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How Religious Arguments Cheat in the Marketplace of Ideas

While the separation of church and state is a norm in many western societies, it is often inadequately upheld in the marketplace of ideas. Claims that the country is a Christian country, and the controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution in schools suggest that some of the religious right have never fully accepted the separation. On the left, secularism is too often subordinated to cynical identity considerations. This was exemplified when the women’s march embraced sharia law proponent Linda Sarsour, and when Jeremy Corbyn referred to Islamist organizations such as Hamas (which violently enforces sharia law in Gaza) as “friends.”  Some more centrist sources argue that the only robust justification for a state power can come from God, or that secular values are granted unwarranted advantages in western politics. These examples illustrate the widespread ignorance of the reasoning behind the separation of church and state.

Secularism is one of the key foundations of any liberal, prosperous and democratic society. I will focus here on the distinctions between secular and religious moral beliefs, and how they operate in the marketplace of ideas. I define a moral belief as approval of a certain value or values, which may include prescriptions as to how to achieve those values.

Morality and the Marketplace of Ideas

In the marketplace, different ideas compete for public approval. A properly formed moral idea should include two key elements: the values it serves, and why its prescribed actions further those values. The first is a subjective value judgment, while the second is ideally a value-maximizing action prescription. While there are no clear objective standards by which to compare values, there are objectively better and worse ways of achieving a given value. Thus, a moral argument can be countered by refusing to accept the stated value, arguing that the prescribed action will not achieve its goals, or by stating which values the action undermines, and how. A victorious moral argument in a functional marketplace needs to further widely held values in an optimal manner.

Let’s imagine an argument between a vegan and an omnivore. The vegan may state that animals’ well-being is of value, that eating animal products harms their well-being, and that therefore veganism is morally correct. The omnivore may reply that he does not value the well-being of animals, in response to which the vegan could try to link animal well-being to a value held by the omnivore. Perhaps the omnivore values the mitigation of human suffering, allowing the vegan to argue that humans and other animals share similar neurological systems that allow them to suffer, and that the rigid distinction between humans and other species is therefore baseless. In response, the omnivore might argue that veganism undermines the values of freedom and physical health, and question whether veganism is an effective way to improve animals’ well-being. Eventually the two might reach an agreement, a compromise, or, at least, an understanding. Their arguments could also influence other people, and thus play a part in the marketplace of ideas.

So how do religious and secular moralities differ? Compare the biblical prohibition against eating pork, and John Stuart Mill’s defence of free speech. Imagine that a person named Jeremy believes strongly in freedom of speech, on the basis of the arguments outlined by Mill’s On Liberty. However, one day, Jeremy discovers that On Liberty has been mistranslated, and that Mill’s book actually asserts that only those agreeing with him should be free to speak. While this could undermine Jeremy’s confidence, there is no reason for him to change his stance. Jeremy’s cherished values, and the effectiveness of free speech for achieving them, are independent of Mill’s opinions. By contrast, imagine a person named Ben, who does not eat pork because the Bible prohibits it. His behaviour does not depend on a human moral value, nor on how the prohibition helps achieve that value. Ben does not eat pork because he values God’s word, and sees avoiding pork as a way to honour that. However, one day Ben discovers that the Bible has been mistranslated, and God actually commands mankind to eat bacon on the Sabbath. Ben’s own morality now obliges him to eat bacon weekly. Unlike secular moralities, which depend on human held values and expectations of outcomes, religious morality depends solely on the will and authority of the divine.

While some argue that secular morality is essentially religious, I argue that religious morality is essentially secular, yet it falsely claims to be something more. Given the huge number of contradictory and unsubstantiated claims of divine revelation, and the exponentially greater number of incompatible interpretations of these claims, the probability that a given religious moral claim (an interpretation of a revelation) is truly divinely approved is extremely small. So if religious moralities are not divinely inspired, where do their values come from? They come from the subjective values of humans. They come from authors and interpreters: humans with no more divine authority than anyone else. Thus, unless strong evidence for divine approval is provided, a rational marketplace of ideas should treat a given religious moral belief on equal footing with a secular moral belief. However, religion cheats by relying on false appeals to divine authority. This might fool participants in the marketplace of ideas, but it also means that religious moralities are likely to end up undermining the human values behind them.

Take the Jewish tradition of kosher butchery. It seems likely that kosher slaughter methods were originally meant to minimize the suffering of animals, and were effective at doing so. However, nowadays there are new methods of butchery, which are more effective at minimizing suffering. Kosher slaughter still follows the old methods, and attempts to make kosher conform to modern standards are met with uncompromising resistance from religious believers. This shows how religious morality can undermine the human values responsible for it, because it prevents believers from questioning the efficacy of religiously prescribed actions, and replacing them with better alternatives. Thus, religious moral beliefs that rigidly prescribe certain actions are objectively worse than truly secular beliefs based on the same values, unless they somehow prescribe the most effective action that is humanly possible.

