ABSTRACT. A continuation of my last post dealing with not the second half of Ravi Zacharias’s The End of Reason, but the second half of what my stomach could stand. Here, the Argument from Morality, the stereotypical “evil atheist” argument, among other bric-a-brac and detritus, are discussed.
What apologetic sophistry would be complete without the Argument from Morality? As Zacharias formulates it,
Objective moral values exist only if God exists. Objective moral values do exist [a point Harris concedes in his letter]. Therefore God exists. [pg. 56]
There are two problems here. First, the assumption that objective moral values exist is only God exists is unjustified. The best that one can do is say that since humans attach moral values to actions that are very similar (but not necessarily identical) across our species we have a common source for our ability to make moral judgements. That’s it. Attaching a source for this common ability is not valid without further justification, and amounts to a circular presumption of the argument’s conclusion. Zacharias tries to get around this by asserting that
…in a world in which matter alone exists there can be no intrinsic worth. [pg. 56]
In other words, because Zacharias can’t imagine how morality could come about through natural processes, it must be of supernatural origin. Again, I ask- “Why?” This is the logic fallacy known as the “false dichotomy”. He has not shown that this assertion is true. As far as I can tell, he hasn’t even bothered to see if there is an answer to this before arbitrarily leaping to God as an explanation.
Fortunately, there are others (like Marc Hauser and Franz deWaal) who do look for answers. Morality came about as an inevitable result of a social survival strategy. Evolution shaped our brains by rewarding those who treat other members within a group in a co-operative fashion and ostracizing those that do not. Zacharias finds Bertrand Russell’s answer to Fr. Frederick Copleston’s question about how Russell judges between good and bad actions-
By my feelings.
insufficient. But Russell was ahead of his time. Even though he could not have known the evolutionary source of morality, he was exactly right. We do not judge actions as good or bad as if they are inherent properties of an action, but by how we feel about them. That is evolution’s way of getting us to act in particular ways. We feel good when doing something we think of as good not because there is something inherently good, but because it gives us a nice feeling. Good feelings are what get us to do good things, but there is nothing inherently good or bad in any action. Why we feel good in an evolutionary sense is that good feelings result from actions which tend to promote the survival of the group. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about group selection here. What helps the group survive (act co-operatively, enable trust between group members, distribute workloads, etc.) helps the individual survive. And we have a good deal of data from anthropology, primatology and biology which demonstrates this.
Second, when Harris is talking about an objective moral framework, it is not the same thing as what Zacharias thinks it is. Zacharias’s view (and that of most Christians) is that objective morality is absolute and unchanging. But this is demonstrably false. Objective moral values are are determined by culture. Many will view this as being relativist, but that is simply not so. Moral values can not be willy nilly. You can’t simply go against millions of years of evolution honing intragroup behavior in a matter of a few centuries of millennia. The Golden Rule, for instance, isn’t easily erased. But there is still room for variance, and it is not reasonable to claim that it does not change with time and culture. When the commandment not to murder was written it did not mean “don’t kill anybody”. Rather, it meant “don’t kill a fellow Jew“. We gentiles were fair game. Jared Diamond describes this first hand in his The Third Chimpanzee. In the South Pacific, when two strangers meet the first thing they do is try to see if there is a common bond. If none is found, they try to kill one another, a demonstration of the difference between in-group and out-group social dynamics. Our modern interpretation of the prohibition on murder changes the definition of “in-group”. I don’t want to belabor the point, as I have written on this elsewhere. The point is, morals are objective not because there is some absolute scale set by a god (which has its own problems in the Euryphro Dilemma) or because actions have some inherent quality which makes them good or bad (as mass is an inherent property of matter), but is a judgement process based on our evolutionary and social history, and is in constant flux. We now pronounce slavery in any form to be immoral, but if you could tell the authors of the books of the Bible (Old and New Testaments) this, they would think you utterly deranged.
Zacharias goes on to try to frame atheism as a source of the Holocaust.
