Monday, August 25, 2008

The Consequences of a Belief

An anonymous comment on my last post, "Rude? What makes some theists think atheists are rude?" took strong exception to an Op-Ed I also criticized:

It's simultaneously sad and insulting that the author of the Op-Ed isn't aware that most "religious" hospitals and aid agencies are primarily funded by secular money. The vast majority of funding for Catholic hospitals comes from government and private donations, not from the Vatican.

I'm really, really getting sick of the "without religion there are no morals/ethics and atheists don't have any interest in taking care of anyone besides themselves". Tell that to the Swiss, or Sweden, or Norway, or for that matter just about any country in Europe that has both higher standards of living and higher levels of "non-belief" than the US.

The Swiss? I can see Sweden and Norway, but I thought Switzerland was one of the more religious countries in Europe.

But I do understand the point and I'm sick of it too. There is a heavily touted religious assumption that turning away from God will result in all kinds of societal ills. So, if that were true, you'd expect the least religious nations to be riddled with crime, poverty and other problems while the more religious nations would be more well behaved. However, when actually compared, (as Phil Zuckerman reports here), it turned out that highly irreligious countries, those with the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics, were among the most stable, peaceful, free, wealthy, and healthy societies. And the most religious nations were among the most unstable, violent, oppressive, poor, and destitute.

Well, sort of, one actually has to distinguish between totalitarian nations where so called "atheism" is forced upon an unwilling population, like in North Korea, China and some former Soviet states, and open, democratic nations where atheism grew up naturally among a well-educated population, as in Sweden, the Netherlands and Japan. Corruption and economic stagnation do plague many former Soviet states.

Steven Pinker's, "A History of Violence," also notes that in spite of the great mass killings of two world wars, of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, that you had better chances of living long and dying peacefully, rather than dying violently while young, in the 20th century than you did in any century previously.

However, it is unfair to take a complex issue like the connection between moral behavior and religion and just site evidence that supports our view. Some famous atheists skew the argument so that it dodges certain aspects of the question. For example, Christopher Hitchens here:

Early in his talk Hitchens notes how he was asked, "where would your morals come from if there was no God?" To underline the question he uses a pseudo-quote from Dostoevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" that goes: "If God does not exist, everything is permitted."

Hitchens has two arguments against this assertion, first, he points out that it is base and insulting to suggest that people wouldn't be moral without the rewards and punishments offered by religion. We are smart enough to reason out what kind of rules we need in order to work together and good enough to abide with them without gods peeking into our every thought punishing us for them. Secondly, he points out that it's stupid to think that when Moses led the Israelites across the desert to Mount Sinai he would then, for the first time, tell them that rape, murder, perjury and theft were bad things when he handed down the commandments. No, says Hitchens, they would never have gotten to Mount Sinai if they didn't know those were bad things. Human solidarity requires it of us, we can't make a functional society without such laws.

On the first point, it may indeed be base and insulting to suggest that people need religious rewards and punishments in order to behave ethically, but that doesn't mean that for certain people it isn't true. I've gotten into arguments where Christians actually brag about how base they are, saying if not for God they would be stealing and killing. I doubt that, but in some cases it might be true. How do you argue with it? Some people are base and deserve to be insulted. We certainly think we need police, courts and enforced laws, don't we? Those are just Earthly punishments and we're base enough to need them. So, if you can con a few shmucks into fearing an all powerful, all seeing, fantasy judge in the sky you just might get a little more moral behavior out of certain people.

On the second point, while it's true that almost all of the ten commandments existed before Moses in other codes of law, in Egyptian codes of law, and Egypt is where Moses and the Israelites supposedly came from, they still had religious origins. The earliest known such code of laws was The Code Of Hammurabi, written during the birth of Mesopotamia and they not only predate the Ten Commandments they predate the Dynasties of Egypt, long before Moses supposedly brought the Commandments down from Mt. Sinai.

