« Christians and Frozen Yogurt | Main | Hymns to the Milky Way? »

September 20, 2006

Atheism and Morality

The question of where morality might be found without God has been a preoccupation of this blog. Here, from Jerry Adler's round-up in Newsweek of current books on atheism, is an interesting critique of Richard Dawkins:

Dawkins, brilliant as he is, overlooks something any storefront Baptist preacher might have told him. "If there is no God, why be good?" he asks rhetorically, and responds: "Do you really mean the only reason you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward? That's not morality, that's just sucking up." That's clever. But millions of Christians and Muslims believe that it was precisely God who turned them away from a life of immorality. Dawkins, of course, thinks they are deluding themselves. He is correct that the social utility of religion doesn't prove anything about the existence of God. 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.

Katha Pollitt made this argument at a conference at NYU some time ago. Somewhere, Pollitt suggested, there is a woman convinced the only thing between her family and ruin is her husband's commitment not to take another drink and the only thing that prevents him from breaking that commitment is his belief in Jesus. What has atheism to say to her?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at September 20, 2006 11:16 PM


Religion takes with one hand and then gives back with the other. From an early age, children are taught to depend on the bible and the church for their understanding of right and wrong. Religion substitutes itself for the biologically wired empathy alive even in infancy, undermines its normal maturation and the development of the ability to think through issues of right and wrong, and then benevolently offers a set of rules to live by. Exactly what is moral about crippling people's minds and then handing them a set of one-size-fits-all crutches?

Posted by: Catana at September 21, 2006 9:05 AM

Yet another straw-man so easy to knock down. It's very simplistic to say that religion is solely "Here's this book. Follow every word it says. Don't think. Don't question." It's also very wrong. First, because there are many anti-literalist strains in religion that demand we try to discern meaning from what we believe to be an imperfect text that (even if passed down in human form) has been in human hands for far too long for us to consider it perfect still. Second, even if we consider it perfect, discerning meaning from a text written in an ancient language specifically for an ancient culture requires a great amount of thought and study. (In my copy of the Tanakh, there are hundreds of footnotes indicating "meaning of Hebrew uncertain" or that other manuscripts translate the passage differently. These difficulties are small compared to understanding what a particular act would have meant in the context of an ancient culture.)Third, because applying ancient texts to modern society requires the application of a tremendous amount of reason. (The texts provide no literal, direct guidance on the moral questions arising from modern technology, for instance.) Fourth, because much of the text is written specifically in metaphorical language and includes time/culture-specific references. Understanding those metaphors/references and applying the lessons learned is not a zero-thought process.
I'll stop there, but I could go on and on.

As someone who prepared for the seminary, I have to tell you that studying, interpreting, and applying the texts in the context of a religion (Methodism) that required I apply reason to my faith was not an easy task. I had to know a lot about linguistics, interpretation of metaphor, history, ancient Middle Eastern cultures, philosophy, and millenia of theological and philosophical thought. I would hardly describe my studies as requiring that I not think.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 21, 2006 9:22 AM

A few more points: I would hardly describe either my mind or my moral faculties as crippled. Nor would I describe my religious upbringing as one that required me to abandon empathy for strict obedience to written code. In fact, part of religious morality is developing empathy--"Love your neighbor as yourself."--and recognizing all human beings as the reflection of the divine image.

Finally, to Dawkins, I've commented on this before, so I'll keep it short. Describing religous morality as solely doing right to get a reward or avoid punishment despite the evidence of how moral decisions are made and how morality is applied in the lives of billions of religious people is simplistic, offensive, bigoted, and unworthy of an honest intellectual.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 21, 2006 9:31 AM

Melinda, I was generalizing, of course, but what I said does apply to the vast majority. You and I are both part of what once would have been called an intellectual elite. Most people don't have anything like the education you speak of. Most people aren't questioners, by nature. When religion is a primary influence in their lives, it just reinforces the tendency to accept things as they are, including the rules they've been given.

