Sunday, February 19, 2012

When atheists think the understand religion...

I occasionally read an article out loud for my wife while she is busy with our daughter.  It lets us read together and gives my daughter some time listening to words.   I chose 'Religion for Everyone' to read to them, and the result was pure comedy.

I don't want to make fun at this article because I am sure the author was sincere.  But it is obvious he has no idea what 'religion' really is.  He is a convinced atheist, but he longs for the Old-Time Religion that he supposes brought us together as a community.  So his solution is to 'learn from religion' and create secular copies of the pieces that built the communities of the past.  In the article, he mostly uses the 'genius' of the Catholic Mass as his starting point.  It appears he has only read about the Mass, however, and never really stepped inside a church during the liturgy.

For instance, his understanding of the Eucharist is foreign to any mass-going catholic.  He supposes that we come to mass (physically) hungry, making us primed for lessons about life (the homily), so that when we greet our neighbors (Sign of Peace), we do not judge them.  We then partake in a meal (the Eucharist) and in our satiated state give our fellow parishioners a pat on the back and grow together.  Then drawing on a fairly spurious history of the early mass, he supposes the secular version is an "Agape Restaurant', where a community groups comes together to share a meal without prejudice.  This lofty goal is achieved by splitting up families and friends at the tables and asking neighbors questions like, "What are your fears?", which are from a script lying on the table.  No, I'm not making this up.

Beyond the question of "who would ever want to do this?", he missing something else completely.  He supposes that the success of a religion is built upon liturgies and rituals and not the stuffy doctrines.  But it is entirely the opposite.  The liturgies only make sense if they are proper reflections of the doctrines.  The mass is pointless unless Jesus was the son of God who gave his body and blood in sacrifice.  Baptism is pointless unless its action removes the stain of Original Sin and brings us into the community of the church.  The evidence for this misunderstanding is clear when the author makes statements like, "Religions know a lot about our loneliness."  No, it is God who knows a lot about our loneliness, and when we turn to Him as a community in the liturgy, only then is there a chance that we can properly align ourselves.

I honestly wish the author luck.  I hope he has a chance to establish his restaurants and build his temples, because when they are empty, it will hasten the end of this post-modern notion that religion is just a set of empty liturgies.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ethics and Morality III: The Alternative God of Love

