Friday, January 28, 2005

Is your God in my in-group?

Religion seems to have a thousand and one uses. One of them is the equivalent of the old battle standard, which in these modern days of inhuman viciousness is known as an FOF (friend-or-foe) recognition system.

Take for example, the US insistence that their president must very publicly espouse a deep and enduring belief in leprechauns. No, strike that. Wrong rainbow. But that doesn’t matter so much, actually, as the thing about symbols of belonging to a group is that they must be arbitrary. As any evolutionary biologist will explain, if you have animal packs, you must have some way for them to recognise members of their group. What is more, these signals or symbols must have no inherent adaptive value in themselves as, if they do, then the most adaptive will most likely come to spread to the whole species thus undermining its value as a group recognition signal. Of course, things get more complicated with humans and social change but this is still evolution by other means and the same general rules apply – the stable states are the ones that are most likely going to be encountered. So, think about gang colours, post-modernist fads or military uniforms. All much of a muchness – and that is the point. Indeed, at one point in the nineteenth century one of the European armies came to have a unit which wore green uniforms instead of the blue or red that were de rigueur at that time. With these uniforms they were able employ very different tactics and to ambush their enemies. Very soon every military uniform was green and the general colour of the uniform was no longer enough to recognise whom one was supposed to hate.

The relevant thing for religion is its usefulness as a group recognition signal. Whom are we for? Catholics. Whom are we against? The Protestants. Easy. Well, of course, the signal has to be visible – the more dangerous the situation, the more visible it ought to be. On the other hand, it is only a symbol and needn’t be indicative of anything like actual beliefs or moral standards. Which brings us back to the US and the way Bush’s writers have been peppering his speeches with signal-words for the Rapture crowd. I wonder what they would make of the evolutionary explanation for their behaviour?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Can one be moral if there is a heaven?

I remember, back in university, going to a seminar by an American theist of some stripe. He claimed that atheists are immoral. His argument was that morality flows from God and, by cutting themselves off from God, atheists cut themselves off from morality. For some believers such an argument could, at first blush, make sense. However, once it was examined even slightly it was hard to know what he meant to be claiming. Did he mean that atheists can not act morally? That their actions have a different moral value? That they can not act on moral impulses? All of these claims seem patently false. Of course, it might be said that much of what theists say is patently false but that argument doesn’t wash – it isn’t good enough to just write off a whole group of people. Indeed, to do that would be to commit the same sin as the American speaker was committing.

So, what did he mean? I suspect he meant all three, in a way. To explain, I should bring up another thing that once happened. I was once seeing a woman who turned out to be a Christian of fairly staunch though heterodox beliefs – as I say, I really do feel like an irreligious being in a religious world! One day we were talking and she said something whose gist was that she helps people ‘to give witness to God’s greatness’. To me this was a preposterous thought since the point of helping people is to be help them; nothing more, nothing less. But, since then, I think I have come to understand, though not to share, her view. The existence of God wouldn’t just be the most significant fact about our universe in terms of understanding its make-up. It would also be the most significant moral fact. His existence would fundamentally alter the moral fibre of the universe.

Realising this, we can turn back to the American and try to understand what he meant. A parable might be of use, as well as being condign to the circumstances – I know not if it is wholly original. Imagine a servant who refuses to listen to his master’s commands and goes off to do his own will. What if he should happen to unknowingly do as his master wishes? Is he to be praised for this? Clearly not. It is only by accident that he has done what his master desired. According to the American theist ‘acting morally’ meant ‘acting according to God’s wishes because these were God’s wishes’. For actions or impulses to have moral value they must be motivated by such knowledge. All of that is, of course, a closed book to the atheist. In thinking this way, however, the speaker was making a deep assumption. Not that God exists – though he assumed that, too – but that the relevant relationship between God and people is that of a master and servants: thus the need for the parable. Essentially it comes down to why certain actions are moral while others are not. The view that was assumed by the speaker was that it is God’s desiring of certain actions that makes them ethical – just as the master’s desiring of certain actions might make them ethical on the right kind of view. Thinking that way, however, opens the way to the question of why God desires these kinds of actions and not others as well as to the question of what if God had desired us to do something else, such as pulling wings off flies, for example. According to this view the claim that God is all-good would be trivial as what is good would be defined as that which God wants. The alternative to this would be to think that God desires certain actions because they are, in some independent way, moral. However, such a view creates problems for theists in that it seems to put God in second place – reference to him seems supererogatory and it seems enough to just do the right thing without considering God.

