Thursday, October 07, 2010

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson on atheism

This looks like a very insightful column, from a few years ago. I am surprised I missed it.

19 comments:

David said...

I wonder how my moral life would change if I should lose my faith. All the virtues cultivated in me by my faith now seem to have a practical reward. Being faithful to my wife in spite of raging desire and temptation has been rewarded with a level of trust and intimacy that I could not image living without. Being honest in business has allowed decade-long loyal customers who trust my advice as they faithfully pay their bills. Living modestly is a constant reminder of what is truly valuable in life.

I image I would even continue going to church to greet kind and faithful friends, and the needful experience of the Anglican liturgy of singing, giving thanks, confession of sin (not sure how that works for the atheist), kneeling next to the family to share the Eucharist and then walking back to the pew to contemplate the life of Christ and desire some of his virtues to work themselves out in me.

I may remain the same in virtue (mixed with many faults), although living without Christ would seem like daily deprivation to me. I am also pretty sure I would have never found the benefits of virtue without Christianity.

Doctor Logic said...

Gerson says:

Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it.

No, that's not theism.

That would be like me saying that "under atheism, we should respect human rights, be kind to others, find our own solutions, etc."

What I have just described is humanism, not atheism. Humanism is like atheism + some moral principles.

What Gerson is describing is, say, Christianity, which is theism + some moral principles. It's not an argument for God per se.

Gerson asks "How do we choose between good and bad instincts?"

Well, gee, I wonder why they're called "bad" instincts? Could it be because we think they're less preferable to good instincts?

And this is where Gerson's argument falls into complete intellectual bankruptcy.

Gerson wants us to adopt theism (plus certain moral principles!) because, if we don't, we might choose to follow bad instincts, and we don't prefer the consequences of following those bad instincts. Wha?!!

Gerson is saying we value our morality, and when when we cease to value it, then we might do bad things. Since we don't like bad things, we should continue to value our morality. Huh?! But when we cease to value our morality, then Gerson's argument doesn't work anymore.

What is insightful about this garbage?

Replace "theism" with "moral principles", and Gerson's argument is just a tautology.

Also, why don't Christians talk about evil gods? How about good ol' Michtlantichutli? The Problem of Good for an evil god is no worse than the Problem of Evil for a good god. So, please, don't confuse theism with human-preferred moral principles.

Ken said...

Exactly what I thought, Dr Logic.

If we fear losing our morality, then we need not fear our sentiments as the cause.

Anonymous said...

What is insightful about this garbage?

Plenty, when you actually read it instead of flailing against it desperately because it bothers you so.

I'd say you were intellectually bankrupt, DL, but I've seen you argue about this for a long time now. It's clear you never had an account to begin with.

Doctor Logic said...

Hey Anonymous,

No need to be a jackass. If you have a counter-argument, just make it.

Anonymous said...

You'd think a guy with the bravado to go by "Doctor Logic" would have thicker skin. Jackass indeed!

As for making an argument. Why? So you can ignore it, question beg, and bungle the logic the whole way through? I know better than to argue with the (either willfully or invincibly) deluded. Watching you argue with the OP link is comedy gold though.

Anonymous said...

But aren't pretty much all theists committed to some specific notion of theism? There aren't many purely nominal theists out there. So, in practice, pretty much all theists believe in theism + some moral principles. The same of course is true of atheism. Pratcially, most atheists probably believe in atheism + some moral principles, but the ethics don't seem to have much to do with the fact of atheism.

So maybe that's what Gerson is saying, that there's more of a direct line between theism and Christian ethics than there is between atheism and humanism?

Christian ethics seems a reasonable response to the realization that there is a morally serious personal Creator at the heart of existence.

But if there is no God and if all our ethical instincts are just accidents of brain chemistry, why be a humanist? You could certainly choose to be a humanist, but there seems to be no compelling reason to.

Maybe another way of approaching it is, what reasons could you give to convince an atheist who was not a humanist to become a humanist?

Doctor Logic said...

