California SB 1146: Religious liberty at stake

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What’s the deal with California Senate Bill 1146? People have said it will shutter religious colleges and that it will reduce religious freedom, but I haven’t found an adequate account from the text of the legislation itself.

I am not a lawyer, but I am in the home stretch of earning a Master’s degree in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Since close reading and ethical reasoning are significant components of my apologetics training, I think I can present a simple case against SB 1146.

Shrinking religious exemptions

First, what does the bill really do? In part, it changes language in the already existing California Education Code. Specifically, it shrinks the religious exemption in one part of the code, Section 66271. Whereas the section currently exempts all religious institutions from antidiscrimination enforcement, the current version of SB 1146 makes some indeterminate part of postsecondary religious instruction non-exempt:

SECTION 1.

Section 66271 of the Education Code is repealed.

66271.

This chapter shall not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization if the application would not be consistent with the religious tenets of that organization.

SEC. 2.

Section 66271 is added to the Education Code, to read:

66271.

 (a) This chapter shall apply to a religious educational institution except with respect to prohibitions concerning religion.

 

The struck-out portion is the text of the Education Code to be replaced. So the exemption would go from saying “This chapter shall not apply” to “This chapter shall apply.” This is a significant change that requires a rationale in its own right. If the exemption was okay in previous years, why does it suddenly require a legislative change now? Voters and citizens deserve an answer.

Some previous reporting and advocacy citing the bill noted that instruction for ministry and vocational work would remain exempt, while other programs would not. A seminary handing out Master of Divinity degrees would be exempt as always, but a four-year program awarding degrees in biology or English would not be exempt from “civil remedies,” also known as lawsuits. However, this specific language was struck from the bill in the June 13 amendment. Currently, the scope of the exemption, is, in the words of the Assembly committee analysis, “unclear”:

Committee staff notes, however, that “except with respect to the prohibitions concerning religion” is undefined, and it is unclear whether this exception could result in allowable discrimination against a California protected class if the religious institutions determines that discrimination is consistent with the tenets of the religion.

Alternatively, if the concern is to clearly allow religious teachings, ceremonies and observances of a religious institution, the existing language of the bill could be amended to clearly allow religious ceremonies, teachings and other activities that may be required of students, faculty and staff of religious institutions.

This lack of clarity persists as of my writing this blog entry. If the bill is passed as-is, then students may well be green-lighted by administrators to sue because of teachings, ceremonies and observances that might be deemed discriminatory.

An Unfair Structural Assault on Religious Minorities

The power to sue is the power to deter and coerce, so it should not be held lightly. When small institutions (think of California’s Simpson College) might be shuttered due to the content of their doctrinal beliefs and behavioral standards, then that is effectively diminishing religious liberty. This is particularly true of the right for religious and intellectual minorities to reasonably act and think differently from the majority of society.

An objector might reply that private, religious schools have no right to Cal Grant money, another consideration effected by the bill. In this line of reasoning, religious schools need to comply by the rules that apply to all other schools. However, the withholding of Cal Grant money and a barrage of lawsuits would be an unfair burden suddenly imposed on theologically conservative California religious colleges, which are in a minority position regarding the nature of gender rights, among a host of other issues. This unfairness is structural and asymmetrical. It is structural injustice because it would produce a sweeping, one-time effect. It would not prevent the emergence of new religious schools independent of Cal Grant money. But it could shutter a large portion of existing California religious schools, dramatically changing the higher education landscape within the state. Although there might be a new baby later, the old baby would be thrown with the bath water.

The impact of SB 1146 is asymmetrical because a majority that prefers a certain uniformity in higher education would be imposing its will at the cost of a minority. And that real administrative cost on California religious colleges has been recognized in legislative analysis. To be clear, there are three different financial burdens religious colleges could potentially face: loss of Cal Grant funding for their students, penalties and costs arising from lawsuits, and administrative costs associated with posting exemptions (required by Section 3, addressed further below). Along with this are burdens imposed by being among the dissenting minority on the wrong side of the law.

Freedom of Association at Stake

I believe religious freedom is closely tied to freedom of association. In the case of SB 1146, what is at stake is the freedom to associate with a community that holds its members to self-imposed standards. At its best, this is the freedom to come together to accomplish shared positive goals that could not be achieved otherwise. In a pluralistic society, we try not to second guess, if we can, the goals of other voluntary associations. Undue concern for what goes on within other freely-formed groups results in repression, the very thing that progressives profess to oppose. If California were to impinge on individuals’ ability to freely associate, this would diminish an essential liberty that has served Americans well for 230 years.

