Monday, April 21, 2008

Lockhart, Hitchens, Atheism, and Morality

Christopher Hitchens, the author of "God is Not Great", commonly challenges theists to name a moral statement or a moral action that an atheist cannot also make. He offers this challenge as an answer to the proposition that atheists have a problem with morality.

On the charge that atheists have a problem with morality, I have a different response that I would like to propose.

One of the tactics that defines bigotry is the tactic of claiming that members of their target group have a problem with morality - which they assert without the slightest bit of evidence to back it up. They do this in order to dehumanize and to promote fear of the target group. The claim that atheists have a problem with morality is not a claim that people are driven to by the evidence. It is a claim that people are driven to by a want to hate others, and of inflating their own self-image by attacking others.

In other words, it is not my duty as an atheist to prove that I am innocent of this accusation of immorality. It is their duty to prove that I am guilty. To assume my guilt – to prejudge me without evidence – is a paradigm case of prejudice and shows that the accuser, not the accused, is the one who has a problem with morality.

However, since Hitchens has offered his challenge, others have tried to answer it. One answer that I have encountered recently is a pair of articles by Brian Lockhart: Responding to Hitchen's Ethical Challenge and Responding to Hitchens: Morality can, but need not, come from religion.

Lockhart starts off by saying that Hitchens is asking the wrong question. Lockhart then asks a different question. This is a very common way for a demagogue to cheat. "I cannot answer your question so let me ask myself a different question that I can answer."

The question that Lockhart seeks to answer is, "Does religion cause people to behave more morally than they would have otherwise behaved." He then goes on to answer this question by providing anecdotal evidence of three people who began to behave more morally once they "found God".

He tells the story of a soccer player, Tom Skinner, who, at one time, would have responded to an assault from a racist bigot with violence. After finding God, when assulted, he would instantly forgive his assailant and walk away.

Lockhart wrote about C.S. Lewis' transformation from a bitter person who avoided relationships to an open Christian sharing his life with others. And Lockhart wrote about the improvements in the quality of his own relationships once he found God.

I grew up in a church, but I distinctly remember the first time the Christian doctrine of grace actually made sense to me the summer after my sophomore year of college. I used to be a very bitter person. Since then, because of the recognition of God's grace, I have experienced an improved ability to forgive. Consequently, every relationship I have is different. My junior year, others said I literally changed before their eyes as they watched me become a better friend, son, brother, etc.

Problem #1: Lockhart's examples are anecdotal.

Lockhart's examples are like the claim that prayer cures illness because "I knew somebody who was sick whom the doctors had given up any hope on, who prayed daily, and was miraculously cured." Yes, and the obituary pages are filled with the names of people who prayed just as hard and just as devoutly who nonetheless died; and the front pages with the names of children who could have been saved if the parents had tried medicine instead of prayer.

Lockhart asserts:

I am saying that I need to recognize God's grace to better forgive. One cannot argue with testimony. To claim that another worldview would have the same effect on me is unfounded arrogance.

No, it is unfounded arrogance to trust anecdotal evidence and 'testimony' – to assume that one knows what the right answer is and to allow no objections to be raised against it. Research is filled with examples that show testimony to be extremely unreliable. From optical illusions, to studies where researchers stage a crime and then ask eye witnesses what they witnessed, to confabulation, to planted memories, to experiments involving choice under controlled conditions where the researcher can determine the agent's reasons for action better than the agent can.

Evolutionary theorists can explain why testimony is so unreliable. In the wild, if we do not perceive that we are on the top of the cliff, or how far that branch is from this branch, or the predator stalking us from the bush, we die. The advantage goes to those who can most accurately perceive threats and mates in the outside world. But it gives us no advantage to know our own mental processes.

The antelope needs to be able to perceive lion-sign in the brush and to run away when lion sign reliably suggests the presence of a lion. The antelope gains nothing from a better understanding of its own beliefs about lion-sign or his desire to run.

So, we have a theory that explains how unreliable testimony is, and empirical research to back up the theory. It is not 'unfounded arrogance' to go with empirical observation backed by theory. It is 'unfounded arrogance' to go against empirical observation backed by theory and to rely instead on anecdotal evidence cherry-picked and interpreted to give the illusion of supporting one's favorite hypothesis.

Problem #2: Real meaning requires real value.

Lockhart also wrote:

I concluded that Hitchens misses the point of religion. The purpose of adhering to religious beliefs is not to be better than nonbelievers, it is to improve oneself and find meaning for moral actions that were otherwise absent.

