Archive for October, 2009

More on religion & morality

October 28, 2009

In my recent debate (“Is faith necessary for ethics?”) the Christian representative argued that, if religion is guilty of some crimes, atheist regimes like Hitler’s and Stalin’s have been even worse. Yes, playing the good old Hitler card.

First, the Nazi regime was not atheist. Hitler frequently invoked God, he was a declared Catholic all his life, and never left the church. And the Vatican never excommunicated him, nor ever even uttered a word of criticism.

As to the other totalitarians – Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the like – this is all really just religion under a different name, with all the attributes including worship of a God figure, an absolutist ideology of revealed truth, and a willingness, nay, a zeal, to punish and kill heretics and apostates.

I have a magazine called China Pictorial which I was sent in 1966 because as a kid I was silly enough to write to Mao Zedong. It is full of pictures, and not one – literally, not one – doesn’t have Mao in it. Tell me this is not religion.

Do you know who the president of North Korea is? No, it’s not Kim Jong-il – it’s his father, Kim Il-sung, who’s been dead for 15 years. The country’s chief occupation seems to be worshipping the father and the son. They’re just one short of a trinity. Tell me this isn’t religion.

None of this is at all what humanism is about. Humanists reject religious dogma in all its forms, and instead want every person free to seek his or her own path. And the one country that most nearly conforms to that secular humanist ideal is the United States of America.

“Is faith necessary for ethics?”

October 20, 2009

Last night I participated in a debate on this topic, at a local college; there were representatives of five different religions, and I spoke for the humanist viewpoint. Here is my opening statement:

The French scientist Laplace wrote a book about planetary physics; and Napoleon asked him why it didn’t mention God. Laplace replied, “Sir, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

We humans get morality first from our human nature, developed through biological evolution, and second, from our thinking minds. Religion isn’t necessary. We have no need of that hypothesis.

For a hundred thousand years we lived in small tribes or bands, in extremely challenging environments. Survival did require competition, aggression, and so forth. But it also crucially required a great deal of social cooperation and even altruism within a group. People who worked together and helped each other could get by; a tribe where it was “every man for himself” maybe not.

That’s why our brains evolved to make us feel good when we do good deeds, and shame and guilt otherwise. We are social animals programmed to crave the approval of others. We also have built-in empathy, in what’s called “mirror neurons” for feeling each other’s pain. We have strong instincts for compassion, gratitude, loyalty, fairness, etc. That’s morality; it’s actually a natural emotion.

But it’s not unique to humans. Other animals, especially our closest relatives, show similar if rudimentary moral instincts.

The other source of morality is our thinking minds. Lately it’s popular to debunk the idea of human rationality. Well, of course we’re not perfectly rational, all the time. However, we obviously deploy our reasoning faculty every minute of our daily lives, and our technology and social institutions are built on such rationality.

So — how do we get morality from rationality? Why not just act from pure self-interest, wouldn’t that be coldly rational? Actually, no. Because such behavior would quickly be defeated by the self-serving actions of other people. For example, if loans are not generally repaid, nobody would lend. But if we take into account the interests of others, then everyone is actually better off. This is enlightened self-interest. It’s rational morality. Most of us figure it out.

We also understand that other people have minds and feelings similar to one’s own, and similarly value their lives. Such rational thought likewise gives us the essence of morality – promoting human life and maximizing its quality.

All these factors make most nonbelievers at least as ethical as believers. And these factors shape human culture. Religion is merely an artifact of culture. We don’t get morality from religion; religion gets it from us, from our evolutionary background, our thinking minds, and our resulting culture. Religion is just a mirror reflecting all that.

Ask yourself this: if you suddenly found out there is no God, would you rape, steal, and murder? Of course not. Because religion is not the true source of morality. Religion merely codifies it. We’d be no less moral if we’d never invented religion.

Look at European countries like Norway or Denmark, where religion has almost disappeared. Have they descended into barbarism? They are among the world’s most orderly, ethical societies. Meantime, prisons are filled with religious believers.

