The Inside Assyria Discussion Forum #5

=> Don't we need religion?

Don't we need religion?
Posted by Arrow (Guest) - Friday, November 4 2011, 19:24:42 (UTC)
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Without a belief in an overseeing deity and in the possibility of divine retribution, what compels us to behave morally?

The following is an excerpt from the aforementioned book, The Devil's Delusion by David Berlinski (pages 25 – 41):

Does something in the very nature of a secular society make the monstrous possible? At the very least, Hitler and Stalin would seem to offer the prosecution a good deal of space in which to maneuver.

And the defense?

Richard Dawkins accepts Stalin as a frank atheist, and so a liability of the sort that every family admits, but he is at least sympathetic to the thesis that Hitler’s religious sentiments as a Catholic were sincere. Why stop with Hitler? No doubt some members of the SS took communion after an especially arduous day in the field murdering elderly Jewish women, and with vengeful Russian armies approaching Berlin, Heinrich Himmler, who had presided over the Third Reich’s machinery of extermination and had supervised the desecration of churches and synagogues from one end of Europe to the other, confessed to an associate that he was persuaded of the existence of a Higher Power. The death of Franklin Roosevelt inspired Joseph Goebbels to similarly pious sentiments. The deathbed conversion is generally regarded as the mark of desperate insincerity. Throughout their careers, these scum acted as if no power was higher than their own. Dawkins is prepared to acknowledge the facts while denying their significance. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists, he affirms, acted because of their atheism. They were simply keen to kill a great many people. Atheism had nothing to do with it. They might well have been Christian Scientists.

In the early days of the German advance into Eastern Europe, before the possibility of Soviet retribution even entered their untroubled imagination, Nazi extermination squads would sweep into villages, and after forcing villagers to dig their own graves, murder their victims with machine guns. On one such occasion somewhere in Eastern Europe, an SS officer watched languidly, his machine gun cradled, as an elderly and bearded Hasidic Jew laboriously dug what he knew to be his grave.

Standing up straight, he addressed his executioner. “God is watching what you are doing,” he said.

And then he was shot dead.

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out Nights of Doubt the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.

That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.

What make men good? Nothing. This is the answer of historical experience and a troubled common sense. It is the answer of Christian theology, and finds its expression in the doctrine of original sin. Having been asked by his biographer, James Boswell, for his opinion of original sin, Dr. Johnson responded in words to which he drew particular attention: “With respect to original sin, the inquiry is not necessary, for whatever is the cause of human corruption, men are evidently and confessedly so corrupt, that all the laws of heaven and earth are insufficient to restrain them from crimes”.

One need hardly be a Christian to appreciate the wisdom in these remarks. When Christopher Hitchens asks how much self-respect “must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one’s own sin,” the only honest answer is that for most of us, self-respect is possible only if the squirming is considerable.

Men are not by nature good. Quite often, quite the contrary. And for this reason they must be restrained, by threats if possible, by force if necessary. “Perhaps,” Richard Dawkins speculates, “I . . . am a Pollyanna to believe that people would remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God.”

I am under most circumstances the last person on earth to think Richard Dawkins a Pollyanna, but in this case I defer to his description. Why should people remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God? Do people remain good when unpoliced by the police? If Dawkins believes that they do, he must explain the existence of the criminal law, and if he believes that they do not, then he must explain why moral enforcement is not needed at the place where law enforcement ends.

To scientific atheists, the ancient idea that homo homini lupus—man is a wolf to man—leaves them shaking their heads in poodle-like perplexity. Sam Harris has no anxieties whatsoever about presenting his own views on human morality with the enviable confidence of a man who feels that he has reached the epistemological bottom. “Everything about human experience,” he writes, “suggests that love is more conducive to human happiness than hate is.” It goes without saying, of course, that Harris believes that this is an objective claim about the human mind.

If this is so, it is astonishing with what eagerness men have traditionally fled happiness.

I f the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about right or wrong, good or bad? What are we to say about evil and great wickedness? Whatever statements we might make are obviously not about gluons, muons, or curved space and time. “The problem,” the philospher Simon Blackburn has written, “is one of finding room for ethics, or of placing ethics within the disenchanted, nonethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part.”

Blackburn is, of course, convinced that the chief task at hand in facing this question—his chief task, in any case— “is above all to refuse appeal to a supernatural order.” It is a strategy that merits admiration for the severity of mind it expresses. It is rather as if an accomplished horseman were to decide that his chief task were to learn to ride without a horse.

If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong, good or bad. To admit this would force philosophers to confront the possibility that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality. And since philosophers very much wish to think of themselves as scientists, this would offer them an unattractive choice between changing their allegiances or accepting their irrelevance.

These are familiar questions in philosophy, and if they have been long asked, they have remained long unanswered. David Hume asked in the eighteenth century whether ought could be derived from is, and concluded that it could not: There is a gap between what is and what ought to be. The world of fact and the world of value are disjoint. They have nothing to say to one another. The ensuing chilliness between what is and what ought to be has in the twentieth century grown glacial. The more that science reveals what is, the less it reveals what ought to be. The traditional biblical view—that what ought to be is a matter chiefly of what God demands—thus stands on his existence, the very point challenged by scientific atheism.