Suspicion or Good Will?

Biola president Barry Corey said it well when he declared that Biola does not support bullying, and intends its space to be welcoming. The question with SB 1146 is whether California will assume religious colleges to be acting in good faith, as good will participants contributing to the common good, or whether it will regard religious colleges as inherently suspect.

Unfortunately, Section 3 of SB 1146 suggests the later, that religious schools should bear the burden of being suspect. This portion of the bill requires schools that receive exemptions from antidiscrimination measures to post this fact prominently on the campus and in correspondence with potential students. Progressives are rightly concerned with the stigmatization, shunning, and shaming of minorities. But does this apply two ways? In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her blouse to remind her community members that she was found guilty of the sin of adultery. What the Section 3 notifications amount to is a scarlet ‘D’, intended to remind students, parents, and the rest of the world that certain religious schools are to be regarded suspiciously as discriminators. If antidiscrimination has anything to do with ending stigmatization, shunning, and shame, then Section 3 makes SB 1146’s purported goal of antidiscrimination internally inconsistent.

It’s an irony that some progressive activists might end up using SB 1146 as a puritanical tool of oppressing dissent and enforcing conformity. But rather than assuming the worst of each other, citizens in a pluralistic, democratic society must extend the assumption of good will as much as reason would allow. It takes two to tango. If one side–particularly the democratic majority–remains inflexible, then we will return to the historical state of confessionalism. In 16th and 17th century Europe, this was a time when those subjects who could not affirm their rulers’ religious creed were forced into exile. This is the antithesis of a liberal society. In Europe, the divide was between Protestants and Catholics. Today, the divide is between progressive ideological activists and those who dissent from their controversial orthodoxies. Biola and other California religious institutions seem to be responding with patience, charity, and civility in the face of what could otherwise be interpreted as divisive political action. If there is any hope for fairness and justice, it will not be fulfilled in legislating dissenting communities out of existence, but by heeding the admonition, “Come, let us reason together.”

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Report on Icelandic religious belief “literally” misleading

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The Washington Post reports under the headline, “In this country, literally no young Christians believe that God created the Earth.” The country is Iceland.

So is it “literally” true? God by any standard conceptual defintion just is the creator of the entire physical universe, which includes the Earth. So whether a Christian, or any theist for that matter, believes this through young earth creationism, old earth creationism, theistic evolution/evolutionary creationism, intelligent design, natural theology, or by logical inferences after reading the back of a cereal box, she believes indeed that God created the Earth. For any theist, the Earth did not get the way it is today without at least two means. First, God’s immediate, creative act that brought the physical world into being out of literally nothing, and second, God’s sovereign supervision over ordinary physical means, attributed by virtually everyone to what are called the laws of nature.

This piece of reporting shows how major media can drastically downplay what Christians actually think while in pursuit of the sexy narrative that traditional religious belief is in dramatic decline.

Exemplifying the misleading pull of this narrative, one graphic charts the “Rise of atheism in Iceland,” but the two mutually exclusive responses plotted are “Religious Believers” and “Non-religious,” where the latter includes atheists and non-religious people. Like a cheap off-brand hot dog vendor, some editor has allowed this chart to puff up “atheism” with filler that includes agnostics and non-religious people. This probably counts many spiritual theists who for whatever reason don’t self-identify with a religious tradition.

So all told, don’t believe a headline when it says “literally” no young Icelanders believe in creation.

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Arguing about race and justice: an apologist’s perspective

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship drew critical attention for a talk on racial justice delivered at Urbana 15, its recent student missions conference. After plenary speaker Michelle Higgins called out pro-life activism and explained Black Lives Matters to evangelicals, InterVarsity issued a clarifying statement. Many conservative Christians struggle to understand where Higgins’ message comes from, but it is not a new one in the Christian church or even for InterVarsity. What she said is important to understand, because everyone should know and speak truth and act justly.

