Right-wing bloggers and pundits churn out a steady stream of cookie-cutter articles insisting on the “impossibility” of moral atheism, and presenting the false dichotomy of godless chaos vs.theistic morality. I’ve covered most of these arguments over the years. They include assaults on the supposed personality flaws of atheists, (selfishness, nihilism, desperation, lack of charity, libertinism, lack of purpose) and historical guilt-by-association (invoking ghosts of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot). They typically cite the necessity of rigid and unchanging “values,” and decry “moral relativism.” Most take the form of “arguments from ignorance” or personal incredulity: “How can anyone be good without God?” or the old chestnut misattributed to Dostoevsky “if there is no God, anything is permitted.”
Recently I ran across a not completely novel, but less common type of slur on the subject of free will, called Why Atheism is Morally Bankrupt. It was written by Ben Shapiro of CNS, apparently in response to the American Humanist Association’s bus-side campaign. CNS is run by attack-dog L. Brent Bozell III, who also founded the nipplegate-fueled complaint mill the Parents Television Council (previous article). It’s no surprise that CNS is running this type of slanderous editorial. It’s intellectually vacuous, and it’s wholesale bigotry.
Imagine any other minority group getting this treatment. Even the second most hated subculture in America wouldn’t stand for a headline which read Why Islam is Morally Bankrupt (even if the case could be made). CAIR would be out in force, as would the ACLU and any other defender of minority rights. When most atheists write articles about religion, we attack specific irrational beliefs and specific immoral behavior, not an entire race or culture. And that’s the all-important difference. Yet Bozell’s attack site can slam atheism with nary a peep from the mainstream media.
If you walk around Washington, D.C., on a regular basis, you’re likely to see some rather peculiar posters. But you won’t see anything more peculiar than the ads put out by the American Humanist Association. “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake,” say the signs, in Christmas-colored red and green.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just be good for goodness’ sake. You don’t need some Big Man in the Sky telling you what to do. You can be a wonderful person simply by doing the right thing.
There’s only one problem: without God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will.
Who taught this man to think? I’m about to demonstrate that his claim is logically preposterous.
The inanimate universe–stars, rocks, planets, trees–exists with complete moral neutrality. If a star were to explode in a supernova, it would not be a moral event. Yet all life in its star system (and possibly nearby systems) would be immediately snuffed out. The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 was a completely amoral occurrence, yet it killed over 200,000 people. What creates morality in the face of nature’s implacable violence and ruthless competition? A society of self-aware individuals. With sentience comes (a somewhat constrained) agency and choice, or free will. Even in pre-civilized times, there was widespread morality. It was, for want of a better term, “the law of the jungle.” Johnny-come-lately conservatives use that phrase to ominously describe what happens when the startlingly recent structures humans have created in the name of God and government break down.
But this is a gross mischaracterization. Modern law has at least some basis in the “law of the jungle,” which, aside from rewarding the powerful, also ties cooperation to fairness and reciprocation. Recent studies on both chimpanzees and dogs have shown that they have a strong moral sense. They respond negatively to perceived unfairness as all intelligent life forms do–by refusing to cooperate. Packs, prides, and tribes are all bound together by this same tension between cooperation and competition. Cheaters and free-riders are punished and cooperators rewarded. Behavior, like other traits, has an evolutionary component, and humans only have self-reflection to separate us from animals. For both, it’s a constant tension between short and long-term self-interest, between the good of the one and the good of the many. Any part of this equation that’s not innate is learned socially. Social animals and humans have always been forced by circumstances to learn to work together and reciprocate. Morality is the inevitable outcome of the interplay between individuals and the groups to which they belong.
With his clumsy statement, Shapiro has waded into a whole other debate for which he’s woefully unmatched–the nature of consciousness:
That’s because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions—the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power—a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, “Although … I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined … [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it.”
Gilbert Pyle, the atheistic philosopher, derogatorily labeled the idea of soul/body dualism, “the ghost in the machine.” Nonetheless, our entire legal and moral system is based on the ghost in the machine—the presupposition that we can choose to do otherwise. We can only condemn or praise individuals if they are responsible for their actions. We don’t jail squirrels for garden theft or dogs for assaulting cats—they aren’t responsible for their actions. But we routinely lock up kleptomaniacs and violent felons.