The marketplace of ideas can successfully lead to compromises, in large part because people generally hold similar fundamental moral intuitions—though to varying degrees. For example, conservatives tend to value authority more than liberals, who favour fairness more than conservatives. But everyone seems to value authority and fairness to some degree, and neither are held as absolute, which makes compromises feasible. Conservatives and lefties can compromise because none of their conflicting values override all other concerns, and they can understand each other, since they share the same fundamental moral intuitions. Yet it is not clear how moral values based on appeals to divine authority can be compromised, since the will of the divine is taken as absolute. As Anselm of Canterbury puts it: “I ought not to oppose the will of God even to preserve the whole creation.”

Unsurprisingly, it is fairly difficult to find theocratic states free from religious strife. Even seemingly minor religious disagreements—such as those between Protestants and Catholics or Shiites and Sunnis—have devolved into armed conflicts both within and between non-secular states. The conflicts between, for example, Protestants and Catholics can be framed in terms of fairness (Protestants resisted ecclesiastical corruption), and authority (Catholics supported the Pope and tradition). This conflict between fairness and tradition is handled far more peacefully by liberals and conservatives. While religious claims generally cannot be compromised, the peace and prosperity found in most secular countries today suggests that conflicts between differing moral beliefs can be peacefully resolved. Thus, as long as religious morality is justified in terms of divine authority, it undermines our ability to peacefully reach compromises, agreements and understandings.

Cheaters Must Not Dominate the Marketplace of Ideas

The marketplace of ideas is meant to help people agree on common values, and to optimize the actions to achieve them. Those values and actions may then transform into norms, or even laws. In a functional marketplace, a society’s norms and laws reflect its most widely held values, and changes come about through a dialectic, democratic process. In a dysfunctional marketplace, changes in norms and laws come about through force and deception, and need not serve that society’s common values. A well-functioning marketplace of ideas is critical to ensuring a peaceful democratic society, as opposed to a conflict-ridden and tyrannical one.

Like most marketplaces, that of ideas is undermined when it is overrun by cheaters—which leads to a tyranny of unvetted ideas. If the marketplace of ideas is overrun by competing appeals to divine authority, it will lose its ability to demonstrate our shared values, and help us fine-tune our actions. In which case, changes to laws and norms will come about mostly through force, rather than agreement. The marketplace therefore ought to be protected from cheating arguments, which make false appeals to divine authority. Religious moral beliefs therefore have no place in the marketplace of ideas. Since politics involves using coercion to achieve certain values, these values ought to be based on a functional marketplace of ideas, where imposters are rejected out of hand. The state apparatus needs to be kept separate from religious morality.

That is not to say that the moral beliefs of religious individuals have no place in politics or in the marketplace of ideas, or that religious ideas are the only imposters on the scene. Many religious individuals are deeply moral and have good moral ideas to share, and there are plenty of imposters among secular ideas. But, in order to participate in the marketplace of ideas, moral beliefs—including religious beliefs—need to be justified in terms of their human values and have the efficacy of their action-prescriptions argued for and tested. Every legitimate moral belief ought to.

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41 comments

  1. Your entire case is built on a pseudological distinction between secular and religious moral beliefs. The categories “secular” and “religious” are descriptive and not particularly useful ones because they have no logical or epistemological import. A moral belief is not more or less true or useful simply because you’ve plopped it into one or the other category. (Worse, perhaps, your distinction between secular and religious seems to mirror those two very old categories, “my moral beliefs” and “not my moral beliefs.”)

    And, no, your criterion for a “properly formed moral idea” doesn’t save your distinction because it too is value-laden. You admit as much in your remark that a “victorious moral argument in a functional marketplace needs to further widely held values in an optimal manner.” Moreover, it’s worth pointing out that furthering “widely held values” is a pretty low bar for victory, whether done in an “optimal manner” or not. In fact, your criterion transforms moral argument into a kind of moral entertainment: “Let us now make bold arguments in favour of moral positions we already share!”

    The comparison between Jeremy and Ben is spurious because the reason Ben has to revise his beliefs and Jeremy doesn’t is a logical implication of the relation between their different instrumental and primary values. You write that “Jeremy’s cherished values, and the effectiveness of free speech for achieving them, are independent of Mill’s opinions.” No kidding. You don’t say what Jeremy’s “cherished values” are, but these must be his primary values because you make free speech instrumental to achieving them. Hence, what Mill or anyone else says is irrelevant by implication. But you make Ben’s primary value honouring “God’s word” and his not eating pork instrumental to that end, so a revision of Ben’s instrumental value becomes a necessary implication of a change in God’s word. Thus, you aren’t marking a difference between secular and religious belief; you’re merely juxtaposing two kinds of belief.