Anonymous,

Maybe another way of approaching it is, what reasons could you give to convince an atheist who was not a humanist to become a humanist?

I totally approve of this approach, and I think it works in favor of the atheist.

When you ask your question about the atheist, I'm assuming that implicit in your premise is the constraint that I cannot appeal to the aesthetics of humanism, nor to the consequentialist benefits of humanism when I make my case.

And, if that were indeed the implicit premise, then there is no reason I could offer the other atheist to adopt humanistic moral practices. Indeed, it would be irrational for the other atheist to accept my moral position when he had no good reasons to adopt it, and when he had plenty of personal aesthetic reasons not to.

However, this is a double-edged sword. The same applies to the theist who has differing moral principles. To the theist who has differing moral principles from your own, there are no reasons you can offer him to change his mind.

The only reasons you could give would either be consequentialist (God will punish you for disagreeing), or else your reasons would assume some moral common ground (e.g., obedience to God).

If you assume either of these reasons are valid, then why should I be bound by the same constraints in my discussions with the atheist?

If anything, I think that the disagreeable theist is more of a problem than the disagreeable atheist. The opposing theist deliberately magnifies his aesthetic, non-consequential reasons for dissenting from your moral position, discounting consequentialist reasons for agreement or compromise.

Consider the theist who hates gays (e.g., because he mistakenly thinks "teh gay" is contagious). Well, gosh darn it, he probably belongs to a congregation who worships a God who hates "teh gay". People make God in their own image. God is an idealization of their own morality.

This isn't to say that everyone who experiences racist feelings always idealizes their own racist urges. They may feel bad about their racist urges, and may idealize a God who doesn't hate or discriminate. And, in creating such an ideal, their religious faith serves as a platform for controlling or eliminating their racist urges. Their religious practice is a focal point for acting in a fashion closer to their moral ideals.

However, all of this religious practice was predicated on the individuals guilt or discomfort with their own racist urges.

Take God out of this picture, and you get the same result. If I feel guilty about my own racist urges, I may attempt to overcome those urges. If I don't feel guilty about them, then I won't.

GREV said...

I read all of this and think that a little Jurgen Habermas might be a good place for starting. And he is an atheist.

If Christian theism was all about morality, some of the arguments might have a leg to stand upon.

Since, it is not, despite all the myths and misunderstandings, the arguments of the atheist and the theist kind of fall flat here.

Cheers

Anonymous said...

Doctor Logic,

I'm obviously no philosopher or ethicist, but my thinking was that for example a Christian theist could convince an Islamic theist to adopt Christian ethics by showing that Christianity is more likely to be true than Islam.

By the same token, I suppose a Christian socialist could maybe convince a Christian conservative by showing that the best interpretation of the Bible supports socialism.

I guess my overall point was that with theistic morality, the metaphysical facts play a decisive role in the ethics you adopt. But with atheistic morality, the metaphysics seem to play less of a role. The propriety of following Christian ethics follows from the truth of Christian metaphysics. But no moral system seems to follow from atheist metaphysics.

Doctor Logic said...

Anonymous,

By the same token, I suppose a Christian socialist could maybe convince a Christian conservative by showing that the best interpretation of the Bible supports socialism.

Has this ever happened? I mean has this been seen to occur above the rate at which conservatives spontaneously convert to socialists for non-Biblical reasons?

I guess my overall point was that with theistic morality, the metaphysical facts play a decisive role in the ethics you adopt. But with atheistic morality, the metaphysics seem to play less of a role. The propriety of following Christian ethics follows from the truth of Christian metaphysics. But no moral system seems to follow from atheist metaphysics.

Is there a single Christian metaphysics? I think people find their religion from their morality, not the other way around.

I think scripture can't answer even basic questions of morality. Why be good at all? Why is it good to do what God tells us to do? Is there a good or evil for God to know (Euthyphro)?

I think none of these things can be answered by scripture, and so theologians postulate fill-in-the-gaps metaphysical principles so that Christian morality turns out to prescribe what most Christians already value.