Conversations on sites like this suffer from elitist bias and a general ignorance about psychology. Both contribute to assumptions like those of economists, who have based much of their work on the idea that people make rational choices about their money. That's a bias they're now busy correcting. The same thing needs to be done in other disciplines and venues.

Posted by: Catana at September 21, 2006 10:54 AM

My experiences, while unique, reflected not just the special training given to me, but a religious requirement. After the Protestant Reformation, (which formed part of the foundation of the Enlightenment)the laity was not only permitted to study what had once been reserved for the clergy, they came to be required to study those things. (Believing the minister simply because he's the minister could be considered nearly heretical especially since the religious person is warned "Beware false prophets". In many churches, the laity has the power to hire/fire the minister.) Do most people completely fulfill that requirement? No. Have many religious leaders convinced people not to follow that requirement? Yes. Have many religious leaders condemned those who would avoid that duty or lead others to do so? Absolutely.

As for the generalizing,these characteristics apply not just to religion but to all of human endeavor. Most people don't question. They accept on faith what religious, scientific, governmental, educational institutions say is correct. There is no causative relationship between religion in general and intellectual laziness, moral immaturity, etc. with religion being the cause. If anything, the way some people practice their religion is influenced by their intellectual laziness and moral immaturity. To claim religion does x, without consideration for the true direction of causation or for the widespread presence of those characteristics in the secular realm,is intellectually dishonest. The exception is not what proves the rule but what disproves it.

I still believe that for good or bad, whatever our ideals, most of the characteristics we've discussed here are simply inherent human characteristics (however one describes how they came to be inherent to humans or what that may mean). Of course, many of the behaviors we've discussed are also shared by our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, who go to war with one another in a display of brutality beside which many human wars appear mere skirmishes. There are probably very good evolutionary reasons for us to behave like unquestioning, foaming-at-the-mouth extremists--not that this makes it any better. Human consciousness and human conscience make it possible for us to be more than just the sum of our parts. Civilized humans at least make the effort to take advantage of that.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 21, 2006 12:27 PM

"I still believe that for good or bad, whatever our ideals, most of the characteristics we've discussed here are simply inherent human characteristics (however one describes how they came to be inherent to humans or what that may mean)"

I agree. And every aspect of society either reinforces the less admirable qualities of the species or ameliorates them. I regard religion as one of the forces that reinforces far more than it ameliorates. Having said that, I wouldn't position myself with some atheists who believe that all would be well if we just got rid of religion. For all its faults and its appalling history, religion provides guidance and control that no other system has ever managed. Unless the human brain undergoes some drastic evolutionary change, I don't see much hope of religion ever withering away.

Posted by: Catana at September 21, 2006 1:18 PM

There's definitely a basis for that conclusion, although I don't know if we can objectively examine it or not, especially since religion permeates the entirety of human civilization and history. Separating it out so as to determine what is specifically an effect of religion and no other factor would seem an impossible task.

As for the human brain evolving, I think it will definitely evolve at some point. Microevolution of the human brain has already taken place to some extent. How it will evolve is another matter. Unfortunately, evolving doesn't necessarily indicate that the new human brain will be "better" by our standards.

Okay, we've gone so waaaaaaaay off topic. What was the topic again? haha Mitch is probably going to make us go home and sit in a corner or something. (Personally, if it comes to that, I think I should get credit for finally managing to call him Mitch rather than Professor Stephens.)

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 21, 2006 1:34 PM

I wish I could send you a picture of Mitch when I met him in 1970; that would very likely make it much easier to call him Mitch. Chuckle.

My take on your conversation: 1) the bias here is not elitist anymore than anywhere else; it is personal bias. Many of us are know a little about psychology. Sociology (my graduate study) is just a form of that mind study; it just doesn't make any money, ha! (Fortunately I have Computer Science to fall back on).

Culture is born naturally from the interaction of genetics and environment. So I am in complete agreement with, "Unless the human brain undergoes some drastic evolutionary change, I don't see much hope of religion ever withering away." Religion is, to one extent or another, part of us all. We have to believe in the reality we perceive or we are paralyzed and cannot act. Yet, what we perceive is an individual construct; we have no way to compare it to anyone else's without symbolic interaction. And we have no way at all to compare it to the conscious constructs of other beings, like animals.

