A Tower of Babble

Maybe I'm being pedantic, but there is something that bothered me when I was listening to an NPR story a short while back, and I heard the following statement from pastor Russell Moore in his opening remarks to the Southern Baptist Convention: "Sure they would. And I'd like to fight and fornicate and smoke weed and go to heaven."

Whether or not you recognize it at first, there is a somewhat nasty hidden implication in that statement. Moore is saying that the main reason he doesn't fight, fornicate, and 'fire one up' {call them the three f's for brevity} is so that he can get into heaven - equivalently, he is wary of the alternative: an eternity of torture in the flames of hell. He is here overtly acknowledging his powerful personal attraction to the three f's, and also that the only thing standing between him and eternal damnation is his perception of the threat of damnation itself. This is a foundation-stone in a major category of Christian apologetics: the [claim of] inherent weakness of man's will to resist behaviors antithetical to his own thriving in the absence of external, over-arching, all-knowing, all-powerful authority. This strikes me as perhaps a little bit true in one very narrow sense, yet the apologists' interpretation is flawed in the extreme. Further discussion is warranted.

Mankind is a social animal; without immersion in society and culture, we would be something else entirely. That we live and can flourish only within the boundaries of a society engenders natural and rather obvious restrictions on our behavior. Such restrictions have of course varied widely over time and across societies - figures of authority, especially in dictatorial or totalitarian regimes, have fewer restrictions on the social niceties they must observe towards those of lower status, for example. However warped or unjust it may be, though, the existence of any society by definition means that its members are in general adhering to what can be thought of as a contract amongst themselves. Individuals (and groups of individuals) can issue 'claims' against others - I can expect you to refrain from taking something of mine unless we have come to agreement on a price; if you take my property, I have a legitimate basis to issue a moral grievance against your behavior. You should reasonably expect that I won't come into your house and change the television channel you are watching, or make long-distance calls on your phone. Elizabeth Anderson puts it in terms of a system of reciprocal claims in which we all play a part; the very act of lodging a claim against another validates, and is in fact a tacit admission. that one is within the system and is 'playing by its rules.' Established societies formally codify many of these behavioral norms into laws through the governments they instantiate.

This is the very nature of morality, the sole province of which is how we interact with and behave towards one another. We are expected to understand the restrictions on our own behaviors just as we expect others to recognize the limitations on theirs with respect to our personal spaces and spheres of influence. No society can last, operate effectively, or even form without some version of this contract.  Individuals who break the contract's terms have always been punished or ostracized.

By this token, the only authority that we all must recognize as proscribing acceptable interpersonal standards of behavior is that which we have over, and amongst, ourselves. There is no need of any supernatural authority, if one assumes that there are material consequences for misbehaving or breaking the contract's terms; and, every group, society, and state has indeed imposed such consequences. While it is true that many, perhaps even most, of these states have in some measure imposed unjust or unfair restrictions and punishments on their subjects, it is just as important to note that we can and do recognize and call out unjust behavior on the part of both individuals and states. We are sensitive to breaches in the social contract by virtue of the very nature of our beings. Occam's razor eliminates any need for an all-seeing supernatural entity. The suggestion that one cannot be morally complete without a deity is either a failure of rational thought or a grave misunderstanding of morality's true essence.

Morality, however, is a subset of the larger category of ethics; perhaps folks who think as Moore does are simply misstating their intent, and really mean to say that we cannot be ethical without the authority of a god. Yet there are countless examples of individuals and groups practicing the highest forms of ethical behavior without any appeal to guidance from the supernatural - Albert Einstein, Doctors Without Borders, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, The International Red Cross, Oxfam, Robert Ingersoll, Asa Philip Randolph, and the list could go on and on. Clearly it is quite possible to live an ethically admirable life sans deity.

I have argued elsewhere ("Towards an Understanding of Moral Underpinnings," Essays in the Philosophy of Humanism, 2014) that directing one's life in fear of punishment or hope of reward cannot in fact be moral whatsoever, and also that a being who would incentivize us in such a way is either evil or completely dispassionate.

In psychological studies examining the role of authority, it becomes obvious that the perception of authority, even if it is only subconscious, is what really matters. An unmanned coffee station's donation jar will garner larger amounts when a picture with eyes, or even the suggestion of something watchful, is hung overhead versus a picture of, say, flowers. Thus, even if authority is a human requisite, the nature of such authority is not the key ingredient, nor is the actual existence of the perceived authority itself. It should therefore be obvious that even if there is a need for a perception of authority, such a need is in no way a proof for the existence of any actual authority.

