A new study by the Pew organization (click on screenshot below or get full pdf here) surveyed 38,436 people in 34 countries across the globe, asking them questions about how important God or religion is to them and—today’s topic)—do you really need God to be moral. The methods included both face to face and phone surveys.
The overall results aren’t that surprising: more religious countries and more religious people within countries think that “belief in God is necessary to be moral and have good values”, while richer countries (which are also less religious countries) tend to harbor respondents who don’t think faith is necessary for morality. And the proportion of those who see God as important in this respect is waning in most of Western Europe over time, though growing in Russia, Bulgaria, Japan and Ukraine).
The overall results show a pretty even division across the globe, though religion plays an important role in most people’s lives. But these results aren’t that informative given the observed variation across countries (see below):
Below is a plot showing the variation across the surveyed countries. Look at the first two lines showing a substantial difference between the U.S. and the more secular Canada.
Overall, I would have thought that even religious people wouldn’t assert that you need God to be moral, mainly because there’s so much evidence that nonbelievers are moral. In fact, the most secular countries in the world—those in Scandinavia—could be construed as being more moral than many of the more religious countries, like Islamic countries of the Middle East. Further, the Euthyphro argument, which shows that our sense of morality must be prior to belief in God (unless you believe in Divine Command theory), disposes of the we-need-God-to-be-moral claim. But of course few people have thought the issue through that far.
Muslim and Catholic (or devout Christian) countries show the strongest belief in God as a necessity for morality. 90% or above ratings are seen in the Philippines, Indonesia, Kenya, and Nigeria.
Three more plots. The first one shows the familiar pattern of richer countries adhering less to religious dicta than poorer ones. In this case there are multiple confounding factors, for “belief in God is important for morality” is surely itself highly correlated with simple “belief in God.” The relationship here is very strong. My own view is that of Marx: countries where you are in bad shape and can’t get help from the government tend to be those where people find hope and solace in religion.
This is also true within countries: there’s a consistent pattern in the surveyed nations of people with higher income being less likely to see God as necessary for morality (and of course the higher-income people are less likely to be religious in general).
As expected, people with more education tend to connect morality with God to a lesser extent. Again, this is probably because of a negative relationship between education and religiosity:
In the comments below, reader Eric said I may have “buried the lede” by neglecting the rather large drop between 2002 and 2019, in the proportion of Americans who think God is necessary for morality. This is part of the increasing secularization of the U.S:
Finally, there’s a plot showing the variation among countries on the general importance of religion. Western Europe, Australia, South Korea, and Japan lead the pack for secularism, while Catholic, Muslim, and African Christian countries are those seeing religion as more important. That’s no surprise:
In truth, the failure of nearly half the world’s people to see that atheists can be moral, which should dispose of the “God-is-necessary” hypothesis, is depressing. But one could argue that for many religious people, “morality” consists largely of religious dictates: what you eat, who you sleep with and how, how you feel about gays and women, and so on. So, for example, Catholics and Muslims might see the free-loving and egalitarian Scandinavians as immoral.
There’s a new piece in The Federalist that tries to take down atheists because, says author Richard Weikart, we have no better grounding for the “purpose and meaning” of our lives than do religionists. In fact, we’re worse in that endeavor than are religionists who find purpose and meaning from their faith. Here’s Weikart’s sorry piece (click on the screenshot):
I didn’t know what the Federalist was or who this dude Weikart is, so I looked them up. According to Wikipedia, The Federalist is “an American English-language online magazine that covers politics, policy, culture, and religion. The site was co-founded by Ben Domenech and Sean Davis and launched in September 2013. Domenech serves as publisher of The Federalist. According to Domenech, the site is dedicated to discussing ‘the philosophical underpinnings of the day’s debate’ instead of focusing on what he calls ‘the horserace or the personalities. The Federalist has been described as influential in conservative and libertarian circles.”