 

What Higgins Says

Most people will find things to agree with and disagree with in what Higgins says. In an online video of her talk, she shares her personal story, or her narrative. For her, this includes the brutal killing of a mixed race man by white authorities in 1837, not far from where Higgins lives and the Urbana conference is periodically held. Disappointed that evangelicals don’t want to talk about racial justice in the wake of several high profile police killings of young black men, Higgins asserts that her fellow evangelicals have edited and “blanked out” parts of their own story. She believes evangelicals have inherited a burden of white supremacy that says, “white is right.” Higgins affirms that God alone gives people their dignity, and that Christians should give control of their narratives to him. Practically, this means standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matters rather than remaining comfortably indifferent. Finally, she asserts that we have the means to end racist and classist oppression, but we need the will to end it.

Insight from an Apologist

As a mixed race son of a white American father and an immigrant Thai mother, I have long questioned personal identity claims. I don’t fit neatly inside many boxes. Having come to Christian faith in adolescence, I was deeply involved in an InverVarsity community all through college and for years after. But like many others, I wasn’t adequately equipped to interact with some of InterVarsity’s views on racial justice. It took a few years before I learned to critically examine worldviews through my involvement with Christian apologetics. Like I suspect Higgins does, I believe Christians should speak and act truth in love, and this extends to race and justice.

Telling Truth Carefully

In the face of those who deny it, Michelle Higgins correctly exhorts students at Urbana “to tell the truth, the whole truth.” But she overgeneralizes when she ascribes denial to North American evangelicals. For example, Higgins reports the evangelical heart attitude this way:

We’re not ready to talk about the fact that black bodies are grotesque to us, we don’t want to admit that. That’s a part of our story we’ve blanked out.

I can see this as an appropriate expression of righteous anger over a particular harm. I can see this as rhetoric to alert evangelical imaginations to some overlooked truth. But to assert that a whole group is in denial about something is a broad brush stereotype and a stumbling block to mutual understanding. Evangelists know that people bristle when they are told they are guilty of some sin they are unaware of, so why do social justice Christians speak so cavalierly? To so readily peg another’s heart attitude easily comes off as a manipulative and bald assertion. Prophetically speaking truth to power is appropriate for those who stand guilty, but it is far from established that evangelicals individually or collectively are guilty of all that Higgins lays before them.

At another point in her talk, Higgins says evangelicals have inherited a dominating Eurocentrism from the first missionaries arriving on the continent. She sums the inherited attitude this way:

I will not translate my Bible into their language; I will teach them what my Bible says according to me and have them learn what I believe Christianity to be.

Any Christian who is familiar with missions work knows that for centuries missionaries have diligently translated the Bible into native tongues. And for decades missionaries have been sensitive to the error of transmitting cultural non-essentials to people groups being reached out to. These, perhaps more so than the arrogant errors of four or five hundred years ago, are also evangelicals’ inheritance.

In the face of broad rhetorical accusations, many evangelicals have legitimate and unanswered questions. Speaking for InterVarsity, Greg Jao acknowledges the dissonance students experienced after Higgins’ talk:

“This was the first time many of them heard a message like this, and they were really wrestling with the implications: What does white complicity look like? What’s my responsibility as a member of the majority culture, and how do I know that what they’re saying is true?”

Advancing Agreement through Argument

The rhetorical questions Jao asks are familiar to me as an InterVarsity alum. I’ve heard asked many times, “What does it look like . . .?” This is not a bad way to proceed from established truths. But “white complicity” is controversial; it isn’t established in the church, the academy, or North American society that the crime of whiteness implicates any particular individual in any historical or systemic transgression. This is not denial but careful truth-telling. Merely finding that one’s values and tastes come from Europe rather than Africa doesn’t make one guilty of dominance. Social justice Christians who want to assert otherwise need to do more than just start conversations with open-ended questions. Requests for clarification and making distinctions aren’t always excuse seeking or the mere side effect of feeling uncomfortable. Instead, they are often crucial steps toward having constructive arguments that help lead to agreeing upon publicly shared truths.

Christian apologists do this in the broader culture, keeping in mind Peter’s advice to

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15)

An attitude of charity rather confrontation, and a disposition of credulity rather than suspicion, is required in helping others to see a truth that you see. Across the belief spectrum, it feels good to stand prophetically, speaking truth to power, but invoking imaginative sympathy and standing in solidarity aren’t enough to love God and neighbor. We must carefully speak the truth in pursuit of a deliberative consensus. Human imagination doesn’t just motivate feelings of sympathy and acts of solidarity, but enables acts of accurate understanding. If we can speak charitably rather than mislabel each other in the church, we will be closer to fulfilling Jesus’ words in John 13:35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Christians and self-sacrifice: do “we” have to?


