Monday, August 2, 2010

Anne Rice Abjures the Faith

David Goldman at First Things Blog informs us that author Anne Rice has renounced, sort of, her Christianity. On Wednesday she posted this on her Facebook Page:

I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

Well. This is certainly a perplexing renunciation. If these are the reasons she can no longer call herself a Christian one has to wonder how deep her commitment was in the first place.

Few Christians, for example, are anti-gay. One is not anti-gay just because one opposes legalizing gay marriage any more than one is anti-youth because one opposes giving 18 year-olds the right to vote.

Nor are most Christians anti-feminist, at least not if we define feminism as the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men, allowing for the physical differences between them. If, though, Ms Rice defines feminism as many modern feminists wish to define it, i.e., as the view that a woman should have the unfettered legal right to destroy her unborn child, well, then, yes, many Christians take exception to that.

In any case, Ms. Rice seems unmindful of the fact that no social force in history has done more to liberate women from oppression than has Christianity. To recant it now because some Christian groups do not ordain women nor support abortion seems to reflect a very pinched view of Christianity's historical influence on civilization.

Moreover, I know of no Christian outside the Catholic Church who is "anti-artificial birth control" - unless Rice is lumping abortion in as a form of birth control - so I don't know why this should be a stumbling block for her either.

She declares that she also refuses to be "anti-Democrat," which is good. A lot of Democrats are Christians (I even know some), so again it's not clear why she should make this a point of contention.

So, too, are a lot of scientists Christians which makes her refusal to be "anti-science" puzzling. Presumably, she doesn't wish to be associated with folks who question the dogma of many atheistic scientists that naturalism gives us a true picture of reality. Naturalism, though, is metaphysics, not science. What Rice seems to be complaining about here is that Christians reject a philosophical worldview that claims that God doesn't exist, and she oddly finds that intolerable.

The same point applies to her refusal to be "anti-secular humanism." Secular humanism is a belief system that maintains that the core miracles of the Christian faith, including the miracle of the Resurrection of Christ upon which the entire belief system of Christianity is based, are frauds and myths.

Thus, Ms Rice appears to be saying that, given her sympathy for views which are inimical to Christianity, and given her shallow understanding of what Christians believe about homosexuality, women, and so on, she can no longer count herself a Christian.

As I said above, one wonders why she ever thought of herself as one in the first place.


Sliding Toward Nihilism

The Edge Foundation held a symposium recently in which a collection of naturalistic scientists and philosophers discussed the topic of morality. From the summary of the proceedings at The Edge's web site, it doesn't seem that very much of importance was achieved.

Most of the participants seemed to agree that we're hard-wired to be moral, but, of course, this is not a new discovery. It's been known ever since at least the first century when the apostle Paul observed that we have a moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15).

The crucial question about morality that atheists need to stop sweeping under the rug is how human beings can be obligated by moral sentiments that are nothing more than the product of naturalistic evolution. How, we need to know, can blind, mindless forces like natural selection and genetic mutation impose duties upon us to behave one way rather than another? This question never seems to have come up at the Edge symposium. It's like the 500 pound gorilla in the room whose presence no one seems inclined to acknowledge.

New York Times columnist David Brooks was in attendance at the meeting and notes that Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia argued that our moral sense is like our sense of taste. We have natural receptors that help us pick up sweetness and saltiness. In the same way, Haidt believes, we have natural receptors that help us recognize fairness and cruelty.

It's of course true, on the assumption of naturalism, that morality is merely a matter of personal taste. One person feels we should care for the world's poor while another feels we should ignore them and let them die out. One person says we should be faithful to our spouses while another says we should do whatever we can get away with. Who's right? The answer is neither is right. Neither one can say that anyone should adopt a particular attitude toward the poor or toward marital fidelity any more than he can say that we should like sweet rather than sour flavors. Whichever behavior we prefer is right for us but not necessarily right for anyone else. Thus, on Haidt's assumptions, there can be no genuine moral norms, only subjective preferences.