A person cannot find meaning where there is no meaning to be found.

In saying this, I am not saying that life (or the things we can do in our life) has no meaning or no value. That is false. I am saying that real meaning requires real value. Since God almost certainly does not exist, the meaning or value that one finds in serving God almost certainly does not exist.

In order for a life to have real meaning, it must be attached to real-world value.

Lockhart allows that an atheist can find meaning without God.

I stated that God is necessary for morality to have meaning. This was way off base and, quite frankly, arrogant. I now recognize that people find meaning in places that I do not, and I cannot argue with where people find their own meaning.

But this leads to an important difference between the two world views. Person A finds meaning in bringing health to a sick child, but does so only on the condition that a loving God exists. In the absence of a God, he is indifferent to bringing health to a sick child - it has no value. Person B, on the other hand, values bringing health to a sick child for its own sake. Regardless of whether or not a God exists, a child has been brought to health. The child suffers less and knows more happiness and comfort. To Person B, that has value for its own sake.

Let us combine this with Lockhart's statement, "God can be neither proved nor disproved." If this is true, then the meaning that Person A is trying to find cannot be proved or disproved. He can only reach the conclusion that his act of bringing health to a sick child has meaning as a matter of faith, not fact. Furthermore, even if a God exists, we need further evidence of what God values to know anything of the value of brining health to a sick child. What if God enjoys the suffering of a child, and created a world in which there were so many ways for children to suffer in order to satisfy this need? Then, what does this do to the value of bringing health to a sick child?

However, the value that Person B finds in bringing health to a sick child is not at all contingent on the existence or the interests of a God.

Unlike the type of theist that Lockhart writes about, where value depends on the existence of a God, there are few (if any) atheists where value depends on the non-existence of a God. This type of theist says, "If there were no God, these things are meaningless." The atheist says, "Even if their is a God, these things would still have value. No God who fails to respect the value if bringing health to a sick child is worthy of my respect." When the atheist fixes value in something that even the theist knows to be real - the health of a child - the atheist's value becomes much more solid, and much less a matter of faith, than the theist's value.

There is a separate argument to be made that the person who values the health of a child for its own sake – without regard to whether or not a God exists – is more noble than the person who would be indifferent to the health of a child if no God exists. The first person will see reason to continue to treat sick children regardless of his beliefs about God. To him, bringing health to children is what has value and meaning, not serving God. Whereas the second person, if he were to come to believe that no God exists, would throw up his hands and say that none of this has any value or meaning, and judge the fact that children sicken and die as insignificant.

As a matter of fact, I do not think that there are very many Christians who are as vicious as they often paint themselves to be. People who claim that the health of a child would have no value to them without God, I suspect, would still value the health of a child in the absence of a God. They simply like to claim that the health of a child would have no meaning, as a way of giving their religion a significance it does not have. They are as unlikely to become indifferent to the suffering of a child in the absence of a god as they are unlikely to become indifferent to their own physical pain.

The Meaning of Friendship

This brings us back to the first question, the question of testimony. Lockhart said that the quality of his relationships improved once he acquired a certain interest in God. However, now that he has acquired these relationships, would he abandon them if he should now come to doubt God's existence? If he would, what would that say about the quality of those relationships, compared to the quality of the atheist's relationships?

Could Lockhart seriously go up to the most important person in his life today and say, "If not for the existence of God, your welfare means nothing to me. You could be screaming in the worst agony, and I could rescue you with the touch of a button, but I would find no value in doing so, unless I also believed that a God exists."

For me, a person who could say such a think does not really value me as a friend. If he valued me as a friend, he would care about my suffering even if no God existed. As I care about the welfare of my friends, even though I believe that no God exists. Who is the better friend? The person whose concern for your welfare is contingent on the belief in a God, or the person whose concern for your welfare does not come with conditions?

Hitchens asked the question of whether there is a moral act or statement that a theist can make that an atheist cannot make. The types of examples that Lockhart brought up do not answer the challenge. To the degree that belief in a God contributes to the quality of a person's life and, in particular, improves the way he treats others, Lockhart has to argue that atheists are incapable of realizing those same values. Either that, or he must argue that relationships that are conditional on a belief that a God exists are somehow 'better than' relationships that do not have these types of conditions placed on them.


Anonymous said...

