Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mr. Dawkens is wrong in the right way.

Do please watch this video in which Richard Dawkens (The God Delusion) affirms that his sect of Athiesm does indeed reject the idea of an "absolute morality" and is, indeed, rather alarmed by the whole thing. 

He then goes on to establish that most people of faith reject many "moral standards" and social norms that are stated in the Bible - slavery and stoning adulterers, for example. He's entirely correct, so far as he goes... Please watch the video, and I'll get into the "however" of it after the jump.

The flaw in his argument - that religious morality is absolutist - is upset by his own observation, that religious morality has, in fact, evolved and matured over the millennia. And this is really my quibble; an annoyance on my part towards those arguing either side of the case.

Being a very stodgy Episcopal, (by the Grace of God and the Great Lord Henry!) I was taught from a young age that morality was a matter of individual conscience and that the expression in (King James's) English of the entire point to having a moral compass was so that you could properly "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." It was more or less explicitly stated to us, as rather small children, that we should never let our morality get in the way of doing the right thing.

I was later tossed into a seething den of Jesuits, who's entire practical approach to matters of human interaction and morality is indeed... relativistic. (An educated Dominican might snidely observe that Jesuetical relativism approaches alarmingly close to C. )  Now, Jesuits rank guarding the interests of the Church above individual conscience, although they are rather alarmingly iffy on the whole idea of papal and even priestly authority. But let us say that the Jesuits are, indeed, Jesuitical. And they say it as if it were a bad thing.

As for myself - well, if accused by a frothing moralist of indulging in Casuistry, I will nod and affirm that judgement proudly. Regardless of it's abuses ('It depends on what the meaning of "is" is..') absolute rules applied absolutely do not work well, and lead to far greater predictable harm than that caused by those who manipulate the looser strictures of case-by-case reasoning.

And all of this comes clear in any discussion of the merits of absolute biblical morality versus the more outcome-oriented views which are now derided as "humanistic" by the sorts of people that believe in absolute, inflexible, unforgiving Rules from On High. Circumstances DO alter cases, we all understand that, particularly when we find ourselves between the rock of moral virtue and the hard place of personal consequence.

And due to that, well, we all know our own circumstances are exceptional - but those other people have no such excuse!

Suffice it to say, I reject absolute morality as being absolutely immoral; furthermore, I consider the arguments in it's support to be so obviously pin-headed that I rarely bother to dispute them. Perhaps this is due to being argued at by those practising the religious equivalent of glue-sniffing. Perhaps someone will undertake a defence of the assertion (which I've often seen) that without strong, legislated Judeo-Christian Moral Values, without the pledge of Alligence Referring to God and a nod to Himself on the coin of the American Realm, Civilization will Collapse, for people will do just as they like - and that would always be the most evil thing conceivable.

The technical term for that is "projection," by the way. I don't have to refer to the ten commandments to infer that harming other people leads to bad outcomes. It's a rather good listing of various bad ideas that will lead to bad outcomes. I refer to it often, since I can't come up with a more concise and complete list on my own. But to me it's an inherent truth; it doesn't need to have been revealed word to be obviously true.

But back to Dawkens. Dawkens fails to note something I find incredibly irritating and intellectually disreputable - the entire foundation for modern Secular Humanism, the greatest part of the body of work that it rests upon, all the heavy lifting - was done by religious thinkers.

Now, all of this is quite apart from the arguable merits of the thinking. But as Dawkens (and indeed, everyone else speaking of these matters) uses great hunks of this thinker or that thinker, it seems proper to me to acknowledge two points.

1. Most ethical thinking comes from religious thinkers, directly or indirectly.
2. This includes specifically those who originally disputed the idea of absolute moral law.

In writing this, I very much wished to have a statement or resource in favour of Moral Absolutism in the sense that the questioner posits and that Dawkins is arguing against. Well, the closest I could come to in terms of illustrating what Dawkens is against is But Fred Phelps is a cartoon; indeed, he's a flaming straw man. Phelps is to genuine Christian Morality and Christian Ethics of any foundation as Ebola is to RNA.

Or perhaps he's more generally against the sort of moralist who says "The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It." But that's just stupidity.

Perhaps he confuses the viciously judgemental with a sincere morality. Or perhaps - and I'm sure many Christians feel this way when confronted by his rather patrician snoot - he equates being religious with being too stupid to tell the difference.

I have some fairly religious friends, but they don't let their religion make them intolerant of others; they don't use morality as an excuse to withhold compassion and they aren't snotty pricks about it. I don't sort my friends by faith - I sort them by ethics. So "not snotty pricks" is a rather good criteria for sorting out the unsuitable.

Which, I'm afraid, is the worst excess of the more juvenile specimens of Atheism and Christianity alike. They are snotty little pricks who add nothing to the discussion at all.

And to both I have one single thing to say. "Sit down, shut the hell up, read your damn source texts and earn yourself the right to an opinion."

As for Richard Dawkens himself - Sir, do please reach above the low-hanging fruits. You make the essential point that we must have an ongoing discussion as to what society, morality and ethics mean. This is not a trivial discussion and the leading lights of one view should contend with the leading lights of the other. I would suggest, Sir, that a debate with some mouthbreathing cretin from the Discovery Institute says nothing informative to Christian Ethical Thought or to Athistic Social Imperatives.

You need to take on someone of the calibre of John Shelby Spong. And on that day, I shall bring the popcorn.

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