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Socrates: ancient Humanist? (reblogged from Footnotes to Plato)

If you want to know more about Socrates, or Humanism, or anything else that really matters, this is for you.

And the horns of Euthyphro’s Dilemma, described here, are as sharp as ever. This morning, February 2nd, a committee of the Scottish Parliament is considering the Scottish Secular Society petition for the removal of the church representatives who sit, immune from electoral scrutiny, on Scottish Local Education Authority Committees. Defenders of the status quo argue that they have an important role to play in transmitting Christian values. The petition (which I helped write) argues that if a value is specifically Christian, it will not necessarily be shared by the non-Christians who now form a majority among young Scots, while if it is not specifically Christian, we do not need a church representative to instruct us in it. The derivation from Euthyphro is obvious.

More on the petition on this blog and on the Parliamentary website. Updates as available. Massimo Pigliucci’s essay, below, speaks for itself, and I am flattered that he approves the use that the petition made of Socrates’ argument.

Footnotes to Plato

MNR-Socrate Socrates, Roman National Museum, photo by the Author

As part of my ongoing occasional series aiming at bringing some of my own technical papers to the attention of a wider public (after all, what the hell is the point of doing scholarship if it only benefits other scholars?), below I reprint a paper I recently published in The Human Prospect. It inquires on the possibility of interpreting Socrates as a proto-Humanist of sorts, and it therefore includes a discussion of Humanism as a philosophy of life, as well its likely stemming from the ancient Greco-Roman tradition of virtue ethics (via the mediation of the Renaissance Humanists, which were informed by, and yet were reacting against, medieval Christianity).

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The Church, education, and “Christian values”; another bad reason for denying democracy

Reminder: there is still time to show support for our petition to abolish Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees; just click here and fill in your details

Summary: Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

The Churches refer to “Christian values”, in order to justify their uninvited presence on Council Education Committees. Like other reasons offered (see earlier post), this one repays closer examination.

The Church of Scotland enjoins its appointees to assert their presence  “by exercising your statutory right and endeavouring to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools”. I have already discussed the implications for the curriculum and for religious and moral education and religious observance. Here I would like to concentrate on the concept of Christian values, and, indeed, religious values in general.


The Sacrifice of Isaac, by Caravaggio

Most believers take it for granted that the morality derived from their own religion is superior to others, and indeed a very common argument in favour of religious belief is that, without it, there is no basis for moral conduct. (Note, by the way, that this is not an argument in favour of the truth of religion, but only of its usefulness.) But can morality be derived from religion? More specifically, if, by some means, we know what God does or does not want, is that enough to tell us the difference between right and wrong?

Consider, as many people have, the story of how Abraham was willing to follow God’s command and sacrifice his son, Isaac. As a teenager, I took this story very seriously, and asked myself whether Abraham was really doing the right thing. I gradually came to realise that this is a very interesting question, however you answer it, because it shows up a fundamental problem with the idea that morality comes from God.

What I did not know was that this problem had been pointed out over 2000 years ago, by Plato’s Socrates, in what is known as Euthyphro’s Dilemma. In today’s language, are good actions good because they correspond to what God wants, or does God want them because they are good? The first alternative makes morality dependent on the whim of the Deity, which few of us will find satisfying. Some religions, after all, have believed in a God who wants human sacrifices. The second implies that goodness can be defined independent of God, in which case religion is not the ultimate basis for morality anyway.

Then there is the small problem of deciding what God actually wants. Does God want us to kill homosexuals? The authors of Leviticus certainly thought so, and Daesh ( the “Islamic State”) thinks so today. Does He want us to kill blasphemers and heretics? The legal codes of many countries say that He does, and there was a period in the sixteenth century when Catholics and Protestants agreed that this is indeed what He wants, even though they could not agree on who was, or was not, heretical.


The Ten Commandments, late 19C, stained glass in synagogue, Alsace; image by Ji-Elle via Wikimedia. In accord with Jewish tradition, this image shows “I am the LORD” as the first commandment.

Some say the Ten Commandments encapsulate what God wants. So here’s my own brief summary; full text in the Appendix to this post:

God brought you out of Egypt (only applies to Jews, and anyway completely unhistorical). Don’t make idols, take God’s name in vain, or worship other gods, because God is jealous and will be very cross and punish you for generations. Not much morality there. Honour your parents; generally a good idea, though I have seen exceptions. And take a day off each week; good advice. But the reason offered is strange; that God made heaven and earth in six days (yes, that’s what it says), and rested on the seventh (what does it mean, I wonder, for God to rest).

Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness. Very good advice, but do we need a Deity to tell us this? And, finally, it’s wrong to covet your neighbour’s slaves, but slavery itself is okay. Indeed, following on from the Ten Commandments in Exodus we have the rules about slavery. A Hebrew slave can leave if he wants after seven years, but his wife and kids have to stay behind because they are the master’s property.

At this point, some people will accuse me of poking fun at the Ten Commandments. On the contrary, I am taking them seriously, looking at what they actually say, and evaluating them as guides to action. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?

I had two reasons for analysing them in such detail here. Firstly, to challenge the claim of the great moral worthiness of these Commandments as a basis for morality. And secondly, and more importantly here, to illustrate the difference between general values and religious values.

