Notes From Babel

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Atheism Cannot Account for Objective Morality

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(This post originally appeared at AtheistConnect.)

AtheistConnect published several posts recently concerning the question whether it is necessary to posit the existence of God to provide a cogent account for objective morality.  For the reasons briefly stated below, among others, I argue the affirmative:  God is necessary to provide an account of objective morality and, accordingly, atheism necessarily cannot provide such an account.

First, consider the argument made in this article referenced in Nate’s post:

Even if we accept that it’s true that there is no point in being moral if there is no God, this wouldn’t be an argument against atheism in the sense of showing that atheism isn’t true, rational, or justified. It wouldn’t provide any reason to think that theism generally or Christianity in particular is likely true. It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally.

The suggestion that “It is logically possible that there is no God and that we have no good reasons to behave morally” is a worthless statement.  Man is the sort of being that has both a moral intuition, and a rational faculty that demands an account be given for his beliefs—including his moral intuition.  These are non-negotiable preconditions with which all persons approach the world, and for which an epistemological and moral framework of the world must give an account.  Atheists’ response to the problem of morality, however, is either to deny man’s moral intuition (e.g., by positing “morality” is nothing more than the calculated pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain), or to deny the need for a rational account of that moral intuition (e.g., by arbitrarily replacing religious morality disfavored by atheists, and replacing it with secular humanist morality).  Thus, although atheists claim to reject transcendental reasoning, they fail to give anything resembling a cogent, rational account for man’s moral intuition in its place.

Worse, atheists often purport to take advantage of the gaps in their own reasoning by arguing that theists are clearly wrong to suggest that atheism implicitly rejects objective morality, and thus cannot establish a basis for mounting moral condemnation of, for example, the Holocaust or 9/11.  To the contrary, the argument goes, atheists do acknowledge objective morality, and even behave morally, generally speaking.  But this is misdirection.  In fact, the theist’s fallacy in making this argument is to assume that atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview when, in reality, they do not.  The theist’s unsound argument thus runs as follows:

  1. Since having rejected the existence of God, atheism has not provided a suitable alternative account for objective morality.
  2. Intellectual consistency requires rejecting that for which no suitable account has been provided.
  3. Atheists comport themselves consistently with their proffered worldview.
  4. Thus, atheists reject objective morality.

Of course, the reason this argument fails is because premise (3) is false:  atheists either are intellectually dishonest, or they simply don’t understand that their worldview cannot account for objective morality.  Again, one might say “I don’t believe in God” as a glib expression of one’s anti-authoritarianism and wide-eyed skepticism, but it actually means something very severe—particularly if it also means “I do not believe in anything that transcends empirical phenomena.”  This is a profound claim that tears down important metaphysical underpinnings of one’s view of the world, including the intellectual framework necessary to account for objective morality.  If the maker of such a statement has any interest in talking seriously about such ideas, he will have to posit an alternative theory of reality that can account for them.

But nothing like this has come forth from atheism’s ranks.  The drab statement quoted above about “logical possibilities” concerning God and morality is effectively the sum and substance of all atheism has to say about objective morality.  In discussions of moral philosophy, then, atheism is, at best, intellectually irrelevant.


Written by Tim Kowal

March 21, 2011 at 10:55 pm

Multiculturalism and the moral order

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This story reminds that there is a great potential friendship between conservatives and Muslims when it comes to instilling positive values in our children, and resisting the trend to secularism.  Here’s an excerpt, though I recommend reading the whole piece:

Then I looked across the school playground and saw a Muslim mother, the mother of my daughter’s best friend, holding her headscarf in place with her hands as the wind blew about restlessly. I caught her eye for a moment and we smiled at each other. Before this moment, I had never thought that my situation in any shape or form was similar to that of a Muslim mother. And I had never thought seriously about talking to a Muslim mother about issues of faith or raising children in our community. But now I was beginning to reconsider. Perhaps our Muslim fellow citizens, especially those who are spiritually and intellectually confident in their ways of life, can challenge and inspire us to reflect more deeply on our own faith and morality, and perhaps in the process we might discover that we share some of the same moral principles and hopes and dreams for our children.

