The Pope of Literature
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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.