Saturday, September 1, 2007

The God Delusion, Part 7 – The Good book and the changing moral zeitgeist

In chapter seven of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins attacks the book from which some Christians claim to get their moral code from, I am speaking of course about the Old Testament. However, Dawkins makes it clear that he is not criticizing the moral or conduct of Christians per say, rather, he argues that Christians, like other mortals in fact do not derive their morals from the bible…

"We pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories. Such picking and choosing is a matter of personal decision, just as much, or as little, as the atheist's decision to follow this moral precept or that was a personal decision, without an absolute foundation."

That people "pick and choose" among the moral guidelines in the bible becomes extremely obvious when you take into account what is actually advocated in the Old Testament. I believe that not even fundamentalist a Christians would send his or her daughter into the hands of rapists and murders (see Judges 19:23-4). I also wonder how many fundamentalist Christians actually think that God is doing the right thing when he commands the stoning of a poor man who worked on the Sabbath!? And then again there are people who believe strongly in their own interpretation of the bible, and based on that interpretation they commit horrible crimes… Richard Dawkins writes:

"As the Nobel Prize-winning American physicist Steven Weinberg said, 'Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.' Blaise Pascal (he of the wager) said something similar: 'Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

Criticizing the Old Testament is like shooting a dead elephant, not very difficult. To me it is quite incomprehensible how people today can believe literally everything that is written in the Old Testament. It is even more difficult for me to understand why someone would want to get their morals from this book. Luckily Yahweh's son(?) Jesus came along. I hope that those who believe that Richard Dawkins is a fundamentalist atheist who hits out at anything and everything associated with religion, will read the following quote carefully…

Well, there's no denying that, from a moral point of view, Jesus is a huge improvement over the cruel ogre of the Old Testament. Indeed Jesus, if he existed (or whoever wrote his script if he didn't) was surely one of the great ethical innovators of history. The Sermon on the Mount is way ahead of its time. His 'turn the other cheek' anticipated Gandhi and Martin Luther King by two thousand years. It was not for nothing that I wrote an article called 'Atheists for Jesus' (and was later delighted to be presented with a T-shirt bearing the legend).

I also see Jesus as a role model in more than one respect and I think his philosophy is good, albeit not perfect. I admire Jesus in the same way that I admire other philosophers such Bentham, Mill, Rawls and Kant. All these men have influenced the way I think about good and bad, but I don't think any of these men have THE ethical philosophy. Similarly, Jesus as he is described in the New Testament has many good ideas and thoughts, but he is not always an example to follow. Dawkins writes.

Jesus' family values, it has to be admitted, were not such as one might wish to focus on. He was short, to the point of brusqueness, with his own mother, and he encouraged his disciples to abandon their families to follow him. 'If any man come to me and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

Speaking about Jesus, I have also always asked myself why? Why did God have to incarnate himself, ridicule his incarnation, and then finally have him crucified just in order to forgive us? Why couldn't God, who is after all omnipotent and omniscient, just forgive our sins without going through all the trouble? I don't think I have ever gotten a straight answer to that question…

A couple a weeks ago I was asked the question which always pops up in discussions such as this one: What about Stalin and Hitler, they were atheists and they were evil!? Doesn't that mean that atheism makes people evil? No it doesn't. In my mind it is not important what a particular person or dictator believes. What matters to me is the behavior and actions of the person in question. Quite often a person's beliefs influence the behavior of the believer and then the beliefs becomes relevant. Religion I believe, in general, has a bad influence on people's behavior, in particular when we are talking about world leaders since they become more rigid and difficult to negotiate with. Atheism, I would argue, has no such effect on behavior. Hitler probably was religious (read the book if you want further justification of this point), but Joseph Stalin was certainly an atheist. Did atheism make Stalin commit his crimes, I believe not. Did his Islamic conviction make Osama Bin Laden commit his crimes, yes they probably did…

What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.


Z said...

I think it's a very good thing that many atheists seem to base their ethics and morals on empathy/sympathy.
They simply listen to what peolpe say ("I feel like this and this") or just look att peoples faces:
(frowning, crying, screaming, smiling, shaking, harmonic facial expressions etc...)!

