Monday, February 14

Challenge: Atheism essay 4

The final section of Atheism (by George Smith) concerns "the harmful effects of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, upon morality and the attainment of man's happiness and well-being on earth". Now, I admit, I approached these chapters with a small amount of hope, after all it is in the field of ethics where I think the claims of Atheists so often fall short. But I was, alas, disappointed.

First of Mr Smith starts by claiming, This identification of ethics with religion has no basis in fact, and few theologians care to defend such a position explicitly. This statement on face value is just a little laughable. A very large part of religion is about ethics, Law, the Torah. Stating that moral teaching are not to be found in Christianity (or Judaism) in specific or religion in general is just plain wrong. One might ask, what rock he climbed out from under if he thinks religions are not in the "ethics business". I'll admit I bridled a little when he briefly poked at "Christian examples" of social ethics which he felt were disasters, e.g., the Inquisitions and mixing of church and state. He felt it not necessary to mention secular examples of social ethical disasters from the 20th century, e.g., the Cultural Revolution or the Khmer Rouge.

On Mr Smith's "rational" exposition of ethics, he starts off on the wrong footing. He recognizes that one of the failings of the ideas of "rational" ethics, is that they too are based on assumptions taken on faith. To avoid this, he tries to redefine values as "facts" just like protons and electrons are facts. He says:
Medicine, for instance, prescribes those actions that must be taken in order to preserve health. A doctor prescribes what 'ought' to be done, but this prescription, to be valid, must be based on objective knowledge, such as the facts of human nature discovered through chemistry, physiology, anatomy, and so forth. Architecture is another normative science; an architect learns what 'ought' to be done in the course of constructing a building; and, as with medicine, his ought-judgments must be based on facts.
Which is of course, not true. First in the book I just read previously in this little Challenge exercise (Dr Sacks Awakenings), Dr Sacks cries out that defining health is not a dry cut objective thing. Those dry factual medical journal articles too often ignore the human element. That he emotional life, the spiritual life if you will, of the patient is to be ignored at the patient's peril. Also, architecture is not fact and "science". While the engineering aspects of concrete and steel must be followed, it is an art. Mr Smith states, "an architect 'ought' to do X, if he wants his building to stand", but he has to dream if he wants it to be beautiful. The architect who doesn't want his work to be beautiful, should get a new job.

Mr Smith contends, perhaps rightly, that in meta-ethics lie the fundamental disagreements between an atheists ethics and a Christians. Christian ethics, and in fact Christianity in general depend on giving yourself up to something greater. In the realm of ethics, Mr Smith will bow to nothing, be it man or God. That he bows to authority in many other walks of life. Certainly he does trusts the authority of the engineers who designed and built is airplanes, cars, computers, and food processing plants. He takes those things on faith, and does not feel the need to re-derive and understand from first principles all facets of his life. Mr Smith resists to the end the idea that we can take guidance from authority and use our reason to understand it.

Mr Smith also objects to, but fails to understand, sin. He thinks sin is a circular tautology: one should not disobey god, because to do so is a sin. And what is sin? A sin is disobeying god. I wonder what he thinks of Darwin, "Evolution is driven by survival of the fittest. And who are the fittest? Those who survive?" My guess is that he balks at the first statement but not the second. Why? Probably context. But in the large part, Mr Smith is caught up in "First Covenant" concepts, that we are saved from the consequence of sin by our actions. He doesn't get past the Christian apologetics discussions of sin in which it shown that we all sin, to the punch line of salvation by God's grace though faith. This displays a general feature I've seen before in atheists descriptions of Christianity, that is, they object to features of Christianity that aren't canon. This of course makes it more difficult to refute as it is indeed difficult to refute a position you don't hold.

Interestingly enough, this section ends with a discussion of the historical Jesus. This brings us full circle, because the text I had put forward in this challenge was in fact a new investigation, historical and theological, of Jesus. For discussions, I defer to those texts, or on the web (here).

Update: The Challenge started here and my three essays on the first book are here, here, and here. The other three essays (of mine) are here, here, and here. Jim of Decorabilia wrote three essays on the Challenge of Jesus which can be found here, here, and here.