In “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” Joel Marks, an ethicist writing in the New York Times, argues that although it may appear to us that they exist, morals are a complete fiction.  He motivates his objection to morality with the Euthyphro.  As he explains, this Platonic dialogue challenges us with the dilemma, “Do the gods approve of something because it is pious, or is something pious because the gods approve it?”  
This question exposes the fabric of morality and ethics.  If we suppose that piety is higher than the gods (however many there may be), then we are forced to admit that there is some greater authority than the divine.  Hence, the gods themselves would be superfluous to questions of morality.  Any divine revelation would be mere divine opinion.  On the other hand, if the gods are the sole author of our morals, then morality is a puppet of the gods.  Morality itself would be arbitrary and merely compulsory.  At the command of Zeus we could be in a world in which murder, abuse, and lying are blessed acts.  That is a frightening world.  Hence, the Euthyphro dilemma forces us to choose between a morality in which the gods are superfluous or one in which they are our capricious tormentors.  We react to the gods with apathy or dread.
Prof. Marks tells us that these innate reactions are important.  “We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that trumps even the commands of God,” he assures us.  In other words, we can judge the gods, and in that way Prof. Marks chooses the apathetic view.  Yet if gods are not needed for morality, then atheism seems a logical next step.  And, as I have previously written, Marks argument is that if there is no divine, then there can be no place for morality to exist either.
Is dread of the gods a better choice?  Plato does not think it is logical.  In his dialogue Socrates challenges the young Euthyphro, who on his way to condemn his father, with the above dilemma.  Out of respect for the gods, Euthyphro chooses the view that piety must be what the gods approve.  But Socrates shows that a thing that is pious cannot be pious merely because it is approved by the gods: an approval is passive in nature but piety is an active property of a thing itself, so, Socrates argues, piety cannot be the result of any approval.  By the end of the dialogue, Euthyphro is made a fool by Socrates, who shows him that if he cannot point to the true essence of piety, he has no basis for his supposed piousness.  
Consider, though, the nature of the gods in Plato’s cosmos.  The gods inhabit a divine realm that is little different from the realm of the mortals.  They are ‘higher’ than humanity only in the sense that they have complete dominion over the earth.  The gods bicker between themselves and disagree violently.  Zeus, their leader, is only first among equals.  Hence piety cannot have its source in any one god.  This is why Euthyphro must suppose pious things are approved by all the gods.
Plato, for all his wisdom, was unaware of Jewish theology, that the divine is one omnipotent, omniscient God who is the source of all things, unique in His supreme unity.  God Himself is one, rather than divided among gods.  God’s will is perfect rather than fickle.  Moreover, this God is not a being; He is being itself.  He creates ex nihilo and exists outside time.  The God of the Jews shares his godliness with the Greek gods only in the faint sense that He is above humanity.  
Returning to the dilemma, we find that in His unity, this Jewish God presents an alternative solution for Euthyphro: God simply is piety.  This is to say that God is the complete and total source of piety.  God and piety are two words for the same thing under different facets.  And if we examine the dilemma more closely, we see that piety is not unique.  Socrates could have challenged Euthyphro with similar questions about the source of truth, love, justice, goodness, or morality itself.  And in a similar way, we would find that God is truth, that God is love, etc.
Of course this idea is not new; it is orthodox Christianity.  In the Gospel of John, we find that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).  John speaks in his first epistle that, “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love” (4:8).  This language fills the Bible.  Yet these concepts are more than just biblical axioms.  St. Thomas Aquinas, in his fourth way of rationally knowing God, appeals to the good, true and noble in humanity and shows that they must flow from a source that holds their perfection.  And this source can only be what we call God.
Examining again the problem of Euthyphro in the light of the alternative Christian understanding of the divine nature, we see that the perceived dilemma vanishes.  We find a problem only when we anthropomorphize God into another being or disconnect morality from its source.  Marks’ search for morality is really a search for God.  His innate rejection of a capricious God is misplaced, because his intuitive sense of morality can only have its source in God himself.
Moreover, the above solution to Euthyphro’s dilemma has a corollary that confirms our common sense: love is divine; morality, how we love, is divine; justice, the application of love, is divine; piety, the love of God, is divine.  In a word, to love is to taste God.  Love is, literally, a miracle.  This is why we seek to experience true love.  If we have considered the full theological implications of God being love, then when we tell someone we love her, we are telling her that we meet God in her presence.
This is the common sense notion that an atheist must deny.  Marks denies it by supposing God is another being whom he can judge.  Other atheists deny it by supposing that love has a meaning in a purely material universe.  This brings us to the irony of atheistic ethics.  The atheist denies the existence of God but must appeal to love in order to motivate his ethics.  This love can ultimately never inspire us, however, because it lacks the divine substance that makes it real.  So an atheistic ethics borrows inspiration from the true sense of love that resides in God, completing the irony.
Of course Marks, and likeminded atheists, are sincere.  They see no evidence for God, but wish to establish a reasoning for being good without Him.   Yet, returning to St. Thomas, in the exercise of establishing a universal ethics, the atheist finds his evidence for God.  The atheist tastes God in his love of the good and just.  This is not scientific evidence, but evidence that is even more powerful because it reaches into the heart.  

