Just as I began writing this post I got a notice (via email) of a new post on the same subject over at Why Evolution is True. I don’t mean to compete, but this follows so naturally from the concern I expressed yesterday about the election ”flyer” prepared for distribution in parishes by the Roman Catholic anti-choice movement called (inaccurately) “Priests for Life” — the Canadian Edition.
One thing you can be assured of is that the religious will continue to claim authority for their own value judgements, and to deny that others have any basis for morals at all. The truth, of course, is that the religious have no basis for moral authority — none whatsoever. In fact, it very often turns out that what they think morally good is often anything but that. Not only do different religions claim different things as morally good or bad, but also the religions themselves have internal disagreements as to what is good and bad. They have no more clarity about such things than the five-year-old kindergarten child, although they pronounce on things with the same peremptory certainty as a five-year-old.
I was just listening to an exchange between a Muslim “scholar” and Wafa Sultan. Dr. Sultan had just said that Islam was really responsible for the clash of civilisations — or, as she called it, the clash of eras – and she read from the Qu’ran and other Islamic sources commands to the effect that Muslims must fight and continue to fight against unbelievers, until the offence of false belief is expunged, and the unbelievers have either been killed or have become true Muslim believers, and have submitted to Allah. The Muslim “scholar” disagreed with Dr. Sultan’s interpretation of Islamic teaching. The Muslim is called, he averred, to struggle against those who attack Islam, but then he went on to interpret the immorality and impurity of other peoples — that is, their failure to live as good Muslims – as an attack upon Islam against which Muslims are called to fight, so that all the powers that are at war with Allah will be defeated.
[This is the first installment. It should take you to others in the series.]
It’s a convenient argument. It means that Islam is to be at war until the whole world is subject to Islam. This is one expression of a religious morality. It requires constant struggle until everyone is subject to the “morality” of Islam. Anyone who denies this is a heretic. But Rabbi Adam Jacob, whose contemptible HuffPo piece Jerry Coyne argues with in his post, “Another rabbi embarrasses me,” while he would doubtless disagree with the Muslim “scholar,” would also have to say that the “scholar” had at least this much right: he was looking in the right place — his religious tradition — for moral authority.
And this, in case the good rabbi doesn’t notice it, makes a shambles of his argument. He’s trying to convince his readers — and that won’t be hard, because most of them will agree with him anyway — that the only basis for morality is religion. He also believes that in order to have any foundation at all morality must be absolute. The so-called “Priests for Life” would agree with him, as does the pope and many popes before the one who now wears the pallium who, while believing that morality is absolute, was not above contorting a few moral rules in order to protect the good name of the church — an attempt which backfired, since you simply can’t hide crimes as massive as the ones the church is accused of. The point is, though, that religious traditions are themselves conflicting, and there is no reliable source of morality to be found within them. Muhammad made up his morality as he went along, ascribing it to god. Rabbi Jacob makes up his morality as he goes along too, since he ignores great swathes of his own scriptures which would lead to acts so immoral that, if he performed them, he would not now be writing for HuffPo, but would be languishing instead somewhere in an American prison.
What is the problem with religious people who think that without their religion they would have no morality? I think the problem lies in the idea that morality itself must be its own motivator, and when you look at moral rules, there is still the question: Why should I obey them? The religious answer by referring to god, god’s commands, and god’s rewards or punishments. So, the religious think they have an answer to the motivational question. However, it is quite plain that, without our having evolved in the way that we did, no amount of argument would convince us to act in certain ways unless there was some kind of built-in tendency to act in those ways. And this is what we find. It is widely known, now, that our moral minds are not solely the product of religious indoctrination, as the religious like to think. Morality is an evolved aspect of human beings. It is even, as Frans de Waal and others point out in Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, a aspect of the behaviour of non-human primates.
This is something that is now widely recognised and continues to be studied. It might be said to take off from Richard Dawkins’ claim that, while the replicators of which we are the evolutionary vehicles are indeed “selfish”, it does not follow that we ourselves are selfish in a straightforward sense. Dawkins himself sometimes confuses the metaphorical and literal senses of the word ‘selfish’ in this context, as when he suggests that we can ourselves act contrary to the imperative of our selfish replicators. It’s the same mistake that Adam Jacob makes when he asks:
Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?
