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Ch. 5 - Religion's moral relativity 
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Post Ch. 5 - Religion's moral relativity
This thread is for discussing Ch. 5 - Religion's moral relativity. ::121




Wed Jul 25, 2007 11:00 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 5 - Religion's moral relativity
Author's note:

Many religionists claim that without the existence of a deity human morality is reduced to a set of whims and personal "life-style choices." This chapter rebuts that position and notes that even the moral codes practiced by religionists have changed over time as the socieities in which they are practiced have evolved. The idea of an absolute morality that has existed for all humans for all time seems dubious at best. The moral codes practiced in various human societies appear to be the result of biological and social evolution, not the result of absolute declarations from some absolute being.

George

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"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker




Sun Aug 12, 2007 10:44 am
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Chapter Five: Religion's Moral Relativity

1. Your discussion of religious morality in the early section only really deals with the concept of revealed religion, which is, so far as I can tell, only the foundation for fundamentalist critiques of atheist morality. Naturally, if you grant that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, it follows that any moral claims made in that book have some absolute character. But that seems to me to depend on a confusion of the two ways in which "absolute" could be understood in this context. One is the sense of "absolute morality"; that is, morality which is objectively verifiable and universally applicable -- that seems to be the sense in which you've employed it here. The other is the sense of an absolute basis for morality; that is, some firm criteria for making moral determinations (the determinations themselves may be relative), which may serve as the basis for social agreement. The more troublesome critique, it seems to me, is that without some reference to an assumed higher level foundation for values, just about any criteria that you set for moral consideration seems arbitrary. For most of the history of Western European civilization, that higher level foundation has been the concept of God -- not merely in terms of divinely revealed moral law, but also in terms of what an external reference point does to our relative valuations of other people. The basis for much of the thought we term "humanistic", for example, is situated on the rationale that the difference in ability and situation that distinguish one person for another are practically annihilated in the context of a divine judge, and so should not be taken as a reasonable criteria for treating, say, the poor any worse than you would treat the nobility. In so much as modern American atheists have also been naturalists, they have yet to identify a workable replacement -- which might explain the tedency towards such an easy acceptance of the basic moral presuppositions of European Christendom as filtered through humanism, and have been so reluctant to start from scratch.

I think I've mentioned before that there have been a number of attempts to refound morality on the quasi-naturalistic claim that evolutionary theory provides a higher level foundation, but those attempts seem ultimately to have taken two forms. One is the descriptive form, which your chapter makes reference to, the basic form of which is, that moral behavior is evolved and is thus part of our genetic make-up. There is, of course, a grain of truth to this, but it also dissolves into some conclusions that are very problematic for anyone who takes morality seriously as a conscious modification of behavior. The first being the correlary that anyone who routinely acts immorally was simply evolved to do so. That's a problematic conclusion in part because the preventative solutions to crime that it suggests in many people's minds are along the lines of genetic screening, preferential treatment, eugenics -- all of which stand in conflict with the humanistic impulse. Evolutionary moral theory and humanism are not part of the same strand of reasoning, though, and from a strictly naturalistic point of view, evolutionary moral theory has a more rigorously argued, evidential background, so I'm not at all sure that we can rely on humanism to stand against the persuasive weight of that theory.

The other, related logical conclusion to which evolutionary moral theory may be followed argues that morality is ultimately not a matter of conscious deliberation. Some people -- hopefully most -- are simply genetically predisposed towards altruistic behavior. There may be a certain range of decision still available within that scale, but ultimately the extremes to which each individual may range are set by genetic disposition. Most naturalistic atheists still possess enough of the inheritence of European Christendom's fascination with the concept of free will that they're not yet willing to follow evolutionary moral theory down that avenue, but I have yet to see any of them justify the notion of free will with anything even approaching the scientific rigor they put at the disposal of their moral theory. Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene", for instance, takes up the topic of moral determinism in its penultimate chapter, but the most he can do to ward off the suspicion that his selfish gene theory negates morality as an elective behavior is provide a blanket assertion that we do have free will enough to be consciously responsible for our behavior. If the firebreak provided by the "free will hypothesis" (to couch it in the same terms that atheist's are fond of applying to theism) some days ceases to function alongside of evolutionary moral theory, the result will be the negation of morality as anything but a description of a certain set of automatic responses to environmental stimuli.

Even for the present, though, with that firebreak still intact, evolutionary moral theory is far more descriptive than it is prescriptive. It does not, so far as I have seen, offer much in the way of suggestions as to how we ought to behave, nor even promising avenues towards such prescriptions. What it does provide is an alternate explanation for how moral behavior is substantiated in our society. As such, what it really provides is a palliative to the fear that, without religion, we won't be able to count on the morality of our neighbors. Morality is innate, it says, so we don't really need religion. That doesn't provide, so far as I can tell, any basis for determining what would be more moral behavior; doesn't provide a firm basis, for instance, upon which to found an argument against a morality that says it's okay to kill the inhabitants of an abortion clinic in order to stop abortions, or that it's okay to persecute another person because they're homosexual. That, I think, should be the first concern for atheists and secularists: that until they've found a functional, non-theistic way to substantiate moral argumentation, they have to rely almost solely on sentiment and the vague inheritence of theistically-tinged concepts like "humanism" and "freewill" to stand as a cultural bullwark against the excesses of zealotry, both religious and otherwise.

