Irrationality, Religion, and Morality

by Luke Muehlhauser on August 12, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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In a recent post on atheism and dogmatism, Luke wrote the following:

I don’t think atheists need to rise to a higher standard to make religion fade away. That will happen anyway, as knowledge and morality leave religion behind. I just wish atheists would embrace a higher standard for themselves.

This was written in the context of a post that criticized some of the things written by atheists as demonstrating a less than firm commitment to the virtues of reason and evidence.

For myself, I have held that making religion fade away is not a particularly worthwhile goal. This is because atheists are quite capable of substituting alternatives to religion that are just as horrible as religion. The only difference is that it uses something other than God – such as intrinsic value or an evolutionary sense – as its source of right and wrong.

One of the critics of the theory of evolution has been that it supports social Darwinism – an ethic that commands each of us to demonstrate our fitness by conquering and commanding others.

Of course, there is no sound logical inference from the theory of evolution to this type of social Darwinism. This is hate-mongering bigotry at work. People who make this inference and try to force it on the public understanding of atheism are people who are in the business of selling hatred. This is one of their marketing techniques.

However, the fact that there is no logical inference from evolution to social Darwinism is a part of the point of this post. There are a whole lot of irrational moral systems that one can adopt that do not mention God but lead to conclusions that are as harmful as those found in any religion. The irrational defense of the proposition that a God exists and morally commands A, B, and C is not the only irrational defense a moral conclusion that humans can adopt.

To say that it is religion that must fade away, and not the rationalization of dangerous moral systems, misses some of the largest potential for harm.

The same is true of those who hold that morality comes from an evolved sense. On this view, our “sense” of right and wrong was given to us by evolution. Right is understood on this system to be that which we evolved a disposition to judge to be right, and wrong is that which we have evolved a disposition to judge to be wrong.

On this model, please note that there is not an atrocity in history that was not judged right by the evolved senses of many who engaged in it. Slavery, the subjugation of women, genocide, and the worst forms of tyranny have all strucken the evolved sense of huge segments of the population living at the time as perfectly legitimate activities. So here too we have an ethic that has no God, but is just as horrendous as any morality that we find in religion.

We have actual examples of this. We have the “terror” of the French Revolution, some historical manifestations of Marxism, manifestations of Ayn Rand Objectivism in which people make themselves comfortable causing harm on a global scale for the sake of a fist full of dollars, and common moral subjectivism that excuses every possible crime as a mere matter of opinion.

At this point I would like to remind the reader that there is no God.

One of the underappreciated implications of this is that all of the evils that humans put into religion and which atheists refer to when they complain about religion was put there by humans. If people were not capable of these attrocities as a matter of natural real-world fact, then people would not have written them into their religions.

Certainly there are a lot of people who are frantically trying to hold onto their hatred of and bigotry against homosexuals by clutching their scriptures as tightly as they can – because it gives these bigotries an illusion of legitimacy. However, we have to ask, how did those bigotries get into scripture to start with? God did not put them there. Nor did some scribe taking down the dictates of a hateful and bigoted God. They came from the hearts and minds of the original authors. And these religions became popular because a lot of people found something warm and comforting there.

The goal, then, should not be to make religion fade away. The goal should be to make the types of sloppy thinking by which people rationalize attrocities to go away.

If this is taken as the goal, then it no longer makes sense to say that we do not need to “rise to a higher standard” to reach this goal. The goal precisely is to rise to a higher standard. The goal is to abandon weak arguments offered in defense of positions we are comfortable with – such as (but certainly not limited to) religious arguments.

This is the same thing as rising to a higher standard when it comes to arguing for and against the positions we have become comfortable with.

So, the way I would put it is that it is tautologically true that atheists need to rise to a higher standard to make the irrational justification of moral crimes that “feel right” to us fade away. It is not going to happen without our deliberate effort.

Wishing atheists would embrace a higher standard is not going to work. That is about as ineffective as praying for a solution. In fact, I don’t see much of a difference between the two – particularly on their overall social effect.

