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Roger Scruton replies to Dawkins

THE SPECTATOR
Thursday 12 January 2006
Dawkins is wrong about God
Roger Scruton

http://www.spectator.co.uk/article_pfv.php?id=7185

Faced with the spectacle of the cruelties perpetrated in the name of faith, Voltaire famously cried ‘Ecrasez l’infâme!’ Scores of enlightened thinkers have followed him, declaring organised religion to be the enemy of mankind, the force that divides the believer from the infidel and thereby both excites and authorises murder. Richard Dawkins, whose TV series The Root of all Evil? concludes next Monday, is the most influential living example of this tradition. And he has embellished it with a striking theory of his own — the theory of the religious ‘meme’. A meme is a mental entity that colonises the brains of people, much as a virus colonises a cell. The meme exploits its host in order to reproduce itself, spreading from brain to brain like meningitis, and killing off the competing powers of rational argument. Like genes and species, memes are Darwinian individuals, whose success or failure depends upon their ability to find the ecological niche that enables reproduction. Such is the nature of ‘gerin oil’, as Dawkins contemptuously describes religion.

This analogical extension of the theory of biological reproduction has a startling quality. It seems to explain the extraordinary survival power of nonsense, and the constant ‘sleep of reason’ that, in Goya’s engraving, ‘calls forth monsters’. Faced with a page of Derrida and knowing that this drivel is being read and reproduced in a thousand American campuses, I have often found myself tempted by the theory of the meme. The page in my hand is clearly the product of a diseased brain, and the disease is massively infectious: Derrida admitted as much when he referred to the ‘deconstructive virus’.

All the same, I am not entirely persuaded by this extension by analogy of genetics. The theory that ideas have a disposition to propagate themselves by appropriating energy from the brains that harbour them recalls Molière’s medical expert (Le Malade imaginaire) who explained the fact that opium induces sleep by referring to its virtus dormitiva (the ability to cause sleep). It only begins to look like an explanation when we read back into the alleged cause the distinguishing features of the effect, by imagining ideas as entities whose existence depends, as genes and species do, on reproduction.

Nevertheless, let us grant Dawkins his stab at a theory. We should still remember that not every dependent organism destroys its host. In addition to parasites there are symbionts and mutualists — invaders that either do not impede or positively amplify their host’s reproductive chances. And which is religion? Why has religion survived, if it has conferred no benefit on its adepts? And what happens to societies that have been vaccinated against the infection — Soviet society, for instance, or Nazi Germany — do they experience a gain in reproductive potential? Clearly, a lot more research is needed if we are to come down firmly on the side of mass vaccination rather than (my preferred option) lending support to the religion that seems most suited to temper our belligerent instincts, and which, in doing so, asks us to forgive those who trespass against us and humbly atone for our faults.

So there are bad memes and good memes. Consider mathematics. This propagates itself through human brains because it is true; people entirely without maths — who cannot count, subtract or multiply — don’t have children, for the simple reason that they make fatal mistakes before they get there. Maths is a real mutualist. Of course the same is not true of bad maths; but bad maths doesn’t survive, precisely because it destroys the brains in which it takes up residence.

Maybe religion is to this extent like maths: that its survival has something to do with its truth. Of course it is not the literal truth, nor the whole truth. Indeed, the truth of a religion lies less in what is revealed in its doctrines than in what is concealed in its mysteries. Religions do not reveal their meaning directly because they cannot do so; their meaning has to be earned by worship and prayer, and by a life of quiet obedience. Nevertheless truths that are hidden are still truths; and maybe we can be guided by them only if they are hidden, just as we are guided by the sun only if we do not look at it. The direct encounter with religious truth would be like Semele’s encounter with Zeus, a sudden conflagration.

To Dawkins that idea of a purely religious truth is hogwash. The mysteries of religion, he will say, exist in order to forbid all questioning, so giving religion the edge over science in the struggle for survival. In any case, why are there so many competitors among religions, if they are competing for the truth? Shouldn’t the false ones have fallen by the wayside, like refuted theories in science? And how does religion improve the human spirit, when it seems to authorise the crimes now committed each day by Islamists, and which are in turn no more than a shadow of the crimes that were spread across Europe by the Thirty Years War?

Those are big questions, not to be solved by a TV programme, so here in outline are my answers. Religions survive and flourish because they are a call to membership — they provide customs, beliefs and rituals that unite the generations in a shared way of life, and implant the seeds of mutual respect. Like every form of social life, they are inflamed at the edges, where they compete for territory with other faiths. To blame religion for the wars conducted in its name, however, is like blaming love for the Trojan war. All human motives, even the most noble, will feed the flames of conflict when subsumed by the ‘territorial imperative’ — this too Darwin teaches us, and Dawkins surely must have noticed it. Take religion away, as the Nazis and the communists did, and you do nothing to suppress the pursuit of Lebensraum. You simply remove the principal source of mercy in the ordinary human heart and so make war pitiless; atheism found its proof at Stalingrad.

