Friday 19 August 2011

Unfounded moral absolutes

Regular readers of this blog (and listeners to the Skepticule Extra podcast) will know that I'm half way through reviewing a book that purports to give arguments and evidence for the existence of God. I say "purports" because so far the book has been unconvincing. Whether or not such a book is intended to persuade someone whose atheism has of late become increasingly vocal and hardline, some arguments tend to focus my attention more than others.

The moral argument is one that is often proposed by theists in general and Christians in particular, and it's one I'm interested in because it has more impact on my daily life than most of the others. The so-called fine-tuning of the universe, its first cause, the appearance of design in living organisms, the status of scripture and personal revelation are all interesting facets of the God question, but none of these affects the day-to-day running of our lives as much as the moral argument for the existence of God.

Those who believe that morality is derived ultimately and solely from a supposed creator of the universe are often responsible for derailing deliberations of morality across a wide field of concerns. One need look no further than the controversies surrounding assisted dying, abortion, genetic engineering, sex education and penal reform to see how the idea of absolute objective moral laws tends to skew rational discussion in those areas, to the extent that genuine progress becomes stultified.

The responses to the recent riots in various parts of England illustrate the muddying effect outdated moral ideas have on modern life. I shall illuminate this by taking a possibly extreme example. On 13 August Creation Ministries International published on its website an article by Dominic Statham entitled "Why is England burning?" Statham is in no doubt as to the answer to that question:
What is happening in England is the inevitable consequence of a nation rejecting God and His Word.
He blames modern academics and politicians who claim that...
...we can forge a better society based on secularism. Accepting this view has led to there being no final authority, no absolute basis for morality and no clarity about who or what we are. 
Once more we are back to the theistic claim that without absolute morality we have no morality at all. And where does Statham say absolute morality comes from? It's the Bible, of course. This weak-minded craving for instructions from above reminds me of the ironic riposte, "How can I use my initiative if you won't tell me what to do?!"

There's much to criticize in Statham's article (he is, after all, a creationist), but here are few lowlights:
When I was at school in the 1960s and 1970s, the Christian thinking and values of previous generations were still evident. General behaviour, truthfulness and respect were still considered more important than academic or material success. This was based on the view that we were made in the image of God, and good character was necessary to preserve this.
"Made in the image of God" is often used by Christians to justify their view of the source of morality, but what does the phrase actually mean? Does God look like us? Does he have a head, two arms and two legs? This seems like unwarranted and blinkered anthropomorphism, and tends to suggest that God was created in the image of man, rather than the other way about. If "made in the image of God" doesn't mean that — what, in fact, does it mean? What, indeed, could it mean? I suspect there's no real meaning to the phrase, and that it's merely theological nonsense trotted out to defend the indefensible.
Children who were brought up properly were understood to have better prospects of a stable, useful and fulfilling life. Back then, many parents and teachers understood that they had God-given authority and God-given responsibility to raise children rightly.
Again, an unsupported claim that "right" is God-given. This is dangerous nonsense, and leads to parents and teachers thinking their actions are justified by arbitrary ancient texts that often run contrary to secular morality that has at least been deliberated upon long and hard in the context of modern circumstances.
The doctrine of original sin made clear that children were not born good; they needed to be taught right from wrong, and the discipline we received instilled a sense that wrong-doing had consequences.
The doctrine of original sin is more dangerous nonsense, but Statham is being inconsistent in his claim that the instilled sense of wrong-doing is that such wrong-doing has consequences. Who cares about consequences if the instructions of the Bible are there to be simply followed regardless? But maybe this is a hint that he knows deep down that Biblical morality is essentially unfounded and actions need to be considered in light of their effects. If so, I agree with him.
In contrast to all this, much of today’s educational system places little if any value on such biblical ideas. This is not surprising; if even many church leaders claim Genesis is not real history, then original sin is but a myth. In fact, it is quite likely that the ‘progressive’ educationist will take a different view simply because they think that, if the Bible teaches something, it is probably wrong. The teachers know that they themselves lie, and the head teacher lies—so why should they expect their pupils not to lie? Indeed, a recent New Scientist article actually argued, from an evolutionary standpoint, that lying in our personal, professional and social lives is a strategy for survival
Original sin a myth? Genesis not real history? Say it's not so! Sorry Statham, but it is so. As for teachers knowing that they lie — where does he get this idea? It is a fact, however, that everyone dissembles to a degree — social interaction, business, creativity, life in general would be practically impossible if no-one ever spoke an actual untruth. I've not read the New Scientist article referenced on the page Statham links to, but I'd be surprised if it undermined the basic idea that integrity of communication is something generally desirable. Statham wants these things to be black and white when they are actually many shades of grey.
Humanists, in defiance of the true history in Genesis 3, assert the doctrine of the intrinsic goodness of humanity and see no need to teach right and wrong. The logical consequence of the ‘evolutionisation’ of society over the last century has been to undermine the truth and authority of the Bible, inevitably leading to the relentless undermining of all vestiges of the worldview based on Christianity. In many schools, it is frowned upon or even forbidden to teach morality as it is considered inappropriate for adults to impose their views on children.
Clearly humanists are in favour of teaching children right and wrong — just not tainted with Biblical irrelevances. Statham sets up his humanist straw man here, but it's fireproof. He's correct, however, in claiming that evolution undermines the truth and authority of the Bible. Darwin's theory shows how the notion of a sustaining deity is superfluous to undirected natural processes. As for schools not teaching morality, the ones he's referring to most likely teach ethical behaviour without reference to the Bible — which is OK by me.

For some exasperating fun read the comments on Statham's article, and then console yourself in the knowledge that these are hardcore minority creationists.