We always hear so much about the things that separate Muslims from Christians (and no doubt there are things that do separate us), and often these differences are expressed in negative and prejudiced ways. I wonder if our misunderstandings and misconceptions prevent some of us from trusting and forming spiritual bonds and friendships with those who are confronting some of the very same challenges that we confront. I live in a community where many of my moral views about sexuality, marriage, and the family are in the minority. Sometimes they are challenged (respectfully and disrespectfully), and every now and again someone agrees with them, but often they are simply dismissed. Like my daughter, I’m comforted to know that there is someone else with whom I share similar experiences (and perhaps a moral view or two).

There is, perhaps, a different brand of multiculturalism that underscores rather than undermines the moral order.  It’s a shame that many conservatives have written off American Muslims because of disagreements on certain narrow political or foreign policy views, when we really have so much to agree on.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 18, 2011 at 12:58 am

Morality without God?

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Kyle Cupp rejects the idea that God is a necessary precondition for morality, offering three arguments:

[W]hile people disagree about moral norms and principles, most people have some moral presuppositions in which their deliberations are grounded. These presuppositions may be religious, but they don’t have to be. A belief in Jesus may motivate one volunteer at a soup kitchen, while the very presence of someone who is hungry may motivate another. A theist may avoid murder because it violates God’s commandment, while an atheist may avoid murder because of the loss and misery it delivers. The consequences of human action alone provide reason for not permitting everything.

Cupp’s second argument is related to the first:

[E]ven if God exists and has written the moral law, the believer still acts based on the presupposition that the consequences of obeying the moral law are better than and preferable to the consequences of violating it. In doing so, the believer and the unbeliever share basically the same presupposition.

These arguments are really just different ways of suggesting that bad acts lead to bad consequences, and thus we don’t need a separate concept of “morality” to tell us not to do bad things (or, conversely to tell us to do good things).  Whatever the merits of Cupp’s argument, it is not an argument about whether we can have an objective, universal morality without God.  Focusing on consequences only helps us avoid things we happen to find personally unpleasant.  It does not tell us anything about the relationship between unpleasantness and badness as a moral concept.

However, Cupp presents a third argument that is a bit more complicated to explain and thus to refute:

Third, while the absence of a divine lawmaker would leave humanity without a divine moral law, humanity would still have ground on which to build an objective morality. Unless it is held that God composed the moral law arbitrarily, then the moral law is something that makes sense given the way of the world. There’s a difference between killing a flea and killing a person not merely because God says so, but because there are significant differences, physical and metaphysical, between an insect and a person. Therefore, even if it were left to men and women to write moral laws, they are not thereby doomed to write arbitrarily, without rhyme or reason. Moral reflection can look to insights about the physical and metaphysical as a sailor would look to a guiding star.

In other words, the argument suggests that because God, even if he does exist, is not arbitrary, then his handing down a moral code is not the same thing as saying we depend on God for the existence of morality in the first place.  While God did us a favor distilling the moral law in the Ten Commandments, the moral law exists whether or not God does.  Thus, the trick in a godless universe is not deciding whether there is a moral law at all, but discerning what it is.

This is a sophisticated argument, but I think it ultimately unravels into arbitrariness.  If we assume, as Cupp does, that there is a transcendental reality, man’s inquisitive nature demands there be some account of its nature other than arbitrarily picking out certain of its characteristics.  Beyond the empirically observable world, what truths can we purport to know?  Certainly, we depend on such truths to make sense of our observable reality.  For example, to make any predictions about the world, we have to assume, as a transcendental fact about the world, that the future will resemble the past. Without this profoundly non-empirical claim, science cannot do any work.  Similarly, causation, induction, grammar, numbers, categories, political obligations, and so on, are all non-empirical claims that are nonetheless necessary for a meaningful understanding about the world.

But it is dismally unsatisfying to simply posit them without explanation.  Thus, while I applaud Cupp for acknowledging the existence of an objective morality, I reject his invitation to proceed with intellectual inquiry without demanding any rigor in accounting for these important transcendental truths. To suggest, for example, that we do not need any explanation for why there is a morality in the first place, or why we are the sort of creatures that recognize it and are impelled to follow it, is no answer to the argument that we do.  The existence of God, and more specifically the Christian account of God, man, morality, sin, and salvation, begin to provide such a construct for these transcendental realities.  Regardless of whether that construct is persuasive, it cannot be seriously doubted that it is a more rigorous account than the shopping cart account, which is all atheism can offer.

