A recent thread on disputes about the nature of information quickly degenerated into the kind of denegration of religious faith usually (though just as unproductively) seen on apologetics sites, which was why I asked for it to stop. Debating such matters is really outside The Hump’s remit – we are here to discuss the implications of holding Christian faith for science; other sites exist to argue about the validity of Christianity itself with anti-theists. I’m not sure why anyone would prefer to debate with apologetics amateurs rather than with the full-timers, other than lack of confidence in ones arguments. But that said, since Christians see morality as a fundamental part of God’s creation, it has an obvious place in any discussion about the alternative view that there is no creation, and hence this post.
The moral argument against God customarily takes the form:
(a) The Bible says that God does/commands A (in this particular case the destruction of the Canaanite nations under Joshua).
(b) Such a doing/commanding is self-evidently immoral.
(c) Therefore the biblical God is immoral.
(d) Therefore he doesn’t exist.
By comparing the two viewpoints, the religious and the anti-religious, some interesting issues are raised. But first, to prepare the ground, a brief survey of genocide, the issue that was invoked in the other post to frame the customary put-down.
Is genocide indeed self-evidently evil? It’s a question scarcely worth considering, it seems, genocide being given as a textbook paradigm of evil in most discussions of morality (second only to torturing babies!). But all such discussions have the disadvantage of occurring here and now – and it is not self-evidently clear on what basis that which is is self-evident to us should necessarily be so to all people in all times, nor why our outlook should trump others. Just a few years ago, would a Bosnian Serb have seen the eradication of Muslims as a war-crime, or vice versa? Did the Chinese look sheepish as they eradicated the Zhongar people in the eighteenth century, or various nationalities of colonists as they concluded the only good Injun was a dead Injun in both North and South America?
The twentieth century probably ranks as the Century of Genocide, commencing with King Leopold’s rape of the Congo c.1908, quickly followed by the Ottoman Armenian and Assyrian bloodbaths (whose centenary we have just reached), the Soviet De-cossackisation of 1920, and proliferating through events around the globe thereafter. These, as I’ve already indicated, were perpetrated by very varied governments and peoples, though as Geoffrey Martin Hodgson in Economics in the Shadows of Darwin and Marx points out, history has tended to allocate or forget blame in somewhat myopic ways. In a footnote he writes:
Trotsky (1937) saw similarities between Stalinism and fascism. From 1939 to 1949 there were mass deportations and killings of Baltic, Caucasian, Polish, Slav and Turkic peoples, often with the aim of eliminating their culture (Pohl, 1999). The deliberately engineered famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 is estimated to have led to between six and ten million deaths (Conquest, 1986). Stalin’s crimes rival those of the Nazis in scale and cruelty. Yet these episodes have been given much less attention than the Holocaust. Of course, we cannot convict a doctrine such as Marxism, Christianity or Islam simply by the sins of its adherents. Instead, the point here is to show that the awareness and ranking of such atrocities are framed by enduring but challengeable frameworks, acquired from an earlier history.
But on the previous page he nevertheless implicates the very founders (rather than just some bad exemplars) of Communism:
Engels proclaimed that “the disappearance from the face of the earth … of entire reactionary peoples” such as the Slavs would be a “step forward”.
While Marx wrote to him 17 years later:
“…the common negro type is only a degeneration of a far higher one.”
Engels had already cited with approval Ernst Haeckel’s book placing blacks closer to apes than to Europeans. Haeckel, the biologist, did not himself specifically advocate genocide – only the killing of handicapped babies and the withdrawal of medical aid from the sick in the interests of natural selection. However, members of the scientific eugenics movement like Margaret Sanger and her associates in the USA did, proposing if necessary the enforced sterilization of the feebleminded, antisocial and black (often subsumed under the other two as “the negro problem”). Not surpisingly some American blacks are still less than wholeheartedly in support of the Planned Parenthood people.
To be fair, this wasn’t entirely a racially based eugenics, for Dr Harry Laughlin also considered as a “bad strain to be purged” “shiftless, ignorant, and worthless class of antisocial whites of the South” and another associate, Norman Himes, targeted their main opponent, the Catholic Church, in Sanger’s journal:
Are Catholic stocks . . . genetically inferior to such non-Catholic libertarian stocks and Unitarians and Universal . . . Freethinkers? Inferior to non-Catholics in general? . . . my guess is that the answer will someday be made in the affirmative. . . and if the supposed differentials in net productivity are also genuine, the situation is anti-social, perhaps gravely so.