There is a tendency, fed by the sensationalism of television, to judge all human institutions by their behaviour in times of conflict. Religion, like patriotism, gets a bad press among those for whom war is the one human reality, the one occasion when the Other in all of us is noticeable. But the real test of a human institution is in peacetime. Peace is boring, quotidian, and also rotten television. But you can learn about it from books. Those nurtured in the Christian faith know that Christianity’s ability to maintain peace in the world around us reflects its gift of peace to the world within. In a Christian society there is no need for Asbos, and in the world after religion those Asbos will do no good — they are a last desperate attempt to save us from the effects of godlessness, and the attempt is doomed.

Muslims say similar things, and so do Jews. So who possesses the truth, and how would you know? Well, we don’t know, nor do we need to know. All faith depends on revelation, and the proof of the revelation is in the peace that it brings. Rational argument can get us just so far, in raising the monotheistic faiths above the muddled world of superstition. It can help us to understand the real difference between a faith that commands us to forgive our enemies, and one that commands us to slaughter them. But the leap of faith itself — this placing of your life at God’s service — is a leap over reason’s edge. This does not make it irrational, any more than falling in love is irrational. On the contrary, it is the heart’s submission to an ideal, and a bid for the love, peace and forgiveness that Dawkins too is seeking, since he, like the rest of us, was made in just that way.

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45 Responses to Roger Scruton replies to Dawkins

  1. Excellent article. All Dawkins supporters should read it. It provides a positive and much more realistic look at why the faithful are faithful to those without faith (myself, as an agnostic, included).

  2. “Take religion away, as the Nazis …..did”
    That’s actually far from the truth. In fact, Hitler believed he was on a mission from God to rid the world of the Jews (his interpretation of scripture.)

    “Before lunch the schoolchildren of Germany were required to recite an invocation which began: “Fuhrer, my Fuhrer, bequeathed to me by the Lord, . . .”

    “During Hitler’s fiftieth birthday celebration, special votive masses were held in every German church “to implore God’s blessing upon Fuhrer and people,” and the Bishop of Mainz called upon Catholics in his diocese to pray specifically for “the Fuhrer and Chancellor, the inspirer, enlarger and protector of the Reich.” The Pope did not fail to send his congratulations.”

    “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Saviour as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by only a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they are and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love, as a Christian and as a man, I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord rose at last in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was the fight for the world against the Jewish poison.” –Adolf Hitler

    “The Pope’s attitude was not at all vague. While taking no definite stand on the German invasion (of the Soviet Union) he made it clear that he backed the Nazi fight against Jewish Bolshevism, describing it as “high-minded gallantry in defense of Christian culture.”

    “”By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord,” Hitler declared in Mein Kampf.”

    Read more here:
    http://www.ffrf.org/fttoday/19.....caust.html

    While I do agree that you can’t blame religion for the massacres, for the rape, for the death and destruction accosted in it’s name you also can’t make a competent case that Nazi Germany was atheistic.
    Many, many, many atheists in Communist Russia lost their lives trying to help the Jews. Love, compassion and moral values transcend religion and goes to the heart of existence: we help each other, because we want humanity to survive.

  3. Heres something that his supporters maybe shouldn’t read… surprisingly its from the Guardian.

    Here are some pithy quotes:

    ‘On Monday, it’s Richard Dawkins’s turn (yet again) to take up the cudgels against religious faith in a two-part Channel 4 programme, The Root of All Evil? His voice is one of the loudest in an increasingly shrill chorus of atheist humanists; something has got them badly rattled…’

    ‘Dawkins seems to want to magic religion away. It’s a silly delusion comparable to one of another great atheist humanist thinker, JS Mill. He wanted to magic away another inescapable part of human experience – sex; using not dissimilar arguments to Dawkins’s, he pointed out the violence and suffering caused by sexual desire, and dreamt of a day when all human beings would no longer be infantilised by the need for sexual gratification, and an alternative way would be found to reproduce the human species. As true of Mill as it is of Dawkins: dream on.’

    Read it all at http://www.guardian.co.uk/Colu.....35,00.html

  4. M J: http://homepages.paradise.net......itler.html

    Now whether or not those quotes from private conversations are true are another matter.

