Sunday, January 08, 2006

The (No So) Terrible Tao's

In order to help clarify where I am coming from, Ernie has made an attempt to describe a set of beliefs that I may or may not hold, and asked for my feedback. Here goes...

1. There are universally valid norms for human ethics, which are necessary and sufficient for both individual happiness and social welfare

Ernie previously brought up the idea of a "universal, transcendent standard of virtue" and I replied that

... there may be some elaboration of "universal, transcendent standard of virtue that I might find reasonable, ..."

What I had in mind here were more along the lines of a small set of abstract guidelines, like the Golden Rule, and I think of them as being very helpful advice rather than a standard against which we will be measured. (The word "norm" implies, to me at least, the idea of a standard that I would not include.)

I would not go so far as to say that these guidelines are sufficient for either individual happiness or social welfare. They may not even be necessary; perhaps there are multiple sets of guidelines that could provide the same or similar benefits. And I would not state happiness and welfare as being absolutely attainable states, but things that can be present more or less, with ethical behavior leading generally to more.

So if I wanted to restate (1), I might say something like

1. There are a few general principles that underlie most ethical behavior, leading to increased individual happiness and social welfare.

2. These norms are, at a practical level, discoverable by the use of reason, observation, and empathy, without requiring any sort of divinity.


3. In particular, religious faith (including belief in god(s) and/or an afterlife) would not appreciably increase my [his] ability to either perceive or observe valid ethical standards.

I think that, roughly speaking, ethical behavior derives in part from appropriate recognition of the uncertainty of our beliefs. Since I find the existence of any kind of god or afterlife highly suspect, I find behavior that depends strongly on the belief in those things to be ethically suspect. From this point of view, religious faith can be a barrier to perceiving or observing valid ethical standards.

Religion can also be a vehicle for promoting them. I came across a quote today that went something like this: "Art is a lie that leads to the truth." Somewhat similarly, I think some beliefs can promote valid ethical standards without being true.

4. Neither does it seem to increase the overall ethicality of religious communities (including Christians), at least according to my [his] standards.

Correct. I recently came across a paper that touches on this, with references to other studies that I haven't read yet.

5. In particular, the Bible is either not reliable or not clear enough to provide a suitably strong ethical foundation for life, and any attempt to follow its teachings in it could well do more harm than good.

There are contained in the Bible some good ideas about morals. But they are not good simply because they are in the Bible. There are also some things that I (now) consider morally wrong, in addition to the various factual and consistency problems. To the degree that the Bible is presented or received as an authoritative representation of truth and particularly of a god's absolute commands, I think trouble will result.

Could a strong ethical position be supported by parts of the Bible? Sure. Could morally wrong actions be supported by parts of the Bible? Yes. So, to say "any attempt to follow its teachings ... could well do more harm than good" would be taking things too far.

Ernie also asked me to clarify what I mean when I say "Christianity". Certainly the word means different things to different people, and can be used in different ways at different times. When I said "... I have found that much of what I would call Christianity ... [has] sustantial deficiencies, and what is left cannot be properly called Christianity" I would include these as important criteria:

1. Monotheistic, but...

2. Jesus is/was God

3. Jesus death and resurrection enable our salvation

4. Bible is revealed or inspired scripture

There may be more, but that is what comes to my mind right now. Obviously some people make stronger statements, particularly about (4), where you will note that I did not say "inerrant", and some people make weaker statements. That is generally what I mean, though.

One last comment. Ernie said at the beginning of his post that

I think part of the confusion is that he isn't clear about whether I'm trying to convince him my views are "true" vs. merely "consistent." Then again, maybe I'm not either. :-)

I agree that such confusion may exist. There was a phase in what eventually became my "deconversion" where I explicitly recognized constistency as a necessary but insufficient characteristic of my beliefs. This probably deserves further exploration, but this post is quite long enough already, and too long delayed, to explore that any further.

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