Okay, so the conservatism explains the atheist-bashing. But who is Weikart? The Federalist describes him as “professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life and Hitler’s Religion.” It conspicuously omits that Weikart is also a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s [DI’s] Center for Science & Culture, a creationist think tank, that he’s a Christian creationist, and that his books have been criticized by genuine scholars. The Hitler book, for instance, was funded by the Discovery Institute and has the thesis that Darwinism gave rise to the Holocaust. That idea, and Weikart’s views, were handily rebutted by my colleague Bob Richards in his excellent and well-researched essay “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” (Richards’ answer was “a very loud and unequivocal No!”)
Well, that’s Weikart’s background, which does explain his strong animus towards atheists. But what about his arguments? First, I’ll preen a little because he puts me in august company, even though I don’t deserve it. And that is the company of those who deny an external purpose and “transcendent meaning” for our lives. But, say I and others, we can and do have self-created meanings of our lives:
Atheists portray themselves as arch-rationalists who embrace reality without flinching. As I explain in my recent book, “The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life,” many prominent atheist thinkers, such as Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, have insisted that because there is no God, there is also no cosmic purpose, no objective morality, and no transcendent meaning to life. The atheistic Duke University philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg dismissed meaning and morality as an illusion in a 2003 article, “Darwin’s Nihilistic Idea: Evolution and the Meaninglessness of Life.”
. . . The prominent atheistic evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has also expressed dismay that anyone would dare suggest that atheists don’t have any meaning in their lives. But if you dig deeper—for example, by actually reading the empirical study—you find that atheists who insist that non-religious people can find meaning in life have changed the meaning of the word “meaning.”
Okay, so what is this “empirical study” he touts, and how have we changed the meaning of “meaning” as it applies to our lives? Here’s how Weikart describes the study, which actually supports the notion that atheists don’t lead lives of nihilism and anomie:
The 2018 study in question by David Speed, et al, “What Do You Mean, ‘What Does It All Mean?’ Atheism, Nonreligion, and Life Meaning,” [JAC: reference and link at bottom, free pdf here] used surveys to try to figure out if atheists find meaning in life or are nihilistic. This survey defined someone as nihilistic if he or she upheld the position: “In my opinion, life does not serve any purpose.”
This study found that atheists and non-religious people are not nihilistic, because they claimed that they did have a purpose in life. This is an interesting finding that seems to refute the oft-repeated charge (levied by religious folks) that atheists are nihilistic.
However, there is a problem with this finding. The survey admitted the meaning that atheists and non-religious people found in their lives is entirely self-invented. According to the survey, they embraced the position: “Life is only meaningful if you provide the meaning yourself.”
Thus, when religious people say non-religious people have no basis for finding meaning in life, and when non-religious people object, saying they do indeed find meaning in life, they are not talking about the same thing. If one can find meaning in life by creating one’s own meaning, then one is only “finding” the product of one’s own imagination. One has complete freedom to invent whatever meaning one wants.
This makes “meaning” on par with myths and fairy tales. It may make the non-religious person feel good, but it has no objective existence.
Yes, Weikart thinks that religion (read: his Christianity) imparts an objective purpose in life, and when we atheists criticize that as purpose coming from a “fairy tale”, well, at least religious people’s “purposes” are objective!:
. . . apparently many atheists and non-religious people have a hunger for meaning and a sense of moral rectitude that their worldview cannot satisfy. Sure, they are free to invent their own meaning and morality, but then they should be honest and admit that their meaning and morality has no advantage over the meaning or morality religious people put forward —or for that matter, it has no advantage over the meaning and purpose evil people invent. Their self-created meanings are every bit as much “fairy stories” as the religious ones they like to lampoon.
First of all, Weikart doesn’t recognize the irony of his implication that “See? Atheists believe in fairy tales. They’re just as bad as we are!” Well, he might respond that his Christianity is certainly not a fairy tale, because it’s not only based on empirical truths like Jesus Man being resurrected, but also gives us an objective morality and an objective purpose in our lives. But why is his Christianity true and Islam and Hinduism, which inspire different purposes, false?