One of the things atheists say in their own defense is that while others engage in worthless and ineffective prayer, the atheist rolls up his sleeves and gets to work. In this case, getting to work means making a determined effort to use the social tools of praise and condemnation in order to try to build appreciation for this higher standard.

Which ultimately is what Luke did in his post on atheism and dogmatism.

- Alonzo Fyfe

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P.S. from Luke: I agree with Fyfe that making religion fade away is not a very important goal. I still think religion will fade away for the reasons I gave in the above quote, but I don’t think it matters much. Something that really matters is, as Fyfe says, a goal of making dogmatism and irrationality in general fade away. Deadly irrationality will far outlive religion, I’m afraid.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Silver Bullet August 12, 2010 at 6:37 am

Very nicely said Alonzo.

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Silas August 12, 2010 at 8:32 am

This should be quite obvious, yes.

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Tony Hoffman August 12, 2010 at 8:42 am

This was a great post.

I see the biggest opportunity in Post-New Atheism to be the vetting, testing, and selling of a morally-based social system that functions without religion. I think this is vital in that I imagine Christian Western religiosity could likely collapse in a way similar to the Soviet Union — suddenly, and without much prior indication. Although it might not happen until there is evidence for the success of this moral system (which is what appears to be happening in Scanadanavian countries), I agree that it’s reckless to wish for the demise of religion without knowing that there is consensus for the higher standard upon which the new, atheistic moral system will be built.

I think Sam Harris has intuited this change in the atheist movement when he started speaking about how science can say something about morality — in other words, the tools that lead one to destroying the credibility of religious claims are are also the tools that can lead to limning something as contentious and important to us as morality. It appears to me more and more that the New Atheists are truly the last of the Old Atheists in that their mission is largely one of destruction; the next stage is heralded by folks like Alonzo. And thanks to you for that.

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Zeb August 12, 2010 at 10:01 am

Probably Alonzo has written on this, but I wonder what reasons there are to believe that applied rationalism is a good (or the best) program to bring about a morally superior society (or personal life, for that matter). I hope the reasons are better than something like, “Rational thinking got us to the moon, so why shouldn’t it get us to utopia?” If anyone can direct me to where Alonzo has addressed this, or can address it here, I’d be interested to read it.

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Jeff H August 13, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Tony,

I find the idea that the collapse of Christianity would bring the collapse of morality to be just about as bad as the Christians’ argument that atheists have no morals. Despite what Christians say, their morality is not based on their religion, except for a few hot-button issues (such as abortion, gay marriage, etc.). Where their – and everyone else’s – morality comes from is from socialization as young children, where their mothers tell them to share their toys and their teachers tell them to give someone else a turn. These will not collapse if Christianity does.

Now, with that said, people may feel like they’ve lost their moral code – but in that time, all that’s necessary is to remind people that there are ways to access a common ethics that have been there all along – empathy, common concern, mutual benefit, love for family and friends, etc. Not to mention that secular ethics has been done for hundreds (or really, thousands) of years now, and is not exactly secret. Utilitarianism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics, etc. certainly aren’t relying on any particular religion. While in a philosophical sense these may not be the “right” theories, in about 98% of the cases they are going to give the same answers as whatever that “right” theory is. The layman shouldn’t need to worry too much about meta-ethics, really.

I guess what I’m really trying to say is that I highly doubt we would have to worry too much about a gigantic outbreak of crime and violence if Christianity suddenly collapses in North America. What would seem to be more of an issue is being able to replace the existential concerns as well as the community aspects that such religion provides.

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dgsinclair August 13, 2010 at 11:39 pm

>> LUKE: Of course, there is no sound logical inference from the theory of evolution to this type of social Darwinism.

You’re kidding me. Why are you defending evolution anyway? It has ‘nothing to do’ with atheism ;).

Seriously, I think that Social Darwinism is a very logical extension of Darwinism without the restraint of some other ethical system in place, and history seems to prove this.

Atheism sure hasn’t provided that moral/ethical restraint. In practice, only Christianity, and to a much lesser extent, humanism (specieism ;) have.

