Another apologist flushes his brains down the toilet wrt to ethical reasoning . . . and counsels the rest of us to do likewise

22 12 2008

Prepare to stifle a yawn as yet another Christian apologist deludes himself that he is saying something insightful about atheism and morality:

. . . while we can certainly agree with Harris that we can know objective moral truths “without reference to scripture,” we are left wondering how human value and dignity could emerge given naturalism’s valueless, mindless, materialist origins. If, on the other hand, humans are made in the divine image and are morally constituted to reflect God in certain ways, then atheists as well as theists can recognize objective right and wrong and human dignity-without the assistance of special revelation (Rom. 2:14-15). But the atheist is still left without a proper metaphysical context for affirming such moral dignity and responsibility. And despite Harris’s claims, naturalism seems to be morally pretentious in claiming the moral high ground, though without any metaphysical basis for doing so. No, biblical theism, with its emphasis on God’s creating humans in his image, is our best hope for grounding objective moral values and human dignity and worth. (Via Richard Dawkins)

What makes biblical theism—which basically boils down to “right and wrong are what God judges to be right and wrong”—a proper metaphysical basis for morality? All the apologist is doing is allowing his holy book to do his thinking for him. Far from accepting responsibility for his views on morality, he simply passes the buck upstairs. “Don’t ask me, man. I’m just following orders.”

You want to be taken seriously when you claim the moral high ground over the unbelievers? You’re going to have to ask, and make more than a half-assed attempt at addressing, some pretty hard questions about your deity’s ethical philosophy. Let’s take, for instance, the injunction against murder. All we can garner from the Bible is that God thinks that murder is wrong. We don’t know why God thinks murder is wrong. We have no means of subjecting his arguments in support of his position to critical scrutiny because, well, he offers none. Murder is wrong, my dear sheeple, because God says it’s wrong. That is all ye know, and all ye need to know.

I am of course highly dubious about the concept of “objective right and wrong.” There is a difference between simply asserting that these exist—which is a very simple exercise which can be performed by anyone, and has been performed by many—and showing that they exist. Demonstrating that theists and atheists alike can have ideas about objective right and wrong does not solve the problem (and certainly does not constitute evidence that humans are made in the image of a deity, as the apologist presumes): all it demonstrates is that we have certain ideas about morality. That the “hardwiring” of such ideas may have given our ancestors a survival advantage is the subject of fruitful research in psychology and neuroscience, and is certainly more parsimonious an explanation (i.e. for why we have such ideas about morality as opposed to why they may or may not be the correct ideas) than the “Goddidit” argument from ignorance the apologist is serving us.

22 09 2008 is a website produced by a group of social psychologists researching the interplay between morality and politics. In their own words:

Our goal was to create a site that would be useful and interesting to users, particularly ethics classes and seminars, and that would also allow us to test a variety of theories about moral psychology. One of our main goals is to foster understanding across the political spectrum. Almost everyone cares about morality, and we want to understand –and to help others understand — the many different ways that people care.

This is a laudable project, although all it tells us essentially is that which we should already know: that conservatives and progressives not only can have different ideas about right and wrong on at least some moral questions, but will also differ on what morality itself is all about. (Progressives emphasise the harm principle; for conservatives, emotion and disgust are also important.) Still, the culture wars can only benefit by the promotion of a more widespread understanding of where the opposition is coming from. is not a single test but rather a series of tests, with more tests being added to and subtracted from the list in accordance with the needs of the researchers. You have to register with an email address in order to take the tests, but I think this kind of research is worth supporting.

Also worth a read is an Edge article by one of the researchers, Jonathan Haidt. In “What Makes People Vote Republican?” Haidt argues that Republicans have been successful because they have a better grasp of the “full specrum of American moral concerns,” and if the Democrats wish to replicate that success they should look for ways to appeal to those concerns—ingroup/loyalty, purity/sanctity and authority/respect (the three Durkheimian foundations, as Haidt puts it).

HT: The Barefoot Bum.

Things they’d have difficulty believing in Salt Lake City XXVII

21 09 2008

The week in fundie . . .

Hello! Im HPV. Vaccinating your daughter against me makes baby Jesus cry!

Hello! I'm HPV. Vaccinating your daughter against me makes baby Jesus cry!