    Of course, a revision of your comparison would not save your conclusion from committing the genetic fallacy (i.e., that the origin of a value affects its truth) because, from an epistemological standpoint, all values are (as you put it) “human held and expectations of outcomes.” Add all the Toms, Dicks, and Harrys you want with different motivations for believing different values and you still won’t speak to the truth or utility of their values.

  2. The thing is, many arguments motivated by religion these days are couched in non-religious terms, as I think you wish them to be. Religious conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage, for instance, rarely engage in public debate solely to say ‘because God says so’. Often, they keep that justification among themselves, and instead say something like ‘a child needs both a male and female role-model living under the same roof as them at all times’. In some ways, that’s good, because then we can debate that argument on a level playing field. But sometimes it can be frustrating because, as contrary evidence hits the brick wall of zealotry, it becomes clear that you’re not really debating at all, and it would be simpler if they just came right out and said what they really believed.

  3. Can we just look at the paragraph about kosher butchery? In a sentence, the logic runs: given that the purpose of kosher slaughter methods is to minimize animal suffering to the moral benefit of them who keep kosher, this moral benefit would be further enhanced by adopting new, gentler slaughter methods. Flawless. Except the part where “seems likely” becomes the major premise.

    Indeed, the whole definition of “cheating” here is begging the question. “false appeals to divine authority?” You only get to defenestrate Maimonides so unceremoniously when the implication of appeals to divine authority is falsehood.

    Are we better off to accept this new authority whereby “seems likely” is enough to settle even the doubtiest of Descarteses? Is there any premise too shaky to support my values? Heidegger may have been Nazi scum, but at least he could tell his axioms from a hole in the ground.

    And, frankly, I’m still on the line to hear *how* religious arguments cheat. Is it because they proceed from unprovable first principles? Can I just summarize this entire essay, “Religious arguments are wrong because there is no God?” or can we expect to see your rewrite of Critique of Pure Reason in the future?

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    1. I will not give a substantive reply to this comment, since God told me I’m right, which means that you just have to accept that I’m right.

      Definitely not cheating.

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  4. I’m not as educated as Areo’s contributors but reading some of the trash these people write makes me happy that I’m not among the educationally anointed.
    I can’t tell you the number of times I couldn’t make it past the first paragraph of some of this drivel.
    The author writes.” separation of church and state is a norm in many western societies, it is often inadequately upheld in the marketplace of ideas.
    SINCE WHEN IS THE MARKETPLACE OF IDEAS A STATE DEFINED OR CONTROLLED CONCEPT?

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    1. My argument is aimed at participants in the marketplace, not regulatory authority. Cheaters should be rejected out of hand by us; the consumers in the marketplace. Religious arguments can participate, just like I can encourage people to not take these arguments seriously. I can’t have one without the other.

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  5. Benny, I disagree with the premise that “[s]ecularism is one of the key foundations of any liberal, prosperous and democratic society.” I would argue, instead, that a culture of pluralism, entailing tolerance of religious and non-religious views alike, is the key foundation of a liberal democratic society. A marketplace does not exist to convince everyone to purchase the same product or live the same way, but to allow all to choose for themselves. To some extent it may be true that “politics involves using coercion to achieve certain values,” but the conclusion that I would draw from that is that a free society is necessarily one that is extremely limited in its scope of political action in order to use as little coercion as possible and to allow all to live according to their own values, whether or not others regard those values as rational.

    Of course, as a believer in liberal democracy, I reject theocracy. But this is not because religious arguments are cheaters that lead us to impose the wrong values on everyone. It is because theocracy is a monopoly that uses coercion to achieve a uniform set of values.

    Along these lines, also, in a free society no one has the power to decide who may or may not participate in this marketplace of ideas. I would hope that you are not arguing for a dictatorship of the professoriate in which secular philosophers vet everyone’s opinions to see who is sufficiently rational to peddle their ideas.

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    1. I fundamentally agree with you. In my view, the state should exert power only when it is absolutely necessary, and that pluralism is the essential ingredient here (but it seems to go missing whenever the state adopts a religion). And no, my argument is aimed at participants in the marketplace, not regulatory authority. Cheaters should be rejected out of hand by us; the consumers in the marketplace. Religious arguments can participate, just like I can encourage people to not take these arguments seriously. I can’t have one without the other.

      So you wouldn’t say that the marketplace also helps us find common values, and hone our solutions? These are the elements that matter for this piece, and I’m not sure how we can do these things without the marketplace.

