Values and Traditional Societies
posted on 11.25.2006 at 6:48 PM
Stumbled upon this testament to the superior wisdom and morality of traditional societies on the website of a Turkish newspaper. It concerns "a married woman who was raped by a man, also married":
The case was exposed when the rape victim spoke up.... The elders of her village aiming to avoid a blood feud found a "peaceful solution." The 16-year-old daughter of the rapist would be given to the husband of the rape victim. Since the men would have settled the issue, no blood feud would emerge.
Religion and Mark Foley
posted on 10.03.2006 at 1:33 PM
An addition to our ongoing discussion of religion (or its absence) and morality (or its absence):
This Republican congressman, who seems to have exchanged some "predatory" emails with teenaged male House pages, supported the interests of the Christian Coalition 84 percent of the time in 2004 (the last year I could find). He is a Roman Catholic and may have some connection to Scientology (thanks Operation Clambake). According to the Herald-Tribune in Florida, Rep. Foley supported the Defense of Marriage Act, "a measure intended to ensure that only heterosexual couples may wed."
Rep. Foley's other hypocrisies -- attacks on former President Clinton for his affair with an intern, support for tough laws against child porn and seduction of children on the Internet -- have, of course, been well reported.
posted on 09.28.2006 at 12:46 PM
On the list of those who contributed to the remarkable spread of Christianity, the Roman emperor, Constantine, may rank with Paul and, oh yes, Jesus. Constantine, through his support and (late) conversion, enabled the religion to conquer the empire. The danger, of course, is that the empire might conquer the religion.
Certainly, this pillar of Christianity was a little weak in the "do-unto-others" area. The example that sticks in my mind: Constantine traveled to Rome in the year 326 with his wife, his son by another marriage, his step-nephew and his mother. By the time he arrived he had put to death - in fear of plots? because of rumors of sexual misbehavior? - all but his mother.
Atheism and Morality
posted on 09.20.2006 at 11:16 PM
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?
Ann Coulter and Morality
posted on 08.30.2006 at 11:00 PM
Can't resist one more shot at (fish-in-a-barrel) Ann Coulter, borrowed from the review by Jerry Coyne. Here the issue is one that has been visited before on this blog: the relationship between disbelief and morality:
If Coulter were right, evolutionists would be the most beastly people on earth, not to be trusted in the vicinity of a goat. But I've been around biologists all of my adult life, and I can tell you that they're a lot more civil than, say, Coulter. It's a simple fact that you don't need the Bible -- or even religion -- to be moral. Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews, who don't follow the New Testament, usually behave responsibly despite this problem; and atheists and agnostics derive morality from non-biblical philosophy. In fact, one of the most ethical people I know is Coulter's version of the Antichrist: the atheistic biologist Richard Dawkins.... Dawkins would never say -- as Coulter does -- that Cindy Sheehan doesn't look good in shorts, that Al Franken resembles a monkey, or that 9/11 widows enjoyed the deaths of their husbands. Isn't there something in the Bible about doing unto others?
How Strong This Itch Must Be
posted on 08.28.2006 at 11:00 PM
Obviously there is an anthropological lesson here:
** Something looks fantastically beautiful: Jesus must have died for our sins.
** Humans on occasion do each other a good turn: Some higher power must have endowed us with a notion of The Good.
When things get clear, must be a God. When things get fuzzy, same conclusion. When people behave well... When people behave poorly... The simple means God. The complex means God. Loveliness, horror.... The existence of love, the existence of pain... All, somehow, "prove" the existence of the divine.
How strong this itch must be.
Morality and Evolution
posted on 08.20.2006 at 9:16 PM
Collins, plumping for the idea that morality comes straight from the Big Guy in the Sky to his Chosen Species, writes:
Though other animals may at times appear to show glimmerings of a moral sense, they are certainly not widespread, and in many instances other species' behavior seems to be in dramatic contrast to any sense of universal rightness.