  5. M J : Here’s a blog that discusses Hitler’s relationship to Christianity. Apparently someone at Rutgers University has obtained a bunch of documents seized from the Nazi in connection with the Nuremberg war crimes trials that shed light on the Nazi’s plan to “destroy Christianity”. Apparently, Hitler sometimes made public statements in support of Christianity, but only as a cynical, political expedient. http://boundless.org/2001/regu.....00541.html

  6. Reminds me of the following parallel, courtesy of Dr. Dembski (Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, p. 294, note 3):

    Richard Dawkins: “I think a case can be made that faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” (“Is Science a Religion?” The Humanist 57 [January/February 1997]: 26).

    Adolf Hitler: “The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light, and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity,” quoted from Hitler’s Table Talk (1941-1943), in Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, p. 672.

  7. Hitler used Christianity in an expedient manner. He did not believe the Bible, and in fact referred to Biblical Christianity as “Jew Myth”. He came up with the idea of “Positive Christianity” which is remarkably similar in character to what the liberals are trying to do with Christianity in the US. That is, Christianity is great for as far as it aligns with our social causes, but if you believe something in Christianity which is against our social cause, we will alienate you for believing in stupid, outdated myths instead of the “new order”. The specifics of the social movement have changed, but not the political method of manipulating Christians away from Biblical Christianity into one that is just a restatement of the current social movement’s goals in “Jesus” terms.

  8. “The Root of all Evil” is a pretty inflammatory title for the series. Religion is not the root of all evil, nor is the love of money, as the Bible claims.

    I wonder if they chose the title to generate controversy and attract viewers. It’s hard to imagine Richard Dawkins making a statement which can so easily be refuted.

  9. antg’s quote from the Guardian about Dawkins wanting to ‘magic’ relgion away is well targeted. Religion is not going to disappear. The best we can hope for is to replace the dogmatic and closed-minded religions with others that accept the findings of science and don’t interpret their scriptures literally.

    The Dalai Lama recently said that if Buddhism and science came into conflict, Buddhism would have to change. I wish other religious leaders would adopt this enlightened attitude.

  10. Hitler was atheistic or something similar. He did like old German pagan mythology though. So that comment stands.

    The only thing I would say is that you can’t believe in morality in any meaningful way and be an atheist, if you are going to be consistent. Dawkins shows, by his very words and actions, that he is not a consistent atheist. And frankly, I’ve never met a consistent atheist.

    A consistent atheist wouldn’t care about anything really b/c it is just atoms bumping around.

  11. geoffrobinson

    “A consistent atheist wouldn’t care about anything really b/c it is just atoms bumping around.”

    You think empathy and compassion flows from a belief in God? That’s just SO wrong.

    A consistent theist wouldn’t care about anything really b/c the spirit lives on after the body dies. Logically this diminishes the value of life on earth. No wonder theists are so able to participate in wars and mass killing. Death is just a transition to a better life right? So killing someone is really just doing them a favor.

  12. People can be good and they can be evil. There are good and evil theists. There are good and evil atheists. There’s no correlation. Each pointing to the other and saying you’re evil is stupid and destructive. Stop it.

  13. “You think empathy and compassion flows from a belief in God?”

    It’s not that empathy and compassion flows from a belief in God, it’s that if you take atheism to its logical conclusion you would find that empathy and compassion are irrelevant. You may or may not have them, but they wouldn’t in any way indicate a morality.

    “A consistent theist wouldn’t care about anything really b/c the spirit lives on after the body dies.”

    Incorrect. The most important thing to a theist is what God says, not whether or not the spirit lives on (in fact, if you believe in hell, then what you do here is almost _more_ important than what you do in the afterlife).

    “People can be good and they can be evil. There are good and evil theists. There are good and evil atheists.”

    Noone disagrees with this.

    “There’s no correlation. Each pointing to the other and saying you’re evil is stupid and destructive.”

    The point is that talking in any substantive way about morality is completely inconsistent with pure atheism. You can have preferences. A lot of people can share preferences. But the bridge to morality is one of authority. The only way that a preference could become morality is if might made right. So, does might make right? If not, then how does one atheistically determine a public morality, as opposed to a preference that is simply validated by being close to the preferences of theists?

  14. MJ

    “Love, compassion and moral values transcend religion and goes to the heart of existence: we help each other, because we want humanity to survive.”

    Not just humanity and not just survival. It’s because we want justice. Some evil sob whom I’d like to personally administer some justice to if I knew who it was abandoned 7 puppies on my rural summer home to die a miserable death a few weeks ago. I found the poor malnourished things and took them into my home in the city. It’s been quite an ordeal, they’re big German Shepherd puppies, but lavished with love and care they are now healthy, happy, and have good homes waiting for them.

    Did I do this because of God? No. But I thank God that He was kind enough to put these puppies in my path where they’d find a bit of justice in this cruel world. I’ve been doing these kinds of things my entire life and for a good portion of that life I was an atheist. I do it because it’s the right thing to do, God or no God. Right and wrong don’t flow from scriptures. Right flows from the hearts of good people and wrong flows from the hearts of bad people.

