Scratching the Surface
March 13, 2012

English: Leeds Student Radio Web page article ...

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Critic Aengus Woods gets at what’s so dissatisfying with Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists:

De Botton fluently identifies how religion traditionally addressed social needs before offering his own secular proposal for meeting them anew. For example, religion has traditionally provided a sense of community that can override divisions of class or income. We might therefore regain this sense of togetherness through rituals that mimic, say, the Eucharistic service. De Botton suggests a restaurant where “our fear of strangers would recede” and “the poor would eat with the rich.” And Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall might be replaced by electronic billboards “that would anonymously broadcast our inner woes,” thereby reminding us that “we are none of us alone in the extent of our troubles and our lamentations.”

The problem with this approach is not simply that the solutions are trite or feel crassly commercial. The problem is that it is utterly impossible to get any sort of consensus on what we poor secularists need from religion. The beauty and danger of organized religion has always been its authoritarian aspect: It tells us what is wrong and what is right, what is healthy and what is impure. Apply these edicts to the secular world, and they begin to look suspiciously like indoctrination. Where is the place of criticality here, and exactly whose values get to be promoted? If they are common-sense values, we will soon find a plethora of competing commonsensical values. We should remember how quickly Socrates’ ideal republic begins to look like a totalitarian state.

To put it another way: Religious rituals signify something, and figuring out what they signify — or how to translate the relationship between the signifier and the signified into something compatible with your own experiences — isn’t as easy as de Botton makes it out to be. A fully developed theology is born out of conflict and dialogue: dialogue with tradition, intuition, philosophy, the hard and soft sciences, and the critiques of other denominations and religions (not to mention atheists).

The idea that you can just skip the whole dialogue and get straight to establishing rituals that conform to your own vague pre-existing sentiments is frankly bizarre. In doing so, de Botton would have atheists export some of organized religion’s worst diseases: bland and indistinct “spirituality,” the thoughtless reenactment of ritual for its own sake, and the smug certainty of chronic incuriosity. These things are bad enough on their own, but — as Woods hints — terrible things can happen when they crash headlong into the inscrutability of life as actually lived.

If de Botton is truly intent on constructing a religion for atheists, he would be wise to start building from the foundation instead of the lobby. That would mean developing, yes, a theology. It would require seriously engaging with moral philosophy, epistemology, and even — perhaps especially — the theology of real-life theists. Kierkegaard and Buber aren’t a bad place to start. If there’s not something in their metaphysics and phenomenology that doesn’t resonate with you on a deep level, then why pillage the rituals they use to reaffirm their faith in these things?

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve written a lot on this blog about theology and philosophy of religion from the perspective of a self-identified and resolute atheist, so for the sake of clarification I should probably note that the label “atheist” no longer reflects my philosophical commitments as accurately as it once did. If that sounds equivocal and wishy-washy, that’s because it’s not an easy position to condense into a pithy label. Probably the pithiest way to summarize it would be to say that I like Mordecai Kaplan’s reconstructionist theology, and especially this Wittgensteinian interpretation of Reconstructionist Judaism, but I’m dismayed by Kaplan’s Zionist nationalism. Martin Buber’s I and Thou has also been extremely helpful in clarifying certain things, which is ironic, because very few people would accuse Buber of clarity. Or me, I suppose.]

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Against Atheism 2.0
January 22, 2012

Alain de Botton

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Since writing this post on Godless theology, I’ve been meditating a lot on the possibility of religious atheism. That could mean anything from Jewish humanism to Zen Buddhism to the ideas outlined in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” Jewish humanists, Siddhartha and Russell all have different ways of finding meaning in a world absent a personal God, and your mileage for each may vary; but I’ll wager that the least satisfying of those accounts is still infinitely more nourishing than Alain de Botton’s banally Gladwellian “atheism 2.0.”

