Friday, October 11, 2013

Dawkins Misses the Point

British biologist and uberatheist Richard Dawkins was interviewed recently on CNN and asked whether an absence of religion would leave us without a moral compass. Dawkins replied that the very idea that religion provides a moral compass is "horrible." For Dawkins, as for like-minded antitheists throughout the last three centuries, religion is seen as the cause of our moral problems, not the solution for them.

Syndicated columnist Dennis Prager, who is Jewish, wrote a rejoinder to Dawkins in which he states, as we've often stressed over the years here at Viewpoint, that if there's no personal, transcendent moral authority to ground our moral claims then any moral assertion is simply an expression of arbitrary, subjective preference. Prager puts it this way:
If there is no God, the labels "good" and "evil" are merely opinions. They are substitutes for "I like it" and "I don't like it." They are not objective realities.

Every atheist philosopher I have debated has acknowledged this. For example, at Oxford University I debated Professor Jonathan Glover, the British philosopher and ethicist, who said: "Dennis started by saying that I hadn't denied his central contention that if there isn't a God, there is only subjective morality. And that's absolutely true."

And the eminent Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty admitted that for secular liberals such as himself, "there is no answer to the question, 'Why not be cruel?'" Atheists like Dawkins who refuse to acknowledge that without God there are only opinions about good and evil are not being intellectually honest.
What's more, in the absence of that personal, transcendent ground, not only are our moral intuitions merely subjective expressions of personal preference or social convention, like our preference for wine with dinner, the whole idea of moral duty is nonsense. There can be no moral duty, for example, to care for the poor, to preserve the environment, or, as Rorty suggests, to be kind rather than cruel if there's no moral authority beyond our own predilections.

In Dawkins' world moral intuitions are the product of blind, impersonal evolutionary forces that shaped us for survival in the stone age, blind, impersonal forces cannot confer a duty or an obligation to behave one way rather than another. Evolution cannot tell us that we ought to be faithful to our spouses or honest in our businesses. It cannot adjudicate between the man who is kind and the man who is cruel.

Nor can popular opinion serve as a standard for right and wrong much less impose upon us a duty to behave in ways the masses prefer. Prager emphasizes the point:
To put this as clearly as possible: If there is no God who says, "Do not murder," murder is not wrong. Many people or societies may agree that it is wrong. But so what? Morality does not derive from the opinion of the masses. If it did, then apartheid was right; murdering Jews in Nazi Germany was right; the history of slavery throughout the world was right; and clitoridectomies and honor killings are right in various Muslims societies.

So, then, without God, why is murder wrong? Is it, as Dawkins argues, because reason says so?

My reason says murder is wrong, just as Dawkins's reason does. But, again, so what? The pre-Christian Germanic tribes of Europe regarded the Church's teaching that murder was wrong as preposterous. They reasoned that killing innocent people was acceptable and normal because the strong should do whatever they wanted.
Reason cannot arbitrate this question. One person may be convinced that his reason tells him that he should care about others. Another may be equally convinced by reason that he should always put his own interests first. How do we decide who's right if each man is his own authority?

Prager again:
Years ago, I interviewed Pearl and Sam Oliner, two professors of sociology at California State University at Humboldt and the authors of one of the most highly-regarded works on altruism, The Altruistic Personality. The book was the product of the Oliners' lifetime of study of non-Jewish rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust. The Oliners, it should be noted, are secular, not religious, Jews; they had no religious agenda.

I asked Samuel Oliner, "Knowing all you now know about who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, if you had to return as a Jew to Poland and you could knock on the door of only one person in the hope that they would rescue you, would you knock on the door of a Polish lawyer, a Polish doctor, a Polish artist or a Polish priest?" Without hesitation, he said, "a Polish priest." And his wife immediately added, "I would prefer a Polish nun."
Why? I suggest that it's because only the priest (or nun) have an objective duty to help, to be willing to risk their own lives to aid those who were being unjustly hunted down and killed. None of the others, unless they are theists, have any reason why they should risk their lives for others. They may do it because of some emotional preference, but they have no duty to do it. That's why so many of the rescuers of European Jews were Christians and why so many of them, when asked later why they did it, replied simply that they were only doing what God expected of them. Given their faith and devotion they could do no other.

Prager goes on to make a number of other interesting and important comments which would repay the effort to read his column.