      Also I never wrote that the values promoted by religions are ‘wrong’. I specifically wrote that I have no way to objectively say which values are right or wrong. I have my own opinions, but I keep them to myself.

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      1. So, essentially, you really aren’t excluding religious ideas at all. You are saying that they should indeed be on offer in this marketplace, but that you personally would not buy them and that you would encourage others also to do their shopping elsewhere. Fair enough, but that appears to contradict your statement that “in order to participate in the marketplace of ideas, moral beliefs—including religious beliefs—need to be justified in terms of their human values and have the efficacy of their action-prescriptions argued for and tested.” According to my understanding of what you are saying now all moral beliefs can participate, but you are just hoping that you can persuade people to adopt those that can be justified by …” Fair enough, but I’m skeptical about how successful you’ll be.

        The question you pose in the second paragraph is interesting. My response would be, first, that common values are generally more effectively achieved by rhetoric than reason and that it is not a necessarily a good thing to seek commonality. I do think that we need to share some very basic moral ideas in common to live together (such as, don’t rob or kill each other). But a high level of moral commonality, or “organic solidarity,” is for a community of belief. A free polity is a community of tolerance and exchange, or “mechanical solidarity,” or “I go my way and you go yours.”

        I agree with you that transcendent values do lend themselves to verification or falsification. I don’t mean to be flippant though, when I suggest that it is odd that you say that you keep your opinions on values to yourself when you have just written an article arguing that moral beliefs need to be justified in terms of human values and testability. That’s clearly an opinion and it is obviously about values.

        1. I certainly won’t be successful alone. But I guess everyone has their own windmills to fight:)

          I agree that commonalities are achieved by rhetoric more often than by reason; I also hope to change that.

          Okay, you caught me. I value truth, logic, and probabilistic reasoning:
          1) moral beliefs should be justified in terms of human values, since we don’t have a reliable non-human source/authority for values. To quote myself: “Given the huge number of contradictory and unsubstantiated claims of divine revelation, and the exponentially greater number of incompatible interpretations of these claims, the probability that a given religious moral claim (an interpretation of a revelation) is truly divinely approved is extremely small. So if religious moralities are not divinely inspired, then where do their values come from? They come from the subjective values of humans.”

          2) I didn’t mention testability, or even empiricism. I argued for justifications for action prescriptions, since “there are objectively better and worse ways of achieving a given value”. Without a justification, we have no way of knowing whether an action can actually achieve the values it purports to achieve. And as before, ‘god says so’ is unlikely to be true.

          1. Well, I can’t judge how likely it is that a revelation is true. I’ve never had one. Like you, I would not take “God says so” as my guide for decision-making. But there is a line of argument, in modern times from Joseph de Maistre through Philip Rieff, that all values have to be rooted in an ultimate transcendent truth. It isn’t a line of argument I accept, but it does make a kind of sense – rationality must have some basis outside of itself. There are indeed objectively better & worse ways of achieving a value (i.e., procedural rationality), but this tells us nothing about what we ought to be achieving, i.e,, action prescriptions give us no way of deciding what values we should or should not pursue. I don’t think there’s a way out of that, other than to say that if you accept liberal democratic ends, then there are some actions that are more consistent with those ends than others. But if someone does not hold liberal democratic values or holds a weak or mixed version of them, then the action prescriptions you or I might favor (and I’m assuming we would not agree on all of those), simply would not apply.

            1. But you can judge that an unsubstantiated interpretation of an unsubstantiated revelation is most likely to be false. Again, the probabilistic argument applies.

              “All values have to be rooted in an ultimate transcendent truth” – I am familiar, and see no reason to accept it. Social and biological evolution, combined with material conditions, have much greater explanatory power as a root for values. As in we can actually predict things using these principles (i.e. genes (twin studies), wealth, inequality, violence, average lifespan, prevalence of certain pathogens etc., can predict which values people hold). Even if I do accept the need for an ultimate transcendent truth, it does not mean that a given religious claim can overcome the probabilistic argument without providing adequate evidence.

              “There are indeed objectively better & worse ways of achieving a value, but this tells us nothing about what we ought to be achieving.” I never said it does. What I wrote is: “…beliefs that rigidly prescribe certain actions are objectively worse than beliefs based on the same values, unless they somehow prescribe the most effective action that is humanly possible.” Such rigid action-prescription are commonplace in religions; the humility needed for acknowledging that your action is not ‘the most effective action humanly possible’ seems to dissipate when one believes the action is dictated by God. This is another reason (arguably the strongest, but also the most conditional one) for rejecting religious moral arguments (when they rigidly prescribe actions) out of hand.

    2. Carl, your ideal that government should limit the scope of its coercion and let individuals live according to their own values is a fiction unless someone sets the incentive structure for that to actually happen. This can only be done by people who altruistically value the liberty even of those who disagree with them on other values.

