Monday, June 18, 2007

Goodness before God

Over at Atheist Alley columnist Sarah Laimbeer has posted an essay We Don’t Need a Higher Power to Know it’s Wrong to Harm Our Fellow Man with which I agree. I suppose that I shouldn't be so shocked that so many theists believe that it is only through some belief in God that a person can wish to do good instead of evil. After all, theists are experienced at firmly holding onto beliefs which go against all available evidence.

Evil Atheists?

Certainly there have been some some evil atheists, Joseph Stalin being the most extreme example. But the fact of the matter is that criminal behavior just isn't a prevalent characteristic of atheists. What little evidence exists suggests that atheists are less likely to be criminals [a citation will go here to prison studies], but that result is probably better explained by the fact that atheists tend to have above average levels of education and intelligence [cite will go here], while it is exactly the opposite for the prison population [citation will go here]. At worst atheists are just like everyone else with respect to ethical questions.

More than an argument from ignorance

It is easy to say that the theists are just being silly when they claim that true atheists can't have morals. But I think it is more interesting to explore what might underlie such silliness. At first it looks like our accusers' reasoning goes something like this:
I don't see where atheists gets their moral imperatives from, therefore they must not have any.
When stated this way the logical flaw is obvious. It would be like me saying, "I don't understand how microwaves heat water, therefore microwave ovens don't work." But our accusers can be more subtle and less stupid. Theists, they say, get their moral imperatives from faith in God, while atheists, without such faith must either not have them or get them from somewhere else. "Atheists," they may go on to say, "need a separate explanation for a moral sense." So for the theists the existence of God explains our moral sense in a way that atheism can't. And so by Occam's Razor (which atheists like to quote so much) this is presented as evidence for God. There are two approaches I could take in answering this challenge. One would be to present all of the naturalistic explanations for morality. And without a doubt I would recommend the book Good Natured and other sources. I would also point out that the two great moral philosophies, utilitarianism and Kantianism make no reference to any supernatural God. But that is not the approach I'm taking in this essay. All of those points have been argued well by others, and I doubt I'd have anything useful to add.

God is not the answer

Instead I wish to argue that the theist and the atheist are in exactly the same boat when it comes to explaining the origins of good and evil. The God hypothesis doesn't help the theist at all once the argument is examined closely. Again, let me digress and briefly mention an argument that I will not be making in this essay. Most religions provide erratic moral guidance. The Old Testament fully endorses slavery (and that is echoed in the New Testament). The God of Abraham is prone to arbitrary judgment, temper tantrums, and is a crybaby who lashes out at all who don't worship Him properly. (I realized that God was a crybaby when my daughter, then in preschool told me that God gets very upset when people say He doesn't exist.) Only through cherry picking the nice bits can most religions be said to provide anything resembling moral guidance.

Good can't come from God

Now to the argument that I did set out to make in this essay. Let me start with a hypothetical question to a hypothetical theist. Suppose I say that God told me to skin you alive. The theist's response would be that I was either a liar or psychotic (or possibly hearing the voice of Satan posing as God). Now suppose that I had said that God told me to feed the hungry and spread His word. What would the theist's response be to that? In the latter case the theist may well be ready to believe that God really did speak to me. Let's look at what is happening in these two cases. The theist is making a judgment about which message really comes from God based on the morality of the message. And Jesus tells Christians that this is exactly how it should be in Mathew 7:15-20. "Beware of the false prophets, ... You will know them by their fruits." Theologians may try to develop a metaphysical argument about God and good and evil in which something is good because it comes from God. But that metaphysics isn't driving anyone's moral behavior. The theist who thinks skinning people alive is bad and feeding the hungry is good is using their own notion of good and evil to judge what is God. So to the theist who asks where does good and evil come from, I answer that I don't know. But neither does the theist. For the theist good can't come from God because the theist must use their knowledge of good to judge what is God.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