Harris, after noting that humans have perpetrated an immoral act or two over the millennium, responds:
Just how widespread must "glimmerings" of morality be among other animals before Collins--who, after all, knows a thing or two about genes--begins to wonder whether our moral sense has evolutionary precursors in the natural world? What if mice showed greater distress at the suffering of familiar mice than unfamiliar ones? (They do.) What if monkeys will starve themselves to prevent their cage-mates from receiving painful shocks? (They will.) What if chimps have a demonstrable sense of fairness when receiving food rewards? (They have.) Wouldn't these be precisely the sorts of findings one would expect if our morality were the product of evolution?
I May Be with Ann Coulter on This One
posted on 08.19.2006 at 12:32 PM
The real reason Coulter goes after evolution is not because it's wrong, but because she doesn't like it -- it doesn't accord with how she thinks the world should be. That's because she feels, along with many Americans, that "Darwin's theory overturned every aspect of Biblical morality." What's so sad -- not so much for Coulter as for Americans as a whole -- is that this idea is simply wrong. Darwinism, after all, is just a body of thought about the origin and change of biological diversity, not a handbook of ethics. (I just consulted my copy of The Origin of Species, and I swear that there's nothing in there about abortion or eugenics, much less about shtupping one's secretary.)
Technically, of course, he's right: Darwin isn't challenging Biblical morality. But he is challenging many of the claims made in the Bible, as Darwin, himself, anxiously recognized -- even wondering, in his notebooks, how he might present his theory and still "avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism." And if the Bible ain't all true wouldn't the ethical system that rests (albeit precariously) upon it be expected to totter a bit?
(Sorry, I realize Jay Saul was kindly trying to pull me out of the Coulter quicksand, but this question continues to intrigue.)
Your Father, Which Is in Heaven
posted on 06.18.2006 at 8:45 AM
Religion wants to substitute itself for (all?) other aspects of life. It provides new, sometimes counter-intuitive (sometimes lovely) meanings: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." It provides a new, seemingly, counter-intuitive, morality: "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." It asks men and women to live in a new kingdom: "The Kingdom of Heaven" to which "I will give unto thee the keys."
It can even substitute for basic family relations, as we were reminded when President Bush explained to Bob Woodward why he hadn't asked his experienced father, the former president, for advice on Iraq:
"He is the wrong father to appeal to for advice. The wrong father to go to, to appeal to in terms of strength." And then he said, "There's a higher Father that I appeal to."
This notion that there is a substitute Father is indeed in the New Testament: "And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven."
All the biblical quotes here are from the New Testament (from Matthew, actually). The Hebrew Bible certainly enforces its own substitutions, but they seem less radical, less thorough. And earthy parents are not entirely replaced: "Honor thy father and thy mother."
Are Atheists More Moral -- VII
posted on 06.16.2006 at 11:24 PM
the common religionist view is that religion is the only possible source of morality. Which is a funny idea of morality. That is, that there is no point in doing good unless you're going to be rewarded for it some day, after you're dead, of course.
Death and Religion
posted on 06.09.2006 at 11:57 PM
The prospect of evading death is supposed to be a great moral force: providing incentive -- the largest, longest possible of incentives -- for good behavior. Whether the logic here in any sense works is very much an open question, as is the issue of whether the carrot/stick of heaven/hell has in fact increased the world's supply of doing good. But this blurring of the line between life and death has surely had at least this cost: a cheapening of life and, on occasion, even a celebration of death.
Extreme figures make weak examples, but I can't help but note this reaction to the death of the great death merchant Musab al-Zarqawi:
"We herald the martyrdom of our mujahid Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and we stress that this is an honor for our nation," a statement signed by one of Mr. Zarqawi's deputies, Abu Abdul Rahman al-Iraqi, said.
Are Atheists More Moral? -- VI
posted on 06.08.2006 at 10:30 PM
The Raving Atheist has come upon a losing candidate in the Democratic primary for Attorney General in Alabama, Larry Darby, who declared himself both an atheist and a holocaust denier.