Written by Tim Kowal

March 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Forged in War

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In Michael Barone’s piece in the latest edition of the Claremont Review of Books, he reviews Thomas Bruscino’s A Nation Forged in War: How World War II Taught Americans How to Get Along.  Some of the figures Barone relays are interesting.  While Hollywood’s habit of putting a colorful Brooklyn loudmouth in every war movie may seem unbelievable, in fact, nearly 3 of every 50 Americans in the 1940s was from one of New York’s five boroughs.   For all their atrocities, the 20th century’s wars united America’s disparate and bickering races and religions in a common story and purpose.  America’s various peoples were put into a common uniform and given standard issue weapons and supplies, and made to rely on each other in the worst of all possible conditions.  Barone describes the profound impact of Bruscino’s story of four chaplains of different faiths, including Jewish, sacrificing their life jackets to their troops and praying together as their torpedoed ship sank in the North Atlantic.  As a result of the shared experiences of America’s formerly disparate peoples, America was a more united and harmonious nation after 1945.

Certainly, war is not the only sort of experience that can bring Americans together.  But it is hard to imagine a more powerful and fast-acting one.  I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that there are few war stories that involve Muslims as our American brothers-in-arms.  Quite the opposite, in fact, in this age of the War on Terror.  I also wondered about the tendency of Muslims to enlist in the U.S. military.  According to the NY Sun in 2006:

Out of the 1.4 million service men and women serving actively in the American military, an estimated 3,700 are Muslim, according to the Department of Defense.

The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 3,409 as of April 2008, according to Pentagon statistics. This comes to about a quarter of a percent.  Since many Muslims choose not to indicate their religion upon enlistment, the actual number is estimated to be up to three times higher, approximately 10,000, or just under three-fourths of a percent.

Compare this with the percentage of Muslims in the U.S. population at large.  Pew Research Center puts the number of U.S. Muslims at 2.5 million in 2009, putting Muslims at about 0.8% of the total U.S. population.  Thus, it would appear that Muslims are actually enrolling in the military at a higher rate than their proportion of the general population.  This is commendable, I think.

Written by Tim Kowal

January 19, 2011 at 12:05 am

The Muslim PR Problem

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Here are some of my take-away thoughts from the Federalist Society discussion today on the big three current issues concerning America’s tense relationship with Islam:  Koran burning, the Oklahoma Sharia law, and the Ground Zero Mosque.

First, the idea that the Muslim community center planned for development at Park51 might be the result of pure intentions is simply not credible for many Americans.  As a colleague observed, either Abdul Rauf & co. are akin to the nuns at Auschwitz, or they are truly trying to extend the olive branch and advance the cause of Muslim goodwill.  It is hard to believe the latter given the divisiveness of the project.

Professor Larry Rosenthal, under whom I studied First Amendment law and criminal procedure at Chapman, makes a strong case for permitting the Park51 project.  There is little question the Constitution protects the right to develop the mosque.  The more perplexing problem, however, is how we deal with prevailing American attitudes about Muslims and Islam.  Rosenthal emphasized that there is no shortage of examples in our history of Americans “overreacting” to perceived problems with other religious and racial groups.  We were once confident that Jews—“Christ-killers”—could not be assimilated into our predominately Christian culture.  And yet today we proudly proclaim our “Judeo-Christian values.”  We overreacted to Japanese-Americans during WWII and, on the basis of security concerns, indiscriminately interned them without a shred of evidence of any Japanese-Americans abetting the Japanese war effort.  From these sorts of examples, Rosenthal argues that we have every reason to distrust our intuitions about races, cultures, and religions that may seem strange and foreign to us today.  It is within our power to “choose” not to be offended at the Park51 project and, Rosenthal urged, we ought to so choose.

There is something to this argument.  Certainly, we have to be cautious not to repeat mistakes we’ve already made.  And the Park51 project seems innocuous enough—it’s just a community center, after all.  And it’s not even physically at “Ground Zero.”  It’s at an old Burlington Coat Factory two blocks away, near two strip clubs and a lingerie store, among other things.

In fact, the whole thing seems like such a non-issue that this itself becomes an issue:  Why are Americans so apoplectic about what seems like such an innocuous project?

My theory is that Muslims are simply bad at PR.  Consider two other religions with rocky starts in American culture, Mormons and Jews.  Mormons gave up polygamy long ago as a condition for gaining statehood in Utah.  Jews spun off the Reformed Judaism movement in large part to advance their ability to assimilate and gain acceptance among Americans.  In so doing, both groups have gained wide acceptance in American culture.  Muslims, on the other hand, still tend to be somewhat monolithic.  While American Muslims are probably much more moderate than Muslims in other parts of the world.  And Americans certainly want to believe this.  Yet, few seem to grasp whether or what formal or doctrinal differences exist between “our” Muslims and the Sharia-embracing chauvinistic Muslims of Saudi Arabia, for instance.

