(Photo of Asimo, a humanoid robot created by Honda. Wikipedia photo taken by Gnsin at Expo 2005.)
Over at Why Evolution Is True, Professor Coyne has suddenly woken up to the fact that for many people (including scientists), morality is a powerful reason for believing in God. Coyne thinks this is silly, and that the whole attempt to derive morality from God is doomed. But the arguments he puts forward for his point of view are rather facile, and he fails to address the central problem with his own position.
What might that problem be? Like most atheistic scientists, Professor Jerry Coyne doesn’t believe in free will. As he puts it:
Indeed, studies of the brain are pushing back notions of free will in precisely the way that studies of evolution have pushed back the idea of a creator-god.
We simply don’t like to think that we’re molecular automatons, and so we adopt a definition of free will that makes us think we’re free. But as far as I can see, I, like everyone else, am just a molecular puppet. I don’t like that much, but that’s how it is.
And again, here:
It seems to me that in view of physical determinism (plus fine-scale physical stochasticity involving quantum events), there is no way that we can make decisions that are truly free. Some, like [Humanities professor William] Egginton, simply finesse the question by redefining “free,” but I don’t think that these redefinitions of “free will” comport with how most of us understand the term, or with how it’s been historically (not philosophically) understood.
(Emphases and square brackets mine – VJT.)
So tell me, Professor Coyne: if we are not free, then (a) how are we supposed to be good, (b) why should we bother anyway, and (c) why should we blame those who refuse to make the effort, if their decisions aren’t really free?
Another inconsistency of atheists who share Professor Coyne’s views on freedom is that they are nearly always angry at someone – be it the Pope or former President George W. Bush or global warming deniers. I have to say that makes absolutely no sense to me. Look. If I’m just an automaton, whose behavior is determined by circumstances beyond my control, as Professor Coyne claims, then I can quite understand someone attempting to re-program me, re-educate me or condition me into behaving the “right” way, if they don’t like what I’m doing. I can even understand someone deciding to liquidate me because I’m a faulty piece of machinery that cannot be re-programmed. But please, spare me your moral outrage, your sermonizing, your finger-wagging lectures and your righteous indignation. That I cannot abide. You don’t lecture the PC on your desk when it doesn’t do what you want. If I’m just a glorified version of a desktop PC, then why lecture me?
Next, Professor Coyne invokes Plato’s Euthyphro argument in order to discredit all forms of morality that are based on belief in God:
Religious people have yet to come to grips with Plato’s Euthyphro argument (originally couched in terms of piety rather than morality, but the principle is the same): we would not follow God’s “morality” if God decreed that we perform acts like taking slaves or killing the wives and children of our enemies. That’s because we don’t really think that morality is equivalent to the dictates of God. Rather, we have a prior notion of what is moral. If you respond that God is good, and would never ask people to commit immoral acts, that too shows that you have a notion of morality that’s prior to God. (It also shows that you haven’t read the Bible.)
Here’s my answer to Professor Coyne:
Regarding the Bible, see my comments below. All that the Euthyphro argument proves is that our general notion of morality is prior to any revealed religion, and hence that morality cannot be based entirely on some alleged revelation from God, or some supposed set of commands from God. Our general notion of morality is grounded in the nature of things – hence the term, “natural law ethics.” A thing’s nature defines what is good for it. But a thing’s nature is in turn grounded in the reality of the uncaused, omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent Being who maintains the universe in existence and who gives things their natures. This is the God of natural theology, and the reason why we invoke such a Being in order to explain the cosmos is that no other being is capable of doing so. And in the absence of such a God, there is no satisfactory way in which an atheist can answer the meta-ethical question: why should I treat other individuals in accordance with their natures? Why should I want what is good for them?
“But isn’t the standard of good still something external to God?” I hear you object. My reply: that depends on what you mean by “external.” If you mean that living things (which have a good of their own) are by nature distinct from God, then of course the answer is yes. But if you mean that they are independent of God, then my answer is no.
