Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Is God an Accident? by Paul Bloom

25 Thoughts:

Blogger A.T. said...

[the dichotomy] + [the ]

Well, this is interesting, I suppose. I must tell you that some of the thoughts assigned to Christians simply aren’t representative of Christian orthodoxy, and so you ultimately have a misrepresentation here. Just to make sure that’s understood. Also, I don’t take it to be the support for ID that you apparently expect. I’m not sure why I would.

Two more things:

1. I see the same mistake here that I see with Hume (yes, I’ll be emailing you my review soon): beginning with the assumption that IDers believe that Nature proves the existence of a Deity. Not true. We believe that there are aspects about Nature that appear to indicate an intelligent creator, and – importantly – run completely counter to that which any notion of abiogenesis or macroevolution can provide. That doesn’t mean we believe the converse is true – that, thereby, a God is proven to exist. Not so.

This alone would seem to make much of Hume, for example, wholly irrelevant. The straw man (men?) that he creates early on in the Dialogues – two deists of different flavors who argue that Nature “proves” God, and that the only remaining question is exactly what constitutes his character – are utterly unhelpful in honest debate.

The difference between “proven beyond reasonable doubt” and “found to be true (likely true) based upon the preponderance of evidence” is not mere nuance. Much historical knowledge is based upon the latter but could never survive an honest implementation of the first criteria.

I believe the case for a god is extremely compelling, and I find the case for Christianity’s veracity to also be compelling. I can’t say that I find either provable beyond reasonable doubt. Nor have I found any atheist assertion to be so. And I find the case for Christianity ultimately the most compelling explanation of the world and life as we know it.

2. Relatedly, Stephen Jay Gould’s position on religion having value for assigning morals sounds nice, until one realizes how patronizing it really is. If, in fact, the religion’s historical and/or metaphysical claims do not match up to reality, then any benefit that it has is strictly social but surely not personal. In other words, in may trick its adherents in such a way that provides social order and increases peace, but the individual’s benefit may be harmed. And, by harmed, I mean that this person could be living a different life that would be more pleasing to them – in a metaphysical sense if a different religion is actually truly reflecting reality and/or in a hedonistic sense if the atheistic faith is, instead, reflecting reality. So Gould’s assertion is only correct to the individual if their faith reflects reality. I think it’s fair to say that, instead, he meant that faith provides social benefits in the utilitarian sense.

Amusingly, if atheists are correct, then there are no absolute morals anyway, so Gould’s statement is even more problematic in that instance. Now, that’s no reason to reject atheism – perhaps there is no god, afterall. And, if that is true, we all ought to have the intellectual courage to apply that reality to all aspects of life. But let us do so with our eyes wide open and realize that any basis for determining right or wrong is gone; instead, we merely have the law – which reflects the will of those in power.

Atheism always reinforces the propriety of anarchy. That’s not to say that an atheistic nation wouldn’t arrange itself in such a way as to avoid anarchy, but only because of the utilitarian preference of those in power.

This is not a criticism of atheists at all. If there is no god, after all, then by all means, let’s all become atheists. But, it’s simply important to understand that atheism can provide no moral absolutes. There is no action that it can condemn as wrong.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 6:59:00 AM  
Blogger A.T. said...

[Oops, please ignore initial bracketed reminders to myself]

Thursday, November 17, 2005 6:59:00 AM  
Blogger A.T. said...

To be more succinct, the atheist basis for decision is "every person for themselves" rather than "what is right?" It is popular in atheistic circles to support the notion of The Golden Rule, but atheism only can provide utilitarian reasons for doing so: it makes me feel good, or I am more likely to get social advantages in doing so.

On the contrary, atheism provides no means for condemning any act other than "those in power have said that you may not do that." But they can't absolutely call it "wrong."

This isn't irrelevant - it's the clear-eyedness by which we all must approach atheism versus theism.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 7:10:00 AM  
Blogger A.T. said...

Put another way, atheism provides me with only one rational basis for decision: what maximizes my own pleasure?

If I choose to commit devastating crimes against another, because it maximizes my pleasure, who can call it wrong? Illegal? Sure. Wrong? No.

How much of a threat is the law, though? It's a relevant question here, because it's the only thing preventing egregious acts. Well, for some, it will be the "stick" that keeps them in line. But the powerful and clever may find it utterly uncompelling.

Now, theism - as Gould more or less alludes - provides a basis to think about "what is right" before making a decision. I may want to commit a devastating crime upon another, and barring any absolute morals may find that to be the far preferable course of action, but due to religious beliefs, may opt not to do so.

I now have a reason, other than the threat of law (which I may regard as weak), for not commiting acts against another. Because it is wrong.

It is almost as if, then, atheists ought to prefer that most people do not, in fact, become atheists but rather choose religion (so long as it is a constructive religion, as Christianity - in its orthodox form - surely is). Marx may have called religion the opiate of the masses, but perhaps atheists ought to think of that as a preferable opiate. It would be condescending thought; but it is the utilitarian choice for them.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 7:23:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hi, Allen:

Thanks for the extensive comments.

If you see no evidence for God in Nature, then on what do you base your faith? Your first paragraph, even if the "gaps" argument is granted, requires only agnosticism, not deism -- let alone Christianity.

Of course, you don't mean to retreat from "Nature proves the existence of a Deity," as you argue later that Christianity's "veracity" to be "compelling." On what basis, then, if not in the natural world -- that is, everything that is not supernatural?

