Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Does Morality Require God? (Pt. III)

This is the third and final installment in our series of posts on biologist Jerry Coyne's USA Today article in which he claims that morality does not require God. Scroll down for the first two installments. Coyne writes:
And the conditions under which humans evolved are precisely those that would favor the evolution of moral codes: small social groups of big-brained animals. When individuals in a group can get to know, recognize and remember each other, this gives an advantage to genes that make you behave nicely towards others in the group, reward those who cooperate and punish those who cheat. That's how natural selection can build morality. Secular reason adds another layer atop these evolved behaviors, helping us extend our moral sentiments far beyond our small group of friends and relatives — even to animals.
Once again, if our behavior is determined by our genes then it's not moral behavior in any meaningful sense. Morality requires that an agent be free to choose one behavior over another. There are those who view cheating or murder as good. If morality is encoded in our genes then the genetically determined behavior of an Anders Breivik is no more right or wrong than that of the person whose genes tell him that Breivik is evil. We don't like that our cat tortures a bird but we don't consider the pet to be doing anything immoral. It's just doing what cats are genetically programmed to do. Likewise, if Coyne is correct, with people.
Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it's far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have. Secular morality is what pushes religion to improve its own dogma on issues such as slavery and the treatment of women.
This is total nonsense. There's nothing in secular evolutionary morality that makes slavery wrong or that says we should treat women with dignity. Secular morality ultimately leads to a might-makes-right egoism. Slavery and women's rights came about because people realized that oppression is inconsistent with a God who created all of us in his image and who loves us equally. As Tocqueville put it, slavery came to an end when people realized that people who were equal in the eyes of God could hardly be treated unequally in the eyes of men.

The serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is completely correct when he said in the filming of an A&E Biography segment, "If it all happens naturalisticaly, what's the need for God? Can't I set my own rules? Who owns me? I own myself."

New Atheist Richard Dawkins is often prone to silliness when he steps outside the field of biology, but he asks a telling question that atheists usually shrink from when he wonders, "What's to prevent us from saying Hitler was right? I mean that's a genuinely difficult question."

It's not that people can't hold to a set of values that most would call moral. It's rather that, if there is no transcendent, objective moral authority, whatever values people hold are arbitrary and subjective. If they held values contrary to the ones they do in fact hold, if they embraced the same values as Dahmer or Hitler, they would be unpopular but not wrong.
And really, isn't it better to be moral because you've worked out for yourself — in conjunction with your group — the right thing to do, rather than because you want to propitiate a god or avoid punishment in the hereafter?
Coyne shows in this passage that he has no understanding of basic Christianity. The Christian motive for striving to live a good life is not fear of punishment or the need to propitiate God. That was all settled at Calvary. The Christian is motivated to live the way God desires out of love and gratitude for the One who suffered so that we could be reconciled with God and have eternal life.
Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done — in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok. In fact, you can make a good case that those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America.
The experiment has also been tried extensively elsewhere and resulted in the murders of six million Jews by the Nazis, the forced starvation of 15 million Ukrainians by the Soviets, the murders of millions in the Chinese cultural revolution, the murders of millions more in the Cambodian killing fields, the horrors in much of Africa, and in the prison states of North Korea and Cuba.

These crimes are arguably the most gruesome, violent, sanguinary, and cruel in the history of the world and they were perpetrated by regimes which explicitly rejected the Christian worldview in favor of a secular morality based on "reason." Indeed, nothing in any evolutionary or secular ethic prohibits such ghastliness. In a world without God none of this is in any sense morally wrong. How could it be?

It's true that several European states which have not yet explicitly repudiated their Christian heritage have nevertheless embraced secularism without spiraling into totalitarian cruelty and madness, but it's only because these countries are still living off their Christian inheritance. They're piggybacking on Christian values while declaring that the values upon which they're parasitic are really the fruit of secular reason.

It's a form of self-delusion, and Professor Coyne's argument, such as it is, offers us a good case study.

Tea Party = Al Qaeda

A new Rasmussen poll shows that 29% of Americans agree with the comparison that many on the Left are making of tea party members to terrorists.

That more than one in four people in this country would agree that tea partiers are the political equivalent of al Qaeda is dispiriting, not for what it says about the tea party but for what it says about 29% of our countrymen.

The tea party is the only reason anything at all is being done to try to save this country from complete ruination. Like an alcoholic who just can't stop drinking we have spent ourselves into a stupor, and the Democratic party has no desire to stop. Indeed, anyone who tries to wrest the bottle from their hands gets labelled by the masters of Orwellian Newspeak a "terrorist" or "extremist" who's trying to destroy the country.

Let me switch to a related thought. One frequently hears the irritatingly misleading claim by commentators (I even heard Glenn Beck say it) that the problem is Congress or the problem is that our politicians are too busy squabbling to agree on a solution to our economic troubles.

This is, in my opinion, absurd. The problem is not Congress as a whole, the problem is the political Left, including many in Congress, who refuse to do what's necessary to rescue us from calamity.

We're in this mess because we spent too much, starting under Bush, but skyrocketing (by a factor of 4) under Obama. The tea party was largely responsible for electing a Republican House last November which resolved to stop and reverse this insanity, and almost 30% of Americans, including some prominent Democrats, think it's the tea party who are the terrorists?

The stock market has dropped 2000 points in the last few days, wiping out many people's savings, because the market no longer has confidence that the Democrats will allow this problem to be fixed, and it's the tea party who are the terrorists?

For the first time in history the United States' credit rating has been downgraded from AAA because the Democrats refused to pass the GOP's "Cut, Cap, and Balance" legislation, and it's the tea party who are the terrorists?

Meanwhile, for two and a half years the Democrats have refused to offer a budget, the president has refused to offer a plan to cut the debt, but it's the tea party who are the terrorists.

When John Kerry calls the tea party terrorists one is minimally surprised. When Joe Biden says the same thing one shakes one's head in recognition of the source, but when almost 30% of Americans, presumably a group consisting of many people of at least average intelligence, affirm the characterization, one despairs for the country.