Monthly Archives: August 2010

Theistic absolute morality + invisible god = horrible relative morality

Believers of theistic religions all regard themselves in possession of a moral code that is perfect and absolute (applicable to all times and places, without exception).  These believers often further claim this moral code can only be found in their holy books.

It’s well-known that the moral codes of these believers conflict, not just across religions, but even within religions themselves, and not just in the present day within these religions, but across time as well.  That is, on almost any moral question, a different answer will be given depending on the religion you query.  And even if you inquire within the same religion, you’ll likely get a different answer.  There’s even a good chance you’ll get a different answer if you asked a believer from the same religious sect today verses one 50 or a hundred years ago.  These facts alone justify reasonable doubt in the claims of a theistic absolute morality.

Nonetheless, let’s assume for a moment there is an absolute morality as conveyed by an omnibenevolent, omniscient creator, and that one of the present religions is in possession of it.  Is this progress?  No!

The reason is because this creator is invisible and interacts with us in no discriminating way.  We are thus at a loss to know whose believer’s absolute morality is the real one among all the pretenders.  Every believer’s justification to elevate their own moral system over that of their competitors is either 1) question-begging or 2) non-discerning.

A common example of (1) is “Only my religion fully values the sanctity of human life.”  But the believer is assuming the sanctity of human life is an inherent feature of the creator’s absolute morality, when in fact it may very well not be.  To better understand this fallacy, let me rephrase the example: “Only my religion fully values the sanctity of cows.”  The person is arguing for the objective superiority of their religious moral code by making reference to their religious moral code.  It’s circular and shows nothing.

Similarly, someone may denigrate the moral code of another religion as a way to prove it cannot be divinely originated, pointing to, say, death by stoning for adultery.  Same fallacy as before, but it’s also a fallacious appeal to emotion.

The other tact, an example of (2), is to stress the utilitarian results of their morality.  “Look at all the clinics, shelters, and free kitchens we run,” a believer might say. While noble, altruistic action is observed in practically every religious tradition.  It’s also observed among the non-religious, and even among non-humans.  The Islamic terrorist organization Hamas provides a vast number of social services, so does that therefore mean Islam possesses the perfect moral code we all should follow?

Holy books, revered prophets, tradition, miracles, a radically changed life—all “proofs” the Divine Author allegedly employed to definitively mark the supernatural source of a believer’s morality.  Except that, again, these are standard fare among the various theistic religions.  To paraphrase a line from a great film, “When every morality is supernatural, none is.”

Believers who claim their particular religious morality reflects the will of some divine creator are thus caught in an intractable bind.  Nothing they do or say can irrefutably, or even reasonably, prove their claim.  This is evident in two ways: first, by the protracted failure to establish a single moral framework not just among religions, but even within a particular religion; second, by ever-shifting theistic views about just what is moral and immoral.

A divine creator who wanted us to follow an Absolute Moral Law could have easily avoided this situation.  He could have poofed into existence an indestructible written codex containing all the moral knowledge we’d ever need.  Heck, he could have simply inscribed the instructions into our genetic code, such that everyone, everywhere would know, for example, never to eat shellfish or pork without it having it to be drilled into their heads by other humans.  A divine creator could do these things…or any number of other actions.  But he hasn’t…

Instead, we have a situation that reflects the worst of all possible worlds.  On the one hand, millions of people believe they’re following divine moral commands to which they stubbornly cling.  On the other, there are significant disagreements among these moral commands, with no method or means given whatsoever to establish which originate from a divine source.

The tragic consequence is that moral advancement among such individuals occurs very grudgingly, and usually after they’ve inflicted much needless suffering.  Slavery is perhaps the most infamous example.  Long was this barbaric institution upheld by the very same believers who would later repudiate it, but not before millions of lives were ground up in its brutal grip, and wars which consumed many others were fought over it.  One would think the sad lesson of slavery would teach believers to temper their uncompromising moral attitudes, but they make the same mistake with depressing regularity.

What if a believer just happens to have access to the genuine moral dictates of the creator?  They’re not much better off.  Since we’re imperfect beings – a fact believers readily admit to – moral belief and action cannot be guaranteed to reflect moral dictates.  And life doesn’t present us with easy, black-and-white moral dilemmas.  If a believer had to lie to save someone’s life, most (but, frighteningly, not all!) wouldn’t give it a second thought, despite lying being specifically prohibited in most theistic absolute moral systems.  The bottom line is that such believers have no way to know whether they’ve interpreted the dictates perfectly, particularly in morally ambiguous situations, and every reason to doubt it.

Whether they care to admit it, theists are de facto moral relativists; as history has amply proved, their morality is contingent on time, circumstance, interpretation, or context.  But since they refuse to acknowledge this truth, correcting a false or harmful moral view is nearly impossible to them.  Until the creator of the Real Absolute Morality stands up and unmistakably presents it to us the presently living, believers with their conflicting moral absolutist codes will continue to be a drag on moral progress. Our only viable course is to apply our own human reason to discovering and establishing moral codes like secular humanism in ways that mimic how we uncover scientific truth.  We’ll make mistakes, but acknowledging mistakes are possible makes swift remedies probable.

Perhaps they should take the hint…

Whilst perusing the latest and greatest the intertubes have to offer this morning, I happened upon the site of The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP), which bills itself as an “organization of lay Catholic Americans concerned about the moral crisis shaking the remnants of Christian civilization”.  Appropriately enough for this collection of Catholic fundies, its online magazine is called Crusade.  Now that’s what I call tradition!