I can personally assure you, as I knew Gould, that the "nonoverlapping magisteria" notion, with which I don't really agree, was not meant to be patronizing. Science deals with the natural world, with the "is". Religion deals with the "ought." There is a lot wrong with this notion, but I don't see it as patronizing.

Anyway, your distinction between the personal and social needs to be explained a bit more -- but it has little to do with Gould's ideas, which are only vaguely referred to in this article, anyway. Value judgments can be informed by scientific knowledge, but not determined by scientific knowledge. This is as true for theists as it is for atheists. There is a kernel of truth to that.

Anyway, the most interesting thing you write is that you obviously think religion can "truly reflect reality." But you just said that no proof of the existence of God can be abstracted from Nature. So, which is it?

Gould definitely did not mean that religion should be respected for its social utility. That's actually a very conservative argument.

You continue to mistake "absolute" for "God-given" or "superhuman." By setting up the choice between the only morality possible (Christian/religious) and a total power-based relativist whirlwind, you're throwing around a lot more straw than Mr. Hume. That is not the choice, nor has it ever been the choice.

It is completely possible that one can set up an atheist, naturalist ethics based on a study of human nature -- its unity and diversity. If we can do so with our own species in mind, how much more absolute do you need ethics to be? Are you worried about squid-morality?

I don't see how atheism sets up anarchy -- and when you write "always," you are making a historical claim. Can you back it up?

Also, can you somehow show greater morality among religious societies? I think you'll have a lot of trouble.

The bottom line is that humans are capable of good and bad behavior -- and they pick and choose, usually, an ideology to rationalize their behavior. This applies to all ideologies, religious, atheistic, etc. That's the lesson of history. Please point to a theologically based society that stands out as morally upright, beyond the norm for human societies.

Do you need a moral absolute to set right and wrong? All killing is wrong. Except in self-defense. Thus, the absolute is nuanced. Most ethics is like this: some basic notions always tempered by case-based facts. It's kind of what our legal system, imperfect as it is, is based on.

Atheists are not necessarily arch-selfish individualists. Not even usually, I would think, but I don't know. You see no possibility for social cohesion absent a God. By artifically limiting the field, you lead yourself to the conclusion you want.

I think the idea is to look at human nature honestly, and then to set up ones society's rules democratically, such that the best behavior is encouraged and the worst discouraged. That would require a removal of many of the illusions that we've inherited from our Judeo-Christian past, but that past hasn't done much to spread light and morality, in the large sense. What I mean is, people tend to act as they will for other reasons and justify it through whatever cultural products they can find. Thus, you find all combinations: good theists, good atheists, bad theists, bad atheists -- to be simplistic. It's exactly what I'd expect, but not you, as you want to see theism = good and atheism = bad despite all evidence to the contrary.

In any event, the genious of the Framers was to remove all discussion of metaphysical priority from the structure and function of government, whatever each may have privately thought. Unlike you, they were concerned only with public results of one's behavior. Private reasons for behavior, and even private behavior, were not all that important.

Sure, they weren't consistent, but we should be far more so. Live and let live, as long as no one is hurting anyone else. The fact is, most of the world, and most of the Christian world, doesn't agree with you, Allen. Nor with me. How to organize society?

Well, you can set up a theocracy and punish all wrong-thinkers. They have a very bad track record. I prefer a republican democracy.

As for the ID stuff -- it's really just silly. These pushes happen periodically in our country; luckily, there are plenty of people ready to push back.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger A.T. said...

OK, Doug, I read the first sentence and will continue reading after you address this:

"If you see no evidence for God in Nature, then on what do you base your faith?"

What I said is this:

"I see the same mistake here that I see with Hume (yes, I’ll be emailing you my review soon): beginning with the assumption that IDers believe that Nature proves the existence of a Deity. Not true. We believe that there are aspects about Nature that appear to indicate an intelligent creator, and – importantly – run completely counter to that which any notion of abiogenesis or macroevolution can provide. That doesn’t mean we believe the converse is true – that, thereby, a God is proven to exist. "

Evidence does not equal proof beyond reasonable doubt.

Your first sentence already seems to belie an attempt at debating games in which I'm wholly uninterested in participating, because it is SO clearly different to what I was communicating. Why are doing that? What is the big payoff for you?

After you can explain this, I'll continue reading...

Thursday, November 17, 2005 1:32:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Interesting post Doug - I read it all, and all the comments.

Allen good points as well. One thing I just don't get about your position (and Doug mentions it) is that belief in God is a requirement for morality. ("Amusingly, if atheists are correct, then there are no absolute morals anyway..", "Atheism always reinforces the propriety of anarchy.") A huge contrary example is the fact that the Golden Rule, filial piety, loyalty, etc. which are foundational moral principles of confucianism, do not require theism to have value. Experiments with the iterated prisoner's dilemma ("Tit for Tat") also show why/how moral principles have value for both individuals in a society, whether God exists or not, whether God is believed to exist, or not, by any parties involved.

In Japan there is a strong tradition of ancestor worship but no functioning religious tradition with an instructive "God's word" like Christianity. In fact they're probably the most atheist of any modern society, and yet they have a highly developed sense of social cohesion - probably its the culture most disinclined anarchy you can find on the globe.

I just don't get how the pleasure principle as an alternative to theology is anything other than a canard. Just using myself as an example - I'm an atheist yet I would not commit horrible crimes, even if I knew no one would know and I would never get caught. Why? Because of an internalized sense of right and wrong based on the necessary respect humans should have for each other. Treating other people poorly to satify myself means that I degrade myself and violate my own trust in a social contract that binds all of us.