Has Harris read about Hitler’s own spiritual journey? Has he read anything about Hitler’s dabbling in the occult? Is he aware that Hitler personally presented the writings of Nietzsche to Stalin and Mussolini? Is he ignoring the fact that others who were not Jewish were also slaughtered by Hitler? Did he read Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann’s last words that refused repentance and denied belief in God? Does he know how many Russians were killed by the Nazi machine? Does he recall Hitler’s words inscribed over one of the gas ovens in Auschwitz – “I want to raise a generation of young people devoid of a conscience, imperious, relentless and cruel”? Does he know that Hitler’s point was that the destruction of the weak is a good thing for the survival of the strong and that “nature intended it that way,” as is taught by atheistic evolution’s tenet of natural selection….? [pg. 52]
Two can play that game. Does Zacharias know that Hitler grew up a Catholic? That Hitler’s dabbling in the occult has nothing to do with atheism? That the writings of Nietzsche are irrelevant to the discussion? That the SS guards who lead their victims to the gas chambers had “Gott mit uns” inscribed on their belt buckles? That artificial selection as Zacharias describes is totally irrelevant to natural selection? That Hitler’s Final Solution was already laid out in Martin Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies? That in Mein Kampf there is not one mention of Darwin, evolution or natural selection? That books on evolution were banned as being seditious, so that the eugenics programs weren’t even based on evolution at all? Hitler was inspired by the writings of Lanz von Liebenfels, a defrocked monk? That Mein Kampf never mentions Darwin or even evolution, but God, the Almight and Creator are named dozens of times?
Zacharias gets upset that
When it is Stalin or Pol Pot who does the slaughtering, it is because they are deranged or irrational ideologues; their atheism has nothing to do with their actions. But when a Holocaust is engendered by an ideologue, it is the culmination of four hundred years of Christian intolerance for the Jew. [pg. 52]
Not much of a history buff is Zacharias. Stalin had the full support of the Russian Orthodox Church throughout his reign of power. And Pol Pot was indeed an ideologue born of his own culture. To ignore their cultural history and then claim that their atheism caused their actions is spurious and utter nonsense. In fact, it is dogmatic thinking – whether secular or religious – which produces such attrocities. Religion can be viewed as just another ideology, one that happens to have a deity involved. Atheism certainly can’t induce any behavior- it is nothing more than disbelief. Ideologies have to be added to atheism to get anywhere. Communism, fascism, whatever- there is no way to synthesize these ideas from atheism. But there is little difference between religion and other ideologies. And let’s face it. “Christian intolerance for the Jew” is very real. Just ask Mel Gibson.
Nor does Harris ever claim that religion is the source of bad and irrational behavior; rather, it provides the excuses to perform such acts. It serves to bypass the normal moral boundaries to perform acts of unspeakable horror as witnessed in the former Yugloslavia after its break up. You can not get to any ideology from atheism. It must be atheism plus the ideology. However, it is inconceivable that the Holocaust could possibly have occurred in the absence of anti-Semitism, a Christian construct (at least in Europe). It wasn’t till recently that the doctrine of anti-Semetism was removed from Catholic teaching. If Christianity is so tolerant, as Zacharias claims elsewhere in this book, why is that? And what of those who lead their victims? Were they all atheist? I highly doubt it. Where was their righteous indignation and refusal to carry out their orders if Christianity leads to such a strong set of moral values?
But then, “the human heart is bent toward evil”. Isn’t that a horrid thing to say? Doesn’t that show a complete lack of faith in humanity rampant in religions? Isn’t it terrible to think that when he meets someone on the street, his first thought is that they must be a terrible person if they don’t share his delusion? His religion teaches us that we are but worms. We have a disease and only his religion, conveniently, can cure you. That’s a powerful tool, shame. The good news is that you don’t have to buy into it. Nor should you. We as humans don’t always act with others in mind. But nor do we always act solely in our self-interest, either. Accept our humanity, I say. Admit that we have our failings and our victories. Examine our own lives and work to better ourselves and our society in real, measurable ways. But Zacharias’s religion would have us view the world in black-and-white, a completely skewed view indeed. There is simply no evidence to suggest that religion makes a person better for it, and often excuses bad behavior.
Then we get to atheism removing “hope”. But hope for what? That this life is awful, but if you tow the line the next one will be better? People like Zacharias accuse us atheists of devaluing life, but this belief that there is another life after this completely devalues the only one we know about! And there is no evidence that there is any life other than this one, Zacharias citing cases of “near death experiences” aside. All the evidence for near death experiences points to the brain producing these illusions (very similar to out-of-body experiences which I have previously written about). So, if anyone is doing the devaluing of life, it is Zacharias.
