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.

 

Photo credit: David Villarreal Fernández via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Religion makes children less altruistic, less moral?


Enokson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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.

Should a Christian baker bake two cakes instead?

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

Matthew 5:41 (ESV)

The above passage has recently been used to suggest that Christian bakers, if asked to bake a gay wedding cake, should bake two instead. Does this prescription necessarily follow from Jesus’ very own words? Consider this application:

“And if anyone forces you to go to the back of the bus, go twice as far back.”

Anyone who knows the history of the American civil rights movement also knows this is dead wrong. It is a mistaken application of moral reasoning. This is because we know that sometimes, it is right to stand firm in the face of injustice. One thing we know of Jesus is that he always stood for moral truth; he was faithful to and never abandoned it. Even when people misjudged his intentions, to the point of crucifying him. Can we all at least concede the possibility that business operators are trying to make a similar stand?

It has been advised that a Christian should bake a cake to avoid hurting another’s feelings. But following Jesus seems to be more about being faithful to truth than aoviding hurting other’s feelings. Jesus did not swerve from truth when rebuking Pharisees, moneychangers, or even when interacting with the rich, young ruler. Even beyond what scripture says, it is common sense knowledge that we can’t control how others react to us. Avoiding hurting other’s feelings should not trump faithfulness to truth.

The current moment presents a dilemma for bakers, florists, and others who hold to conscience. Today, litigiious activists would force them to appear as if they are affirming and celebrating same-sex marriage as identical to natural marriage. To say nothing of scripture, there is a very real, natural, biological difference beween same-sex and man-woman relationships. The practical difference has been virtually obliterated for the sake of a coarse political agenda, built on mistaken premises. Activists seem to want to compel speech to the effect that, “I approve of you as a human being.” But I believe most of these business owners, like Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzamn, already approve of, and indeed truly love, their LGBTQ customers as human beings. It has been a long held truth that equal dignity comes from all of our being made in the image of God, imago Dei. Lawsuits and vitriolic compulsion do nothing to add or subtract from anyone’s dignity. Rather, they call into question the judgment of activists and progressive supporters who think such moves are justified.

It is a remarkable irony that as the voices of compulsion grow louder, people of conscience have all the more reason to take a stand for truth. And for Christians particularly, being misunderstood is not something to avoid, but to patiently endure until the truth prevails. As the U.S. civil rights movement itself illustrates, sometimes, it is the right thing to refuse what others demand of you.

No objective morality without God

Hi cogitators, this post is coming out of an existing comment thread on the relationship between God and objective morality on my “About” page.  I’m moving it here for tidiness and greater visibility.

To get you up to speed.  It started with a comment I made at blogging compatriot A Reasonable Faith: “What basis does the work of clay have to judge its Maker?”

I received a response from a third blogger that “a work of clay can judge its maker if it’s better than its maker.”  While denying God’s existence, the blogger continues:

There are indeed objective standards for morals, in that they are those that allow civilization to move along smoothly e.g. the ideas of property and laws about the handling of it, the ideas of individual freedom, etc.

In turn, I characterized these as subjective:

Laws and customs about personal liberty and property rights, as you’ve mentioned do exist, but are only “subject” to limited enforcement. If for some moral duty a person can evade the long arm of accountability, then the moral duty is properly characterized as subjective.

In the subsequent reply, my fellow blogger defined objectivity:

If a law is uniformly found by humanity to be advantageous and can be demonstrated as such by facts, then one can call it objective, not beholden to personal beliefs that are not supported by facts.

Now we’re caught up.  This use of the word “objective” circumvents the conventional definition.  In Merriam-Webster Dictionary defintion 1b, “objective” is descriptive of something “having reality independent of the mind.”  Basing morality on laws “found by humanity” depends on mind twice, first to recognize it, and then to codify or normalize it.  This is not objective, but subjective, completely subject to human minds.

Besides this, restricting moral duties to what is advantageous to humanity is an arbitrary distinction.  Why not extend the limit to all animals, or even lichen?  Or, why not restrict it to only those humans in your halpogroup?  And what is “advantgeous” has been and will continue to be highly controversial among the ranks of humanity.  Say if the People’s Republic of China successfully spread the practice of one-child policy so that it was “uniform” throughout the world, would it then become right?  Finally, I am interested to know what specific moral values and duties are uniformly found to be advantageous?