      The problem is that people who don’t intrinsically value liberty, such as people who believe in divine authority or other moral values overriding individual liberty won’t reciprocate – the motto then is “freedom of religion for me, but not for thee”.

      We see this in practice, e.g. in the voluntary euthanasia debate. In theory it would be easy to say, those who believe suicide is a sin should be free not to do it, and those who see it as a rational exit option should be free to do it. But that’s not how the politics works. In political practice, religious voters and politicians use their political power to coerce nonreligious people to lose their right to choose. When you tell them “But you are abusing government coercion to restrict the liberty of people who disagree with you!”, they will say “Duh. What do you think our goal was?”

      Rational people don’t cooperate with DefectBots on the iterated prisoner’s dilemma.

      1. Reasonable point. I think where I would disagree is where you say that “someone” needs to set the incentive structure. Who would that powerful, benevolent “someone” be? Yes, an intolerant political culture can undermine a free society and many, although not all, intolerant political cultures are religiously based. One of the problems with the project of designing democratic societies has been precisely that a civic culture conducive to liberal democracy must precede the political forms and that civic culture cannot be created from the top down by a blueprint.

        I gather that the best strategy for playing Prisoner’s Dilemma in multiple iterations depends on whether you are constantly changing partners and playing with people you don’t know or playing repeatedly with the same partners with whom you develop a tacit agreement.

        1. Exactly. By “someone”, I didn’t mean to imply an individual, but a critical mass of voters, politicians, judges etc. factoring it into their choices. This is not what we see in practice, e.g. in the euthanasia debate. The religious right has shown almost no intrinsic motivation to respect the pro-choice liberty of individuals who disagree that suicide is a sin.

          The fact that there is no central authority who can dictate liberty as a rule is precisely why it’s an iterated prisoner’s dilemma in the first place, and the religious right is defecting at (almost) every opportunity. If the rest of society still defends the religious right’s freedom of religion, it will not be reciprocated. I could spend my entire life defending their freedom of religion and they’d still ban my self-determination rights on the grounds that their religion should be made mandatory for me by government coercion. It would take exceptional, perhaps even idiotic self-sacrifice to overlook this. As far as I’m concerned, freedom of religion is over.

          1. The paradox of tolerance is a genuine concern. In the 1950s, Sydney Hook and other thoughtful people argued that you could not allow Communists freedom of expression because they would use that freedom to deny it to others. For my part, I do support freedom of expression for Communists and, yes, the religious right. It seems to me that if you declare of religion (or political opinion) to be over, you run the danger of becoming what you oppose and of contributing to an increasing polarization into mutually intolerant sides, rather than lessening any intent to impose religious beliefs through government. We are not Spain in 1936, but it is worth recalling the role of anti-clericalism in that sad history of extreme polarization.

            1. I have no problem with increasing intolerance and polarization. If the religious right wanted my tolerance, they shouldn’t have attacked my personal liberty. I harm those who harm me; if they double down, escalation becomes inevitable. It all started with the asymmetry that I was willing to respect their individual right to self-determination whereupon they attacked mine. Whose rights would I be violating if I bought a deadly dose of pentobarbital to take for rational suicide? No one’s.

              1. Well, you know who won the Spanish Civil War. Intensifying polarization generally does not end up with a victory for freedom and enlightenment. I fully support your right to buy a deadly dose, and share your opposition to those who would deny it to you, but I hope you find life good enough to stay with us a while longer.

          2. But are those religious people showing “no intrinsic motivation to respect the pro-choice liberty of individuals who disagree that suicide is a sin” doing it because they simply want to impose their belief it is a sin, or because their basic assumptions are that it would lead to a cheapening of the value of human life in society in general, i.e., choosing to protect human life as an ultimate social value, rather than individual freedom?

            What about animal rights activists who would ban the killing of animals for food or leather, or even dairy farming, etc.? That is not based on religious beliefs, at least not in the West, but reflects a basic belief in the sanctity of life for all sentient beings, and therefore not negociable, and therefore more like opposition to abortion.

            The more moderate ones may not want to ban it but just convince people not to buy it, but the more extreme ones would want to ban it outright. Does it matter if the people fighting for a ban claim religious reasons, or just moral ones? Not everyone agrees with those moral reasons.

            And anyway, any law attempting to outlaw behaviour held to be socially undesirable, e.g. smoking, polluting, speeding, drunk driving, etc., is just a less extreme version of imposing one’s values on others. It is just a matter of degree in the iconflict betweenndividual freedom vs collective good,

            1. I agree with your fundamental point that it doesn’t intrinsically matter whether a motivation is based on religious belief or secular moral beliefs. I’ve had my fair share of exchanges with radical vegans, several of them declared that I deserve no human rights unless I support animal rights. This has made me flip from someone who used to be an ethical vegetarian to someone who actively opposed animal rights efforts. As I said, I harm those who harm me.

