Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Does Morality Require God? (Pt. II)

Yesterday we undertook a consideration of a column by atheistic Darwinian Jerry Coyne who argues in USA Today that God is not necessary as a ground for morality. I'd like to continue that critique in this post.

Coyne's next move in the case he's trying to build is to place into evidence all the alleged misdeeds of the God of the Old Testament in order to show that the God of the Bible would be an inadequate ground for morality:
This isn't just philosophical rumination, because God — at least the God of Christians and Jews — repeatedly sanctioned or ordered immoral acts in the Old Testament. These include slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46), genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18), the slaying of adulterers and homosexuals, and the stoning of non-virgin brides (Leviticus 20:10, 20:13, Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Was God being moral when, after some children made fun of the prophet Elisha's bald head, he made bears rip 42 of them to pieces (2 Kings 2:23-24)? Even in the New Testament, Jesus preaches principles of questionable morality, barring heaven to the wealthy (Matthew 19:24), approving the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48), and damning sinners to the torments of hell (Mark 9:47-48). Similar sentiments appear in the Quran.

Now, few of us see genocide or stoning as moral, so Christians and Jews pass over those parts of the Bible with judicious silence. But that's just the point. There is something else — some other source of morality — that supersedes biblical commands. When religious people pick and choose their morality from Scripture, they clearly do so based on extrareligious notions of what's moral.

Further, the idea that morality is divinely inspired doesn't jibe with the fact that religiously based ethics have changed profoundly over time. Slavery was once defended by churches on scriptural grounds; now it's seen as grossly immoral. Mormons barred blacks from the priesthood, also on religious grounds, until church leaders had a convenient "revelation" to the contrary in 1978. Catholics once had a list of books considered immoral to read; they did away with that in 1966. Did these adjustments occur because God changed His mind? No, they came from secular improvements in morality that forced religion to clean up its act.
None of this, as distressing as it may be, is relevant to his initial claim that morality exists independently of God. Let's grant for the sake of discussion that the Bible portrays God as a moral monster (although many scholars would disagree). What follows? Nothing of any help to Coyne's case. What follows is that God as portrayed in the Old Testament seems, at least on a literal reading, to be a questionable source of moral instruction, but this gets Coyne nowhere. It could be that the Bible is mistaken about God's role in these events. It could be that we don't fully understand the events it describes.

The point is that without a transcendent, omniscient, objective ground for morality there really is, as Nietzsche taught us, no good or evil, no right or wrong. Whether or not the deity portrayed in the Bible actually is that transcendent ground is a completely separate question.

Moreover, Coyne's argument begs the question. He assumes that objective moral values exist without God and then employs these values to show that God doesn't exhibit them. But the independent, non-arbitrary existence of these values is precisely what's in contention. He can't assume they exist when their existence is what he has promised to demonstrate.

He goes on to ask:
So where does morality come from, if not from God? Two places: evolution and secular reasoning. Despite the notion that beasts behave bestially, scientists studying our primate relatives, such as chimpanzees, see evolutionary rudiments of morality: behaviors that look for all the world like altruism, sympathy, moral disapproval, sharing — even notions of fairness. This is exactly what we'd expect if human morality, like many other behaviors, is built partly on the genes of our ancestors.
Yes, but scientists also see unimaginable cruelty and greed. Indeed, these are far the more common behaviors on display in the animal kingdom. Coyne selects traits of which he approves to call moral and traits of which he disapproves to call immoral, but what criterion is he using for this judgment and from whence does he derive that criterion? Surely, he doesn't expect us to think that what he, or even a majority, approves is what should be deemed right. By that standard he would have to grant that human sacrifice would have been moral during much of our history.

Furthermore, he again begs the question by assuming that altruism, sympathy, etc. are morally good behaviors in order to show that rudimentary morality exists in chimps, but whether these things really are moral or amoral apart from divine will is what he needs to demonstrate. So far, he hasn't done it.

We'll finish up this discussion tomorrow.

Cyber War Heating Up

China is believed to have already launched, or tried to launch, cyber attacks against the U.S. According to Strategy Page it looks as though the U.S. is getting ready to respond in kind:
The U.S. Department of Defense has long advocated going on the offensive against criminal gangs and foreign governments that seek (and often succeed) to penetrate U.S. government and military Internet security, and steal information or sabotage operations. Without much fanfare the Department of Defense has made preparations to do just that.

Since the military cannot afford to pay enough to recruit qualified software and Internet engineers for this sort of work, it has turned to commercial firms. There are already some out there, firms that are technically network security companies, but will also carry out offensive missions (often of questionable legality, but that has always been an aspect of the corporate security business.)

Some of these firms have quietly withdrawn from the Internet security business, gone dark, and apparently turned their efforts to the more lucrative task of creating Cyber War weapons for the Pentagon. It may have been one of these firms that created, or helped create, the Stuxnet worm.

Most of the Internet combat so far has been done under peacetime conditions. In wartime it's possible (especially for the United States) to cut off enemy countries from the Internet. Thus potential American foes want to maintain an official peacetime status so the United States cannot use its ability to cut nations off (or nearly off) from the Internet and remove easy access to American (and Western) targets. Thus the need to make attacks discreetly so as to make it more difficult for an enemy to target stronger attacks against you, or threaten nuclear or conventional war.
The first Chinese target (and those in North Korea, Cuba, and elsewhere) that ought to come under attack are the computers that keep track of their political and religious dissidents.