Talking about ethical controversies in terms of “we” easily leads to confusion and misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is all too common when drawing ethical guidance from the Bible. There’s a tendency to assume that a passage can be read as one-size-fits-all, such that it supplies an absolute guiding principle for all times, places, and situations. But not all prescriptions are absolute, and accordingly “we” should not blindly follow them. Rather, look at a passage’s context. Who is the message intended for, and in what circumstance? And if there is a principle to be had, take it for a “test drive” to see if any absurdities arise.
A couple of recent social controversies exemplify the problem of taking biblical prescriptions absolutely. In both cases, people are concerned about what Christians should not be doing. But in the end I don’t think these proscriptions are absolutely authoritative for anyone.
1. Christians and guns. Earlier this month, John Piper offered a charitable and scriptural corrective to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s admonition that Liberty University students should train to carry concealed weapons. In his post, Piper acknowledges that God ordains the state to wield the sword for the purpose of justice. However, he hesitates to affirm that ordinary Christians should be so armed. Drawing from Paul and especially from 1 Peter, Piper relates correctly that God “intends to reveal the supreme worth of his Son and his salvation in the special grace of a Christian people who have the miraculous power to entrust themselves to his care while suffering unjustly.” Further, the New Testament produces a heart that “trusts in the help of God in every situation.” Finally, Piper asks:
What is the moment of life-threatening danger for? Is it for showing how powerful and preemptive we have been? Is it to show our shrewdness — that we have a gun in our back pocket and we can show you something? That is a response learned from Jason Bourne, not Jesus and the Bible. That response appeals to everything earthly in us, and requires no miracle of the new birth.

I agree that God intends to use Christian suffering to testify about Christ. But does this imply that Christians should never prepare for life-threatening events and instances of suffering? I’m not sure Piper means to say this, yet this absolute interpretation gets defended in daily conversations. Before we take this view for a test drive, let’s gain some insight from a second recent controversy.

2. “You Don’t Get to Make that Move.” This Fall, Christians voiced strong reservations about taking Syrian refugees into the United States. Not at all unlike John Piper’s response to Jerry Falwell, Jr., one Christian blogger expressed dismay at the tone and impression other Christians were giving in the course of debate. The blogger rightly tilts against hysteria, fear, and bigotry, accepting that non-Christians might display these traits, but demanding more from Christians:

But if you name Jesus as king? Well, then I’m sorry, Christian, but you don’t get to make that move.

He goes on to tell us things Christians don’t get to do, including:

We don’t get to hunt around for excuses for why we don’t need to include “those people” in the category of “neighbour.”

We don’t get to look for justifications for why it’s better to build a wall than open a door.

We don’t get to label people in convenient and self-serving ways in order to convince ourselves that we don’t have to care for them.

And:

We don’t get to reduce the gospel of peace and life and hope to a business-as-usual kind of political pragmatism with a bit of individual salvation on top.

We don’t get to ask, as our default question, “How can I protect myself and my way of life?” but “How does the love of Christ constrain and liberate me in this particular situation?”

Who can argue against this? My concern though is that such a post ends up getting used by others as a straw man in debate. If all objections to hosting refugees boil down to laziness, carelessness, fear and panic, then how can a Christian or a citizen express legitimate concerns about real dangers affecting her society, her neighbors, her family, or even herself? This absolute position needs a test drive, too.

Taking absolutes for a spin

Recall Piper’s concern that Christians should trust “in the help of God in every situation.” What about situations where Christians or those they care for fall ill? Most seek a doctor, and rightly so. Few people think this entails a lack of trust in God; such a position is absurd. It seems then that in some cases Christians are justified in actively preventing and mitigating their own and others’ suffering.

An obvious objection to this is to distinguish between resisting natural evil and resisting evil coming from the hand of others. After all, both Romans and 1 Peter say not to repay evil with evil. Then maybe “we” ordinary Christians shouldn’t defend ourselves against attack after all. I’ll complicate this objection by appealing to the imperative to protect others. Imagine a case where a Christian, by failing to resist an assailant, allows his wife to die. To extend the test drive of this absolute principle, how about if a Christian by similar inaction allows her own child to die, or her neighbor’s child? It is not at all clear that testifying about Christ requires these kinds of “sacrifices.” By the light of conscience these cases seem morally repugnant. The absolute prohibition against defense of others, and perhaps even self-defense, breaks down.