If we're working in reverse, why not just have values, like atheists do? Atheists don't need an elaborate rationalization for their values. Such rationalizations are almost useless for persuasive purposes.

Actually, when it comes to ethics, even atheists partake in the rationalization game. As soon as a moral theory prescribes something subjectively unpleasant (e.g., killing off unhappy people to raise the average happiness of the population) we consider the theory a failure. Religious theories of morality are no different. If they don't get the right answer (according to our moral guts) we chuck them out.

GREV said...

Doc:

"I think scripture can't answer even basic questions of morality. Why be good at all? Why is it good to do what God tells us to do? Is there a good or evil for God to know (Euthyphro)?"

Your seeming dismissal of so much in the above paragraph is truly amazing.

If the basis of God is the idea of a super consciousness or mind. An idea above and beyond our ability to grasp. Only to the extent that such a mind reveals itself.

Then I believe Scripture does aid a person to ask and answer basic questions.

It is called Spiritual Knowledge. And your seeming dismissal of this is truly amazing.

I think as I said before that a little Habermas might be in order follwoed by some decent critques of Naturalism and on the list could go.

GREV said...

Vic.

Can we not make a thread for Keith Ward's devasting demolition job on Richard Dawkins? So some of these larger issues might be brought together under one roof for discussion?

If the God Hpothesis is defensible then many of the atheist arguments being advanced here collapse.

Mike Darus said...

Gerson is very optimistic when he asserts, "but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose." Dr. Logic is correct when he attributes this point of view to humanism. Christian theism of the more conservative flavor would not agree. They would not see these attributes in raw human nature. A humanist theism (oxymoron) would agree with the optimism.

Sympathy and cooperative purpose may be common moral findings across cultures but they seem a weak base for a moral foundation.

There is difficulty in measuring the impact of the withdrawal of religion from the cultural moral compass. There are those vestigial remnants of genius moral ideal contributions that are likely to cling to culture in desperation. Others may claim them as their own but theism ground the into the cultural consciousness. It is also theism that has self-identified when its own morality compass has gone astray and repented.

TheCharles said...

A little off subject, but it makes sense that evaluating the effects of beliefs is part of the process of evaluating the beliefs, particularly when the they are a worldview.

That is why there is the emphasis in Christianity on the lives of the saints. You get to see it lived out.

There is a good blog post below about the process of coming to belief that I think is very descriptive of the actual process. It starts with the attractiveness of the end result and works backwards to acceptance of certain intellectual propositions.

http://crowhill.net/blog/?p=8729

Doctor Logic said...

TheCharles,

Please be specific. Pick a saint and explain why his beliefs were correct in light of his actions. Good luck.

I agree that a lot of people proceed from the aesthetic appeal of a conclusion, and work backwards. It's called rationalizing for wishful thinking, and it's irrational.

Anonymous said...

Dr Logic:

I'm pretty sure some Christian theists have altered their political views on the basis of what the Bible teaches. (That's basically the story of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States - more on that later) But that wasn't the point. The point was that theists have common ground to appeal to in terms of their ethical commitments. Most Christians would agree that if the best interpretation of the Bible really says to do X, then the ethical thing is to do X. Something similar holds amongst theists in general. All theists would agree, hypothetically, that whoever the One True God turns out to be, Allah or Yahweh or Jesus, He is by definition morally perfect, so the moral thing to do would be to obey Him.

With atheists, there doesn't seem to be that kind of common ground. Some atheists think that the nonexistence of God means that morality is meaningless; some think that real morality is only possible if there is no God.

My overall point is that some moral facts seem to follow, at least in principle, from the existence of a morally perfect Being who is worthy of our worship. Nothing seems to morally follow from the nonexistence of such a Being. That seems to me to indicate that the entire moral venture is a more reasonable, meaningful venture to undertake if such a Being exists. But again, I'm not a philosopher, so I may be missing something.