Some say morality is a simple matter of obeying God. But following orders is not always right. (Remember Nuremberg?) The Bible says disrespectful children should be put to death. Why don’t we do it? Because, again, we have deeper sources of morality.

Simply following religious dictates divorces your actions from conscientious weighing of their consequences. That’s true morality — working it out for yourself. That’s what nonbelievers do. It’s better than toeing the line out of fear of Hell. And ethical precepts are more soundly based on our reason, and reality, than on faith, which of course means belief without evidence or even against evidence. Any ethics derived that way has to be faulty.

The theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people.” But the problem comes when you imagine you know what God thinks, and believe you’re following a holy path—then, almost anything can be justified or excused. That’s how we got Muslim suicide bombers, men flying airplanes into buildings, all the centuries of massacres inspired by Christian faith, etc., etc., etc.

Religion too often breeds demonization of other people. Mainstream Christianity has traditionally taught that non-Christians burn in Hell forever. I’ve never heard a more immoral idea! Not to mention all the thousands burned in this world. Religious faith can be a set of ethical blinders, overriding, distorting, and subverting our inborn moral instincts. That’s why philosopher John Stuart Mill called religion “a great moral evil.”

Amartya Sen: Development as Freedom

October 6, 2009

I have been reading Amartya Sen’s book, Development as Freedom. (Sen is a Nobel laureate Harvard Economist.) His basic thesis is that developmental progress and freedom are intertwined: that freedom is both a key factor in promoting material progress – it makes people more productive – and also, freedom is itself part of development, being important to quality of life and human happiness. An unfree nation could never be considered fully advanced no matter how materially rich it was.

Sen demolishes the idea that democracy and human rights are some sort of “luxury” that a poor nation can’t afford, that may conflict with economic necessities. To the contrary, he shows how democratic culture makes a nation better able to grapple with economic challenges. He also rebuts the notion that poor people care less about democratic rights than “more pressing” needs. And he provides an antidote to the currently fashionable notion that free market economics are somehow tainted, arguing that markets not only improve economic outcomes, but give people a crucial element of personal autonomy as well. (Arguments along all these lines also appear in my own new book, The Case for Rational Optimism.)

Sen discusses at length the question of what happiness really means – i.e., what is the true objective? (This too is addressed in my book.) Thus, while wealth and GDP are unarguably key determinants of human welfare – you can buy a lot with money – they are ultimately just instrumentalities, valued not for their own sakes, but for enabling us to get other things we really want. Certainly wealth would be meaningless if there were nothing to buy – though this statement is perhaps silly, as of course production and sale of goods and services is how wealth is developed in the first place. (Yet some on the left imagine we could somehow have a wealthy society without anyone grubbing for profits.)

Sen’s point is that the goal should be empowering people to be proactive in fulfilling their desires – whatever those desires happen to be. A society in which this happens is a good society.

It strikes me that there are two kinds of mindsets. One is Sen’s apparent view – the essence of classical liberalism — that people should be left free to pursue their own desiderata. The other mindset is prescriptionist. Those having it often use language of freedom and human welfare and even diversity – yet really want people regimented to conform to certain prescribed virtues. This is mainly a characteristic of the political left, ever keen to compel people to behave the way they should — or the way one thinks they should (e.g., current proposals to force us to buy medical insurance, whether we want it or not, on pain of fines and, ultimately, jail.) But of course the right also falls into this trap, having its own assertedly moralistic agenda that it wants to see enforced upon the unwilling.

Political vocabulary gets muddied when certain coercive ideologies (communism, socialism) get tagged as “left” and others no less coercive (fascism) as “right.” The real divide is not between such lefts and rights, but coercion versus freedom, liberal versus illiberal (and again I’m talking about classical John Stuart Mill liberalism, not what is called “liberalism” in today’s America).

Amartya Sen is right that society’s true purpose should be not conforming people, but, rather, to give them maximum opportunities to be, and get, what they want.* That is what freedom means, and that is the ultimate goal of developmental progress.

* Lest someone nitpick this, I will add the proviso that no harm to others is done, of course.