Darby got 44 percent of the vote! Given how popular we know, or think we know, atheism to be in states like Alabama, that would seem to say spooky things about holocaust denial. Oh. Just learned Darby has spoken before a white supremacist group.
In other Alabama election news, Roy Moore, the former judge who had installed a Ten Commandments monument in the state judicial building, lost a primary for governor, getting one-third of the votes against the incumbent. Moore to supporters (from Newsday): "God's will has been done."
Morality Without God -- 2
posted on 06.06.2006 at 11:44 PM
There hovers above (or below) all discussions of nonbelief the nagging question of how, without some God keeping score, people can be encouraged to play the moral game. Alan Ryan raises a version of this question, in his review of, among other works, Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism:
A second large question takes Appiah to the heart of the philosopher's ambition to found morality on something other than familial and local affection. What can get us to take seriously the needs of distant strangers?
Even if you don't, in fact, believe God provides much, or any, of a solution to this problem, the problem remains. Ryan mumbles about utilitarianism or the moral sense that encourages people, after seeing a horror on TV, to contribute to disaster relief. However, "the philosopher's ambition," I fear, is not achieved.
posted on 06.01.2006 at 7:34 PM
Stumbled upon this attack on the moral originality of atheists by one G. Riggs, who seems at work on a (not entirely reliable) "Retrospective on Unbelievers":
Yes, plenty of atheists have been impeccably upstanding moralists, plenty have suffered heroically from having steadfastly abided by their unexceptionable ethical creed. But that creed, even when clearly altruistic and admirably self-forgetful, almost always stems from a code already established by others, not themselves. This is in marked contrast to more theistic figures like Socrates or Jesus, whose moral tenets are entirely original.
Is there a point here? Might secularists today have a view of morality that goes beyond the Judeo-Christian? What about Peter Singer who is, apparently, an atheist? Is there any original ethical thinking going on nowadays?
posted on 05.31.2006 at 6:19 PM
I keep coming back to this notion of living now, seeking pleasure, enjoying this world, as the positive alternative to religion, with its sacrifices, renunciations and postponements, with its otherworldliness.
Here for the record is the complete Ode by Horace which uses the Latin phrase "carpe diem":
Ask not - we cannot know - what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs! Be wise, strain the wine; and since life is brief, prune back far-reaching hopes! Even while we speak, envious time has passed: pluck [seize?] the day, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow!
A Teleology of Disbelief -- 2
posted on 04.21.2006 at 10:13 AM
A couple of thoughts are helpful if you want to see the world as "progressing" toward nonbelief: First, you might want to view the current apparent resurgence of religion as a mere counter-trend, a hysterical reaction to a global march toward secularization, a blip on the curve. Second, you might want to develop a theory that religion itself has been growing more diffuse, gods getting increasingly "wan."
That latter thought can, in turn, be buttressed by the notion that the New Testament represents some sort of step forward from the Hebrew Bible. The old bellicose Deity of Genesis and Exodus, who demands only adherence to the Law and sacrifice, has been replaced by a Father and Son who demand "faith," good works done in secret, morality in the "heart" not just in practice. It helps, in other words, to view Yahweh as louder, more visible and the Son's Father as more a reticent resident of the heart.
However, here's the often provocative Harold Bloom, in his usual literary reading, to mess up that view of progress from Old Testament to New. (This from Benjamin Balint): "The aesthetic dignity of the Hebrew Bible," Bloom writes, "is simply beyond the competitive range of the New TestamentÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. In the aesthetic warfare between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, there is just no contest." And Bloom, less originally, sees in the Trinity a step back to polytheism.
Jesuses -- 2: From Garry Wills
posted on 04.11.2006 at 2:13 PM
"The Jesus of the Gospels is not a great ethical teacher like Socrates, our leading humanitarian. He is an apocalyptic figure who steps outside the boundaries of normal morality to signal that the Father's judgment is breaking into history. His miracles were not acts of charity but eschatological signs -- accepting the unclean, promising heavenly rewards, making last things first.