“But why couldn’t God be omniscient and omni-malevolent by nature, instead of omni-benevolent?” I hear some readers ask. Because it is He who gives things their ends, which define what is good for them. For Him to will the wholesale frustration of ends that He had created would be a contradiction in terms. Nor could God be morally indifferent: that would mean that God had no desire to realize ends which He created in order to be realized – which is another contradiction.
I conclude that the Euthyphro argument can be easily answered, and in no way weakens belief in God.
Next, Professor Coyne asks why theists and atheists tend to reach similar moral conclusions, if morality is ultimately based on God:
If you derive morality from God, how come atheists and religious people give similar answers to moral dilemmas (the work of Marc Hauser and colleagues)?
The short answer is that (i) atheists, like religious people, possess the use of reason; and (ii) atheists, like religious people, are capable of recognizing the nature of things – including human beings – and identifying what is good for them, up to a point. I say “up to a point,” because atheists and theists are likely to differ when it comes to ultimate human ends like religion, which includes the worship of God, as well as on our obligation not to alter our God-given natures (e.g. by having a sex change operation, or replacing part of your brain with a silicon chip).
I might add that citing Professor Marc Hauser as an authority for a scientific assertion might not be a good idea, at the present moment.
But Professor Jerry Coyne has more ammunition up his sleeve: why, he asks, if God is changeless, does morality change over time?
And if morality comes from God, why has what we view as “moral” changed so much in modern times? Most of us now feel that slavery and the subjugation of women, racial minorities and gays are immoral, but they weren’t seen that way a few centuries ago. Did God’s orders change?
First, morality isn’t based on God’s orders, but on the nature of things, which owe their being to God. Human beings possess reason and free will; hence slavery is contrary to their nature. Men and women alike possess reason and free will, and all races of human beings possess these faculties; hence there can be no grounds for subjugating one race or sex to another. And no-one, as far as I know, has ever argued that gays lack reason, so enslaving them is out of the question, regardless of how one views their behavior. The fact that many people in past ages failed to recognize these obvious conclusions doesn’t require us to assume that God has changed. It’s people who have changed, not God.
Second, the changes that Professor Coyne describes apply only to a relatively small sliver of human history. People have always favored their own tribe, but racism based on skin color is a relatively novel phenomenon; the Roman Empire, which had African Emperors (see here and here), a Senate that was one-third African at one point, and many Africans in prominent positions in society, was largely free from racism. And while the subjugation of women was pretty awful in ancient Greece, it was nowhere near as bad in ancient Sumer, let alone in prehistoric societies. My point here is that the “Whig view” of history as a long steady march towards liberty is flat-out wrong, and the notion that religion has held back morality is even more so. Atheists had little or nothing to do with most of the moral advances that have occurred in human history: the elimination of child sacrifice; the elimination of infanticide; the rule of law; habeas corpus; the adoption of international rules for warfare; the acceptance of international arbitration; the elimination of slavery; the elimination of torture; the recognition of women as men’s spiritual equals; and the elimination of racism. Atheists should stop claiming credit where credit is not due.
Third, I would invite readers to have a look at the following articles, which illustrate how religion has saved hundreds of millions of lives during the past 2,000 years:
A Global Perspective in the Epidemiology of Suicide by Associate Professor Jose Manoel Bertolote and Dr. Alexandra Fleischmann.
Bertolote and Fleischmann point out that in Muslim countries (e.g. Kuwait) where suicide is most strictly forbidden, the suicide rate is close to zero (0.1 per 100,000). The suicide rate is highest in atheist countries such as China, where it is 25.6 per 100,000. There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. If they were living under the atheistic regime of China, 450,000 of them would be killing themselves every year, or 45,000,000 per century. Anything that saves that many lives has got to be socially beneficial.
Live Longer, Healthier and Better: The Untold Benefits of Becoming a Christian in the ancient world by Professor Rodney Stark. In Christianity Today, Issue 57, January 1, 1998.
Reconstructing the Rise of Christianity: the Role of Women by Professor Rodney Stark. In Sociology of Religion, Vol. 56, Fall 1995.
