Monday, January 26, 2009

Do Our Values Come from God?

The title of my post is the title of Victor Stenger's seventh chapter in his book God: The Failed Hypothesis. I have been slow to finish blogging about this book, and I think I'll call it quits with this topic.

There is one other topic of interest in the book, and that is on the lack of achaeological evidence for the claims made in the Bible (chapter 6). I have very little expertise in this area, but I will say that I'm not as inclined as some to read the Bible as I would a modern history book. However, on the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, I have found N. T. Wright to be especially helpful.

Now to the topic at hand. Stenger wants to argue that morals do not come from religion:

The data... indicate that the majority of human beings from all cultures and all religions or no religion agree on a common set of moral standards. While specific differences can be found, universal norms do seem to exist. ...
The Judeo-Christian and Islamic scriptures contain many passages that teach noble ideals that the human race has done well to adopt as norms of behavior.... But without exception, the fact that these principles developed in earlier cultures and history indicates that they were adopted by--rather than learned from--religion. ...
Believers are guided by their consciences in deciding for themselves what is right and wrong, just as are nonbelievers. ... Psychological tests indicate that there are no significant differences in the moral sense between atheists and theists. ...
It seems likely that this is were we umans have learned our sense of right and wrong. We have taught it to ourselves. (pp. 195, 197, 208, 209)
Stenger's argument is growing more and more typical in the secular age. The problem is, he utterly fails to answer the appropriate question.

The question is not, "Where did we learn morals?" but rather, "What is the logical basis for having morals?" What is morality, anyway? Morality is in part a preference for one set of circumstances over another; we call one thing "good" and another "bad." The other part of morality is becoming trained to seek the good and reject the bad.

Theists like me argue that without God there is no logical basis for the first part of morality, i.e. there is no reason to prefer one circumstance over another. Think about a coin flip. The difference between heads and tails is totally meaningless until someone assigns some meaning. If you just keep flipping a coin and writing down "heads" or "tails," you aren't doing anything. But if you toss a coin to start the Super Bowl, now that's a big deal.

If everything is just coin flips, even the decisions humans make, then nothing is really a big deal. We're just kidding ourselves. Manmade morality is just an arbitrary preference. Some people like chocolate, others don't. Previous generations thought slavery was okay, we don't. It's just a coin toss.

Now if there is a God, then there is a logical reason to believe that some outcomes in life are good, while others are bad. There is a mandate from the very nature of reality to seek the good, which is part of what I perceive Jesus to be saying when he announces the coming of his kingdom. Because God exists, we can claim it is logical to be moral. It is not a matter of mere preference. We are not kidding ourselves.

Of course, Stenger wants to focus entirely on the empirical question, rather than dealing with the metaphysics. So he takes all kinds of cheap shots at Christians and a few at Muslims to ensure his reader knows how bad religion is, and how good atheists are.

According to statistics from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Christians make up almost 80 percent of the prison population. Atheists make up about 0.2 percent. ...
Published studies do indicate that a child's risk of sexual abuse by a family member increases as the family's religious denomination becomes more conservative, that is, when the teachings of scriptures and other doctrines are taken more literally. Similarly, the probability of wife abuse increases with the rigidity of a church's teachings pertaining to gender roles and hierarchy. ...
The Old Testament is filled with atrocities committed in the name of God. ...
The history of Christendom abounds with violence sanctioned by the Church...
Of coure, the Muslim terrorists themselves felt they were obeying God's command to engage in jihad.

The Qur'an is as bloodthirsty as the Old Testament. ... (pp. 194,

Indeed, I think these are cheap shots, mostly because Stenger leaves a gaping hole in his empirical argument, failing to make a single reference to the atrocities committed by atheists such as Stalin in the 20th century, or the Darwinist principles motivating the Nazi holocaust.

Empirical questions about morality and religion are legitimate. Stenger is leaving out some useful insights. Here are two articles he should read:

First, the New York Times reports that those who are both sincere in their faith and devout in their religious practice have been shown to have better self-control. The study was done by a secular psychologist.

Second, Matthew Parris writing for the Times Online has opined that despite his atheist views, he believes that Christianity is making Africa a better place:

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

But in any case, the empirical question is not enough. We as humans need to know why we should do what we do. Atheists imply that morality is nothing more than getting along with people. The problem is, survival only depends on getting along with people in power. True morality is always based on something deeper.

As Jesus said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to b first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt 20:25-28, NRSV)

This violates the survival principles upon which Darwinist ethics are based, and yet Christians throughout the ages have found it compelling. Look at the ones who have truly done great things, from William Wilberforce to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Mother Teresa. Does that kind of virtue come from the idea that nice behavior will prolong the survival of the species? No; it comes from a much deeper since that there is a promised land, that there is a kingdom worth fighting for with the weapons of love and self-sacrifice.

To this day I have simply never found any coherent atheist argument why morality makes any sense. I guess it has a little bit to do with my personality. I tend not to care about "fitting in." I care more about principles. The people I respect and admire are the ones who give up everything for the sake of an ideal greater than themselves. Atheist ethics don't sound to me like any more than trying your best to get along.

Even if atheists are on average "nicer" than most religious people, that doesn't impress me at all. Just because you're nice doesn't mean you've convinced me that being nice is logical. More importantly, sometimes nice people just go through life never making a real difference in this world. Indeed, real moral advances are usually made by stepping on some toes.
So while Stenger's book has offered a bold scientific argument against God, he ultimately fails to explain what I know to be true. There is a compelling vision of how things should be that we can all sense. It is not made up; it is there, in reality. We know, deep down, the kingdom of God is coming, and it motivates us to act as becomes a citizen of that kingdom.
I recommend Stenger's book to everyone, because if you haven't dealt with the arguments he gives, now is the time. I don't think he succeeds in his goal, which is to disprove God's existence, but he does force us to take different views on some issues than we may be used to. But there's certainly nothing wrong with that.

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