The world’s best defense of religion (reprise)

[This is a reprint of an earlier post. With recently increased traffic to Fox Valley Thinker, I wanted to give new readers a better chance to see some of the older stuff]

OK . . . the title is a little over-reaching, I will admit, but I had a bit of an epiphany the other day. I have always felt a little guilty that I found no theistic arguments for belief at all compelling. Many, in fact, I find laughable and deluded. By never seeing the other side’s argument as having validity, I worried that I might be too closed off intellectually on this matter. I finally heard the best argument yet for dogmatic faith . . . and it came from me!


Several days ago, after yet more contemplation of the positive and negative aspects of religion, I provided myself with a new (to me anyway) defense of religion. In the way of background; I am the father of a high school freshman. I have always considered the imparting a moral and ethical framework to a child to be one of the highest purposes of parenting. In my relatively recent self-identification as a non-theist, I have analyzed child-rearing from a new perspective. There are groups of theists that will, quite assuredly, say that non-belief is synonymous with amorality . . . that a moral framework cannot exist in the absence of belief. I know this to be wrong. I know this from personal experience and I know this through empirical evidence; but trying to convince some believers of this is tantamount to convincing them that up is down. There is much evidence showing non-theists to be at least as moral as theists. This should allow us to dismiss the amorality claim as naïve; still it pours forth from the pulpit that atheists have no moral center.

I hope it is obvious to all readers that the single most effective way to communicate morals and ethics to a child is through personal example, irrespective of faith. If the people that the child knows, loves, and respects practice charity, show empathy toward others and generally puts other’s need before their own, that is what the child will emulate. Hands down; a parent’s example is what defines the child.

Still . . . If parents had some sort software they could install into their child’s brain, a “Morality v1.0” if you will, that would be convenient, wouldn’t it? It is not going out on a limb to say children do not posses the intellectual acuity to interpret the nuance of a proper philosophical discussion of right and wrong. Heck, many adults appear to lack that ability! But let us leverage the innate credulity of a child and posit a story that is accessible and comprehensible to a child. To that end; tell them that there is a god that watches everything. If you do bad things (he has provided a list), you will go to hell and spend eternity in a lake of burning sulfur. Your child believes you because the immature human animal is wired to do so. Just like they believe you when you tell them about the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, they believe that God is prepared to strike them down and condemn them to hell. There it is . . . simple, concise and oh-so-time-saving for the on-the-go Bronze Age parent.

And, right there, that’s the first major rub. The list was created in the Bronze Age. At the time, it was probably a nice dovetail into contemporary Bronze Age morals. Granted, most of what was laid down as commandments generally fits much of today’s generally accepted framework of ethical conduct . . . but it does show some age. For instance; rule number 10 states:

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.”

I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable that God decided to list the wife as a piece of property . . . and not even the first in the list! The ‘progressive’ Catholics at least broke this inventory list into two statements, ostensibly giving the wife some special status over a man’s ox and slaves . . . regular Susan B. Anthonys they are!! At least the Catholics had the good sense to apply some editing to the word of God. Wh . . Wh . . What was that?!? One of the very few times God himself hand delivers a communiqué to humanity and some feel the need to tweak it a bit?!?!? Wow!! Talk about brass ones!! Still; for the time, this was probably a no-brainer list of do’s and don’ts with no controversy to be found.

Of course the first half of the list of rules had nothing to do with “do unto others” kind of thinking. It was all about the self-protection of the story; the more that God was deserving of respect and the scarier he was, the less likely that kids would wander. To my mind, the whole thing it is the perfect parental shortcut. After all, the busy parents of the day had their day full . . . er . . . herding and . . . er . . . other stuff. I have little doubt that the biblical story, used this way, was quite effective.

The whole thing might be perfectly useful if 1) there was some universally agreed upon list of moral codes that would evolve as we gained new, real understanding of the human species and condition and 2) we let the kids in on the story once it was no longer useful (like we do with Santa Claus and other fables). Now some of you already have your pants in a bunch because of item ‘1’. “That is wishy-washy moral relativism” you might say. Relative to what? . . . our growing understanding of the human species and our growing body of empirical knowledge and philosophical understanding? Maybe you would prefer that we stick with moral absolutes that value the female spouse somewhere between your condo and your cat. Hmmmmm. Relativism doesn’t sound all that bad to me. In fact, the enlightened believers have always practiced moral relativism . . . that is why they are enlightened.

In honesty, though, I would give less than even odds that some universal list of do’s and don’ts could be created, but it would be an interesting experiment. I know the United Nations has a “universal” document but it is a) probably not universal for primitive theocracies and dictatorships and b) limited to human rights. Still . . . the effort would be interesting and actually give us important new insights into fundamental human ethics and morals.

The failure of the whole premise was that point ‘2’ (letting the kids in on the story) was not incorporated into the program. As an individual (hopefully) matures intellectually, they are able to better understand and reflect on the nuances of what is right and wrong. This nuanced understanding is far better than some terse list written down by moral leaders of ancient times.