Unsurprisingly, TFP is a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage.  It wrote of the ruling overturning California’s Proposition 8 that the ruling “unmasks how the homosexual movement’s promotion of same-sex “marriage.” [sic] deprives marriage of its rational end, belittles a higher moral law and disregards the majority of California who hold marriage to be sacred.”  Perhaps as a way to demonstrate just how outraged its readers are at the ruling, TFP posted a poll inviting readers to offer their opinion.  Among the choices is “It is an irrational decision denying the nature and purpose of marriage” and “It was a slap in the face of California voters”.

Web site operators should know by now the dangerous terrain they tread putting up online polls.  Over a decade ago, there was the case of Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf winning People Magazine’s online poll for its “50 Most Beautiful People” issue.  More recently, comedian Stephen Colbert topped NASA’s online poll for whom to name its new wing of the international space station.  The lesson is: never assume you’ll get the results you anticipated.  It’s a lesson TFP is probably now just discovering, for when I clicked on its poll results (so far), the following popped up:

 No wonder TFP hates democracy in the church.

Return God to the classroom!

Johann Hari tells us that Britain is now “the most irreligious country on earth…[having] shed superstition faster and more completely than anywhere else.”  He attributes religion’s – by which he means Christianity’s –  decline to “a free marketplace of ideas” that has debunked religion’s claims as rationally baseless.

Good stuff so far, but Hari strongly laments the remaining special privileges afforded Christianity in that country, such as the law requiring every school in Britain to make its pupils daily engage in “an act of collective worship of a wholly or mainly Christian nature” and the set-aside in the unelected House of Lords for 26 bishops.

So, let me get this straight.  Britain has struck on the most successful model to date for reducing religious national incidence and Hari is complaining?

To be fair, Hari is responding to British Christian cries of “Christophobia” and bullying.  How strange that is when Christianity retains such an elevated status, is Hari’s point.  I don’t mean to suggest it isn’t sound, because he’s spot on, just that, Hari may be missing the forest for the trees.  He’d no doubt say British Christianity has declined despite its privilege, but, perhaps with tongue in cheek, cannot one make a reasonable case for the opposite?  Namely, that the decline is because of the privilege?  After all, the same “free marketplace of ideas” reigns in the U.S., perhaps even more so, and yet it has not matched Britain’s secularizing experience.

I’m still a committed secularist, but Britain’s quixotic and ironic results remain intriguing…

No Rational Basis

That’s the sum of Judge Walker’s argument in his decision overturning California’s gay marriage ban (which also seem to nicely characterize the religious beliefs of the ban’s proponents, but I digress…).  To get a good sense why Walker came to that conclusion, here is an excerpt from his decision:

Proponents argued that Proposition 8 should be evaluated solely by considering its language and its consistency with the “central purpose of marriage, in California and everywhere else,…to promote naturally procreative sexual relationships and to channel them into stable, enduring unions for the sake of producing and raising the next generation.”…

At oral argument on proponents’ motion for summary judgment, the court posed to proponents’ counsel the assumption that “the state’s interest in marriage is procreative” and inquired how permitting same-sex marriage impairs or adversely affects that interest. Counsel replied that the inquiry was “not the legally relevant question,” but when pressed for an answer, counsel replied: “Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.”…

Despite this response, proponents in their trial brief promised to “demonstrate that redefining marriage to encompass same-sex relationships” would effect some twenty-three specific harmful consequences. At trial, however, proponents presented only one witness, David Blankenhorn, to address the government interest in marriage. Blankenhorn’s testimony…provided no credible evidence to support any of the claimed adverse effects proponents promised to demonstrate. During closing arguments, proponents again focused on the contention that “responsible procreation is really at the heart of society’s interest in regulating marriage.” When asked to identify the evidence at trial that supported this contention, proponents’ counsel replied, “you don’t have to have evidence of this point.” (h/t Reason Magazine)

Just the clueless blathering of a liberal San Francisco judge?  Oh, wait

[R]ecommended by Ed Meese, [Walker was] appointed by Ronald Reagan, and opposed by Alan Cranston, Nancy Pelosi, Edward Kennedy, and the leading gay activist groups.

Ouch.  When your ideological bedfellows essentially say you’re full of hot air, that’s gotta hurt.

But…but…won’t someone think of the will of the majority?

This objection, especially when coming from people who should know better, floors me.  I can only think their intention is demagoguery.  The answer to them can be made in three words:  Bill of Rights*.  If the will of the majority is sacrosanct, then the Bill of Rights is superfluous.  Its whole raison d’être is to protect individual rights, particularly those of minorities.  If rights are subject to the whim of transient majorities, then why call them rights rather than privileges?  Coming shortly upon the heals of major decisions regarding the second amendment and gun ownership, supported by many of the same groups now wailing about the reversal of the gay marriage ban, one would think the objection would not even be raised.  The gumption that produces this sort of selective amnesia is breathtaking to behold.

Yet, as noted on NPR this morning, Judge Walker was careful not to couch his decision primarily in terms of law, but of evidence and “findings of fact.”  This makes it less likely that an appeals court will overturn the decision.  As is obvious from the completely vacuous arguments of the defendants, it was easy for Judge Walker to go that route.  It’s almost as if the defendants’ case was entirely…faith-based.

Eventually, those who argue against same-sex marriage will lose, just as they lost against interracial marriage equality decades ago.  As then, there simply aren’t any good reasons to deny any loving adult couple from enjoying the same right most everyone else does – a fact Judge Walker made stellarly clear.  But religiously-motivated action is very rarely ever founded on reason or evidence, is it?  This is what makes it so harmful, and why many seek to contain its pernicious effects to believers themselves.

*Yes, I realize Judge Walker referred to the equal protection clause, which is part of the Fourteenth Amendment, and not any part of the Bill of Rights, which is the collective name for the first Ten Amendments, but the basic principle is the same: the enumeration of rights to protect against, in de Tocqueville’s memorable phrase, the “tyranny of the majority.”