Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fallacious Ethics Foundations

For the umpteenth time, I have heard, yet again, a "faith head" make the ridiculous claim that (paraphrased) "without belief in God, all of society would break down into a chaotic orgy of murder and mayhem." Or, succinctly, "no God, no morals." To be entirely fair to the person, here is his full post, unedited:

Author: Sanity01 [Oh, the irony of the name!]
Post: The day that you are sucessful [sic] in convincing everyone that there is no God, there will be no reason for anyone to follow any of man's laws. If I am held accountable only to others like me, I will revert to a "survival of the fittest" mentality. Civilization will implode. This movie [talking about "Expelled"] is about the lack of willingness in the science community to even allow me to have my opinion on this if I am a fellow scientist or a teacher. What you are telling the people that attend church in any religion [is] that they are living in a fairy tale and are wasting their time. I wouldn't want to be here when they believe you.

Ignoring the fact that this anti-science passage is a complete lie (there are many scientists who believe in God; even eminent ones, such as Francis Collins), let's consider what this "no God, no morals" claim really means.

This person is implicitly admitting that he personally feels no empathy toward others, no remorse about wrong-doing, no desire to help humanity; the only thing that keeps him "doing good" is his belief in God (and associated retribution/reward). That is it. No conscience, no emotions, no ethics, no anything except belief in God. Such a person, who lacks an internal moral compass, is called a sociopath. (Judging by how often I've heard this claim, there must be a lot of sociopathic Christians---or else dimwitted simpletons, who don't really understand what they're saying.) This person thinks atheists and agnostics are amoral, simply because they don't believe in God.

So, let's ignore the fact that this claim is already disproven by the modern world, simply by examining American prison populations: atheists/agnostics represent a dramatically lower proportion in prison populations (~0.21%), compared with their proportion in the population at large (~8-16%). (Christian population proportions are about equal, in and out of prison.) [reference] Let's ignore the fact that the most secular countries in the world are the least violent, and have the highest societal health indicators, and that "Christian America" is staggeringly more violent and societally dysfunctional. [reference] (The same is true on a smaller scale, for red vs blue states, and conservative/liberal cities. Even divorce rates are highest amongst the most devout, such as in the so-called Bible Belt, and lowest amongst atheists/agnostics. But, don't take my word for it; look it up!) Let's just ignore all this, and more.

I have repeatedly heard Christians argue against atheism on the basis of "moral relativism", that there is no such thing as absolute good and bad. The problem, of course, is that this argument could be leveled against anyone of any creed, because we're all just doing the best we can, making things up as we go along. We're all in exactly the same "morally relativistic" boat together---atheist, muslim, christian, jew, hindu, buddhist, agnostic, baha'i, etc.

At this point, I'd expect most Christians to gut-react in disgust, without first really reflecting upon what I just said, and instead loudly protesting that, "no they don't, they use the Bible for guidance!" Well, did you ever ask yourself why you chose the Bible? (Or, did you even choose it? Maybe you just "believe it because that's what you were taught growing up". And, how exactly do the Councils of Nicaea fit in here, anyway? And, the Apocrypha?) That was you making that decision, choosing a particular set of codes amongst the many available. And, just because you believe it to be true, doesn't actually make it true. You decided.

But, even if we ignore the fact that you have arbitrarily accepted the Bible as the word of God with no good evidence to support its extraordinary claims, you still have problems. Either you're in the minority and believe you can read the Bible literally, exactly as it is written (in which case, you are so out-of-touch with reality that you might as well just stop reading now, since the Bible is riddled with glaring inconsistencies and self-contradictions; hundreds of examples exist; e.g., David's census in parallel accounts---commanded by God or Satan (2 Samuel 24:1 vs 1 Chronicles 21:1), results (2 Samuel 24:9 vs 1 Chronicles 21:5), who/where (2 Samuel 24:16 vs 1 Chronicles 21:15), how much (2 Samuel 24:24 vs 1 Chronicles 21:25)... Satan and/or God?!), or you're in the majority and believe there are at least some parts of the Bible that must be read metaphorically in order to be sensible, or are "just outdated" and can be ignored. But, which parts? And, who decides?

Again, the answer is: you decide. Oh sure, you can claim that God told you this or that, gave you a vision, or whatever. But in the end, it is still you who decides for yourself what is right and what is wrong, exactly the same as everybody else. It is no more absolute than an atheist's ethics, and it is much more dangerous because it is not as well thought-out and---far worse---it is attached to the false claim of absolute authority, even if it is obviously and horribly wrong. It is through this mechanism that atrocities can be thought to be the highest of good deeds. (Enter the Inquisition, Conquistadors, Crusades, suicide bombings, etc.---not just awful events, but awful events specifically performed in the name of God. Slavery was vigorously defended using the Bible---and understandably so, because it doesn't denounce it. Not even Jesus does so.)

