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Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

I was originally going to post this as a comment on Sven’s interesting and provocative post, “Just chemistry,” but it ended up being long enough to make a short post out of it instead.

As I read it, Sven’s argument that atheists cannot give a rational foundation for morality could also be interpreted as a “synthetic” argument for the existence of God (as Kant would put it):

  1. If God does not exist, human beings do not have moral worth. (premiss)
  2. Human beings have moral worth. (premiss)
  3. Therefore, God exists. (conclusion)

In other words, the existence of God is a “necessary presupposition” for the postulate of morality.

Of course, arguments need to be provided for the premisses. What would that argument look like? Perhaps: “If God exists, God possesses moral worth; whatever someone with moral worth creates in his own image itself has moral worth; God created human beings in his own image; therefore, human beings have moral worth.” One worry about this argument is about what “in his own image” means, but a more fundamental problem with it is that it ends up substituting the assertion that God has moral worth for the assertion that human beings have moral worth. If theists can simply treat the moral worth of God as a basic premiss for which no argument needs to be given, why cannot atheists treat the moral worth of human beings as a basic premiss for which no argument needs to be given? In other words, the argument establishes only the minor premiss above, not the major premiss.

Here’s another possibility: “All and only beings that have souls have moral worth; human beings have souls; therefore, human beings have moral worth.” The argument establishes the minor premiss of the moral argument for the existence of God. But what about the major premiss? We could add to the argument of this paragraph, “All beings with souls are created by God; therefore, if God does not exist, no beings with souls exist; therefore, if God does not exist, human beings do not have souls; therefore, if God does not exist, human beings do not have moral worth.”

The trouble with this route is that two of the premisses are controversial: that beings with souls are necessarily created by God, and that only beings with souls have moral worth. As Aeon Skoble has pointed out in the comment thread on Sven’s post, non-theist philosophers like Aristotle and Kant have accepted the existence of a soul (of a sort). (New atheists, of course, wouldn’t.)

Then atheists might also challenge the notion that a soul is necessary for moral worth. What is it about God-ness that makes God have moral worth, which can then be passed on to human beings? If “just chemistry” doesn’t create moral worth, what about “just spirit”? There’s a longstanding argument in moral philosophy that freedom of the will, in some sense, is a necessary prerequisite for moral responsibility. It is incorrect to hold someone responsible for X if that person could not have done other than X. If that is the case, strict, deterministic materialism may be inconsistent with moral responsibility, and therefore moral worth in any fundamental, non-utilitarian sense (i.e., a sense other than, “it is useful for us to believe in moral worth”). But of course, neither accepting freedom of the will nor rejecting strict materialism requires theism.

A more troubling issue for the new atheists is that of reward and punishment. If offenders do not get their just deserts in an afterlife, our sense of justice is offended. As Damon Linker points out in the quotation in Sven’s post, that’s the real tragedy of a universe with God: some people do evil and profit by it; some people do good and suffer for it. Kant was so offended by this possibility that he thought this was the only sound argument for the existence of God. I’m not sure it’s an argument for the existence of God, but at least it’s an argument that we should be depressed about the absence of God should God not exist.

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The War of the End of the World is the latest entry on my desert-island list of books. It’s the second book by Peruvian The War of the End of the Worldnovelist, Nobelist, and classical liberal Mario Vargas Llosa that I’ve read (the other is The Feast of the Goat), and easily the better of the two. It is a fictionalized account of the story of the “War of Canudos,” the 1893-1897 attempt by the Brazilian republic to wipe out a utopian, Catholic-fundamentalist, ultra-monarchist city of the poor in the arid back country (sertão) of Bahia state.

Antonio Conseilhero (“the Counselor”) is a wandering lay preacher, who travels among the impoverished villages, towns, and haciendas of the region, gradually picking up a following as he goes. His disciples are the cast-offs of society: the deformed, the sinners, the drunkards, even the gangsters. Inspired by his simple faith and good deeds, they abandon their homes and their former lifestyles and take up the self-abnegating life of a religious devotee (“brushed by the wings of an angel,” they call it). Eventually, they settle on an abandoned hacienda called Canudos, owned by local aristocrat and leader of the Bahia Autonomist Party, the Baron de Canabrava.

The simple, rural, devout folk of Canudos see in the secular republic the beginnings of an atheistic oppression. They forbid census takers, whom they accuse of trying to identify all the former slaves to reinstate slavery (the monarchy had abolished slavery shortly before its overthrow), and tax collectors, and the coin of the republic is banned from circulation.

The Progressive Republican Party sees an opportunity to hang Canudos around the neck of the dominant Bahia Autonomist Party. They allege that it is a monarchist conspiracy to overthrow the republic, supported by the British. Ultimately, Canudos is caught up in political intrigues that sweep beyond Bahia to the capital of Brazil itself, Rio de Janeiro. Several military expeditions attack Canudos and are repulsed with great loss of life. Despite the attacks, the poor and devout from around Bahia and neighboring states move into Canudos in great numbers, hoping to be blessed by the Counselor and to see the kingdom of God on earth. Against great odds, (more…)

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Atheists may be smarter than the religious, but the religious are more likely to do the right thing when they aren’t being watched (see also Ron Bailey’s post here). On the other hand, the differences between the religious and nonreligious in these studies are unlikely to justify quite the levels of mistrust toward atheists found in U.S. polling data.

(An aside on methodology: The commenters on the last link seem to discount these studies automatically on the assumption that data can always be manipulated. [I know I'm giving a few anonymous blog commenters more than their due, but all the same...] If that were true, then we should just shut down all empirical research in the natural and social sciences. That data can be manipulated does not mean that we are justified in assuming that it is. From a Bayesian perspective on social science theories, we should at the very least take these data into account in updating our beliefs, even if we do not regard the findings as conclusive. Nonspecialists too often take social science research as all-or-nothing: either a study is worthless, or it Proves Everything.)

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