Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Winter Light

Tobias Wolff at The New Yorker writes a good piece on the Ingmar Bergman film Winter Light in which Bergman tells the story of a Lutheran pastor whose faith is slipping away, largely because he has substituted the form of religion for its substance. Wolff expresses many of the thoughts I have every time I watch the movie. I recommend both the article and the film, especially as a caution to anyone considering the ministry for all the wrong reasons.


An Ad Only Keith Olbermann Could Love

Move, the same organization that brought us the General Betray Us ads, crosses new frontiers of political mendacity and shamelessness with this spot:

Let's count the ways in which this ad seeks to deceive the viewer:

1. Even if McCain is elected in November he can only serve for at most eight years which would make Alex about eight years old when McCain leaves office. Unless we are truly desperate for soldiers it's doubtful that his little self will be much in demand at that point.

2. McCain's 100 year statement is taken completely out of context. What he said was that it would be okay with him if we stayed in Iraq for 100 years as long as American troops were no longer at risk. In other words, he was talking about a deployment such as we have had in Japan and Germany since WWII. MoveOn knows this, but truth-telling is not high, sad to say, on their to-do list.

3. Even if Alex were to turn 18 in the next couple of years his mommy seems not to realize that there is no draft. doesn't seem capable of grasping the fundamental difference between a volunteer army and a conscripted force, so let's make it as simple for them as we can: If Alex wants to go into the military when he turns 18 it'll be his choice.

This ad is so transparently disingenuous that intelligent and fair-minded voters should recoil from it in disgust. Unfortunately, MoveOn isn't pitching it to intelligent and fair-minded voters.


The God Delusion, Ch. 6

Author Richard Dawkins concerns himself in chapter 6 of The God Delusion (TGD) with an attempt to explain the relationship between God and morality and to argue that God is not necessary for good behavior. Richard Dawkins initiates the discussion with this question:

Isn't goodness incompatible with the theory of the selfish gene (the view that all of our behavior is determined by our genes to increase the chances that our genes will be perpetuated into the next generation)? The question could be asked more relevantly of atheism in general, but Dawkins replies to his query by claiming that evolution gives a much better explanation for morality than does the God Hypothesis.

Before we consider his answer we might pause for a moment to note something he says which I find intriguing. He argues that acts of altruism in animals are demonstrations of one individual's superiority over another:

The dominant bird is saying the equivalent of, "Look how superior I am to you, I can afford to give you food." Or "Look how superior I am, I can afford to make myself vulnerable top hawks by sitting on a high branch, acting as a sentinel to warn the rest of the flock feeding on the ground." ....And when a subordinate [bird] attempts to offer food to a dominant individual, the apparent generosity is violently rebuffed.

This makes a lot of sense to me. I've long thought it an interesting quirk of human nature that many people resent favors done them by others. Rather than see the favor as a kindness people sometimes react to it as though it were a personal insult (Think of the ingratitude many Iraqis feel for American sacrifices on behalf of their freedom, for instance). Perhaps the ingratitude is due to the fact that at some subliminal level the beneficiary of the favor realizes that he is being implicitly told that he is inferior, and no one likes to be told that.

At any rate, Dawkins' point in chapter 6 is that we don't need God to be moral. The urge to be kind, for instance, is a product of our evolutionary history and we'd have that inclination whether God told us to be kind or not. There's much in his reasoning on this matter of which we can be critical.

The problem is not how to explain "moral" behavior. People can certainly do "good" things whether God exists or not. The problem is trying to account for moral obligation. How are we obligated to do something just because evolution has inclined us to do it? Why should we be kind if there's nothing in it for us or if cruelty will benefit us in some way? Why is it wrong to be cruel? What does it mean to say that something is "wrong" anyway? How do we justify the belief that moral good and bad have any non-arbitrary meaning apart from an objective transcendent moral authority?

Evolution has bestowed upon us other tendencies besides an inclination to kindness (which, by the way, not all humans appear to possess) which we do not consider good. How do we decide which of these tendencies are good and which are bad? Evolution has given us a tendency to be aggressive, to be selfish toward non-kin, to be sexually promiscuous, etc. Is yielding to these inclinations wrong? If so, why?

