Tag Archives: atheism

Objective: Morality

When considering morality, questions about the subject are as important as the ethical conclusions reached within moral investigation. This subject, known as metaethics, asks not what is good but what is good. This question seems basal to the whole process; first we figure out what the hell an ethical conclusion is, then we can attempt to identify instances thereof and derive more practical outcomes. Is the good subject to the whims and feelings of the individual or are there murkier, more holistic and impersonal forces at work? Are morals subjective or objective, and what form does such objectivity take? There are some who deem objective moral values both desirable and unthinkable without a god or gods to send down such edicts and give us lowly primates a foundation upon which to stand. As with so many religious arguments this seems to succeed only in pushing back the problem one more step, and then placing great faith in the power of special pleading.

Objective morality, by its very nature, is something which can be assented to by any rational, dispassionate observer. To be subjective is to be open to debate precisely because there is no fact of the matter. I might say that Star Wars is a better franchise than Star Trek – and defend my conclusion to the bloody end – but since there is no demonstrable correct answer this is purely subjective. But were I to say that the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, there can be no disagreement of this kind. All of the available evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that this is a fact; it is objectively true. Objective morality is of this kind. Objective moral propositions are verifiably accurate therefore are true regardless of your protestations or support. Based on this definition, objective morality must be based upon objective reality, not upon the conviction of a single being. A statement of an objective moral value will end in, “… because facts xy and z are factually accurate to any rational observer.” A statement of a subjective moral value will ultimately end with, “… because I/he/they say so.”

I do not think that it is an exaggeration nor a misrepresentation of the theistic position that all believers regard their god or gods as a source, at least, of moral teaching and guidance. Many go further and state that their deities are the only source of solid and objective morality at all. The mantra is, “If there is no god, there is no foundation for objective moral values.” Such moral guidance as is forthcoming from gods may take the form of precepts in scriptures, vicarious communication through their representatives on Earth, or a conscience urging us towards the good implanted directly into our bodies. This godly morality applies to all people at all times and must not be contravened. It is thus dubbed ‘0bjective’. This is a very different definition of objective morality than the one offered above: No rational or dispassionate person can reject these ethical statements because the guy in charge said so. Rather this divine command theory eerily resembles subjective morality.

In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates confronts the eponymous character over his intention to prosecute his own father for manslaughter. Making the not unreasonable assumption that such a man must be confident in his own piety, Socrates performs his usual duty of relentlessly questioning his interlocutor into submission. His challenge is to request that Euthyphro define piety, which forces this hapless fellow onto the horns of a particularly ill-tempered dilemma. “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” If piety is something independent and is only communicated by the gods, deities become irrelevant middle-men between humans and holiness. If piety is simply that which is demanded by the gods, it is subject to the idiosyncrasies of of the mighty and holds no deeper meaning than that. The gods are rendered either irrelevant to piety, or piety is rendered meaningless by the gods. The same principle is exactly applicable to morality. Is the good loved by the gods because it is good? Or is it good because it is loved by the gods?

There are those among the unbelievers that entirely agree with this line of reasoning, and therefore hold that morality is subjective and cannot be defended in an objective manner. In the worst of cases they lapse into moral relativism, a position as repugnant as it is self-contradictory (A moral principle is good if the society deems it so, except for the moral principle of relativism, which holds among all societies). However, there is a way to construct an objective morality that does not depend upon the divine, but only upon those minds that seem to clearly be present: the minds of conscious creatures. On this view, objectivity is not a nebulous, universe-spanning concept, but applies only to a limited sphere, namely those entities which are capable of suffering. If we grant the uncontroversial premise that the best possible flourishing is better than the worst possible suffering, we have all the foundation we need to build an objective moral system. To argue that it is not good or moral to promote flourishing and avoid suffering is, to me, to lose sight of any reasonable concept of ‘good’. In any given situation concerning a human, there will be options as to how to proceed, and among those options there will be some which will cause suffering and some which will cause flourishing. This is simply factual. I can demonstrate that drinking brake fluid will cause me to suffer. Thus, it is objectively true that to drink brake fluid would immoral, insofar as it causes nothing but suffering. Because there is tremendous diversity and uncanny similarity among all conscious creatures on Earth – chauvinistically singled out because we do not as yet have any proof of extraterrestrial life – there will be no simple, sweeping answers to moral questions. But we will always be faced with paths which are more likely to cause suffering and paths which are less likely. The objectivity lies in the demonstrable conclusions and the ability to apply such a method in all cases, if not in practice then certainly in principle.