2. Getting back to something I alluded to above, I really do feel like I have to take issue with this idea of the "God hypothesis." I'm not sure who used that phrase first, but it's a pretty transparent attempt to recast religious thought in a mode that presumably renders it susceptible to scientific inquiry. The problem is that it doesn't, and in painting the picture that it has, it distorts the nature of religious thought. Just to stick to your example, your use of the term "God hypothesis" has the effect of presenting the Bible as though it gave a consistent portrayal of God. You've been to seminary, so you know it doesn't. The rhetorical device of "God hypothesis" is probably very effective on fundamentalists, who start with the presumption that the Biblical partrayals of God are consistent and uniform, and who have, anyway, exhibited a willingness to employ the veneer of science as a justification for their belief (as with "Creation science", et al). But it also has the tendency to set the wrong set of assumptions any time an atheist employs it in discussion with a theist who recognizes that the Bible is a collection of independently drawn portrayals of a variety of Judeo-Christian conceptions of God.

3. And incidentally, yes, there are examples of God showing compassion for humans in the Bible. But they almost invariably present God's compassion as acting through people -- eg. the prophets, the saints, Jesus, etc. Examples of God emploring people to act compassionately towards one another are at least as numerous as example of God "making sure the beings it had created knew their role, their sole reason for existence, was to grovel at his feet". In fact, I'm not sure that's a conception that's really given much development in the Bible itself. It seems rather to have arisen in the historical context of medieval feudalism, wherein the Judaic conception of God was wedded to the social conception of a hierarchy of being.

4. I'm trying to give you the benefit of the doubt, but I do think it's in your best interest to know that the way you've presented your material does not always leave it clear when you're talking about religious believers as a whole, Christians as a polyvalent tradition, and specifically literalist, fundamentalist Christians. You say, for instance, that "[e]ither the Bible is true, as Christians claim it is, and the 'God' depicted therein is a monster, or the Bible is not true and the religion based on its teachings is false." I presume that you don't intend moderate, scholarship-influenced Christians to read this as an indictment of their beliefs, since they presumably do not believe the Bible to be the inerrant, inspired word of God, but then, I'm having an actual conversation with you, and can ask whenever I want a point cleared up. All it would have taken to clear up the same points for a reader who does not have that luxury is a more precise terminology -- "fundamentalists" instead of "Christians".

5. I wonder if you don't see the potential for confirmation bias in a statement like "[a]n examination of virtually any human society on the planet... reveals that whatever role is played by individual effort, an equally critical role is played by cooperation and coordination among the individuals in that society." If you're studying a society, isn't obvious that you're going to find the evidence of social behavior? It's a bit like saying any examination of wolves shows evidence of wolf behavior. When youOre specifically studying societies, how do you provide a control against which to test the regularities that we would expect in a society by definition? The really remarkable thing would be if you studied a society and found that cooperation and coordination played virtually no part. You'd have to reassess your assumptions about what a society is. As it stands, I'm not sure that any study of societies can take into account those humans that divorce themselves from society; it can only break society down from the macro-level to smaller social units, like the family, or friendship groups.



Sat Sep 22, 2007 2:03 pm
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Mad: In response to the quote you cite, I probably should have said "Either the Bible is true, as some Christians insist it is ... " and so on. However, it should be noted that most organized Christian denominations do claim the Bible is "true" and represents their god's revelation to humankind. That's not a perspective that is limited only to fundamentalist religionists. I do spend a considerable amount of time in this chapter noting there are considerable variations in the moral perspectives of religions and individual believers. I guess I thought by this point in the book readers would understand that not every reference to Christians or Christianity was aimed at every member of the group. My mistake.

My little sketch of a more naturalistic basis for morality at the end of the chapter was just that, a sketch. I think we probably have a long way to go before we understand exactly how and why our moral impulses are shaped. Since I don't believe in any sort of deity, it also follows that I don't believe morality comes from a divine source, either in terms of specific moral dicta or a foundational moral standard.

I'll repeat something I said in another thread. I think human moral values probably predate ideas about gods and religions. It's my view such values are grounded in our own biological nature and in the dyamics of small family units and kinship groups that formed the earliest human societies.