Your last point reminds me of a point of contention I always have with Sam Harris' arguments. You speak as if a person could live in a society which has been saturated for centuries with the moral presence of Christianity and then have moral beliefs that are completely independent of Christianity. Yes, I do judge Christianity to some extent by my own moral lights, but my own moral lights have been heavily influenced by living in the Christian West.

You might think the belief that racism is wrong is a secularist belief, but secular humanists in the 1800s didn't think so. Racism falling out of vogue was not the result of any secular humanist movement. It was the result of an intramural dispute between Christians, which was won by the Christians who said that racism was wrong. (Which answers your previous question about whether or not this has ever happened - prior to the Civil Rights Movement, I'd imagine a majority of White American Christians would have said that racism had Biblical sanction. Presently, almost no White American Christian would say such a thing.)

So, I think the atheist contention that most of their moral beliefs are derived from "secular humanism" is a hasty assumption that wouldn't stand serious scrutiny. I think atheists are entirely too generous to themselves when they try to ascertain what their moral beliefs would be sans the influence of the larger religious societies around them. But that's perhaps an argument for another day.

Doctor Logic said...

Anonymous,

I think you're assuming that the morality of Western society was shaped by the Bible, rather than the interpretation of the Bible being shaped by Western morality.

Slavery and racism got along just fine for centuries under Christianity. It certainly wasn't the Bible that turned that around. People read into the Bible what they want it to say.

When everyone believes the Bible is the word of God and contains his moral message, you're bound to spontaneously interpret scripture in line with your moral beliefs.

Those who held on to slavery and racism had their consciences soothed by their interpretation of the Bible (and the Bible's general acceptance of slavery). And those who fought racism could also find words of inspiration in the Bible, too.

Even the 10 commandments are idiotic by today's standards. Are we really going to kill children for being disobedient?

I think you have the arrow of causation backwards. The Bible doesn't cause us to have our morality. Our social mores cause us to reinterpret the Bible.

Today, Christians in America use the Bible to soothe and justify their feelings of homophobia. What's new?

I would agree that Christian sects are founded on moral assumptions that are bound up (in some incoherent way) with the notion of God, Jesus and the Resurrection. What I am saying is that their moral beliefs are arbitrary, and the sect is self-selected for conformity.

So if you look at secular Jews or secular congregations, you'll find people with humanist values that have self-selected into same group. There's nothing wrong with self-selection, but we shouldn't leap to the conclusion that members of humanist congregations are adopting their morality because of some logical deduction from the shared assumptions of the congregation. People get their morality from family experiences, pop culture, interacting with people of other faiths, colors, sexual orientations, etc. Homophobia is strongest among people who think they've never met a gay person or who have no gay friends. They hate what they don't know or understand. It's not because they think homophobia is wisdom handed down by God.

TheCharles said...


Please be specific. Pick a saint and explain why his beliefs were correct in light of his actions. Good luck.

I agree that a lot of people proceed from the aesthetic appeal of a conclusion, and work backwards. It's called rationalizing for wishful thinking, and it's irrational.


I am not sure that I was clear in my last post, so let me try again. The post that I pointed to argues that the reason that people consider alternative worldviews is because they find something beautiful or desirable in the alternative. That is what causes them to consider looking at things from the alternative worldview to see if things make more sense. It is at that point that rational arguments come into play.

The kind of beauty that is attractive to people varies. For some, the Amish worldview is attractive, for others it could be a parsimonious theory of everything.

In a sense, the process is not an outsider's test for a particular worldview, but rather an insider's test for another worldview to see if it makes more sense than the previous worldview did.

Christianity knows this and puts the saints forward as models. Wanting the joy of the saints is a reason to consider Christianity. This works for atheism as well. Two of the atheists that I know first looked at atheism because they didn't like Christians (particularly in the bible belt where I live) because of cultural, political, and other reasons.

This is not to say that I think that we should psychoanalyze why people believe what they do, but just to note that the process by which people adopt worldviews is not by looking at a series of explanations and finding the one with the highest conjoint probability.