De Botton begins a recent TED Talk (via — who else? — Andrew Sullivan) by attempting to distinguish his cuddly, family-friendly atheism from the more vituperative New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Chris Hitchens. But the New Atheists, despite their numerous failings (of which I’ve written extensively in the past), are at least willing to treat religious claims as if they mean something. By trying to please everyone, De Botton ends up condescending to both the serious faithful and the serious faithless — in other words, anyone who bothers to think critically about big questions. As insufferable as PZ Meyers and his ilk may be, I’ll take combativeness over a pat on the head.

De Botton’s starting point for developing atheism 2.0 is reasonable enough: he argues that atheism, which is to say the rejection of a narrow band of metaphysical claims, is not on its own a sufficient foundation for a whole worldview or collective identity. So far so good, but his proposed alternative is utter pablum. He says:

I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways — and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious — of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?”

I’ve complained in the past that atheists all too often try to dodge serious existential problems by just appropriating religious concepts and giving them a pseudo-rationalist gloss. De Botton not only does the same thing, but proudly announces his intention to do so. Too bad for him that a religion isn’t a salad bar, where you can nibble on the parts you like and elide the nasty bits; the pieces fit together to form a larger whole. Decontextualizing the parts you like and plugging them into your own worldview willy-nilly means importing some of religion’s most grating excesses as well: its smugness, its philosophical complacency. If atheists want to interface with religion — and that is, for sure, something I encourage — then they must be willing to interface with all of it. That means opening yourself up to uncertainty, confusion, and even fear.

De Botton clearly finds uncertainty and fear distasteful. Otherwise, he might have a very different attitude towards religious art than the one he expresses below:

My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum — if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we’ve neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.

One might wonder how one of the greatest religious artists of all time — Fyodor Dostoevsky — fits into this notion of didactic art. No doubt a didactic Christian artist in the De Botton mode never would have written the parable of the Grand Inquisitor — a critique of Christian morality so devastatingly persuasive that the author himself never discovered a proper rebuttal. That is what true religion and true art look like: struggle. Yis’rael is often translated as “He who wrestles with God.”

If religion has anything to give atheists, it’s more than just a series of empty gestures and defanged observances. Religion can help us define the terms of greater struggles, but only as a means toward taking those struggles seriously. The problem with atheism 2.0, then, is the problem with De Botton’s whole shtick: he peddles anesthetic, not real medicine. Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Simon Critchley, he specializes in masticating thorny philosophical questions into easily digestible gruel for the educated but intellectually timid. If he really wanted to do his audience a service, he would acknowledge that there is such a thing as despair.

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Mind and God
December 5, 2011

For all you New Atheists out there, a little compare and contrast exercise. Tell me if you think this proof makes sense:

  1. My mind is identical to certain neurochemical processes in the brain.
  2. We have observed these neurochemical processes, and have verified that they exist.
  3. Therefore, my mind exists.

If that one sounds valid, how about this one?

  1. God is identical to the whole of nature.
  2. We have observed the whole of nature, and verified that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I can think of two objections to the second proof. The first is that a lot of modern theists might not be able to sign onto our working definition of God. Fair enough, but I should note that our pantheistic account is not wholly without precedent — Baruch Spinoza believed in deus sive natura (God or nature) as interchangeable properties, and much of Eastern philosophy contains roughly analogous concepts. (Replace “God” with “tao,” and the proof still holds.)

The second, stickier objection is that “God” in this proof has a form, but not much content. (Same goes for tao.) We can point to physical properties we believe to be correlated with God as much as we’d like, but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual. So demonstrating the existence of certain physical phenomena that we’d expect to exist in a God-created universe really tells us absolutely nothing.

So for atheists who believe in the existence of their own minds, here’s the dilemma: why does that rebuttal apply to the second proof, but not the first?

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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.


Devout Christians: Not So Easy To Caricature
April 21, 2011

Jamelle Bouie brings us the surprising news that a not insignificant plurality of Americans believe that capitalism and Christianity are in conflict. Here’s the graph:

What’s even more surprising is that the number goes up, not down, when you narrow the sample size to Christians only.