  15. “The most important thing to a theist is what God says”

    Which God would that be? There’s so many different ones saying different things to different people I have a difficult time keeping track of all of them…

  16. “But the bridge to morality is one of authority.”

    The authority of deities who speak through men? What makes you so sure the deities are merely an invention of men seeking the sanction of a higher authority to further their own? History is littered with the remains of kings and pharoahs and prophets and shamen and etcetera who’ve claimed their right to rule and the way they rule is through through divine providence. I don’t believe a single one of them has anything remotely divine about them, although many may have sincerely believed that the voice in their head is a deity’s.

  17. Davescot said:
    “I do it because it’s the right thing to do, God or no God. Right and wrong don’t flow from scriptures. Right flows from the hearts of good people and wrong flows from the hearts of bad people.”

    I completely agree with you. I have no time for illogical arguments such as: “take atheism to its logical conclusion you would find that empathy and compassion are irrelevant.”
    To me, that just seems like another argument for “you can’t have morals without god (small g, since there are so many different interpretations of him)”
    As you said, wrong flows from the heart of bad people. The only difference is the justification they use for doing their wrong.
    Example:
    I am hungry and have no money. So I kill my neighbour and take his food. My reasoning is that: to sustain myself, I must eat. I feel that I am justified.

    A Christian is hungry and has no money. He kills his neighbour and takes his food. His reasoning is: because God made him the chosen, he is better than his neighbour and his neighbour is undeserving of God’s grace. He feels he is justified.

    Once again, religion isn’t the problem, it’s bad people using religion as the justification for their bad deeds.

  18. johnnyb, exellent notion.

    Regarding Dawkins and his anti-theistic propaganda, it is hardly surprising that that just about no one in the scientific world pays much attention to his anti-intellectual theory of the religious “meme”. But as Roger Scruton said: “let us grant Dawkins his stab at a theory” and see if there is atheistic “meme” lurking somwhere in Dawkins genes.

  19. DaveScot said:

    People can be good and they can be evil. There are good and evil theists. There are good and evil atheists. There’s no correlation.

    If there is no absolute definition of good, then good is a relative term, by definition. That makes good subjective. You say: there are good people, but, that’s the same as saying there are xxxx people, the word has no ultimate meaning:

    I saw the following quote in the name of Bertrand Russell, could not find the source, but did find an article online that seemed to say the same thing, in more words:

    “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values, but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.”

    So, on the one hand, he doesn’t like it (but that could be his evolutionary programming that decided that), but *logically* there really are no ethical values, barring some absolute. What we get is “majority rule”, and hope the majority is inline with our personal subjective preferences. But good, bad and every other ethical term, in this view, are ultimately meaningless.

    This makes me say, as apparently you have rejected, that I’m willing to keep searching for that “absolute” truth. Maybe Abraham was smarter than me? Probably not smarter than you, but would you give him a *little* credit?

  20. DaveScot, please lets not go into Theological discussion. I am afraid we’ll end nowhere :-)

  21. The notion that unbelievers cannot find a rational basis for morality is itself contrary to the Bible. See Romans 2:14-15 about “the law written on their hearts.”

    Of course there are good and bad religious believers and good and bad non-believers. What distinguishes them is the manner in which they are bad, and that is a function of their philosophy. Bad Christians don’t act the same way as bad Nazis. For example, bad Christians persecuted Jews for denying the true faith and killing Christ. But the Jew at least had the option of saving himself from persecution by converting to the True Faith. The Nazi persecution of Jews, on the other hand, was based on an allegedly scientific racial theory that Jewish blood was polluting the pure blood of Aryans. The complete extermination of Jews was the only (final) solution… thus the creation of death factories, an idea that never would have occurred to a bad Christian of, say, France in 1400. The bad Christian might have beat up the Jew, or kicked him out of the country, but the mass extermination of Jews for biological reasons just isn’t something that would find its way into the Christian imagination (insofar as it is Christian. I know many German Christians became Nazis.) That’s why many Jews refused to believe in the existence of death camps even after many of their friends disappeared. It was beyond their imagination, and beyond their experience of persecution by Christians.

    The reason the death toll in the 20th century was many, many times that of previous centuries isn’t because atheists or nonbelievers are better or worse than believers. It’s because the 20th century saw the rise of philosophies that made such horrors imaginatively possible. The other big one besides Fascism was Communism, which justified mass murder as the necessary means to a new and revolutionary society.

    Of course people have always done bad things in the name of religion. Dawkins thinks that by getting rid of religion, you get rid of the bad things. Well, you do get rid of those particular bad things, but you may very well end up replacing them with other bad things far more destructive… at least that’s the lesson that the millions of corpses from the 20th century seem to be teaching.