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ethics and Morality

As a rebuttal to my previous comment, my friend endorsed an atheist response to the Joel Marks's Ex-Moralist article.  In his blog Why Evolution is True, the ecologist Jerry Coyle argues that Marks did not truly give up morality.  Instead he switched to a utilitarian morality and merely called it something different.  I don't agree.  In the following reply, I suggest that Marks gave up on morality because his atheist philosophy demanded it.
Sometimes it helps for me to start at the beginning.  What is the purpose of defining morality?  Why go through the trouble?  It seems to me that morality is important because there are times when we simply do not know the right action to take.  Sometimes we must rely upon something outside ourselves to tell us what to do.  Our internal compass -- our instinct, our heart, or our head -- fails us.  Morality tells us what to do at these times.  Yet there is also ethics, and both ethics and morality instruct us how to act.
Although both are valuable, I see ethics and morality as distinct.  What separates them is that ethics change and are debated while morals are eternal.  We cannot deny that each of us has times when we disobey even our own rules.  We rationalize them away or we try to forget them.  The moral rules are those which we can never deny or rationalize into nonexistence.  We must accept them.  Morality becomes most needed precisely at the moment one wishes to ignore it.  To make this point clear, consider being accused of something "unethical" versus "immoral".  The latter has a feeling of inviolable transgression that the former lacks.  Or to put it more succinctly: ethics suggests, morality compels. 
I make this distinction because I do not think Prof. Coyne or Sam Harris, whom Coyne mentions, is talking about morality.  They are talking about ethics.  Consider this section from Coyne's post: 
"[Prof. Marks] may not call [vegetarianism] the 'right' thing to do, but it’s what he sees as a way to increase well being.  And that’s exactly what Sam Harris sees as 'objective' morality." 
To be fair, I have not read Harris, and neither Coyne nor Marks wrote in order to define a complete system of ethics, but consider what is here.  They propose that we should act in ways that increase well-being.  That sounds good, but it is easily rationalized away.  If I am selfish and place a higher weight upon my own happiness, then I am justified to act selfishly because my well-being is most important.  Yet we also feel that would be wrong.  (I can give personal testimony to this sin.)  Hence the idea -- that we should act to increase well-being -- is an idea in ethics.  To motivate, it requires some external moral standard that tells us we should not value ourselves so highly. 
I don't think Coyne would be satisfied with that argument.  He would say, I think, that he possess an innate morality which tells him to act humbly.  This morality is guided by the "head" and the "heart". 
"[Prof. Marks's] 'head' is his secular and rational consideration of what consequences actions can bring.  If some consequences are more desirable than others, as in factory farming, that’s not much different from morality.
"His 'heart' is his evolved feelings about the right thing to do.  That is the part of our morality instilled in our ancestors by natural selection." 
He supposes morality is a combination of choosing what is more desirable rationally and judging his choices based on his internal feelings, which have emerged from evolution through natural selection.  So for him, the ultimate external moral standard is based in the natural process of adaptation.  It changes and evolves, and hence it is not truly objective.  (Notice objective becomes "objective" in the quote above.)  Dawkins calls this the "changing moral zeitgeist" in The God Delusion.  But there are problems with such a moral standard. 
Morality is not an abstract idea that we discuss to make us feel better about our actions.  It gives us a basis for truly judging our actions and the actions of others.  Ideally, it should give us a standard by which we construct our laws.  And in this latter way, morality becomes action.  We ruin people's lives by throwing them in jail (or worse) for not conforming to the moral zeitgeist.  We feel we are justified in administering this discipline because they have offended a morality that not only applies to us, but to them as well.  For example, we would all agree that thieves and murderers  are immoral and should be punished. 
And so here is the problem: if we suppose that morality evolves, then how can we justify punishment of immoral acts?  How do we guarantee these wrong actions are not, in fact, just the next step in the evolving moral zeitgeist?  How do we avoid punishing the more evolved actions outside our current morality?  Given the unreliability of our individual moral sense, as I mentioned above, we cannot depend on it.  Toward an answer Dawkins proposes that "the zeitgeist may […] move in a generally progressive direction, but […] it is a sawtooth not a smooth improvement" (p. 308, The God Delusion).  But this is not satisfying: why is the zeitgeist not generally regressive instead? 
Fundamental to Dawkins's argument is that today we know and understand more than our ancestors -- we have discovered more truth.  Therefore we are more likely to construct a proper understanding of right and wrong.  But we cannot know this with certainty.  We can only trust that the zeitgeist is guided by an invisible hand.  Dawkins, Harris, and Coyne would say, circularly, that this is the hand of evolution.  But if evolution is the author of our changing moral sense, we cannot then use our moral sense to judge what truth evolution has given us.  Hence an inner, evolved sense of right and wrong can never provide an objective standard of morality. 
I think in his "anti-epiphany", Prof. Marks peers behind the curtain of the morality argued by Dawkins and Harris and sees the circularity.  The invisible hand disappeared.  He sees no basis for compelling anyone to act in a right way, because "right" doesn't have a real meaning.  Moreover, he has no alternative.  There is no atheistic argument for morality that is not fundamentally circular in the above way.  And that is why he no longer believes in morals.  He can only suggest an ethics from the basis of his internal compass.  (At least, then, he still has a job.) 
But there is an alternative solution that embraces the invisible hand, the teleology, of our moral development.  This solution acknowledges moral guidance as one of the divine attributes, because only God can satisfy our quest for an objective morality.  And it does not require us to redefine words with perfectly good definitions.  But that is for another post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A path toward moral relativism

Yesterday, just before going to bed, I ran across this essay by ethicist Joel Marks on the New York Times called "Confessions of an Ex-Moralist".  I found it to be a refreshing look at the moral implications of atheism, and I commented on Facebook that it was nice to read a "serious" atheist.  A friend took exception to my comment and wrote:
What exactly do you find 'serious' about this? If anything, I find it almost exactly not serious. This guy sounds like an atheist who at some level wishes he just could be a believer and make all the tricky stuff go away. I think teh kidz call this a faithiest.
I wrote a reply in which I tried to express the logical reasons of this particular atheist's choice of moral relativism and why it was important to understand it.
I doubt that I am unique here, but it often feels as if morals are real, i.e., that there is an objective right and wrong.  When someone has wronged me, it feels as though his action was not just wrong for me but for him as well.  And I would like to think that, at times, I am truly justified in my anger toward someone else.  So if I feel so strongly about a moral reality, then why?

One answer, I suppose, is that morals do not exist as we would feel they should.  Instead of morals, the argument goes, each of us merely has preferences.  Morals themselves are an illusion or, at best, are an emergent property formed out of the complex interactions of our subjective preferences.  Either way, morals do not have real authority.

Regardless of whether that particular argument is true, Prof. Marks is convinced that his atheism demands that it is true.  He explains why here:

"A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset […] But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? […] Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?"

As a humanist, he finds truth in the inward feeling of beauty one sees in a sunset (what his friend calls God).  But it is the experience between man and sunset that he finds transcendent, not the sunset itself.  As an atheist, he knows this is not really God, but like his friend he did "adamantly affirm the objectivity of right and wrong".  Yet at his "anti-epiphany", he realizes that there is a duality between his friend's belief in God and his belief in morals.  As man is to sunset, man is also to lie.  He supposes that he should be as amoral as he is atheist.  And in that case, morals do not exist any more than God does.

What is so "serious" about this atheist is that once he realizes that his philosophy demands that he give up an important aspect of his life -- morality is important to an ethicist -- he does so without question.  Moreover, I find it commendable that he focuses on the questions of atheist morality instead of the more worn out question of whether atheists are moral.  I find the notion of a relative morality absolutely fascinating because it raises a huge list of questions.  Prof. Marks covers some in his essay: Are any acts not permissible?  How does one deal with disagreement?  How does one escape moral nihilism?  What are the societial implications of such a philosophy?  How can we rely on an instinctual morality when it is so unreliable?  Each of these is a hard question, and hence I don't agree that it as an easy way out.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Whether evolution via natural selection is a counter-example to Thomas's Fifth Way

Thomas Aquinas famously shows that the existence of God may be shown through five ways.  The fifth way is sometimes called the teleological argument or the argument from design.
The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.
Thomas begins with the rational principle that all things that act toward an end must have been designed to act toward this end.  Hence, if we find that there are ends, that agents act "as to obtain the best result", then we must agree that these agents' actions had a designer.  Thomas finds such agents in nature, agents that lack intelligence yet act in ways that are obviously "aimed" as, famously, "the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer".  Here Thomas is supposing these agents are programmed to act, they do not decide for themselves, e.g., birds fly south due to their DNA, not out of free choice.

Thomas focuses on nature and so his argument has lost some influence among modern man, who would more easily (and scientifically) attribute the ends of nature to natural selection and evolution.  To stay with the analogy, even a dumb archer will guide an arrow given enough time and motivation.  For example, Richard Dawkins argues that
Thanks to Darwin, it is no longer true to say that nothing we know looks designed unless it is designed.  Evolution by natural selection produces an excellent simulacrum of design, mounting prodigious heights of complexity and elegance.  And among these eminences of pseudo-design are nervous systems which -- among their more modest accomplishments -- manifest goal-seeking behavior that, even in a tiny insect, resembles a sophisticated heat-seeking missile more than a simple arrow on target (p. 103, God Delusion).
Evolution is undoubtedly true, and natural selection is the most likely scientific explanation for the way in which we ended up with complex organs like nervous systems.  But I doubt that evolution by natural selection is a valid counter-example to Thomas's fifth way.  Such arguments miss the deeper philosophical point contained within Thomas's argument.

Thomas remarks that at least some natural, unintelligent agents act to obtain the best result.  They do not end up acting at random (fortuitously), but in a way that best suits them.  It is the notion of best that implies a designer, even given evolution as the method of achieving that result.  For example, a dumb archer may eventually be trained to aim at a target, but it is a rational impossibility that a dumb archer chooses his target.  He shoots where he is told.  His notions of best are external, decided by a more able mind.  So if we wish to argue against Thomas's divinely driven nature, we cannot point toward evolution because it does not provide a definition of best.  It does not aim the arrow of nature, it merely propels it.  

To make this point clear, consider what one may say is the best human organ, the brain.  In his lecture notes on Aquinas, Peter Kreeft writes
I think Aquinas would say that evolution is an excellent example of cosmic design, evidence for God. He’d say the arrow of evolution flies to the target of human brains only because it’s guided by the intelligence of a divine archer. Aquinas would not be among the anti-Darwinian fundamentalists today. I think if he saw the atheist bumper sticker of the Christian fish with the word Darwin in it, he would not understand the intended irony, he would interpret it as an argument for theism (p. 20, The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas)
Using Dawkins's words, that there are bodily "eminences", we actually argue for God's existence. If we suppose that the action of our grey matter is the pinnacle of evolution, then we must concede to Aquinas that there is a designer, aiming the arrow of evolution toward human intelligence.  (God is the intelligence designer not the Intelligent Designer.)

A proper counter-example could be formed if it could be proven that there is no notion of best.  Instead, there are just flavors and variations, each equally valid.  So Thomas's archer may hit the bullseye, or he may avoid it, but we cannot rationally suppose one target is better than another.  This is a post-modern critique of Thomas.  But such an argument is not only fatal to Thomas's fifth way, but fatal to science as well.  Science needs best too, because it tells us truths about the physical world; it needs a best hypothesis.  Without best, the flat Earth and the round Earth become equals, and science would become a glorified database of physical occurrences.

This is why science is indebted to Aquinas and his fifth way.  He justifies the otherwise arrogant claim of scientific truth by telling us why we have intelligence: because our minds, made in the image of God's omnipotence, are ordered toward reason.  And in that humble way, we may find truth.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Skeptics and Believers: Lecture 1 - Religion and Modernity

The material for this course begins at the enlightenment, or the scientific revolution, and it examines what religious and nonreligious thinkers have thought from then to the present time.  The great question that is posed is, "Can religion be modern?"  The first lecture gives an overview of Prof. Robert's attempt to answer to that question.

Prof. Roberts defines Modernity in its more philosophical sense.  The movement of Modernity is toward a greater substitution of the "authority of reason" for the Medieval "authority of faith".  He identifies Modernity with ideas of progress and the universality of reason.  Modernity innately supposes that man will be unified under reason and that, somehow, mankind itself is on a slow journey to this unification.  At the same time, man does not need God or religion to achieve this final goal, because every step is built with the human intellect ordered by reason.  By this definition, Modernity is not so much atheist as it is agnostic.  The Modern god is an outside observer.

With that definition of Modernity, it seems impossible that religion can be modern.  To be religious supposes that God is both necessary and essential for life.  So while various religions may absorb features of Modernity, they can never truly be modern.  This is only my prediction of Prof. Robert's conclusion, but I am very interested in what place he finds for religion in a Modern world.

After defining Modernity, Prof. Roberts gives an overview of the course.  He has chosen to explore the questions of religion and reason throughout time, focusing on what philosophers have thought.  We will hear from Descarte, Hume, Kierkegaard, Kant, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and others.  For this lecture, we are only given the standard nuggets of argument for which they are famous.  But he ends the lecture on a curious note.

At the end, he wants to describe the importance of philosophy.  (Afterall, what use is his lecture if we do not fully appreciate what philosophy is.)  He turns to Focault.  Philosophy, he says, is a practice of thought.  It is a testing of ideas.  This exploration of ideas, if it is deep enough, verges on the spiritual.  Philosophical inquiry, he says, is important because it allows us to change our ideas.  In fact, it impels us to change our ideas.

That definition sounds very appealing.  But if I did not know any better before I listened to these lectures, I would have put philosophy aside and forgotten about it.  Imagine if we said that the importance of science is that it is possible change our ideas about physical reality?  Imagine if we got upset because science dictated to us the nature of the world and felt oppressed by science because we could not form our own understanding of nature.  What good would science be?  But indeed it is that dictatorship that gives science its usefulness.  If science gives us truth, then we can only accept the reality it presents us, we cannot argue. Likewise, philosophy is only useful if it is a real source of truth.  It is important to be able to seek new ideas and change our understanding of the world, but only on the journey toward truth. If God exists, then positing his nonexistence is an ultimately useless exercise.  Freedom is useful only in the service of truth.  It is not an end unto itself.

So instead, if we are to continue further, we must suppose that philosophy is a exploration of the nature of reality every bit as concerned with truth as science.  With that, we can see how religion and reason are not so opposed to each other.  They are both an exploration and response to what is true and real.  Otherwise, they are pointless.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Skeptics and Religion: Beginning thoughts

I have been hoping to learn more about atheism and religion for a long time.  Although any conversion requires an evaluation of the religious landscape, I have never gone through a systematic evaluation.  And now I have a great opportunity to do that.

An atheist friend of mine often raises objections to religion and faith on Facebook, and I have certainly linked to several critiques of atheism.  Facebook was not built for weighty theological and philosophical discussions, and so often those discussions were not as useful as they could have been.  So in a spirit of dialogue, we have decided to seek out a common vocabulary by listening to lectures on skepticism and religion.  These lectures (I hope) will offer a survey of religious belief and its criticism.  What I hope to gain is perspective.  I want to understand why people have had different views from the perspective of those views.  In other words, it is usually not enough for me to understand the criticism of a worldview.  I also want to hear and understand why it is that a worldview exists.

Our first lecture series is called Skeptics and Believers: Religious Debate in the Western Intellectual Tradition.  These lectures are given by Professor Tyler Roberts, who is himself a skeptic.  The second lecture series is called Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion by Professor Peter Kreeft, an outspoken Catholic apologist.  I hope that these two sets of lectures will give us both points of view.

To begin the discussion, I have some questions I hope are answered by Prof. Tyler over the course of the lectures:

  • Will he frame the religious narrative as a search for truth or as the slow triumph of human thought?
  • What does he believe is the purpose of philosophy?
  • Can he explain love and the intellect from a skeptical point of view?
  • Under the skeptical mindset, what stops one from becoming a nihilist?
The final question is the one that I am most interested to learn about.  Is nihilism inevitable if there is no God?

My friend's commentary can be found here.