I can’t comment on how well the view of Christianity as an anti-capitalist philosophy tracks with the textual evidence in the Gospels, but I will say that numbers like this complicate the argument that popular religion is little more than a form of ideological control used to the benefit of the ruling party. It turns out majority religious views in the United States are not so easily caricatured.

So why do so many atheists waste so much breathe dueling with strawmen? When it comes to the New Atheists, I don’t think we can entirely rule out an economic incentive: the more inflammatory the claims, the more press attention they get. But commerce is surely only a very small part of it. I think atheists are also internalizing what the right has known for awhile: martyrdom is seductive. As much as it makes us rend our garments, it just feels good to be one of the few sane people defending capital-T Truth from the violent horde. Hell, martyrdom is what helped popularize early Christianity in the first place — though, in that instance, Christians were literally being martyred.

I don’t mean to be glib. I understand this intuition that nonbelievers are under attack from all sides, I really do. Certainly there are vast swaths of America where it’s prudent to conceal your lack of faith — and that includes virtually every level of elected federal office. It’s also true that many of the more vehement atheists I know lost their faith while growing up in regions and families where non-belief was simply not an option. It’s natural to feel besieged under those conditions, but calling people of faith either con artists or dumb rubes is no less unfair than suggesting that atheists are morally deficient.

And besides, as I’ve said before, name calling gets boring real fast compared to the sort of debates we could be having. For a good example of the latter, check out Matt Yglesias here. Even if you think the metaethical grounding for Christian values is complete fantasy, scrutinizing it helps us finds new ways to think about our own moral foundations. And it can have some surprising or counterintuitive implications, like the poll results at the top of this post.

Which, as I’ve said before, are fascinating for all kinds of reasons. This is just an aside, but I can’t help but wonder now if American soil isn’t ripe for some kind of Red Tory or Christian socialist movement (albeit by another name in the latter case).

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Not All Atheists Hear The Same Thing When People Debate Theology
April 20, 2011

Dante and Virgil in Hell

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I’m an Amanda Marcotte fan, but I’m also one of those atheists like Robert Farley who doesn’t really get her hostility to theological debates. Nor do I think there’s any reason to doubt that Andrew Sullivan, et al, are sincere in their faith. Lots of intelligent people really are devout believers, and to suggest otherwise seems either profoundly misguided or just plain churlish.

Given all of that, I think there’s value for nonbelievers in figuring out why intelligent people believe, and in grappling with theological claims on their home turf. Back around Christmastime I wrote a series of posts about atheism in which I argued, among other things, that atheists could benefit from understanding theological claims as an indirect way of describing the structure of the claimant’s perceptual experiences.

So take for example Andrew Sullivan’s understanding of Hell. He says:

Whereas in fact Hell is, in orthodox terms, is simply our refusal to accept the love of God. Our inability to accept it. And that exists on Earth as it does after death. We can be living in Hell right now if we do not accept the love that is openly given us by God, the Father and the son. And that is what Hell is. Heaven is simply the ability to let go of your pride and let God in.

One way to react to all of this is just to take offense at Sullivan’s assertion that we nonbelievers are in Hell and ascribe all sorts of unsavory motives to that claim. Or you could just mock Sullivan’s faith and suggest that he’s some kind of dumb rube for believing what he does. But I don’t think either of those possible responses are all that useful or interesting. I’d rather take a closer look at Sullivan’s reasons for believing what he does and consider how those shape his interface with the world. That doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of those claims. But for Spider-Man’s sake, at least be critical in an engaged, interesting way.