    Dave T.

  22. Again, Dave, the issue is consistency. I did not argue that there was a morality, or that it is necessarily the God in the Bible whose morality that we would be accountable to (I believe both of those things, but they were not part of my argument). The question is, what elevates something beyond preference to morality, and how is it binding on people who disagree, especially if the notions of “people” and “preferences” are just happenstance interactions of matter anyway? Your response seems to be somewhere along the lines of “but how do I know which god to choose”. My point was not about choosing X over Y, it is about once you choose X or Y, what are the implications? The choice of atheism has clear implications as to the view of morality. It’s just that most atheists wish it not to be so, and basically pretend otherwise (in fact, many atheistic ethicists have explicitly said as much).

    This is also why I qualified by saying “pure atheism”. Many people who claim to be atheists are in fact pantheists or other sorts of non-mono-theists, but just don’t know the difference. Perhaps you are not an atheist but instead a pantheist?

    taciturnus — I agree that the law is written on their hearts. That is why atheists have so much trouble admitting to what they’ve signed into. However, that doesn’t change the fact that the logical conclusion of atheism is the replacement of morality with preference.

  23. JohnnyB,

    You seem to be conflating materialism with atheism. It may be that materialism undermines rational morality, but you don’t have to be a materialist to be an atheist. As an example of rational ethics without both God and materialism, see Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

    By the way, another consequence of your argument is that it is never possible for a Christian to argue with an unbeliever that it is better to be a Christian than not. Since the non-believer has no rational foundation for the notions of “good” and “evil”, neither does he have a rational foundation for the notion of “better”, which depends on the notions of good and evil. So the non-believer must first accept Christianity for the conversion argument to be rationally compelling, at which point it is, of course, unnecessary.

    That is the reason St. Paul made it clear that pagans could understand the nature of good and evil independent of Christian belief. Only by allowing that pagans could understand that some things are truly better than others could he stand up in the Roman forums and argue that it is better to be Christian than not.

    cheers,
    Dave T.

  24. Taciturns and JohnnyB,

    I liked your posts very much. It was such a breath of fresh air to see someone defending Theism after a couple of Christians had been banned from this blog site. God bless

  25. Here’s a link to a half-hour BBC radio interview with Richard Dawkins regarding his TV series:

    http://tinyurl.com/9wsug

    Some interesting moments:
    1) an icy conversation between Dawkins and Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals and pastor of a megachurch in Colorado Springs.
    2) Dawkins makes clear that despite the titel of the TV series, he does not believe that religion is the root of all evil.
    3) Dawkins describes his admiration for Jesus as a moral exemplar (but not as God, of course).

  26. JohnnyB and Dave T,

    The notion of law “written on our hearts” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. If the law were truly written on our hearts, people might choose to disobey, but there would be no honest disputes over what is right or wrong. The righteous indignation on both sides of the Terry Schiavo case shows that morality is very much, and quite honestly, under dispute in America. The disputes among proponents of utilitarianism, deontology, and virtue ethics show this as well.

    Johnny,
    The idea that morality depends on the authority of God is also suspect. The very fact that the following sentence is intelligible shows this:

    “If God commands us to do evil, we should not obey him.”

    We understand that morality is not simply defined as “what God wants us to do”. Theists tend to believe that everything God does is good, not because it is good by definition, but because God is good and therefore chooses the good over the bad.

  27. Bradcliffe,

    I don’t understand your position. Do you think people can have genuine moral knowledge or can’t they? In the first part of your last post, you seem to argue from the fact of moral disagreement to the conclusion that people have no moral knowledge at all. In the second part, you use the phrase “we understand that morality…”, as though “we” do in fact understand morality after all.

    Confused,
    Dave T.

  28. I’m pretty confused by all this, DT. Morals are always going to be subject to agreement between individuals. Thus there’s really no such thing as absolute morals. The closest you can get is unanimous consensus amongst some arbitrary number of agreeable individuals. They can claim their knowledge is absolute but it’s still just a claim backed by nothing more than consensus.

  29. Bradcliffe wrote:
    “Do you think people can have genuine moral knowledge or can’t they? In the first part of your last post, you seem to argue from the fact of moral disagreement to the conclusion that people have no moral knowledge at all. In the second part, you use the phrase “we understand that morality…”, as though “we” do in fact understand morality after all.”

    Bradcliffe,
    I think DaveScot got it right. The fact of moral disagreement shows that morals are not absolute. Nevertheless, each of us values his or her own morality, and would therefore not wish to obey a command from God which, if obeyed, would cause us to violate our own morals.

