Tag Archives: Religion

What People Are Really Searching For

Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.

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What Makes a Good Explanation?

Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:

  1. A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
  2. A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
  3. The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.

Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?

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ISIS, Evangelicals, and the Mantle of Moral Leadership

Even if you’re reading this ten years from now, I doubt you’ll have forgotten the horrifying events of the summer of 2014.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have, among other atrocities, besieged members of the Yazidi religious sect at the Sinjar mountain, where children have died of thirst; they have captured and enslaved hundreds of Yazidi women after killing their male relatives; and they have issued “convert or die” ultimatums to hundreds of other members of this often-persecuted minority, slaughtering at least one entire village that refused. ISIS have not been kind to anyone, but they seem to have an especially large ax to grind with the Yazidis, holding them to be polytheistic devil-worshipers who should not be allowed to live.

How can this happen in the 21st century? Haven’t we arrived at the point where every person on the planet knows it’s wrong to besiege a religious minority, to enslave and rape its women, and to kill its men? Have we not learned that nothing can possibly justify this behavior — not even even the demands of the One True Religion?

Apparently not. But at least we Americans have gotten the memo, right?

Again, apparently not. I have heard more than one such American use the same thinking as ISIS to justify the same behavior as ISIS and defend a tribalistic morality that is just like ISIS’. I have heard this from Americans who are nice people and whom I otherwise respect. Are you surprised? You shouldn’t be; there are tens of millions of Americans who hold these views.

I am thinking, of course, of American evangelicals. Before you close your browser, hear me out.

Consider Bible passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15, in which the God evangelicals worship commands his people (verse 15) to besiege (verse 12) members of other religions, and enslave them (verse 11), treating women as “plunder” to be “used” (verse 14) after killing their male relatives (verse 13).

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

As Christians who believe the Bible is God’s Word, evangelicals must defend God’s commands in this passage as “good” — and they do. As a member of that group for 40 years, I heard all the reasons.

“Those nations were evil and deserved what they got” is the primary one. “He had to drive the infidels out of the Promised Land” is another. “He was forming his people” is a third.

That sounds a lot like “This is where the Islamic State belongs and these Yazidi devils who are in it now don’t deserve to live,” doesn’t it?

But what if evangelicals are right? What if God really did have good reasons for ordering genocide, enslavement, and the plundering of women? Is that possible?

The thought is not as crazy as it sounds. Ironically, the idea that some entities are justly privileged to do things that others may not is what the rule of law is all about. Think about it. The State gets to put criminals in jail, but if a private citizen does the same thing, it’s called kidnapping. The State may impose a fine, to be paid to itself, but if a person does that it’s called stealing.

So is God like the State, meting out justice in ways for which the rest of us are not qualified? Not in the case we are considering. The claim that God is perfectly just, coupled with the claim that he is omnipotent, implies that whatever he is up to in Deuteronomy 20 is the best of all possible worlds. What we call atrocities are, in fact, the highest good. His plan could not possibly be any better.

Is that true? Presumably a state of affairs in which everyone, including God, is at least as well-off would be a better one. Can we think of such an outcome?

It’s easy. Here’s one modest improvement. Surely there were children in these cities who had not yet reached the age of reason. If they worshiped another god, it was only because their parents dragged them to church, so to speak. They did not deserve to become slaves. God could have tucked in a verse along the lines of “…but every child under the age of ten, you are to raise as your own, lovingly teaching them all I have commanded.” To kill the parents and steal the children would still be barbaric, but it would be better than calling the kids “plunder” to be “used”.

And don’t even get me started on what it meant to “use” the women as plunder. Are we seriously saying that such explicit permission brought about the highest possible good?

And let’s not forget that God could have sent his Holy Spirit on these distant cities, converting them into worshipers of himself, or at least giving them the chance. He would supposedly do exactly that in a few hundred years. Why wait?

The argument that God was doing the very best that could be done, given his broader purposes, just doesn’t hold up. The hard reality is that the God of the Bible ordered the same atrocities that ISIS has committed, for much the same reasons, with just as little justification. And tens of millions of evangelicals in America continue to defend him for it.

I believe that most evangelicals have good hearts and want what’s right. I believe that if all the passages like Deuteronomy 20:10-15 were in a book other than the Bible, Christians would believe that book to be inspired by the devil himself. Yet there they are in the Bible. Christians now must choose between defending and repudiating them. As long as they continue to defend, it will be hard for some of us to believe that Christians are in touch with moral reality.

Christians who stick by those passages have the same moral epistemology as ISIS: consult an ancient text and justify whatever you find there. Why should such an epistemology, which has led to moral and humanitarian catastrophe in Iraq, be trusted in our churches?

American evangelicals want to wear the mantle of moral leadership. That’s fine, but to qualify they must stand up and thoroughly repudiate the moral philosophy of ISIS.

The Moral Landscape

The Moral LandscapeI almost didn’t read Sam Harris’s book, The Moral Landscape, because I could not imagine it had anything worthwhile to say.

The book gets its title from the idea that various moral viewpoints are like different locations on a landscape. Moral systems that are associated with greater well-being are the higher elevations; those that bring misery are the valleys. For example, the moral system that characterizes a typical, first-world democracy, while not perfect, is certainly at a higher elevation than the brand of morality to which the Taliban would subjugate us all. Our job, says Harris, is to get to the highest ground possible.

