Monday, August 27, 2007

A Place at the Table

Tom Krattenmaker’s article, “Secularists, What Happened to the Open Mind” contained the following passage:

The worst tendencies of atheists (who, by definition, believe God does not exist) and secularists (who are best described as "unreligious") were framed for me during a recent e-mail exchange I had with a staff member of a humanist organization.

Discussing the relationship between science and religion, I had 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. To which my correspondent replied: Why would something as inherently foolish as religion deserve a place at the table for discussions of that magnitude?

I would like to quickly point out that Krattenmaker got the definition of ‘Secularist’ wrong. A secularist is somebody who believes in the separation of church and state – that the government should not be used by any religion to impose its beliefs on those who do not voluntarily join with that church. Many secularists are extremely religious.

Often, they come from a religious history that has suffered some rather barbaric persecution, and so are (justifiably) afraid of what happens when the State gets involved in matters of faith. Or they simply know enough about history to know what happened when political monarchs asserted and believed that they were God’s chosen leaders. The 18th century reaction to that was simply to deny the state a role in enforcing religious doctrine.

However, the more important question is, in matters such as the meaning of life and the difference between good and evil, “Why would something as inherently foolish as religion deserve a place at the table for discussions of that magnitude?”

I have shared one of Krattenmaker’s criticisms of the Dawkins, Harris, and Hutchins, that they unfairly and unjustly go from, “Some theists are X” to “All theists are X” However, having said this, there is a case to be made that religious ethics, insofar as it is religious, does not deserve a place at the table for discussions of ethics and meaning of life.

Okay, actually, I do not fully understand the metaphor, “a place at the table”. If “the table” is the public forum, then everybody deserves a place at the table, because nobody should be prohibited from speaking peacefully in public, no matter how stupid their ideas happen to be. However, I think that the phrase typically refers to something narrower than this.

However, this is not the sense of ‘at the table’ that I think the claim refers to. The claim refers to a special table, where people get down to business on the matter at hand. It is a sense that says, “These people can make an important contribution to the subject we are talking about, so excluding them would be a mistake.”

Imagine sitting at the chemistry table, where the participants are talking about atoms and molecules when somebody shows up, sets down a stack of old, dusty books, and starts proclaiming, “It says here that there are five elements – four material elements (water, air, earth, and fire), and one immaterial element (spirit). I want to contribute this to the discussion.”

Chemists can be forgiven for refusing this person a place at the table. In fact, his contributions are effort. The ideas that he wants to bring up have either been considered long ago and rejected, or are already built into current theories. (Note: It was the ancient Greeks who discovered the atom; modern scientists only refined the knowledge as to its structure.) His “contribution” is, at best, a waste of time.

At the astronomy table, astronomers want to compare the results of their research and form reasoned, scientific theories about the history and structure of the universe. They talk about things happening 13 billion light years away, which means 13 billion years ago, whose information-carrying light has just reached us. Here, the theist wants to come to the table and say that the universe is only 10,000 years old, created by God, where the Earth, even if it is not the physical center, is certainly the central focus of this all powerful divine force.

At the biology table, the religious want to propose their theory of intelligent design. They want to introduce a theory where God plays an important role, even though they cannot come up with a simple experiment whereby, under conditions C, this god theory makes predications that are more accurate than theories that do not have a god variable.

In both places, religion does not have a voice, unless and until religion can come up with a theory T, with a god variable, that better explains and predicts astronomical observations than the current theories, none of which has a God variable. Some of the recent criticisms of religion coming from the biology table is precisely because religions want to bring things to the table that are senseless wastes of the biologist’s time. The theist cannot produce any experiments that support their theory, and time spent on these worthless claims is time not being spent making real scientific progress.

The same is true in ethics and the meaning of life.

Unfortunately, theism has held the chair at the ethics and meaning of life table, even as their influence at the chemistry astronomy, and biology tables has (rightfully) waned. It is their claim that atheists have no place at the table, because, without a god, there can be no ethics and no meaning to life. People take their chairmanship of the ethics and meaning of life table almost for granted.

That’s a mistake. Religion is doing the same thing to ethics that it is trying to do to astronomy and biology. It fills the discussion with ideas that come from primitive tribes of people who knew as little about their moral universe as they did about their physical universe. It fills the discussion with fiction and myths that actually get in the way of making real moral progress. In fact, the very reason that moral progress has fallen behind our scientific and technical progress is because ethics and meaning of life issues are carrying so much religious dead weight.

