Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Myths About Atheism (Pt. IX)

In this installment in our series on anti-theist Sam Harris' debunking of ten myths about atheism we'll consider "myth" number 9. Harris writes that this myth states that:

Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

Among other shortcomings in Harris' reply is the fact that he has a much too pinched view of the this-world benefits of Christianity, thinking them to be limited solely to the moral sphere. Many scholars agree, however, that Christianity provided far more benefit than just a moral basis, as important as that is, to Western civilization and eventually to the world. For example, Christianity provided the only cultural milieu in which modern science could and did develop. It also gave rise to a rich tradition in the arts, especially music, unmatched by any other culture. It fostered a high view of women and of the value of education, and was the motivating force behind the development of the university system in Europe and the United States.

None of these things ever really emerged in any other cultural setting. They only arose among people who believed that God was personal, rational, and that He had laid down certain standards for the treatment of other people. The appearance of these benefits also required that it be widely believed that individuals are created in the image of God and are loved by Him. Only this conviction, as John Locke reminds us, can support and sustain a belief in human dignity and worth.

For more on the contribution to human progress and well-being made by a Christian worldview see Rodney Stark's Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism and Western Success, or Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization by Alvin Schmidt

Moreover, Christian theism satisfies human yearnings that non-theistic peoples have no hope of satisfying. For example, if Harris is correct and there is no God then there's also no meaning to life, no ground for morality, no basis for human dignity or worth, and no real justice. Nor is there any basis for believing that we are a coherent self, that love is anything more than a chemical reaction in the brain, that there is such a thing as objective truth, or that we have any real basis for trusting our reason to lead us to that truth. In other words, the belief that there is a God gives us an existential hope that our deepest yearnings will not go unsatisfied forever. Atheism can only shrug its shoulders and admonish us to get over it.

Since Harris asks us to consider which is more moral - to help the poor out of concern for their suffering or because God wants us to do it, let's turn to that question.

We can begin by pointing out that the question is mis-framed. It should be stated thusly: What obligates us to be concerned about another person's suffering in the first place? Why would it be wrong to be indifferent to another man's pain? Mr. Harris may wish to help the man who suffers, but if he did not wish to help him, even if indeed he wished to cause the suffering, why would that be immoral? Where does an obligation to help those who suffer come from if there is no God? Surely Mr. Harris doesn't think that nature or evolution can impose obligations upon us, but then, if not, what does?

The desire to help another is, if atheism is true, nothing more than an arbitrary preference some people have and others lack. Those who have it are no more "moral" than those who don't. They're just different in the same way that those who have color vision are different from those who are color-blind.

So, the answer to Mr. Harris' question is that if he's right about God, neither concern for another's suffering nor a mistaken duty to obey a non-existent God is more moral because there simply is no moral right or wrong. There are just things that people, like other animals, do. To pose the question of which is more moral is like asking whether starfish are more emotional than clams. The question is nonsense because, on the assumption of atheism, moral right and wrong is not a property of human behavior any more than emotion is a property of starfish and clam behavior.

For the rest of our replies to Harris' Ten Myths go here for #8. The rest can be found by going here and following the links at the end of the post.


What Was He Thinking?

The Democratic presidential candidates certainly are fun to watch. First John Kerry put the kibosh on any hopes he had of reprising his 2004 run for the presidency by inadvertantly calling the troops in Iraq academic underachievers.

Then Joe Biden managed to insult the entire African-American community while trying to compliment Barack Obama, and now John Edwards, the man who demonstrates his deep concern for the poor by living in the most ostentatiously palatial digs in North Carolina, paid for by the obscene settlements he obtained chasing ambulances, has hired himself a spokesperson guaranteed to cause him to wonder what he could possibly have been thinking.

By itself, hiring a spokesperson would be of no moment, but this one, a "blogmaster," is Amanda Marcotte, one of the craziest, and vilest, of the left-wing crazies in the blogosphere. Her role as Edwards' internet presence can only eventuate in multiple embarrassments for the candidate. While Biden spends his days trying to explain to every black person he encounters on the street what he really meant, and Edwards spends his trying to explain why he would hire such a sleaze as Ms Marcotte to represent his campaign, Hillary and Obama float serenely above the fray.

To get a taste of Ms Marcotte's style check out Michelle Malkin's site, but be forewarned, it's neither pretty nor pleasant.


Nothing Left to Say

Victor David Hanson explains why the Democrats will have almost nothing helpful to say or do about the war in Iraq for the next several months. He gives four reasons altogether. Here's his first:

For all the talk of cutting off funds, redeployment, and pulling out, the new Democratic Congress will, at least for now, probably do nothing except speak impassioned words and make implicit threats. Here's why.

First, they have to digest what they have swallowed. Democratic critics had previously framed their opposition to the war in terms of a disastrous tenure of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld; a culpable indifference to the status quo in Baghdad and at Centcom; a failure to listen to the more intellectual generals such as David Petraeus; the "too few troops" mantra; and the lionization of Gens. Shinseki, Zinni, and other shunned military critics.

But now Abizaid, Casey, Khalilzad, and Rumsfeld are all absent - or about to be - from direct involvement in the war. The supposed villain cast of Cobra II and Fiasco has exited, and the purported good guys have entered. David Petraeus will, de facto, be in charge, not just in the strictly military sense, but, given the press and politics of the war, spiritually as well - in the manner that Grant by late summer 1864 had become symbolic of the entire Union military effort that was his to win or lose. Many of those officers involved in the "revolt of the generals" have now largely supported the surge - something Democrats themselves had inadvertently apparently called for when they serially lamented there were too few troops to win in Iraq.

All the old targets of the Democrats are no more, and it will take time for them to re-adjust the crosshairs to aim at men and policies that they have heretofore viewed sympathetically.

Read the rest. It's very good.