As a matter of shared human values, I think we would all agree that murder, theft, slander, and cheating on our partners is not desirable behaviour. But I don’t notice unbelievers going around being any more homicidal, personally and sexually dishonest, or prone to malicious tale-bearing than the rest of us. Covetousness is an interesting case; at what point does the natural desire to improve one’s lot, and cut a respectable figure in society, become socially disruptive? As for this stuff about slaves, perhaps the kindest thing that we can say is that the authors of Exodus were people of their own time, and accepted (as most of us do today) their time’s view of economic necessity.

That leaves all the stuff about Egypt, graven images, and not making God jealous. I don’t think we need to pay attention to any of this if we don’t want to. Religious values, unless they are also shared human values, will be important to those who want to follow that particular religion, but have no special significance for the rest of us.

But you might say that it’s unfair to judge Christianity by quoting the Old Testament. OK, let’s fast forward a bit. I won’t linger over St Paul’s views on the duties of slaves and women, or the Albigensian Crusade, or the Spanish Inquisition (after all, no one expects the Spanish Inquisition), or the cosy relationship between at least some Churches and Hitler, Mussolini, and the bloodstained dictators of Latin America. These are more enlightened times.

Nor will I belabour the sex abuse scandals of recent years, the havoc wrought by the doctrinal absurdity of priestly celibacy, and the numerous administrative cover-ups, since not even the various Churches involved pretend to moral justification.

As for the involvement of the Catholic Church, the Church of England, and the Salvation Army in forced adoptions, they’ve apologised and won’t do it again, so let’s move on.

Consider instead an area where the moral consensus in the West has shifted dramatically within my own lifetime, and how the Churches have responded to this change. I am referring to sexual morality, and the closely related subject of the treatment of women.

Not too long ago, in Scotland, lower pay for women, and restricted employment and promotion, were regarded as part of the natural order of things. Sex between men was illegal, and, the “promotion” (i.e. discussion) of homosexuality in school health education classes specifically forbidden. Sex outside marriage was, however hypocritically, considered wrong, and the availability of contraception to young adults was restricted, for fear of condoning such activity. Abortion was illegal, unless it could be shown to endanger the mother’s health, and the barrier for this was set so high that illegal abortions were commonplace. Now, by contrast, job discrimination against women is illegal, except for certain jobs (such as the priesthood!) where gender is regarded as important to performance. We have same-sex marriage, and a highly successful grassroots campaign (TIE; Time for Inclusive Education) is leading to the incorporation of nonjudgemental discussion of homosexuality in school education programmes. Sexual morality is seen as based on human values of respect and concern, and teenage pregnancy is at an all-time low. There is still a legal requirement for doctors’ agreement to the necessity of an abortion, but it would be extraordinary for such an agreement to be withheld.

All of these changes will to most of us seem to be changes for the better. And all of them have taken place in the face of opposition, in some areas still effective and active, from the clergy. Thus in the areas of morality of the greatest concern to schoolchildren, the Churches have not been leaders, but laggards. The very last people, one might argue, to be granted a position of privilege on the committees that decide education policy.

Adapted with additional material from a post that first appeared in 3 Quarks Daily, under the title Democracy or theocracy; the bid to reform Scotland’s educational system. It also appears on the Scottish Secular Society website, at

Appendix: The Ten Commandments, KJV, Exodus 20:1-17 (there are minor differences in the version in Deuteronomy)

And God spake all these words, saying,

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Thou shalt not kill [a more exact translation would be, thou shalt not murder]. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

Science Magazine: “Birth of the Moralizing Gods”

Gods, morality, society. Religion, identity, and our sense of right and wrong. How can we explain the way these interlock, and can we test our suggested explanations against observation? An article titled Birth of the Moralizing Gods, in the latest issue of Science, suggests that we can.

The Binding of Isaac, by Rembrandt, used as illustration in the Science Magazine article

Logically, of course, we cannot derive morality from religion. The reasons were spelt out by David Hume, and go back all the way to Plato’s “Euthyphro’s dilemma”. The bumper-sticker version is “No ought from is”; you will find my own simplistic exposition here, and a proper grown-up discussion in Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass. Do the gods desire what is good, because it is good? Or is it good because the gods desire it? In the first case, we do not need the gods to define goodness, because it already exists independent of them. In the second, goodness is defined by their arbitrary whims, which does not seem very satisfactory either.

Psychologically, things are very different, and both horns of the dilemma crumple as soon as we put any weight on them. The gods are very wise and very loving, and so, if they have revealed their wishes to us, that is trustworthy guidance as to what is truly good. So the first horn crumples under the weight of their authority. At the same time, the gods are arbitrary and irascible Oriental despots, and if we offend them, we risk bringing down powerful vengeance on our communities as well as on ourselves, or at least the withdrawal of divine protection. According to Jeremiah, the Babylonians were able to destroy the First Temple in Jerusalem because the people of Judah had sinned by tolerating Ishtar worship; according to Pat Robertson, Al Qaeda was able to destroy the Twin Towers because the people of America had sinned by tolerating homosexuality. If you really believe such things (and I think Jeremiah was completely sincere in his beliefs), then the second horn of the dilemma cannot withstand the pressures of prudence.