              At least with pollution, drunk driving or speeding, we can identify negative externalities on the rest of us. One can have a reasonable disagreement on the degree of coercion this justifies against them.

              Since I don’t agree that human life is sacred or intrinsically valuable to begin with, I don’t see the abstract cheapening of human life as a negative political externality. The bad thing about murder is not that it ends human life or that it erases a person, but that it is nonconsensual and that it violates the preferences of a intelligent, self-aware person who doesn’t want to be murdered (this is not the case with nonhuman animal killing, voluntary euthanasia or abortion). And even in the case of anti-murder norms, I only care if I can rely on reciprocation. I don’t mind the killing of murderers, or of people who want to murder me.

              1. “Since I don’t agree that human life is sacred or intrinsically valuable to begin with, I don’t see the abstract cheapening of human life as a negative political externality”

                And what Christians and most people in historically Christian societies are afraid of is precisely this kind of nihilistic viewpoint.

                I am not a believer, but acknowledge we are living off the fumes of Christianity so to speak, and once those are gone, will likely revert to the pre-Christian view that saw no intrinsic value in human life, but valued lives according to power, social status, personal ties, etc. I don’t see that as an improvement.

                Western society benefited immensely from having that belief in the equal worth of all human lives , even if it wasn’t always honoured in practice.

                Now I see us moving towards preferring animal lives over human. Many would choose to save their pet from a burning building rather than a human stranger, because the pet is “family” and the stranger isn’t. Or cheer for the animal attacking the human annoying it, because the human deserves it. Etc.

                Scary.

                1. I think you’re miscalculating the consequences of Christian values on culture. Christian values have given us gems like eternal torture as a just punishment for disagreement or disobedience with the theocratic elite.

                  If any value should have been sacred, it’s that self-aware intelligent persons shouldn’t be tortured or killed against their will. But such consensualism is precisely what the religious view discards – your life is not yours, it’s owned by God. Your suffering is not for you to control, but up to God. (And since God can’t speak for himself, due to his nonexistence, his alleged earthly representatives need to speak for him. This is how they legitimize their nonconsensual coercion.

                  In practice, theists kill no less than atheists, which is unsurprising in a world where physically destroying a person is also functionally equivalent to eliminating an adversarial causal agent. The game theory of war sets an instrumental incentive to kill, not just as a threat for deterrence, but also to eliminate the causal agency of enemies and would-be enemies: A dead person can’t harm you.

                  The animal strawman is a misrepresentation of my comment and a distraction; I have argued against animal rights on the grounds that unintelligent beings who can’t understand what a right is can’t reciprocate the rights norm and therefore we don’t have to include them into our circle of concerns at all.

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                  1. Christianity has a 2000 year history, with a lot of strands disagreeing with each other about key points, and evolving over time, so treating it as a monolith isn’t helpful.

                    Some of its ideas were were good, some nefarious. As a society, Western Europe has mostly dropped the more nefarious ones and developed the better ones.

                    You have to judge them relative to what they replaced.

                    The idea that all humans have equal moral worth, whatever their social status, was revolutionary, and set the stage for the development of the idea of human rights down the road.

                    There was no such concept before, and in other religious systems. South America had gory human and even child sacrifice. Asian civilisations were known for their sophisticated methods of torture. Etc.

                    Torture, like slavery and other things we now consider amorally abhorrent, was not seen as morally wrong, it was taken for granted for many crimes, particularly against figures of authority, so why not as punishment from the highest authority? Etc.

                    But the notion that all humans, whatever their social status, were intrinsically morally equal, and therefore had a right to life and human dignity, eventually provided the basis for the fight against slavery as a moral issue.

                    As for animal rights, you can argue that all you want, for people who FEEL that humans are despicable and animals are more admirable, who FEEL that they love their cat more than they care for a stranger, and that that is what matters, because they have lost the basic value of the intrinsic value of human life, it won’t budge them an inch.

                    1. It’s not true that we have an anti-torture consensus. Trump was openly pro-torture and massively supported by the religious right. Same for the Bush administration. Pretty much all Islamic theocracies torture routinely, not in 1519, but in 2019. My Christian neighbor thinks everyone who disagrees with him on moral issues deserve to be tortured in Hell for all eternity. He openly says so, and he’s not the only one. I have no idea why you think theists are opposing torture and slavery. In fact, monotheism is totalitarian in nature because if you seriously believe there’s an omnipotent omniscient creator who gave people free will only to judge them for disobedience, you’re already in a totalitarian mindset you can never escape without questioning your assumptions.