Since I’ve blogged a bit about Nietzsche recently, I might as well note that he had some very engaged and interesting ways of responding to the sort of doctrine Sullivan espouses above. In Thus Spake Zarathustra he calls those who speak of Hell on earth as “preachers of death” who “carry around within themselves the beast of prey and have no choice but lust or self-laceration.” The point being that, in Nietzsche’s view, this urge to embrace the eternal and escape from the worldly represents a sort of fear and loathing of the world as it is. His response is to embrace the world — what the preachers of death call Hell — just as those same preachers embrace what they call God and Nietzsche calls death.

I don’t subscribe to Nietzsche’s scorched-earth style, but I think there’s a kernel of insight and psychological acuity in his writing you won’t find in a blithe dismissal of all faith as meaningless bullshit. And even if you disagree, at least Nietzsche’s making a proper argument out of it.

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The Fallacies Of Atheism
December 22, 2010

Moral Enlightenment
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Playing off of my last post, I think one of the worst intellectual traps the atheist can fall into is the shallow argument. Pretty much everyone has a natural bias to arguments featuring conclusions they happen to agree with, whether or not those arguments are totally sound. And when you take an uncharitable view to people who challenge those arguments, it can be hard to effectively judge their point against your own. So you end up with two fairly common fallacies among ardent atheists:

1.) Failure to distinguish between different religious claims. This one is the less common one. After all, these things should be pretty obvious: Not everyone who calls herself a Christian thinks the Bible is the literal word of God. Not everyone reaching for eternal reward thinks that faith in his deity is the only way to get there. Hell, some religious don’t don’t even think that God is omniscient, or interacts with the physical world in any observable way. I imagine if I were one of those people, I would be pretty weary of being conflated with Creationists.

2.) Overreliance on the argument from empiricism. Let’s talk about this guy:

I love this man. He’s a comic genius, and it’s great that he’s also public about his atheism in a thoughtful, articulate, non-dickish manner. But in his recent column on why he’s an atheist — the one all of my atheist tweeps keep linking around — he makes the appeal for atheism from science. It’s a popular argument, but it’s also a bad one.

The problem with the argument is that it takes multiple arguments and collapses them into one, in a manner not unlike the first fallacy. It confuses empirical claims with metaphysical claims. Science, of course, is only interested in the former.

The difference between an empirical claim and a metaphysical claim is the difference between saying, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts,” and, “Egypt suffered a plague of locusts because a divine intelligence was displeased with the pharaoh for keeping the tribe of Israel enslaved.” The first one is definitively true or false, and you can look at evidence in the real world to make a judgment one way or the other. That’s where science comes in. But as far as divine intelligences go, science has absolutely nothing to say. You can’t measure or quantify a mind. You might be able to track physical phenomenon that are correlated with what one might want to call a mind, but science can’t help us make that determination.

(Aside: This cuts both ways, of course. You might witness something you want to call a miracle, because you see no logical explanation for it. But the fact that there is no explanation that science can currently afford us does not mean you can make any definitive metaphysical claim about the event. As the analytic philosopher of logic A.J. Ayer would point out, the solitary fact that the Red Sea miraculously parted does not mean that God did it — not unless your definition of God is solely, “that which parted the Red Sea.”)

My point isn’t that these questions have no definitive answer. My point is that this reliance on science to explain everything is cheap and intellectually lazy. Any argument over the existence of God has to take metaphysics into account as a discipline entirely separate from empirical observation.

That means taking the other philosophical problems of a godless universe seriously as well. For example: If there is no God, do we have any reason to believe that there are actions or consequences that are good and bad independent of our feelings about them? What is good? Do we have any reasons to be good? What’s the point of doing anything, really?

These questions don’t have scientific answers, either.* And all we accomplish by pretending that the answers are easy or obvious is to make ourselves willing accomplices in our own ignorance. Instead, I find it more helpful to see these questions as a gift to atheists: the universe is far more ambiguous without a God to tell us right from wrong, but it’s also full of so much more mystery and wonder. We squander that gift when we dismiss challenges to our premises out of hand. Better to find out what clues believers can bring to the hunt.

