Feb 12, 2009

Religion vs. Secular Ethics: What is the Basis of Morality?

I wrote the following a few years ago while taking Philosophy of Religion in college.  After finding the essay recently, I thought some people might enjoy reading it and decided to post it in the blog.  There are plenty of opportunities for improvement of this essay but I have chosen to leave it as originally worded.  Enjoy:

Moral standards must have a strong basis upon which it encourages individuals to act ethically.  Mavrodes comes to the conclusion that religion is the only means of providing deep meaning to morality and that morals wouldn’t necessarily exist if religions never developed.  The second part of his conclusion brings up an additional question, if morality is based solely on religion, what are the motives involved in being moral?  His main argument against secular views of morality is that they are superficial. However, the reasons to be moral which develop through religion create a basis for morality that is arguably driven by fearful obligation which is in itself shallow.  This paper will look specifically at religion based morality, in comparison to secular views, and its status in answering the question of why we should want to act morally. 

In discussing this topic, it is necessary to review Mavrodes’ argument for a religion based explanation of morality.  Mavrodes wrote the article in response to Bertrand Russell’s secular view of ethics, describing them as queer and inadequate in answering the question; “Why should I be moral?[1]”  Mavrodes opens briefly with the point that morality is dependent on religion to the extent that morality would cease to exist if religion failed.  His intent is to use morality to show that religion is a better explanation than secular views.   He develops his argument by taking a look at the Russellian world and how morality would function and gain meaning in such an environment.  The Russellian worldview is:

That man is the product of causes which had no perversion of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievements must inevitably be burned beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.[2]

Mavrodes compares the Russellian world to what he perceives as the actual world, one where religion is the truth.  Mavrodes describes final moral obligation as “obligations that a particular person has in some concrete circumstance at a particular place and time, when all the aspects of the situation have been taken into account.[3]”  Mavrodes then makes the point that there are many cases in a Russellian world in which moral obligations would require a person to act in a manner which results in personal loss.  He makes a distinction between moral feelings and moral obligations and describes obligations which lead to loss as strange because they do not give the individual a reason to want to act morally.  He refers to Kant to make the statement “there cannot be, in any ‘reasonable’ way, a moral demand upon me, unless reality itself is committed to morality in some deep way.[4]”  Mavrodes states that moral obligation within the Russellian world are superficial.  He then ends his argument and essentially concludes that these moral obligations and things like mind and purpose are much deeper in the real world than they would be in a Russellian world so religion must be the answer to why one should be moral.

Mavrodes describes moral obligation as “morality ascribes to particular people an obligation to do certain things on a certain occasion.[5]”  This description is a good starting basis for explaining morality.  However, it is not possible to create a thorough set of rules which define proper action in every scenario a person may need to make a moral decision.  This fact is demonstrated in the many debates occurring within religious groups over issues, such as how to handle abortion rights and civil unions, which are not clearly defined by religious moral laws.  To further define morality it must be understood as an obligation, based on the good of humanity, placed on rational beings to discern the appropriate ethical action.  Through this definition the needs of the greater good and a sense of duty are included in the decision process.  In writing the extended definition, morality is that which creates an obligation for an individual to do certain things on certain occasions by making rational moral decisions which are based on a concern for the greater good.  This approach relieves ambiguity created by a limited set of rules.  Additionally, it is important to determine morals on a secular basis because new moral issues are repeatedly brought about by medical and technological breakthroughs.  A prime example of these breakthroughs is cloning.  The ability to clone or alter the genetic code of organisms was not remotely possible during the time religious laws were written.  To determine the morally correct action in these cases requires the same approach described as being used by secular ethics. 