    Woctor

  30. Oops, I just realized my comment should have been directed at taciturnus, not bradcliffe1. Sorry for the confusion.

  31. Dave,

    I’m not sure what your position is. I thought you were arguing earlier that even atheists can have moral knowledge, something I agree with. For instance, when you took care of the abandoned puppies you said you did it because:

    “I do it because it’s the right thing to do, God or no God.”

    This sounds like you are saying that taking care of abandoned puppies is the right thing to do in some absolute sense. I got the same sense when you wrote:

    “People can be good and they can be evil. There are good and evil theists. There are good and evil atheists.”

    This sounds like you are attributing the objective qualities of “good” and “evil” to people. Did I misunderstand these statements? If “good” and “evil” are merely arbitrary subjective preferences, what does it mean to say that people can be both good and evil?

    Dave T.

  32. Woctor,

    I see the existence of moral disagreement as evidence that moral knowledge can transcend mere arbitrary subjective preference. Disagreement is only possible in the light of a more fundamental agreement and only if the disagreement is at least potentially resolvable in terms of common understanding. People don’t argue about whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream tastes better because taste is a mere subjective preference. There is nothing to argue about.

    But every sane person understands certain moral fundamentals: It is better, in general, to know the truth rather than lies; it is, better, in general, to be courageous rather than cowardly; it is better to be wise than foolish, etc. Much of life contains gray areas where the truly right thing to do is obscure; but because we understand certain moral fundamentals, we can argue about them and perhaps make a moral advance. But this moral argument wouldn’t even happen if people did not already share knowledge of moral fundamentals.

    Cheers,
    Dave T.

  33. taciturnus

    Many of my notions of right and wrong are absolutes as far as I’m concerned. Not everyone will agree with me and I can point to no higher authority to back my notions than partial consensus of other people.

    Like I said before, if God carved the ten commandments on the face of the moon where everyone could see them and know no man could have put them there then it would be a lot less open to skepticism than the legend of Moses on Mount Sinai.

    The authors of the Declaration of Independence come as close to absolutes as I can agree with

    We hold these truths to be self-evident

    My emphasis on the qualifier.

  34. How is Dawkin’s idea different from demonic possession? And they call us superstitious!

  35. taciturnus wrote:

    “Disagreement is only possible in the light of a more fundamental agreement and only if the disagreement is at least potentially resolvable in terms of common understanding…”

    The only “more fundamental agreement” necessary to make disagreement possible is shared language: You communicate your view to me, I compare it to my own and find that it differs, therefore we disagree. The disagreement stands whether or not it is potentially resolvable.

    taciturnus continued:

    “But every sane person understands certain moral fundamentals: It is better, in general, to know the truth rather than lies; it is, better, in general, to be courageous rather than cowardly; it is better to be wise than foolish, etc.

    These things are better because they tend to promote our survival, and are therefore valuable in a Darwinian sense. Morality is one of the adaptations that gets our genes into future generations. You’d expect basic commonality between humans on “moral fundamentals” for this reason. You’d also expect people to take their morality very seriously, even considering it “absolute”, because, after all, it often *feels* absolute and instinctive to them.

    Had we been a species which depended less on fighting or hunting, and more on hiding for survival, you can imagine that courage might have been considered a foolish vice rather than a virtue. In confronting enemies you risk injury or death, and you potentially reveal the location of others who are hiding with you.

    On the deeply ingrained nature of morality, consider the research of Jonathan Haidt. He has coined the phrase “moral dumbfounding” to describe actions which many people instinctively consider to be morally wrong, though they cannot explain why. Wiping a toilet with the national flag is one example. Having sex with your sibling is another (assuming that you’ve both been sterilized, so there is no chance of an unwanted pregnancy).

    Gay marriage is a prominent example these days.

    Haidt puts it beautifully:
    “So I think that with morality, we build a castle in the air and then we live in it, but it is a real castle. It has no objective foundation, a foundation outside of our fantasy, but that’s true about money; that’s true about music; that’s true about most of the things that we care about.”

  36. Woctor,

    Religious people are often accused of believing in fairy tales, but I’m afraid your account of the origin of morality is itself a fairy tale, what Stephen Jay Gould called a “just-so” story. There is no evidence that moral notions evolved for the reasons you state.

    But more interesting in your response is that you’ve deployed what I call the “Intellectual Doomsday Machine.” You’ve tried to undermine what many of us think of as fundamental moral intuition by arguing that it was implanted in us by evolution and therefore without rational foundation. But this is true of EVERY fundamental intuition we have – moral, scientific, mathematical and otherwise. All rational thought is based on fundamental, self-evident insights that cannot themselves be justified, because they are the terms in which everything else is justified. They *feel* true to us.
    And if the fundamental moral insights that form the foundation of ethics are undermined by evolution, why not the fundamental insights that form the foundation of math, science, and rational thought in general? It is just as easy for me to make up a “just-so” story about how evolution implanted mathematical notions in our head as it is for you to make up one about ethics. If evolution undermines thought, then it undermines all thought, not merely the thought of ethicists. The evolutionary “Doomsday Machine” blows up your thought as well as mine.