But, of course, this is not what Dawkins taught us at all, although he does suggest that a purely Darwinian world would be an intolerable one. But this is a misunderstanding of his own theory, since there is no reason why selfish genes should not light upon the idea of altruism as a way of effectively perpetuating themselves, and this is precisely what they have done.
So, while it is true that, looked at as a whole, the natural world shows “no design, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference,” as Dawkins said (and Adam Jacob quotes), it is not true that the result of this is only pitiless indifference, cruelty and evil, for out of this process, which is itself morally indifferent as to outcome, has arisen species of animals which are capable of good and evil, kindness and cruelty. So, while the world is often a cruel and pitiless place — which is why religions have such a hard time convincing us that there is a good creator of the world — it does not follow that there is no good to be achieved within it.
But — and here is the real offence of the religions — the goodness that exists is human, and animal, and entirely internal to the world itself. We do not need to appeal to some outside force to justify our talking about good and evil. Nor do we need, as Jacob supposes, an absolute standard of good in order to justify our morality. Indeed, the supposition that there are such absolutes is a guaranteed way of achieving the most absolute evil. A morality which cannot respond to nuance and qualification, that cannot accept that things sometimes believed to be contrary to the moral law are, in fact, in this situation or that, required by it, ends up doing things that horrify the imagination and offend our most sensitive humanity. I think particularly of the idea of the Roman Catholic Church that it is wrong everywhere and always and by anyone to terminate the life of a human being. This ends up requiring that we allow women to die, instead of carrying out a simple procedure which will terminate their pregnancies. It also ends up requiring people to undergo the most horrifying suffering instead of helping them, as they often ask us to do, to die. This is what absolutes do: they leave no room for humanity.
Adam Jacob thinks that Harris and Hitchens get their morality from him, or at least from his tradition:
I would suspect [he writes] that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.
Well, perhaps it does, but then Rabbi Jacob has to acknowledge that much of this Judeo-Christian ethic comes directly from pagan philosophy, from the Epicureans and Stoics of the centuries during which Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism were both in the process of development. In other words, of course there is continuity of moral understanding, since these are natural aspects of human community. There are things which we take to be uniquely human, and both Christianity and Judaism select from amongst the stories and principles of their scriptures and hemeneutic traditions those principles which reflect those things that are considered normatively human. But these are things which we can discuss and argue about, and they are things which have, over the centuries, changed in dramatic ways, so that we are now, in many respects, much more sensitively moral than many of our forebears. We no longer torture people to death for their crimes, however horrible those crimes may have been, but we used to. Almost within living memory it was not unusual for people to be drawn and quartered, pulled apart by horses, or branded with hot irons, or have tongues cut out, ears cut off, or eyes blinded. We can still see some of these “punishments” being meted out in Muslim majority jurisdictions, but they were all as common as dirt in the past of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
“Priests for Life” is a holdover from that terrible past, an absolutist past when life was cheap and the church was powerful. Moral absolutes produce moral obscenities, and they can still do it, to the extent that people who believe in them strive to control the laws which govern us. Look at what happens in places like Chile or Brazil where the church has managed to get abortion, for almost any reason, outlawed, where women are victimised by clerical absolutism. This absolutism is still preserved in laws governing assistance in dying in practically all jurisdictions, just as it is adhered to in Roman Catholic hospitals worldwide. Many other religions maintain absolutist moralities, and the often cruel penalties which such absolutism demands. It is time that we got rid of them. There is no rational basis for moral absolutism. The doctrine of the sanctity of life, for example, which is often demanded by religious absolutism – and applied to situations where abortion or assisted dying could be reasonable, moral outcomes – has no rational basis. It is a religious imperative pure and simple, and it is high time that we got away from the religious basis on which a few central principles of our morality still stand, and that we continue the process — which has now been underway for two or three centuries – creating a morality which is sensitive to human needs, instead of responsive to the supposed commands of an imagined god and enforced by that putative god’s purported servants.