Actually I've always thought of the god hypothesis as a reference to the underlying assumption that a deity exists and is the creator of everything else that exists. There are many versions of the hypothesis, and I mention that in other places, but I was referring to a specific version of the hypothesis. Where I went wrong was using the definite article "the" instead of the indefinite article "a." Although there is a sizeable group of Christians who would argue the notion, you're quite right to note there are multiple portrayals of "God" in the Bible. As to the idea the phrase is aimed at reducing the god-idea to something that is susceptible to scienitic inquiry, I know that's how Dawkins used the phrase. It is not how I am using it.

I think the image of the deity presented in the Bible speaks for itself. Of course, we all filter the words through our own presuppositions, so it's not at all surprising that you and I come away with different perceptions.

Finally, I see the potential for confirmation bias in many statements. If you want to recast the statement as "human societies act as human societies," that's okay with me. The point remains that in order for human societies to function as such, cooperation and coordination play a critical role.

George


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Tue Sep 25, 2007 10:52 am
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garicker wrote:
I guess I thought by this point in the book readers would understand that not every reference to Christians or Christianity was aimed at every member of the group.


They might. Then again, they might not. Especially if your transitions between talking about specific groups of Christians and about Christians in general are somewhat fluid, short of actually spelling out who you're talking to in each instance, the reader is left to wonder.

I've found that even when I'm being relatively careful to indicate that I'm talking specifically about the group I've called "movement atheists", other atheists interpret what I've written as though I were talking about all atheists. It pays to be specific.

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My little sketch of a more naturalistic basis for morality at the end of the chapter was just that, a sketch. I think we probably have a long way to go before we understand exactly how and why our moral impulses are shaped.


My objection wasn't to any particular detail in your "sketch". Rather, it was to the notion that a naturalistic account of the development of morals ought to, in some way, provide a basis for determining what is and is not moral.

Quote:
I think human moral values probably predate ideas about gods and religions. It's my view such values are grounded in our own biological nature and in the dyamics of small family units and kinship groups that formed the earliest human societies.


And I'm probably repeating my own response from that thread when I say that particular modes of behavior that we describe as moral almost certainly do predate religion and theism. But those modes of behavior are not, in themselves, morality. To suggest that they are is equivalent to suggesting that other animals also practice morality. Morality as a reflexive critique of behavior that is embodied in cultural form is distinct from any mode of behavior that might resemble moral action. And I've seen zero evidence that such a critique predates religion.

I should go on to say that I don't think a religious origin for morality is any particular recommendation for religion. That's something that a lot of people have read into my comments, in part because they themselves take morality as something intrinsically worth having around. As they're quick to point out, that morality probably originated in a religious context does not necessitate that all future moralities have the same connection.

Quote:
Although there is a sizeable group of Christians who would argue the notion, you're quite right to note there are multiple portrayals of "God" in the Bible.


And I think part of the reason so many Christians argue otherwise is that they feel the best way to protect what they take to be an embattled tradition is to assert that it's more consistent and uniform than it really is. The more emphasis that is put on providing some sort of objective defense for belief in God, the more likely those who believe in God are to present the Bible as an objective account. Since inconsistency would seem to indicate subjectivity, they argue for total consistency.

That isn't to say that some theists wouldn't argue as much even without the pressure exerted by those atheists who see fit to argue against theism. But that group need not be as large as it is in the current state of controversy.

Quote:
As to the idea the phrase is aimed at reducing the god-idea to something that is susceptible to scienitic inquiry, I know that's how Dawkins used the phrase. It is not how I am using it.


Dennett used it the same way. It wouldn't surprise me to find Hitchens and Harris following suit. Which is to say, it may be worthwhile to chose a different term just to distance yourself from the way they've employed the term. At the very least, in recognition of the fact that, as best-sellers, they've contributed to the way that the public receives that term, you may want to draw a more explicit distinction.



Tue Sep 25, 2007 9:35 pm
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Just as a footnote to the discussion about the phrase "the god hypothesis," as I noted in another thread, my book came out before Dawkins' The God Delusion or Dennett's Breaking the Spell. And I had written it before I read anything by Harris.

Actually I had the idea for a book called The God Hypothesis years ago and had written a rough draft, but shelved the project because I had to go out and earn a living. That earlier work led to this one, and I suppose the phrase just stayed with me.

I guess the phrase originates from a discussion between Napoleon and, I think, LaPlace, the French scientist who had written a book called Celestial Mechanics. Napoleon reportedly commented he had seen no mention of God in the work. LaPlace supposedly responded, "I had no need of that hypothesis."

George


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Wed Oct 03, 2007 1:48 pm
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Thanks for the tip off, re: the origin of the phrase "God hypothesis". I'll have to remember that one.



Fri Oct 05, 2007 4:16 pm
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Mad: Thanks for the tip off, re: the origin of the phrase "God hypothesis". I'll have to remember that one.

You probably also would be interested to know that, when he heard of LaPlace's remark, LaGrange (another French scientist) is said to have commented, "Ah, but it is a beautiful hypothesis just the same. It explains so many things." or words to that effect.

George


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[i][b]mere atheism: no gods


Sat Oct 06, 2007 8:55 am
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