I’ve always been skeptical of utilitarianism — the idea of “the greatest good for the greatest number.” First of all, how do you establish what is “good”? And even if you can measure the good that someone experiences, how do you combine those measurements across several billion people to produce a meaningful statistic that lets you make a moral decision? And let’s not even talk about the conundrums exposed by trolley problems! Before reading his book, I thought Dr. Harris’s idea had to be just another cul-de-sac in the utilitarian suburb.

My own view, which I outlined last fall, is that humanity’s competing moral systems are nothing more than memes, but, happily, the memes that cause their adherents to flourish will eventually dominate.

It turns out that Dr. Harris’s ideas are compatible with that view, but he strengthens it with a dose of moral realism. I would summarize his argument thus:

  1. Moral values must ultimately be about the well-being of conscious organisms (including God, if you will). If there were a value that had absolutely no impact on anyone’s consciousness, we would by definition have no reason to value it.
  2. One’s well-being is embodied in one’s brain state.
  3. We have thus made a link between morality and physical fact.
  4. Physical facts are the domain of science.
  5. Science can therefore help us find moral truths.

As Dr. Harris puts it, “morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.” (Just to be clear, Dr. Harris, a neuroscientist, is not saying that we should seek answers to all moral questions by attaching electrodes to people’s scalps.)

In the next several posts, I’ll relate some points that were most thought-provoking for me such as…

  • The Bad Life versus the Good Life.
  • The disastrous consequences of separating facts and values, as practiced by the Left.
  • Ditto, when done by the Right.
  • An analogy between moral health and physical health.
  • How much respect should we give other views?
  • Have we flown the perch built by evolution?
  • How does an afterlife figure in all this?
  • Can suffering be good?
  • What about religion?
  • Hume’s is/ought distinction.
  • How a barbarous act by one person  becomes respected if it is a cultural practice.
  • Might there be more than one answer?
  • The strange case of the Dobu Islanders.
  • If we were to concern ourselves with maximizing well-being rather than with right and wrong, what would we lose?
  • The most important task facing humanity in the twenty-first century.

There’s actually a lot more, but that’s all I’ll promise for now. Stay tuned!

The War of the Memes

In my last post, I outlined the concept of memes as coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom or an idea, for example.

Sometimes we say that ideas have a life of their own, and that is exactly true. They parasitize first one brain and then the next, and like any good parasites they have evolved diverse ways to ensure their survival.

Some ideas are what we’d call good memes. They survive by giving benefits to their human hosts, who are then happy to transmit them to others. “It is better to give than to receive” is one such meme.

Others are evil, manipulating their hosts through superstition and fear. I have earlier written of a tribe in Venezuela who believed that if twins were born one was good and one was evil. The meme directed the parents to leave the evil one to die in the jungle, at the direction of the witch doctor. Sadly, the parents were slaves to their memes, as we all are.

Memes are at war, and our souls are the spoils of war. In the case of the Venezuelan Indians, the meme of child sacrifice was defeated by memes of Christianity as carried by missionaries. One might say that an invasive species did some good.

So who will win: the good memes or the evil memes? Will the human race fall back to the Dark Ages, or is our future brighter than that?

I am optimistic, and here’s why.

Humans are physically weak creatures. We want to succeed but the only way we can do so is to cooperate with each other. We’re also relatively smart, so we do observe the world and eventually figure things out.

One thing we’ve observed is that the most successful societies are dominated by good memes. These societies have encouraged democratic participation by their citizens; valued women; elevated family and monogamy; developed effective and relatively corruption-free judiciaries; built an ethos of relatively honest dealing in business, as well as laws to punish dishonesty when it arises; and (most of all) shunned the extreme, gratuitous violence that so characterized society 500 years ago. On that last point, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Also, do watch his TED talk on the subject.

We have a long way to go, but we have also come a long way.

People whose societies don’t have those beneficial memes tend to invite them. China is opening up. Last year, we saw the Arab Spring. The world is becoming more free; societies are becoming more just. The good memes are winning.

The march of history is largely one-way in this respect. There may be fits and starts (as in Russia), but the trend is very clear. People want to be prosperous and happy, which only happens when the good memes dominate.

Thus, the ecosystem in which memes develop is changing. A successful society based on cooperation, honesty and tolerance cannot long host memes of phobia, criminality and bigotry. Even in my lifetime we have seen once-unimaginable gains in civil rights; the removal of stigmas; better treatment of the handicapped; and a “not gonna take it anymore” attitude toward formerly sacrosanct powers such as priests who sexually abuse children.

And then there’s the small matter of truth. People have now seen that the scientific method finds the truth more reliably than does dogma and blind faith. There are pockets of resistance, but Reason has been steadily marching forward ever since the Enlightenment. I can tell you from personal experience that once people have awakened from a lie, they don’t want to go back to sleep, no matter how pleasant the dreams were.

As society ratchets upward from the violence (you really do have to listen to that TED talk), superstition and bigotry of the past, evil memes are being squeezed out of their habitat. Simultaneously, the ecosystem is expanding for memes of cooperation, reason and tolerance.

If we were solitary creatures, the outcome might differ. It all comes down to biology. Fortunately, in yet another miracle of emergence, our weakness must beget cooperation, reason and tolerance. It has been a long, slow climb, but whether you look back 50, 500 or 5,000 years the trend is clear. I see no reason why it won’t continue.