Conversations are what we do to fill our time here. They make us feel good or we wouldn't participate. The real evolutionary changes will come either from the radioactive world we create or, more likely, from the machine-building nature of humans. The networks of machines we witness exploding on the world scene will soon be connecting us all internally with parts added to our brains and brains that have been engineered for the abilities to handle that bath of information and connections. We are at the end of our species either way.

I think the man vs. machine stories that have become so pervasive (The Matrix, The Borg, etc.) are popular precisely because of our internal emotional fear of that impending future. We should be afraid, the "missing links" are very likely missing because they were competing for the same food and land as early humans. (Shouldn't the PC version of humans be hupersons?:)

Building a machine that can think (AI) has turned out to be so much more complicated than was predicted and shown us how incredibly mysterious and inscrutable consciousness is. But tinkering with genetics and tapping into the nervous system are already happening. That marriage of man and machine is happening and is the future.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 21, 2006 3:29 PM

So, the situation was:

There is a woman convinced the only thing between her family and ruin is her husband's commitment not to take another drink and the only thing that prevents him from breaking that commitment is his belief in Jesus. What has atheism to say to her?

Practically speaking, the best thing to do may be to keep the man deluded with Christianity just to save his family, but -- at the risk of sounding very hard line, self-righteous, and unsympathetic -- the family that does that has basically given up on the idea of integrity and honesty. "I will let my husband believe that a man died and then rose from the dead, and that I will to -- all so that he won't go back to drinking and ruin us all."

I do practice self-deception in my own life -- some I know about, and some I may not -- just so that I can be a little happier, a little more secure. Nobody wants to be facing the absolute truth every waking minute. However, there are degrees: I may not want to admit that I've gained 10 pounds, and so avoid the scales, but I'm not willing to be intellectually dishonest just so that I can think that I will live forever.

Posted by: Wayne Jones at September 21, 2006 3:58 PM

Wait. Mitch in 1970. Does this mean he had hair? heh. The difficulty in calling him Mitch was a response to my rigid Southern upbringing including an educational environment where one was expected to use formal titles where appropriate. Using the wrong title could cause all sorts of trouble. One professor would become outraged if you used "Professor" rather than "Doctor" as she'd earned the right to "Doctor". I can imagine more than one of my old professors who would be offended if their students referred to them by their first names.

As for brain evolution, what do you think about the theory that the development of written language actually created our ability to think in the abstract?

As for marriage of man and machine, I'll be pretty ticked if my computer gets marriage rights before I do.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 21, 2006 3:58 PM

You're assuming that the woman believes that the Jesus story is untrue. I think you're onto something if she disbelieves. On the other hand: What are our rights/obligations in disabusing someone of a belief with which we disagree or that we may find foolish or self-deceptive? (Would we then have to tell our spouses that they've gained wait, gone bald, lost their looks, etc.?) In the case of religion, wouldn't we have to be far more certain of the truth of our own beliefs than is logically possible before we could safely "disabuse" someone of a "false" belief? This is the inherent problem with evangelizing and proselytizing in my opinion.

However, if she's a believer, the situation is quite different, isn't it?

Either way, I think the utility of the belief is not necessarily an indication that it's true. Nor is there any way to determine that it's false. However, there is much to indicate that genuine belief in the possibility of redemption (whether religious or secular)strengthens us and allows us to do things of which we would not otherwise be capable. Perhaps it then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the idea works and is not inherently harmful shouldn't we just let people believe as they wish regardless of what we may think of their beliefs? Isn't this tolerance the cornerstone of pluralistic democracy?

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 21, 2006 4:14 PM

"If the idea works and is not inherently harmful shouldn't we just let people believe as they wish regardless of what we may think of their beliefs? Isn't this tolerance the cornerstone of pluralistic democracy?"