*Of course, some prominent atheists, most notably Sam Harris (pictured), disagree. Sam Harris is wrong.

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Atheism Is No Excuse For Intellectual Complacency
December 21, 2010

Freedom From Religion Foundation
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I’m an atheist. A nonbeliever. A heretic. Call me by any of those names, or any others you’d like, but, for the love of Spider-man, never, ever, call me a “bright.” Or, worse, a “freethinker.”

Because the truth is, calling yourself a “freethinker” is self-contradictory. To say someone thinks freely is to suggest that she has no uncritical attachment to any ideology or belief system. It calls to mind someone who is always roaming, always seeking truth, and never satisfied with the easy facsimile of truth someone puts before her. That is what a freethinker is — at least unless you’ve ever met anyone who calls herself that. Because in the real world, “freethinker” is a smug term for someone who’s an atheist, and thinks that anyone who isn’t an atheist is, well, an un-free thinker. They’re all sheep, man.

No one who seriously thinks there is a binary distinction to be made between the atheists and the brainwashed hordes can be said to be thinking freely. In order to hold that view, you would have to find it inconceivable that any sane, intelligent individual could think critically about a particular faith, consider all the alternatives, read the literature, and still sign up.

I have a few friends like that. One of them is Jamelle Bouie. Jamelle is a very smart, literate, and introspective man who also happens to be a committed Christian. He’s not a “freethinker,” but he is a free thinker. Lately, he and I have been having a lot of conversations about faith, and I’ve been learning quite a bit: about Christianity, of course, but also atheism. My own and others’.

I hope all of you godless Americans out there have at least one friend like Jamelle. If not, you should go out and make one. Because if anyone can be said to have actually earned the title freethinker, it’s the guy who welcomes challenges to his own beliefs (or lack thereof) from people smart enough to make the case. When he hears those arguments, this guy — the freethinker — actually listens. He goes through every step to make sure he’s doing the argument justice, and where there’s ambiguity he gives it the most generous possible reading. If that undermines his position, so be it. The goal isn’t to score points.

All of this probably sounds pretty obvious and intuitive, but it’s worth reiterating in the age of brights, freethinkers, New Atheists and so on. I see more and more atheists behaving like there’s no difference between blind faith and self-critical faith. I see more and more atheists presuming that they basically have religion figured out, and believers have nothing to teach them.

That presumption is obviously, patently untrue. Religion doesn’t have to convert us in order to teach us something. For one thing, it can help atheists refine our understanding of what our atheism means, and lead us away from some of the logical fallacies popular atheism too often falls into. Plus, religion can teach us a great deal about what it means to be a human being.

I’ll get into a little more detail regarding those last two assertions somewhere in the next few days. Oh, and by the way: It’s totally a coincidence that I’m doing this the week before Christmas, I swear. Did not plan that.

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Philosophers Agree: Existence of God and Nature of Morality are Two Different Questions
July 10, 2010

Well whaddya know. On the same day I argued that the existence of universal moral norms can’t possibly be contingent on the existence of God, the inestimable Massimo Pigliucci (the author of my favorite philosophy blog right now), wrote this:

Despite the fact that more and more people are comfortable “coming out” as atheists, the word is still very much associated with being immoral, or at the very least amoral. This, of course, despite the fact that there is neither logical nor empirical reason to draw that conclusion. Ever since Plato’sEuthyphro dialogue, philosophers have agreed that gods are simply irrelevant to morality, regardless of whether they exist or not. And of course modern sociological research shows that atheists are just as moral as religious believers. Still, the stigma persists.

It’s not uncommon to hear people—mostly critics—say of philosophy that it offers no answers, only further questions. And while that may be true in the sense that you can’t empirically verify a philosophical proposition (at least not since we stopped called science “natural philosophy” a few centuries back), there is such a thing as an overwhelming consensus among philosophers. In the case of folks like Governor Mitch Daniels, it may be impossible to prove or disprove his attacks on atheism, one way or another, but suffice to say that anyone who has made a serious study of philosophy understands that basic logic is not on his side.