Maybe there's some vestige of my Catholic religious upbringing I haven't lost - I'll grant you that - but i've examined myself as honestly as possible. I can't know what I can't know.

So I'm left with the conclusion that God - or collective belief in God - is not a requirement for societies to function.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 1:51:00 PM  
Blogger GodlessMom said...

Very interesting post and comments. Thanks.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 3:35:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

OK, you're saying that there IS some evidence for a diety in nature, and on that, and on that alone, you base your faith?

My mistake; you can now proceed with reading the rest of the post.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 5:49:00 PM  
Blogger A.T. said...

Doug, come on, it's getting hard to take you seriously. Now you swing the pendulum to the completely opposite side. Again, why? Why create a caricature of my position?

There is more relevant knowledge in life than merely the scientific. Of course that is an important source of information. But so is history. Historical evidence is also very important for understanding reality. So is the legal-philosophical lens. So is experience.

Considering the evidences that I see through those multiple lenses, I find the case for Christianity far more compelling than anything else. Is there a faith element, still, either to believe generally in a god or specifically in God? Yes, of course. But less, to me, than to believe in atheism.

It's a probability exercise ultimately. I find Christianity far more probable.

You and Pawl both touch on something that I was thinking but ran out of time to write, and I'm glad you brought it up so that I can clarify. While atheism can provide no absolute basis for morals or morality, that doesn't mean that atheists or immoral. Not at all. I don't presuppose that morals cannot be gained through some other means, particularly in one's society by which they experience many influences, religious and otherwise.

But I hardly see how such absolute morals can actually come from atheism itself. How would they so arrive, without an intelligent source? This is not circular logic; I'm not defining from where absolute morals must come. But I am asking where you claim they come, in atheism. I don't see it.

Otherwise, you're stuck with the relativity of moral truth. And I know you reject the relativity of truth, as do I. Now, you may call this a straw man, but if so, it is not intentional. By all means, knock it down my friend.

Now this: "It is completely possible that one can set up an atheist, naturalist ethics based on a study of human nature -- its unity and diversity." This seems to be your answer to my supposed strawman. But it's, at the end of the day, utterly bogus. Because this supposes that whatever ethical system is developed and implemented by those in power - whether that seat of power is democratically determined, or inherited, or taken by force - will be proper. But what if this fictional group develops a horrid system of ethics that crushes society's weakest members?

Or perhaps it's not so fictional, eh? I hope that a few historical examples come to mind.

So ultimately, you have nothing absolute - you have simply the preference of the powerful. That's what you want?

And don't fall back on democracy, please. You assume that 51% of any society always have the proper moral sense. I think that there are historical and modern examples of nations in which the majority is hardly moral.

The "always" wrt atheism and anarchy was not correct. I rescind it. "Anarchy" implies a constant lack of order to most. However, in reality, this power void never continues but is filled by the powerful. Atheism gives us no reason for choosing any other government. And I daresay that dedicated, atheistic societies - that dedication historically enforced by an atheistic power - do not have much of a track record with morality. I need not mention the most readily memorable.

Now, you make a good point about "theocracies." Despite all of the Leftist efforts to define Christian conservatives as people dedicated to setting up a Christian theocracy, that simply isn't the case. So, to your point, I can't think of any historically-knowable theocracies that were immorality-free. Which is fine with me. I have no desire to see government become a religious institution. As long as it doesn't impinge on its citizenry's right to practice their religion, then I'm happy.

It's important to note that a democratic government is essentially amoral. Its morals come from its founding charter and the will of the voting public. A government can never sustain a higher morality than either of those two institutions. So its critical to understand where a culture gets its moral code.

Back to the morality of atheists. You can't provide any reason as to why The Golden Rule is moral or not, only that it seems preferable to you. And yet, as I said, I do believe that atheists can be moral, gaining their morality from other sources than their own atheism, which cannot provide it.

Pawl, you seem to see the morality as coming either from your Catholic upbringing or something intrinsic, something within. Either make sense to me. But if it is "something within," then what might that be? How can macroevolution result in an absolute moral code? Or any code other than self-preservation / pleasure-maximization, instinctual and rational as they are.

"Because of an internalized sense of right and wrong based on the necessary respect humans should have for each other. Treating other people poorly to satify myself means that I degrade myself and violate my own trust in a social contract that binds all of us."

Why should (in the moral sense) you have any trust in social contracts? Why is, then, intellectual consistency your intrinsic moral? Shouldn't it be, in Darwinian terms, consistency when it is beneficial, inconsistency when it is more beneficial? Surely there are times, after all, when inconsistency results in greater pleasure, less pain. Same with so many other notions known through religious lenses as morals.

When a fellow atheist, on the contrary, decides to reject the Golden Rule and behave to the detriment of others, upon what grounds might you call his or her actions wrong? You cannot.

No question, by the way, that theists live in contradiction to their beliefs, either at times or consistently. I'm not wholly consistent, no doubt. At times, I act in a self-centered manner contrary to the Christian faith. What I would call sin. I hate it, but I err, even knowingly. Now, I look back on preChristian days and see a remarkable change in that area, but I'll never come close to perfection. So I'm not saying that theists are perfect in following their own faith. But they at least know when they are wrong, because they have absolute grounds for knowing.

Pawl, you mention that you are "left with the conclusion that God - or collective belief in God - is not a requirement for societies to function." But you haven't deduced that from logic. You've just based it off of some anecdotal experiences. If you had *some* foundational logic to base this on, then the anecdotes might be helpful. Otherwise, they are simply stories.