I once wrote an essay entitled, “Why Moore’s “Naturalistic Fallacy” is Neither Naturalistic Nor Fallacious”. While I hold only a tenuous grip on the conclusions that I reached in that particular composition, while still thinking I was mostly correct, I can report that it is very satisfying as a critic to find that your target fails on multiple levels. This may seem childish, but it is undeniably true in my own case. In the case of objective morality as based in gods’ existence, we find that not only is such morality not objective, it is not moral either. It is based on what some being or beings think, and is thereby subjective. There is no guarantee, and plenty of evidence to the contrary, that the thoughts of such beings as they are reported to us will be beneficial or in any sense good. (Should anyone doubt this, please consult any given holy book.) Rather this theistic morality seems an impediment to building the better and more comprehensive ethical framework towards which we are still struggling. Cast off the notion of divine parental permission, focus our energies on the eradication of suffering and the promotion of flourishing, and it seems clear that we can accomplish yet greater feats of compassion than we have thus far.

[Addendum: The ideas for a godless objective morality are not entirely my own, but have been heavily influenced and inspired by Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I highly recommend checking it out, as it makes a powerful case for the fusion of ethics and science, and lays out a plan for putting an end to quibbling over moral dilemmas – thus putting me out of a job…]

1 Comment

Filed under Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Religion

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

There is a trope called the “Pyrrhic Victory”, which references a Greek king who achieved a desperate victory at the expense of destroying his own armies. The basic concept is that an empty success is snatched at the cost of your own side along with the enemy’s. This idea is also inherent in the “scorched earth” strategy, where one retreats in the face of an overwhelming attack, while burning and salting your own territory, rendering it as useless to your foe as it is to you. Why bring up these suicidal military tactics? Because both of these approaches seem to drip from a very peculiar response levelled by believers against atheists: Atheism is just one more religion among many.

Coming from the religious themselves, the accusation of religiosity as a criticism is an extraordinary attempt at a knock-down argument. What could be more self-refuting than an argument that states, “You are unjustified because you are the same as me”? This seems to be the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory. If atheism is just another religion, then it is just as superstitious, irrational and baseless as any other faith. Congratulations, you have successfully argued that those who disagree with you are just as absurd and bewildered as you are. The statement is certainly not intended as a compliment. When a Christian says to another Christian, “Your faith is admirable,” they intend a great compliment. When the same sentiment is offered to an atheist, the intent is a snide potshot. I understand that words can have different meanings, but with such a foundational concept, it is unwise to define it in diametrically opposed ways. It may begin to look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

Let us grant the premise for the sake of argument. Atheism is not the end point of an examination of god claims and finding them wanting, nor a result of lacking any exposure to them. Rather, it is a position based upon faith, the groundless failure to accept that any deity exists. Theism and atheism are therefore left on equal footing, right? Well, no. A belief is relatively reasonable if, while it lacks real justification, it accurately reflects the way the world works. We would look more kindly on a heliocentrist than a geocentrist, even if their belief is based on nothing more than personal preference. There are better and worse reasons to believe, but a correct belief is better than a false one, even if it falls short of actual knowledge. So in the presence of a universe operating by physical laws, wherein all the suffering and chaos and wonder one might expect in an unsupervised space exists, atheism still seems eerily like one of these true beliefs. The claims of the religious of miraculous events and benevolent superintendence are as ridiculous as ever, regardless of the faithfulness of their opponents.

This is where my generosity ends. Atheism does not fit any description of religion that isn’t so hopelessly diffuse as to also bring sports fanaticism and knitting club membership into the fold of faith. We use definitions as limiters, to distinguish things by noting those characteristics that are shared by that group and not by everything else. Thus atheism can easily be excluded from the category of “religion” by its failure to participate in the necessary features thereof. Admittedly, religion is difficult to define, but most people have something specific in mind when they use the word, and it may be accepted that a layman’s definition is sufficient for the purpose.