And still, it is not American Muslims who seem to be leading the charge in advancing a new nomenclature that would readily distinguish themselves from their crazy counterparts.  Instead, it is good-hearted Americans who want so badly to believe that true Muslims, American Muslims, their Muslims, are actually more a part of American culture than some mysterious “Muslim culture.”  So we come up with words like “Islamofascism” and “radical Islam” in order to conceptually distinguish the loony Muslims from the real Muslims.  This need to make sense of the difference between the true Islam and the hijacked Islam is so strong that it played itself out on live television a couple weeks ago.  The poor ladies on The View were so overcome with their own overinflated political correctness that they walked off their own stage when Bill O’Reilly stated that “Muslims killed us on 9/11.”  The implication is obvious:  anyone describing that kind of Muslim must not fail to so designate, e.g., by using one of our neologisms like “radical Muslim.”  But why is it that Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar are leading this charge?  This, in my view, should be a bit of an embarrassment for American Muslims.

There is also the sense that American Muslims are much too measured in their condemnation of terrorism.  I grant the issue of terrorism is not often enough addressed in the broader historical, sociological, and political context that it warrants.  So when a Muslim is asked “do you condemn Hamas,” I think the reluctance to give an unequivocal “yes” owes to the fact that while terrorism is indeed awful and unforgiveable, Muslims more than ordinary Americans want to urge a level of understanding as to why it exists.  In this sense, the implication seems to be that if we strive to understand why Hamas employs terrorism, we might understand that, while it goes astray from time to time, it does not deserve to be condemned wholesale.

This is a fine academic exercise.  As an undergraduate, I studied some of the psychological and sociological causes for the rise of Nazism and the German people’s acceptance of the persecution and attempted genocide of the Jews.  But the vast majority of the time, it suffices merely to condemn Nazism and genocide as unequivocally evil and move along.  There is a causal explanation for everything if we care to look for it hard enough.  But it strikes ordinary Americans as conspicuous when their Muslim counterparts try so hard to “understand” terrorists.  It might even strike Americans as something of a duty to condemn terrorists.  The time for critical analysis and sociological inquiry can occur in another forum; when plainly asked whether one condemns an organization that employs terrorism, the answer should be, simply, “yes.”

So these were some of my take-aways from the riveting discussion today.  I think Americans would be willing to let things like the Park51 project remain the non-issues they should be, if only they had greater assurance and understanding from the American Muslim community what they are all about.  What are American Muslims thoughts on sharia?  On theocracy?  On women’s rights?  This information is available to those who seek it, but those who would seek it don’t tend to be the cranks banging on pots and pans.

All that said, here’s a pretty uplifting music video by Lena Khan, a female Muslim filmmaker.  The song is by a Muslim country singer named Kareem Salama.

Written by Tim Kowal

December 1, 2010 at 12:30 am

Metaphysics Is for Everyone

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In one of those dragged out, merciless threads about the existence of God and the origins of the universe and the nature of reality and all that heavy stuff, Jason Kuznicki  sticks a pin in and lets some air out.  Somehow, Jason says, we all seem to manage to get along, even while we disagree out this allegedly fundamental stuff.  That “metaphysics has very little to offer except folly.”

I take the general sentiment.  And I enjoy the passage from Candide he shares.  But I cannot agree that our metaphysic, our worldview, our underlying presuppositions about what it means to be a human in this world among other humans, is some trifling matter that has no bearing on human affairs outside the cigar room.  These questions define our starting point on questions of values, on the purposes in our conduct in and attitudes about society, government, politics, the law.

One could roughly say that crying uncle at these sorts of “meaning of life” questions is expressed in the moral philosophy of utilitarianism, and the political theory of libertarianism.  It was encapsulated in President Obama’s response to a question during the press conference on November 3.  When asked whether the recent routing of his party indicated that people had rejected his policies (this was the third time he had been asked this basic question), he said it was not a rejection of his policies, but rather an expression of frustration at the results.  Watered down and polished up, this is what amoral political ideology sounds like:  actions have no value in themselves; only outcomes matter.  In familiar terms:  the ends justify the means.