Kant “held that a truly moral action is undertaken purely out of respect for the moral law and with no concern at all for reward.[6]”  Mavrodes uses Kant’s view to support the need for morality to be a commitment with profound origin.  The deep meaning which creates moral obligation in a secular world is a concern for the sake of society as a whole.  A person is dependent on society and develops concern for its well-being in relation to his own, thus, creating a strong reason to act morally.  When asking why someone chooses to act morally within a religious context, the reason does not necessarily seem to be as deep as Mavrodes indicates.  With some exceptions, many religious texts advocate morality as being an obligation to avoid punishment and place little emphasis on acting morally for its own sake.  This does not necessarily mean that there is no deep theological reason to act morally.  However, the emphasis of obligation to act morally because it is the will of a higher power or good is often lacking in religious teachings.  This is an aspect of religion that has the potential to be remedied, however at this point the tendencies of religions to teach morality on a basis of fear instead of duty to a higher power discredits the concept that religion universally creates an understanding of a deep moral obligation.

Mavrodes might accept that secular morality gains meaning through society but maintain his claim that religion provides a more solid and deep reason for people to want to act morally.  It is true that religion has a history of being able to get people to act in a certain way.  However, unless all religious sects are able to agree on what is ethical then individuals will be in conflict with the moral beliefs of other religions.  A strong example of this variance is between religions based on anthropocentricism and those which place moral value on being an equal part of the ecosystem.  This sort of conflict is not an adequate means of creating a moral basis.  Furthermore, this conflict of moral views can lead to unnecessary disdain between religious communities.  For morality to have universal application the means through which it is derived cannot be subjective.

Additionally, Mavrodes briefly indicates that a reason to act morally would not exist without religion[7].  This assumption was formed on the idea that individuals will not act morally without the deep meaning that religion provides.  In a comparison of secular and religious based cultures, those countries which are less religious are more likely to have stronger morality.

‘In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies.’ . . . The study concluded that the US was the world’s only prosperous democracy where murder rates were still high, and that the least devout nations were the least dysfunctional.[8]

This study, originally published in the Journal of Religion and Society, contradicts Mavrodes notion that morality would not exist without religion.  The study, accompanied by the previous explanation of how secular worldview can maintain a deep sense of obligation, demonstrates that there is no reason to think that morality would not exist without religion.  Through this correlation I am not intending to argue that religion necessarily has a negative effect on morality.  The purpose is to show that religion cannot be concretely deemed the primary basis through which morality is derived.

Mavrodes holds the idea that secular morality requires a being to sometimes act against its own good.  If this were the case, secular morality would certainly be odd.  Indeed, if many moral actions repeatedly resulted in personal loss, the obligation to act morally would be greatly overcome by an individual’s sense of concern for himself alone.  Examples of actions which he perceives to accommodate personal loss in the Russellian world are “repaying a debt, keeping a promise, refraining from stealing . . . risk of death or serious injury.[9]”  It is true that some of these actions can cause a certain amount of personal loss.  However, these actions do not regularly carry a net loss when considered in the community framework.  Although reward is not the foundation that creates an obligation to act morally, many ethical actions do present the moral agent with a positive result.  Moral obligation placed on individuals in a secular worldview do not require a person to act in a way with is negative to their well-being.  A person operating within a secular moral framework keeps promises out of obligation to society, but in doing so also creates additional social connections and opportunities.  Any loss created by keeping a promise is far outweighed by the social benefits.  Much in the same way, a person chooses not to steal by abiding by society’s standards of moral obligation and is rewarded by being viewed as a favorable member of society. 

In moral situations which may require risking death or injury it is easily stated that the person is acting for the sake of humanity because these are altruistic actions.  A person performing these actions within a secular context runs the risk of personal loss. However, if the person were to refrain from performing this obligation, feelings of remorse would create a far greater loss than that of death or injury.  Furthermore, in a secular world, an individual does not experience a loss through his own fatality because death is viewed as an end where the individual no longer exists to have experiences.  In a similar way, religious moral obligations call for individuals to act against what may be their immediate best interests while associating a reward with acting morally.  Although the religious reward in acting morally is perceived to be granted in the afterlife, the extents to which moral obligations create personal loss appear to be more or less equal between secular and religious views.