Another mainstay of Christian apologists, and the usual fallback when statements such as Moore's fail, is the claim that even though we can do many good works in this life, they will not be sufficient to purchase escape from eternal damnation. This is the Pauline idea of Justification by Faith, which stands in contrast to the idea of Justification by Works as put forth in James (although the author of James follows this with talk of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, a disgusting and cowardly deed if ever there was one). This difference is a key element in the schism between Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox/Lutherans. It seems to turn on which parts of the bible one takes more or less literally, and which parts one interprets as metaphor. Since I'm not in any sense a biblical scholar, I will just say that this discrepancy is far from settled in the world of theology. True experts in the bible argue at length on each side of this dispute, so the only thing we can say for certain is that within the texts one finds vagueness, conflict, and ambiguity. So, what Moore is really saying, if he's taking the fallback position, is that the above concept of morality (based on societal interrelationships) is essentially meaningless if it is decoupled from the concept of deity. Based on this hypothesis, I can live as ethical a life as Jesus himself, yet if I deny or even question either his existence or his divinity, I will suffer an eternity of unimaginable torture: this life that I am living now is nothing more than a proving-ground for my real, eternal, after-life, and my faith or lack thereof during this life is the sole litmus test.

I feel compelled to state in the plainest of terms that, on its face, this is an absolutely asinine proposition: the omniscient and omnibenevolent creator of the universe, who provides within that universe no verifiable or even credible evidence for his own existence, and who allows for so many arguments from logic and science to refute the possibility of his very being, will nonetheless keep you alive for all eternity just so that he can torture you for the grave crime of non-belief in him, or for the equally serious offense of refusing to bow down before his absolute authority (and we note that such authority always manifests itself through very real and tangible earthly taskmasters). Yet, without a doubt, this is exactly the position taken by a significant portion, perhaps even a majority, of the faithful.

It is quite a stretch to so casually and with such finality dismiss the ethical lives and actions of those mentioned above, as if their contributions mean nothing to humanity, and furthermore to subject them to everlasting agony. Assuming for a moment that a god does exist, would one that perpetrates something like this be worthy of our adoration, or even our respect? Does imparting such a fate to individuals who have done so much good in this world seem like something that would (or even could) be done by a god who loves us and who is just, merciful, and kind? If your answer is yes then I submit that you and your god have a very alien understanding of the concepts justice, mercy, and kindness.

Of course, standing behind all this is the idea of faith.  One hears this word a lot in religious circles, and even in not-so-religious circles; what one does not hear is a firm definition of the word.  In "Dynamics of Faith," Paul Tillich talked about faith as the state of ultimate concern, which I think comes about as close as anything to nailing down its true nature.  Faith, in the practical sense, is believing a proposition in the absence of affirmative, or in the face of contradictory, evidence. I think it is important to note that people who believe such propositions also fervently want to believe in them, and this is where Tillich's definition rings true.  I submit that faith includes this ardent, urgent desire to believe a proposition coupled with, or perhaps driven by, a fear that the proposition in question might not be true.  When one doubts a proposition whose content or consequences hold deep meaning, and eventually convinces oneself of the truth of that proposition, one feels an immense flood of relief; such feelings of relief can be emotionally overpowering responses, and in that sense they couple a strong emotive reaction with one side of the true/false status of a logical proposition.  This explains the tenacity with which many cling to their faith-claims - when strong emotions are attached to anything, it is in human nature to resist giving that up - we just don't want to rescind that good feeling.  I have written about this phenomenon in another blog post, A Critique On The Values And Effects Of The Family Of Religions.  However, the intensity of desire one has for a proposition to be (or remain) true neither affects nor is reflective of the probability that it actually is true.  This whole situation brings to mind the stage production of Peter Pan, where the audience is implored to clap for Tinker Bell or she will die.

The benefits of possessing faith are more specific yet equally lacking in veracity.  One of the most ubiquitous expositions of faith is prayer.  Controlled studies have shown, however, that prayer has either no effect whatsoever or a slightly negative effect on the outcome of specific situations - see, for example, this article.  Just as spurious is the 'evidence' proffered for life after death; in no case has any claim been verified, and many such claims have been debunked or rescinded.

In the sense of Paul's doctrine, it seems that one must have "faith" regarding both the nature and the fruits of faith itself: no evidence or reason is advanced for a faith-claim, and no proof is offered that adherents reap its benefits.  This leaves us with a closed loop of self-sustaining nonsense. Or, to borrow a term from the field of optics, we have discovered a circle of confusion; in this case the sharpest definable point is a rather large fuzzy spot that cannot be fixed on either logic or evidence.

We see therefore that the concept of faith is ill-defined; what is strange is that with any other concept this would be seen as a point of weakness, yet the vary nature of faith's ambiguity, along with its regular usage, makes this the strongest position possible.  A.C. Grayling, in "The God Argument," puts it thus:  "...contesting religion is like engaging in a boxing match with jelly: it is a shifting, unclear, amorphous target, which every blow displaces to a new shape."  Faith, too, is shifting, unclear, and amorphous.