    Cheers,
    Dave T.

  37. Dave,

    I understand your view of morality as consensus. But I’m still puzzled about statements like this:

    “I do it because it’s the right thing to do, God or no God. Right and wrong don’t flow from scriptures. Right flows from the hearts of good people and wrong flows from the hearts of bad people.”

    If morality is merely consensus, then what does it mean to describe people as having good and bad hearts? This sounds like you are describing a moral quality of their being.

    Cheers,
    Dave T.

  38. Morality, in humans, often defies survial and reproduction. Most people would agree it’s better to wait till your married to have sex, and to be with one person in marriage and stay with that person. That’s the moral thing to do. That’s hardly an effecient way to spread genes. Rampant sex parties, which are considered immoral would be a much better idea for survival, spreading more genes, etc. It’s considered immoral, yet people do it- people do things that are immoral all the time, and they often don’t care.

    Running into a house to save a kitten when you’re allergic to kittens is an idiotic thing to do when it comes to your own survival- there are many examples like this that defy the logic of ‘this and this helped us survive.’ Giving your life for a stranger or a kitten would never be an adaptation for survival. It makes no sense.

    As you quoted:

    “So I think that with morality, we build a castle in the air and then we live in it, but it is a real castle. It has no objective foundation, a foundation outside of our fantasy, but that’s true about money; that’s true about music; that’s true about most of the things that we care about.”

    If morality has no objective foundation, nor does ANYTHING that we find imporant, we should live that way. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into imaginary ideas…so, with that in mind, we should remove all governments and all laws tomorrow and start living like the creatures we are- imaginary ethics and morals and all other sorts of disasters.

    If nothing truly has any objective foundation- then there’s absolutely no reason for me to even listen to the quote above…because it’s ultimately based on nothing but an irrational opinion in a world without meaning. Without some objective foundations for thought- how could we do anything? Science itself would be a meaningless and pointless endeavor.

  39. Also- I know of NO ONE who truly believes the above. I’ve never met anyone in my life who refuses to judge morality. If they truly believed morality was some adaptation, they’d never call another person a liar, they’d never complain about rudeness, they’d never get upset at someone who cuts in front of them in line, they’d never allow themselves to show any emotions, if all is based on meaningless adaptations built to fool us into thinking these things are genuine, objective, etc.

    That’s the problem with this worldview- NO ONE could ever possibly follow it fully. They will make the claim like the quote above, then they’ll turn around and make an absolute objective statement about a moral or ethical issue.

  40. Science is not a belief system, but a method and a body of knowledge. Dawkins’ materialistic belief system is nothing but a superstitious relation to science.

  41. taciturnus,

    There is a large and growing body of evidence for the thesis that morals have an evolutionary basis. Perhaps we can take up the topic later, but it is not essential for making my immediate points, so I’ll leave it for now.

    The “Intellectual Doomsday Machine” you invoke is as much a problem for you as it is for me. We both come into this world depending on our minds to make sense of things. We don’t know for sure that we can depend on our basic reasoning machinery. Positing a soul or some other transcendent basis for cognition doesn’t help, because we have no reason a priori to assume that a soul is inherently reliable cognitively. And besides, we have no reason to posit a soul, because any reasoning we use to arrive at the necessity for a soul is itself suspect.

    Rather than giving up or thrashing about randomly, we both assume that we can at least trust our basic perceptions, logic, and reasoning. As we accumulate knowledge and build up a model of the world we’re in, our confidence grows, because things make sense. The model we’ve built up helps us make accurate predictions about the world, so we come to trust our reasoning and the model itself. We become aware of our own cognitive limitations and learn to double-check ourselves against ourselves and others.

    You wrote:

    “It is just as easy for me to make up a “just-so” story about how evolution implanted mathematical notions in our head as it is for you to make up one about ethics.”

    I would reply that it’s at least as reasonable to assert that natural selection would produce human reason that’s basically (but not perfectly) reliable as to assert that human reason is reliable because God created it and chose to make it reliable. In both cases, faulty reasoning in areas germane to survival and reproduction would be penalized by natural selection. Ironically, the only “world” in which faulty reasoning would persist over time would be one where God created it and intervened to protect it from the penalties imposed by natural selection.

    You asked DaveScot:

    “If morality is merely consensus, then what does it mean to describe people as having good and bad hearts? This sounds like you are describing a moral quality of their being.”

    Dave can certainly answer for himself, but my answer to that question is that we hold people to be good or bad to the extent that they conform to our morality, which is usually quite consonant with the consensus morality.