Within our ever changing social environment, the ethical issues which result call upon a need for a moral basis which can rationally adapt moral understanding to accommodate progress.  Religious morality does not have the flexibility to respond to issues which are new to modern times.  This combined with the nonconformity of religious morals across various belief systems, renders religion inadequate as a prime basis for telling individuals why they should be moral.  I leave open the question of if secular morals based on a deep commitment to society are indeed the best explanation of moral basis.  This is in recognition that there are numerous foundations upon which secular morals have been declared to receive substantial meaning.  I do however claim that a secular moral basis better answers the question of why one should be moral because it allows ethical codes to apply universally.

[1] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 566.

[2] Russell, Bertrand..  “A Free Man’s Worship.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 570.

[3] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 563.

[4] Ibid. p. 565.

[5] Ibid. p. 563.

[6] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 565.

[7] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 561.

[8] Gledhill, Ruth.  “Societies worse off ‘when they have God on their side.’”  Britain, TimesOnline, September 27, 2005. http://web.archive.org/web/20060619050338/http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1798944,00.html

[9] Mavrodes, George.  “Religion and the Queerness of Morality.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Canada, Wadsworth, 2003. p. 563

Feb 8, 2009

Intelligent Design: Does It Prove God?

The Teleological Argument (Argument from Design): This is the argument what Intelligent Design advocates utilize to base their assumptions.   A basic breakdown of the Watchmaker Argument by William Paley (1743-1805):

If you come across a watch you assume it had a designer because, due to it apparent design and complexity, it would be illogical to think it always existed. In this same way we can look at living organisms which are more complicated than watches and infer that they must too have a designer. (Just as we infer an intelligent designer to account for the purpose-revealing watch, so likewise we must infer an intelligent Grand Designer to account for the purpose-revealing world.)

Objection 1. If something complex has a designer then surely the designer would have to be more complex than its creation. This would mean that the designer must also have a creator, thus leading to an infinite series of creators.
Refutation to Objection 1: God is infinite and therefore does not need a creator or explanation outside of itself.
Objection: This violates the premise that complex entities must have a creator.

Objection 2. A watchmaker creates watches with pre-existing materials. God is stated to create from scratch. This difference renders the analogy weak.

Objection 3. A watchmaker makes watches but nothing else. We would not see a laptop and assume that the watchmaker was the designer. This indicates that the arguments suggests multiple creators; one for each type of thing that exists.

Objection 4. The first part of the argument says that the watch stands out from randomness of nature because it is ordered. The second part of the argument claims that the universe is obviously not random, but is ordered. This makes the entire argument inconsistent.
Objection 5. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution: complex animals and plants can be produced through generation by less complex animals and plants. These plants and animals can be show to be derived from a process where complex things cam from inorganic matter. (www.talkorigins.com , also see Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker) So, the premise that complex beings must have a designer is inaccurate.
Refutation to Objection 5: Evolution does not explain the initial origins of the universe. (and they make various other claims about the how evolution isn’t true).
Objection to Refutation: Just because we can’t currently explain the origins does not mean that goddidit. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence for evolution.
There are more objections to this form of the argument, however I think the above is more than enough to show that it is not adequate for proving the existence of a conscious designer. 

Modern teleological arguments tend to focus on the “fine-tuning” in the universe, the fact that it is exactly as it needs to be (“fine-tuned”) to support life. Richard Swinburne (1934- ) reformulated the argument to get around the nuisance of dealing with Darwinist refutations. This is called the inductive argument from design.

“We can reconstruct the argument from spatial order as follows. We se around us animals and plant, intricate examples of spatial order in the ways which Paley set out, similar to machines of the kind which men make. We know that these animal and plants have evolved by natural processes from inorganic matter…They may therefore naturally infer from nature which produces animals and plants, to a creator of nature similar to men who make machine-making machines.”

