Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The amorality of faith

Stanley Fish, reviewing Steven Smiths “The disenchantment of secular discourse” in the New York Times:

the “truncated discursive resources available within the downsized domain of ‘public reason’ are insufficient to yield any definite answer to a difficult issue — abortion, say, or same sex marriage, or the permissibility of torture . . . .” If public reason has “deprived” the natural world of “its normative dimension” by conceiving of it as free-standing and tethered to nothing higher than or prior to itself, how, Smith asks, “could one squeeze moral values or judgments about justice . . . out of brute empirical facts?” No way that is not a sleight of hand.

It’s here worth first bringing in the critique of Isiah Berlin on the (in)compatibility of the many values we seek in this world

“One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals… this is the belief that somewhere, in the past, or in the future, in divine revelation, or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted good man, there is a final solution. This ancient faith rests on the convinction that all the positive values in which men have believed must, in the end, be compatible, and perhaps even entail one another”

The real sleight of hand being proposed here is by Smith and the religious who are not making moral judgements but rather outsourcing the decision to another (a god or spiritual sense). Secular reason instead can turn empirical facts into evidence of the nature and outcome of any specific policy we may pursue. So we can make the moral judgement that we ought to allow abortion, in the full knowledge that this will lead to the deaths of many unborn children, or we can choose to disallow abortion in the full knowledge that it will cause pain, suffering and occasionally death on many adult women and their partners. In both cases we go into these decisions well informed about the consequences of the choices before us and therefore though neither outcome has an entirely positive outcome, we can make a valued and valuable judgement (one that reflects back both on how we want others treated, and letting us set a heirachy for our values). Sometimes we will get this wrong. Communism was an attempt to endorse one standard of equality as a moral means, which having failed badly has now been abandoned. But we have learnt much along the way, in ways that the religious simply cannot (for to learn from practice would be to elevate it above the objective. Though you see this all the time as the religious go about their business ignoring old world proclamations about selling their daughters into slavery or killing those who work on the sabbath). The religious on the other hand make no such informed and experiential judgement. For whilst they are just as aware of these empirical facts the moral damage taken by the chosen path (or abandoned on the unchosen path) can be simply swept aside as irrelevant because god or some other force has decided the question for us. They are therefore morally absolved of the death of women in child birth, or the pain experienced by women who raise children impregnated in them by a rapist because they have not made a decision to disallow abortion, something has made it for them and they have defaulted their moral judgement to that entity. The religious are not making moral judgements by an objective standard as they like to portray themselves, they are amoral.

There’s something else that’s deeply pernicious going on at work here, and that is the demand that society make and hold all individuals to the same normative standards. This is the essence of the moralist, both that choices can be made (as above) and that these choices should then be enforced across the entire community. This is perfectly logical if you believe you are handed objective moral judgements from a third party, but not so within a basis of secular liberal reasoning. Yet while the religious portray this as a flaw of liberal reasoning, instead it is the basis for its single greatest virtue: Individual Freedom. In full knowledge that moral choices have outcomes that may not be positive to all elements of society, liberalism endorses the freedom of the individual to have sole domain over those choices whose consequences affect only themselves. Where these choices come to harm others, then utilitarian, experiential, and cultural choices can be applied, ideally with all individuals contributing to the choice by the society of its moral form via a democratic process. If unfortunate consequences are to result from an individual freely using drugs or having sexual relations, or ignoring the plight of others, then it is to that individual that the pain and harm will go. Others can learn from that persons choice, either taking steps to mitigate the harm, or making another choice entirely. The individuals objective standard is clear: Themselves. Few will continue to make cognitive secular reasoned decisions(leaving aside the mentally ill or infirm) that quickly lead to their pain and perhaps death, and if they have then that is their choice not ours.

Personally, as an agnostic I make no claim to the truth or falsity of the faithful. Indeed I often clump dogmatic atheists with their certainty that there is no god/spiritual side in with the faithful, as there is no strong evidence to support such a claim about existence. But my break from religion was driven not by such empirical concerns, nor a Darwin/Dawkins esq wonder about the clearly unintelligent design of life, but on moral grounds alone. Not only could I see no sensible answer to the question of evil, I saw and continue to see no evidence that religion increases morality. The moral are often drawn to or find strength in religion, but in outsourcing their judgements and in doing so in part through the fear of punishment they are abdicating much of what it means to be an autonomous moral being. I believe these people are moral but not for the reasons that motivate them, but for the actions they do. Those who dedicate their lives to helping the poor or the homeless or the dispossessed are people of great moral worth and should be applauded and supported wherever we find them, but these would be good people with or without their religion. Why they need to pollute those good acts with subservience to either conscious or unconscious spiritual elements that have allowed generation after generation of men and women to do great harm to one another, whilst removing moralities critical elements of judgement and responsibility I do not know.

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  1. MC

     /  March 10, 2010

    Atheists are not dogmatically certain that there is no god. However, they are certain that there is no evidence for God. This is significant difference.

    Atheists argue that since there is no evidence for God, people should not make moral judgements based upon their own presumption of Gods values. This is exactly the justification for secular reasoning your post makes.

    As for atheist spirituality, Dawkins himself speaks of his own spiritual moments frequently when discussing this issue. However, when they occur he does not attempt to rationalise them through the prism of ancestral faith.


  2. G’day MC
    When you get into the detail, most atheists are actually agnostic. In the books of both Dawkins and Hitchens you’ll find confessions that they favour a weak form of atheism that is actually agnosticism. The tag atheism may be sexier and many appreciate the clarity it offers, but when Dawkins and Hitchens call themselves atheists they are being misleading as they actually consider themselves agnostics. Atheism is a denial of god, in the way theism is a endorsement of it. There are many people who hold this position & who don’t deserve to be lumped with more skeptical non-theists. It is only agnosticism which is non-faith based position in asserting that we simply can not answer that question or have inadequate evidence to make a definitive judgement.

    To be certain there is no evidence for god means either you outright deny that there could be evidence, or that you are claiming complete knowledge of all possible evidence without anyone being able to agree what that evidence might look like (is existence evidence? are miracles? or Higgs-Boson particles? these are far too significant questions to be able to rule out as simply not there without claiming a level of knowledge that is not based on science but faith)

    However it is certainly plausible to be agnostic, while taking a position that you see no evidence for god and do not live your life according to the belief that there is a god(s). I wish Dawkins and co would use the proper labeling (indeed the ones they claim for themselves in the depths of their texts) as it would help side-step the fake persecution complex some religious individuals are claiming has emerged from the ‘new athiests’ this decade. I don’t believe that mere argument is intolerance, but Dawkins & Hitchens don’t help their efforts when they label their position as more absolutist than it actually is, as Dawkins did repeatedly on Monday night on Q&A on ABC tv.

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