The above articles by Professor Stark describe how the Christian teaching of the spiritual equality of men and women, coupled with its prohibition of abortion and infanticide, improved the lot of women in the Roman Empire, and how Christians saved millions of Romans’ lives by caring for the sick during plagues. In the Roman Empire, the male head of the household could order any female living in his household to have an abortion. What’s more, a married woman who gave birth had no legal right to keep her child unless the male head of the household picked it up and set it down on the family hearth. Otherwise the child had to be placed outside in the street, where it would either die of exposure or be picked up by some unscrupulous rogue and sold into slavery. Girls were exposed far more often than boys: research has shown that the ratio of men to women in the Roman Empire was at least 120:100.
“So what’s your point?” I hear you ask. Here’s my point. Population of the Roman Empire: about 60 million people. Annual number of births (assuming say, 40 births per 1000 people per year): about 2.4 million, or 1.2 million boys and 1.2 million girls, of whom 200,000 were killed. Enter Christianity: up to 200,000 girls’ lives saved per year, or 20 million per century, or 200 million over a period of a millennium. Still think religion doesn’t matter?
90 Million Missing Females, and a $45 Trillion Gap: The Fruits of Misguided Family Planning. Zenit Daily Dispatch, 24 July 2004.
Examines the social consequences of female infanticide in China and India, and of declining fertility rates around the world.
Finally, Professor Coyne argues that the Bible illustrates the utter folly and futility of basing one’s morality upon belief in God:
And what about the “morality” of scripture? Clearly God once ordered all kinds of genocide and murder, including rape and (my favorite story) inducing a bear to murder forty-two youths for simply making fun of Elisha’s bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24).
But this objection is irrelevant to the key issue. Andrew Zak Williams’s article in the New Statesman, which Jerry Coyne is commenting on, asked public figures and scientists to explain why they believe in God, not why they believe in Judaism or Christianity. Many respondents nominated morality as a reason for believing in God. The issue we need to address is therefore whether morality requires God, in order to be rationally justifiable. Arguments based on allegedly immoral commands by God in Scripture are therefore beside the point. At most, they prove that the God of the Bible is not the true God. Such arguments leave classical theism – defined as the belief in a God who is transcendent, perfect, omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent, immutable and incapable of being decomposed into parts – entirely intact. Logically speaking, one can accept classical theism without believing in any religion.
In any case, arguments based on allegedly immoral commands by God in Scripture are weak. The books of Scripture were written 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, in foreign tongues (mostly ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek), by people whose mindset and mental outlook was very different from our own. Using the story of Elisha and the bears, as Coyne does, to argue against revealed religion assumes that we know who the offenders were (Were they young men, teenagers or boys?), what their intentions were towards Elisha (Did they mean to harm him or merely to mock him?), what their offense was (Was it mockery, blasphemy, attempted assault or attempted murder?), and to what degree they were punished (Were they actually conscious and in pain while being mauled to pieces by the bears, or did God cause them to drop dead instantly of shock as soon as the bears appeared?) We can’t be certain of any of these things, for the story in question. There are too many unknowns.
Professor Coyne’s unfounded assertion that God orders rape in the Bible is also based on his own highly questionable interpretation of Scripture. The following articles may serve as a useful counter-balance: an article on the slaughter of the Midianites and another on Old Testament laws about rape and virginity by Christian apologist Glenn Miller; The Bible and Rape – A Response to Michael Martin by Matt and Madeleine Flanagan; and The Old Testament and Rape by Sam Shamoun.
In short: Professor Coyne appears to suffer from the naive delusion that there is such a thing as the “plain sense of Holy Scripture,” which an individual can discern for him/herself. The fact of the matter is that Scripture is never plain; it must be read in the context of the time and culture in which it was written, and the community to whom it was written.
I will conclude by asking Professor Coyne a question: how can he criticize scientists and public figures for grounding their morality in a belief in God, when his own brand of atheism offers no alternative, and even denies human freedom altogether?