What my fellow blogger is describing doesn’t quite get to the crux of objective morality.  He is focused on the epistemology of morality, that is, how we come to know moral values and duties. But the ontology of morality, the question of whether morality itself really exists, requires a logical grounding.  Otherwise, morals cannot be more than a subjective illusion.  After all, values like charity and fairness are immaterial, and “facts” themselves are incapable of pointing to their reality.

Speaking of facts, there is another distinction.  Right and wrong are descriptive of duties, while good and bad are descriptive of values.  An action that is right entails moral obligation.  No set of facts derived from observation of the material world can tell you what you are morally obligated to do.  In this sense facts are morally neutral.  But most people will affirm the reality that some actions we ought to do, regardless of the circumstances.  That which is deemed advantageous to humanity is at most a value but not an obligation, and thus fails to meet the full, common experience of morality.

Escaping subjectivity and achieving objectivity is indeed a high bar.  Moral values and duties are immaterial things that can’t exist in the natural world.  The only way objective morality might exist is supernaturally.  If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

*****

Now in the course of this post I will need to address some challenges from my fellow blogger, but these stand apart and are not necessary to support the above argument.

Challenge:

I’m guessing you think that your god enforces laws with no limit. That would be a good response *if* you could show that this was the case and that your god existed *and* did something. There is no evidence for this or any other god being a law enforcer. Thus, your claims of objectivity coming from god fail.

Response:  If God exists, he is the maximally greatest being.  As such, he is among other things perfectly just and omnipotent.  Whatever justice you do not see delivered in this world he is perfectly capable of administrating in eternity.  Obviously, he is very capable of “enforcing laws,” or our moral obligations, without limit in eternity if not here and now, as he often does through the providence of governments, natural disasters, and other things in his creation.

To show that God exists, I will build on the above premise about objective morality.  This is a version of the moral argument used by William Lane Craig.

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

3. Therefore, God exists.

I have laid out some reasons for premise 1 prior to the challenge section, and you, my fellow blogger, have assented to premise 2 twice already.

Challenge:

I need to see that you can show me that the Christian god exists and is the only one responsible. Can you do that? You seem to have ignored my point that most, if not all religions, make the same claims, that their god/gods created the laws of mankind. This makes your claim simply one among many. Do you understand the weakness of your position?

Response: I just offered arguments for God’s existence through the moral argument above.  Are there other Gods?  Occam’s razor advises us not to multiply causes beyond necessity.  One deity is sufficient to cause our existence.  The one triune God has revealed himself through the Bible, which includes multiple, reliable historical narratives attesting to the death and bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, fulfilled prophecies concerning the messiah, and is internally consistent.  It’s clear in this body of evidence that there is only one real deity.

Challenge:

If there were any objective laws from your god, then why did we have Christians on both sides of the slavery debate? Which side was on your god’s side? Why do we still have Christians who cannot agree about women’s issues, homosexuality, etc?

Response: Through the noetic effects of sin, the ability for all humans to know truth accurately has been impaired but is not without recourse.  That Christians, or anyone for that matter, may not apprehend objective morals with accuracy doesn’t affect the reality of objective values.  You have also assented to objective morality, so you share a similar burden to the Christian in justifying your specific stance on morality in contradistinction to the many others on the table.

Challenge:

I suspect you will invoke “free will” and claim that those Christians who disagree with you are not Christians at all and that your god is allowing them to make the mistakes they make. Again, this requires you to show me that your version is the only true version, and that your god exists at all.

Response: Free will is irrelevant to disagreements within the church.  There has been a recognizable pale of Christianity throughout the church’s history, sometimes captured by the idea of C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.  There does exist a “true version” though it is obviously impossible for a human to know all its detail fully and accurately.  God’s grace is sufficient for a church whose constituents hold varied beliefs on secondary issues.

Reflections on The Dark Knight Rises

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises for many reasons, not the least of which is Hans Zimmer’s ominous and expectant musical score.  Like the preceding entries of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy, the film is rich with the timeless tensions we face both as individuals and as a society. And though some have denied it, it can be read as a social commentary relevant to the divisions that rend our world today. Here are some observations on my part.

Rebuking Revolution

One strand of Rises’ plot sees Gotham City, a self-contained symbol for society, undergo the trial of revolution. There is a scene clearly meant to evoke, in a twisted way, the storming of the Bastille at the onset of the French Revolution. We also witness the workings of a kangaroo court, another French legacy replicated by Marxists and other would-be world changers.

On facebook I’ve seen at least one anarchist express a sense of betrayal and disappointment with Christopher Nolan for what he saw as a manifestly reactionary tone. Yet, the varied dispositions of Gotham’s denizens, from apathetic to licentious, continually tease the viewer with the idea that Gotham might not be worth saving.  This tension, as with the previous films, is at the crux of the narrative itself. Rises certainly airs out the ugliness and excess of revolution, but it is not authoritarian agitprop.

