Sunday, 10 April 2011

Harris on Divine Morality

This debate, Does Good come from God?,  is an interesting contrast of styles. Some have 'awarded' the debate points to William Lane Craig, since he responds more formally to Sam Harris's points, while Harris sticks, mostly, to his agenda, and doesn't really expose WLC's argument. This may be because he didn't want to spend too much time on WLC's nonsense so as not to legitimise it.

But, while not formally objecting to WLC's particular argument, Harris did rather brilliantly expose the poverty of the divine command theory. In his original statement, Harris sets out his stall: because there is a worst possible state of affairs that we want to avoid, we can therefore safely assume that morality is the attempt to make the world better than that. And so, human flourishing determines morality. This is a pretty controversial position to say the least, and not necessarily true; I'm just putting that up there to set the scene for Harris to address WLC's Christian world view:
Ask yourselves: what is wrong with spending eternity in Hell?
So Lane Craig has laughed at the idea that well being could be a sufficient determinant for morality (which it may well not be), but his philosophy is built on the very same idea. And Harris goes on to show how the nature of Christian consequentialism can logically lead to immoral behaviour, and because of that, *is* an immoral doctrine to hold and preach.
Well I'm told it's rather hot there, for one. Dr Craig is not offering an alternative view of morality.The whole point of Christianity, or so it is imagined, is to safeguard the eternal well being of human souls. Now happily, there is absolutely no evidence that the Christian hell exists. I think we should look at the consequences of believing in this theistic framework in this world, and what these moral underpinnings actually would be.
Nine million children die each year before the age of five. Picture an Asian tsunami, of the sort we saw in 2004 that killed a quarter of a million people. One of those every ten days, killing only those under five. 24,000 children a day, a thousand an hour, seventeen or so a minute, that means before I can get to the end of this sentence some few children will have died in terror and agony. 
Think of the parents of these children. Think of the fact that most of these men and women believe in God, and are praying at this moment for their children to be spared. And their prayers will not be answered.
According to Dr Craig, this is all part of God's plan. 
Any God who would allow children by the millions to suffer and die in this way, and their parents to grieve in this way, either can do nothing to help them, or doesn't care to. Is therefore either impotent or evil. And worse than that, on Dr Craig's view, many of these people will be going to hell because they're praying to the wrong God. Think about that. Through no fault of their own, they were born into the wrong culture, where they got the wrong theology, and the missed the revelation. 
There are 1.2 billion people in India at this moment, most of them are Hindus, most of them therefore are polytheists. In Dr Craig's universe, no matter how good these people are, they are doomed. If you are praying to the monkey god, Hanuman, you are doomed. You'll be tortured in hell for eternity. Now is there the slightest evidence for this? No, it just says so in Mark 9, Matthew 13and Revelations 14. Perhaps you'll remember from The Lord of the Rings, it says that when the elves die, they go to Valinor, but they can be reborn in Middle Earth. I say that just as a point of comparison. 
So God created the cultural isolation of the Hindus; he engineered the circumstances of their deaths in ignorance of revelation, and then he created the penalty for this ignorance, which is an eternity of conscious torment in fire. 
On the other hand, on Dr Craig's account, your run-of-the-mill serial killer in America, who spent his life raping and torturing children, need only come to God, come to Jesus on Death Row, and after a final meal of fried chicken, he's going to spend an eternity in heaven, after death. One thing should be crystal clear to you, this vision of life has absolutely nothing to do with moral accountability.
Please notice the double standard that people like Dr Craig use to exonerate God from all this evil. We're told that God is kind and loving and just and intrinsically good, but when someone like me points out the rather compelling evidence that God is cruel and unjust because he visits suffering on innocent people of a scope and scale that would embarrass the most ambitious psychopath, we're told that God is mysterious. Who can understand God's will? This merely human understanding of God's will is precisely what believers use to establish his goodness in the first place. If something good happens to a Christian, he feels some bliss while praying, say, or he sees some positive changes in his life, then we're told that God is good. But when children by the tens of thousands are torn from their parents' arms and drowned, we're told that God is mysterious. This is how you [Christians] play tennis without the net. 