Swinburne didn’t think this argument was very strong by itself. The circumstances under which nature behaves as a machine-making machine are very rare. This makes the analogy weak. He then goes on to offer an argument from temporal order which he thinks is much stronger than the inductive argument; I summarized it here:

1. Simple laws govern almost all successions of events.
2. The universe might so naturally have been chaotic, but it is not.
3. The universe conforms to a pattern which man can identify and describe. (admits that one could argue that this is by chance)
4. Things have and will continue to conform to such a pattern however initial conditions vary, however men interfere in the world.
5. This order exists independent of men.
6. If the universe were not orderly, men would not exist.
7. There is a great deal more order in the world than is necessary for humans to exist.
8. The existence of the universe is a problem too big for science to explain.
9. Nature only has building blocks of a few kinds. Each of which has its own defining properties.
10. The orderliness of nature is a matter of vast uniformity in the powers and liabilities of bodies throughout endless time and space, and also in the scarcity of kinds of components of bodies.
11. The temporal order of the world is where explanation stops
12. The temporal order of the world is due to the agency of God.

Objection 1 to item #4: Problem of induction (Swinburne admits to this) “Hume's problem is usefully divided in two. There is first what I shall call the descriptive problem: How do human beings form opinions about unobserved matters fact? And then there is the normative problem: Are beliefs formed in this way justified? Does someone who "reasons" as we normally do really have reason to believe his conclusions about the parts of nature he has not observed?” http://web.archive.org/web/20060619050338/http://www.princeton.edu/~grosen/puc/phi203/induction.html
Objection 2. I agree that it is amazing that we are here. But, it is very possible that this is not the first or last universe to exist. We could be the result of a series of “unsuccessful” universes and are the lucky recipients of a working universe.
Objection 3 to item #6: If the universe were not orderly it is true that men would not exist. However, this argument assumes that the current universe is the only possible universe which could sustain life. It could be possible that there are alternative ways in which the universe could be arranged that would also bring about life in an orderly fashion. Also, I don’t understand the String Theory very well, but I think it claims that there is an underlying chaos within the order of the universe. So, someone that actually understands the string theory may be able to make a scientific objection on this.
Objection 4 to item #8: I actually agree with this. But there are some that would argue that eventually science will be able to explain everything. 
Objection 5 to item #9: String theorists may have an objection here.  However, I am not going to discuss string theory in this post 
Objection 6. to item #12: it is illogical to jump to the conclusion of god. God has distinct attributes which are not supported by this argument. It would have been more appropriate to say intelligent designer. This designer could be a highly intelligent race of aliens for the purposes of any argument from design.
Objection 7. There is no reason to conclusively state that the universe is temporal (finite). There is a common misconception that the universe is claimed to “start” from the big bang. This is simply as far as science has been able to explain at this point. I would have to brush up on what Big Bang theorists do and don’t think in order to explain this further.

Swinburne went on with some more arguments from design, if anyone wants to look at them further the book is “The Existence of God” by Richard Swinburne (1979) Oxford University Press.

So, that was a crash course in the Argument from Design. It is far from a complete explanation or refutation, but it lays down the basis from which the argument formed and how it is stated today.


More about the Argument from Design: http://web.archive.org/web/20060619050338/http://philosophy.wisc.edu/sober/design%20argument%2011%202004.pdf 

The full length version of Paley's Watchmaker argument can be found at the following url: http://web.archive.org/web/20060619050338/http://www-phil.tamu.edu/~gary/intro/paper.paley.html

Feb 4, 2009

Explaining God to a Child

Little, 7-year-old Timmy: "Hey, Mr. Will. What's God?"
Will: "That's a good question. I suppose that depends on who you ask."

Timmy: "I'm asking you!"
Will: "Alright, hand me that scotch and I'll tell you. Good. Do you ever play with toys, Timmy? Maybe little action figures, legos, and trucks?"

Timmy: "Of course."
Will: "When you play with legos and trucks and things, do they act like trucks or do they act like people?"

Timmy: *thinking* "What do you mean?"
Will: "When you're playing with the toys, do they talk and think like people?"