So, while Hitchens' argument works against Christians, Muslims and Jews, it's not an argument against the use of general religious rewards and punishments to help enforce morality. Even The Code Of Hammurabi was handed down by a sun-god. Of course, a significant difference is that the Hammurabi had 282 commandments and perhaps, if God wanted future Christians to remember his, he added something significant by shortening the list. Though he apparently failed at making them memorable, as Stephen Colbert demonstrates here:

There are other lines of evidence to support the pro-religion argument where it concerns morality, for example, on Jonah Lehrer's blog I found "Free Will and Ethics," a post about how believing in free-will can affect our ethical behavior. It's about Kathleen D. Vohs' and Jonathan W. Schooler's experiment that is supposed to establish that "Encouraging a Belief in Determinism Increases Cheating."

While I think this study is open to some criticism and should be replicated by other experimenters, I will for the sake of argument, if I may, take it at face value. Suppose it's true. Does it mean society would be better off not knowing the truth about free-will if it really is something of an illusion? To say that is to suggest that lying to people is a good idea because it will make them more honest which is a bit of a paradox. The study says almost nothing about whether we have "free-will" or not, whatever that actually means. And what can it mean if it changes your ethical behavior? (Think about that a moment, why would believing in free-will make you more moral?)

Oddly, the statements that they used in one experiment to manipulate beliefs about free-will seem to argue against free-will. They included statements such as, "I am able to override the genetic and environmental factors that sometimes influence my behavior," which is an environmental factor designed to influence their behavior -- and it worked! (In fact, that they found it so easy to manipulate undergraduate behavior with a few statements about free-will is the most shocking result of the study for me. It means most undergrads haven't made up their minds about free-will already.) The statement, "avoiding temptation requires that I exert my free will" also incorporates a vaguely religious concept, "temptation."

The determinism statements that participants read included, "A belief in free will contradicts the known fact that the universe is governed by lawful principles of science," and "ultimately, we are biological computers - designed by evolution, built through genetics, and programmed by the environment," simply included no moral or ethical overtones at all. They accomplish a couple things morally, I think, they undermine the concept of the "policeman in your head" that religion gives people and they also undermined the idea about being ultimately responsible for our behavior.

What's left out of those "determinism" supporting statements is the idea that while we are not "ultimately responsible" for a behavior in some metaphysical or religious sense, we still have other kinds of responsibilities, like social responsibility, which still exists in a deterministic world. However, does that kind of social responsibility really preclude us from taking money from seeming idiots who make it seem easy to cheat them out of a few bucks? Are the social consequences that dire?

Maybe this study only indicates that American morality is too dependent on religious foundations and not rooted enough in critical thinking about ethics and instilling children with a sense of social responsibility. (I wonder if college and high school courses critical in thinking about ethics and social responsibility might help pave the way towards a more atheistic society on a couple levels - it might be a good stealth move.) Would we get different results if the study were done in Sweden where the ethical foundations might be shifting or already different? Can you even get people to behave ethically with only some lessons in critical thinking about ethics? Can you instill social responsibility in people after they know free-will is an illusion? Those questions still remain unaddressed, but I suspect that you might use a discussion of ethics and social responsibility to get the same effects that talk about free-will and temptation do. Let's see that experiment.

Another argument that was used against Hitchens was this one from Chris Hedges:

Chris Hedges makes a good point, even though he misses Hitchens' point badly. Hedges is right to say that you can't get rid of "evil" by abolishing religion. However, "religion" as Hitchens defines it, not as Hedges does, seems to contribute something uniquely bad to the human condition. It results in things like the "Imaginary Virtues" discussed over at Daylight Atheism, and the ethical misdirection, in "'People of Faith': Religion as Ethical Misdirection," discussed by Greta Christina. Religious morality isn't about how people can best live and work together for everyone's gain, it's about doing what God says no matter what effect it has on others. At the extreme end of that you wind up with the thinking of future toddler chopper Vox Day who would murder children if God ordered it. Or you might even wind up with something worse than Vox Day, like this:

It's not just Muslims with crazy jihadist ideas, Joel's Army is fighting to bring about the millennial reign of Christ. It's because of people like Vox Day and the Muslim convert that Plato invented the Euthyphro dilemma: "Is what is moral commanded by God because it is moral, or is it moral because it is commanded by God?"