What is obvious to nearly everyone—particularly exasperated liberals—is that Americans reject this view of the world.  Even while Europe leads the way to a post-modern, post-cultural, post-normative wasteland where all things are permitted, encouraged, and subsidized , Americans continue to cling to a worldview where actions matter, and consequences are evidence of that, not anomalies or inconveniences to be stamped out through regulation and social programs.

All of us subscribe to fundamental values.  But not all of us can account for them.  Some of us subscribe to religion and tradition.  Some of us simply pick them out as we might items at the grocery store.  But we all have them, and they play a defining role in our actions and attitudes in our institutions.  It’s important stuff.  We ought be able to account for it.

Written by Tim Kowal

November 6, 2010 at 11:11 am

The New Science and the Abolition of Objective, and Especially Religious, Morality

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I came across this new batch of stats, linked from Howard Friedman’s blog, declaring that religion’s messages about homosexuality is “negative.”

The PRRI/RNS Religion News Poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service, found that more than 4-in-10 Americans gave religious organizations a “D” (18%) or an “F” (24%). The number of Americans giving places of worship low marks is more than twice as many as give them high marks; Only 5% of Americans give them an “A,” and only 11% give them a “B.”

A plurality (43%) of Americans say the messages coming from places of worship are negative, and 4-in-10 Americans believe that these messages contribute “a lot” to negative perceptions of gay and lesbian people. One-third (33%) of the public also believe that messages from religious bodies are contributing “a lot” to higher rates of suicide among gay and lesbian youth, and another third (32%) say these message contribute “a little;” only 21% say they do not contribute at all.

There is a bunch more percentages and numerators and denominators in the original article.  Thinking about it, the whole thing is frightening.  Notice that the emphasis of the poll is whether church messages about homosexuality are “positive” or “negative.”  What might that mean?  The only metric suggested is whether these messages are “contributing ‘a lot'” or “‘a little'” to higher rates of suicide.”  There is no methodology set out that would explain why there is any merit to this correlation.  And one wonders whether the recent and widely publicized suicide of a young homosexual student colored the perception of the poll’s respondents.

Getting to the point, no account is taken of the difference in values among the poll’s respondents, other than to refer to the fact that church-going respondents are likely to give their own churches higher marks, and to suggest younger respondents were harsher on religion than older ones.  Do the respondents believe homosexuality is good?  Bad?  Indifferent?  What proportion of the respondents hold these respective values?  Were they asked to consider their values when responding to the poll?  To disregard their views?

This is the point, of course.  Values are not merely besides the point of this study.  They are the enemy of it.  First, consider this short passage from Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics about our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern/whatever era and its steady march in the agglomeration of ever more facts, studies, polls, and data.

The use of method as the criterion of science abolishes theoretical relevance.  As a consequence, all propositions concerning facts will be promoted to the dignity of science, regardless of their relevance, as long as they result from a correct use of method.  Since the ocean of facts is infinite, a prodigious expansion of science in the sociological sense becomes possible, giving employment to scientistic technicians and leading to the fantastic accumulation of irrelevant knowledge through huge “research projects” whose most interesting feature is the quantifiable expense that has gone into their production.

Now consider the focal point of the contemporary discussion about values.  Mainstream Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, take morality to be objective, that actions and things in nature have values in themselves.  The relativist strain of normative thought, in contrast, teaches that morals are not “out there,” but that they are instead subjective, personal assessments.  Thus, the moral objectivist looks at a waterfall and says “that is sublime,” whereas a moral relativist looks at the same scene and says, “no, the waterfall has no such content in itself.  Rather, by looking at it, I have sublime feelings.”

As C.S. Lewis put it in The Abolition of Man:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt. . . . The man who called the cataract sublime was not intending simply to describe his own emotions about it: he was also claiming that the object was one which merited those emotions.  But for this claim there would be nothing to agree or disagree about.

. . . .

[On the other hand, in the relativist view in which value statements refer only to emotion], the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.

It is not hard to see in which camp belong the pollsters who conducted the above study.  To focus only on how the respondents “felt” about the respective churches’ messages, without regard to whether the messages themselves are right or wrong, good or bad, strips the values expressed in those messages of any association with things in the world.  No longer are values about homosexuality actually about homosexuality—they are simply about how the declarant happens to feel about homosexuality.  And, as NPR’s CEO put it, feelings are between the man and his psychiatrist.  Once we’ve isolated the issue to the mind of the speaker, all that’s left is to call the speaker a bigot, escort him out of the public arena, and the issue is won.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm