Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Quote of the Day (34)

The late Christopher Hitchens famously claimed men can be good without God. To prove his case he challenged his detractors to name even one moral action performed by a believer that could not equally have been performed by a nonbeliever.

Hitchens is dead and gone, but his claim is not. Others continue to advance it in different ways. Stefan Molyneux explores the subject in Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics. Dr. Jordan Peterson, notably coy about his belief in the existence of an actual Supreme Being, lays down a rationalistic scenario in a series of recent lectures in which the Bible, though apparently the product of naturally evolving morality rather than divine revelation, still serves a vital purpose in civilizing man, providing an irreplaceable basis for social interaction and transforming the individual.

Goodness without an actual God. Hmm. Does that work for you?

Do We Need God to be Good?

It doesn’t for me, and it doesn’t for Dr. C.R. Hallpike, an anthropologist whose years living among the Konso of Ethiopia and the Tauade of New Guinea have given rise to works on developmental psychology, primitive thought and the evolution of morality. In his book Do We Need God To Be Good? Hallpike provides a thoughtful and well-grounded refutation of Hitchens’ claim by first conceding what should be obvious to all:
“There are indeed many such forms of behaviour that people of all religions and none would commend as necessary for the preservation of the social order. We can therefore agree with Hitchens that there is no reason to expect any special differences here between the conduct of believers and unbelievers, and the same would be true as well of many immoral actions that are also generally agreed to threaten the social order, such as theft, rape, and murder. To this extent it is clear that one does not need God to be good …”
Okay so far.

Moral and Immoral

But Hallpike is not done:
“The real differences, however, would arise over what believers and unbelievers would regard as moral and immoral in the first place.”
This is critical. Unless we agree about what we mean by morality, Christians and atheists are simply talking past each other.

What the Atheist Worldview Doesn’t Support …

Hitchens simply took for granted we were talking about the same thing, but Hallpike is not so sure:
“An atheist might very well be an Objectivist, for example, and would not consider risking his own life, or even serious discomfort, to save that of a stranger, and would be equally unwilling to perform unpaid public service, or go and help the poor in a Third World country, or in fact do anything that did not have a selfish motive. Forgiving one’s enemies would be eccentric, and loving them unthinkable, while taking revenge on them would be very appealing. The distinction between spiritual and material values would be meaningless, and pride, selfishness, and general narcissism would seem perfectly natural, so that being a winner, social success, wealth, luxury and power would all be eminently desirable and worth struggling for at any cost, because life has no other meaning, whereas humility and self-denial would be morbid and ridiculous. In the same way it would be far more sensible to go with the crowd than to make oneself unpopular by standing up for some moral principle.”
It is evident that not all atheists behave this way, but the point is that there is no compelling reason they should not. Those that serve others, display contentment with their lot in life or show character when large numbers of their peers turn against them are not doing these things because of their belief system but in spite of it.

… and What It Does

More importantly, perhaps, are the many things an atheistic worldview renders perfectly acceptable that have nothing to do with threats to in-groups or their social cohesion:
“Human life as such would have no special value, universal rights are a fantasy, and not only abortion and infanticide but the extermination of the old, sick, mentally retarded and no doubt other ‘burdens on society’ would be perfectly justifiable as well. The atheist need have no particular concern with the poor, and could easily join Professor Nietzsche in regarding them as contemptible losers and natural inferiors, who are there to be exploited as a matter of course. Totalitarian states, particularly those driven by the belief in Reason and Planning, would also be quite acceptable, especially if the atheist could be employed as one of the planners or enforcers, and the use of terror and the extermination of the enemies of the state would be a rational policy, whereas being a martyr for one’s beliefs or a conscientious objector would be absurd. Since there is no such thing as human dignity, techniques of mind control and physical torture for the purposes of the state would be quite acceptable. Warfare, especially between different ethnic groups, is perfectly natural, and the conquest or extermination of foreigners, especially to seize their natural resources like oil, would be a normal strategy of international relations.”
Any of that sound the least bit familiar?

An Insufficient Intellectual Foundation

Hallpike’s projections here might easily be written off as mere fantasy if we had not seen these sorts of atrocities enacted over and over in atheist regimes throughout the twentieth century. History has provided us ample evidence he’s hit on something significant. Ever reasonable, Hallpike acknowledges the obvious objection:
“Of course, the atheist does not have to behave in any of these ways but there is nothing in atheism itself which prohibits them either.”
It would seem the mere preservation of the social order or even the species provides a thoroughly insufficient intellectual basis for the sort of morality we find either in the New Testament or even in much of the wisdom literature of the Old. It cannot do anything with concepts like sacrifice or biblical love beyond handwaving them away as unimportant.

The Christian, however, cannot do without them:
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.”
There exists no posited evolutionary mechanism by which the choice to love like this can be explained.

In short, we have two very different concepts of morality here. I leave it to the reader to decide which he or she prefers.

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