That such an ill-defined concept can carry such weight in our common perception of virtuosity is an embarrassment to both reason and virtue.  For humans to organize their lives around something that they don't really understand, and cannot in fact explain, is the opposite of virtue: it is foolishness in the extreme.  What remains when reason is abandoned is raw emotion; faith and the passions are the chief conspirators guiding the actions of people of faith, and we are all familiar with the horrendous crimes and tragic mistakes that have been made when passions dictate our actions.  To be sure, strong feelings can also make us act in purely altruistic and kind ways as well, but this is exactly the point: we are all constantly buffeted by our passions, but when we let go the tiller of reason, our direction is all but random.  History and current events may show that cruelty and kindness are, at best, equally likely when this is the case; however, Steven Pinker makes a compelling case in The Better Angels of our Nature that human nature itself (in terms both biological and cognitive) tilts us towards violence in the absence of what Peter Singer termed the "escalator of reason."

Virtually all modern theories of human behavior are deterministic, and they claim that our actions are determined outside the scope of what we perceive of as our own will - by unconscious processes, by purely chemical or physical laws, etc.  None of them, however, asserts that it is useful or even ethical when we fail to hold individuals responsible for the actions they take or the words they speak.  Whether or not one subscribes to the idea that we are possessed of a separate "self" with the ability and independent will to define and direct a life, it is indisputable that one's actions affect others in ways that are apprehensible to a thinking, rational, empathetic being.  A thinking, rational being with insight into what affects the feelings and experiences of others is obligated, under the implied terms of the social network in which he or she exists and operates, to contemplate and consider the consequences of any actions in light of this; it meshes naturally with the idea of our system of reciprocal claim-making discussed above.  If one fails to do this, and thereby causes harm to come to another, one is obligated to make reparations or correct the harm; or, at the least, to offer apology and seek forgiveness. This set of reciprocal obligations that we all share is at the heart of human interaction - it is what in fact defines and gives substance to our concept of morality.

The edicts of the Abrahamic religions stand in stark contrast with this; they all tell us that we must allow for their god to forgive any acts that are considered wrong, and that such acts can only be forgiven by him.  Some might retort with the fact that the Catholic church, in the modernized version of its doctrine of confession, allows that confession is as much about making amends with the community as with deity, but they still insist that attendance at confession is mandatory, and that missing it is a mortal sin.  One might also ponder what exactly caused the shift in doctrine, since none of the foundational texts behind official church dogma has changed or been amended.  To say the least, this idea trivializes any concerns that we humans have for one another, not least because it tethers our empathy to a concept that has been as divisive, and destructive, as any other force in human history; just consider, for example, the Crusades, the European Wars of Religion (such as the Thirty Years War), the Holocaust, and the Balkan Crisis of the 90's.

Under the auspices of the Abrahamic system, our best means of assuring peace among ourselves is null and void, rendered meaningless unless it exists within the context of divine will.  At the very least, this precludes any ability for true understanding and agreement between those of divergent faith traditions.  There will always be tension, for each faith contains within itself an imperative to be the dominant, salvational model for all of humanity.  They all proselytize and evangelize to this end, through means both subtle and direct, persuasive and coercive, peaceful and violent.

To state the matter bluntly, the Christian tradition teaches that we receive absolution for all the bad things we do (and many that we haven't or couldn't!) solely through the scapegoat of Jesus via his trials upon the cross.   This of course begs the question as to whether its adherents can be taken seriously in any kind of moral sense whatsoever, for the very weave of our social fabric is comprised of the interactions we share, which, as was stated above, exactly and completely defines morality: how we treat each other matters because it is in the very nature of our being that it matters. If I mistreat a fellow human, perhaps by inflicting mental or physical torture, my obligation to that human remains whether or not someone else claims to have forgiven me.  Only that person, and no other, has the right to forgive me, and in return I certainly have no right to ask another to intercede.  I alone am responsible for the actions I commit and utterances I make - how could anyone wish it were otherwise?  In fact, for another to intercede would sever the human bond I share with that other, and therefore diminish or make totally meaningless any reparations I might wish to make.  Even if we grant that, as some interpreters of Christianity claim, reparations on my part do actually matter, they only carry weight because of the spiritual obligation underlying all human interactions.  This is actually a very clever idea, whereby the insertion of a completely superfluous component into what would otherwise be a perfectly functional system makes that component instead appear crucial.  The shortest distance between two points is simply a straight line, but not in Christian morality - in their version, all connecting lines must first go through the infinite, forming a ridiculous, lopsided, and completely unnecessary triangle.

Since the entire reason for and focus of this earthly life is to prepare for that claimed to follow its end, what compelling reason can seriously be proffered for seeking harmony in the here and now?

These four key ideas, that a god is necessary for morality, that we live under the threat of eternal damnation, that faith is a well-defined concept carrying the full the weight of virtue, and that a scapegoat is necessary or even sufficient, form the foundation of the three Abrahamic religions, and several are shared in various forms by nearly all other religions.  I would hope that the above discussions make it clear that upon such a base can only exist an unstable edifice, a ramshackle building that is unlivable, suitable only to be vacated, condemned, and demolished. The structure of a morality based on religion and religious edicts is nothing but a Tower of Babble, which will ultimately end, fittingly, in a jumble of debris.  Let us hope that the human race is not buried beneath its ruins.