Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The inferiority of theistic morality

Greta Christina asserts that there's no substantive difference between atheistic and theistic morality. I think she's wrong.

The main focus of her argument is that
There's an increasing body of evidence supporting the theory that human morality is, to a great extent, genetically hard-wired.
She simply hand-waves away the flaw in this argument:
There is, of course, tremendous variation in how that morality plays out in specific ethical systems, from person to person and from culture to culture.

Yes, the foundation of our moral beliefs is in our neurology. But cultural and societal evolution plays a big part in the specifics, and religion has been a tremendous influence in that evolution. Roll everything back to the beginning of modern humans (or even just to the beginning of recorded history) and play it back again, and you'll get a very different society, because accidents of social evolution have shaped our moral beliefs just as accidents of biological evolution have shaped our physical nature.

Furthermore, much of our neurological hard-wiring is in conflict with modern morality. Xenophobia, greed and sadism are just as much a part of our neurology as are altruism and compassion. We need our intelligent, rational minds to apprehend that the long-term consequences of some of our neurological wiring is in conflict with our best interests. Our moral beliefs are not hard-wired in their entirety, and it's not logically valid to simply say that theists and atheists have the same morality simply because we do in fact have the same neurological foundation.
If this is true -- if morality is largely hard-wired by our human genetics into our human brains -- then that's true for all of us, across the board.

Theists and atheists alike.
They're not utterly dissimilar, but neither are they identical. There are socially and culturally constructed differences, and those differences can be examined rationally and morally.

Christina also asserts that many believers have an identical morality to her own, on the same basis:
I know a fair number of theists and other religious/ spiritual believers. And they clearly have the same basis for their morality as I do for mine. The believers I know don't do good because they're afraid of Hell. Many of them don't even believe in Hell. They do good for the exact same reasons I do: because they feel compassion and empathy for others, because they believe in justice and fairness, because they understand that other people are people just like they are, because they want to see the world be a better place for everybody.
It's arguable that such people do not have a theistic morality at all; their moral beliefs are not connected to their religious/spiritual beliefs. If someone's "belief" has no consequences at all, if they would act precisely the same if they held the opposite "belief", then the belief is vacuous, nothing but slogans. Substantively they're just as atheist as I am, they just express their atheism differently. The God Who Makes No Difference is indistinguishable from no God at all. Criticism of theism doesn't criticize such people because they're not theists.

But many "good", supposedly humanistic theists aren't really. They're mostly humanist, but there's often one issue or another where making the world a better place for everybody takes a back seat to what they think God wants. It might be abortion, or gay rights, or unscientific* opposition to certain technologies (e.g. stem cell research, genetically modified foods, nuclear power). If we take humanism — to see the world be a better place for everybody — as the standard** then many people with theistic morality will fall short in one way or another. Their humanistic failure might be more subtle than the hellfire and brimstone bible thumpers, but it's there all the same, and they fail for the exact same reason as their more extremist brethren.

*There are, of course, many valid and important scientific critiques of these technologies.

**I am, of course, begging the question that humanism really is the standard.

But even the people with a completely humanistic morality, those whose morality would not change if they adopted the opposite slogans still have an inferior morality. Humanistic ethics are obviously justified because everyone wants to be happy, so why push a purely humanistic on God at all? There's really only one reason to do so: to fulfill the moral value of obedience. But under humanism, obedience is at best a necessary evil, and at worst just an evil. So even in this respect, even the most otherwise humanistic theistic morality still must fall short of humanism.

It's one thing to compare humanist morality with non- or partially-humanistic theistic morality. But it's quite another thing — and completely mistaken — to equate the two.

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