Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Religion Virus: Atheist ethics, part 1

Is evolution wrong just because we don't like the facts it predicts? This is one of the most persuasive, yet deeply flawed, arguments that religious apologists use to convince the "faithful" that there must be a God.

In the bookstore's philosophy/religion section today, I encountered a book with a provocative title, something like "The Ten Worst Ideas in History." (The real title doesn't matter, I don't want to encourage anyone to buy it.) Among his "ten worst ideas" was Darwinism, and his reason for including it – get ready for this – is that it predicts that animals and humans will behave "immorally."

This is an embarassing error of philosophy, that facts can be rejected simply because we don't like them. And worse, this purported expert in philosophy, a man with an extensive education, doesn't see just how absurd this is. Not only the author, but his agent, his editor, the publisher who agreed to take on the book, the bookstores that decided to put it on their shelves, and the people who buy it.

One of of Darwin's most profound insights had nothing to do with evolution; it was about science itself:
A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone.
This simple sentence encapsulates one of the most profound aspects of the scientific method: We must be open to the truth, no matter how unpleasant, or how much at odds with our beliefs.

Darwin's "heart of stone" does not mean a scientist must be cold and cruel, nor indifferent to the results of his/her work. Rather, Darwin was referring to the process of discovering the truth; while we are investigating, experimenting, and hypothesizing, we must take on a mantle of impartiality. We must shed our desires and preconceived notions, and let the facts dictate the truth to us.

It is only after we discover the truth that we can shed our objectivity and consider the moral and ethical implications.

(This is not to say we should conduct unethical science! Don't confuse unethical or cruel behavior with an open mind. The truth can be discovered with ethical experiments and investigations. But we must not let our ethics bias our discovery of truth.)

The author of this "Ten Worst Ideas" book is a scientific and philosophical illiterate. He completely rejects the most basic principles that were responsible for lifting humanity from our hunter-gatherer roots to modern civilization. The author started from a conclusion (that humans were inherently moral and good, presumably because God made us that way, and can be again), and asserts that it is "fact." With this "axiom," he can easily "prove" that Darwinism is inherently flawed, since Darwinism predicts that things like parasitism, racism, infanticide and other unpleasant behaviors are natural.

This, I believe, is one of the worst symptoms of the anti-science attitudes so prevalent today around the world. The people who buy these books are the same ones fighting to inject creationist drivel into our science curriculum, which will only increase the ignorance of true science.

An atheist is inherently better able to do science, because the atheist has no religion that s/he has to reconcile with the facts. The facts can speak for themselves.

Similarly, an Atheist's morals can be derived from natural principles, based on kindness, making the world a better place, and minimizing suffering. Atheists aren't saddled with "truths" that were dictated two thousand years ago by priests with a political agenda, by fictional beliefs about the human soul, by antiquated dietary laws, or by guilt-laden sexuality.


  1. Christianity predicts that people will behave immorally. Therefore, it is one of the worst ideas ever.

    Evolution dos not preclude moral and/or altruistic behavior.

    Blue Nine

  2. I edited this article slightly (9:30PM Tuesday) to clarify that the author of the book believed people were originally moral, not that they are now.

  3. The Thoery of Evolution by Natural Selection of course makes no such prediction about morality. Certainly it can be useful in explaining why morality developed, and why some individuals may behave morally or immorally, but ENS doesn't predict it.

    The author is thus a complete ignoramus on this basis alone. Add to that he seeming ignorance of the difference between hypothesis and theory, and the misunderstanding of what a prediction means in terms of forming and developing a hypothesis. Based on what you've written, it seems that the author thinks hypothesis = prediction = true. Perhaps he is even confusing prediction and prophecy. These are astonishing errors for a supposed learned philosopher to make.

    What is also astonishing is that, based on your review, the author seems to think that animals have a moral sense, which is a rather strange claim to make given that most, if not all theists, would claim that one of the key distinguishing characteristics that separates human beings from mere animals is humans moral capacity.

    I'm also not sure what to make of the argument that ENS is inherently flawed because it 'predicts' that unpleasant things are natural. Is the author claiming that such things are unnatural? If so, then he condemns his own god as a malevolent being for allowing such things to exist. Indeed, for bringing such things into existence in the first place.