In summary: atheists can be moral individuals. However, atheism can provide no absolute basis for any morality.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 6:37:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Hmm, Allen - I find I agree with your conclusion ("In summary: atheists can be moral individuals. However, atheism can provide no absolute basis for any morality.") but not necessarily how you got there.

The basis for our agreement on that is that I don't think there is any necessary or natural functional relationship between the amoral-moral axis and the theist-atheist one. We both admit the natural occurrence of moral atheist social constructs and immoral theist ones.

Atheism is not a basis for morality, true, but neither is Theism, necessarily. Many people believe in God but do not believe that God is involved in the day-to-day affairs of individuals or that he cares about our everyday moral choices.

The thorny question you ask me is: How do I know that the Golden Rule is Moral - if there is no supreme being to enforce its objective "truth". So based on what is it "moral". My answer to that is that when applied over time, the Golden Rule minimizes suffering for all individuals, including the individual who delays or restrains his own desire for the greater good. Having said that, I realize how this feeds into your point about the pleasure principle, I grant that, however, don't confuse a collective social good of minimizing suffering with a pleasure principle applied atomically to individuals. The latter, yes, does lead to anarchy. The former, quite the opposite.

I also think that Doug's point that you can set up an "atheist morality" is being misread - I don't think he's saying that its the atheism that is making it moral - the engine block of a car for example - I think he's just saying its a legitimate accessory, like a moon-roof. Perhaps misreading him but that's how I took it.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 7:19:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

OK: key question --

Why do you think that some superhuman force must be there to ratify a social contract? Why can't we rely on ourselves? Original sin? That'd be kinda begging the question.

I don't find my morality in Darwinian evolution -- in fact, T.H. Huxley argued exactly against that in Evolution and Ethics. What I do is look at what people are, what will make them happy, and how to adjudicate fairly between and among conflicting rights. It's a long tradition stemming from the Enlightenment.

You really ought to read John Rawls' A Theory of Justice; no mention of God in there at all.

Furthermore, I don't see how any religious (or nonreligious) ethics can possibly guarantee ethical outcomes. None has.

I think what's been left out is what people will do, rather than say, in what type of socioeconomic system. I think therein you'll find the real source of much "morality." That has been left out of this analysis completely, and it's time to bring it in.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 7:57:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Allen as far as the source of my moral education - that's easy - my parents & teachers raised me that way.

Admittedly religion was a big part of my early life, so I'm hardly the best example of a controlled experiment. But I had many friends in my hometown who were raised Godless and who were equally ethical.

I admit I'm still on the level of anecdote as well, but if its good for the goose.. I quote your claim that everyday experience is a good basis for knowledge:

"There is more relevant knowledge in life than merely the scientific. Of course that is an important source of information. But so is history. Historical evidence is also very important for understanding reality. So is the legal-philosophical lens. So is experience."

So basically - no macroevolution required for me to think the way I do other than what gave me the mind for my childhood self to learn with. Apologies for the mangled English.

Thursday, November 17, 2005 10:24:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I was raised with a theistic Jewish mother and a atheistic Jewish father. I went the latter way.

I think there are several issues confused here. I think we dispensed with religious = moral actions. Any cursory glance at history shows that. And you've said that atheistic can equal moral action. No set of proferred beliefs is a guarantee. I think that might be what concerns you.

As for the social contract, since the Enlightenment, it's been considered as entered into by people. No godly ratification necessary. It is not solely the ugly outcome of power -- it's the outcome of a balance of interests, all of whom at least profess to uphold "certain inalienable rights." This might not be enough for you, but, ironically, that's all there is.

You have to see it from my perspective: you're (and those in the "ECM" movement -- "evangelical-Catholic," that is) simply using political power to foist your own version of fundamental morality on others. That breaks our country's social contract; hence, I'm pissed. Be as Christian as you like; just don't force it into some supposedly impoverished public square.

It goes back to what Paul mentioned ages ago, and to what the Framers came up with, looking at a few centuries of pointless religious war: the best way to ensure peace and prosperity (and the pursuit of happiness) is to judge people by their public actions, whatever the source of those actions, and to protect religious freedom and tolerance while keeping a wall between church and state.

Fights over metaphysical first principles have a wholly negative history, regardless of whether they're theistic or atheistic in nature. That's what you and your compadres don't get, and that's why you and your compadres bring up such ire in the sometimes-theistic, sometimes-atheistic, sometimes-conservative, sometimes-progressive groups that find this most recent "Great Awakening" to be so dangerous.

That's basically it.

Friday, November 18, 2005 8:29:00 AM  
Blogger A.T. said...

I've got about two minutes, so I can only hit a couple things...

"And you've said that atheistic can equal moral action. No set of proferred beliefs is a guarantee."

To be clear, I said that atheism provides no absolute morals, but that atheists can and do still act morally, having gained those morals from other sources, often religion or the religious underpinnings in culture's conventions.

Your last sentence is a bit of a non sequitor. It's the actual "preference" (i.e. relativity) of moral truth that atheism ensures that I'm actually pointing out.

I ask you - where does the inalienability of those fundamental rights comes from? Are they asserted by a human document, in your instance the Declaration of Independence? If so, do they go away if that document is later rejected by a majority? Or are they somehow absolute, intrinsic, whether recognized by authorities or not? And, if it's the latter, how can atheism serve as a source for that absolute truth?

Your separation of morals from the public square makes no sense. If a culture's morals ultimately determine the law, then of course morals must be advanced in public debate. And if, as Gould says, religion is the source of values, then of course we have to deal with religions' messages. That's why it is material to consider specific theologies equal to secular atheism in determining what the first principles that undergird the laws ought to be. Because that which is most likely true should form the basis of a culture's determination as to what their social contract should be.