Timmy: "Yeah!"
Will: "Why do you think that is?"

Timmy: "I dunno. Why?"
Will: "Hand me that airplane glue and I'll explain my theory. People—human beings—are social. We have to team up in order to get things done a lot of the time. Most of the time, throughout our history, we've lived in groups of people, not alone. Think back to what you learned in school about cavemen. They lived with family and friends, and everybody had to help out just so they could survive."

Timmy: "Like Democrats!"
Will: "You've got it. Well, because we had to all work together so much, people had to learn really early how to understand other people. It's hard to communicate and get something done if you don't understand the person or people you're working with. Well, this skill grew in humans very early. The better people were at understanding other people, the more likely they all were to survive. This trait became a survival trait. Before too long, most if not all people were pretty good at sympathizing with other people, understanding other people's thought processes, and using teamwork to get things done. And we were really successful. We spread out of a small place in Africa into the Middle East, then South Asia and even Europe. Before too long, we were the dominant species on the whole planet."

Timmy: "Cool. But what does this have to do with trucks?"
Will: "Stop interrupting and hand me that salvia. Whoa... Anyway, because humans were so smart, we were always trying to learn and understand everything around us. The problem, though, was that we didn't have thousands of years of science to built on like we do today. There's no way a hunter-gatherer from 8,000 B.C. could understand that the sun was made up of a nuclear furnace, burning hydrogen so hot that it turns into helium, nearly 100 million miles away. How could they? Astronomy was still in its infancy, and real nuclear physics wouldn't be along for nearly another 10,000 years. But that didn't stop them from being curious... so they guessed."

Timmy: "Are you okay? You look dizzy and you keep licking the couch."
Will: "Yeah, salvia's a hell of a thing. So how do you think they explained the sun?"

Timmy: "I dunno."
Will: "They did what they'd learned how to do over thousands of years; they gave it a personality so they could relate to it."

Timmy: "But the sun's not a person! It's a fireball!"
Will: "You know that and I know that, but they had no idea. All they saw was a warm ball that rose and fell every day, and they knew it was very, very important. The knew the sun was necessary for warmth, for growing crops, for telling when the harvest season was going to end, and even just telling what time it was during the day. The sun was important! So what happens when you combine these? What happens when you combine a great natural phenomena with a personality?"

Timmy: "God!"
Will: "Basically, yes. They figured that this very, very powerful personality was something to revere, so they started worshiping the sun. And because the sun isn't consistent—some days are hot, some days are cold—they assumed that their behavior could influence the sun god. Appeasing the sun god was thought to have positive results and angering the sun god was thought to have negative results."

Timmy: "But that's not how it works. The sun does what it does because of other reasons."
Will: "You're absolutely right. Because of that, the response to their praise and worship wasn't consistent. You can pray to the sun one day and have it sunny, and you can pray to the sun and have it cold the next. This is when something pretty bad happened. Because people thought they could communicate with the sun, they thought that somehow that gave them a supernatural importance, and people got kinda addicted. The people that were the most addicted became priests and shamans. These were spiritual leaders that were expected to be authorities on what the sun wanted or how the sun thought. As time went on, other natural phenomena were also given personality, and eventually they were just assigning gods to whatever. There were wind gods, and ocean gods, and sky gods. And then people with one set of gods would meet other people with another set of gods. This generally didn't go very well. Inevitably one group would try to convert the other and they'd either succeed or they'd both fight."

Timmy: "That's stupid!"
Will: "Yes. We're still doing it today, though."

Timmy: "Wait, I mean the Christian God."
Will: "I'm getting to that. Hand me that tequila and I'll explain it. Eventually, it was the gods and not the phenomena that were important to people. God wasn't the sun god, Ra, anymore, it was king of the gods Zeus, for example. Zeus did throw lightning, but that wasn't why he was praised anymore. Religion had gone from being the predecessor of science to being something that dominated society. Then came the Jews."

