Friday, July 1, 2011

Atheism's Moral Problem

Will Provine is a biologist at Cornell who has been a staunch advocate of atheistic darwinism throughout his career. What makes him especially interesting is his clarity in facing up to and acknowledging the implications of atheism.

He once stated this, for example:
Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear - and these are basically Darwin's views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death .... There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will....
Provine is saying that atheism is inconsistent with a belief in any of these, and readers of Viewpoint know that I agree with him, which is why I think that the only consistent position for an atheist is to be a nihilist about meaning and morality.

Provine himself is what most people would consider a "good guy", but I think there's a disconnect between the way he chooses to live his life and what he believes to be true. It's an inconsistency that I think many atheists like him have to accept because they simply can't, or don't want to, live consistently with the implications of their naturalistic worldview.

He recently spoke to a high school class on some of these matters (Where was the ACLU?). At around the 3:30 mark he addresses the subject of morality. Listen to what he says:
His parents brought him up to get a good feeling from being kind, and that's how we all should raise our kids.

Well, yes, but this elides a very important question. If atheistic evolution is true what reason do we have for thinking that kindness is "good"? If someone was brought up to be cruel, as many are, why would that be bad? Would it be bad because we don't like it, or it doesn't give us a good feeling? Is kindness good because it gives some people a good feeling? Of course not. Whether we like or don't like something, whether it makes us feel good or bad, hardly makes something right or wrong.

As frank as he is about the implications of atheism, what Provine fails to acknowledge is that if atheistic darwinism is true then the logical ethical consequence is might-makes-right egoism. Provine would doubtless recoil from such an ethic himself, but his reasons for doing so would be purely a matter of subjective repugnance. What he can't say is that someone who embraces such an ethic is wrong.

Free Speech in Extremis

Geert Wilders is a Dutch Member of Parliament who has been hounded for almost two and a half years by jurists wishing to appease their large Muslim population and who have no stomach for defending the freedom of speech against those who threaten violence in the Netherlands. After this long, sad saga Wilders was finally acquitted of charges of "hate speech", i.e. speech which offends somebody, but, as Nina Shea writes at NRO the victory is hardly comforting:
While Wilders was understandably happy and relieved he is not going to be spending the next 16 months behind bars, the significance of his victory seems overstated.

Wilders case demonstrates the continued willingness of authorities in Europe’s most liberal countries to regulate the content of speech on Islam in order to placate Muslim blasphemy demands. Wilders’ acquittal does not change that.

The presiding judge in the case determined that Wilders’s remarks were sometimes “hurtful,” “shocking,” and “offensive.” But the Court of Amsterdam reached its decision, as Reuters reported, by noting that “they were made in the context of a public debate about Muslim integration and multiculturalism, and therefore not a criminal act.” Thus, this case was decided on the basis that Wilders’s remarks were made in the proper context — in an ongoing public debate on specifically legitimate issues. Using this subjective criterion, the court evaluated the content of Wilders’ words to determine that they were lawful. In another context, or evaluated by another court, they might not be.

Wilders is not the first Dutch parliamentarian to have faced anti-Muslim hate-speech charges, and, based on today’s decision, he may not even be the last. Before Wilders, Dutch parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali was accused of hate speech against Muslims. In 2003, Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights activist born a Muslim in Somalia, was subject to a criminal investigation for hate speech for her statements linking Islam’s Prophet Mohammed to abuses against women in Muslim communities.

While that case was dropped, she was subsequently forced to stand trial in a civil action in the Netherlands for hate speech after announcing plans for a film on the treatment of homosexuals in Islam, a prospect the complainant — Holland’s main Muslim lobbying group — found to both cause “a great deal of pain” and be “blasphemous.” The court did not rule against the defendant but merely reprimanded the MP for having “sought the borders of the acceptable.”
The lesson here seems to be that in Holland, and soon enough here, given a few more progressive Supreme Court justices, any group willing to credibly threaten violence can immunize itself against criticism by claiming that the criticism is hurtful and blasphemous.

One wonders whether, had Wilders been outspoken in his criticism of, say, Catholicism or Judaism, the courts would have been as eager to assuage Catholic or Jewish sensibilities by subjecting him to prosecution.

In any event, I doubt had he offended either of these groups that he would require bodyguards to accompany him in public, but having offended Muslims, he needs them, and currently employs them. That's as troubling as is the precarious state of free speech in the Netherlands.