Dawkins comes very close here to committing the genetic fallacy, the error that says that because we are a certain way that therefore we should be that way. He also informs us that he is himself a consequentialist, one who bases rightness on the results of the act, but who do those results have to benefit in order to be right? Other people? Himself? How does he decide which it is to be, and why would it be wrong to just care about the benefits of one's actions for oneself?

Dawkins cites studies which show that there's little difference in the way atheists and believers make moral judgments and concludes from this that "we do not need God in order to be good." This is quite an unusual conclusion to draw from these studies. All they show, if they show anything at all, is that atheists have moral convictions that are completely unsupported by their deepest beliefs. Their atheism gives them no basis for thinking anything is right or wrong but they believe there is right and wrong anyway. What the studies Dawkins cites suggest is that most atheists inconsistent, since every atheist who makes a moral judgment is acting as if his atheism were not true.

Dawkins goes on to allege that the Christian tries to be good only to seek God's favor. He concurs with Michael Shermer that "If you agree that, in the absence of God, you would 'commit robbery, rape, and murder,' you reveal yourself to be an immoral person."

This misunderstands the Christian motivation for the moral life. It's not fear of punishment and hope of reward that motivates Christians to do good deeds, when they do them, but rather love and gratitude to the God who has done so much for us. We do not seek God's love by being good. We are good, to the extent we are, because God loves us.

To say that anyone who rapes or murders is immoral, as Shermer and Dawkins do, begs the question. It assumes that the word "immorality" actually means something significant. For Dawkins an immoral act is merely an act which he doesn't like. If there is no God it can't be any more than this. To say that something is immoral is to say nothing more than that he wishes people wouldn't do it. Notwithstanding his wishes, the person who does do such things is no more "wrong" than a cat is wrong to torment a mouse.

In a classic illustration of the fallacy called Division Dawkins makes the ridiculous claim that rioters in Montreal during a police strike in the 1960s were mostly religious people because most Canadians are religious people. Perhaps we can forgive Dawkins this bit of asininity if it weren't that he comes right back on the next page and makes the same sophomoric argument again, this time by quoting a section from a book by fellow atheist Sam Harris.

Harris seeks to disprove the belief that religion leads to better behavior by observing that most of the crime in the U.S. occurs in our cities and most of the cities with the highest crime rates are in states which tend to vote Republican and are therefore most likely to be populated by Christian conservatives. I am not making this up. This is Harris' argument, and Dawkins signs on to it. What Harris and Dawkins are apparently unaware of is that even in Republican states the cities are overwhelmingly Democratic and secular. Instead of employing such a juvenile argument perhaps Harris should have just visited a prison and taken a poll of the inmates and asked them how many were devout, church-going believers who prayed daily at the time they committed their crimes. I wonder what the results would show.

It's hard to believe that otherwise intelligent people would make such embarrassingly dumb arguments, but when your task is to try to give a defense of morality without God you have to go with the best you can even if that means taking a chance on an argument that would be laughed at by middle schoolers.

The fundamental moral problem for the atheist, a problem which Dawkins never really addresses, is this: What is there which obligates us to behave in one way rather than another? What makes kindness better than cruelty? Why should I not just live for myself? Why should I care about others? What's wrong with selfishness? It's really no surprise that Dawkins doesn't address these questions. Indeed, the surprise would have been if he had, because for the atheist there just is no answer to them.

It's fitting to close with a quote from Dawkins' hero, Charles Darwin. Darwin writes in his Autobiography these words:

"One who does not believe in God or an afterlife can have for his rule of life...only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best."

In the absence of God, all we have to guide us are our feelings and no one's feelings are any more authoritative than anyone else's. Unfortunately, the fact that for the atheist one's own subjective feelings are no more morally superior than anyone else's doesn't prevent Mr. Dawkins from repeatedly making moral judgments of others throughout his book and especially in the next chapter.