with this argument (besides the empirical falsification of Premise 1) is that Premise 1 contradicts Premise 2. Premise 2 is literally the denial of Premise 1.

Premise 1 states, in effect, that in the absence of religion we have no strong reasons to avoid tyranny or anarchy.

Premise 2 states that we have many and strong reasons to avoid a state of tyranny or anarchy.

If Premise 1 is true then, in the absence of religion, Premise 2 is false for those who do not already have a religion, and the argument is unsound. It says that, in the absence of religion, there are no strong reasons to prefer religion over atheism.

If, on the other hand, Premise 2 is true (and I hold that it is so obviously true that it would be absurd to question it), then Premise 1 is false. Even in the absence of religion, we have many and strong reasons to avoid tyranny and anarchy. And if we have many and strong reasons to avoid tyranny and anarchy even in the absence of religion, then the conclusion (that we have many strong reasons to prefer religion over atheism) is false as well.

We can remove the contradiction and make Premise 2 true if we take the premise to apply to "we" who are religious and, because of this, have many and strong reasons to care for their children - but none that would survive the absence of these rules. This would imply that religious people do not truly love their children. Instead, they love to follow rules - and it just so happens that those rules tell them to care for their children. Without the rules, children - even their own children - are, to them, just things of no personal significance.

In yesterday’s post, "A Special Way of Knowing," I used a small story to illustrate my point.

The story involved a boat with 100 children that sinks in an icy cold lake. An individual with a boat of his own rescues one child, because his religion tells him he must do so. However, the rules of his religion prevent him from rescuing others. They do not tell him not to rescue others. They simply limit his actions in such a way that he cannot rescue others, no matter what he may want to do. Yet, he insists that we call him a hero because he rescued one child who would have otherwise died. He insists that the fact that his religion motivated him to save this one child proves that his religion is valuable. He tells us to “look at all of the good that results from my religion – this one girl was saved.” We are supposed to ignore the fact that we can also attribute the deaths of those children not saved to his religion as well.

Now, let us carry this analogy further. Now, the man with the boat tells us that, if he were to give up his rules – his religion – this would lead to moral relativism. Moral relativism means “anything goes.” There are no limits on what a person may or may not do. He insists that this would put the children in far more danger than the rules that prevented him from saving young lives that could have been easily saved.

He assumes that, if not for the rules, there is no reason to rescue the children.

However, he also assumes that we have reason to take action to avoid a state where the children will be harmed. He appeals to our many and strong reasons for keeping children out of harm in his argument. Yet, his argument also assumes that, without the rules, there is no reason to keep children from being harmed.

We can refute him by pointing out that the claim, “if not for this set of rules, then anything goes” is false. We clearly have reasons to save the children from drowning, even if no God exists. This is true in the same way that an atheist has reason to keep his hand out of a bed of red hot coals, even if no God exists. Things that cause harm to children (like drowning in an icy cold lake) are things that certainly do not “go”.

More importantly, he assumes that we have many and strong reasons to prevent harm to children when he tells us that we have many and strong reasons to adopt his rules. We are to adopt his rules because we have many and strong reasons to protect children from harm. Yet, we are told that we must adopt his rules because, without them, we have no reason to protect children from harm.


BlackSun said...

Flawless logic once again. You should submit this to the next Carnival of the Godless.

bpabbott said...

alonzo asked: "If not for religion, then there is nothing to prevent us from entering into either into a state of tyranny or anarchy[?]"

While I find it ridiculous that we would all sink to a state of tyranny or anarchy, I have no problem accepting that *some* would.

Personally, when theists make such claims, it is a reflection of themselves :-(

Anonymous said...

A corollary to this argument would be that theist and non-theists alike would be better off if we all were to find and strengthen those reasons for everyone to be moral and ethical. That would create a society where no one would need to fear the behavior of others whatever their religous beliefs or lack thereof.

Emu Sam said...

I love it; it's perfect. Haven't felt this way about a logical argument since Cogito ergo sum. And yet, I have a morbid desire to read the counter-argument.

Avid Reader said...

Great column. I'm incresingly unhappy with the rising tide of religion-bashing. Whatever happened to live and let live? It plays into the stereotypical "angry atheist" type and undoes all the work of Sagan, Gould, Hawkings who built up a well of trust with the public but were avowed atheists.

Stalin & Mao keep popping because (1) they persecuted religion and (2) they exalted atheism over Western "mysticism". Most folks assume that atheism was at least partly to blame. It's like saying that Marxism's evils are not due to atheism but all Western crimes are caused by religion.