  42. jboze3131 wrote:

    “Running into a house to save a kitten when you’re allergic to kittens is an idiotic thing to do when it comes to your own survival- there are many examples like this that defy the logic of ‘this and this helped us survive.’ Giving your life for a stranger or a kitten would never be an adaptation for survival.”

    jboze,
    An adaptation does not have be helpful 100% of the time to be preserved in the population. Witness the sickle-cell anemia gene.

    You continued:

    “If they truly believed morality was some adaptation, they’d never call another person a liar, they’d never complain about rudeness, they’d never get upset at someone who cuts in front of them in line, they’d never allow themselves to show any emotions, if all is based on meaningless adaptations built to fool us into thinking these things are genuine, objective, etc.”

    If someone lies to me, is rude to me, or cuts in front of me, my life is worse. My wouldn’t I complain? “Truly believing” that morality is an adaptation does not mean that all of these behaviors suddenly become acceptable to me.

  43. Woctor,

    I haven’t argued for the existence of the soul or anything else. My argument is against anyone who thinks they can call the validity of reason into doubt (whether from religious or secular principles), then posit a theory that somehow overcomes that doubt is kidding himself. Once reason is called into doubt, that doubt can never be overcome because reason itself must be used to overcome it, the very thing in question.

    JohnnyB did it from a religious perspective by casting the moral knowledge of atheists into doubt, then calling on God to overcome that doubt. You’ve done it from a secular perspective by using evolution to call into doubt fundamental moral intuitions, then calling on a “just-so” to explain moral intuition. I see you and JohnnyB as making the same mistake, which is to call into doubt our fundamental intuitions. Once you’ve done that there is no getting out.

    You’ve stated my point exactly:

    “Rather than giving up or thrashing about randomly, we both assume that we can at least trust our basic perceptions, logic, and reasoning.”

    And basic moral knowledge is part of our basic perceptions. There are disputed cases and gray areas, of course, as there are in anything (even science), but there are fundamental moral axioms that every sane, healthy person knows. Every sane person knows that it is better to be a volunteer in a soup kitchen than an axe murderer, and they know it self-evidently. If we are going to doubt that intuition, and say that our preference for the volunteer over the axe murderer is merely a feeling implanted in us by evolution, then we need to ask ourselves the question: Do I feel more certain that 1+1=2 or that I shouldn’t be an axe murderer? If I can call into doubt the latter intuition, why not the former? In fact, it is silly to doubt either one. But if you are going to doubt one, then you need to explain why you don’t doubt both of them… I don’t doubt either one.

    Cheers,
    Dave T.

  44. woctor,

    you wrote:

    “which is usually quite consonant with the consensus morality.”

    Right. And, the consensus morality over the last 100 years or so (probably much less) has
    now either totally validated, or permits at least on the discussion table, the following things:

    -) euthanasia of older people and very young (based on “quality of life”(Peter I Singer; chair of ethics at Princeton) [and see practice in Netherlands, where it's gone past discussion to decriminalization]
    -) bestiality (Peter Singer again)
    -) loss of concept of “sanctity of life” within 35 years (based on economics and technology) (Peter Singer)
    -) Homosexual marriage (even the Greeks who embraced such a culture never “validated” w/ a ceremony)
    -) “love” relationships between adults and children (psych journals)
    -) defence of “natural” disposition toward rape (psych journals)
    -) defence of “natural” disposition toward infidelity (see article posted on this blog today)

    (others can help me with this list if they like, these are just the things that have come into
    my thoughts in 5 minutes)

    so, what’s left? with the descision about “quality of life” being up to (who exactly?), which I’m sure will be eaten away at both ends of the spectrum,and in the middle as well (mental retardation, etc) it’s hard to come up with a list of things, including what used to be referred to as murder, that won’t soon be considered “the consensus morality”

    I know this is just one of those falacious “slipery slope” arguments, but the majority of this stuff was not open to public discussion until quite recently, and much of it is currently coming to pass

    So, those who subscribe to consensus morality, is this really what you’re “signing up to”?

  45. It is interesting to note that many here seem to want to say that Hitler was atheist (therefore Dawkins is evil) or that Hitler was Christian (therefore Christians are evil) when actually the picture that emerges is that Hitler, although thinking it myth, wanted to maintain Christianity as an excellent way of maintaining social integrity (and control). This is surprisingly close to what Scruton is arguing (Scruton’s obvious playing with facts notwithstanding, e.g. Nazi Germany was unequivocally not atheist whatever its leaders may have thought, it is quite clear that Scruton if pushed would admit that God doesn’t really exist, well not really really).

    Scruton likes to make things up that serve his organicist conservative agenda (c.f. The West and the Rest). The similarities between NeoCon, Scruton and Nazi ideology are considerable…

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