Sunday, August 19, 2007

According to Krattenmaker

We have another person, Tom Krattenmaker saying that what I do in this blog is something that atheists have no business doing. In an editorial entitled "Secularists, What Happened to the Open Mind?" in Sunday's USA Today, Krattenmaker wrote of an email exchange with a humanist in which he expressed his view,

. . . expressed my view that religion should leave scientific research to the scientists and devote itself, along with the fields of ethics and philosophy, to the mighty issues of the human condition: good and evil, the meaning of life, the nature of love and so forth.
So, I suppose that Krattenmaker thinks that I should simply close off this blog and go home because, in his view, questions of ethics, good and evil, and the meaning of life are questions that cannot be answered without religion. I, who am without religion, should stick to test tubes and microscopes. The fact is, these religious texts are almost entirely wrong, and they have done just as poor a job getting the moral facts right as they did getting the scientific facts right. Giving the realm of ethics and the meaning of life over to religion is like saying in the realm of science we will live in the 21st century, but in the realm of morality we should go back, even past the dark ages, to the moral system and system of values that created the dark ages. Krattenmaker suggests that a statement like that which I wrote in the above paragraph is somehow contrary to the principles of critical thinking. He endorses the claims of Jacques Berlinerblau:
Berlinerblau suggests that Hitchens and other in-your-face atheist authors are becoming the "soccer hooligans of reasoned public discourse.
There is nothing in critical thinking that, by its very definition, prohibits a person from following the evidence to the conclusion that religious morality and "meaning of life" are the inventions of a group of substantially ignorant, even illiterate tribesmen who knew as little about morality and "the meaning of life" as they did about the structure of the atom or the nature of disease. This is the reasoned conclusion. And while Krattenmaker and Berlinerblau claim to be defending "reasoned public discourse" from "in-your-face atheist authors", they seek to do so by branding those who hold such a few as being like "soccer hooligans." Might I suggest that this is not a "reasoned public" rebuttal to the claim that religious morality and "meaning of life" are built on primative superstitions that have no grounding in the real world. Indeed, we get very little rebuttal of that thesis from those who criticize the "in-your-face atheists." They almost exclusively focus on the tone that their critics take, while ignoring the content. While I have read many editorials like Krattenmaker's on tone, where is the reasoned defense of the proposition that religious morality and "meaning of life" claims are not the primative ideas of the Karl Roves of bronze-age politics? This proposition, that the 'morality' and 'meaning of life' claims found in scripture were the claims of primative tribesmen who knew as little about morality and the meaning of life as they did about substance and disease, is a valid proposition that we could be the focus of reasoned discussion. So, where is the 'reasoned defense' of the view that this claim is false? Where are the arguments that focus on the substance of this proposition, rather than the ad-hominem attacks on those who propose it? Ironically, Krattenmaker states, "It is unfair and just plain wrong to equate secularism with immorality . . ." Yet, he did just that. He said nothing less than that, when it comes to ethics and meaning of life, the atheists should ask a priest how best to answer these questions. Readers of this blog know that I have one significant problem with Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and others. They commit the logical fallacy of hasty generalization. They start with evidence that shows "Some X are Y," then make sweeping statements about all Y's based on this evidence. That is something that I do not approve of - either in the realm of reason, or in the realm of morality. I hold that after establishing that "Some X are Y," a person truly devoted to reason and ethics would focus their further comments on "those X that are Y," rather than "all Y". But, you know, this is an ethical judgment coming from an atheist - from somebody who holds that no priest can give him sound moral advice because the priest will ground his moral judgment on an outdated book written by tribesmen who have been dead for between 1200 and 5000 years (when the oral traditions that made it into scripture began). So, what can I possibly know about what demands morality places on people? According to Krattenmaker


Anonymous said...

After reading the entire article and looking closely at your quote, I don’t agree that the author has made the assertion you attribute to him. He says “religion should … devote itself, along with the fields of ethics and philosophy, to the mighty issues of the human condition …” I don’t see any statement that says ethics and philosophy should only be addressed by religion, but that religion, ethics, and philosophy should address human condition issues.
The rest of the article makes a plea for secularists and the religious to work together. That would seem incoherent if his belief was that such things could only be addressed from a religious perspective.

Sheldon said...

I have to agree with Atheist Observer on this. There was nothing in the column to suggest that Krattenmaker said that atheists shouldn't be engaged in moral/ethical thinking.

This post of yours was surpisingly sloppy, uncharacteristic of your normally excellent work. I know you try to post everday, but maybe you should have taken this day off?

Uber Miguel said...

It is a bit of a stretch, but I do see why Alonzo decided to confront Tom Krattenmaker. Tom very craftily and repeatedly talks out of both sides of his mouth on this article. There are many times where he brings up common myths against nonbelievers and then proceeds to barely sweep his own words under the rug (but not to the trash).

Tom claims that it is unthinkable that nonbelievers would question religion's "place at the table" when discussing ethics. Given religion's track record and method of revelation, such a question at least seems fair. He doesn't actually answer the question but resort to the classic tu quoque fallacy. The position that Alonzo argued against can be gathered from Tom's response: Religion, if it has a role at all, is to provide the world with an ethical framework because that is what secularists lack with all their reasons and facts.

Tom, while you're right that secularism shouldn't go so far as to be anti-religion (I prefer to think of it as irreligious,) we must ensure that secularism strives for getting along with people of all types of perspectives and beliefs, nonbelievers really don't need something as perverse as religious doctrines to help us decide what we should and should not do. I completely dismiss Tom's attempt to shift peaceful co-existence into some sort of necessary dependant symbiosis. At the very least, theists should be allowed to believe as they wish in their personal lives (including churches, gatherings, events, free speech, etc.), but back off their faith-based ideologies when faced with rational alternatives backed by confirming studies and research.

Mentioning religion as a major player throughout human history is important. Even a bit of literature as it pertains to history is fine in order to prevent us from making the same mistakes in the future or in a comparitive study in a literature or ethics class (as long as they don't only focus on the parts that favor one religion over another). But that's about as far as it goes when it comes to the usefulness of religion. As Alonzo points out (but perhaps mischaracterizes), we nonbelievers have no need for religion in the realm of ethics as Krattenmaker asserts.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Thank you for trying to defend me, but the critics are right. Krattenmaker's editorial made some bows in the direction of what is called "non-overlapping magestrata" (NOMA) that states that science has nothing to say about ethics, which should be left entirely in the hands of the religious. That is a view that I object to, and my articles express that objection.

Yet, Krattenmaker never actually explicitly endorses that aspect of NOMA. I saw its principles hinted at, and read the rest into it.

Now, I do think that it is quite reasonable to question religion's place at the table when it comes to ethics. My 'scientific' view of religious ethics is that it is the construct of a group of people who were largely illiterate and substantially ignorant of the facts (including the moral facts) of the world around them.

Krattenmaker's suggestion is that I ignore this view and instead treat religion as having something more significant to contribute to ethics than they in fact have.

Ancient ethics was at as primative a state as ancient astronomy, chemistry, and engineering. And I have no more reason to take seriously the claims of an ancient ethicist than I do an ancient astronomer, chemist, or engineer.

Of course, somebody who is dealing in the history of astronomy must necessarily consider the views of ancient astronomers. However, this does not imply that the astronomer himself must consider theories that have been discredited long ago. The same is true when we compare somebody interested in the history of morality, compared to somebody investing the question, "What should we do today?"

All religious ethics are built on false premises, and that is a problem when trying to discover whether a proposition like, "We should do X," is true.