I've accepted the fact of religion as practically built into the brain (no, I don't mean a God gene or center :-) ), but I would like to see more effort in the direction of making the concept both less likely and less necessary. Atheists spend way too much time arguing about religion, and practically none on the biology and psychology of belief. The only thing that really gets my back up is when religion is shoved in my face or used as a way to shift society and its laws in ways that are dangerous to freedom.

"My take on your conversation: 1) the bias here is not elitist anymore than anywhere else; it is personal bias." Jay, are you saying that being part of a demographic that's well educated, and more intelligent than the norm isn't going to result in personal bias? Every membership installs its own filters. I consider it my responsibility to stay aware, as much as possible, of my own filters.

Posted by: Catana at September 21, 2006 5:16 PM

Catana, you said it was an elitist bias and a general ignorance about psychology. Elitist is such a biased term itself. Does being educated make you elite? My sociological background makes more use of the term in regards to the rich and powerful. They may be educated or not.
Obviously George's going to Yale proves that does not make one a member of the educated elite. It proves instead the powerful and rich can buy their way into the seemingly educated class. Having a good education often does little to get one into the power-elite.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 21, 2006 7:32 PM

And, yes, in 1970 Mitch had hair down to there.
We both had our freak flags flying. He had a head start cause I was just out of Vietnam, but by the time we last saw each other mine may have been longer. Now it is for sure! But he has great eye brows!

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 21, 2006 7:36 PM

Jay, the term elite has never been limited to the rich and powerful. Try using it as a description, rather than a judgement. You've never heard of the intellectual elite? It's out of favor, and probably never as important as its members thought it was, but at one time it was a significant topic of discussion, and had some influence on the culture of its time. And please note that I used the term "well-educated." That can refer to autodidacts, not just those with a college degree. Practically everybody is educated these days, but that doesn't mean much. You can buy your way into the power elite and into an Ivy League college, but not into an intellectual elite. Whether the word is still useful is another question altogether. Any language that implies superiority and inferiority is verboten, which may be a loss when we try to make important distinctions.

Posted by: Catana at September 22, 2006 9:17 AM

"The only thing that really gets my back up is when religion is shoved in my face or used as a way to shift society and its laws in ways that are dangerous to freedom."

We'd be in complete agreement on that one. That's why I specified that a tolerated idea should not be "inherently harmful," although I'm sure we could disagree on what would classify as "inherently harmful." Racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. are inherently harmful in my opinion. Religious justification for those ideas should be attacked and are by atheists and theists alike. Otherwise, I think we should be humble enough to mind our own business.

And, of course, church and state should remain separate. Obviously, people are going to have their religious or ideologically-based opinions of proposed laws/policies and will consider them in their decision-making BUT no law should exist within the United States that does not address (as its fundamental basis) a pressing societal problem or vital public interest as those can be defined without recourse to religious texts. If the only justification for a law is that it addresses religious beliefs or interests, it must not stand.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 22, 2006 1:29 PM

How in the world can you take judgment out of the term elitist?

I don't think we (IF you are including me in the intellectual elite) are any more biased than any other group. And our biases cover a wide range of views. Most of the comments here are by those who are sympathetic to Mitch's project. Some are quite the opposite. It is not very often that anyone without some command of intellect ventures here (except for ringtones and their ilk). Bias is a loaded term. If it means preferring your own perceptions over others', how can anyone avoid it without being a clone?
Are you playing my favorite game?

Question is; is it any better being dependent on Jesus than on alcohol? Two fingers of Petron por favor.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 22, 2006 1:32 PM

Well, Jay, value judgments are always subjective, so "better" would depend on your perspective. From mine, I'd argue that being dependent on Jesus (in general) is better than being dependent on alcohol (in general). Obviously we can point to individual cases where this may not be true, depending on your perspective. Personally, I wish George W. had just stayed drunk and left the rest of us to run our country without him.