So there you have it . . . the best defense of religious fables that I have yet to hear (or concoct). To my mind, this could even put an aspect of religion into the ‘defensible’ category . . . wrong and false, but defensible. Sometimes I impress myself . . but I am easily impressed.


8 comments:

Tony said...

I think the problem, here, even if the Biblical rules weren't a mixed bag, would be that there's just not much evidence that use the Morality v1.0 system is even particularly effective at controlling behavior in the first place, even among children. Hence the failure of stuff like abstinence pledges.

I think the Santa analogy is actually illuminating, here - I don't get the impression that believing Santa's checking his list has much impact on child behavior, except when children are specifically and explicitly reminded of it by their parents. But at that point the parents are directly addressing the behavior anyway, so the Santa system isn't really doing any work.

The Santa fable is defensible not because it's effective, but because it's fun. I don't see something similar for most (any?) religious fables.

FVThinker said...

I don't know that I agree Tony. While we recognize that biblical rules are unquestionably a very mixed bag in the 21st century; in the 1st century, it was possibly one of the most comprehensive and well codified codes of conduct going. Part of my point is that 1) the codes never evolved with with society and 2) The kids were never let in on the secret (that it was made up).

You are right in that is unlikely to have a sustained effect of moderating behavior (at least for the youngest subjects), but it would have some effect. I personally recall consciously restraining myself in advance of Christmas when my mother threw out a warning akin to 'Santa's watching!'. I am sure that it was a fleetingly brief curtailment of my being a normal young boy...but it was a curtailment. Even though it did represent direct parental action; it at least acts as a shortcut for more time consuming and complicated reprimands.

I could see the effect being somewhat more effective with God because instead of hearing 'Santa won't bring you that wooden top!' you hear 'God is going to cast you into hell, your flesh will burn off, and demons will torment you for eternity!'. I think even a young mind can grasp the import of the latter consequence and there would be a correlational increase in behavioral modification....fleeting though it might be.

I will extend the Santa analogy even further....
Looking at it; they are precisely the same model. Punishment for bad behavior (coal) and reward for good behavior (socks...er...toy). Turn the 'coal' into a 'lake of sulfur' and the 'toy' into 'eternal paradise' and you have the contemporary Christian model...and the parent doesn't even have to pony up for the reward.

Ryan Jennings said...

1st to Tony (commenter #1)...hey, my abstinence pledge worked quite well. Thanks for noticing.

Also, I've done about 10 years of research on abstinence pledges and their effectiveness. Worst year: abstinence pledges 4% more effective than non-pledge...Best year: 28% more effective...these are calculated by surveying couples who are married and later willing to anonymously speak up about the effectiveness of their pledges...if you, however, compare data on how abstinence pledges delay 1st sexual experiences, then you see the really good numbers...on average those who make pledges have first sexual contact approx. 2.2 years later than those who do not. Is that a positive? A victory? A good result? anyway you cut it I say yes...you decide!

Ryan Jennings said...

As I said earlier...good article that opens up worthy subject matter.

you said, "I finally heard the best argument yet for the purpose of dogmatic faith . . . and it came from me!"

I do enjoy your humor...refreshing in such a "screw-your-worldview" climate that dominates the blog-sphere. I like C. S. Lewis logic here too...he says (i paraphrase), "the innate desires within us offer proof themselves...we thirst so we seek water...we hunger so we seek food...we have a conscience so we seek a Law-giver"

you also said, "I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable that God decided to list the wife as a piece of property . . . "

Putting aside the patristic culture that still exists in the middle east and existed in the OT era throughout most of the world, your interpretation of this command is off-base. The rest of Scripture interprets this verse better...namely, "in Christ there is neither slave or free, Jew or Gentile, Male or Female", and "wife's body is the husbands and the husband's body is the wife's" (in marriage), and many others. It is easy to use obscure writings or radical interpretations from cults, false religions, or poorly fashioned Catholic interps to make certain verses seem awkward or even shameful in modern times...but in the end, most of these efforts fall victim to poor hermeneutics and only serve as propaganda.

Your explanation of the reasons for the first 4 or 5 Laws given at Sinai are off base as well...if you study the historical significance of the first 5 commandments you'll find that the Israelites (Hebrews at that time) had been in Egypt 400 years and had become thoroughly Egyptian culturally...significant here is idol worship, graven images, and the like...the first four Laws given at Sinai were given to rid them, culturally, of such practices...The last 5 do set up a worthy ethic for the Hebrews, but the first 5 primarily were given to rid them of Egyptian influences.

Here is where you are at your best in this article:

"Hands down; a parent’s example is what defines the child."

You are right and I'm thankful you know that while your children are still living in the home. Interestingly, your statement is merely a paraphrase of Commandment #5 and also the most popular passage in the OT for Jews for the past 3,000 years...Deuteronomy 6 (The Shema)...check it out

FVThinker said...