This is not a new problem and theist ethicists have grappled with it for ages – without, I would argue, any hope of success. Unfortunately, the American speaker seemed to be unaware of or uninterested in the complexities and thus held a view that was really much more suited to a polytheist world-view in which one did things to please one’s own god so as to have their protection from the other gods. Still, none of this undermines the general point that God’s existence would constitute the most significant moral fact about our universe. A being that is all-powerful and all-good casts a giant shadow upon the actions of lesser beings. Two issues, in particular, arise. The first is the problem of evil with all of its baroque intricacies. The second is, again, best told via parable.

There once was a mean and villainous servant who would have stooped to anything to get what he desired. His master, however, was kindly and knowing. Aware of this, the servant did everything to please his master. He helped whenever he could and worked tirelessly to rise in his master’s estimation. And for his good deeds he was richly rewarded – just as he had desired. Still, was he to be praised? An evil man isn’t evil because he likes to hurt people – that’s a psychopath not an evil man. An evil man is evil because he is willing to do anything to get what he wants. If he realises that doing good will bring him the rewards he wishes for then that is what he will do. Thus, countries where there is low corruption are not necessarily less corrupt because there are fewer people living there who would be willing to take a bribe in the right circumstances but because the circumstances aren’t right. So the question has to be asked, does someone who believes deeply in God do something because they fear God or because they wish to do good? And, does it matter? The parable is a mirror of that presented earlier.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Should I do it if it feels good?

Whom would you rather talk to – the devout Christian who has faced doubt and still believes in God or someone who has never really considered the issues and simply acts out the beliefs their parents passed onto them? For me the answer is straightforward – I’d go with the thinking Christian every time. In a way I think that I have a lot more in common with the thinking Christian.

Dave Allen is a British atheist comedian whose best years were the late sixties and early seventies. I remember him once saying that he doesn’t trust atheists who were brought up atheist and far prefers those who were brought up in a religious context and then had to break away from it. There is truth in his sidelong observation. It is important to face up to the issue of God’s existence. It is also, of course, important to get the answer right.

This similarity between thinking theists and thinking atheists reminds me of another thing. In October 2003 New Scientist ran an article in which it listed several things – social status, etc – that appear to be statistically correlated with happiness. Being religious was one of them, which seemed to bear out the perennial theist claim that religion helps them live their lives. Once one looked in detail, however, at the claims being made, it turned out that it wasn’t religion so much as a clear, definite framework of views on religious issues that helped. As such, atheists obtained exactly the same benefits from their beliefs as the theists – only the agnostics and those who are effectively agnostic suffered in this category. It seemed that the problem was feeling unsure about the afterlife and other such things rather than not believing in them. All in all, the question of what exactly is happening would make a fascinating topic for research.

So, even if this will not stop theists from claiming that finding God helped them live their lives, an atheist can always retort – Killing him helped me live mine.

Dave Allen, in his usual, clear-eyed and witty way, has said that he wants the following text on his tombstone:
Don't mourn for me now
Don't mourn for me never
I'm going to do nothing
For ever and ever.

What's a dropped baby, by the way?

I suppose that saying that my wife and I are bringing up our daughter just as we’d want to is not as pure and simple as it might seem.

Just the other day I came home to find my mother-in-law and her mother hunched over my daughter. The way they were looking her over suggested to me something of the way that Baba Yaga must have looked at Hanzel and Gretel. “She’s been crying a lot,” my mother-in-law informed me. Funny, I had thought she was a particularly quiet child; I wondered what more was coming. “She’s a dropped child,” added my wife’s grandmother. “Sorry, a what?” I knew for a fact that no-one had dropped her, not unless they just had. “One of the bits of her backbone is not in place and it is causing her pain,” the grandmother’s explanation did not move me to trust in the judgement, “I’m just going to do a couple of things to fix it.”

So, here was a woman with, in so far as I knew, absolutely no chiropractic experience who was proposing to perform some semi-chiropractic procedure upon my recently born daughter. Her theory sounded preposterous, based upon what little I knew of children and backbones, while her proposal sounded plain dangerous. And, to make it all worse, she made it clear that she had no intention of actually asking me if he can do this. If anything, she was informing me of what she was going to do and only because I had just happened to walk in at this time. I thought that, under the circumstances, my response was very restrained. All I said was that I absolutely did not agree to my daughter having anything like such a procedure performed upon her. Still, it must have cut my grandmother-in-law to the quick as she was out of the house within minutes, my mother-in-law in tow.

Since then, I have found out a little bit more about this ‘dropped baby’ syndrome. It is an old wives’ tale which has managed to survive along with other ‘medical’ theories such as that black cats cause bad luck. Numerous babies have been very badly hurt by their well-meaning but know-nothing relatives stretching and twisting them at an age when such treatment is exceptionally dangerous. So, even if my grandmother-in-law doesn’t speak to me for a while, I do not mind. My daughter seems to be getting along fine despite not having received ‘the treatment’.