The Thin Blue Line – Campus Observations

For any Hollywood production, it’s refreshing when the police are not the all-out bad guys.  Of course this makes for an awkward tension with cinema’s core consumer, the disaffected adolescent male. But just as Batman puts himself on the line to do what is necessary and right, so it is good that self-indulgent audiences get a dose of reality as to who and what holds civilization together.

One way I survive working on a liberal university campus is listening to podcasts. The other day I had to get new ear buds for my personal player, so I traversed the student union to reach the campus bookstore.  Signs every few feet admonished passersby to not block physical access to the unions’ various businesses.  Last winter, Occupy had done just this to force a closure of U.S. Bank’s campus branch.  Where services were once transacted, only a dim, empty room remained, pocked by outlets sprouting unused cables.  “Direct action” is good at tearing down, not building up.

The posted signs attest to our litigious society, where personal responsibility has been completely outsourced to superfluous fine print warnings. The larger civilizational failing is that the campus administration, out of fear of seeming heavy-handed, allowed a group of kids to shutter commerce and diminish the vitality of the campus.  And then there is the needless lawsuit that followed.

As if these signals of decline weren’t enough, the very headphones which I purchased were branded “Riot,” with a cartoon depicting dozens brawling in mayhem, not unlike the criminal vs. cop melee at the climax of Rises. Also included in the packaging were stickers and a spraypaint stencil with which to vandalize one’s environs and allay whatever sense of self-righteousness and alienation one’s music might produce.

Despite these dire signs, there is still hope.  On the same campus can be found a quiet, green spot where parents walk their small children.  Once, I spied a bicycle cop stopping by one mother and son.  The boy instinctively hid behind his mother’s skirt.  The policewoman produced a small candy for him, and some words were exchanged.  This kind of scene is the hallmark of civilization: parents passing healthy attitudes onto the next generation.  In case you missed it, cops are there to serve and protect us.

Who is the real hero?

As with the previous two films, Rises tracks two parallel crises: that of Bruce Wayne, and that of Gotham as a whole.  Bruce must confront his own doubts and limitations to prevail, but each of the city’s citizens must also.  At one point, when hope of outside deliverance appears lost, Jim Gordon proclaims the city must be saved from within.  Powerfully revealed in the course of the film is the idea that even small virtuous acts by ordinary citizens can have outsized consequences.  As dark, tortured, and brutal as the film is, the viewer cannot escape the boy scout ethic–a confident, selfless, and felt moral responsibility–at the drama’s core.

Much in this lavish, blockbuster epic points to the ineffable nature of morality, the “oughtness” we feel and the volitional nature of doing good.  Ultimately, nothing is determined but what we will.  It’s rare and good when we can get a hint of this in a summer action hit, as we did with The Avengers.  To be sure, we get this in spades in The Dark Knight Rises.

Destiny without Deity

Like lots of folks last week, I invested a bit of time looking for a good Valentine’s Day Card to give my beloved.  Whether for a birthday or some other occasion, I’m always dismayed by the selection of cards in the store.  For the most part, they alternate between mildly profane and unbearably saccharine.

I did manage to find an agreeable V-Day card.  However, another card happened to catch my attention.  It was one of those sappy ones, but different; a card that wanted to retain a sense of romantic destiny without tipping a hat to deity. I don’t remember it verbatim, but in essence, it read something like this:

“I am in awe of a universe that put the two of us together, and even more so that it knew I needed someone who could put up with me.”

It was a striking example of two powerful but opposing forces at work in the human mind. On the one hand, the propensity toward awe, and on the other, the conspicuous denial of whom that awe is owed to. What does it mean to be in awe if not to acknowledge the masterful work, power, or fury of a willing agent?

And describing a universe that knows something about the couple beforehand not just implies intelligence, but borrows from a sense of divine providence. It shouldn’t have been a big deal for the card to just say “God” instead of “universe.”  Even a pantheist could be happy with “God” wording; on such a metaphysical view, God is the universe.  So maybe the card maker was trying to be inclusive of an acutely irreligious clientele.  Whatever the reasoning, the consumer is confronted with an inconsistent sentiment on the card shelf.  Our material universe cannot be owed awe or have foreknowledge.