According to another symposiast, Roy F. Baumeister, human nature was shaped by an evolutionary process that selected in favor of traits conducive to new, advanced kinds of social life. Morality, in his view, is ultimately a system of rules that enables groups of people to live together in reasonable harmony.

But if morality is just a system of rules that regulate the behavior of one's group, how do we decide which group is relevant to our behavior? Is our morally relevant group our nation? Our ethnic group? Our tribe? No matter how we decide the question our answer is going to be arbitrary. Each person could answer the question differently.

Furthermore, if morality is about how members of a group live together among themselves then how that group treats other groups has no moral significance. For example, on what grounds could we say that the genocidal attacks of the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda in the mid-nineties was immoral? If morality is merely a means of regulating intra-group behavior, then murdering members of other groups is not immoral. For that matter, inter-group murder and war would be right if it promoted the overall benefit of the aggressor group?

It was the opinion of Yale psychologist Paul Bloom that a deep sense of good and evil is "bred in the bone." His research shows that babies and toddlers can judge the goodness and badness of others' actions; they want to reward the good and punish the bad; they act to help those in distress; they feel guilt, shame, pride, and righteous anger.

All of what Bloom says could be true, but it's beside the point. The relevant question is whether a hard-wired moral sense can impose any behavioral obligations upon us if it's merely the product of random chance and the laws of chemistry. Evolution bestows upon us a head full of hair, but it cannot obligate us to refrain from shaving it off. Likewise, it may bestow upon us certain behavioral preferences, but it cannot obligate us to honor those preferences.

Moreover, the preferences evolution bestows are notoriously conflicted. Most people think that altruism is good and selfishness is bad, but surely selfishness is our natural condition. We have evolved to be fundamentally selfish, self-centered creatures. How then can that be bad? Likewise with aggressiveness and promiscuity. The natural tendency evolution has instilled in human beings, at least in males, is to be both aggressive and promiscuous. Why then are these things not considered good? To what criterion do we revert to evaluate our inborn behavioral dispositions if the way we are is the way we should be?

Harvard cognitive neuroscientist and philosopher Joshua D. Greene sees our biggest social problems - war, terrorism, the destruction of the environment, etc. - arising from our unwitting tendency to apply paleolithic moral thinking to the complex problems of modern life. Our brains trick us into thinking that we have Moral Truth on our side when in fact we don't, and blind us to important truths that our brains were not designed to appreciate.

But if our moral sense evolved to suit us for life in the stone age and is now obsolete what has taken its place? Greene gives no answer. If, on the other hand, someone suggests that we should submit to the genetic imperatives evolved to suit us for life in the paleolithic the question again is why we should.

Finally, neuroscientist and "new atheist" Sam Harris laments that the failure of science to address questions of meaning, morality, and values provides an opening for the insinuation of religious faith into our corporate life. The silence of scientists on these "big questions," Harris contends, encourages people to turn to religion for answers.

The problem for scientists, though, is that there's simply nothing that science can say about these questions. Science may be able to give us a description of how people behave and maybe can tell us why they behave that way, but it cannot say anything at all about how people ought to behave. It can't say, for example, that we ought to be kind rather than cruel, or that we ought not torture others. By it's very nature science cannot be prescriptive or normative. For prescription we need something more than science. We need a transcendent authority.

Thus the problem for any morality based on naturalistic assumptions about the world is that there can only be moral obligation if there is, in fact, a moral law, and a moral law is only possible if imposed upon us by a transcendent, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly just moral lawgiver who obligates us on pain of punishment to keep it.

As long as The Edge symposiasts ignore this uncomfortable and ineradicable fact they're not talking about the questions that really matter. As long as society refuses to acknowledge the need for a transcendent moral authority in the lives of its people it will be pulled ineluctably, as if by a kind of gravity, toward the abyss of moral nihilism.