Total Drek

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

On the inadequacy of reference points.

One of the common criticisms I hear of atheism is that without god morality is impossible. Presumably this is because god provides an unchanging reference against which morality can be judged. And understand that when I say "presumably" I really mean "pretty much explicitly" given the commentary of folks like Ron Rhodes:

" is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good. Otherwise one is like a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass (i.e., there would be no way to distinguish north from south without the absolute reference point of the compass needle).

The infinite reference point for distinguishing good from evil can only be found in the person of God, for God alone can exhaust the definition of "absolutely good." If God does not exist, then there are no moral absolutes by which one has the right to judge something (or someone) as being evil. More specifically, if God does not exist, there is no ultimate basis to judge the crimes of Hitler. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it."

Now, I've talked about Rhodes before at some length and don't mean to rehash his nonsense now. The point is simply to reintroduce this basic argument: atheists cannot be moral because they have no standard against which to judge morality. The answer to this conundrum, we are told, is god and often specifically the bible. There are a number of problems with this argument, that I discuss elsewhere, but recently circumstances have given me a great example of why this logic is problematic. I refer, of course, to a recent incident wherein a Texas jury apparently referred to the bible when deciding whether or not to recommend that a murderer receive the death penalty:

Amnesty International has appealed to the state to commute the sentence on Khristian Oliver, 32, who is due to die on November 5.

He was sentenced to death in 1999 for murdering a man whose home Oliver was burgling. The victim was shot in the face and beaten with his own rifle.

It later emerged that while deciding whether he should be given the death penalty, jurors consulted the Bible. Four jury members admitted that several copies had been in the jury room and that highlighted passages were passed around.

At one point, a juror reportedly read aloud from a copy, including the passage: "And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death."

Now, the thing is, I'm not interested in defending Mr. Oliver or in debating the death penalty. Instead, I'd like to point something out: in at least this case, the bible was used to justify putting a man to death. Yet, the Catholic Church, one of the largest Christian denominations, stringently opposes both the death penalty and abortion. And this is, of course, the same Catholic Church that used to burn people at the stake in the name of Christianity and encourage noblemen to put Muslims to the sword and reconquer the holy land. Some Christian denominations ordain women and allow homosexuals to worship. Others condemn homosexuals as an abomination before god and expect women to remain subservient to men. And, at the end of the day, all of these groups claim to follow the same god, the same prophets, and share the same holy texts.

My purpose here, of course, is not to bash Christianity and the above is not intended to do so. The above are simply statements of facts- there is a great diversity to Christian belief just as there is a great diversity to Christians. My point, however, is simply that the notion that religion provides a fixed reference point for the judgment of morality is- in a word- silly. If so many people, believing in the same god, and referring to the same books, can arrive at so many different conclusions, then morality does not come from god, but instead comes from us. And if that's so, then attributing this morality to god does little more than conceal the decision making process, thereby making it more difficult to evaluate and improve our sense of morality.

And this is the really interesting thing to me. In western civilization we have come to expect that virtually every aspect of our lives will improve over time. Science learns more, engineers build more sophisticated machines, medicine cures more, literature and art progress. Hell, even summer blockbusters are supposed to get more impressive over time. Yet, in this one area of life- morality- we seem to cling to the notion that what is old, even ancient, is inherently better. In this one domain we seem to labor under the belief that men writing thousands of years ago, in a world almost unrecognizably different from our own, were able to lay out truths so perfect that they never need to be revised. And from that belief we have developed this notion that slavish obedience to those ancient writings, no matter how out of date, is to be praised.

Perhaps atheism lacks a firm reference point for morality but, if so, that only makes it better. By exposing the difficulties of moral choices to the light of critical examination it allows room for change, for improvement, and advancement. And to me that makes our future a brighter, more appealing place.

I should note, in passing, that I do not wish to imply that religious persons do not reevaluate their morality periodically- they can and do both individually and as a group. Were it otherwise the Catholic Church would still be burning people at the stake. My point, however, is that we might be much more effective in improving our ethical systems if we were relieved of the fiction that they come from god and, likewise, the need to justify moral improvements through reference to texts written millennia ago.

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Blogger Jay said...

Far better to be at sea on a cloudy night with an invisible needle, listening to thirty learned men of needle scholarship disagree on which direction the needle is pointing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009 1:59:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...


Hey, it's not my tortured analogy but, if you really want me to work with it:

"Better a steersman who is willing to change direction when new information comes to light than one who insists on sticking with one direction because it worked for another guy two thousand years ago and half a world away."

Thursday, October 29, 2009 6:58:00 AM  

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