Friday, July 13, 2007

Atheist Morality Blogalogue Part 1

I have begun a blogalogue with theist blogger Rhology on the subject of morality. Both blogs will carry the full text of the conversation. Do we need a god to be moral? Let's find out. Rhology opens things up with the first post.


Posted by Rhology, Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I linked to Mr./Ms. ChooseDoubt from another antitheist website where I had some interaction (well, it was more like the antitheist asking questions and me answering them and then me asking questions and him refusing to answer them) a while ago. I decided to take a look at what ChooseDoubt was cooking up, and I discovered that he (I'll just go w/ "he" unless corrected) had just been fired from his job for being an atheist. He was understandably upset and angry at his boss. I decided to ask a few questions about the situation and probe his understanding of the basis for ethics and morality (throughout the course of our discussion, unless someone takes exception, I'll use those two terms interchangeably). This led to ChooseDoubt's proposing that we take our discussion to a slightly wider forum than the combox of one post, which was a fine idea.

Just for the purposes of identifying ChooseDoubt, his Profile states the following:

People die for it. People kill for it. They ignore fact to support it. They champion ignorance to defend it. And worst of all they teach their children to do the same. Faith is a disease; a dysfunction of the mind and of society as a whole. Faith is a dangerous irrationality that has cost millions of lives and will cost millions more. In a world in which we hear so much about respecting others beliefs this blog is a stand against that idiocy. Faith deserves no respect. Faith deserves to be cured.

Just so you know where he's coming from. He is a self-described atheist.

Just so you know a bit more about what he thinks about theism:

I've said many times that theism is irresponsible and my own sacking is a simple example of why that is true. When people have beliefs that are in no way bound to reality through any requirement for coherence or evidence then they tend to make unreasonable decisions.

I, OTOH, am a pretty conservative, fairly Calvinistic Evangelical Christian. Yeah, that's a lot of labels. No, it's not my fault. "Biblical Christian" also works 100%, but it's not as useful in today's day and age for identification purposes.

So, the question before us starts w/ his firing and ends at a Big Question

I think my evaluation of CD's position is summed up thusly: "That is, the value judgment begins and ends w/ you, and his begins and ends w/ him."

I will be taking the atheistic worldview onto myself and then testing what CD is saying about these moral statements. Are his statements consistent w/ his worldview? So far, the answer is no. Where morality begins and ends w/ the individual w/ no higher absolute authority to give the law (as it were), then that's where morality begins and ends. CD might (or at minimum, other atheists I know would and have) claim that morality is a construct of society, but that simply backs the problem up one step while incurring a new problem. Who says that society is the basis of morality? You? Why should I accept your authority for that? Society says so? Why should I accept "society's" word for that? For that matter, where and when did "society" decree the same?

For a second and slightly less important point, I'll go ahead and infer from others of CD's statements that he holds to Darwinian evolution as held by much of modern science and invite him to correct me if I'm wrong. This is related to the question before us. In his view, man is nothing more or less than an animal, a biological machine, who has evolved to a state where he can think better than other animals. Our thinking processes, too, have evolved and become complex and skilled. However, an evolutionary paradigm gives no structure of morality, no oughtness to life. It simply IS. Thus, his boss was acting according to the coalescing of the firing of his neurons and chemical reactions in his brain to his personal situation, which thus caused him to exercise his "judgment" (which is, again, nothing more or less than the modern evolution of neurological chemical reactions) to fire CD. Kind of like what happens to a can of root beer when you shake it up and then open it. CD was naturally deselected. CD of course, objects to this, much the way an oak tree would object to an infestation of mistletoe. That is, he can fight (b/c it was disadvantageous to him) but must back down in the face of superior force.

I am proud to present the Christian worldview as a much more reasonable and fitting (not to mention existentially satisfying) alternative to the atheistic one. On Christianity, the omnipotent and omniscient Creator of the Universe, Jesus, gives directives so that we His creations might know firmly what is right and what is wrong. He gives them out of love so that we might be like Him, the best and brightest being, so that we can be the most fulfilled, useful, and purposeful people we can be. Maybe best of all, when we protest against injustice, like "that's not fair!" or "you're wrong to do that!" we are not being inconsistent. If we have indeed been acted against in a way that violates God's law, then we are both consistent AND correct to say "that's not fair." And there is a way to tell the difference, on Christianity.

Best of all, though we have these directives, though we don't always agree on these directives, and though we often do not follow them, Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross to take on Himself these sins and to offer His purity to all those who will believe in Him and love Him as Savior and as Lord. He does this b/c of His great love and generosity.