Now my point in this survey is not to target the particular persuasions that seriously considered genocide a proper human goal between 1850 and 1950. It is rather that it is not only “the awareness and ranking of such atrocities” that are, in Hodgson’s words, “acquired from an earlier history”, but it’s also the subsequent history – in this case a mere half century – that has turned certain kinds of genocide from being a desirable, moral, scientific, civilisation-enhancing and fairly popular project to the category of “universal atrocity”. For if society at large had considered such ideas that atrocious, they would not have been allowed to gain traction and lead to widespread horrors ranging from forced sterilisation of black women in America to the Holocaust in Germany.
This leads me to consider genocide as a marker for the question of morality generally, arising as I said before, from the condemnation of the so-called Canaanite genocide in the Book of Joshua (but see Hanan’s illuminating comments on its nature and extent in the post), and through that condemning the biblical Judeao-Christian God as a shortsighted moral monster, who therefore cannot exist. Let’s examine the “religious” viewpoint, and then a “skeptical” atheist one.
First to the religious viewpoint, which of course is mine and that of The Hump. The first thing to say is that, whilst some believers would defend God’s moral integrity by the particulars of the case, or by distancing him from the biblical text in some way, I prefer to start from the classic theological observation that morality as such is a feature of the human creation, not an attribute of God. God is not a moral being, but the self existent One who is the source of morality and everything else. That does not mean he is immoral, any more than his immensity means he is big, or his ineffability that nothing may be said about him, but that to be the Creator, Father, and Judge of all puts him in a different category of existence from our – a category in which, albeit in in Trinity, he is alone.
The long list of divine qualities in, for example, the Westminster Confession includes infinite wisdom, holiness, righteousness, love, grace, mercy, longsuffering, goodness, truth, forgiveness, and justice (together with hatred of sin and refusal to clear the guilty) but not “morality”. For God to curtail human life because of sin – as we will all experience and as the very first chapters of the Bible teach – does not in any way contradict his command to us in the same chapters that our lives will be accountable to him for the life of another human being, nor make it unjust or hypocritical.
God, in the Bible, says his ways are right and good as God, not as a human with an innate creaturely moral conscience, subject to the laws he gave to govern human nature. And if we object that we would not act as he does if we were omniscient and omnipotent, we commit the rather elementary logical folly of making that judgement without being omniscient or omnipotent. The only God we can confidently judge is one whom we have created in our own image, whose ways are our ways, and whose thoughts are no higher than ours. Whereas the God who judges us (and all the peoples of the world) is in no way subject to our judgement. He alone made our judgement.
Nevertheless, moving on to human morality, the religious view is that one can account for a universal human sense of morality on the basis that we were created with one human nature, informed by a God-given conscience appropriate to what we are. On that basis, not only may God judge our actions, but men too can judge other men, whether within divinely appointed roles of authority (in which context “Thou shalt not kill” may be inapplicable to criminals or marauding enemies), or merely as humans viewing what goes on around us. All people ought, therefore, to know a true universal morality, and all show some signs of doing so, even if only by hypocrisy (“a tribute that vice pays to virtue” – Francois de La Rochefoucauld).
Religion, too, can account for the manifest shortcomings of human behaviour – whether in the collective madness of societies adopting evil norms, or in the individual who denies his own standards and conscience – through the existence of sin, the assertion of autonomy against both our divinely-constrained conscience and God’s stated laws. Sin being universal, it accounts for the propensity to evil acts as well as fpr the recognition of good ones. Since all have sinned, this may not always put even believers in a good light, but it confirms their theology, and the theology contains the seeds of repentance and change.
If we now turn to the critic of religion, we see in the first instance that he too necessarily believes in a universal morality, for it is only by such a standard that it makes any sense to condemn either the wisdom or the goodness of God for events that took place thousands of years ago in a distant culture. If he did not believe in this universal standard, he would merely be imposing his own individual scruples as binding on both God and the ancient Israelites, which would be absurdly conceited given the overview of recent genocidal events with which I started. And so, it is on the basis of the “self-evidence” of this universal morality that God falls short and ergo cannot exist. Or else he does exist and one must spend ones life shaking ones fist at him … which is actually quite common, I find.