What about the controversy of being hesitant to take in refugees? Do Christians really not “get to make that move”? The same dynamics seem to be at play with Christians and guns. If following Jesus means urging law enforcement and others to forget completely about the threat of terrorism and violence, then let me suggest that is an absurd and unthinking Christianity.

Every Christian should imitate Christ’s self-sacrifice in appropriate circumstances. But carelessly disregarding one’s own life or the lives of others contradicts essential aspects of Christianity. Bearers of God’s image–including ourselves–deserve great respect and ought to be preserved as much as possible. Deuteronomy 30 exhorts us to “choose life.” Jesus in Mark 12 commands that you love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” and that you love your neighbor as yourself. And in Jeremiah 29:7, God urges, “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile.” Dying a martyr’s death for the gospel is a noble aspiration and has its proper place, but we should not seek it in every situation we face, let alone enlist our neighbors. In light of scripture and reason, “we” don’t always have to roll over and die.

 

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The Oatmeal’s cat in a dark room

853-black-cat-1The Oatmeal, a fairly popular web comic, put out this recent analogy about philosophy, religion, and science. Here are some things to note.
1. The anaology doesn’t explain anything. As with many expressions of humor or wit, The Oatmeal’s message is implicit. In the middle of the twentieth century, philosophers of science and language undertook the projects of logical positivism and verificationism to try to make sense of non-empirical statements. If we take The Oatmeal’s comic under this rubric, at best we might interpret it as emotive. The Oatmeal seems to be saying, “Yeah, science, that thing. I love it! It gives me that feeling like when you find something you’ve been looking for. And those other things, boo on them.” That’s a quaint sentiment.
2. Science is a branch of philosophy. What we today call science is both a certain practical way of knowing and a body of knowledge. During the later stages of the Enlightenment, what was called “natural philosophy” became known as natural science, and then later, just science. However, philsophy, metaphysics, and theology have at various times claimed and often do exhibit what we’d call “scientific” rigor. Science is not owned by physicalists, materialists, or fanboys of scientism.
3. The flashlight doesn’t shine on itself. Empiricists commit themselves to sense data to understand the world. Of course, they can’t just use sense data. They rely on many presuppositions that aren’t empirically justified. For example, mathematical truths, the constancy of the laws of nature, the truth that the world exists for more than five minutes at a time, etc. The very tools that let you know what function a flashlight has, have confidence that it is good at what it does, and tell you what to do with the cat once you’ve found it, are sciences like philosophy, metaphysics, and theology.
4. Being in dark rooms with cats isn’t like our everyday, ordinary experience. Nonetheless, philosophers often use the analogy of a room to achieve greater understanding the world. Consider Serle’s Chinese Room thought experiment. More recently, cold case homicide detective and Christian Apologist J. Warner Wallace has used such an analogy in his book, God’s Crime Scene. He lays out a case as to how there is a divine intervener outside the room of our universe.

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Snarky journalism isn’t fixing this

(Breitbart.com)

 

 

The New York Daily News declares on its front page today, “God isn’t fixing this.” This is the worst headline of the year for the following five reasons:

1. The editor isn’t omniscient, and ignores God’s revelation that he is at work in the world, whether we pray or not.

2. Prayer has multiple purposes, and it is somewhat known amongst people who pray that God is not a cosmic vending machine.

3. “My thoughts are with you” doesn’t fix the problem any better than prayer.

4. Hillary Clinton’s politically expedient call for more gun control “isn’t fixing this” either.

5. This headline is is a product of the “do something disease” and the mistaken notion that government just needs to push a big red button to make it stop. Rather than emote or stoke vitriol against disfavored GOP candidates, this newspaper editor needs to grow up.

Religion makes children less altruistic, less moral?


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A recent study reports that religion makes children more selfish. Another headline says that nonreligious children are more generous, and another casts the study results in terms of altruism. If true, this devastates the case for raising children with religion, right? After all, scientists said it, so that settles it.

Not so fast. Let me recap the basics of the study first. It included a “dictator game” to see how many stickers a child subject would reallocate when told of another child who was unfortunate enough to have no stickers. According to the study, kids from secular homes gave more stickers on average than kids from Christian and Muslim homes.

In another part of the study, the child subject watches someone being mean to someone else, and then is asked to evaluate the degree of punishment the transgressor should receive. Muslim kids assigned more severe punishment than the Christian kids did, and Christian kids assigned a more severe punishment than the secular kids did. From these findings, it is alternately reported that kids from religious homes are less generous, altruistic, and moral than their secular cohort.