And I want to suggest to you that it is not only tiresome, when otherwise intelligent people speak this way, it is morally reprehensible. This kind of faith is the perfection of narcissism; God loves me, don't you know? He cured me of my eczema. He makes me feel so good while singing in church. And just when we were giving up hope he found a banker who was willing to give my mother a mortgage. Given all that this God of yours doesn't accomplish in the lives of others, given the misery that's being imposed on some helpless child at this instance, this kind of faith is obscene. To think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently for the suffering of other human beings. 
And if God is good and loving and just and kind, and he wanted to guide us morally with a book, why give us a book that supports slavery; why give us a book that admonishes us to kill people for imaginary crimes like witchcraft? Now, of course, there are ways of not taking these questions to heart. According to Dr Craig's Divine Command theory, God is not bound by moral duties, God does not have to be good, whatever He commands is good, so whenever He commands the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites, that behaviour becomes intrinsically good because He commanded it.
Here we're being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude. Psychotic because it's completely delusional, there is no reason to believe that we live in a universe ruled over by an invisible monster, Yahweh. But is is psychopathic because this is a total detachment from the well-being of human beings, that so easily rationalises the slaughter of children.
I should point out here that the well-being of humans is being ignored by theists in this world, because of the pre-occupation with the afterlife, for which there is absolutely no evidence.
Just think about the Muslims, at this moment, who are blowing themselves up convinced that they are agents of God's will. There is absolutely nothing that Dr Craig can say against their behaviour in moral terms apart from his own faith based claim that they're praying to the wrong God.
If they had the right God what they were doing would be good, on Divine Command theory.
Now, I'm obviously not saying that Dr Craig or religious people are all psychopaths and psychotic, but this to me is the true horror of religion. It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions what only lunatics could believe on their own. if you wake up tomorrow morning, thinking that saying a few Latin words over your pancakes is going to turn them into the body of Elvis Presley, you've lost your mind. But if you think more or less the same thing about a cracker and the body of Jesus, you're just a Catholic.
A good demonstration of how religion legitimises ridiculous beliefs.
And I'm not the first person to notice that it's a very strange loving God that would make salvation depend on believing in him on bad evidence. If you lived two thousand years ago, there was evidence galore and he was just performing miracles but apparently he got tired of being so helpful. And so now we all inherit this very heavy burden of the doctrine's implausibility, and the effort to square it with what we now know about the cosmos and what we know about the all too human origins of scripture, it becomes more and more difficult. It's not just the generic God that Dr Craig is recommending, it's God the Father and Jesus the Son. Christianity, on Dr Craig's account, is the true moral wealth of the world.
I hate to break it to you here at Notre Dame: Christianity is a cult of human sacrifice. Christianity is not a religion that repudiates human sacrifice, it is a religion that celebrates a single human sacrifice as though it were effective. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son - John 3:16. The idea is that Jesus suffered crucifixion so none may suffer hell. Except those billions in India. And billions like them throughout history.
This doctrine is astride a contemptible history of scientific ignorance and religious barbarism. We come from people who used to bury children in the foundations of new buildings as offerings to their imaginary gods. Just think about that. In vast numbers of societies, people would bury children in postholes, people like ourselves thinking that this would prevent an invisible being from knocking down their buildings. These are the sorts of people who wrote the Bible.
If there is a less moral framework than the one Dr Craig is proposing, I haven't heard of it.
Well said, Sam, imho.


  • ericfeinberg28 says:
    24 October 2012 at 20:00

    Sam Harris won hands down. Dr Craig thinks that merely by showcasing a superior philosophical lexicon he'll be judged the winner, but Harris actually addressed the issues at hand. I disagree with his belief that morality is "objective" without God, but so what? As long as we all agree that "well being" - what Aristotle called "eudaimonia" - is what is most important to us, we can (and have) devised a system of ethics nonetheless. When last I checked, God's existence has never been definitively established and yet we have a system of laws and moral customs anyways.

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