The late pastor and apologist Francis Schaeffer gave us a potent tool for making sense of this inconsistency in his concept of the upper story and the lower story. Imagine human knowledge as being contained in a two-story house. On the lower story, we have truths about the material world: what we can learn through empirical inquiry and science. The facts formed from the observation of physical phenomena do not support any normative end in themselves.  Even with them, we find ourselves asking, “How now shall we live?” We somehow must find those answers in the upper story, where morality and meaning reside.

On a pre-modern worldview, which allows the possibility of the supernatural, we can ascend a staircase that connects the lower and upper stories.  But with the Western Enlightenment came modernity.  Strict naturalistic presuppositions disallowed any real connection between the two stories.  On this materialism, there was no effective way to indict evils like the Nazi holocaust or European colonialism.  So postmodernism launched in an attempt to recover some sense of meaning for humanity. Yet, its claims on meaning and morality are only a “leap” of faith from the first to the second story.  It doesn’t even want to affirm any real logical connection.  Only an objective supernatural reality can ground true morality and purpose.

Without the supernatural, all our sentiments are empty.  That we picked out a nice greeting card and some flowers becomes a matter of simply going through the motions. There are still philosophers, like Luc Ferry, who suggest that we ground our meaning in the frame of reference of our fellow human beings.  But if matter is all there is, to speak of meaning as if were something real becomes itself incoherent.  Anyone who harbors such a worldview must come to terms with the idea that nothing can inspire awe, and that there is no path of destiny you can embrace. Thank God this is not actually the case.

World better without religion?

At some point, you’ve likely heard the lament that the world would be better off without religion.  You may have even unwittingly imbibed it this past New Year’s Eve, when Cee Lo Green covered John Lennon’s classic hit “Imagine.” The song starts famously:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

And in due course the listener is asked to imagine a world with “no religion too.”  What better way to kick off 2012?  I’m sure Times Square’s officiants Lady Gaga and Michael Bloomberg approve wholeheartedly.

Beyond the pop culture realm, but still in the confines of Manhattan, the Oxford-style debate forum Intelligence Squared US picked up on the same theme this October past.  For some time I’ve heard bits of their debates on NPR, but only recently did I bother to get the podcast.  Naturally floating to the top of my queue was the episode featuring the resolution, “The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion.”

The debate, held before an audience at New York University, was remarkable in that the pro- and con- teams were prohibited from discussing the existence of God.  At first this might seem absurd; whether  God exists or not is patently germane to the question of religion.  But the imposed restriction has the benefit of allowing the debaters to focus neatly on the social ramifications of religion.

Consider what religion is in the restricted sense of the debate: moral beliefs with social consequences, that happen to be theistic. Then listen to the debate participants in action, and the chief complaint becomes clear: people kill and oppress others on the basis of differing moral beliefs.  So, would any hypothetical, religion-free world be better? No.  We would only be exchanging a world filled with a diverse array of theistic moral belief for a world filled with a diverse array of atheistic moral belief.  That people hold moral beliefs, and differ from each other on those beliefs are immutable elements of humanity.  So is the fact that we are social creatures.  We cannot escape each other.  I suppose we can imagine a world of people in secluded pods, or one solely populated by clones, or else a world that is entirely monocultural.  But most people would rightly see such worlds as deeply impoverished and no improvement over our own.  An inescapable part of being human is living in a world with others who hold to different “oughts” and “ought nots.”

Let’s move from possible worlds to the historical record. For thousands of years, religion has presided over mankind, such that any given killer, oppressor, or victim for that matter, could in some sense be tagged by us as “religious.” Only after the Enlightenment do we start to see significant cases of self-identified irreligious individuals.  All we need is one instance where an atheist kills another atheist on the basis of differing morality to obliterate the idea that religion is uniquely harmful.  Consider who swung the ice pick that killed Leon Trotsky.  It seems someone thought he “ought” not have disobeyed Stalin.  Purging religion only allows new types of contentious belief to crop up and take its place. Religion doesn’t kill or oppress people, human wickedness does. Christians rightly recognize this as sin nature.

So, how did the Intelligence Squared debate turn out?  The pro-side, making the case things would be better without religion, persuaded more audience members at the end and thereby won.  Unfortunately, the con- debaters Dinesh D’Souza and Rabbi David Wolpe failed to decisively isolate the social idea of “religion” from man’s underlying wickedness.  But even if they effectively made that case, what other outcome could we expect from public broadcast patrons congregated in a New York university performing arts center?

That the finger of blame could be pointed toward oneself has been thoroughly expunged from our culture today.  It’s easier for some just to chalk our problems up to some conception of a social condition called “religion.”

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