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The Flaws in Defending Morality With Religion
When we think of those opposed to homosexuality – which still sounds weird to me, like opposing left-handed people* – or stem-cell research or euthanasia, we tend conclude they’re justifying themselves because of religion. But, as with almost anything underpinned by religion, the pendulum swings both ways: religious people also support these. And, perhaps without energy or recognisable ability to justify their moral decisions, many often fall back on their god’s say-so to provide a foundation for their otherwise empty assertions that certain things are right or wrong. Of course, one tends to forget that this is true even of those who support views one condones.
By definition, justifying moral views because god says so is inherently flawed. I have not seen an escape from the problem begun with Plato's Euthyphro’s Dilemma, two millennia ago. After looking at the Dilemma, I'll highlight what I consider the fundamental problem with religious-based ethics.
As Plato first portrayed it, we have to ask with James Rachels a two-part question: “(1) Is conduct right because the gods command it, or (2) do the gods command it because it is right?”
“Conduct is moral because god says so”
If (1) then conduct takes on the afterglow of being moral because of the gods’ wishes, rendering morality arbitrary. It is merely their blessing which “makes” it good, not the thing itself - which is not in-itself troubling, since, for example, utilitarianism operates the same way. Before something is good or bad, it is amoral: rape, torturing babies, hugging bunnies, and so on could be made good or bad.
The difference between (1) and other moral frameworks, like utilitarianism, is that what gives conduct moral currency is up to the gods’. This means the whims and wishes of beings who are not us, beyond us and our scrutiny, etc.: as Yahweh did in the Bible, this could render genocide, trophy-wives and so on, as moral just because a god says so (or because powerful men tell us god says so). I know few people who would follow through with what they believe their god says all the time, as Adam Lee, at Daylight Atheism, pointed out with his Abraham Test. Furthermore, this makes ethics a useless subject since we need only consult the gods. Further still, of course, even if we believe all this to be true, religious people of the same religion cannot even agree on moral matters: whether homosexuality is right or wrong, capital punishment, abortion in dire circumstances, etc. All this, too, is prefaced on the recognition that some kind of morally engaged deity exists.
“God commands it because it is right”
If (2) then we must ask, simply, “why is this conduct right?” Basically, we are repeating ourselves! If the gods are saying “helping others in need is good” because “helping others is in need is good” we’ve reached a tautology. “God commands a good action because it is a good action”. This doesn’t help us at all. We still want to know why it is good. And, remember, if we say to this “Because god says it is good”, we’re back to the problems pointed out in the previous section.
It might also be an opportunity to say that the gods are useless, since if the action is right, why do we need the gods to recognise it? We are already using another standard if we are proclaiming “helping others in need is good”: what do we mean by good? This places us on proper ethical platforms to discuss our meanings of good.
"God Would Never Do Evil"
One popular method to try and save face is to proclaim that my god would never do or will anything other than good. That is, there is in fact a third option. As popular religious ethicist Greg Koukl says: “The third option is that an objective standard exists. However, the standard is not external to God, but internal. Morality is grounded in the immutable character of God, who is perfectly good. His commands are not whims, but rooted in His holiness” (quoted from this blogpost). All that’s happened here is that god is already being defined as good. So the Christian god automatically is good. But one can immediately see the problem: what is meant by “good”? By what standard are we even saying god is good? We can’t simply be saying “god is good” before the conversation on what constitutes good has even begun: because then it would render the discussions circular. Equating God with good doesn't answer the question of what constitutes good, it just redefines God.
Again, we might merely restate the original dilemma: "Is god good because he says so, or is he good because he really is good?" If the former, then it’s arbitrary, unclear, uncertain and so on – whereas, if it’s the latter, we still haven’t answered the question of how we know what good is.
Why this Matters
The point is, as Paul Cliteur highlights in The Secular Outlook, any religious-based ethics therefore is fundamentally flawed. By definition, a moral decision based on religion will be a command, a handed down assertion, a view propped up by circularity rather than consistency. Whether god or the Bible, you are not making a proper moral decision if someone else is telling you what to do: it is not a decision, it is a command being obeyed. To be able to reason morally, you must be able to engage freely.
To be free, you must not be able to point to the whims of another individual as your moral justification. One may appeal to reasons made by smarter people, but then you are engaging in their reasoning which any other free agent can assess and dispute: not the Creator of Universe, who I think suffers from the minor problems of inconsistency and non-existence, who you cannot dispute because by definition he “is good” or “must be obeyed”. The circularity traps everyone, not just you, in a prison of moral myopia: where we mistake the bars for protective fences.
That is why when people like Alise Wright make the point that it’s wrong to accuse Christians like her, who support gay marriage for example, of not being “true” or proper or “really” Christians, she’s right. The problem, however, that she misses and which I would consider central to my criticism of people like her is that there is a fundamental problem for everyone who bases their ethics on god, regardless of whether those conclusions square with nonbelievers’. So by “people like her”, I don’t see a Christian who supports a moral view I endorse: I see someone who is basing her ethics on the Bible. That’s my problem and that should be a problem for everyone, including Christians, as I’ve highlighted: it fundamentally undermines ethical deliberation, which requires free-thinking beings, not those following orders. This doesn't mean Christians can't be free-thinking beings (of course they are), it just means anyone who appeals to religion, specifically theism, as their basis for morality makes a flawed argument, no matter how they dress it up.
EDIT: Rephrased and fixed some sentences. Apologies.
UPDATE: Friend and member of the loyal opposition, theologian Jordan Pickering has written a reply to me.
* Thanks to reader Birnam420 for this brilliant suggestion.
Image Credit: Platón Academia de Atenas/WikiPedia (source)
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
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In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
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