    And that is the most astonishing aspect of Creationist arguments: the people people who support such don't understand the logical conclusions of the arguments that they make.

  4. Interesting blog, hope you don't mind a few comments from the other side.

    I take it that the argument this writer is making against ENS goes something like this:

    1. God says that human beings were created perfect.
    2. ENS predicts immoral behavior.
    3. By 1. and 2., ENS is incompatible with what God has said.
    4. God is trustworthy. (This is the part that you call arguing from a conclusion.)
    5. By 3. and 4., ENS is not true.

    There are several things to be said about this. First, I could be wrong about the argument made in the book you reference. (A quote would help.) Second, even as a Christian, I do not agree with the argument above, because I think 2. is incorrect and I have doubts about 1.. (And, in fact, I think ENS is correct.) Yet, even if the conclusion is incorrect, this argument does not commit the logical fallacy of which you accuse the author of "Ten Worst Ideas."

    The main issue here is premise 4. I certainly don't expect atheists to accept the premise that God is trustworthy uncritically. But "God is trustworthy" is a far cry from "simply because we don't like evolution." The latter is a mere predilection, the former an alleged fact. In this argument against evolution, the creationists are not relying on desires or wishing, they are relying on a premise they believe and you disagree with. But this is the nature of nearly all disagreements between intelligent people. It isn't cause to accuse them of bad reasoning skills.

    It is unfortunate that so many atheists assume that Christians cannot reason well, just because we start from different beliefs than they do.

  5. Nathan – you're making this way too complicated. The author in question drew a simple conclusion: Darwin's Theory of Evolution predicts immoral behavior, so and the author found that objectionable, so Darwin must be wrong.

    Christian apologetics is full of this argument. "I'm not descended from some monkey!" is perhaps the simplest and most obvious. But almost every argument that Christians can make for God's existence eventually boil down to something simple: They don't like the alternative.

    Take the "absolute morality" argument for example: "Without God, morals are all relative; there can be no absolute definition of right and wrong." This is one of the very foundations of arguments for God, and pervades Christian apologetics.

    Yet, it's utterly irrelevant. Absolute morals don't exist, so God's existence isn't proved. We humans make our morals up, and then we ascribe them to a fictional God. That's all there is to it.

  6. Absolute morals don't exist? Preposterous! Madness! How can you make such a claim? What is your basis?

  7. I'm going to take the gloves off here for a moment..have you ever asked a "believer" where they would be without God in their life and how would they be different? The answer I most shockingly get is "I guess I could do what ever I want" even told me they "would be free to do all the evil things they think of". WOW! So here I am a complete Anti-theist that doesn't drink, doesn't smoke, doesn't do drugs, (because they are all unhealthy for my body) I don't steal, I don't cheat on my wife, I don't beat her , I don't beat our dog,I don't lie and I'm not afraid to die,and all without a god, like so many others. So what do we need this god for anyway????

    The point I'm making here is that religion is just another vise for those that need comfort and can't cope with the harsh reality of life and's really that simple. Not everyone has the strength to deal with all of life's ups and downs, tragic deaths and other misfortunes, it's much easier to say god has a plan,its gods will, it'll all be better in heaven. I was raised going to church, but even as a child I could see how irrational and illogical it all was (religion) and was even perplexed why grown adults would take the teaching on faith. As I got older it became very apparent, they had an answer to all their fears and it was in their god.

    Now keep in mind that this loving God of theirs will now send me to burn alive for all eternity in a fiery pit called HELL, simply because I reject him. I would have to ask any Christian, what kind of person would praise such a Monster if it wasn't done purely out of fear? Put a match to your finger for a few seconds and you'll see what a truely terrible monster this god is.

    This God that is responsible for me being born not believing in him and makes no effort what's so ever to inform me personally. Who is suppose to know everything, and would of then had to of known their would be some of his children that are not nearly as gullible as others, yet again makes no effort to make himself known, even after years of prayer asking him to do so.

    Gods have been praised since man first began to wonder, and they knew no better, they had no better answers to all the mysteries. With all the knowledge we've acquired over the last century one thing has never changed and probably never will, man still seeks out religion to cope with his fears. The only thing that has changed is the gods they praise.


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