                      Modern psychiatry also routinely tortures and enslaves people, even people who committed no crimes whatsoever. If you are known to be suicidal, you can be locked up and tortured with painful fixation and sleep deprivation. This is completely legal in pretty much all countries and the religious right is in favor of it because suicide is a sin. Generally, if you prefer suicide over continued existence as a means to eliminate your suffering, the religious right all over the world will be your worst enemy. I see no human rights consensus whatsoever. The fact that atheist totalitarians also exist doesn’t redeem theism, which in addition happens to be objectively false (there is no actual god, after all).

                      I don’t care about nonhuman animals; I already told you. No idea why you keep repeating this straw man position.

                      1. That is what I said, there was never an anti-torture consensus, anywhere, it was taken for granted, your beef seems to be that Christianity did not explicitly condemn it. Just as it did not explicitly condemn slavery as a social institution, that was also taken for granted.

                        It “just” claimed that even slaves had souls and equal moral worth, and was ridiculed as a “slave religion” by opponents. And that was huge, and the sine qua non for later developments, like the anti-slavery movement, 1800 years later, and from there the equal rights movement, in which Christians, e.g. Quakers and Catholics, were extremely active for religious reasons.

                        I don’t know where you live or grew up, but there is Christianity beyond the U.S. Bible thumpers, and Trump is hardly a religious man anyway. Americans equate their own loony evangelicals with “Christianity” in general, but it is quite specific to the US. and its history.

                        I am Canadian. And although my parents were not religious, I was educated in Catholic schools, and there was absolutely no emphasis on hell, just on heaven, and on the centrality of the notion of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, “love others as you do yourself”, i.e. on charity, on helping the poor and downtrodden here and abroad, there was a very important Catholic workers’ movement, etc.

                        As for “modern psychiatry “enslaving and torturing” people in “most places in the world”, not sure what that has to do with the issue, psychiatry is not religion-based, on the contrary, it is an attempt at a scientific approach to mental issues in opposition to ides of sin, demonic possession, etc., to help people. You might as well condemn our modern western medical system for “torturing” people by operating on them, giving them painful treatments, etc. The Communist countries notoriously used it for political purposes without any qualms.

                        And in Canada at least, we did away with institutionalising the mentally ill in the 70s, in the name of human rights, some would say with negative consequences in that they are left to their own devices and end up on the street, or in the hands of families which cannot cope.

                        Whether YOU care about animals is irrelevant, my point is that a society that loses its basic assumptions about the worth of human life can easily become callous about it, and give preferential treatment to animals because they are “nicer” than awful humans, etc. Shades of Caligula…

  6. People will apply their vision of morality to politics, wherever it may come from, philosophical reasoning or religious teachings.

    But even people who share a religion argue about just how its strictures should be interpreted.

    One can be a Reform Jew, or an Ultra-Orthodox one, a fundamentalist Christian or a liberal one.

    One could interpret a religious command against eating pork as a general recommendation, and say, ok, I won’t serve it myself, or eat it if I can reasonably help it, which would be the reasonable option.

    Or one can build a whole industry around it, with experts making it their life’s work examining every tiny piece of food to see if it contains even a speck of pork.

    Same with vegetarians or vegans, one can be reasonable about it, or a fanatic.

    Fanatics want to impose the strictest of interpretations on everybody else, not just themselves.

  7. “The US is a Christian country” is ambiguous, so people can interpret it differently and should specify what they mean. It is very annoying when people claim it isn’t, without specifying why.

    It is a country in which the huge majority is Christian and has been from its founding. That makes it a country with a culture historically based on Christianity, rather than Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. The literature, art, traditions, values, etc. reflects that historical reality, or at least did until very recently.

    You don’t need to be a practicing Christian to recognize that social reality, anyone from a non-Christian culture can see it, it seems only some of those brought up in it don’t, because fish don’t realize they swim in water until they are taken out, or actually do, but claim they don’t for ideological reasons.

  8. Assuming you believe some values are “right” e.g. not causing needless suffering in others for one’s own pleasure, you, according to your terminology, are going to have to “cheat” and surreptitiously bring in divine authority. Otherwise, who’s going to declare a value is good and true? a tyrannical majority? an elite group of intellectuals? If we believe some values are good in and of themselves regardless of who believes them or who doesn’t, we’re going to need some transcendent authority who has made it so. There’s no other way to escape moral relativism.

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    1. We can evaluate whether an idea is likely to be “good” by examining the outcomes of believing in it. This is the Pragmatic approach. If we examine societies over time, we can identify ideas which generate successful societies.Over time, we refine our ideas based on new information (ideas which worked well two thousand years ago might not work so well today). It is not necessary to invoke an external authority.

