Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Is Belief in God Immoral?

I have an ongoing conversation with a friend about belief in God, specifically whether there is anything 'redeemable' in it. We post things on Facebook in each other's general direction, baiting to the other to respond. Last evening he posted an opinion piece of Michael Ruse published today in the New York Times, 'Why God is a Moral Issue.' The article studies why the so-called 'New Atheists' think belief in God is immoral.'

So I'll bite. I'll respond to the general question of whether belief in God is moral or not.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was well-nigh impossible to doubt the existence of divinity-whatever name that might go by--or that divinity laid moral norms for how person's were supposed to think and act.

This is not to say that people didn't mock the gods or behave badly. They did. It is to say, on the other hand, that when they mocked the gods or behaved badly, they did not have an alternative system of belief like atheism to justify mocking the gods or behaving badly.

There were divine laws. People did what people do, and disobeyed them. That's what laws are for, and why they are promulgated in the first place: because people disobey them, and need to be 'nudged' back into conformity with the law. The term atheism, in fact, did not always stand for a system of belief, which is devoid of all but a negative reference to divinity. To be an atheist formerly mean to willfully break God's law, i.e. an atheist was someone who acted as if there was no God.

Sometime in the course of the last 400 years, what was before impossible to doubt was increasingly called into question--until, in the 19th and 20th centuries, whole sectors of Western societies ceased to profess a belief in God. This process gradually gained speed, especially in the last half of the 20th century, after two world wars, the growth of widespread material prosperity, and the increasing success of scientific investigation to explain the natural world.

What changed? A good many things, to be sure. I want to focus on how it is possible for belief in God to become immoral.

The usual story that our ability to believe in God (as well as the human soul, angels, miracles, etc.) was gradually undermined by the explanatory successes of the natural sciences. The essential points of this story have been debated at very great length. The story has certain merits. It makes sense of things from a certain vantage. But it also hides as much as it reveals.

The usual story requires a bit of nuance. One of the essential things that sets our modern scientific age apart from previous 'religious' ages is that claims about whether something exists or not and whether something is good or not came to be regarded as essentially different.

I am referring to the so-called difference between the is and the ought. Prior to our modern scientific age, it would have been difficult to ultimately distinguish between them. In our modern scientific age, distinguishing between them has become almost second nature.

The following example may sound a bit simplistic, but it represents the main point. To a modern scientific age, the fact that gravity causes an object to fall is neither good nor bad. It just is. The question of what is good or bad pertains solely to human desires and motivations, and not to the natural world considered in and of itself. Whereas prior to our modern scientific age, it was good that objects fell to the ground because that is what objects are supposed to do. That is what God created them to do.

To illustrate the difference a little more concretely, to a modern scientific age, it is not assumed that a person's physical make-up is determinative of who/what they are. A person might be born with the genitalia of a woman, but discover in the course of their lives that they identify as a man. This possibility only becomes conceivable in our modern scientific age. Whereas prior to our modern scientific age, a person who is born with the physical make-up of a woman is a woman is a woman, and a person who is born with the physical make-up of a man is a man is a man. Other possibilities deviate from the moral norm for being women and being men.

The difference between the two perspectives is the difference between night and day. The switch between them doesn't happen all at once; and doesn't happen to entire societies all at once. But once the switch is made, it is very difficult to imagine the world on other terms. Even religious believers get caught up in the switch. The result is that strange phenomenon we call religious fundamentalism, which insists on a literal interpretation of the scriptures, but uses the language of modern science to justify its position.

Michael Ruse's basic argument is that it is immoral to believe in something for which there is little or no evidence. I agree with the sentiment of the claim, but not the claim itself. It is immoral to believe contrary to the evidence. But this does not settle the very important matter of what actually counts as evidence.

The one thing that Ruse and his 'New Atheist' compatriots cannot seem to wrap their heads around belief in God ultimately has nothing to do with the scientific evidence.

If one accepts that natural scientific inquiry leads to genuine knowledge--and I do--then one has already accepted that the switch described above has taken place. Questions of the morality will now be judged on different terms than the scientific evidence.

Think about it carefully and follow the argument to its conclusion. If it were immoral to believe anything except that which conformed to the latest and best scientific information, then questions of morality must ultimately be submitted to the scientist in the laboratory or the statistician at a computer for determination. The most moral persons, in this picture, would be the scientist a the statistician, since they are the one's drawing the conclusions and disseminating the information. (If that doesn't deserve an LOL, I don't know what does.)

This makes very little sense; not in the least because most people are too busy living their lives, making sure they have a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food on the table, to consult the latest scientific journals.

Scientific conclusions are always contingent and provisional--and, perhaps more importantly, merely descriptive. They do not, and cannot, have the character of a moral judgment, which asks whether this course of action is better or worse than another course of action.

All of the scientific evidence in the world, in fact, will not produce a definitive moral conclusion. Science describes a universe that is billions of years old and tens of billions of light-years across. It describes increasingly complex natural and biological organisms. It even deigns to analyzes the complexities of human relationships. But for all its prescience, science never tells me whether it is better for me to do this or that, or to believe this or that.

Moral judgments, in this sense, differ from scientific conclusions like my body differs from the entire spatiotemporal extent of the universe. The difference is not a trivial one. Whether humanity evolved from 'lower' forms of life, for example, says nothing definitively about whether I should or should not do harm to the next person in this or that situation. The best an evolutionary explanation can do is offer reasons for why I did or did not harm the next person in this or that situation.

On the specific question about whether belief in God is immoral, Ruse is wrong to suggest it is immoral because the scientific evidence suggests that God does not exist. He is wrong because the evidence can suggest nothing of the sort.

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