That's the humane way.

But what about the people whose facial expressions we CAN'T see?
Fetuses, the unborn...

Do you base ethics only on the faces you can see? ;)

rasmussenanders said...

I think that empathy/sympathy is important but not all-important. For fetuses I think that what is most relevant is whether they experience any agony/pain as a result of for instance an abortion.

I also think that you can come a long way with the principle that you treat other the same way you want to be treated.

In sum, facial expressions is one important que, but there are many other that we can also use...

Felicia Gilljam said...

Z, you don't have to see a person to feel empathy or sympathy. Also, the point Dawkins and many other atheists make is that this way of dealing with morals is not limited to atheists - all humans get their morals from the same source. You would still be a moral person even if you didn't believe in Jesus, because you would still have such feelings as empathy, sympathy, compassion. You would also still be afraid being ostracised if you broke the social rules of the society you live in. Without Jesus, you still have the need to interact with other humans, and that demands morals.

Z said...

i just want to admit that i've met some atheists who really don't like abortions at all.

Felicia Gilljam said...

Z, who likes abortions? I don't like abortions anymore than I like any other kind of invasive surgery. They're a necessary evil for some individuals.

Z said...

Of, course, i didn't think you did, either. Nobody likes them, in my opinion, but many occur anyway.

What non-religious/atheist/ ethics association can one turn if one one considers life to begin at the moment of conception? (This is what i really meant).

Is there any group called "atheists against abortion" ?
My non-religious (he clearly staded)philosophy teacher at S:t Petri gymnasium, Malmö, complained that people assume that he is a liberal around this question, just because he's an atheist. He also wanted some kind of organisation to join, he said.

My question is:
Do atheist ethics also cover the whole course of human life?
If one considers an embryo as human life?

rasmussenanders said...

I see it more as a rational stance than an atheist stance to say that a blastula is not a human life. Untill quite late in the pregnancy the fetus is not nearly as complex as say a monkey and I think this should be taken into account.

I don't think the potential to human life should be equivalent to a human life... After all it is theoretically possible to turn any one of our cells into a human being (not practicalllily possible today though).

There is no rational reason for saying that life begins at contraception. That argument must be based on the assumption that the soul is created then, and there is no evidence that we even have a soul...

Perhaps atheists are expected to be more liberal in the abortion question because they are on average more rational?

Anonymous said...

Stalin most likely hated the church if you do some reading on him (overzealous father, kicked out of seminary), and to say that Hitler was an atheist is bullshit. That is pure intellectual dishonesty. He claimed he was doing "God's work" in Mein Kampf. You can't say he wasn't the same type of Christian that you are and then move him straight to atheist.

Beda said...

I would take issue with the idea that atheism is necessarily sort of "neutral" about these issues. First, like religions, there are several different types of atheism, so it is difficult to generalise about them. But to say that, for example, Stalin's murderous regime was without connection to his atheism is surely misleading, for it was rooted in his Marxism, in itself a profoundly atheist philosophy. I accept that this characterisation would not be universally agreed on; but at the very least, Marx saw religion as a sort of symptom of repression; and the removal of the repression should (he thought) remove the cause of religion too. However, later marxists were by no means so nuanced; hence Stalin's deliberate persecution of the Russian Orthodox church. As for evils arising from marxism, the words of the Hungarian communist György Lukacs are worth attending to: "the question of legality or illegality reduces itself...for the Communist Party to a mere question of tactics". And "Communist ethics makes it the highest duty to accept the necessity to act wickedly"..."this is the greatest sacrifice revolution asks from us".
I submit that such ethics, based as they are on Marx's view of the human as the pinnacle of greatness, are distinctively atheist; for they see all laws and morals as being simply the expression of the bourgeois oppressive society. In other words, marxism is simply incompatible with religion; and thus its ideals are too. Therefore, there is at least one type of atheism that drove its adherents to disgraceful acts on the basis of its atheism (considered in the proper sense of antithesis to theism).


PS Rummel estimates that Soviet Russia murdered 62 000 000 people.

rasmussenanders said...