Please, whatever you do, dispense with the nonsense about religion having nothing relevant to contribute to public policy.

And your last paragraph is utterly unfair. Do you think that we have issued more screed against "your side" than you have against ours? A fair comparison would never support you. Some of your anti-"Christer" rants have been utterly biased caricatures and in no way productive.

At any rate, my time is up.

I'd be interested in your reactions to the post I put up this AM about ID-Evolution in Kansas.

Friday, November 18, 2005 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I had basically no positive experience with Jewish "education," which, even as a child, I saw to be indoctrination in an undemocratic set of Bronze-Age prejudices with a late-antiquity patina.

So, whence my values? All those deist and atheist philosophers.

Why do you equate atheism with relativism? That simply doesn't follow. One can derive universal values from universal traits of human nature. As most political philosophers since Hobbes (left, right, center) have. You, I guess, would like to go back to, say, Aquinas? Dante? Just because you're surprised by or disbelieve in the possibility of secular morality doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

The inalienability comes from the fact of being human. Why isn't that enough for you?

"Atheism" doesn't DO anything -- people of all varieties of belief come together in a social contract. That contract, however, is not based on any one group's view of the metaphysical basis of that contract's force. You can believe that Jesus underlies it; I can believe what I believe -- who cares? As long as human behaviors, as long as outcomes, are socially beneficial, as per that contract, which can, by the way, be amended, all is well.

This has worked fairly well. European kings claimed a divine right -- Byzantine, too. Was that a better system? Or did they have the wrong religion?

I didn't separate morals from the public square -- I separated metaphysical first principles for one's actions from the public square. When first principles are brought in, people tend to cover the public square in blood.

Gould does not say that values come from religion; he writes that science cannot legislate values. It may inform them, but it cannot set them. However, that doesn't mean that religion is therefore the only source for morality. Trust me on this -- and I don't agree with his "nonoverlapping magisteria" notion. But I know what he said.

Right now, a large part of the dismantling of this nation's social contract is being done by rightwing fundamentalist Christians. They have help: neocons, Jewish fundamentalists and extreme Zionists, and spinelessness on the other side.

However, you folks don't own either morality, religion, or even Christianity. The ECM model is a political use of religion to achieve very worldly goals. I happen to be in the tiny minority -- a secularist. 95% of the rest of the country isn't. However, not every Christian agrees with your view of religion, politics, or their proper mixture.

I'll read the ID post, but I sincerely doubt you said anything new, or that I can say anything new in response.

Friday, November 18, 2005 3:37:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I might add that you completely misunderstood my last paragraph. I wasn't bashing Christians. I was explaining why republican democrats, whatever their private belief systems, tend to get nervous when "true believers" come barging in saying we need to break down the wall between church and state, that our country is basically Christian, etc.

You don't own morality; you don't own ethics; you don't own religion; and you don't own Christ. That's my point -- you are part of a clearly definable, easily located political movement with sociological roots and a long history. You are not, though you think you are, the infallible carriers of Truth, and your insistence on a medieval standard of Truth (which is actually, ironically, Power-by-other-means, as you fall on Faith when challenged about facts) is what was overthrown in Western culture, mostly by religious people, centuries ago.

I, for one, am not willing to give that up. Nor is, thank god, most of this nation, so far.

I know all about the ECM movement, movement Christians, Dominionists, et al. It's antidemocratic and, frankly, un-American. Y'all can do whatever you like in your homeschools or private schools or megachurches, but if you bring it to the public square, those institutions should be taxed. And you're going to get a lot of blowback.

I read the book you loaned me -- it's a mildly amusing set-up for the emotionally vulnerable, and in that way, not much different from any self-help or diet book. Happiness doesn't have a formula, and the Jesus of that book bears little resemblance to the Jesus in my Bible here at home (one of four).

Look, you've found faith -- great. Anything that gets you through this difficult world. But don't expect others to sit back when you ("you" = movement rightwing Christians) try to push your beliefs on us all.

I liked fundamentalists better before 1980 -- before they were mobilized to put Reagan into power. Render unto Caesar, man.

The most hilarious thing is that your political beliefs, as far as I can tell, are about as far from the biblical Jesus as one can get. I sincerely doubt He'd be for the war in Iraq, trickle-down economics, and rank corporatism by lying cronies in the Bush cabal. I seriously doubt that.

Friday, November 18, 2005 3:54:00 PM  
Blogger A.T. said...

I wish there was more substance here, Doug. You are basically saying that absolute morals can come out of a wholly atheistic environment, because, hey, you are a moral guy. There's no logic as to what the source for absolute moral truth may be. But you aren't willing to let go of the notion that they can still spring forth somehow.

They are neither arbitrary or relative, but you have no idea from whence they come. UNLESS it's simply based upon the individual preferences of those with the power. But since different individuals / groups can have wholly different notions of morality, this is not absolute either. You are basically saying that whatever a given group (a nation? country? culture?) chooses as its morals are indeed morality defined for that group. So ... back to relativity.

I think you'd be in far better intellectual shape to simply admit that there are no absolute morals in a wholly atheistic setting. Why won't you simply admit this? It's patently evident. Just reject it outright and move on. Your reluctance to do so is what is most confounding about your position. Is it sentimental attachment? If not, what?