"He is more a higher Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, than a higher Socrates."
Each of these Jesuses, of course, requires subtracting other Jesuses. This seems a significant subtraction. Jesus sometimes serves as a grab bag with something for everyone. I respect Wills' effort to deprive politicians (Republicans and Hillary) of Jesus. But Jesus minus charity and goodness doesn't seem to leave much for the two billion. (Oh, and Socrates, proponent of repressive oligarchy, is not my "leading humanitarian"; and I'm not quite sure how Jesus' thinking on good and evil is "higher" than Nietzsche's.)
The Idea of God
posted on 04.10.2006 at 1:36 PM
"If there were no God, he would have to be invented. And what's strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man. So holy it is, so touching, so wise and so great a credit it does to man."
Perhaps the less savage and vicious you find humankind, the less touching, wise and necessary you find the idea of God. Or is it just that we live in an age when ideals -- notions of the pure, the perfect, the holy -- seem cheap; when the great challenge is to build a morality, a meaningful existence, a civilization on swampier, more natural ground?
The Invention of God
posted on 04.06.2006 at 9:43 AM
More from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov -- a snippet of a conversation:
"Damn it all, what wouldn't I do to the man who first invented God! Hanging on a bitter aspen tree would be too good for him."
"There would have been no civilization if they hadn't invented God."
Historical and political response: God certainly did play a role in building and bonding societies -- as glue, as moral enforcer -- but was it often a reactionary role -- supporting powers that were? Philosophical response: Hard to overlook the squashing of the spirit of inquiry for all those centuries in the West under a dogmatic, unquestioning faith. Cultural response: Religious themes sure made for some fine painting. Could other themes have stepped in if, somehow, God had not been invented?
Are Atheists More Moral? -- V
posted on 03.30.2006 at 11:59 PM
The following statement, written when socialism was still (mostly) unborn, has long haunted me. It is from Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov:
"Socialism is not merely the labour question, it is before all things the atheistic question, the question of the form taken by atheism today., the question of the tower of Babel built without God, not to mount to Heaven from earth but to set up Heaven on Earth."
Well okay, socialism is currently (mostly) dead. But what if you substitute "humanism" for it here? Trying to "set up Heaven on Earth" -- however naive, however Utopian -- seems a rather decent goal. Why wait for God to pitch in? Why content yourself with trying to reach an alleged heaven in the sky? But Dostoyevsky, having outgrown (in Siberia) his left-wing phase, is scoffing.
Maybe the great novelist is wrong and the point is that God paralyzes us, making all human efforts at amelioration seem futile, misguided, a diversion.
Or maybe Dostoyevsky is right and the point is that we dreamy, left-wing mortals waste our time trying to build imitation heavens.
Are Atheists More Moral? -- IV (Sade)
posted on 03.28.2006 at 9:59 AM
The Marquis de Sade, addressing God:
"I wish that for a moment you could exist to have the pleasure to better insult you."
Denominations of Disbelief? 1. Shelleyans
posted on 03.27.2006 at 11:35 AM
Do atheists, to put this in the most negative possible way, have their own sects? What might those sects be?
Here's one possible denomination: The Shelleyans.
-- They subscribe to a Romantic version of atheism, which is seen as a higher, more Christian-than-Christian, Nature-given morality. (The religious just do good because they believe God, with his promise of higher reward, is watching. The irreligious do good for its own sake, because it is the law of nature.)
-- Their prophet? Baron d'Holbach
-- Their holy text: Queen Mab.
-- Words to live by: "Time is it to arrest our speculations respecting unseen worlds and inconceivable mysteries, and to address our inquiries to the improvement of our human condition" -- Frances Wright
-- Related denominations? Secular Humanists.