The persistence and near-universality of religion presents a problem for non-believers. Indeed, the persistence of what must by exclusion be false religions presents an at least comparable problem for believers. This problem was discussed at some length by Jared Diamond in his 2012 book The World Until Yesterday. Diamond adds, to his knowledge of earlier discussions, his experience living in New Guinea among people recently emerged from tribalism and his perspective as an evolutionary biologist. Religions, like body organs, have evolved by a process of Darwinian selection, but, again like body organs, their functions may have changed over time. Since the practice of religion always involves some cost, religion would seem to incur some benefits that outweigh this cost.[1]

The oldest functions may well be the explanation of phenomena in terms of agency, and the illusion of control through ritual; a divine charioteer carries the Sun across the sky, and you will have a smoother sea voyage if you make the proper libations to Neptune. This is now a relatively minor function. It survives in First Cause and related arguments, but by an interesting inversion, these are used not so much to explain phenomena as to justify religious belief itself. Relatedly, there is prayer as a way of making things happen, petitionary prayer. This Diamond expects to be most evident among people facing uncertainty about subsistence; few of us nowadays, at least in the developed world, are really anxious about our daily bread.

Next we have religion as in-group membership, and this helps explain the willingness to make sacrifices, either material or intellectual. To benefit from group membership, you need to show that you’re entitled to it. You can prove you’re a good Catholic by believing in the physical assumption of the Virgin into Heaven. You can prove you’re a good Muslim by praying five times a day, fasting through Ramadan and visiting Mecca. You can prove you’re a good Jew by elaborate dietary restrictions, and avoiding motor transport on Saturdays. And since the more extreme sacrifice is seen as the more admirable, the more inflexible belief is seen as the more authentic; this may help account for the metastasising spread of Creationism in all three Abrahamic religions.

Another surviving major function is consolation. Prayer provides at least the comforting illusion of action, and may also help reconcile the person praying to the outcome, whatever it may be. The misfortunes and injustices of this world will rankle less if you believe that they will be rectified in the Hereafter. It is certain that many people find consolation in religion when faced with the death of loved ones, or when contemplating their own mortality, in belief in an afterlife, although some, alas, believe in a final judgement that makes death itself seem all the more terrifying.

This comforting function shades into the one singled out in the Science article, namely the provision of a basis for morality in complex societies, in which conduct can no longer be regulated purely by personal relationships and reputation. As Diamond puts it,

“Hell has a double function: to comfort you by smiting your enemies whom you were unable to smite yourselves here on earth; and to motivate you to obey your religion’s moral commands, by threatening to send you to there if you misbehave.”

On his analysis, this moral function, as well as hierarchical organisation, religion as the basis for political obedience, and religious justifications for wars “were absent in small-scale societies, appeared with the rise of chiefdoms and states, and have declined again in modern secular states.” This seems plausible, especially when we compare 21st-century Europe either with 16th century Europe, or with the 21st-century Middle East.

The work described in the Science article attempts to go beyond such common generalisations. It starts from a surprising discovery, advances a counter-intuitive hypothesis, and points towards a highly ambitious multidisciplinary research programme. The discovery is that of an 11,500-year-old elaborate religious site at Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, apparently predating the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture, and the increases in population density and social organisation that this made possible. The hypothesis is that moralising gods are a precondition for achieving complex social organisation, rather than its product, and this is in principle testable archaeologically. So we should go looking for the earliest evidence of religious or symbolic activity in the various other sites where complex societies emerged independently. The overall research programme involves, among other things, the compilation of cross-cultural databases, such as the Database of Religious History, and is backed by a much-cited experimental study in which religious cueing (but not self-reported religiosity) led to more generous sharing behaviour in the laboratory.

It would be easy but, I think, a mistake to make fun of a programme that involves, for example, reducing the Epistles of St Paul to a series of yes/no answers, or attempting to generalise from the behaviour of North American laboratory subjects. At the very least,we have an enterprise bringing together an unusually wide range of scholars, to work together on problems involving archaeology and history, psychology, and textual analysis. At best, we will have new perspectives on the deepest, darkest, and most complex recesses of our own behaviour, and perhaps, even, some answers to the challenges posed by religion at its best, and at its worst, in the world today.

A comment on the scene illustrated: even as a child, I remember being puzzled by this story. God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son; Abraham prepares to do so, thereby demonstrating his obedience to God; then God intervenes, provides a ram for the sacrifice, and rewards Abraham by promising to make him the father of a numerous and successful people. At first, I wondered whether Abraham really did the right thing. Then I realised that by even asking the question, I was drawing a distinction between what God wanted, and what was morally right. It was only much much later that something occurred to me that may also occurred to Rembrandt, to judge from the violence with which he depicts the scene; Abraham was about to offer up Isaac’s life, but Isaac’s life was not his to give.

1] It is possible that religion itself conveys no benefits, but is the historical byproduct of some other, more advantageous, behaviour. However, it is not clear what this would be, and in any case that merely pushes the problem back one stage.

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