But step back and consider the question: what is that meaning and purpose? As we know, one can discern an infinite number of meanings and life-purposes from just the Bible alone, for its “objective” lessons are debatable. Is the lesson to do what God tells us to do? In that case, let us stone adulterers and kids who curse their parents, and let us forsake our families and homes to follow Jesus. And how do we follow Jesus? Does our purpose include fighting against abortion and gay marriage, not to mention the Evil Materialism of Evolution? (To my mind, any purpose that makes its adherents tell lies about science, as does the Discovery Institute and Weikart himself, is a nefarious purpose.) Discerning purpose from the Bible is at best an act of pure subjectivity, and one that comports, as Plato realized, with a pre-existing and non-Goddy set of values.
And which scripture should the faithful pick to give them purpose, and which faith should they follow? What about Muslims? The Qur’an and its interpretations can lead to purposes completely different from those of Christians, and include exterminating unbelievers and scrupulously following the dictates of the Holy Book itself—something that Christians have learned to turn into malleable metaphors.
Any atheist can tell you that a self-constructed meaning of life is infinitely preferable to one depending on fictitious books. For the main error that Weikart makes is thinking that there’s something fictitious, something “fairy-tale-ish”, about divining one’s own meaning and purpose from our individual preferences, tastes, and secular beliefs. The bases for our “meanings” are, I’ve maintained, based on our preferences—preferences themselves grounded on secular reason and one’s personal set of emotions and pleasures. If these are the things that give us meaning, then what does it mean to say that they “have no objective existence”? They certainly do—just as objective an existence as the religious delusions (by this I mean thoughts and beliefs) of credulous believers like Weikart.
Steve Pinker’s latest book, Enlightenment Now, makes a persuasive case that progress in human welfare over the last centuries has been promoted not by religious faith, but by reason, humanism, and science. If we depended purely on faith and revelation to solve our problems, we’d have gotten nowhere. Those same virtues apply when an atheist discerns whatever meaning in life he or she finds.
And, in the end, yes, the invented meanings and purposes of those atheists who are humanists—most of us—are superior to a blind adherence to ancient dogma that brooks no dissent or reason.
I’m off to my GP as I injured my shoulder, most likely acquiring bursitis, and will probably get a cortisone shot, which a friend just informed me “really hurts!” Now what was the point of telling me that? It adds no value to my day except a soupçon of fear (I’m not afraid of needles, but I don’t like pain).
As we age, our bodies gradually accumulate infirmities and scars: now I have two crooked fingers and a ruined toenail. (The day I moved into my office, the building manager and I had to move my huge and heavy oak desk out of the elevator, since the movers would only take it to the building entrance. It dropped onto my foot, completely severing the bone of the left big toe, causing me to faint, and then to visit the hospital where they pulled off the toenail with pliers, causing me to faint again. The doctor said the nailbed was screwed, and the toenail would always be deformed. True!)
It’s a nice interview and I’ll just excerpt two bits:
There has been a slew of books about that old-fashioned idea of what makes “a good death” recently. Do you welcome them?
I think Atul Gawande is a very good writer, but I didn’t get on with his book Being Mortalthat much. He only very grudgingly says that maybe doctor-assisted suicide is a good idea. I am a great proponent, to the extent I feel I would take it up myself – though you never know, when push comes to shove, what you will decide. But it does seem to me increasingly that the two markers of a civilised society are bicycles and doctor-assisted suicide. It is not about licensing doctors to kill people. It is about allowing everyone with mental capacity to make a choice about how they would like to end.
I guess religion still partly gets in the way of that idea
It seems to me that the only rational case for theism is that God is a complete bastard. I have seen a lot of children die with inoperable brain tumours, particularly one horrible one called a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, for which there is no treatment. When I go out to Ukraine their parents are lining up to see me in the hope of a miracle. It just seems the proof for God is so very thin. “There’s a friend for little children above the bright blue sky.” I mean, really?