Please, do give me an example of how I want to legislate Christianity ... I'm fascinated with this unsupportable notion. You can go the ID route, if you wish, but all I've ever asked for is to allow an ID-based critique of abiogenesis/macroevolution and - in your latest comment to Thornblog - you agreed that this could take place outside of Biology class. Fine with me. If you go the abortion route, we've been down that path in ad infinitum and you know my arguments are not theology based at all. So if not those two things, what? Please back up what you accuse me of.

WRT the book, whatever. I figured it was a quicker, easier read than CS Lewis with a reflection of many of the same elements. You didn't like it - fine. I don't know how that relates here ... my use of Hume was actually related to the piece to which I was responding in Comments.

I'm sure you can find a position I've actually taken (they're all over my blog after all) and demonstrate how they go against Christ's teaching, right? Oh ... no ... I see you didn't do that. Far easier are unsupported shots.

Aren't philosophers as absolute moral sources problematic? They disagree on so many relevant aspects. So who is right? How do we decide that? Whichever one seems preferable to those in power? Well, here we are back to relative morals, then, because a powers in other places or in later times may have utterly different convictions about which philosopher got it right.

You'll have to forgive me if I have no idea what jargon it is that you are throwing around with "ECM, movement Christians" and the like. And how they are somehow trying to institute "undemocratic" reforms into our governmental institutions. Unless I - the guy with whom you are having this debate - am a member of this group (whatever it is) then it's not relevant at all. That's the first thing. And, if I am a member of that group, do tell what undemocratic reforms I am trying to institute. This should be fascinating.

"Right now, a large part of the dismantling of this nation's social contract is being done by rightwing fundamentalist Christians."

I'm not willing to don the mantle here, at least in the way that you've stated it, but I still assume that you consider me to be a rightwing, fundy Christian. So, given that, please tell me how I am trying to dismantle the social contract. My prediction? You don't have jack.

Also, please tell me how I am trying to undermine the separation of church and state, since you accused me/us? of that as well.

Unless you're going to back up the wild claims I mention above, I think that we can all just quietly consider the post completed, and maintain the thread as a catalog of your unsupported claims against a Christian boogeyman that doesn't exist.

Friday, November 18, 2005 5:01:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Backing up for a second, to a point Doug made earlier:

"You continue to mistake "absolute" for "God-given" or "superhuman." By setting up the choice between the only morality possible (Christian/religious) and a total power-based relativist whirlwind, you're throwing around a lot more straw than Mr. Hume. That is not the choice, nor has it ever been the choice."

I'm similarly in the dark because I'm still not getting what you mean Allen by "absolute morality" - do you mean a morality that applies in all cases to all individuals, whatever the context? Is it less ambitious an Idea, like simply morality that applies to all individuals in all cultures? I agree with Doug that there's some room here between the absolutist/relativist poles where we could figure something out.

My position is that you actually CAN have a universal standard of morality without the necessity for belief in a Diety to hand it down from the Mount.

So Allen hasn't convinced me that his "absoulte morality" requires a God but maybe I'm misreading what he means by that. Allen if you can, please riff on this "absolute morality" a bit...

Friday, November 18, 2005 5:16:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Allen, maybe (maybe) you aren't part of the well-known, well-documented, quite loud, and quite powerful rightwing fundamentalist Christian movement, but you can't possibly be arguing that:

1. No such movement exists.
2. They have no political agenda.
3. They have no political power.

As for stances you've taken contrary to the usual Christian doctrine...well, I don't think fundamentalist Christianity IS teh usual doctrine, but your Warfare-Model of the world is Zoroastrian -- it's actually a Christian heresy (can't remember which one; would have to look it up.)

As for your retort, you're misunderstanding me, wilfully or otherwise. I am saying that one can have a universal morality based on the fact that we are all members of the same species, and have similar needs (food, love, respect, water, sex, freedom, etc.). You can disagree with this basis, but you cannot ignore that it is a nontheistic universal basis for moral rules around which the social contract can be constructed.

I hope that's clear. You've also failed to grasp the difference between normative and descriptive relativity, as well as the obvious plasticity of human conduct. No, if you were brought up in Nazi Germany by good Nazi parents, Jesus would not have got you for a sunbeam. Same goes for me -- actually, I'd be a lampshade.

Thus, we are makers of our own history (and values) but not in conditions of our choosing. That's why your excessively (even exclusively) individualistic take on morality is and will always be incomplete. We are social animals, and take our cues from those around us. Thus, wise folks have tried to set up a society in which certain rights are a given simply because one is human. "Human rights" -- they were originally blinkered (men only, whites only, etc.), but the seeds for that very radical notion have grown, and still raise the hackles of those who don't trust the people, or simply don't trust fallen people.

Universal = applying to any member of the species. I can't make it any plainer -- Golden Rule, and so forth. There is absolutely no need for a God.

However, my overarching point is, if you want to base your good behavior in Jesus, the Buddha, or whatever, fine. That's "religious tolerance." What you don't get to do is to foist this on others through political action, as our social contract disallows it:

First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[.]"

See? No establishment of a religion and no prohibition of the exercise of religion. A nice balance, given two centuries of slaughter after the Reformation in Europe.

You insist that "human" = "relative" but that's begging the question, as you already believe that only a diety can underlie any notion of reality. Underlying that is a basic distrust of humanity, human nature, and an overemphasis on "sin," original or not.

You also refuse to see that merely spouting off on dieties does not and has not ever prevented "bad behavior." There is simply no correlation between religiosity and morality, as there is none between atheism and morality. Any combination is possible.

ID outside of science class is fine with me. It might be fine with you. But it's not fine with IDers. You would also like to make abortion illegal, no? Based on theological beliefs in the beginning of life -- although you'll say it's not.