"The claim that atheists have a problem with morality is not a claim that people are driven to by the evidence. It is a claim that people are driven to by a want to hate others, and of inflating their own self-image by attacking others."

Alonzo, what do you think of the empirical evidence that shows church-goers tend to be far more charitable -- both in time and money, for both secular and religious causes (see Arthur Brooks' research), suffer from less social dysfunction, including criminal behavior(see Martin Seligman), and engage in more prosocial activities more of the time(see David Sloan Wilson)?

I'm an atheist, but as I've pointed out before, active theists may have some credibility in this area when the proper controls are done (rather than looking at red states vs blue states, for exammple).

I can give you more specific sources if you'd like.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
And then there is the study that shows that religiosity and faith in doctors is not linked to their helping the poor and disadvantaged?

Fact is that there is no conclusive proof that theists help or are better than atheists. The exceptions are of course fanatically driven people- but guess what? We have secular equivalents. The communists are a good example.

I think we can all agree that despite any community service commies carried out, the world would be better if they didn't exist.

As for religious people being more social... well, gays have a higher suicide rate. But it isn't caused by being gay- it is caused by people's reaction. Religious people probably have more connections and social activities because they monopolize the mainstream.

Red state vs blue state is a good example of what happens when theists run the government.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Anonymous 1

I would consider the types of evidence you provide to be proof that atheists have a problem with morality in the same way that I would consider the same types of evidence about blacks or males (time and money spent on charitable contributions, criminal activity, prosocial activities) to be proof that blacks or males have a problem with morality.

I insist on being judged morally by my own actions, not by a 'statistical mean' over which I have no control. To make any inferences from a statistical mean to the morality of any individual in the group is the essence of prejudice.

Also, one of the counfounding effects of these measures is that a substantial portion of the atheist community is made up of Ayn Rand Objecivists who shun charity and other forms of 'prosocial activity'. That this faction skews the numbers when averaged out among all atheists is not proof that atheists have a problem with morality. Particularly not if those atheists who are not Objectivists contribute more to charity than the average Christian.

And how much of this "pro-social" activity is restricted to other theists, and how much is their "anti-social" behavior towards others such as homosexuals, 'unbelievers', and other out-groups considered in these evaluations?

I would also ask if that research includes studying the effects that false beliefs have on behavior. How much of this "charitable contribution" is wasted because of false beliefs, and how much more "charitable contribution" is required as a result of false beliefs?

Are you looking only at the comfort provided to the victims after the hurricane hit? Or are you also looking at the lives that were saved by the scientists who study hurricanes and architecture that significantly reduced the number of victims needing help?

Anonymous said...

"I insist on being judged morally by my own actions, not by a 'statistical mean' over which I have no control."

So we're left with anecdotes? How are you supposed to answer the question without large data sets and the effects of one variable while holding others constant?

This doesn't seem to reflect a willingness to get to an answer.

And who's saying that if religion is more likely to produce x, y, and z, then someone without religion can't have x, y, and z?

I guess we'd have to do away with all of social science if that's the interpretation you take from it. The research I'm referring to certainly doesn't imply that.

I think you may have a good point about the Objectivists, however.

"and how much is their "anti-social" behavior towards others such as homosexuals, 'unbelievers', and other out-groups considered in these evaluations?"

The people in Wilson's study had to report what they were doing at random times when they were beeped with an electronic device. I'm guessing if they were attending hate rallies or chasing gays down in their cars it would have come out. He measured all behaviors that easily fall into a larger category.

"And how much of this "pro-social" activity is restricted to other theists"

Brooks' research looked at this. They give more -- time and money --to causes that have ZERO to do with religion.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo, let me be clear. People should be judged by their own actions (desires?).

But if the question is, Is religion more likely to produce moral behavior, then the answer requires the kind of research I referred to.

That research, in turn, doesn't imply we should therefore judge you, me, or anyone else by the actions of their larger group, however defined.

Martin Freedman said...


I would add that if Ayn Rand Objectivists were a significant group, they should be classified amongst the religious :-)

Wonder what D.S Wilson would say on that :-)

Anyway D.S. Wilson's views are contentious at best within evolutionary psychology/ sociobiology so not something that can be relied upon as acceptable work from which to draw such conclusions.

Also far more scientifically accepted work comes from the largest sample epidemiological studies show strong correlations between social ill health and religiosity. This needs to be explained not dismissed.

This looks like selective reasoning.

Anonymous said...