. . . You clearly left the NHS [National Health Service] dispirited. Can you see grounds for optimism?
I am afraid I don’t. Politicians seem unable to stand up to the public and say: if you want better health care you are going to have to pay for it. Instead they still say it is all about management and reorganisation. The evidence is clearly out there in the other wealthy European countries, though: we spend far less on healthcare in both absolute and per capita terms than they do, and almost across the board you see that in the relative outcomes.
I’ve made this point before, but have revisited it after my recent post on animal suffering and how we shouldn’t ignore it. When thinking about how to judge human versus animal suffering, I realized that there’s no objective way to do this, and that when trying to figure out how to treat animals, we must ultimately rely on subjective judgment. While science can help us make such judgments, it cannot give us objective answers, even in principle.
For example, is it right to do animal experimentation on primates? In so doing, primates and other mammals are injured or suffer, and yet there may be some ultimate benefit for humanity (this, of course, isn’t guaranteed). How many mouse lives or monkey lives are worth one human life, especially when animal testing doesn’t always provide cures? We think it’s okay to swat mosquitoes or kill a nonvenomous snake that’s simply annoying or scaring us, but we don’t think it’s right to kill a dog who’s barking at us. Where do you draw the line?
Or if, like Sam Harris, you think that “well being” is the objective criterion for morality, so that the most moral act is the one that maximizes overall well being, then your difficulty becomes this: how do you determine the relative weights of animal well being versus human well being? Science can’t answer such a question because we have no idea how to quantify well being among species, which depends on knowing how an animal subjectively perceives and values its existence. (I also question how science can judge the relative weights of different kinds of human well being, but I’ll leave that aside.) Is it immoral to swat a fly only because it’s annoying you with its buzzing? Is it immoral to kill a harmless spider simply because you don’t like spiders?
I am still traumatized at having seen a golf-course employee, several decades ago, flooding mole tunnels with water, and then killing the moles who came out by whacking them with a wrench. I’ll never forget that sight, which made me weep. Is the increased well-being of golfers worth more than the reduced well being of the whacked moles?
But it gets more serious when you come to food animals. Is it immoral to eat animals? How do you measure their reduced well being at losing their lives versus our increased well being when we eat a nice chicken or steak? Is it immoral to eat eggs from battery chickens? If so— because you weigh their suffering as heavier than our increased well being—then what about humanely raised animals? They may have a nicer life and be killed more humanely, too, but don’t they value their own lives? They’ve evolved, after all, to avoid death, and yet we kill them. To me that means that they don’t want to die, but we don’t know what “want” really means in an animal whose brains we can’t fathom.
I see no way to arrive at objective answers to these questions, for even in principle I can’t see how one can give relative values to the well being of different species. Of course one could punt and say that morality applies only to humans, but we know that’s untrue. We prosecute people who torture cats and dogs, and we have, by and large, stopped using animal testing for cosmetics. The latter is an explicit judgment that animal suffering outweighs the increased well being produced by applying blush or mascara.
Now I admit that I’m not a trained philosopher (though I do have one paper in a real journal to my credit), and perhaps others have considered this question in light of the notion that we can have objective moral truths. I’ve read Peter Singer, who’s told me personally that he thinks there are such truths, but I’ve never asked him to tell me how one can objectively arrive at his notion (which I share) that “animal liberation” is a very important cause.
In the end, like all morality, animal “rights” comes down to issues of preference and subjective judgment. Science and empirical observation can feed into those issues, but at bottom it’s still subjective. I agree with Sam that in general our moral judgments, at least in our own species, correspond to utilitarian notions of overall well being, but I don’t agree that one can make such judgments objectively.
My title may reflect a bit of hubris, but I invite readers to tell me where I’m wrong.
Juliana Snow has suffered from an incurable neurodegenerative illness called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, or CMT, since birth. [JAC: description of the illness here.] The child can’t move or eat, wears a breathing mask at all times, and is confined to the four walls of her family’s Portland home.
