Is Religion Necessary for Personal Morality?

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Fri, Jul 10 - 11:00 am EDT | 3 years ago by
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This article is part of our series – Theist vs Atheist, where two of our columnists, John C. Wright and Stephen Hicks, are debating key issues in religion.

Theist vs Atheist - Personal Morality

Our story so far: Mr. Hicks and I have agreed to debate eight questions concerning theism and atheism. The topic for this week is whether religion is necessary for personal ethics.

Before turning to that question, a brief recap in is order.

The first question was whether it is worthwhile to reason about religion. Mr. Hicks and I agreed that everyone should reason about his position that he might learn its weaknesses.

I further said that reason could allay fallacious objections to faith in God, in order to remove an intellectual obstacle to love, albeit obviously was not sufficient to persuade one to love God. No one is talked into falling in love. I also mentioned that deductive reasoning sufficed to prove monotheism in the abstract, but was insufficient to prove specifics of revealed religion (such as Trinitarianism, Christology, and Soteriology), where discursive reasoning was needed instead. The distinction was between two types of reasoning, not between reason and willful self-deception.

Mr. Hicks contrived to misquote both myself and Tertullian, pretending we claimed that some bizarre mental operation of willful self deception was necessary for faith in God, and was the definition of faith. To the contrary, “faith” is a word that merely means trust in an authority or trust in the testimony of a witness, and maintaining consistency with that decision when despair, but not evidence, tempts you.

This is no more an act of willful self deception than when Mr. Hicks tells the date of his birth. It is not irrational to trust the testimony of your own mother on the point.

When I pointed out I had not said such willful self-deception was any part of the Christian religion, he simply and stubbornly claimed I had, inventing misquotes as needed. He performed this cowardly and foolish antic over and over and over again, never once coming to grips with the argument presented to him.

The next question was whether God’s existence was a reasonable hypothesis. My argument was that the arguments for and against were discursive rather than analytical.

An analytical argument is like the Pythagorean theorem, which must be true if the axioms of Euclidean geometry are granted as true. A discursive argument is like the theory that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. While it is possible—in the sense of not involving a contradiction in terms—that the sun could rise in the west tomorrow, common experience and modern astronomy demand some farfetched explanation to justify a theory of a future western sunrise. The more farfetched an explanation is needed to support a theory, or the less it explains, or the more and deeper the objections that can be raised to it, the more deserving it is of skepticism.

This is called the principle of parsimony, or Occam’s razor. Discursive reasoning does not deduce certainties from certainty, but it does find the most robust yet parsimonious explanation. Current theories of history, astronomy, or evolution not on certainties deduced from certainties, but discursive judgments of which theory is least open to serious objection. Darwinism is not certain, but it is less open to objection than Lamarckianism.

Hence to answer the question that was asked, namely, whether theism was a reasonable hypothesis, my argument listed briefly the three serious objections to theism, and the ten serious objections to atheism.

Mr. Hicks objects that the arguments do not irrefutably prove God’s existence with an analytical argument, thus showing he never understood the question we were discussing.

Mr. Hicks decided to baffle me this time by pretending I had not said something I had said, namely, the simply pretending he need not answer any of the arguments. He then berates me for failing to be intellectually rigorous. I trust the reader notes the irony.

Instead he invents a strawman version of the first of my ten, the Argument from Design.

His argument is weaker than the real argument, to be easy to thrash. I am a little bemused that his own strawman trounces him.

The real argument about design is whether intent exists in nature. If you discover a pocketwatch on the sands of Mars, it is reasonable to assume that there is a Martian watchmaker, who designed the instrument with the intent to keep time. The idea that the watch fell together by an unintentional process, and just so happens to be useful for its use, is the weaker theory, because it is preposterous. Intentional effects cannot arise from non-intentional causes.

Likewise, if you see an organ, such as the wing of a bird or an eyeball, it is reasonable to assume that these organs were designed with their purpose in mind, namely, vision or flight. Hence the argument is that a design of a purposeful instrument presupposes a designer, who had that purpose in mind. Nature is non-purposeful because nature is non-deliberate. Hence evidence of design in nature is evidence of a designer of nature, which could only be supernatural.