But if scientific atheists are disposed to challenge God’s existence—the party line, after all—they are far less willing to reflect on what His dismissal entails. At some time after it had become clear that Nazi Germany would lose the Second World War, and before the war had actually been lost, one of the senior party officers—perhaps it was Himmler—in confronting the very complicated series of treaty obligations that Germany had accepted with respect to its satraps, wondered out loud, “What, after all, compels us to keep our promises?” It is a troubling question, and one that illustrates anew the remarkable genius for moral philosophy that the Nazis enjoyed.

What does?

In many ways, the issues raised by the existence of moral laws suggest a surprising connection between the laws of physics and the laws of morality. In both cases, questions arise very quickly as to the source of such laws and the reason for their truth.

We do not know why the laws of nature are true, even though we can sense that the question hides some sort of profound mystery.

A similar discussion has long been current in philosophy and has its source in Plato’s Euthyphro. There Socrates asks whether what is good is good because the gods have declared it so, or whether the gods have declared it so because it is good.

To the question what makes the laws of moral life true, there are three answers: God, logic, and nothing. Each is inadequate.

If moral laws reflect the will of God, then He might presumably change his mind, and tomorrow issue a new set of commandments encouraging rape, plunder, murder, or the worship of false idols. Many devoutly religious men and women would say that this is his perfect right. He is God, after all. But if tomorrow God were to encourage rape as a very good thing, would rape become a very good thing, or would we conclude, along with Richard Dawkins, that considering his poor life choices, God is a repellent figure and to hell with Him?

If, on the other hand, God chooses the right or the good because it is right or good, then the power of his imperative has its source in the law, and not in his will. “Thou shall not kill,” we may imagine God saying to the ancient Hebrews, “because it is wrong. I am here only to convey the message.”

If this is so, then God must be demoted to what is plainly a constabulary role. Having no hand in creating the moral law, he is occupied in enforcing it. Logic prevails, or if not logic, then something in the laws of right and wrong that enforces their binding sense. This is an attractive position, one that philosophers would wish to embrace, since it preserves some sense of a moral order without compromising their consensual position that their chief business is to decline an appeal to a supernatural order. And yet it is very difficult to find a way in which to justify the view that moral principles reflect some underlying cosmic necessity. They are no more like the laws of logic or mathematics than the laws of physics. Although some moral principles do appear universal in every human society, both in Nazi Germany and in Soviet Russia, societies were constructed in which familiar moral principles were inverted or discarded. To the extent that these societies survived, before they were destroyed by war or incompetence, they seemed perfectly able to flourish, their leaders never for a moment troubled by the thought that killing a great many people involved them in some form of intellectual inconsistency.

There remains nothing as a possibility in thought, if only by a process of elimination, and nothing is the preferred possibility in moral thought for the same reason it is the preferred possibility in physical thought: If logic is unavailing, then better nothing than God. This is just what Simon Blackburn means by refusing appeal to a supernatural order.

Nothing in moral philosophy has a familiar face. It is the position expounded both by freshmen in philosophy classes and all the enemies of humanity. We do not believe in any absolute moral truths, my students have always told me, although truths about grading seem a remarkably curious exception. Who could fail to hear the inner voice connecting this form of moral relativism to Himmler’s? He, too, was a great believer in nothing, and nothing is just what so many scientific atheists believe as well.

What else is left?

Like so many other positions, moral relativism has been promoted from the back of the college classroom to its podium. “The West,” the philosopher Richard Rorty writes, “has cobbled together, in the course of the last two hundred years, a specifically secularist moral tradition—one that regards the
free consensus of the citizens of a democratic society, rather than the Divine Will, as the source of moral imperatives.” The words the free consensus, although sonorous, come to nothing more than the declaration that just so long as there is rough agreement within society, what its leaders say goes. This was certainly true of Nazi Germany. Many details of the final solution were kept hidden, but the view that the Jews of Europe were a problem requiring solution was so widespread in German society as to have appeared a commonplace. Die Juden sind unser Unglück, as a thick-fingered German butcher might have said—The Jews are our misfortune. The decision physically to kill them all expressed very nicely “the free consensus” of Germany’s citizens. Had it not, the final solution could never have taken place. It did not reflect the consensus of citizens in Denmark, Italy, or Bulgaria, and in those countries there was no final solution, there was no mass deportation, and there were no extermination camps, and in all three cases, Nazi officials were left muttering in frustration at the fact that curiously enough these were places where people did not sufficiently appreciate the gravity of the Jewish problem.

Curiously enough.

Richard Rorty was to his great credit honest in facing the consequences of his own moral posture. He had no criticism to offer Nazi Germany beyond a personal sense of revulsion.

If moral imperatives are not commanded by God’s will, and if they are not in some sense absolute, then what ought to be is a matter simply of what men and women decide should be. There is no other source of judgment.

What is this if not another way of saying that if God does
not exist, everything is permitted?

These conclusions suggest quite justifiably that in failing to discover the source of value in the world at large, we must in the end retreat to a form of moral relativism, the philosophy of the fraternity house or the faculty dining room—similar environments, after all—whence the familiar declaration that just as there are no absolute truths, there are no moral absolutes.

Of these positions, no one believes the first, and no one is prepared to live with the second.

This is precisely the dilemma in which we find ourselves.


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