While altruism, generosity, and selfishness all touch on what it means to be moral, these attitudes don’t exhaust what morality is. And by morality I mean ethics. Neither the researchers nor the journalists provide a meta-ethical context for understanding these observed behavioral differences. What difference would that make?

Scientists Can’t Wrangle Virtue

There are many ethical theories by which we might understand an action as moral. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gave us a big one, the concept of virtue. A virtue is not an unmitigated good. A deficit or an excess of what would otherwise be a virtuous attitude results in vice. Take patience for example. Snapping angrily at your child on her first request for ice cream is a vicious deficit of patience. But letting your child run the credit card up–to its limit–with ice cream purchases is a vicious excess of patience.

In addition to having the right amount of an attitude at the right time, a virtuous person must know he is doing the right thing at the right time. And he must intend it. Let’s say that Uncle Scrooge walks past the orphanage, and while quickening his pace to avoid a volunteer collecting donations, he trips on a cobblestone. Some change he was gripping tightly happens to fly into the collection bucket. The volunteer profusely thanks Scrooge for his generosity, while Scrooge screws his face in dismay. First, Scrooge may not have known it was right to donate his change then. Second, from what we know of him, and his reaction, we conclude he didn’t intend to donate. If you know the episode “Jaynestown” from the TV show Firefly, you have another example of this. No knowledge, no intention, no virtue.

As the study itself acknowledges, the child subjects are still developing. For all we know, they don’t know that they are behaving virtuously as opposed to just doing what feels good. We know nothing of their parents’ theology, ideology, or worldview besides the labels the researchers choose to categorize them by. Without interviewing the subject, a scientist can’t accurately describe the subject’s motive. He can impose his explanation upon what he observes, but this fails to take the subject’s life of the mind seriously. Whatever else the researchers are trying to do, it isn’t research about morality.

What if Altruists are Suckers?

Granted the idea of virtue and vice, can there be such a thing as too much generosity? If we take the consequence of evolutionary behavior as the standard for morality, it’s certainly possible. Spurred by the evolutionary game theory in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, philosopher J. L. Mackie proposed that altruistic behavior could be counterproductive for the survival of a species.[1] He relates this in an evolutionary survival game where a species of birds has developed the behavior of grooming each other in order to remove pesky bugs they can’t reach on the back of their own heads. An individual bird of the species can exhibit one of three types of behavior: sucker, cheat, or grudger. A sucker always grooms another bird no matter what. A cheat loves to be groomed, but never grooms another bird in return. A grudger grooms another bird, but will stop grooming another bird that takes advantage of her generosity. If the population is mostly grudgers, then cheats won’t thrive. But if there are enough “altruistic” suckers, grudgers could proliferate, even to the point where their “selfish” behavior drives the species extinct.

Mackie suggests that altruism may not be the most moral attitude after all. He identifies himself as a grudger: tit for tat, eye for an eye. It appeals to the innate sense of justice. After all, under normal circumstances, who would let a murderer go free? The secular children in the altruism study more arguably would do so, perhaps thinking they are being kind by overlooking another’s trespass. In this case, Mackie and thoughtful people might side with the Muslim children in their assessment of the appropriate punishment and who is more “moral.” Now the study doesn’t give us a clear sense of what degree of punishment is appropriate or virtuous. It hints that assigning “harsher” punishment is less moral, but why that would be the case is unclear.

So in sum, the altruism study and articles reporting on it miss two important things. First, because there is no ethical framework in view, we have no evaluative context for the children’s actions, and no actual understanding of their motivations. Instead, it is assumed that generous behavior is what makes for morality, and that desiring a wrongdoer be punished is a moral failing. But these assumptions are far from granted for critically thinking people. Second, the study fails to acknowledge an evolutionary scenario where altruism can be counterproductive. Instead of research and journalism that takes these two realities seriously, we have fodder for fit for the social media one-upmanship that fuels the spurious science-versus-religion narrative.

PS: With respect to the “dictator game” the experimenters conduct with sticker allocation, check out this blog post citing a study where the validity of dictator games are undermined by “experimenter demand effects.”

[1] Mackie, J. L.. 1978. “The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution”. Philosophy 53 (206). Cambridge University Press: 455–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3749875.

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