I might ask you why you need an absolute dictatorial totalizing guide to your life. No framer wanted that; none was arrogant enough to think he had the Word of God, and knew from history (recent and otherwise) that those who feel themselves aggrieved Truth-bearers tend to demonize those who disagree, and then, often, slaughter them. Hence the wall TJ put up, which our present chief justice doesn't agree with.

I'm surprised you don't know about Colson's ECM articles -- "evangelical-Catholic movement," allying all in a political power bloc to force change to the right. C'mon, man, I even defined it in an earlier comment.

As for philosophers -- they and other writers are guides. I happen to believe people can make up their own minds and discuss it in the public square.

I'll ask you: how are you NOT a right wing fundy Christian? We know you're two out of three. Are you not a fundamentalist?

Friday, November 18, 2005 5:56:00 PM  
Blogger A.T. said...


OK, so I’ve asked the question: demonstrate how a wholly atheistic society can produce absolute morals (and, yes, pawlr, I mean universal morals that apply to all individuals, regardless of time, culture and environment). To be specific, and answer pawlr’s last paragraph, I’ve actually never claimed that absolute morals require a god of some sort. I’ve merely asked you the question of where such absolute morals might originate, or how they might occur as reality, in a wholly atheistic environment. Here’s what you gave me:

-the Golden Rule sounds pretty good
-we’re all human beings, with physiological commonalities, so we must have absolute morals
-I’m sure we can come up with something and put it in a social contract

That’s the best you can do?

Yes, it is, actually.

Look, this exactly where we always end up on this matter. And maybe that’s fine with you. But you do have to accept the fact that you – as dedicated atheists – can never say that anything anyone does is wrong, in the absolute/universal sense. At best, you can say either “that is wrong, in the relative sense (our culture’s generally accepted morals, which differ from other cultures’ morals, and are thereby culturally relative … thus leaving you incapable of condemning the actions of another culture, so long as they are consistent to the accepted morals of that culture (think female genital mutilation for example – you two simply can’t call it wrong, I’m afraid))” or “that is not preferable to me,” or “they broke the social contract.” I hope you are fine with that, because you have to be. You guys, in your posts, frequently refer to things as immoral or wrong … you just have to understand that you have no basis for saying that in an absolute sense.


As to whether or not I’m a “Christian, right-wing, fundamentalist,” or your “Christer” label, or whatever the label was that you used, I’m really not concerned with labels. Use it if you wish, or don’t – I don’t care. But don’t apply/recognize any label to me and then assume my position to be consistent with others who do take on that label – just critique the positions that I, myself, have clearly taken. That’s all I ask.


I had to laugh that you took me to task for heretical beliefs. Not at you, per se, but just the notion of being accused of heresy by an atheist. Not that you can’t – by all means, critique my faith; that’s utterly fair and I welcome such thoughtful challenges. But, it’s an amusing occurrence nonetheless.

On its face, I can see why you’d associate Open Theology (of which the Warfare Worldview Model is a part) with Zoroastrian concepts, but it is actually very different. And, let me say, that I’m not identifying myself wholly with Open Theology. It is a critique of a certain aspect of Calvinism, which equates God’s possession of power with his unbridled use of such power and, further, assigns this notion to the biblical Sovereignty concept. Arguably, this is definitional loading of “Sovereignty” that the Bible’s writers did not intend. I’m not ready to say, unequivocally, that Calvinists are wrong on this matter; rather, that I’m no longer completely accepting this aspect of Calvinism, because the Open Theology (OT) critique of Calvinism seems a bit more compelling. That said, I want to study Calvinism more. Let’s just say that I’m in process on this matter – “wrestling” with it, as Christians are prone to say.

But back to Zoroastrian (Z) beliefs. OT would never align with Z, because Z assigns equal power to the one god and his evil counterpart. OT says that God is omnipotent but, in order to provide beings with Free Will, does not exercise all of his power but in some way limits it. No other being, physical or metaphysical, is seen as being omnipotent, however. But, unlike Deism, to which you’ve previously compared OT/WWM, God is still active, within the framework of the self-applied limitations. Or something thereabout. Certainly, there is much here that is unknown and unknowable.

Z is utterly dualistic, unlike OT Christianity, because God is seen, in Z, as being unable to create anything evil, so the opposing force materialized elsewhere, but not from God. OT solves this issue with Free Will as a gift from God to all of his created beings.


On “ECM,” what you mean is “ECT” – Evangelicals & Catholics Together. Yes, I’m quite familiar with that organization, of which Colson and Neuhaus were the early driers. It’s not really a “movement” though; you need to understand that. It is an attempt to help the Evanglical Protestant church recognize critical, theological points of commonality with Catholicism, and vice versa, such that these different wings of Christianity can function together as The Church. And it has been very successful in doing so. But it’s not a political movement, just to be clear. It is inwardly directed at the Church.

Saturday, November 19, 2005 11:32:00 AM  
Blogger A.T. said...

Heh. "driers" = "drivers"

Good debate, BTW. I've enjoyed it. I think we've taken it as far as it will go, and I will leave you both with the last word, if you wish to state it. But it's been good, even if we all net out at the same point where we began.

Saturday, November 19, 2005 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

OK, ECT. I'd seen it written as ECM.

True, labels are only heuristically useful.

Getting into a theological question, why would an omnipotent, etc. (let's just call it "omni" for short) diety self-impose restrictions? That, I don't get. The whole problem-of-evil thing, again.