God’s demise, though, means there no longer remains a religious explanation for the existence of the universal morality which condemned him to death. Another kind of explanation must be sought. Philosophically that’s a problem, for the only currently viable alternative to God’s creation is evolution by random variation and natural selection, or as Darwin put it in the title of his book, “the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.” It’s the old problem of Hume’s Law: that “ought” cannot rationally be derived from “is” – and that is especially so when the “is” in question is that life itself, like our own species, has arisen entirely through self-interest. In fact, it was that very conclusion that inspired the social Darwinism behind a number of the genocidal movements of the last century. It’s no easy task to get, from that kind of “is”, an “ought” that universally outlaws the destruction of ones competitors.
The materialist’s task, then, is to explain how natural selection, which is the competitive self-preservation of genes or organisms, would give rise to a universal human behavioural trait regarding the preservation of out-groups as an overwhelming priority for all times and places. For, remember, it must be universal if God is to be found wanting by it. Such attempts have, I believe, been made – in more or usually less detail. And natural selection, one finds, is seldom preserved entire in them.
For example, Richard Dawkins’ position on morality is that we must, in this case, rise above (how?) the otherwise thorough determination of our selfish genes. He has contrived, with little in the way of “how”, to derive “must” from “is”. Free will has slipped in the back door of his theory of memes: goodness is somehow mysteriously chosen, rather than caught. But that lack of a robust explanation wouldn’t matter too much if, by evolution or by his magical self-liberation from evolution, the human race did show a universal pattern of behaviour excluding genocide.
The problem is that it doesn’t, as I have already shown. Assuming there exists a global morality that has arisen through some obscure evolutionary advantage, we also have to explain why it is also universally flouted, and why millions of people in the last century alone have been slaughtered by others determined to eradicate their kind. Perhaps this contradiction, then, represents a more straightforward selective goal, the removal of competition, and that this sits in an uneasy balance with the universal moral sense of benevolence. One then has to account for why the latter is associated with “ought” and the former with “ought not” in our minds. What gives any one evolutionary strategy ethical pre-eminence over another?
Richard Dawkins’ “rising above evolution” justification for morality, as given above, seems all there isby way of a reply – an assumption that, just as a favoured few are rational enough to escape the evolutionary predisposition of the majority to believe in God, so there are those who are favoured enough by nature to rise above it in their moral compass, too.
But this is no less incoherent. To begin with, in such a case, morality is no longer universal, but the prerogative only of self-adjudged right-thinking people, which destroys the case against God as offending against a universal truth. Instead God would only be offending a particular moral élite. In any case, it was the eugenicist Margaret Sanger who said, speaking of the over-fertile religious “There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped.” So who is to judge which particular group of right-thinking “smarts” are thinking right about genocide?
The second problem is, I’m afraid, another inevitable consequence of undirected evolution. There is little defence against the reasonable contention by Plantinga, Nagel and others (including, at times, Charles Darwin) that reason itself evolved to ensure survival rather than truth. How much more, then, is this true of an evolved moral sense, which is even less possible to test against reality? In a materialist system, what weight can the “ought” of moral awareness exercise over the four billion year old instinctive urge to survive? Given evolution, I should feel outrage against the slaughter of peoples for the same basic reason that I feel outraged if I am hungry or short of a mate – because it somehow ensures my survival. What other motives are there within the framework of evolution? By what miracle can it produce something beyond the mere ability to survive?
By the same mechanism, I might feel outraged by the continued existence of kulaks, or Cossacks, or kaffirs or Catholics if they appear to threaten my survival. Many people have felt like that, in this and previous centuries, and used the highest political and scientific reasons as justification for doing away with them. For myself, I’m convinced that they were all offenders against the universal law of God for mankind to love his brethren created in Christ’s image, deadeners of their creation-nature of conscience, and doomed to judgement apart from the grace of a forgiving God.
But there are an awful lot of theological presuppositions necessary to that view of universal morality.