However, to my general perspective on the matter, alcohol abuse has inherent harmful effects that are not present in Jesus abuse. In addition to its harmful effects on the body and mind, alcoholism also has deleterious effects for society as a whole. That's why we make it illegal to drive under the influence of spirits but not under the influence of "The Spirit." Alcoholism is also more directly correlated to violence than Jesus-ism. (Okay, I make up words. Sue me.)

Psychologically, both can be used as a "crutch," as I'm sure you well know. However, one crutch does a lot of harm and very little if any good while the other has the potential to do much good with very little if any harm. The dangers of Jesus-ism are far more dependent on the characteristics of the individual, characteristics that would be present, perhaps, despite the Jesus fixation. Alcoholism has harmful effects that apply to most if not all alcoholics regardless of individual characteristics.

One would hardly argue from George W.'s record that his deification of Jesus is his major problem. His deification of himself on the other hand, probably is.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 22, 2006 2:03 PM

All the wars fought in the name of Jesus don't matter in your general perspective? I fear you missunderestimate the harm of the power-elite created by organized religion.

How many drunks would it take to make up for the Crusades, the Inquisition, etc.?

And when you add the two together, whoa baby, you get Mel Gibson!

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 22, 2006 6:06 PM

Jay, elitism is a judgemental word, elite is a term for any group that is considered (or considers itself) superior. Whether we feel that elites are good or bad is another matter, but they do exist. Top sports figures, A-list authors, Nobel winners. All are elites of one sort or another, whether they are publicly acknowledged as such.

No one can totally avoid bias, but we can certainly strive to minimize it. I'm not a game player, and have no interest in discussions with people who think everything is a game. Only ignorance or sheer stupidity can surpass game-playing as a way to devalue ideas.

Posted by: Catana at September 23, 2006 10:05 AM

The writing here is really fascinating.

I'd like to introduce myself--I am ignorant and stupid.

Intellectualism. It can be a fun and wacky thing. From what Ive observed, it can also be as blinding and illusory as any religious belief. Everything seems to have its dark side.

However, Im know little of religion and Im not an intellectual, so what the heck do I know.

PS. I dont want to have to use a stupid smiley face symbol. But I would like it to be clear that this was written in the spirit of good humor :-)


Posted by: elizaco at September 24, 2006 10:02 AM

"I'm not a game player, and have no interest in discussions with people who think everything is a game. Only ignorance or sheer stupidity can surpass game-playing as a way to devalue ideas."-Cantana

Whoa! My reference to game playing was a sarcastic-humorous response to being accused of playing semantic games.

One can no more minimize bias than one can minimize their subjectivity. You may be able to change your bias, inform your bias or, more likely, emotionally manipulate your bias, but the only way to minimize it is to go to sleep or better die.

Posted by: Jay Saul at September 24, 2006 11:34 AM

I was talking about it on the individual level, as in the example, not on the societal level. (I should have made that more clear.) The problems inherent in organized religion's merging with the power of the state is a whole other animal altogether and as I'm sure you've notice from other things I've written, I'm completely opposed to the merging of rigid faith or orthodoxy and power. The merging of church/temple/mosque and military/economic/governmental power corrupts both good governance and good service to the divine. However, I think that the combination of any ideology with power will produce the same results. That's why I believe in pluralistic, participatory, "reform socialist" democracy. The system works rather well except when the people and their leaders forget the grave importance of vigilance against the encroachment of power, hence George W. Bush and the "imperial presidency".

Posted by: Anonymous at September 24, 2006 5:53 PM

Okay, I really have to remember to put in my name and info so as to not end up "anonymous."

Also, Jay, I just wanted to point out that the jibe about "semantic games" was meant in good fun and was not meant as an "accusation" or with any hostile intent. My apologies if it seemed otherwise.

Posted by: Melinda Barton at September 24, 2006 5:57 PM

Interesting discussion, and topic!

I found this blog on a google search... if any of you would enjoy joining in on a discussion of atheistic morality (if it exists), feel free to visit http://www.xanga.com/ArgumentsFromtheRight/537648500/item.html
(there are now two or three pages in the thread discussion)

Posted by: Tim at October 21, 2006 11:56 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)