Hello again,
There may be indirect links between between Stalin ideology and his atheism, however, the main question here is whether he killed all those people in the name of atheism or to create an atheistic state? Did Stalins atheism have anything to do with his persecutions. I don't think they did. It is most clear when you compare it to 9/11 or the crusades which were indeed motivated by religion.

Beda said...

Hejsan! Här har vi ingen vinter...-(

I think the point here is that all the major communist regimes killed people in astonishing numbers - perhaps as many as 110 000 000 people from 1917-1987. Such commitment to mass murder implies a murderous ideology - it is surely no accident that these regimes *happened* to be communist and *happened* to slaughter their own citizens on unprecedented scales.

What *was* this ideological commitment? I agree to this extent, that it was not "atheism" per se, if only because such generalisations are so misleading (in the same way that generalisations about religion are): Still, the marxist ideology to which Stalin was wedded is one of absolute power; one that naturally saw the orthodox church - and indeed anything else that might have the people's allegiance - as a rival that had to be brutally crushed: indeed, it was almost eliminated entirely during the 30's by a systematic campaign of murder (by the end of the 30s, only a fwe hundred parishes still existed, compared to the 54000 at the start of the revolution; and maybe 100000 priests, monks and nuns were murdered).

Soviet Russia was, of course, officially an atheist state. Having large numbers of religious believers in such a state, where complete allegiance to the Party was absolutely central to the communist ideology, was of course impossible.
So: Stalin worked to create an atheist state where the existence of any real religion would be a contradiction in terms. So, I think I disagree with you: Stalin did indeed set out to create an atheist state, and systematically murdered the religious for this very aim.

Beda said...

Hmm, as you've probably guessed, I was NOT a great fan of TGD! :-D

Now I am going to do the impossible and defend the Old Testament too. :-)

It's easy to go through the OT and make fun of it (it's easy to do that for Dawkins too...), but of course, that is not really the issue. Sometimes, people do this just for amusement, For example, the famous skeptic's bible on genesis 38, which seems to think the whole scene hilarious and wicked ( but yet fails to make any comment on the crunch lines at 25-26 which shows the irony, not to say black humour involved in the whole thing. That's the trouble with skeptics sometimes - they only appreciate their own humour...:-)

As usual, the attack on the OT is an "either-or" one: ie EITHER you accept EVERYTHING in the OT as the perfect word of God; OR you don't pay any attention to its moral message and just "cherry pick" bits out you happen to like.

In fact, the OT shows two strains of thought that are in some tension with each other. In the broadest sense, it shows a developing sense of morality that comes into conflict with an older, "sacrificial" view of religion.
In Greek tragedy, bad things happen, but the tragedians scrupulously avoid moralising. This is in fact a necessity for the world view that they are presenting; one where inevitable violence springs from resentment, and where the solution to it is found in some sort of scapegoating.

But in the OT, we see almost from the beginning a strain of thought that is not scapegoating/sacrifical, but moral. For example, the conflict between Cain and Abel, which could be out of any Greek tragedy is presented as a moral outrage, not the impersonal workings of tragedy: Abel's blood calls out from the ground). Hence, the innocence of the victims of violence is declared, contrary to the sacrificial view where sacrifice victims are seen as "guilty".

Sometimes God is portrayed as the bringer of violence (the sacrificial line); but increasingly not, as the prophets worked through the moral implications of their interactions with God. Hence the Israelites were the race of care towards widows, orphans and even strangers: a particular care (dead against what Dawkins says in TGD, incidentally) that may have been shaped by their own experiences when captive in Egypt.

The OT is thus not a muddle of confused morality, but a set of consistent and admirable moral beliefs that slowly emerge against the older sacrificial view of gods common to the middle east of the time. It is the clarity of the eventual vision, and the tension between the two, that makes the OT such a remarkable set of works. It is certainly no dead elephant! :-D

Anonymous said...

"What matters is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does."

So then where is that great atheist civilization and culture of old that has stood the test of time? Granted the religious are not perfect but at least they have a crude moral foundation and support groups. One atheist civilization, the U.S.S.R., only lasted 70 years. When that society fell, people could not wait to get back to religion.