Juliana is sick of repeated visits to the hospital, and so her Christian parents have had a conversation with her about whether she wants to prolong the largely fruitless treatment, which buys her a few more weeks of misery, or simply stay at home and die in the presence of her family. The sticking point for me is that they’re telling her what I see as a lie: that she’ll go to Heaven, where she’ll some day be reunited with her family.
On her own website, Juliana’s mother Michelle recounts a conversation she had with her daughter:
Mom: You don’t want to go to the hospital, right, J?
Juliana: I don’t like NT [naso-tracheal suction, the thing she hated the most from the hospital].
M: I know. So if you get sick again, you want to stay home?
J: I hate NT. I hate the hospital.
M: Right. So if you get sick again, you want to stay home. But you know that probably means you will go to heaven, right?
M: And it probably means that you will go to heaven by yourself, and Mommy will join you later.
J: But I won’t be alone.
M: That’s right. You will not be alone.
J: Do some people go to heaven soon?
M: Yes. We just don’t know when we go to heaven. Sometimes babies go to heaven. Sometimes really old people go to heaven.
J: Will Alex [her 6-year-old brother] go to heaven with me?
M: Probably not. Sometimes people go to heaven together at the same time, but most of the time, they go alone. Does that scare you?
J: No, heaven is good. But I don’t like dying.
M: I know. That’s the hard part. We don’t have to be afraid of dying because we believe we go to heaven. But it’s sad because I will miss you so much.
We had taught Julianna our belief that there is a better place for her. In heaven, she will be able to walk, jump and play. She will not need machines to help her breathe, and she will be able to eat real food. There will be no hospitals. Very clearly, my 4-year-old daughter was telling me that getting more time at home with her family was not worth the pain of going to the hospital again. I made sure she understood that going to heaven meant dying and leaving this Earth. And I told her that it also meant leaving her family for a while, but we would join her later. Did she still want to skip the hospital and go to heaven? She did.
PuffHo recounts how the parents’ wish to give Juliana the choice is controversial among medical ethicists:
In response to the mom’s blog posts, some have praised the family’s decision, while others have been vehement in their criticism. The issue has even divided the medical ethics community.
“This doesn’t sit well with me. It makes me nervous,” Dr. Art Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, told CNN. “I think a 4-year-old might be capable of deciding what music to hear or what picture book they might want to read. But I think there’s zero chance a 4-year-old can understand the concept of death. That kind of thinking doesn’t really develop until around age 9 or 10.”
Dr. Chris Feudtner, another renowned bioethicist and pediatrician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, disagreed with this sentiment, however.
“To say [Juliana’s] experience is irrelevant doesn’t make any sense. She knows more than anyone what it’s like to be not a theoretical girl with a progressive neuromuscular disorder, but to be Julianna,” he said.
In general I agree with Feudtner. What harm is being done here, even if we’re pretty sure that Juliana isn’t going to go to Heaven after she dies? How much of the child’s decision really rests on her notion that she’ll have a nice afterlife, versus on the reality of the medical torture she’s enduring now? This is a tough question, but I can’t bring myself to urge the parents (who, as Christians, wouldn’t do it anyway) to tell the child that when she dies, that’s it. This may be one of those rare cases where faith-based delusion is actually helpful.
When I was young, my 13-year-old cousin had liver cancer, and we all knew he was going to die. But he was told he had “pleurisy” and would eventually recover. Whenever I visited him in the hospital, I felt horrible, as if we were all participating in some hideous charade, and that my cousin really should be told that he was going to die. But he was 13, not 5.
As a nonbeliever, I think that Juliana’s parents are deluding her with false promises of her fate after death. But I see no way to prevent them from doing so, and, in truth, little harm in it. Would she seek more medical care if she knew death was final? Can a five-year-old make any kind of responsible decision about this? Should the parents have decided for her, without deluding her about Heaven?
These are difficult questions, and I have no answer, though I lean towards accepting the parents’ wishes. Reader are invited to weigh in below.