A religion generally includes a belief in some kind of deity or deities, whether deistic, theistic or pantheistic. Daoism and Buddhism do not necessarily fall under this umbrella, and for this reason it may be argued that these are closer to philosophies than religions – though some sects of Buddhism do hold a belief in the deity of the Buddha. Atheism spectacularly fails to fulfil this requirement, by its very definition. This is an analytically true statement: Atheism is the lack of belief in a god, and therefore atheists lack a belief in a god. No further empirical investigation is necessary. The vast majority of religions include a belief in an additional cornucopia of supernatural propositions. If one lacks belief in god, prayer and miracles become untenable. And while the term “atheism” only applies to the belief in god, most atheists in my experience – in the West, as many Chinese atheists hold traditional beliefs like ancestor worship – are also sceptics and materialists, and this certainly excludes these atheists from being religious believers. Religions commonly have a text or set of texts that are seen as essential and inviolable, often claimed to contain tales of gods, inspiration from same, or even direct communication from the divine. While atheists may have personal favourites and admired authors and thinkers, we stop far short of deification and are all too aware of their human limitations. I have great affection for the works of David Hume, but I will freely state that his views on race were backwards and vile.

Remove god, the supernatural and holy texts from religion, and what are we left with? Groups of people with similar ideas who meet regularly and celebrate particular days, identifying under a particular label. There is nothing now to differentiate between a religion and a political party or supporter’s club. A definition that describes everything describes nothing and should be discarded as useless. So, no meaningful definition of religion can include atheism. This leaves the theists’ scorched earth policy as a failure on two fronts: it is factually incorrect, and even if used damages theism more than it does atheism.

Leave a comment

Filed under Atheism, Philosophy, Religion

Easter Special – Almost 10 Reasons Jesus Came to Die

This Easter weekend, it’s prudent to remember the reason for the season: the appropriation by Christianity of another conveniently-timed pagan celebration. However charity is a virtue, and it would be terrible manners to ignore Jesus during his special vacation time. Happily, I was presented with a timely gospel tract explaining to this rudderless heathen precisely why it was necessary for an apocalyptic prophet from 1st Century Palestine to be executed in a truly hideous manner. This information comes courtesy of John Piper and Good News Publishers of Wheaton, Illinois. There are a nice round ten reasons for this human sacrifice, so let us delve in.

10. To destroy hostility between the races

“Jesus died to create a whole new way for races to be reconciled: he “has broken down… the dividing wall of hostility… making peace… through the cross.” (Ephesians 2:14-16).”

We begin with a double-whammy of violent departure from reality and a staggering case of missing the point. Is Piper seriously suggesting that the history of Christianity has been marked by a diminution of “suspicion, prejudice, and demeaning attitudes between Jews and non-Jews”? This might have been more convincing if the death of Jesus, as reported in the Gospel of Matthew, was not attributed to the Jews collectively – “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us, and on our children.” (Matthew 27:25) – which led to Easter pogroms for centuries, and the odious historical artefact of the “blood curse” and the charge of generalised Jewish deicide. Though since repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church in The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and by the majority of Christians around the world, it is undeniable that during the intervening centuries, Jesus death was not a source of harmony between the Jews and their neighbours. Immediately afterwards, we are treated to a stellar example of doublethink. The death of Jesus is the “only means” of reconciliation between the races. This is to be achieved by stark division between religions, with only Christianity being acceptable. This reveals exactly the method by which this racial equality is to be achieved; I will accept you exactly as you are, provided that you change your beliefs and agree with me. Now we see where the Jews went wrong for all those years. If only they had stopped being the thing that Christians hated, Christians would have stopped hating them. It completely escapes me why racial reconciliation is not possible without this forced conversion to a uniform belief. The attempt to apportion credit for any progress we have made in destroying racism to Jesus’ death stands in opposition to historical fact and basic common sense.

9. To give marriage its deepest meaning

“God’s design for marriage is for a husband  to love his wife the way Christ loves his people, and for the wife to respond the way Christ’s people should.”

Evidently Jesus’ death allowed us to bolster the sexist idea that there is something different owed by men and women when it comes to relationships. It is telling that the biblical quotation offered begins at Ephesians 5:25, and that the previous verses are referred to only obliquely. These are the famous passages urging female subjugation:

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” (Ephesians 5:22-24).

It has been argued that men are equally asked to sacrifice for the benefit of their wives, but these passages still place men firmly in the driving seat, and demand submission only from women. To suggest that the deepest meaning of marriage is an asymmetrical power relationship between two people based entirely on the configuration of their genitalia, rather than an equal partnership between loving and consensual adult humans is approaching bigotry, and certainly pales in comparison to our evolving ideas about gender equality. This is not even to mention the love that, once upon a time, dare not speak its name; would two husbands be bereft of a willing submissive, and two wives be paralysed by their mutual lack of disturbingly paternal guidance? Of course, gay marriage cannot participate in the depth of heterosexual marriage, and ought not to be considered. If marriage demands inequality, whether between spouses or sexualities, it reveals not a deepness of meaning, but a whiff of the sinister and oppressive.