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dgsinclair August 13, 2010 at 11:48 pm

>> Alonso: Certainly there are a lot of people who are frantically trying to hold onto their hatred of and bigotry against homosexuals by clutching their scriptures as tightly as they can – because it gives these bigotries an illusion of legitimacy.

Your stand on this is unfortunate. Moral disapproval is not hatred, nor is it bigotry, any more than your dislike for other crimes against nature or humanity. Your desire to see this as outdated shows how far you’ve gotten from science, epidemiology, and biology in your moral reasoning, I think.

>> Alonso: One of the things atheists say in their own defense is that while others engage in worthless and ineffective prayer, the atheist rolls up his sleeves and gets to work

Yeah, so instead of pointing fingers, how about (a) providing some logical justification for your assertion that morals are objective (an impossibility from an atheist position despite arguments to the contrary, I think), and (b) providing a practical moral guide of laws, principles, hierarchies of values instead. Desirism nor atheism have provided any, it seems to me.

Atheists seem all talk and no helpful ideas or action, just forever studying and never coming to the knowledge of the truth – mental masturbation, as it were.

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Hermes August 14, 2010 at 5:31 am

dgsinclair: Atheists seem all talk and no helpful ideas or action, just forever studying and never coming to the knowledge of the truth – mental masturbation, as it were.

Well, it is more of the role of clean up crew. All the masturbatory materials are strictly theistic and leak into all areas of society causing problems in the process; 9/11, bigotry (racial, religious/theistic & a-theistic, and gender based; Prop. 8), child rape (not just for Catholic clergy anymore!), higher crime rates, lower education levels, higher child mortality and early birth rates, … seems to be a direct association or strong correlation on so many levels.

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BenSix August 14, 2010 at 8:08 am

Fine post, Alfonzo.

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BenSix August 14, 2010 at 8:19 am

* Alonzo

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cl August 16, 2010 at 4:14 pm

I actually found myself resonating with Fyfe more than usual, in this post. For example,

…atheists are quite capable of substituting alternatives to religion that are just as horrible as religion. The only difference is that it uses something other than God – such as intrinsic value or an evolutionary sense – as its source of right and wrong.

Yes,

…there is not an atrocity in history that was not judged right by the evolved senses of many who engaged in it.

…yes,

The goal should be to make the types of sloppy thinking by which people rationalize attrocities to go away.

…yes,

The goal is to abandon weak arguments offered in defense of positions we are comfortable with…

…and yes. Those are all valid observations and sound prescriptions, IMO. However, I can’t help but wonder how much of that is lip-service, especially when one finds the following types of statements in the very same post:

People who make this inference and try to force it on the public understanding of atheism are people who are in the business of selling hatred.

…and,

The same is true of those who hold that morality comes from an evolved sense. On this view, our “sense” of right and wrong was given to us by evolution. Right is understood on this system to be that which we evolved a disposition to judge to be right, and wrong is that which we have evolved a disposition to judge to be wrong.

…and,

At this point I would like to remind the reader that there is no God.

The latter three are each examples of exactly the type of sloppy thinking we ought to condemn, IMO. The first makes an absurd over-generalization about all people who argue some variant of evolution -> social Darwinism. The second implies that Alonzo might fancy desirism immune from the criticisms he advances against other theories of morality. The third steps far beyond the boundaries of a conservatively stated claim and effectively amounts to preaching. And none of this is to even mention Alonzo’s claims that parents of fat children should be condemned, that non-malleable desires exist, or that the Greeks were “probably wrong” regarding pederasty because of VD. Those are all sloppy arguments, too.

dgsinclair,

Yeah, so instead of pointing fingers, how about (a) providing some logical justification for your assertion that morals are objective (an impossibility from an atheist position despite arguments to the contrary, I think), and (b) providing a practical moral guide of laws, principles, hierarchies of values instead. Desirism nor atheism have provided any, it seems to me.

Don’t hold your breath. I have asked Luke and Fyfe to justify a great many of their assertions concerning desirism, to no avail. That, too, is an apparent contradiction. On the one hand, we have this subset of atheists on a high-horse who tell theists to do the hard work and pursue the rational course, demanding vociferously that we play by the rules of sound argumentation. Then, when we do, crickets.

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