One of my other favorite anecdotes about our brief tenure on Earth comes from The Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. As Texified reports:
In Northumbria of the seventh century, King Edwin called a meeting to decide if missionaries should be allowed to preach. Paulinus had tried to convert Edwin to become a Christian, but Edwin wished to consult his friends and advisors. The chief priest Coifi recommended that Edwin follow the teaching of Christianity, and another advisor agreed saying:
“The present life of man upon earth, O King, seems to me in comparison with that time which is unknown to us like the swift flight of a sparrow through mead-hall where you sit at supper in winter, with your Ealdormen and thanes, while the fire blazes in the midst and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest, but after a short space of fair weather, he im-
mediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter to winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems
justly to be followed in our kingdom.”
Well, the Christian overtones are unpalatable, but if you leave off the last sentence it’s lovely. Provided, of course, that you realize that we do know what is to follow: nothing.
In my view there is no good death, but some deaths are better than others. B. J. Miller came close, losing both his legs below the knee, as well as his left forearm, in a foolish stunt as a sophomore at Princeton, climbing on top of the famous “Dinky” train and getting electrocuted by the wires. Since then he’s become a palliative-care doctor and founder of the Zen Hospice Project, which, as described in the New York Times, is a small but immensely empathic facility for the terminally ill.
In this twenty-minute TED talk, Miller proposes ways to bring “intention and creativity to the experience of dying.” His emphasis is on the importance “sensuous, aesthetic gratification”: little but tangible connections with the world (and its inhabitants) that affirm one’s being.
I would hope that I could appreciate such gratifications at the end of life, but, in truth, how do I know? Miller clearly has wide experience in what palliates death, but I can’t help but feel that consuming two baked cookies as one’s about to cross the Styx won’t reconcile me to my fate. And, in truth, this highly-touted video seems to try desperately to make a virtue of necessity. Miller is to be lauded for his efforts, but in the end remains the brute fact of nonexistence.
Just a note about what may be Oliver Sack’s last published work, or at least the last thing that he wrote that was published most recently. It’s a piece in the New Yorker (free access) called “Filter Fish“. It is of course about the Jewish dish gefilte fish (something I can’t abide, but always call “filter fish” too). Sacks loved the stuff, but only the homemade version, and preferably made by his mother. It’s interesting that, at the end of his life, Sacks, still a nonbeliever, turned to his cultural Jewish roots. Do remember that his last New York Times piece was called “Sabbath.”
Here he draws full circle between the “filter fish” that sustained him in his childhood and then at the terminus of his life. Do read the whole piece, but here are the last three paragraphs, which I find deeply moving.
But now, in what are (barring a miracle) my last weeks of life—so queasy that I am averse to almost every food, with difficulty swallowing anything except liquids or jellylike solids—I have rediscovered the joys of gefilte fish. I cannot eat more than two or three ounces at a time, but an aliquot of gefilte fish every waking hour nourishes me with much needed protein. (Gefilte-fish jelly, like calf’s-foot jelly, was always valued as an invalid’s food.)
Deliveries now arrive daily from one shop or another: Murray’s on Broadway, Russ & Daughters, Sable’s, Zabar’s, Barney Greengrass, the 2nd Ave Deli—they all make their own gefilte fish, and I like it all (though none compares to my mother’s or Helen’s).
While I have conscious memories of gefilte fish from about the age of four, I suspect that I acquired my taste for it even earlier, for, with its abundant, nutritious jelly, it was often given to infants in Orthodox households as they moved from baby foods to solid food. Gefilte fish will usher me out of this life, as it ushered me into it, eighty-two years ago.
Now that I’ve established my philosophy cred, I want to talk about “rights”. These are just some off-the-top-of-my-head thoughts inspired by the video I’ve posted below.
There are two ways we can interpret the meaning of the word “rights” as applied to humans or animals:
a. Social, political, or legal conventions that help society run the way we’d like it to. The “right” for all people to be treated equally under the law is such a convention.
b. An unquestionable property of a human being that is said to derive from either deontological philosophical principles or from the dictates of God.