Even when religion isn't so extreme its adherents will accept arbitrary religious edicts that offer no real benefit to any human being and give them the same weight as they do the ones that benefit people. However, and in spite of all the news stories about Catholic priests buggering kids and people like Ted Haggard and Larry Craig, the religious policeman in the heads of many believers probably does add some threat and promise to their moral behavior that you don't get from secular law enforcement and mere knowledge about ethics. It might have some positive effects that will be lost if our society becomes less religious.

If our society becomes less religious it will probably be a mix of the good and the bad that comes with our views. The price of achieving moral and ethical clarity, of dumping the ethical misdirections and artificial virtues, is giving up the rewards and punishments in the afterlife. That may mean we need a better and more expensive police force. On the other hand, some moral and ethical clarity would probably greatly improve our nation's foreign policy. It will not be anywhere near as bad as some religious people think, but it will also not be as good as some atheists seem to think. So, when I see things like this "Imagine No Religion" ad:

I have mixed feelings because I know that when religious people "imagine no religion" they're not imagining the same thing most atheists are and I also know that I can't, in fact, predict what such a world would be like. It only works if you are ready to consider a world without religion as at least good thing, and in general I do, but I wouldn't paint it as a utopia. Certainly, of course, it will not be a dystopia.

Don't believe anyone who thinks they know for sure what a world with no religion would be like or that it is even possible. We know things will change if things continue to shift and that beliefs have consequences, but they really can't be anticipated. And don't believe such a world could even happen.

What could happen instead, what may be happening according to polls, is that we might achieve a new balance where atheists and less dogmatic believers become a larger percentage of the population. Like Dan Dennett says, with religion, as with germs, the "trick is not to try to annihilate them. You will never annihilate the germs. What you can do, however, is foster public health measures, and the like, that will encourage the evolution of avirulence. That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations of the most toxic varieties."

Science will probably remain heavily dominated by atheistic and agnostic types, but remember this wasn't the case a few hundred years ago, as Neil deGrasse Tyson notes here:

There was once a time, just a few hundred years ago, when even scientists were mostly religious. That changed because a few scientific discoveries undermined religious beliefs. A small segment, but an important segment, of humanity, most of our best scientists, have now mostly shifted out of religion into a naturalistic view of the world. That means something. But it doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means.

It didn't mean what Joseph McCabe thought when he wrote, in "Is The Position Of Atheism Growing Stronger": "That the growth is such that if freedom is again generally secured in the next 10 years we may justly expect Atheists to be more numerous than genuine Christians in 20 years." That was almost seventy years ago and it never happened.

The basic arguments of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and even PZ Myers are very similar to Joseph McCabe's, but now they sell a little better or at least give you a bigger audience for your blog. I like the red meat those guys toss out, all the stupid creationists who don't have a clue, the crazy Catholics going rabid because of a cracker, pig-fucking ignorant religious bloggers, the amazing gaffs and denials of reality, the amazing, bald-faced lies and the utterly whacky comic antics of the religious, but we can't make it go away just by pointing it out and we should try to reach a broader audience than just those who call themselves atheists.

I know some religious people who find all that anti-fundy red meat just as delicious and who deal it out themselves. I think we share similar goals.


Anonymous said...

..very thoughtful, and a more balanced and objective discussion of the "imagine no religion" question than you'll find in pharyngula.

Anonymous said...

An excellent exploration into the overlooked nuances of believer and non-believer debate. Absolutism tends to distort both arguments.

I find it refreshingly objective, as I believe in a higher power, but profoundly distrust organized religion.


Anonymous said...

Swiss: most of them do belong to either the catholic or the protestant church, but about 15 years ago the caths still magaged to get rid of an archconservative bishop imposed on them by the pope John Paul II: they paid their church taxes to a closed account. The bishop (Wolfgang Haas) was "promoted" to be head of the church of "Liechtenstein".
At present, ther is a campaign to get people who don't adhere to any church out of the colset (, www.