Monday, June 8, 2009

Humanism vs. Religious Ethics

Moving on from that unexpected tone change from yesterday, I go back to my tried-and-true method of point by point rebuttal of poorly thought-out arguments regarding religion. Yes, holy shit, two continuous days of posting. It's like it's, um, the last time I did that, or something. Don't feel like checking.

Anyway, tonight's contestant is Katherine Kersten, who believes doing away with religion will cause the collapse of morality. Since there's no such thing as a moral system based on something other than religion. Enjoy!

We’re increasingly uncomfortable with religion these days. [I see that as a good development, frankly. Never get too comfortable with any idea, you might need to get rid of it]

As a society, we tolerate pastors, priests, rabbis and other religious folks, so long as they confine their message to a vanilla “God is love” theme and bless babies, brides and caskets.[Like hell. I fall rather squarely in the anti-theist side of the spectrum, yet I tolerate plenty of hateful religious messages. Strongly disagree with, too, but tolerance has nothing to do with agreement]

But when religious leaders speak out on the issues of the day — especially using morally tinged language — the elite gatekeepers of public opinion in the media, government and academia warn shrilly that a new Dark Age is upon us.[That might be because society is slowly coming to realize that a bronze age moral system for goat herders does not apply today]

More and more, we see outright hostility to religion — particularly to Christianity.[Yeah, Christians are often stereotyped as terrorists these days. Wait, those are the Muslims. But, they are treated as their beliefs don't qualify as a "real" religion. No, sorry, those are pagans. Huh] Consider the wild popularity of a recent spate of best-sellers by “New Atheist” superstars, including Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” and Christopher Hitchens’ “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”

Far from being dispassionate critics of faith, the New Atheists are zealous crusaders for their own creed: materialism. [One is the flip said of the other. To promote materialism is to criticise religion, and as far as I know, they do both. Passionately, certainly, but that's an understandable attitude towards this subject] They are passionately committed to the idea that the universe is a random accident, that transcendent truth is a myth, and that man’s life has no inherent purpose or meaning.

Why the growing audience for notions like these?[Because we are right? Or, in less presumptive terms, because we can argue our point and back it up with evidence]

Religion poses a serious challenge to our cherished idea of personal autonomy. Unlike our forebears, we define freedom as the right to live as we choose — to “be ourselves” — unconstrained by social norms or a morally grounded sense of guilt or shame.[To a certain extent. I am all for living our lives as we see fit, provided we don't harm others in the process. To say any serious ethical system promotes doing whatever you want and screw anyone else is irresponsible at best and outright lying at worst]

Judeo-Christianity throws a wrench in this, teaching that universal standards of right and wrong trump our personal desires.[Wow wow wow, hold on right there. Are you seriously saying that the Bible is the first and only book to ever claim there's a standard of morality that goes beyond personal desire? What the flying fuck woman, virtually all moral systems teach this, including those that preceded or had no contact with Abrahamic religions.]

In addition, it raises troubling questions about the vision of scientific “progress,” so central to our modern age. The mere fact that we are capable of, say, genetically altering or cloning human beings doesn’t give us moral license to do so, it cautions.[First, no need to scare-quote progress. Second, advancement of knowledge has been a part of mankind since it's beginnings, and morality advancing with it is not a new thing]

It’s tempting to embrace the New Atheist gospel — that man makes himself and has no higher judge. But before we do, we would be wise to consider the potential consequences.[Some of us would argue that the higher judge is society, or the concept of justice itself]

What, for example, is the source of the bedrock American belief in human equality? It has no basis in science or materialism.[WRONG! It's science that has shown us that it makes no sense to judge someone over their skin colour, sex, etc.] Some people are brilliant, powerful and assertive, while others can’t even tie their shoelaces. [And this has shit to do with equal rights]If “reason” alone is the standard, the notion of equality appears to be nonsense.[As someone who believes in equality based on reason, I beg to differ]

And why should we act with charity toward the poorest and weakest among us? “Reason” — untempered by compassion — suggests that autistic children and Alzheimer’s sufferers are drags on society.[Autistics, depending on where on the spectrum they fall, can be highly functioning. Alzheimer's sufferers are still living, thinking, feeling humans. Reason, by itself, says nothing. It is only when applied to principles of morality where it can help build a system of rigth and wrong. And a system that ignores reason is fatally flawed] In ancient Rome, disabled babies were left on hilltops to die.[I think that was Sparta, actually. Not that it matters] Why lavish care and resources on them? [Because they are living, thinking, feeling humans]