Are Atheists More Moral? -- III (Tony Blair)
posted on 03.26.2006 at 8:52 PM
From an article on British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month:
He confirmed the thesis put forward by more than one biographer that it was his rediscovery of religion while at Oxford University which led him into politics.
Would this, assuming one finds Blair's politics moral (difficult for some of us in recent years), be a counter example?
Are Atheists More Moral? -- II
posted on 03.25.2006 at 6:57 PM
Here some data to add to the discussion. Percentage of respondents who think torture is never justified:
White Protestant 31%
White evangelical 31%
Are Atheists More Moral?
posted on 03.14.2006 at 2:36 PM
Three arguments, I think, can be made for the proposition that the irreligious are actually more moral than the religious:
1. That religions have actually encouraged violence because such intensity of conviction can lead to intolerance or crusades. Zizek (playing on the Dostoevsky line): "The lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted."
2. That atheists are more moral because a moral law resides in Nature or Humanity, and the atheist's view of this law is not obscured by ancient texts, rituals, tribal feuds or other forms of religious mumbo jumbo. Zizek alludes to this when he talks positively of "merely human constraints and considerations." It was a major theme when the pro-Atheism argument first showed itself in Europe with Baron d'Holbach and, later, young Shelley:
There needeth not the hell that bigots frame
To punish those who err; earth in itself
Contains at once the evil and the cure;
And all-sufficing Nature can chastise
Those who transgress her law; she only knows
How justly to proportion to the fault
The punishment it merits.
3. That the religious do good only to cozy up to God (as discussed here). Zizek: "Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do."
These are attractive arguments for nonbelievers. Are they valid? And one more question: Is a "properly Christian ethical stance" what nonbelievers should be after?
An Atheist Speaks...
posted on 03.12.2006 at 11:05 AM
...on the opinion pages of the New York Times. Strange times we live in. It has taken an often intolerant religious revival (in the US and abroad) to allow a more open discussion of irreligious ideas in this country than has been seen in at least half a century. (Changes -- democratization? -- in media have also helped.)
1. When atheism first dared enter public debate in Europe, in the 18th century in France (with Holbach) and the 19th century in Britain (with Shelley), it did so with a grand claim (founded on a romantic, almost deified view of "Nature") to a higher morality -- a morality that looked a lot like Christian morality. Zizek is making a similar claim: "Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism." More on this later.
2. Zizek is also proposing a new (for me, here in the sheltered US) political analysis of the Cartoons of the Prophet situation: The Christian right initially printed the cartoons to take some digs at Islam but then expressed "understanding" for the hurt felt (and expressed sometimes violently) by true believers. The atheist liberals, on the other hand, reprinted the cartoons only in the spirit of tolerance and open discussion and had little tolerance for violent protest against open discussion. "Atheism," Zizek writes, " is a European legacy worth fighting for, not least because it creates a safe public space for believers."
3. My expertise on these matters is limited, but where Zizek refers to David Hume in the piece ("David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.") doesn't the point really fit Immanuel Kant? It is, nonetheless, an important point (discussed below) -- though more difficult than Zizek acknowledges.
Morality Without God
posted on 02.14.2006 at 1:46 PM
I'm currently teaching (conveniently and not-coincidentally) a seminar on The History of Disbelief.
Last week we discussed the slippery slope down which Jesus seems to lead in the Sermon on the Mount. There ain't much credit, He notes, in doing good "before men, to be seen by them." Instead, our charitable deeds, He insists, should be done "in secret." Then "your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly."
But -- and here's where the slipperiness of this particular slope becomes clear -- what credit is there in doing good just to be seen by God, just for that promised "reward"?
Kant, I have just learned (in a "text" by Jacques Derrida), ventures further down the slope arguing that (in Derrida's paraphrase) "in order to conduct oneself in a moral manner, one must act as if God did not exist." We should, in other words, do good without expectation of heavenly "reward."
Hmm... Isn't this saying we'd be more moral without God?
[Note: The depiction of Jesus in this entry is non-satirical.]