Few of us here (though many believers, like the one shown below) believe that rights come from God. But many of us see them as innate virtues and privileges of humans—things not to be questioned. I’d like to take issue with this second view.
I certainly agree with “rights” in the first sense, but not with the second. For, at bottom, “rights” in the second sense simply lead to more questions that require answers. Why are all people, genders, and races to be treated equally? Why does a woman have the “right” to control her own body when pregnant? Why does every citizen have the right to health care and clean water? I do agree with these as “rights” in the first sense: they are necessary for a harmonious society and world. But just asserting these things as “rights” shuts down further analysis: it’s a discussion-stopper.
At bottom, there is a reason why people claim that something is a “right”, and that mandates further contemplation and rationalization, as it does for, say, abortion or gay marriage. In my view, those rights derive from a consequentialist morality: we should allow gays to marry because it is good for society (and of course for gays) that they enjoy the same marital privileges as straight people. When you assert something as a “right” in the second sense, you are trying to forestall a discussion of the reasons why that “right” exists.
I would prefer that we simply stop talking about “rights.” That, of course, won’t happen. But if we continue to do so, we should make it clear that they are social preferences, codified into law and behavior, that exist for reasons. This means that they are open for discussion, for of course “rights” will change as society changes. We now have a “right” to assisted dying (or so I feel), but that is something that reflects a chance in society’s mores. Rather than “rights”, I’d say “right”, as in “it is the right thing to do to allow gays to marry”. Or “it is the right thing to do to allow the terminally ill to end their own lives.” Such a view allows us to discuss why these things are “right,” and leads to possibility of constructive dialogue and examination of our own beliefs.
These are all thoughts I had when listening to the video below, “The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists”. It’s a 42-minute talk by Ravi Zacharias, author and Christian apologist. (I defy you to make it past ten minutes!) The talk, in turn, is a distillation of his 2008 book, The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists.
Here we see the notion of rights and morals as things given uniquely by God. Here’s the YouTube description
Ravi Zacharias replies to the New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great), and Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell). This video is part of the ‘Contending with Christianity’s Critics’ 2012 conference.
The thesis in Zacharias’s talk, as it surely is in his book (I haven’t read it), is that atheism is bad because it destroys meaning and purpose of life: our “shared values”. And where do those shared values come from? They are “divine imperatives implanted in the heart and conscience of every human being”—i.e., they come from God. Once, he claims, we all shared those values, and that grounded society, but New Atheists are chipping away at the foundations, making those values questionable, questioned, and, for some of them, insupportable. We are, he says, created a divisive and harmful cultural revolution away from “shared meanings”.
It’s amusing to see Zacharias’s religious two-step when he has to argue that Islam doesn’t share the same meanings and values (after all, he’s justifying Christianity as the true faith). After all, Muslims also claim that their morals and values come from God. Zacharias has an amusing argument about why they’re wrong; it’s in the first 15 minutes, and I won’t spoil it for you.
When, as Zacharias does, people claim “rights based on God or some immutable moral absolutes” (and these are roughly equivalent), they are doing something that’s bad: trying to prevent us from questioning why we should treat human beings one way versus another. Yes, it’s settled that humans have “rights” not to be slaves or imprisoned without reason, but there are reasons for those “rights”, and it behooves us to remember that.
If you’re a determinist like me, it’s useless to have deathbed regrets about what you didn’t do in the past, for you couldn’t have done otherwise. However, we can, by hearing about others’ regrets, modify our behavior, for neuronal rewiring in the face of experience does not violate determinism.
Herewith is a list I found on Facebook, which turns out to come from a 2012 Guardian piece based on the experience of a terminal-care nurse:
All of these seem sensible (especially the yellow one!)—except for the one about “letting yourself be happier.” How can you let yourself be happier if you’re a determinist? The only way to do that is to somehow grasp that you want to and can be happier, and then take whatever steps you think would bring on change.