Wednesday, December 21, 2011

That's an important o

I read an interesting article on the New York Times blog the other day.  It's a philosophy professor at Amherst, Louise Antony, trying to defend her point of view of moralistic atheism.  The basic premise is that she considers there to be a natural right and wrong in nature independent from God, whether He exists or not.  She breaks down two concepts of morality that she calls the Divine Command Theory (DCT) -- where things are good because God wills them -- or the Divine Independence Theory (DIT) -- where God wills only things that are good.

She talks about how the second is a more enlightened way to think because, well, it allows people not to need God and people like her to feel better about the fact that they are living in a similar fantasy that she thinks people like me do.  She has a long explanation about how different the two theories are, centering around the arbitrariness of DCT versus the steadiness of DIT.  If "goodness" were a natural property, like mass or electrical charge, then for us to make any use of it, there must be a way to measure (or at least detect) this property.  She posits that we can, and cites some examples involving home invasion, slavery and torture.  And I think we can all agree that those are in fact, wrong. However, they weren't always. 

Private property is a very old concept and violation of it has been considered socially unacceptable behavior outside of wartime in just about every culture as long as we have written things down.  Slavery was practiced by just about every major culture for a very long time, with most Western countries banning it in the 19th Century and some Middle-Eastern countries acting as late as the 1960s.  The Geneva Conventions were adopted in the 20th Century, not because we became enlightened and grew out of it like witchcraft, but because the practice was rampant and the countries that did not abandon a Judeo-Christian worldview wanted to stop it.

That's not to mention cultures like the Aztecs who practiced human sacrifice, Indians who had the institution of sati until the British outlawed it, the Arab concept of honor killings, and our very own policies of institutionalized racism that were finally taken off the books in the 1960s.  I think we can also agree that they are wrong as well.

So why didn't we know enough then that it was wrong?  The simplest answer is that there is no universal and innate natural "goodness" outside of an agreed upon standard.  The laundry list of sins that humankind is evidence that we need such a standard, and Western culture (and Middle-Eastern culture as well) has adopted the Abrahamic traditions as that standard.  Prof. Antony's concept, absent some sort of evidence that this idea of natural goodness can be identified is no different than pagan pan-theism -- there are petty gods in everything (or a single universal force permeating everything) providing its intrinsic value -- not unlike George Lucas's Jedi religion.

She also makes a point about how it is better to be good absent the threats of punishment or promise of reward.  Maybe.  But if there are no consequences to our behavior, why is it better?  We call electrical charge positive and negative, and I always preferred working with positive charges in class because it's easier to work with, and the word negative carries bad connotations.  Think of another example.  The NCAA has myriad arbitrary rules about what college students can or cannot do in order to play their sport.  Reggie Bush used his talent to provide a house for his family beyond their means.  However, that was against the rules.  Did he do anything wrong?  According the NCAA, yes.  Is that rule right or wrong?  Does it matter?

The largest point, though, is that her worldview requires faith.  Just like mine does.  And it is intellectually dishonest of her to argue that she is morally superior because she subscribes to DIT and thinks she can arrive at moral behavior without needing God because she's smart, without regard to the moral infrastructure that was built by a history of religious people.  The two concepts ultimately are different only in the academic sense that she presents, not in the real world in which we live, because the objectivity she claims cannot be divorced from the culture that surrounds us.

She also discusses interpersonal relationships, and says that by acquiring value through God you are essentially denying the human value of everyone else.  We kind of do that now, as well; society determines value by the law, and for a while in the United States, even, black people were worth less than white people, and we even defined the ratio.  Fetuses are worth very little in the eyes of the law.  That changes when society decides it would.  We, as enlightened smart people, changed our minds. 

Tribalism, where we prefer and value people who are like us or related to us more than others, kind of fits the mold as well.  Most of history was driven by this or the similar idea of nationalism.  In many places, history still is driven by them.  We look at the Janjaweed and know that they are doing wrong, but they see themselves as looking out for their own people, because they feel that their people are worth more.  The Japanese thought they were worth more than the Chinese in Nanking.  I could go on.

I suppose her counter-argument would be, "Those things were wrong even then, we just disobeyed them.  We were wrong, too."  Maybe, but how would we have known?  She cites Plato as positing this argument before the birth of Christ, so it's not like we haven't had the material to work this out until the 20th and 21st Centuries.

If there really is a natural goodness we can identify without God, humans suck at it.  Christians already knew that, though.  We need a standard.  Christians identify that as the unchanging Bible and the life of Christ. 

There are good arguments about the ability of atheists to be moral people.  However, this one, this particularly condescending one, is not it.  (That's why people don't like atheists: they tell you that you're wrong while claiming to be morally superior.  It's not a very becoming look.)  An example is quite simply to follow the Golden Rule -- but then again, that owes its origin to millenia of religious thinking.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The title of this post is a lie, too

Christopher Hitchens died today.  I haven't read a lot of him, mostly essays that appeared in the Atlantic over the time that I subscribed to that publication.  I enjoyed them.  I don't remember any of them particularly like I do the piece about autism by John Donvan or the incredible book review by Caitlin Flanagan that I can't quite recall, but I never passed Hitchens by because he is Christopher Hitchens.  His essays carried a certain weight, almost a shot across the bow, simply because they carried his name in the by-line.  He was more than just a prominent atheist, he was anti-religion's wittiest voice.

I read those essays because I wanted to see what the fuss was about, mostly.  Not all of them were about anti-religion, not even most of them were.  I didn't read God Is Not Great, though, because it seemed like too much of an affront.  I could guess the content, though -- religion in general and Christianity in particular is bad because it is exclusive, cruel, misogynistic and anti-intellectual.  I say this with a dose of irony, specifically because I don't know the man; I only know about him.  I contend that the same was true for him; he didn't know God, he merely knew about Him, or rather, thought he did.  If he really did, it would be hard to make the mistake of saying that God is not great, let alone writing a book about it.  If I addressed those incorrect assertions about Christianity I think appear in his book, I would be a simple hypocrite, attacking straw men that may not be accurate representations of the work with which I disagree.  So I will not, aside from saying that if those opinions are held about the teachings of Jesus Christ they are categorically in error.

I think it's easy to get tied up in concerns like that with people like Hitchens, and get frustrated because he is calling me stupid.  He isn't saying it to me personally, but the accusation is, nonetheless, very personal.  I think in the greater sense we Christians owe Mr. Hitchens a debt of thanks for reminding us that our work is not done.  It is very easy for us to live in places where there are churches all over town and think that the most important thing for our spiritual development is to remember to bring the green bean casserole to the church social.  People like Hitches show us that it is not.  We have a lot of work to do for our lives to look like Christ's did.  If we live in a world where Christians behave in a way that a book called "God Is Not Great" can be published and not be a comedy, we are failing.

We are not showing what grace looks like.  We are not showing what service looks like.  We are not showing what humility looks like.  We are not showing what love looks like.  It is not easy to hear that we are failing, but that's what Hitchens's life is: a neon lit billboard exclaiming that it is easy for people to look at Christians and not see Christ.

And that's a shame, because our message is so powerful.  It is the message of unfailing hope, that the creator of everything cares enough to sacrifice His son to relieve us of the burden of sin.  In return, we are simply to get to know Him, love Him (which would be inevitable if you truly do the former), and love others.  If that's not great, I don't know what is.