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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. Read the rest of this entry

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.

On the foundations of morality

There aren’t any. Nor can there be. And if anyone can refute me on this, I’ll be delighted. [Update: discussion arising from this post has convinced me that we all use multiple foundations, that they are mutually inconsistent, and that there is no way of choosing between them. My position here is very similar to that taken by Alex Rosenberg, of Duke University, who argues that moral judgments are not factual claims but emotional responses and spurs to action, and that there is no way of arbitrating basic disagreements.]

I have just finished reading Kenan Malik’s superb The Quest for a Moral Compass, which I am not competent to review, beyond questioning the judgement of those commentators who have compared it to Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. Russell is concerned primarily with timeless questions of epistemology, Malik with our present moral confusions. And unlike Russell, Malik doesn’t ignore the existence of China.

Let me add, however, that Malik is not to blame for what follows here.

There are some questions which of their nature cannot be answered. A notorious example is Heidegger’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” This can never be answered. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of the totality denoted by “something”, or it is not. In the first case, part of the explicand is being invoked as the explanation, which is absurd. In the second, X itself remains to be explained, and we are no further forward. There are various ways of cheating at this point, either by allowing X to be eternal, and thus not requiring explanation (Aquinas), or by claiming that X is, in some mysterious sense, “necessary”, and therefore exempt from the need to be explained (William Lane Craig, Plantinga), but neither of these would convince anyone who did not already have faith in the implied First Cause.

I have come to the melancholy conclusion that the question “On what can we base our morality?” comes into the same category. This is not news. It was, in a sense, spelt out by Plato in Euthyphro’s notorious dilemma. Are things good because the gods love them, or do the gods love these things because they are good? In the first case, the moral code is merely a by-product of divine whims, and would change if those whims happened to change. In the second, the gods themselves must be appealing to some higher principle; what is it?

As Malik points out in his masterly demolition of Sam Harris’s philosophical pretensions, the argument generalises. Harris would have us derive morality from science, and in particular from the principle of maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Thus he would in principle justify torture, if it could be demonstrated as an effective way of extracting information, provided the gain in well-being achieved through our possession of the information extracted by it outweighs the victim’s sufferings.

But why should we regard maximising “the well-being of conscious creatures” as our measure of morality, even if we could quantify and define “well-being,” foresee how this would be affected by our actions, and accurately subtract one creature’s loss of well-being from another creature’s gain? As Malik points out, there is no reason why someone who accepts different principles – who regards, for example, inflicting torture as an insult to the nature of humanity that cannot be justified under any circumstances – should regard Harris’s arguments as the least bit convincing. As Malik puts it, Euthyphro’s dilemma applies with as much force to the appeal to the results of science, as it does to the appeal to the will of the gods.

Nor can we derive a solution from appealing to evolution, or to the nature of our humanity, or to the dynamics of history. It is perfectly possible to maintain, indeed I myself do maintain, that xenophobia is the result of evolutionary hardwiring, but nonetheless morally wrong. And few would maintain that to explain, for example, Stalin, or the Islamic State, in terms of historical forces is in any way to justify them.

And we can generalise. The same argument applies to any purported criterion for distinguishing right from wrong. We cannot live without moral principles, any more than we can live without confidence in the constancy of the laws of nature, but in neither case is it possible to justify our position without circularity. Perhaps we simply need to live with these uncomfortable truths.

To return to our starting point, the question “How do we justify our morality?” does not admit of an answer that does not beg the question. Because let X be the answer. Then either X is part of our moral code, or it is not. In the first case, we are invokingas justification part of what we are seeking to justify, and the most we can achieve in this way is consistency, not validation. In the second, X itself remains to be justified, and we are no further forward.

Which is simply an involved way of saying that there are no moral facts, only moral choices. And those who think otherwise scare me, even when they share my code.

The Quest for a Moral Compass, Kenan Malik, hardback Atlantic Books, May 2014; paperback April 2015. Disclosure: I bought the hardback version, but I’m a slow reader. Extracts from the book are being made available on Kenan Malik’s onw website, starting, coincidentally, today.

Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics – a personal account

Monday night, November 26, I had the great pleasure of hearing Jerry Coyne at the Glasgow Skeptics on the subject of  Why Evolution is True (And Why Most People Don’t Believe It), and had a short enjoyable chat with him in the interval. This report reflects his views, and on occasion mine. To avoid misunderstanding, I should emphasise that it does not represent BCSE as an organisation, which is neutral on matters of faith.

He was aware of and approved of the broad coalition, ranging from Richard Dawkins to Canons of the Church of England, that forced the UK Government to clarify its position against creationism. I had to tell him that Gove had nonetheless ignored his own guidelines by allowing creationist groups to set up publicly funded schools. We had some discussion about whether different religions had different degrees of tolerance towards evolution; I suggested that the reason I was much more accommodationist than him, is that for me religion suggested positions like C of E, whereas for him it suggested anti-intellectual fundamentalism. He seemed to take kindly to this idea, and also to my suggestion that different varieties of religion may differ greatly in their willingness to accept evolution.

Most of his talk covered much the same ground as his book, Why Evolution is True (a must read if you haven’t already), though I certainly benefited from seeing the argument laid out in such concentrated form, and am posting my notes on this part of the talk separately.

Jerry quoted depressing statistics, mainly from the US, about how few people accepted evolution and how many preferred creationism. According to a 2005 Harris poll, only 12% of Americans thought that only evolution should be taught in schools, while 23% thought that only creationism should be taught, and most wanted both.

Why does this matter? Because evolution is a matter of self-knowledge, basic knowledge about what kind of place the Universe is, and our place in it. It is a wonderful example of science in action, and besides, there’s a lot of cool stuff in there.

After discussing the science, he made some very interesting observations about how societies react to it. Given that the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, why do so many people continue to deny it, and why are the numbers so slow to change? In the US, since 1982, the proportion of creationists has held steady at 44%, those believing in theistic evolution has changed from 38% to 36%, and the only notable change has been an increase in acceptance of materialistic evolution from 9% to 14%, no doubt reflecting the growing number of unbelievers. (I think that the preference for theistic over naturalistic evolution may be less worrying than it sounds, since I doubt if many people distinguish between overall divine control of nature, which would be perfectly compatible with naturalistic evolution, and specific supernatural intervention in the process, which would not).

Clearly, a situation where more Americans believe in the reality of angels than accept evolution is deeply worrying.

So why is evolution so maligned by religion? Because it undermines religious views of human specialness, and of the purpose and meaning of individual life, and (a common and deeply felt objection) is seen as undermining morality. If we compare different countries, religious belief has a powerful negative correlation with acceptance of evolution. It would follow that if we want people to accept evolution, what we need to do is weaken the influence of religion. In support, Jerry quoted a survey according to which, if faced with a scientific finding that contradicted the tenets of their faith, 64% of Americans said that they would reject the finding.

What I found most interesting was Jerry’s quoting from recent (2009 and 2011) studies, showing that religion correlates with social dysfunction (see ) and economic inequality (see ; cut and paste links if necessary). If so, the way to improve public acceptance of science may be to tackle inequality and social dysfunction. This would point in the direction of very broad alliances indeed, and I can see how recent political campaigns in the US may have made this prospect more attractive.

We are left with a final paradox. People fear evolution, seeing it as subversive of morality. And yet, the more moral (in the matters that seem to me most important), the more equitable, and the more effectively functioning a society, the more accepting it is of evolution.

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