We Americans take the moral principles of equality and compassion for granted.[Not an American, but hell no. You might have noticed the fight for mariage equality that is going on in your country right now. Is fighting for a right taking it for granted in your book?] Yet these ideas are deeply counterintuitive.[Intuition tends to vary from person to person. Do not presume to tell me what is or isn't intuitive for me] We’ve largely forgotten that their source is the once-revolutionary Judeo-Christian belief in a loving God, who created human beings in his image and decreed charity to be the first of virtues.[It was not forgotten, for it was never true. Your religion has done kinda piss poor on the equality front. Believers are not equal to unbelievers, women are not equal to men, homosexuals are not equal to heterosexuals (Yes, I went there, again. It's a good example and I'm going to use it. Sue me)]

Can we reject belief in such a God and still retain the fruits of faith — including a belief in the dignity and infinite value of each human being?[Those are not the fruits of faith, as shown above. They can come from a humanist philosophy, as well. In fact, humanism seems much better at it, from my clearly biased point of view]

The signs aren’t promising. [Care to point out those signs? Didn't think so]

Human beings are prone to selfishness, lust, vindictiveness and cruelty.[True. The point of morality is to show that we can act better than our impulses. Hell, if we were all naturally nice and kind and whatnot, we wouldn't need moral systems] Once we cease to believe that the moral rules constraining us are rooted in transcendent truth, they become mere preferences — a matter of personal taste, and so expendable.[False. Morality may be personal , but it's not a matter of taste. Each person might have a different reaction to a moral dilemma, but there are a few basic principles most recognise, like don't harm unnecessarily. Morality is a complex subject that cannot be easily reduced, and to what extent we value each principle depends largely on our personal experiences. This does not mean that people say "oh, this moral is inconvenient, let's do away with it"]

Theologian David Bentley Hart, a critic of the New Atheists, puts it this way: “How long can our gentler ethical prejudices … persist once the faith that gave them their rationale and meaning has withered away?”[Easy, it's not the faith that gave them meaning. And anyway, I wouldn't want a morality based on a falsehood. If your mythology stems solely from a myth, then it's a lie. It's irrelevant. That's why we need morality rooted in reality]

The historical record here should give us pause. The French Revolution, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Soviet Union — all sought to replace Judeo-Christian ethics with reason, and ended in massive bloodletting.[G-G-G-G-Godwin alert! Hitler had a mixture of occult and Christian beliefs. He was by no means a rationalist. Stalin shifted the cult of religion to cult of personality, still not a rationalist. The French revolution had their excesses, sure, but they were way better than their predecessors. Change does not come free. And, as I said above, reason by itself does not give you a system. It's about which principles you apply reason to]

Nor does science offer moral guidance. That way lies Social Darwinism — the notion of the survival of the fittest.[Science is descriptive, not prescriptive, that much is true. Which means, science tells us how things are, not how they should be. Knowing how things are helps in morality, of course, for example, Social Darwinism. Science tells us there's no real advantage of one race over another and that a diverse gene pool is better than a limited one, thus Social Darwinism is, in fact, a misuse of science] Unless scientific ambition is constrained by religion, it can come to see humanity as just another form of technology, to be tinkered with and perfected with utility in mind.[What's wrong with perfecting humanity, as long as you go about it responsibly and ethically?]

Hart dismisses the New Atheists as intellectual lightweights. They push “attitudes masquerading as ideas” and fail to honestly consider the likely consequences of their creed, he writes.[He would, being a theologian and all. I dismiss your side based on similar principles, actually, considerably fewer people care about my opinion] But he takes a different view of Christianity’s greatest critic — philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared in 1882 that “God is dead.”[Nietzsche might be an important critic, but he is not the greatest. And to pretend the ideas prevalent in a movement haven't changed in over 120 years seems intellectually dishonest]

“Nietzsche was a prophetic figure precisely because he, almost alone among Christianity’s enemies, understood the implications of Christianity’s withdrawal,” Hart has written. “He understood that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat.”[And here's the thing, if Christianity falls, then morality based exclusively on it should fall too. Why base something as big as right and wrong in a failed idea? Any good in Christianity is found elsewhere, and will not be lost, if it's worth preserving. That's the great thing about using reasons instead of faith, you can base your beliefs on reality instead of myth and adding morality as patchwork]