8. To absorb the wrath of God

“Not to punish [sin] would be unjust. So God sent his own Son, Jesus, to divert sin’s punishment from us to himself.”

We are only on the third reason, and already the incoherent concepts begin to snowball into an incomprehensible avalanche of incomprehensibility. The central issue is scapegoating as a form of justice. The term originates in a primitive belief that one could throw one’s sins onto a beast of burden, then sacrifice the creature as a form of absolution. This is explicitly the case with Jesus; he is the perfect sacrifice, absolving us of all of our sins. But this is simply not justice, it is morally absurd. Justice would be to reward or punish people based upon their actions. But in this case, justice is defined as allowing another to die, not only taking the punishment of humankind, but also their responsibility. This cannot be done. Even if I were to pay your fine or serve your time in prison, the responsibility for your crime remains inextricably yours. So Jesus’ death is not justice, as presented.

Additionally, this involves us in the logical Gordian knot of the Trinity, forcing us to accept that God sacrificed himself in order to subvert his own demand for bloody justice. (Incidentally this Gordian knot can be untied in much the same way as the original; slicing to the point and rejecting that the Godhead can be fully three and fully one as ridiculous.) What pressure could a god be under to act in such a convoluted way, when he is the one making the rules?

Finally, I have spoken before on the severity of an offence scaling negatively with the power of the victim. Punching a child is a greater evil than punching a 300lb bodybuilder. And so the snivelling claim that sin against “the Ruler of the Universe is somehow worthy of greater punishment has been addressed and defeated.

7. So that we would escape the curse of the law

“The laws demands have been fulfilled by Christ’s perfect law-keeping, its penalty fully paid by his death… Our only hope is having the blood and righteousness of Christ credited to our account.”

The Gospel of Ryan Gosling Movies tells us that Only God Forgives, but this seems to be something of which God is incapable. Again, God is running the entire production, and so would be perfectly capable of simply forgiving humankind. Why is he subject to such strange restrictions? Setting aside for the moment that substitutionary atonement – scapegoating – is unjust, the pantomime of God demanding an impossible recompense for an unachievable crime and then intervening in human form to solve the conundrum is entirely unbelievable. God places us under the curse of the law, setting us up to fail, and we are expected to fall to our knees in gratitude when he fixes his own mistake. As far as is apparent, God is as responsible for the curse of the law as he is for our lucky escape.

6. To reconcile us to God

“”He took the steps we could not take to remove his own judgment by sending Jesus to suffer in our place: “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).”

Remember that the steps that God took to remove his own judgement did not involve simply deciding not to judge, but rather took the form of some improbable gestation, a decades-long interim and a sanguine execution. The Almighty clearly has a penchant for the dramatic. All we are asked to do is accept that our agency has been removed and agree that this grisly and theatrical event was for our benefit. Acquiesce to human sacrifice and eternal life can be yours. At this juncture, I want to state that these ten reasons are beginning to thin. The absorption of God’s wrath is our escape from the curse of the law and therefore our reconciliation with God. The concept of the Trinity seems infectious, as it is unclear whether these are three things or one thing.

5. To show God’s love for sinners

“The measure of God’s love us shown by the degree of his sacrifice in saving us from the penalty of our sins… the sacrifice the Father and the Son made to save us was indescribably great! The measure of his love increases still when we consider the degree of our unworthiness.”

Christopher Hitchens was very fond of a passage from Fulke Greville’s Mustapha which perfectly illustrates this view of wretched humanity:

“Oh, wearisome condition of Humanity!

Born under one law, to another bound.

Vainly begot and yet forbidden vanity.

Created sick, commanded to be sound.”

Humankind has a lot to answer for: the corruption of God’s perfect creation, myriad sins of violence and selfishness, not being careful in their culinary choices. So worthless are we that we are born evil, stained with the sins of our fathers. And despite our repellent nature, God still finds it in himself to love us. That God who created humans with no knowledge of good and evil, then expected them to make moral choices. That God who programmed us with sexual instincts and the capacity for anger, then condemns us for our lust and hatred. The God who punishes not only the original transgressor, but all people for all time. Could a more perfectly abusive relationship be described? God creates imperfect humans – for perfect humans would never have erred in the first place – and then demands perfection, and is surprised when we fail again and again. Human unworthiness, such as it is, is eclipsed by the divine incompetence of our fumbling architect.