By the way, the rest of Pigliucci’s post on the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon is very much worth reading. I don’t have much to add to it except to say that I’ve been planning for a while on writing a post with more or less the exact same conclusions, except probably not as good.

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If Atheism Is Inherently Amoral, Theism Is Too
July 8, 2010

Republican candidate Mitch Daniels
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This has been bouncing around Twitter a bit: an interview with Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (pictured) in which he says:

People who reject the idea of a God -who think that we’re just accidental protoplasm- have always been with us. What bothers me is the implications -which not all such folks have thought through- because really, if we are just accidental, if this life is all there is, if there is no eternal standard of right and wrong, then all that matters is power.

And atheism leads to brutality. All the horrific crimes of the last century were committed by atheists -Stalin and Hitler and Mao and so forth- because it flows very naturally from an idea that there is no judgment and there is nothing other than the brief time we spend on this Earth.

That’s certainly not a novel argument. I’ve sure you’ve all heard some version of it before. But it is a decidedly ugly one, and something tells me that most of the people who make it haven’t thought through the full implications of what they’re suggesting. Taken to its logical conclusion, Daniels’ argument concludes that the whole concept of “morality” is meaningless.

In order to explain why, let me first make a few reasonable suppositions about the nature of Daniels’ own faith. First: he’s most likely a monotheist. If he thinks that atheism has no moral foundation, that suggests he thinks morality comes from God, or that, at the very least, the relationship between God and objective moral goodness is such that if there is no God, there is no morality.

I’d also wager that Daniels is a Christian, which means this morality is connected to an incentive system: if you do good things, God sends you to heaven, and if you do bad things, he sends you to Hell. As for the relationship between morality and that incentive structure, you could claim:

  • Good deeds are good because you are rewarded with eternal paradise.
  • You are rewarded with eternal paradise because of deeds that are good prior to the reward.

The first option suggests that good deeds are good for purely self-interested reasons, in which case morality is reducible to that which is in your long-term self-interest. But I don’t think that’s what Daniels meant. If I were a betting man (though, of course, gambling is a sin), I would wager that Daniels believes good deeds are good because God has deemed them good, and as a result he rewards people who do good deeds.*

The problem is that, by instituting this flawless incentive system, God pretty much makes morality irrelevant. Because, again, if you know that eternal bliss is the reward for good behavior, and eternal torture is the punishment for bad behavior, then rational self-interest dictates that you engage in good behavior as much as possible. Except rational self-interest doesn’t seem like a very good criteria for what constitutes a moral act, because it means someone could be extremely morally upright without using any sort of moral reasoning or intuition. The difference between a good person and an evil person ends up just being a matter of having the right information and knowing how to hustle.

Now, you could argue that a true Christian is one who is aware that he will receive an eternal reward in heaven but doesn’t consider that a motivating factor when it comes to his own good deeds. But that seems pretty implausible, given that we’re not always totally aware of our own motives—and besides, if that is the case, then it would seem that the threshold for what constitutes a good deed is ludicrously high. It might even mean that the only person capable of truly virtuous acts is the atheist—and he’s likely disqualified from eternal bliss anyway.

In a situation like this, probably the best thing is to be aware of the existence of a God who prescribes certain good actions and proscribes certain bad ones, but remain unaware of the existence of heaven until after your death. In which case, according to Daniels, pretty much every Christian in the world is screwed.

The other option is to concede that it is possible to have some kind of non-theistic moral framework which, broadly speaking, overlaps with theistic moral intuitions. In which case, congratulations! You’ve just admitted there’s such a thing as moral atheism.

*Philosophy nerd footnote: The near-identical question “Is piety good because it is loved by the gods, or do the gods love piety because it is good?” is what sparked Plato’s famous dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro. My metaethics professor argued that this was the first metaethical debate in philosophy.

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