Instead, Mr. Hicks says that the argument is about complexity. He says that theists argue that order cannot arise from disorder without an orderer. Instead of discussing how it is possible for disorder to give rise to the order of the universe (which includes, physical, mental, spiritual, ethical and aesthetic order), he pulls a bait and switch, and speaks only of biological evolution, which is not an example of order arising from disorder at all.

A child species may have more moving parts than its parent if the pressures of its environment favor multiplicity of parts, or may have less, but neither is more orderly than the other. A bicycle has more moving parts than a unicycle, but not more order.

Mr. Hicks objects that the number, power and benevolence of the divine being or beings ordering the universe is not proved beyond doubt by this argument. Alas, the argument from design only is meant to prove the designer exists, not what his nature is. Mr. Hicks seems not to realize that polytheist or a pantheist is still a theist, and if theism is true, atheism is false.

The final remarks flounders on the question of infinite regress. He says that if we assume the universe lacks the power to create itself from nothing, hence needs a creator, we may assume likewise that the creator of the universe lacks it as well. Hence the creator must have been created by a father creator, and he by a grandfather, and so on. This is a schoolboy argument, to which every schoolboy should know the answer.

Consider the example of a train car being pulled by the car ahead of it to define its speed. There line of cars in a train cannot be infinite, for if it were, the train would be motionless. The first car of the train must be an engine, something which gets its speed from its motors, not from a previous car. It is an unpulled first puller. To argue that the unpulled first puller must have a puller that pulls it is to misunderstand the argument. It does not contradict the argument, it merely ignores the point.

Likewise, if the standard model of physics is true, then the Big Bang is a natural event, but it cannot be said to have arisen from natural causes, that is, historical causes inside the ambit of time and space, simply because time and space arose from the Big Bang. If so, whatever brought the Big Bang into being could not be inside time, and could not be a historical cause nor a natural cause. Another type of causation is needed, which can only be supernatural.

Since it is not an historical cause, it must be a final cause, that is, an intentional act seeking a deliberate goal. And only minds can have intentions. A supernatural mind, one able to create the universe, is a god of some sort. As for the number and nature of the god, another argument must address that.

So that is the story so far, and it is, alas, a sad one for any atheist who wanted to see his position staunchly defended.

* * *

The most obvious reason for believing in God is a simple observation of the ethical nature of man. We all are aware of the authority of the conscience which condemns wrong action when we do wrong, or fail to do right. We all are aware that we know the difference between right and wrong and that we commit wrong acts, say wrong words, think wrong thoughts, or omit right, all too often.

There are two salient facts that separate men from other animate creatures met on Earth. First, every toddler is taught how to talk; but no one teaches toddlers how to lie.

Second, even when contemplating a simple lie, such as when you told your boss you were sick when you merely wanted a day off, a justification springs to your lips instantly, even if your are alone. But it is logically impossible to have an exception without a law from which one seeks to be excepted. The quest for justification is logically impossible except when an authority who would otherwise impose a valid condemnation exists.

Men, in other words, all have some dim sense of righteousness and some dim craving for it, and all man knew all man fall short. Beasts evince no such thing. Now this is a peculiar fact indeed, and is the central mystery of human existence.

Now, there are four possible explanations for this: polytheism, pantheism, atheism, monotheism.

The evils done by the polytheistic gods is sufficient testimony that they cannot be the source of this disquieting sense of having violated the fundamental ethical laws of the universe. It is not as if Jove can criticize adulterers or parricides, or Odin condemn thieves.

Pantheism supposes all beings to share equally in the godhead, which implies all acts are likewise equally divine, including things obviously sins. If the cosmos is god, equally divine in all parts, there is no source for this sense of violation. It is an illusion best cured by Buddha.

Atheism cannot suppose that these ethical rules of the universe are sovereign, for if they are the product of biological evolution or social conditioning, they have no authority man cannot justly overthrow. If so, the appearance of sovereign authority of the conscience is an illusion rightfully banished, and the main problem of human ethics hence is not how to urge men to live as their consciences dictate, but how to eliminate the guilt which comes from violations of the conscience, usually described as being merely a reflector of arbitrary social convention.

Each of these explanations can be defended, depending on how far into the realm of ad hoc the defender is willing to go. The question is which provokes the fewest or weakest serious objections.