This is not to say that religious people cannot be moral. However, honestly, most moral progress that we have seen in the past 400 years has come from secular moral thinkers. Remember, ‘secular’ does not mean ‘non-religious’ – it simply refers to somebody who does not use religious assumptions as a part of their argument.

John Locke, for example, was clearly a religious person. However, his argument for human rights did not come from postulating the existence of a God. It came from postulating humans living in a state of nature, without government. This, in fact, is the secular view of human life, not the typical religious view.

In fact, religion . . . most religion . . . is in direct conflict with moral progress. Most religions state that we hit our moral peak long ago in our barbaric and primitive past, and that every deviation from their concepts of right and wrong is evil. When a religious view holds that scripture cannot be wrong, this means that those who created scripture were morally perfect. Any deviation from their opinions is evil and must be avoided. Where modern thinkers disagree with these primitive tribesmen, we must believe that the primitive tribesmen had the truth of the matter, and the most we can hope for is to think as they did.

For the most part, religions have responded to four centuries of secular moral progress by taking secular morality and using it to rewrite (reinterpret) their religious texts. Where populations have been most willing to rewrite scripture to conform to secular morality, these are the areas where we have seen the most moral progress. Where people are so strongly tied to their religious doctrine that they cannot stand the idea of reinterpretation, that is where we see the least moral progress. In fact, there, we often find barbaric cruelty.

Most Christians, for example, have rewritten their scripture to insert the secular prohibition on slavery, equality of women, permission to charge interest, permission to work on the Sabbath, prohibition on killing witches, prohibition on killing blasphemers, and permission to inoculate against disease (condemned by the church as ‘playing God’).

In all of these cases, moral progress flowed from the secular to the religious. The ideas came from arguments that ignored scripture and relied on reason. Of course, those Christians who wrote these secular ideas into their interpretation of scripture would often go on and pursue those ideas with religious passion. However, this again is due substantially to the fact that religious leaders have claimed a monopoly on moral truth. Few people look deep enough to note that their moral truth does not come from scripture, but is taken from secular thinkers.

I expect that some critics of this view might think that they can bolster their side by bringing up what I have previously called “The Hitler and Stalin Cliché.” These regimes show how flawed secular ethics are compared to religious ethics.

There are a number of problems with this objection, which I discuss in the post linked to above. However, one objection is that Christianity, Islam, and every form of religious ethics are, like the regimes of Hitler and Stalin, moral systems made by humans without any divine input. God did not have a hand in any of these systems. All of them show some measure of human failing. Some fail more than others, but they all fail.

The question of the day is whether those who preach a religious ethics deserve a place at the table in the discussion of morality and the meaning of life. In fact, their ideas are just as flawed as the flat earth, the geocentric universe, and the 6000 year old earth. They get their moral ideas from the same place as others get these ideas about the structure of the solar system. And their source was just as ingorant of the moral univese in which they lived as they were of the physical universe.

Honestly, they just do not have much of value to contribute. And that which they contribute which is of value, is that which they have taken from secular philosophers for the past four centuries anyway.


anticant said...

Very good post, Alonzo. Krattenmaker gets his definition of atheists wrong too. Speaking for myself, I don't "believe God does not exist". He, she, or it may or may not exist; but until some theist produces far stronger evidence than any yet has of such existence, I think it is highly improbable.

NAL said...

I agree, excellent post. One of my favorites. It answers the myth that one must believe in God to have morals (which always remain unidentified). I've seen others answer this myth, but this post is the best of them all.

Anonymous said...


I believe there is a qualitative difference between the physical sciences and ethics and “meaning of life” questions. It’s quite true we don’t invite people who believe in the mystical power of crystals into a discussion of advanced techniques of crystallography. Nor do we bring “diseases are curses” discussions into epidemiology meetings.
We might however have something to learn from the ethical rules used in religious groups, or the things religious people consider giving meaning to their lives.
Certainly if the discussion stops at “God says so” there is little to be gained. On the other hand, if we ask, “why do people think God says to do this?” we have a chance to learn something more about humans and what they see as right and wrong or meaningful.
We can claim that there is no point to serving a non-existent god, yet people assert this gives meaning to their lives. I suspect we will never fully understand this phenomenon if we exclude these people from our discussions.
To say religion has nothing to add to discussions about ethics and the meaning of life to me is equivalent to saying folk remedies have nothing to add to medicines. Although the theories and concepts may be quite wrong, there may be real aspirin in that willow bark.

Anonymous said...

Also one of MY favorite posts. Excerpting it and sending it to friends and family who are fascinated and confused by my atheism.