I mean, if you don't want to allow abortions, why would "your" God allow death and suffering at all? It seems rather a high price to pay for setting up the universe as a playing field for man's free will -- which, in itself, doesn't seem to be immediately explicable. Why bother to give anyone free will, if doing so will cause death, destruction, suffering, et al? Especially if you're omni, in which case you know, and, since you're a being of totally free will (I assume), you're totally morally responsible, as the diety, for all of that death and suffering.

I think this was what Chomsky was getting at, humorously, when he said there was plenty of evidence for Malevolent Design. Humor aside, it's a serious question.

How do you deal with the reasonable retort that this kind of reasoning on the problem of evil, while protecting the phenomenon -- a diety, is really ex post facto, save-the-phenomenon rationalization?

Finally, when you get a chance, please explain why "absolute" equals "above humans." Why can't absolute mean "for all human beings?" It's not immediately clear what the problem with that is, and why it's not absolute. Surely, you don't need to legislate over aliens, if such exist, and squid behavior, and so forth.

Saturday, November 19, 2005 12:41:00 PM  
Blogger A.T. said...

I gave you the last word, not the last question! OK, my last comment ... for real this time ... to briefly answer your questions. These will be summary answers - the details already exist in my above comments:

- I would expect you, as a leftist (not in the pejorative sense, btw) to appreciate the imperative of Choice to the human experience. What would life be like, if we did not have choice? Every part of human life would lose its meaning, would it not? Certainly, Love could not possibly exist as a concept/experience without any meaning whatsoever. If a human cannot choose whether or not to love, then how can the recipient place any significance whatsoever in the love that they receive? That's just one example. But, if you think about it, you'd be hard pressed to find the human experience to be at all desireable without free will (choice). Or at least, if you disagree, it still stands as a reasonable argument to say that if God created man for relationship with him, then this relationship could not meaningfully exist if God did not give man the free will to choose that relationship.

- I have never claimed that "absolute" must mean "above humans." I take no position on it. But I look to you to explain where the absolute moral truths come from in a wholly atheistic world. I don't see, however, how you could look to humans for the source for absolute moral truths across cultures, times, and places, given the historical reality that humans have never shown any inkling of such capability. Indeed, looking to humans for the source would seem to be either utterly Utopian (in the general sense of the word), and therefore a practical surrender on the matter, or to admit that morals are only relative in nature (relative to times, cultures, places) but not absolute.

Saturday, November 19, 2005 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Well, you're still mixing descriptive and normative ethical relativism.

Descriptively, everyone pretty much has to admit that morality has been relative to various cultures. That's what has been and what is.

Normatively, what is does not have to be what ought to be. In other words, normative belief in ethical relativism is not the same thing as an empirical, descriptive admission of ethical relativism synchronically or diachronically (now or in history). Accepting descriptive ethical relativism in no way leads necessarily to advocating normative ethical relativism.

If one puts any stock in human reason, upon which, by the way, republican democracy is based, constrained though human reason may be (and is), then one places one's bet (not wholly unrealistically) on the notion that people can be persuaded and educated to see that the benefits of cooperation and peaceful coexistence outweigh the short-term benefits of domination.

That our species is capable, essentially or (more aptly) demonstrably in the next, oh, 100 years or so, of cooperatively adopting normative ethical rules that apply to every member of the species by virture of being a member of the species (sex, sexual preference, religion or the lack of it, race or what is considered race, ethnicity, and all other divisions, real and imagined, notwithstanding) is by no means a foregone conclusion.

We're in a race between our species' rapidly burgeoning technological ability, which is driving up population and consumption and destructive capability exponentially, and our species' "wisdom," meaning, its ability to plan collectively for the long term, adjudicating the necessary sacrifices fairly among us all.

Our problem are solvable -- even global warming. Whether they will be solved in historical time remains to be seen.

Getting to that point -- the point at which the human species sees what's coming and acts responsibly -- as soon as possible is the necessary precondition to human survival, or at least, the survival of anything resembling republican civilizaton, warts and all.

We are really nowhere near getting to that necessary point. We're tied up in relative non-issues, like abortion, which could be solved in two years, or demagogic and simply immoral crony-capitalist manipulation and distraction from these issues, as profits must be maintained.

It's highly likely that the sheer magnitude of the problems we face is itself partially causing many to turn away from reality. We've done so many times in the past, but we haven't had the destructive potential we now have. And that's the rub. We've always been exposed, like any species, to exogenously caused extinction, and always will be. We've only recently acquired the means to cause our own extinction, endogenously -- ironically, at the very same time, and for the very same reason, that we may actually dodge the various bullets coming at us: our exponentially increased ability to manipulate our environment.

Thus, I am really frustrated by relatively meaningless metaphysical debates on "first principles" and such. What matters to me is: "Are your actions, whatever their psychological or metaphysical motivations, aiding or hindering either helping alleviate our massive problems or getting the species to the point at which we can deal with our massive problems or not?"

If yes, than, great. I could care less whether you build a house for a homeless person because you think Christ demands you do or because you believe in the Golden Rule and dignity of humanity. It doesn't matter at all -- you don't question the metaphysical basis for someone's altruistic (or even just enlightened self-interested) actions in a lifeboat situation. You just say, thanks and reciprocate. Likewise, you don't ask about first principles if someone is stealing all the water; you just stop the theft.

So, all this hoo-hah about metaphysics is, to me, like having an argument over whether strawberry or chocolate ice cream is better, and by what rules one should decide such matters, on the deck of the Titanic.

Saturday, November 19, 2005 6:54:00 PM  

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