I submit that the most elegant and logical explanation for a universal sense of guilt over having violated a nonmanmade law is a superhuman lawgiver who put the faculty of the conscience into human nature; but this is not possible unless this lawgiver has universal authority hence universal sovereignty, and created both universe and man. A universe-maker is a god, and if he is also the source of law, that law must be divine and his nature lawful.

The divine source of law cannot also be the source of lawlessness. Man’s lawless nature hence can only be the outcome of a defect, a primal catastrophe posterior to creation, rightly called a fall. If man were not fallen, he would not be aware, perhaps not even able to imagine, the purity and righteousness he left behind. If the lawgiver gave laws that none could abide and none could abide by, he is merely a sadist, and therefore hardly the source of authoritative universal moral law.

* * *

This leads to the question of whether religion is necessary for personal morality?

Before answering the question, it must be stated and in the strongest possible terms that the question is one of supreme indifference to the truth of the matter.

If God is real, then by definition he is rightfully owed our adoration, gratitude, and love, whether this leads to an ethical code or not, or creates an orderly society or not. One must believe truths because they are true, not because they are useful. One only judges lies in the scales of utility.

I note in passing that the question contains a weasel word. Why personal morality? Why not the morality of the family, the clan, the tribe, the nation? I suspect that answer there is too obvious. The imponderable and mystic bonds on which families, clans, tribes and nations rely for there existence have never existed in the absence of religion.

Nonetheless, the question was honestly asked, and merits an answer:

The answer is obviously no, if we are talking about any personal moral code based on self interest.

Men seek their own self interest by nature, and a rational man will also seek what it is his long-term self interest. It is not in his long-term self interest to live in a family whose children he teaches to deceive, cheat, hate and destroy him, nor could he propose in a clan or society lacking that sense of honor and love and civic duty deception corrupts and violence deters.

Only a sociopath is unable to see the beauty of correct moral action; only a fool or an intellectual cannot deduce by plain common sense that the standard which applies to one applies to all, or else is not a standard. One need not believe in any god or gods to have a love of goodness, a sense of reason, and loyalty to self interest.

But an examination of what is usually called a moral code based on self interest turns up the rather startling and rather obvious truth that such a thing is not a moral code at all. It is a set of rules for coming up with excuses for violating the moral code, particularly when the moral code calls on you to make an act of self abnegation or self sacrifice.

Self interest, no matter how enlightened, can neither explain, nor condone, a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his squad, or a mother who directs the doctor to save the baby in childbirth at the sacrifice of her own life. And yet without the loyalty of soldiers or the self sacrifice of mother love, families and clans cannot exist and society cannot prosper.

Only if life after death is real is the sacrifice of one’s life, or even of one’s time, rational. Only if there is a judge who can neither deceive or be deceived standing at the gate between life and afterlife, is it rational to fear and obey the laws of the conscience instilled by that judge.

Too many outrageously evil men have died happily in bed, paying no account for their crimes, for life to be tolerable, absent some form of judgment after death. If we live in a world where life is simply and incurably unfair, then we are poorly evolved to live in it, because the desire for justice, although it can be smothered under layers of studied cynicism, cannot be killed.

Hence, absent the supernatural, human nature does not fit nature, and this includes his ethical cravings, his love of all that is bright and just and holy, his craving for sin and self indulgence, his quiet and persistent conscience, his outrage at the injustice of seeing evil men prosper.

The atheist cannot regard the conscience as supernatural. If it is natural, it is non-deliberate, since all natural things are non-deliberate, in which case it has no authority over him. It is merely a natural resource, an irrational object to be manipulated. If is it manmade, then man can unmake it, hence to obey or to disobey is an arbitrary decision. Hence the atheist has no rational justification to bow to the conscience, for it is either an irrational or arbitrary. Since all men are uneasy at the knowledge of their guilt, and since no supernatural means are at hand to wash that guilt away, the sole tactic left to the atheist is to smother the conscience, that is, to redefine the conscience as a source of bigotry, and redefine sin as a source of self-actualization and liberty. Hence in secular society we see the inevitable result: all moral judgment is condemned as judgmental, and every day new perversion which yesterday was unthinkable is added to the list of what we must tomorrow tolerate, and the day after that celebrate.