And what does this “hope” have to do with the truth value of Christianity? Well, nothing. This says much more about Zacharias, not about the truth of his religion. It’s just another example of the Argument from Consequences. But Zacharias’s wishful thinking is completely irrelevant to the discussion, even if he somehow thinks it is. Further, it is one thing to provide hope to someone when there is some reason to believe that what is hoped for may come about. It is quite another to supply what is indistinguishable from false hope. This is one of the most insidious things I find about Christianity. How is this “hope” in any way differentiable from purely wishful thinking? It isn’t. Seeing the truth of this may hurt, but I only have interest in the truth value of a claim. How I feel about it isn’t relevant. It is immoral and downright mean to give such false hope. Zacharias thinks, “Who are atheists to take away hope?” I say to Zacharias, “Who are you to supply false hope?” The damage was done by the frauds in frocks first, not by atheists trying to get people to see that there is no reason to believe that there is anything to this “hope”.
Then there is the completely bizarre claim that we atheists “jettison love” in our unbelief. No, we don’t. I make no bones about love existing. But does this mean that a god must exist to supply it? Hardly. Again, we can point to the evolutionary tree to see how love arose. Mammals need to invest a lot of time in the rearing of offspring. Again, evolutionary shaping of our brain causes us to bond with our children and partners, which helps ensure our genes get passed on because we take an active interest in their well being. Again, it’s a reward system. We feel good when we do something with our kids. Sex with our partner is very important for maintaining a bond. We are rewarded for performing intercourse and very powerful agents like oxytocin are produced which affects those areas of the brain involved in the emotion called love.
I’m not going to tell you know that we understand everything about “love”, or even consciousness. But we do know more than enough to understand that emotions and consciousness have a purely evolutionary origin. But does this make our experience of love any less wonderful? Not to me, it doesn’t.
I’m now skimming the book. I can stand no more. Detailed reading makes me nauseous. I’ll just pick a few interesting points from his section titles. The first is “Is Christianity to Blame for Slavery”? Well, no. Of course not. Slavery existed long prior to Judaism, let alone Christianity. The Old Testament certainly condones slavery. Nowhere does is it condemned, and rules on the treatment and punishment of slaves (they can be beaten to the point where they do not die within a day or two) shows that the question of it being right or wrong wasn’t even considered.
Is the attitude in the New Testament different? According to Zacharias, it is. Paul (in his epistle to Philemon) writes of when he sent a runaway slave back to his owner pleading with him not to punish the slave harshly, but treat the runaway as a brother. Zacharias labels this egalitarian, and asks, “What more would Sam Harris like him to say?” [pg. 98]
How about “Nothing”, because the right thing to do would be to ensure the slave’s freedom? Paul was either totally heartless or incredibly gullable. Note that in verse 8 Paul says he could be bold and order him to do what he “ought to do”, but doesn’t. Why? It can’t be because Paul wants the slave owner to do this out of goodness of his heart. If the slave owner thought that slavery was morally wrong, he wouldn’t have had slaves to begin with. So why endanger the runaway slave on the off chance that his owner would do the right thing? Does Paul condemn slavery at all here? My reading of it is “no”; he’s just trying to reduce the punishment for the slave. Nowhere in the epistle is it clear that Paul is trying to convince the slave owner to release the slave.
Well, I can read no more. I can’t stand it. The book streams overflowing with logic fallacies and sophistry. There is nothing in it which would convince anyone other than those seeking to confirm their bias. At times, Zacharias makes no sense at all. If he ever was an atheist as he claims, he had to be one of the flakiest. There isn’t a shred of evidence presented in the book that supports his belief system. All he supplies are Arguments from Consequence, false dichotomies and several fictitious stories. Even a Burden of Proof fallacy. He writes [pg. 55], “But this moral lawgiver is precisely who atheists are trying to disprove.” No, Ravi. We are not trying to disprove any god. That is not our job. It is, in fact, your job to provide the justification for me to believe in your god’s existence. Epic fail.
I read this book because I wanted to see how the other side thinks. I discovered that they do not do it well. And that’s the source of my nausea.