Reports of God’s sacrifice have been much exaggerated. “[T]he degree of his sacrifice” extends to approximately 30-35 years of living as a human, culminating in a horrendous death by one of the most sadistic methods conceived by humankind. For an infinite and eternal being, this is less time than the merest blink of an eye. Even considering the gruesome execution, Jesus endured one day of torture and dying, before returning to his own kingdom for three days, before returning from the grave. After a brief interlude, he returned to heaven to sit at God’s right hand. I leave it to your reason to judge the sense of God being both omnipresent and confined to a human body, before taking up residence on his own right hand. A true sacrifice involves losing something. A true gift involves giving something away. God did neither of these things. If God has a son, he still has his son; nothing was lost. Conversely, if I were to sacrifice my hypothetical son in a fit of utter madness, leading to his death, he would be truly lost to me. I wouldn’t then get to enjoy his company for eternity. God’s love for sinners proves to be nothing more than an empty façade, a show to impress his own victims. 

4. To show Jesus’ own love for us

“Jesus paid the highest price possible to give me – personally – the greatest gift possible.”

I confess myself confused again. What is the difference between God’s love and Jesus’ love if they are the same being? And why is this “sacrifice” any less vacuous than the Father’s? Again, Jesus paid a pittance to offer an illusory carrot, with the ever-present threat of a luckily equally illusory stick.

3. To take away our condemnation

“Christ becomes our punishment (which we don’t have to bear) and our worth before God (which we cannot earn)… It is as sure that they cannot be condemned as it is sure that Christ died!”

The final sentence presents me with an opportunity to be sardonic, and I can rarely resist this temptation. The surety of Jesus’ death is far from solid, though I will admit that it eclipses my conviction that any such death could possibly form a magical shield around a person, armouring them against condemnation by an omnipotent being. All I ask is a modicum of consistency. In this system, humans are entirely devoid of agency, except when they are sinning. It is exceedingly odd that our actions are powerful enough to doom us, but never capable of saving us. It is strange to simultaneously be so mighty and so impotent. There has been frequent talk throughout this tract of a “gift” of freedom from the punishment we so sorely deserve, but here we discover the hidden charge for this gift: belief. Despite our inability to earn our absolution, we can do something in order to make our absolution possible. Evidently this is a definition of “earn” with which I am unfamiliar.

2. To bring us to God

“The gospel is the good news that at the cost of his Son’s life, God has done everything necessary to captivate us with what will make us eternally and ever-increasingly happy – namely, himself.”

The allure of God is not enhanced but rather marred by his participation in blood sacrifice in a curious attempt to subvert his own regulations. Ought we trust the being who cannot understand that, being omnipotent, he can just fix things in an instant, with justice meted out in a fair way rather than using an ethically simplistic one-size-fits-all penal system? Particularly, should we trust his nebulous promises of happiness everlasting? Eternal life as a positive is the result of human greed and human failure of imagination. An eternity of anything would become torture, simply given the nature of eternity. I find the notion of “ever-increasingly happy” rather telling that Piper recognises this problem, and thinks that scaling happiness will resolve the issue. Humans, being finite, possess a maximum happiness in which they can participate, and once this logic is reached the torture of eternity will soon set in. This could perhaps be avoided by humankind advancing to become a singularity of consciousness, an enormous and limitless cloud focussed entirely upon happiness, but this drifts into science fiction in an attempt to justify the childish idea of heaven.

1. To give eternal life to all who believe on him

I’m fairly certain that this was a typo, as I’ve never considered belief to be something to be placed atop another thing. I’ve explained already why eternal reward is a gift not worth having from an entity not worth respecting.

Easter seems to me to be the commemoration of an execution as if it were necessary, a resurrection as if it were factual, and a farce as if it were providential. Once again we are asked to dwell on the inborn depravity of every human, bestowed upon us by our loving creator, who then offers a complex and violent get-out clause based on subjugation. Instead of the seemingly more attainable forgiveness. Thankfully, Easter is more or less entirely secularised, with eggs and rabbits taking presence over death and shame. Good thing too, as chocolate seems to gain something wonderful from being shaped into an egg. Long may the heartless exploitation of every culturally significant holiday continue.

Leave a comment

Filed under Atheism, Ethics, Philosophy, Religion