(Almost) First Post and Introduction

This is my second post to this blog which I started in June 2007. It is, I suppose, a late introduction to a late adopter of blogging. This is where I self-indulgently introduce myself, my hopes and my intentions with this blog. I've never been known for my brevity, particularly when trying to explain my motivations and intentions. But I'll try to be brief. First of all, I want the actual content of what I post to act as a better introduction and explanation of what I am up to than any self statement. That is one of the reasons why I've left this introductory post to be my second post, making my first blog entry one of content. Although I am new to actually using the blog technology, I've been posting my thoughts and comments on a wide range of issues (many of which I know little about) to the Internet for literally decades. My earliest Usenet posting archived by Google Groups is from 1986, though there clear were earlier ones that weren't archived. I've also been active on number of email discussion lists, where I've occasionally presented arguments that I would have liked to refer to later. When I finally got around to getting my own domain name,, and corresponding website I sometimes would get it together enough to write up some technical rants and political rants to host there. And of course, I've posted a number of comments, a few of them worth keeping, to other people's blogs or other message boards such as slashdot. Those who know me, or those who have read my promises follow up my writings with further details, will know that I can be extremely slow to follow through with something I've started in the best case, and never get started in the worst case. So it took me years to actually start using blogging technology. The event that finally tipped the balance was an attempt to post a text response to The Most Terrifying Video You'll Ever See on YouTube. Its author asks anyone who can spot a fault with the logic to let him know. There is a whopping great logical flaw, which I tried to outline in a text response to the video. Only after putting some effort into composing my response and hitting the "post reply" button did I learn that text responses were limited to 500 characters. That experience appears to have been the tipping point. Finally, there is the question of why someone like me, who's had a web presence since late 1994 and hosts his own web server, is using Blogspot instead of hosting my own blog on my own site with a tool like Wordpress. The answer is simply laziness in not wanting to have to deal directly with handling user registration. I hope that this gives some answers to some mundane questions about why I am doing this. I could elaborate on every single point here but won't. With luck, this "almost first post" will be the most boring of all I will post here. If not, than please read when suffering insomnia.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Preaching Prevention and Family Values

Below is a letter I wrote to the Dallas Morning News. Unfortunately I sent it to the wrong email address so that they didn't even have a proper opportunity to decline it. I was responding to an opinion piece by Star Parker titled "Social Distortion". The version in the Dallas Morning News (Saturday, June 9, page 21A) was a slightly abbreviated form of Parker's full essay. Anyway, here is my letter.
Although I am no friend of the religious right, I largely agree with Star Parker's ("Social Distortion" June 10, page 21A) essay pointing out that poverty in America is substantially a consequence of family breakdown. But Ms Parker goes on to say that "Christians like to stay home can care for their families." The simple facts of the matter is that divorce, teen age pregnancy and out of wedlock births are strongly correlated with being religious. The US states with the highest rates of religiosity have the highest rates of family breakdown. And among the rich democracies of the West those countries with the most religious populations also have the highest rates of family breakdown. If religious leaders wish to consider whether their message is contributing to the problem, a good place to start would be to ask whether futile preaching against premarital sex (at a time when age at first marriage is rising) might be better refocused on preaching against premarital pregnancy. Jeffrey Goldberg
A letter to the the editor needs to be short, but blogs can ramble on endlessly, so at some point I'll add in actual references. I've looked it all up before, but don't have it at my finger tips now. But there is a very clear pattern that within the US the more religious a region (as measured by church attendance and self-descriptions) the higher the teen pregnancy rates along with higher divorce rates. The pattern with abortion rates is less clear. All this can be checked by looking at US Census data. We see exactly the same pattern across "Western" countries. The higher the religiosity the higher the rates of teen pregnancy and divorce. Again, a case could be made that abortion rates also follow the same pattern, but that case is harder to make due to a number of notable exceptions to the pattern (particularly in former Soviet bloc countries). There certainly can be many reasons for this. We know that religiosity declines with level of education and we know that the more educated women are the longer they wait to have children (and the latter is a world wide trend), so the relationship between early pregnancy and religiosity may merely be a consequence of female education level. But I suspect that it is more. Many Christians in the US have attempted to combat early pregnancy through abstinence training. They have opposed the secular sex education in school if it informs children about contraceptives. On the whole the philosophy is that making contraceptives easily available encourages pre-marital sex. An analogy would be to the fact that automobile airbags encourage faster driving (for which there is some evidence). Even if the anti-contraceptive crowd is correct in this to some degree, it does matter to what degree and what the negative effects of discouraging contraception can be. First of all, the efficacy of abstinence training at having any positive effect is disputed. (I know that I should add a source for this). Studies range from saying that it has no effect on delaying sex to delaying sex for a few months on average. To my knowledge, no serious study has shown that it has a substantial effect. People who blame teen and young-adult sex on TV or other aspects of popular culture are simply ignoring the facts of life. If we are seeing a rise in premarital sex it is because people are getting married later. A century ago an unmarried 25 year-old women was definitely an "old maid." Again studies (which again I should cite) show that those who wait to get married and have children have more successful marriages and children. So the Christian "family values" people have a difficult choice to make. They can continue to fight against pre-marital sex and contraception outside of marriage. To do that they either have to try to change human nature or reverse get girls marrying young again (mid to late teens). Neither approach seems to very appealing. Or if they really want to strengthen families, they can promote the use of contraceptives to prevent not premarital sex, but prevent pregnancies until the couple are prepared to properly support a family. The bottom line is that the religious opposition to contraception outside of marriage is contributing substantially to family breakdown. I hope they take action to truly promote healthy families.