Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Dust to Dust

This post is part of an ongoing dialog between my friend Ernie and me about the validity of Christian belief. It is a response to Ashes to Ashes.


I am sorry that my writing has not lived up to your standards of clarity, and that I have not responded satisfactorily to your attempts to guide the discussion in the direction you wanted. Without your guidance, where would we be? Thankfully, you have no unarticulated assumptions or we would be in real trouble. Better yet, we can be certain that your philosophical understanding is well-grounded.

As you might gather from the previous paragraph, I found the tone of your last post occasionally condescending.

I will readily admit to being an amateur in matters of philosophy, and between my developing understanding and my imperfect communication skills, it comes as no surprise to me that you might have trouble tracking me. On the other hand, I have gotten feedback from people that do have backgrounds in philosophy, and they have not found my writing difficult to understand or out of line.

Have you considered the possibility that you might have implicitly-held, unarticulated assumptions that prevent you from understanding? I suspect you have considered the possibility, just as I have. The funny thing about such assumptions is that they can be very difficult to uncover, and I think our ongoing discussion has been helpful in this regard. What I object to is the insinuation that I am insufficiently reflective on such matters. Please take care of your own speck.

When I described Universal Utilitarianism as "metric, not imperial", the paradigm that I was attempting to describe is one in which we can assign moral value to our actions by reference to some metric. Different moral systems described within this paradigm will be differentiated on the basis of their metrics. In this paradigm, assignment of moral value is not the same as saying that we have an obligation to act morally, and so I denied that UU was "imperial". I have not said that the metric defines the paradigm. I did say that "the metric defines morality." While perhaps a poor choice of words, my intent was to communicate that under a moral system like UU or DU, we make moral judgements by reference to the metric defined in that system. In general, these systems require no reference to God or intrinsic value; that is, while a metric could be defined in reference to God or intrinsic values if they existed, there exist sensible metrics that do not.

Now, for the last six months we have been focusing on the first of two "goalposts". As I have noted several times now, you said you were willing to defend the proposition that "belief in a transcendent moral purpose for the universe is as well-justified and essential for social inquiry as belief in the transcendent mathematical nature of the universe is for scientific inquiry." You later described this as "Ontological dependence on an omnipotent, benevolent Deity as the ultimate source of virtue and truth". Is it so surprising then that I would attempt to show that a transcendent moral purpose is not essential, or that morality can exist independent from God? How can you now say that you are "simply trying to get [me] to articulate [my] underlying assumptions"? Were your assertions mere rhetorical devices that you did not really intend to defend or support, despite your claims to the contrary?

Looking back at your Shared Paradigm of Morality, my question about its utility derived from my perception of its inability to help us make progress toward or away from the proposition under discussion. You were describing the metric as a means by which we can evaluate moral systems or moral theories. I would describe the metric as a means by which we can evaluate actions. Under this paradigm, the metric is not separate from a moral system; it is the core of a moral system. If we agree on the metric, we are basically agreeing on what it means to act morally (assuming we can actually evaluate the metric in practice).

The only kinds of systems that the metric can evaluate are systems of concrete guidance on how to act in various situations; that is, the metric could be used to evaluate prototypical actions or prescriptions for actions. These evaluations will depend on what is true about the situations and actions described. The evaluation may be different in a reality where God exists compared to one where he does not. This is possible because the metric is defined without reference to God, and since the metric is defined without reference to God, it can neither have nor demonstrate ontological dependence on God. In my mind, if we agree on a metric such as has been suggested, we would be denying the very statement you said you would defend.

I guess that would be progress.

You suggested that I take the next month to reflect on why I "hate Christianity so much" or why it is "something evil to be opposed, rather than merely something imperfect to be improved". I have thought about that for far longer than a month already.

Briefly, it comes down to two things. First, that the core truth-claims of Christianity are very probably false. Second, that those holding these false beliefs frequently (though perhaps not necessarily) bring harm to themselves and others.

How this plays out varies of course, since there is a broad spectrum of beliefs held by Christians of various sorts. This is a point on which I disagree with Sam Harris, who faults moderate Christianity more than Christian fundamentalism, on the grounds that such moderate Christians provide legitimacy for fundamentalists and further, that the continuing existence of religious moderates will stand in the way of progress towards a truly rational spirituality. (See, for instance, the third-to-last paragraph here.) While there may be some truth in that, I do not think we can hold one group morally responsible for the actions of another on these grounds. While I still disagree with some of the beliefs of liberal Christianity, I do think that many people arrive there by exercising the kinds of reasoning and reflection that are likely to be associated with better social behavior; that is, while they may still hold false beliefs (and who doesn't?) they will generally cause less harm than those of more conservative and especially fundamentalist bents.

As I hinted above, Christians are obviously not alone in holding false beliefs. Everyone does, including atheists, including me. So why should I pick on Christianity? Because that is where I came from and where a significant part of my "world" remains. I made significant life decisions on the basis of my prior beliefs, decisions that cannot now be undone but which were based on falsehood. I spent precious time (and yes, money) on a lie. While I know you disagree on the question of truth or falsehood, I would hope that you could understand how a person who makes this kind of transition would feel hurt and angry. It is not at all uncommon. The reference to Sam Harris above was taken from an ongoing dialog he is having with Andrew Sullivan, a Catholic writer. Later in the dialog, Sam writes:

I have received thousands of letters and emails from people describing just how painful it was for them to finally admit that they were duped by Christianity, and that they duped their children in turn. I have heard from many ministers who have ceased to be ministers, and even Christians. More commonly, I hear from people who are terrified to articulate their growing skepticism about the doctrine of Christianity for fear of being shunned by friends and family. I do not doubt how much psychological and social pressure religious people are under. I don't think you should doubt it either.

I have also seen the influence of Christianity on various political and social issues, and frankly the results have not been pretty. Was it inevitable that Christian beliefs would lead to these problems? Perhaps not. If Christianity were not a factor in American politics, would something else cause similar problems? Perhaps so. In a sense, the problem is not with Christianity itself, but with the kinds of thought processes (or lack thereof) that sustain Christianity and other religions or ideologies here and elsewhere. But Christianity forms a substantial part of the problem here and now, so that is another reason to address its problems rather than something else.

You asked why I do not treat Christianity as something to be improved. The answer is simple. The foundation is rotten. I do not mean by that that the foundation is evil, just that it is broken. The factual basis is not there. What is there gets in the way.

To be sure, there is room for improving Christianity even on the foundation it has, and I can appreciate that there are those who are trying to do so, including yourself and, if his book is any indication, Brian McLaren. Similarly, I can appreciate the work that some Christians do to educate others on (for instance) evolution, even when they wrap it in theological trappings. And I can appreciate that there are Christians that are doing important work helping other people, motivated by their beliefs. My concern, however, is that human psychology will make it difficult to counter the more pernicious varieties of Christianity while preserving the comparatively healthy sorts. Plus, I believe it is still suboptimal.

(It may sound like I am now agreeing with Harris on moderate religion, but this is not the case. I recognize moderate religion as progress, but have no wish to make it a particularly comfortable place to stop.)

I hope that that clarifies my motivations somewhat. If further explanation is necessary, I would be happy to attempt it. And if you need to take a break, we can pick up here or elsewhere in a month or so.


1 comment:

Dr. Ernie said...

Fair enough. My response is over at, my new blog home (and yes, you can now leave comments!).