Thanks for coming by Ryan,
It is a busy weekend for me so I will be needing to responding piecemeal (and sometimes tersely) to your points in lieu of an exhaustive essay.

Abstinence only:
I believe Tony was speaking to 'abstinence only' programs (on the broader level) of appreciably affecting the numbers of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

I would expect that commenter Tony and I would be in the same camp in that sex, even teen sex, is not intrinsically bad or evil. (This position should not be construed as in any way condoning teen sex.) We as a species are utterly hard-wired to pursue sex. Speaking for myself; I feel we must acknowledge that we will have sex and that teens will have sex. To think otherwise would be like balancing a bowling ball on top of another.

Abstinence works until it doesn't work...and eventually (for the great majority) it doesn't work. At which point; we have done a disservice by not providing the information to our youth to mitigate the often life-altering and tragic consequences of unprotected/irresponsible sex. To deny children the education on options other than abstinence is the wrong...even immoral...thing to do.

Here is one scholarly link that well summarizes my position.
http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1054139X05004672

Abstinence only pledges seem to show some efficacy in delaying sexual activity but, in the end, they seem to merely redistribute when that activity occurs.

Of course we can just dismiss patently stupid and dangerous teachings like the Pope saying that condoms make the AIDS crisis worse!!

FVThinker said...

Re: Lewis and the seeking a lawgiver:

I believe, here, that Lewis was invoking the 'argument from conscience'. While I cannot dismiss Lewis' affirming and floral rhetoric; I (and others) can readily and casually dismiss the argument he makes. Invoking an actor for something that we can't [yet] explain is an easy mistake to make to...and this instinct transcends even our species. If ancient man heard a twig snap outside his cave; he had better assume that it was a tiger (the actor) before he goes to investigate and determines that it was merely the wind snapping a dead branch. We will, instinctively, attribute an actor to most any phenomenon. [To invoke natural selection: any cave man that wasn't innately paranoid like the fellow above would have been eaten (along with his family) by a tiger and never had the chance to populate the world...hence, we are naturally selected to be paranoid]

In the case of humankind, we, possibly to the exclusion of all other creatures, can contemplate such ethereal concepts such as time and life and death and ethics and morality (to name but a few).

[BTW: this is hardly a hard and fast truth. Reference this: http://www.physorg.com/news155819694.html which chronicles, unambiguously, how our primate kin have the ability to contemplate future events. This is a very high order of mental thought]

Lewis' argument fails in that it stops at the instinctive answer and then never bothers to do the further investigation and is, in the end, a false dichotomy. The existence of [what you might call] 'moral constants', can only mean 'some' source for those constants...not 'a specific' source for that those constants. Certainly we all recognize there there are 'moral constants' (though I would not use a term that connotates something so clearly defined). We all recognize that murder is bad, that sharing is good...but that is not unique to humans...and we have a body of empirical evidence to support that.
http://fvthinker.blogspot.com/2008/03/origin-of-morality.html

Sure we have a conscience and recognize 'moral laws' or 'moral constants', but the proper position to investigate their origins. Unbeknownst to many, though, is that there has been investigation into those 'constants' and the results don't jive with the theistic explanations.

FVThinker said...

Re: Interpreting The 10 Commandments...
My point, here, was not really about contemporary, American Christian/societal positions on gender equality. (and the piece having a large dose of satire…I don’t know that I was trying to make ANY serious point). Since you bring it up, though, I find it interesting that a list of rules in God’s own handwriting can be interpreted in ANY breadth. It seems to me, he would have said what he meant. Furthermore; we clearly diverge from the Top 10 list in contemporary culture…which is good. But it begs the question: Even if Yahweh did write 10 perfect commandments, it is quite evident that we have had many many many mortals (biased, fallible mortals) interpreting between then and now. If we can have such latitude with a memo directly from God’s office (let alone all the rest of the OT & NT, how can we trust anything but the original Aramaic and Hebrew verses (and even those were penned by mortals well removed from the events). The Bible (as any holy book) can only be as good as its mortal translators and scribes.

FVThinker said...

Ryan said: "your statement is merely a paraphrase of Commandment #5 and also the most popular passage in the OT for Jews for the past 3,000 years"I have two points on this.
1) I would, pretty wholly, disagree with your comparison to #5. The commandment is a demand on the child to honor their parents, ostensibly, without qualification and its observance is the responsibility of the child. My position is that it is the responsibility of the parent to set an example whether the child honors them or not. In fact; I think it is far better that the parent behave honorably. The rest, through example, will fall into line (for the most part). [Though to return to the theme of my post...it sure would have been a great shortcut to invoke #5 and God's wrath to snap a kid into line.]

2) Even if I were to agree that #5 and Deuteronomy spoke of the same thing as I; that in no way gives status to those tracts. Humankind has been trying to codify ethics and morals and behavior since, at least, the written word (and probably since the spoken word c.130,000BC). The Greeks, the Egyptians and the authors of the bible all took their stab at it. The biblical version isn't anything new nor is it particularly better stated than previous attempts. Merely another in the list.