I invite CD's response to what I've said here, specifically in relation to my evaluation of his position. Typically, ‘opening statements' in debate are the most widespread and encompass a breadth of topics, whereas the interactions and statements later in the debate become more focused as the debaters bear down on areas of disagreement. I will attempt to keep my responses readably brief and think we can count on CD to do the same. We are both self-described verbose writers, but hopefully we won't bore our readers too much. If either of us does, it's our own fault, I guess. Finally, many thanks to CD for his willingness not only to interact on this topic but also to have done so in a very conciliatory tone so far. My goals will be to tear his position apart and to do so in the least provocative and insulting way possible.

For the purposes of keeping which posts come when, we will add numbers to the titles of our posts. Thus, CD's response to this post will be "_________ 2". I will post his offerings on my blog and he will do the same for mine, so a reader can catch the entirety of the interaction on either blog.

Posted by ChooseDoubt, Friday, July 13, 2007

Hi Rhology,

First of all thanks for agreeing to this blogalogue and thanks for your opener. I think you are right to keep things focussed and not introduce too many topics at this point. In order to maintain that focus I intend to introduce no new topics within my opening response. Anyway, let's get down to business.

I don't want to dwell on my recent job loss as this topic goes way beyond that simple example but I do want to address one point which I think you have failed to understand in earlier discussion. I'm going to do this with a thought experiment.

Let's imagine that I take you to a room which has a glass window on one wall. Through the window you can see into another room which has a table in it. You have no means by which to enter this second room. On the table are two pies and the question that is put to you is which one has the best flavour?

I think we can agree that your task is a difficult one. In fact, being asked to judge the flavour of the pies I suspect we can agree that even to state your own simple preference you would require relevant experience.

Let's keep in mind that your argument is that all value judgements are equally valid without a god. Now, a door opens into the second room and another man walks in. He tastes each pie and is asked the same question. Is your value judgement as valid as his? I would say it is not for the simple reason that, regardless of whether I or anyone else would share the same preference as our second man, he has fulfilled the relevant criteria required for an assessment – he has actually tasted the pies. The point being that we all innately recognise that there are valid and invalid ways to evaluate reality. My job was dependent upon my performance and relevant criteria had been contractually set to use in the evaluation of my performance. Since my work was with technology, not one of these criteria related to my lack of ability to believe Bronze Age myth. For that reason my ex-boss' value judgement, which used only criteria outside of that contractually set, was as invalid as would be your evaluation of the best tasting pie. In both cases no god is required to differentiate between valid and invalid judgements. In fact, to suggest that without a god all value judgements are equal is really to say that you consider humans to be lacking the intellectual capacity to differentiate between valid methods of assessment and invalid ones. How's the pie?

But let's move on to more interesting territory. Your essential point is that without a god then all morality comes down to simple preference. I think you would need to define what properties of this god make it uniquely valid as an external validator of "preference" above any other external validator? Why not use a measurement of suffering or happiness as an external validator instead? Let's put the two external validators to the test in another thought experiment.

Abhishek works as a doctor in the emergency ward of a local hospital. He was raised in the Hindu religion but he's quite modern and he lives in a loving relationship with his long term girlfriend, Savdeep, and they have a young daughter. Unfortunately Savdeep was a child bride many years ago before she left India and gained her freedom. There has been no divorce. One day Abhishek goes off to work to save some lives and earn some money to keep his family. What should we do?

According to the Bible the moral choice is clear. Abhishek has many other gods before the god of the Bible. That's one of the Ten Commandments violated for a start. Technically he's also committing adultery, as is Savdeep, which is another violation of the Ten Commandments, not to mention Leviticus 20:10 which is very clear on this matter:

"20:10 And the man that committeth adultery with another man's wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death."

OK, we can stop there – the moral choice is clear when we are using God and his word as our moral compass. It's clear that we must kill Abhishek and Savdeep. The result of this will be two immediate deaths, possible other deaths in the emergency ward, an orphaned child and great suffering to friends and other family of the couple.

How about if instead we think in terms of suffering and happiness as our external validators? Well, here the choice is clear also. Let's leave Abhishek alone and let him get on with his life, helping people. Let's be happy that Savdeep escaped a life of abuse and servitude and has now found herself in a loving relationship – there's simply no need to interfere.

We don't need a god as an external validator of our moral choices. Instead we can use real world, case specific information to make such choices. You are arguing that without god all morality comes down to simple preference as though it is a bad thing. It's a great thing. We get to choose that which we prefer, that which improves life. From your side however you claim God has the absolute moral authority and yet you are still picking which of his moral guidance's you follow by simple preference. If you are not doing that then I must assume that as per Leviticus 15:19-24 that you keep your wife away from everyone else and do not share the bed with her for seven days when she menstruates and that you follow literally every other piece of "advice" offered by your God in your Bible?