Furthermore, not only is everyone in the same "relativistic boat", but because those claiming absolutism haven't developed their moral codes through reasons of their own (haven't "made them their own" by personally internalizing them), they are less likely to follow their claimed rules; and even when they do follow them, it is for all the wrong reasons. Basically, there's a huge difference between behaving a certain way because "you don't want to get caught" and because "you think it's the right thing to do". Example: speed limits. If you believe speed limits facilitate improved public safety and public safety is a good thing (i.e., you agree with them in principle), then you are far more likely to abide by them than if you simply don't want to get a ticket (in which case, you'll likely speed at every opportunity, so long as there is no cop in sight). The concept of an absolute, dictated code of rules, augmented by heaven and hell as reward and punishment, is fraught with fatal problems from the get-go. Humans have a very low tendency to adhere to rules simply "because I said so". (Hence, I believe, the discrepancies in prison populations and societal health.)

One of the final defenses often thrown-up by Christians after all of this is that the Bible contains many profound and revolutionary teachings, and is therefore still a great book. Again, the problem is that Christians (and other religious people) are so commonly and severely ignorant of "the outside world" (and their own, for that matter) that they don't even realize that the Bible is really not that special. It doesn't contain many, if any, particularly original teachings (and, it does contain a plethora of horrific teachings). The single rule that Christians most commonly cite as the best simple distillation of the Bible is the Golden Rule.

Well, guess what? The Golden Rule was around before the Bible even existed, and its basic principles were independently discovered in other civilizations and religions around the world. In fact, the ethic of reciprocity (Golden Rule) is one of the most common ideas underlying the various world religions. Jesus did not invent the idea. So, while the Bible may contain some interesting ideas, and even some beautiful passages, it is, nonetheless, a very flawed ancient text that should be treated as such. (It does, after all, contain some truly abhorrent teachings.) Can you learn lessons by reading it? Yes, of course. But, you can also learn lessons by reading the Odyssey and Iliad and all kinds of other things---like the stories of Icarus or Pandora or "The Little Engine That Could" or the lyrics of "It's Not Easy Being Green".

The bottom line is this. Like it or not, we're all in the same "relativistic predicament", trying to do the best we can collectively, working out "how we should behave". But, pretending we have absolute answers, and making bigoted, un-thought-out, ridiculous statements such as I opened with is counterproductive to progress. The truth is that absolutism is a curse, not a blessing, because it instantly precludes any communication and compromise amongst those of different thinking, and it shuts down self-reflection, or even entertaining the possibility that you could be wrong. (And, who hasn't been wrong?) Is anyone really so completely arrogant as to think they have all the answers---that they know everything and don't need to listen to others?

After much reading, listening, and thinking, I am convinced that reciprocity---empathy---lays the fundamental foundation to our understanding of ethics, both good and bad. (Incidentally, it also helps explain the evolution of ethics. But, that's a somewhat different story...) Not religion; not belief in God. Empathy.

(Note: I used Christianity in this blog entry because I've interacted with it by far the most. But, exactly the same sort of thinking and argument applies to other religions.)


It is interesting to point-out that I have repeatedly noted that the most intolerant people online BY FAR (e.g., in forums and discussions) are generally the religious; they censor disagreeing views and block/ban the users (e.g., the Discovery Institute, youtube, myspace, etc.), harass and threaten people (e.g., ERV's blog, and pretty much anywhere else), participate in "ballot stuffing" negative votes (e.g., youtube, amazon forums, etc.), and the list just goes on and on. You wouldn't believe how many times I've had these "loving Christians" curse me out, gleefully delighting in the thought of my burning for eternity (and repeatedly expressing as much). Three cheers for Jesus, meek and mild! PFFT!

Wake up, people! We all have the same basic needs. Learn to empathize and understand. Learn compassion and fairness---which, if you listen to Christians, even Jesus thought were pretty good ideas.

I've made it my personal policy on my blog entries to never censor anyone's responses, no matter how completely idiotic I might think they are. (Others clearly don't hold this view, as my responses to others' blogs/posts have several times been censored/denied because they disagree with the blogger's/poster's ideas.) I might tell them I think their ideas are stupid for reasons a, b, and c; but, I will leave their posts intact, uncensored. Free speech is a good thing, not bad; it is, again, the opposite of absolutism. And stupid things said through free speech are best countered, not by censorship, but by ... wait for it ... more free speech! (Basically, you have the right to say anything you want; but, you don't have the right to not be called an idiot as a result of what you say.)

1 comment:

Iron Soul said...

Right on. The golden rule or reciprocal altruism isn't even unique to humans, so that kind of takes the originality of the Bible down a peg. And as for the meek and mild, loving and forgiving, the interested reader will take some time to check out "crackergate", over at pharygula.