Here is the paradox of the human condition: man both wants the beauty of moral perfection, and knows he will never find it in this life. Hence, there are only two possible alternative tactics to take toward this paradox:

One is to turn to a stronger power than any human power for aid in the quest, which he knows will only be consummated in the next life, when all sin will be sloughed away; the other is to eschew the desire for perfection as a dangerous illusion and suppress the craving, and surrender to one’s fallen nature, and wallow in sin.

This surrender can be done in the name of authenticity, or in the name of removing inhibitions and neurosis, or in the name of civility and pluralism, or in the name of liberty and rebellion, or in the name of tolerance and broadmindedness, or in the name of diversion and being no sort of spoil-sport, or in the name of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The name does not matter, because they are only excuses. No one means them, and everyone knows they are merely morphine to benumb the nerve of morality.

The choice is stark, binary, and absolute. There is no third alternative. By definition, the atheist cannot even admit the possibility of the first in his worldview.

For these reasons, no matter what good fellows atheists themselves might be, they are good only to the degree that they ignore or betray their own code of ethics and work against the only tactic of dealing with sin their worldview allows.

Atheism means dumbing down morality.

Atheism means deterring morality, and praising, lauding, applauding and rewarding sin, deviation, selfishness, and perversion.

Those atheists who cling for sentimental reasons to their religious upbringing and uphold morality, self-sacrifice, and condemn sin and all filth that demeans the sacred soul of man have no rational reason within their worldview so to do.

But with the supernatural, a moral code is possible where the self sacrifice necessary for families to exist and civilization to prosper is not at odds with human nature and human self interest, because the self persists beyond death.

In atheism, only the moral code of self interest, that is, a moral code without self-sacrifice, is justified. Any self sacrificing atheist are certainly noble creatures, but they can give no rational explanation of their actions.

Nor is an irrational code, a code one cannot justify, able to serve as a basis for culture, custom, law, that is, communal as well as a personal standard of ethics – it was precisely to avoid mention of this point that the weasel question about ‘personal standards’ was worded in the weasel way it was.

The only openly atheist societies in history were socialist or national socialist, run by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot and the other most atrocious monsters in history, and the avowed standards of these societies were not ethical but pragmatic, treating humans as objects, and as vermin subject to extermination in astronomical numbers. The sheer acreage of the mass graves of the innocent victims of atheist ethical pragmatism should silence any further discussion on this head.

For purposes of comparison, socialism has killed roughly 100 million human beings in this century through proactive social engineering, plus another 30 million killed in their wars and conquests. Mao killed 40 million people in the twenty-six years of his reign, whereas all four Crusades together killed one million people between AD 1096 to AD1204. Mao averages roughly 1,530,000 per year, overtopping a century of Crusade by than 500,000. Again, the Spanish Inquisition in two hundred years killed 350,000. Mao in three months overtopped that total.

You may add in the Wars of Spanish Succession, or the Troubles in Ireland, or any other war which arguably used Christianity as a motivation. Even so, there is no comparison: atheism is deadlier than any crusade or inquisition in history, deadlier than all of them put together.

One can speak theoretically of atheistic cultures with atheistic moral codes and laws that are not nightmarishly and grotesquely deceptive, sadistic, satanic and morbid, but then again one can speak theoretically about virgins capturing unicorns. Just because no virgin in the history of the world has ever captured a unicorn, does not prove unicorns do not exist theoretically speaking.

But as far as untheoretical and unicornless real world goes, history has spoken, and condemned atheist ethics unambiguously as the greatest robber, deceiver, slaver, betrayer and massmurderer in history.

If an atheist regards any unborn child or retarded boy as anything other than one more animal in the animal kingdom, he can give no rational account for his conclusion. A Christian can prove with logic from his principles what a softhearted atheist can only assert as sentimentality from his. In the world view where nothing is sacred, human life cannot be sacred.

Again, it does not prove, or even matter, that religion has this useful side effect for human families and societies and ethical behavior. But it makes atheism ugly and unworkable as well as being false.

John C. Wright is a retired attorney and newspaperman who was only once hunted by the police. He is a graduate of St. John College (home of Mortimer Adler’s “Great Books Program“). In 2004 he foreswore his lifelong atheism and joined the Roman Catholic Church. He has published over 10 SF novels, including one nominated for a Nebula award, and was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “this fledgling century’s most important new SF talent.” He currently lives in fairytale-like happiness with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their four children.

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