"Wonder what D.S Wilson would say on that :-)"

Actually, you're right, he calls it a "stealth religion".

"Anyway D.S. Wilson's views are contentious at best..."

He goes over the methodology in great detail in his latest book. Whatever contentious views he has (group selection, etc.), they aren't relavent to the research I posted.

"Also far more scientifically accepted work comes from the largest sample epidemiological studies show strong correlations between social ill health and religiosity."

Please post a source. I haven't seen this despite having read most of the latest "new atheists" books. You'd think they would have included it!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your concerns are relevant to what I am already writing to post tonight (Tuesday). I am going to address them as well in the post I will be writing for Wednesday.

There are important conceptual problems as to what counts as 'charity'. There is also a problem of distinguishing between desires to fulfill the desires of others, and desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others. The latter are not 'charitable' in the traditional sense, but they are still good in the moral sense. Equating morality to charity is a mistake.

Scientists, for example, may be less charitable in the traditional sense, but in terms of contributing to the well-being of others, do far more good than those who give to traditional charities. They do not so much desire to fulfill the desires of others, but still have desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others that produce a great deal of benefit.

Seligman's work, in turn, tends to focus on happiness as the sole value. I have written several posts on the value of happiness, arguing that where truth and happiness diverge, value tracks truth, not happiness. I am aware of research tha shows that theists are happier than atheists, but I consider their happiness to be the happiness of the Matrix - a happiness that comes from simply ignoring unpleasant truth.

David Sloan Wilson does make some valid points about useful false beliefs. The fact is that we cannot know everything about the universe. All we can do is create a model that is not entirely accurate. The best model, at least on Wilson's way of thinking, is the one that produces the most useful results. It must necessarily contain some deviation from reality, so the fact that its propositions are not strictly true is not an objection against it.

However, Wilson uses a 'moral sense' theory of morality (which he tries to explain in terms of group selection) that has serious problems. I deny the existence of a moral sense - yet, 'moral sense' and 'group selection' are key components of what Wilson tends to call 'pro' and 'social" activities.

In other words, Wilson has trouble being offered as proof that atheists have a problem with morality since Wilson himself uses a faulty theory of morality.

Anonymous said...

To clarify, Seligman says religious Americans are, "clearly less likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes, divorce, and kill themselves... [they are] physically healthier and live longer. Religious mothers of children with disabilities fight depression better, and religious people are less thrown by divorce, unemployment, illness and death."

Sloan's relavent work can be found here:

"Equating morality to charity is a mistake."

I agree here. But I would say that charity is probably an indicator or at least a proxy for more general moral behavior. In the same way I would think a drug dealer is more likely to be a thief than a non-drug dealer, I would assume someone who gives to charity is probably better than someone who doesn't (on avergage).

In fact, I vaguely remember some correlation between charity and returning money to a cashier who gives the person too much change in an experiment.

I look forward to your blogs on this and enjoy your website quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...

For some reason the entire url doesn't post. You can google the title of the paper.

"Health and the ecology of altruism"

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
If religious people act more morally than nonbelievers why are more religious people in prison?

Do we factor in people like Bush- decisions made that are harmful due to specifically religious motivations.

Anonymous said...

The number of confounding variables in some of the studies cited here is sickening.

How do you account for the fact that a religious PRIME increases prosocial behavior? It's entirely possible that the religious give more to charity because of that prime, and not because of any actual moral values.

Interestingly enough, numerous studies show that religious priming works on EVERYONE, including agnostics and atheists. To assert that this research on charity may give some evidence to suggest that theists may have a sunstantiated claim that atheists aren't as moral is simply absurd.

There are more variables here and more effects going on than you think.

By the way, don't rag on the objectivists. The primary benefactor of their actions is themselves, BUT it's entirely possible for an objectivist to attain happiness by helping others (as long as it makes them happy to do so). At least that's how I've come to understand it.

Singling out a group like that is just as prejudicial as the theists who claim atheists have no morals.

The irony here is what some of you are saying is, "no, we have morals, it's just this group that brings our average down; they are the ones without morals!" That thinking, particularly if based on a worldview you don't understand, makes you just as bad as a theist.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that those who would be pressured into staying affiliated with religious institutions for fear of being castigated by their fellow believers would be more heavily influenced by their peers to be more charitable. Moreover, charity is a learned action, and outside of religious institutions, it doesn't seem to be a very prevalent item on the education agenda.