  1. Religious woo-woo is now being incorporated into the treatment of US military service veterans, the Washington Post reports. Patients are now undergoing routine “spiritual assessments,” and according to Annie-Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation are being evaluated on how many times a day they admit to praying. “If you don’t pass the test,” says Gaylor, “the answer is to give you more religion.” More alarmingly, the Post recounts the tale of an orthodox Jew who in 2005 was denied treatment for his kidney stones after he filed complaints against an Iowa veteran’s hospital. Despite telling hospital staff repeatedly that he did not want a chaplain visit, a Protestant pastor continued to enter his room and preach, warning him that he would go to Hell if he did not accept Jesus Christ as his saviour. This kind of thing has been perfectly kosher, of course, since the US Supreme Court ruled that US taxpayers “lack standing in challenging the White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.”
  2. Shorter Pope Benedict: Catholics are a persecuted minority in Europe because European governments are secular and pass laws the Vatican doesn’t like. (New York Times)
  3. In a recent survey in a particular Western country, it has been discovered that more than one quarter of teachers believe creationism should be taught in the classroom. Which country? The US? No. The UK. (Telegraph)
  4. Call me a militant atheist fundamentalist bigot, but it is my view that when parents or schools for dogmatic reasons decide to opt out of medical treatment for the children in their care that could prevent them from contracting a potentially fatal disease later in life, these bullies should be charged with criminal negligence. In the Canadian province of Winnipeg, four private religious schools have opted out of a human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination programme aimed at Grade 6 girls across the province. HPV, by the way, is a cause of nearly all forms of cervical cancer. The schools in question named “religious reasons[: . . .] Some parent groups worry the vaccine sends the wrong message and may encourage preteen girls to engage in sexual activity.” And there’s apparently nothing that health authorities in Winnipeg can do about it. Let’s not choke each other’s chickens, here. This is about dirty old men getting positively giddy over the prospect of female genital disfigurement and womens’ suffering, absolving themselves at the same time with a sanctimonious appeal to the notion that they deserve what they get because sluttery makes Sky-Daddy mad. (The “She was asking for it, Your Honour” defence.) It’s also about so-called secular liberal democracies bending over backwards to pander to such rank sociopathy, even when it endangers the lives of those who are not allowed to choose for themselves. Any legal system which does not treat religion-inspired negligence in the same way it would treat any other kind of negligence constitutes the state sponsorship of religious dogma—the particular dogma in question being that it is more important to save souls (the existence of which has never been demonstrated) than to save lives. (Vancouver Sun)
  5. 55% of Americans are insane. Read the rest of this entry »

“Self-evidence”: truth or truthiness?

24 04 2008

Are certain moral propositions self-evident: is it reasonable to simply assert them without further justification?

Christian apologist William Lane Craig claims that “actions like rape, torture, child abuse, and brutality are not just socially unacceptable behavior–they are moral abominations [. . . .] People who fail to see this are just morally handicapped, and there is no reason to allow their impaired vision to call into question what we see clearly.” But surely if you’re not prepared to offer good reasons for why we shouldn’t do these things–if you just want to assert that they’re wrong because they’re wrong because they’re wrong–then haven’t you just conceded the argument? After all, those who do fail to see clearly what you–what most of us–see clearly with regard to these issues: aren’t those the very people you should be trying to convince?

Frankly, I don’t like arguments from self-evidence, and I think we should be very careful with them. In logic they might be OK: “it is self-evident that all bachelors are unmarried,” and so forth. In ethics, appeals to self-evidence seem to me to constitute little more than arrogant presumptiousness on the part of those making them. They’re conversation-stoppers, inquiry-stoppers, either because there are those like Craig who simply refuse to have their moral claims scrutinised (and thus refuse to countenance engagement or debate with those who would do the scrutinising), or because there are those who, failing to recognise the self-evidence of these moral claims, and seeing no other reason to observe them (since none are being offered), simply reject them out of hand. (Ergo, with divine command theory, everything is permitted.)

My own hypothesis is that the “truths we hold to be self-evident”–rape is wrong, torture is wrong, child abuse is wrong, genocide is wrong–are particularly powerful gut feelings or intuitions. They possibly equate to, or are expressions of, the “moral grammar” described by Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser: a kind of hardwired “unconscious moral instinct.” The notion of an evolutionary basis for why it is the case that we have (certain) moral intuitions is still speculative, but I suspect that if there is an explanation for why we have these intuitions, it is likely to be neurology and cognitive science that yields it to us.

Notice, though, that this would only tell us why it is the case that we have these moral ideas about x and y. It does not explain (nor does it set out to explain) why we ought to do x and refrain from doing y; why x is good and y is bad. And the argument from self-evidence explains nothing.


How do we know what is right?

27 02 2008

There’s a great discussion between Bruce and SB on the “Counter-apologetic pwnage” comments thread regarding religion and morality. Here are my 2 cents worth:

[SB:]The psychological theory you proposed (i.e. most people know what is right and act accordingly, and those that don’t know, or who know but don’t act on that knowledge are consigned to categories of the mentally ill) tells us why people behave as they do, but not what they ought to do. At best it may describe what they ought to do if they want to be like most others. It certainly creates problems when people have differing moral sentiments – how do we know which is right?

[Me:]That is a problem that existed already. Read the rest of this entry »


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