      1. If by value you mean ideas that work well for society, then there is no need for an external authority. However, I venture to say that almost everyone has values that are far higher than that. Nazi Germany was working extremely well before the war and had not Hitler made some crucial errors, the Germans could have won. Would we agree that Nazism was a good value then because it was working in Germany and much of the rest of the world?
        “What works” is an inadequate value. I believe there is something deeper inside of us which resonates with goodness, truth, justice etc. when we see it, as long as we don’t stifle this inward sense of these eternal values.

        1. Nice in the abstract, the problem is that different societies have had very different conceptions of what goodness and justice mean, let alone truth. Even Nazis.

          1. Here’s a quote from C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” that responds to the assertion that there is no common human morality:

            “I know that some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound, because different civilisations and different ages have had quite different moralities. But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like they are to each other and to our own. . . . I need only ask the reader to think what a totally different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him. You might just as well try to imagine a country where two and two made five. M”en have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to—whether it was only your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired. Men have differed as to whether you should have one wife or four. But they have always agreed that you must not simply have any woman you liked.”

            1. Again, nice in theory, but useless in practice. That is why religions like Judaism (I’m not Jewish btw) and Islam (or Muslim) have developed detailed rules for how to solve ethical dilemmas, because general principles are pretty useless in practice.

      2. An evaluation of “what works”, i.e. which societies are “successful” is also subjective, and depends on your fundamental values.

        There are obvious disastrous ones, but which current society for example would you consider the most “successful”? Not everyone would agree.

        There is no perfect society, all societies have their pros and minuses, which outweigh others is a matter of fundamental values: safety vs freedom, order vs freedom, equality vs freedom, the individual vs the collective good, are the classic choices, but there are others, particularly for religious believers.

        And what most people in one society considers optimal may not be what another one does.

  9. Why should morality (i.e. goodness) be justified along humanistic lines?

    It’s not obvious to me that humanistic thought is the correct way to gauge this question, considering how much a Johnny-come-lately it is to the party.

    1. Thanks for your comment Paul. It is a difficult question, yet I’ll try to briefly provide the answer that I find to be best:

      If the justification doesn’t lead to tyranny, I personally don’t mind whether it’s along humanistic lines, or not. If religious moral claims are neither absolute, nor rigidly prescribe actions, then I am more than willing to consider them. But these characteristics seem logically inconsistent with divine justifications (I refer you to Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo for justification for that).

      1. What about secular claims that are absolute and prescribe actions – such as responses to climate change or the various identitarian “woke” movements?

        I mean, even traditionalist Catholics are hardly medievalists and the have absorbed a lot more of modernity than they would like to admit. I would argue that to live/grow up in a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) society profoundly shapes our basic assumptions in particular ways – much like growing up in Russia or China does.

        I think that what you’re attempting to grasp is the meaning of secularism. And that’s a very good question. Is it French, American, Canadian or something else?

        Some of the thinkers that have helped me regarding this are the American John Courtney Murray, SJ (who heavily influenced the Vatican II document on religious freedom, Dignitatis humanae) and the Canadians George Grant, Charles Taylor and Iain T. Benson. All of them contribute seriously towards the literature on religious pluralism (from the perspective of being practicing Christians).

        1. These kind of secular claims are as bad as religious ones. I believe I mentioned that in the last paragraph. I think this piece is also a basis for critiquing identitarian woke movements, which appeal to false authority (did any one of them bother to poll the groups they speak for?), and rigidly prescribe actions.

          Well, I grasp at secularism from the perspective of someone who lived in a non-secular state for 21 years, and can’t marry his fiancée at his home country, since we don’t have the ‘same religion’. Where even unofficial wedding ceremonies that deviate from the religions approved by the state can lead the officiator to be arrested, and more fun stuff like that. I focused my reading on Kant, Mill, and many not-as-famous contemporary writers. I am all up for religious pluralism, and all up for pluralistic practicing Christians.

    2. Hi PB,
      Can you clarify what you mean by “should”, and “goodness”, and “justified”? I think that will go a long way in being able to answer your question.
      I think BM’s answer is fairly accurate if it means something like this: kind acts are the wise thing for kind people to do. Those who are “humanists” and care about others are then wise (“justified”) in doing things that avoid harming others (like doing things that lead to tyranny). Whether or not many humanists (or “humanistic thought”) existed a hundred years ago seems irrelevant here.

      1. My belief in GOD does not depend on some old book or another’s understanding, rather GOD depends on ones own understanding just as does ones morality.
        That said Society can form it’s own morality and expectations are that if they are universal they will be accepted. Thee is no universally accepted GOD. So I don’t expect any one to believe as I believe and my beliefs are born by my imagination and intellect. What do you base your beliefs on?

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