Timmy: "Like John Stewart?"
Will: "Sort of. Around 2000 B.C., a man named Abraham had a vision, like what I just had with the salvia, and thought he saw angels. He was scared, but because he got his wife pregnant he believed it was true. He gathered together old myths that had been handed down from some of his ancestors and then started a religion that we now call Judaism. He passed down the religion to his sons, and they added a bit more, and then their sons added a bit more. Before long—maybe 600-700 years—they had a lot of followers. They were all over the area we now call Israel. Anyway, they ruled for a while, were conquered a few times; normal religion stuff. Somewhere along the way, priests and "prophets" discovered one of the best ways to keep people believing in a religion, they and others found, was to make vague prophesies. These were just guesses about what might happen. If they came true, and they usually did because they were so vague, they could use that as evidence that their faith is real. Judaism had prophecies, too, about a savior coming from their god to usher in some new age. Anyway after a while, according to Christianity, a man came along. His name was Yeshua bin Joseph but most people now just call him Jesus or Jesus Christ."

Timmy: "Jesus Christ!"
Will: "Yes. This part is a bit of a mystery, because we're not really sure if there was a real Jesus or not."

Timmy: "What?! Why?"
Will: "The thing is, they didn't start writing the Bible until like 70 years after Jesus was supposedly born. And the accounts of Jesus’ life aren't consistent going from author to author. The worst part is that evidence outside of the Bible that we have now usually came from the Bible at one point or another or was made up. We'll probably never know for sure if he was real or just a combination of other religious figures."

Timmy: "Fuck!"
Will: "Whoa, watch the language. No more HBO for you."

Timmy: "So god is just people believing in nothing? Wait a second, we already know about how the sun works, though. We know how a lot of things work. Why do people still believe in god?"
Will: "A few reasons. First, when you're really little, you tend to believe what your parents and other adults tell you. It's another survival trait. Back in the caveman days, if your mother told you to stay away from wolves, you had better stay away from wolves. Those kids that didn't listen were probably delicious, and they were eaten before they could reproduce. Another reason has to do with the way people interact. There's something called groupthink. Because humans have done so well when we cooperate, it's become a part of us to want to cooperate, to get along with and agree with others. Unfortunately, sometimes this can go too far, and we'll agree with a group of people even if what you're agreeing with is bad or doesn't make sense. But the big two reasons are easy: the carrot and the stick. Smarter animals, like humans, can be conditioned through rewards and punishments to do and think pretty much anything. In religion, generally there is a promised reward for believing and a stern punishment for not believing. Ask a Christian about hell if you want to know about their punishment. It's basically torture for all of eternity. Pretty scary right?"

Timmy: "So they think you're going to be tortured forever?"
Will: "Most of them do, yes."

Timmy: "Why don't you believe?"
Will: "I'm not afraid of something for which there's no evidence and I'm not motivated by something for which there's no evidence."

Timmy: "Okay, Entourage is on I've gotta go."
Will: Zzzzzzzzzz

Feb 3, 2009

Abstinence Clowns?


The Secret Order of Abstinence Clowns | Amplify

I already knew that abstinence only education was a waste of money.  But this is worse than I had previously imagined.  If you'd like to see what an abstinence only clown looks like, click the above link to see the video.  Hurry, that crazy sexually frustrated clown is a little camera shy and has been pulling his videos from sites (including his own).  Considering that the Obama administrations won't consider this a laughing matter, they have a good reason to not want this silliness advertised.  Of course, that is exactly why I am posting this.  More people need to know what their money is being wasted on.

Feb 2, 2009

Religious politics = No 501 Status


Happy Atheist Forum • View topic - Support of Prop 8 should remove LDS's 501 Status

Far too many religious organizations are getting away with poking their nose into politics without any consequences.  Part of their requirements to maintain 501 status is to not associate themselves with politics by promoting a candidate, supporting the bill or other related activity.  I guess this is just one more thing to add to the list of problems in America.