What I'm getting at is that if you are going to claim that God is necessary for morality then you are going to have to stick to what God says. I have no doubt that you follow some of the guidance whilst ignoring a great deal. Basically, your argument is in tatters even before we've gone on to examine whether you are relying for your moral certainty from a fictional character or whether in fact there is a god and it just doesn't happen to be the one you are subscribing to.

Beyond all of that we then have the issue that in claiming God is necessary for morality would you then be of the opinion that without your belief in a god you would begin raping, murdering and stealing with no personal capacity to differentiate what you currently consider to be right from wrong? I expect that is at least partly true because right now it is very probable that you do only consider some actions wrong based solely on your religious faith – homosexuality may be a good example – but I would be surprised if you are of the opinion that without God you would immediately sink into the previously mentioned abusive behaviours.

So in closing, yes I absolutely agree that without God moral choices boil down to preference. It's a fallacy to assume that preference is automatically going to result in an abusive, antisocial lifestyle and furthermore I have no doubt that you pick and choose from God's morality anyway – by simple preference. All I can suggest is that you adapt your strategy to one based solely on preference instead of allowing the prejudices and insanities of more ignorant times to influence your interactions with the people you share this planet with.



PS. I'm leaving an evolutionary understanding of morality until a little later. There is a great deal to say about it and it would be good if we cleared the board a little first.


If you enjoyed this article please feel free to digg it down below.


G-man said...

I'm very interested in following this discussion. As an outside observer, I have several things I think bear mentioning.

Rhoblogy says he will be 'taking the atheistic worldview onto myself.' I'd like to point out that in the realm of morality, no single perspective is prescribed to an atheist. Your best bet, then, is to criticize Choose Doubt's own approach to morality.

Also, if you could both be a little more specific as to what you mean by morality, that would be great. For instance, if morality = what society promotes/discourages, then we've simply changed our understanding of what morality means - not made any significant point. I feel that I'm rambling... in short, if you're describing an objective set of phenomena (things that exist in the real world), then accept a definition of morality (ex. 'right and wrong actions') and explain how your use of the word best describes the phenomena.

Choose Doubt-
If your boss's firing you was 'wrong' for any reason besides 'it harmed me,' then I think you're dealing with something beyond personal preference.

I'm afraid you and Rhoblogy might be off to some semantic difficulties from the get-go. I'm afraid that if you describe morality as equivalent to personal preference, then it may be the case that you and Rhoblogy are describing different phenomena. He seems to think that there are laws by which we all are obligated to act.

Yet all through your post, you've made value statements in which you seem to feel, for instance, that your boss should feel the same obligation to stick to a contract as you feel. You imply that helping others, and that 'happiness/ sadness' are good things for everybody. These things, if true, are an objectively existing part of reality - but I think your using the word 'preference' implies something else.

This sort of foundational misunderstanding (if I'm following the conversation as well as I hope :) makes it as if you're debating the properties of a 'triangle,' when by 'triangle' one means 'a three-sided shape' and the other means 'a loaf of bread.'

Words are arbitrary. What matters is the meaning a word encapsulates - and that's what you're debating.

chooseDoubt said...

Hi G-man,

You’ve made some interesting points and some of them I have thought myself and expected to develop during the course of the conversation. If it’s ok with you I’ll save addressing them for in the blogalogue, but in all honesty, part of why I haven’t in the first post is because of length. But you are right. There are some foundational definitions that should have been covered by both sides and I’m sure that Rhology will be picking me up on this in his next post.

I wouldn’t entirely agree that words are arbitrary since their meanings are already defined and that is what makes communication possible – a shared protocol of encapsulated meaning. Anyway, I’ll certainly address the points you’ve raised in my next post.



G-man said...

Thanks for responding, CD. I look forward to reading more.

Sorry if I was unclear in my use of the word arbitrary. What I meant was that you can take the sound/letter combination C-A-T, and when used, it 'means' a furry feline - but there is no over-arching principle demanding that that particular word represents that animal. So, the word is arbitrary in the sense that we could have used the word 'zucchini' to describe the animal, if users of our language agreed to it... but you know this; I just hope to clarify what I meant.

Anonymous said...

Rom 2:11-16

11 For there is no respect of persons with God.

12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;

13(For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.

14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves:

15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;)

16 In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.