Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Disputing Dawkins IV

So far I have dealt with Dawkins' attempts to demonstrate that religion is unlikely. I will no longer deal with this at length because Dawkins has nothing more to add on the topic. Dawkins tries to demonstrate that religion could have evolutionary origins. If you want to read a better account of such speculation than Dawkins, you can read Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer. This doesn't really worry me at all, though, and I'm not going to deal with it. Instead, I will move on to Dawkins' discussion of morality. Namely, Dawkins argues for

Religion's Disconnection from Morality

The general direction of Dawkins' arguement is that religion does not generate morality, and therefore appeals to morality are not sufficient to argue in favour of religion. He also claims that major religious traditions are somewhat immoral, and he uses Christianity as an example.

Of course, Dawkins presupposes here that there is no God. Unlike in previous posts, I will not accept Dawkins' premises for the sake of arguement. I will try as much as possible to refrain from religious explanations, but there are particular points where I will demonstrate that Dawkins' logic falls apart if these premises are not adhered to.

To begin, I will look at the following statement: "the only reason that you try to be good is to gain God's approval and reward, or to avoid his disapproval and punishment" (p 226). I'm going to clarify that Dawkins isn't saying that approval-seeking is the only reason people are good; he's more implying that this is the religious sense of ethics. One of his criticisms is that morality of this sense isn't really moral at all, but strictly self-interested. First, I'm going to emphasize that, even if this were true of Western religions, it's not true of all religions--Confucianism, for instance, or traditional Native beliefs do not even suggest that there is a personal reward for goodness, or anyone's approval to seek. Second, the Western religions do not universally support this either. Certainly, there is a sort of popular, media-based belief that Christians are moral in order to please God and receive his blessing by means of a ticket into heaven and perhaps worldly goods. First off, this is not a particularly Protestant view, nor is it even an entirely Catholic view. Islam perhaps espouses this philosophy more, but it is far more nuanced than that. So, what is the Christian view?

The grass-roots theology that I have heard is that we are good as a way of giving thanks to God. We are grateful for our life, for God's love, and for our undeserved salvation. Therefore, as a way of paying back, even though we know it does not come close to matching that which we received, we act in ways we believe please God. Do you see the difference? Dawkins suggest we are cashing in morality tokens for rewards; Christians believe we already have all the rewards and are behaving morally as a response.

Obviously this requires that the practitioners believe in God in order for this to be at all sensible. But note that, if you yourself do not believe in God, this doesn't mean that the Christians are only moral for self-interested purposes. So long as they believe that God has already rewarded them, morality of a non-self-interested nature can follow; the actual existence of God is not necessary for this to be true.

As an aside, the Zoroastrians are good because good behaviour saves the universe from destruction; the Confucians are good because proper relations ensure social harmony; those adopting Native beliefs are good because proper conduct prevents illness in the community and disorder in nature. Again, we see non-selfish motives for morality.

Now, Dawkins does concede that there are more sophisticated moral arguements than the caricatures he provides. Good for him. The question then is, why doesn't he refute them? Because he does not have the time? If this is the case, why did he spend so much time attacking the caricatures? Is it because he does not have the knowledge? Then why doesn't he gain the knowledge? Or it it because he does not know how to refute them? My supposition is that it is for some combination of the three: he hasn't sufficient time, knowledge, or ability. Regardless, he can hardly have considered the case closed (as he seems to do) if he doesn't deal with the objections that he acknowledges exist.

Dawkins also structures an arguement as follows: if you will not follow all of the religious text but will instead only choose those parts you agree with and those parts you don't, then can you really say morality comes from that text? In other words, what are the criteria by which you choose which passages to follow, and why not simply adopt those criteria as your moral standard? Dawkins suggests removing "the middle man," as it were.

This is where Dawkins' atheism comes in. This only makes sense if you already agree that there is no God--or, in this case, Holy Spirit. Christian theology, you see, has an answer for this. St. Paul, in fact, provides it. This is that the Holy Spirit moves us through our conscience, prompting us to do what is right and to avoid what is wrong. This even applies to deciding whether or not it is right to follow particular instances of the Jewish law. Biblical scholars suggest that Paul did not want to make authoritative judgements on certain issues (ie. whether to eat meat from pagan sacrifices) but to tell people to follow the Spirit; he only made these judgements because early Christian communities wanted a firm hand. Obviously many Christians will dispute this claim, but I think the point remains: the criterion used is nonetheless a religious one, so even if you dropped "the middle man," what you have is the Holy Spirit's hand.

Unlike my previous arguement, this one may seem to require religious belief in order to be valid. This is not quite true: it requires that the reader at least concede that a Holy Spirit might exist. This is different from believing in that doctrine. Dawkins, of course, is unwilling to concede this. I hope that by now any readers I have will be more inclined to concede it by dint of my other arguements. Even more importantly, it seems to me that Dawkins is trying to use this idea--that by picking and choosing parts of the Bible, we implicitly indicate that we have a morality not derived from God--to convince people yet again that religious claims are internally contradictory. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit provides an explanation for this problem by positing an entity, 'powered' by God, that helps us make the correct selections. Dawkins' attack on Christian doctrine through implicit concession of a non-religious morality is thus blocked by the Holy Spirit. I understand that other religions have similar features that will provide the same internal explanation. I know that Islam posits an inherent, God-given, human capacity for goodness, among other things.

Dawkins does provide some explanations of how morality could have evolved as an innate capacity in humans. Again, if you want a better account of it than Dawkins provides, you can turn to Boyer. However, I want to emphasize quite clearly that if you're a Christian (or other religious person) who accepts evolutionary biology, you'd generally consider that evolution is guided by the Divine. Therefore, there is nothing inconsistent in saying that we evolved to be moral and that God made us moral. If you're not a religious person who accepts evolutionary biology, then I don't suppose Dawkins' explanations mean anything to you at all. The up-shot is that an evolutionary account of morality does not effectively de-couple morality from religion unless you are already of an atheistic (and closed-mindedly so) mindframe.

Dawkins goes one further in his separation of religion and morality: he actually claims that Jesus' moral wisdom is exclusive to the in-group. Dawkins says, "'Love thy neighbour' didn't mean what we now think it means. It meant only 'Love another Jew'" (253). This is patently ridiculous...but my explanation belongs in a post of my own. Dawkins Delusion has a strong refutation of it, so I may not need to deal with it. I likely will, however, when I have the time.

So, a summary:
1) Dawkins claims that religious 'versions' of morality are not moral, but inherently selfish, because they are a based on a reward-punishment system; while some religions may have such a system, Christianity 'proper' and most other traditions I know of do not; Dawkins' criticism is invalid.
2) Dawkins claims that religions which have sacred texts practitioners 'pick and choose' through must have a criterion for said picking and choosing, and this will do for a moral standard without the sacred text; at least one tradition in which practitioners sometimes pick and choose explains this phenomenon through a particular mechanism called 'the Holy Spirit'; removing the sacred text makes the morality no less religious; Dawkins suggestion is invalid.

Any questions?

To Directory.

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