We don’t lock up cats and dogs for their transgressions with other cats and dogs, because we are not a society of cats and dogs. We don’t lock up cats and dogs for their general free will choices such as chewing up our shoes, because we dominate them and they do not severely threaten us. Any misbehavior is tolerated the same way we tolerate misbehavior from toddlers–they don’t know any better. Toddlers grow up, dogs don’t. When animals threaten human stability or safety, such as going rabid or stray, or Pit Bulls attack children, we do worse than locking them up. We euthanize them. I can’t believe Shapiro used this inane argument–has he no shame? But there you have it.
Steven Pinker also spent a third of his epic work The Blank Slate debunking the “ghost in the machine.” Still, the fiction persists. Theists commonly assert that without the “divine spark” all interactions of matter are deterministic. Therefore without ostensible “transmissions” or imposition of “divine order” from “on high,” no one can have free will. It’s a preposterous and counterintuitive idea, and always propounded without evidence. By this notion, without an external controller, the actions of everyone, down to when they pick their noses would be predetermined through the “random” interactions of matter. Charitably, I’d attribute this mistake to bad intuition, which extrapolates the rules of cause and effect from simple events like a row of dominoes falling to the hundred trillion neural connections which make up a human mind. I’m saying “mind” because I’m going to set aside Descartes’ statement and the ancient mind-body dualism debate. Descartes was speaking before we had arrived at the modern understanding of the neural correlates of consciousness.
The mind is not a row of dominoes falling, but rather a sea of chemistry and impulses which, like a computer, provides variable output based on input. The output depends on the mind’s structure, modified by its inputs. Consciousness researchers debate whether the structure of the mind forces a certain limitation on the range of human actions. From the tagline of the Philosophy of Genetics site, “What you want is who you can become. You’re free to do what you want, but you can’t choose your wants themselves (desires and motivations), which are innate and vary from person to person.” So if we think of “choice space” as being a multi-dimensional range of all possible actions an agent could choose, the structure of our brain maps out a well-defined section in “choice space” to which we are limited. This has variation across the population, but consistently maps to those actions which promote individual survival and robust competition with others. Over at least a hundred thousand years of human evolution, the best strategy for individuals has been to find tribes to belong to, and cooperate with. So that’s what we do. We’re not free to do otherwise, because it would lessen the chances for survival of the organism. But within the cooperation/competition paradigm, it is self-evident there is still a broad range of free will choice to be had.
Shapiro might counter with assertions that “God’s input” has been there all along, so we don’t know what it would be like to live without Him. If that were the case, then belief would not seem to be necessary, since moral evolution predated modern religion. Other theists, particularly in “new thought” and CUT, have developed elaborate systems of personification in the natural world. They would insist that animals’ volition and sense of fairness comes from “elementals” or “devas” which “ensoul” the animal. Again, the direct tie to the divine.
But this is a ruse. Let’s assume for a second that “elementals” and “souls” permeate the natural world. Would their incorporeal actions and desires depend on our awareness or worship? Are elementals and souls independently volitional, or would they just simply exist to support living systems? If the former, then there is no human or animal free will, since it would stem from either the “will of God” or the ensouling elemental. If the latter, we could safely ignore the spirit’s existence and just study the behavioral system. If elementals don’t possess their own free-will, giving them personalities changes nothing. If they existed, they would simply duplicate the functions of known structures in biology. So their presence or absence cannot be observed and certainly couldn’t affect outcomes.
If we have free will in any meaningful sense, neither humans nor animals could simultaneously be marionettes with invisible strings pulled by gods or “elementals.” The only conclusion is therefore that we are free biological agents limited by our innate desires, and we live and die by our choices. “Elementals” and “souls” are therefore only coherent concepts if taken as metaphors for natural awareness, desires, and instincts.
It’s not only our criminal justice system that presupposes a Creator. It’s our entire notion of freedom and equality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson, supposed atheist, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Human equality must spring from a Creator, because the presence of a soul is all that makes man human and equal. Biology suggests inherent inequality—who would call Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Hawking equal in any way? Biology suggests the sort of Hegelian social Darwinism embraced by totalitarian dictators, not the principles of equality articulated by the Founding Fathers.
Now Shapiro’s arguing from consequence: “If that were true…” It’s never a valid tactic. But he’s also what I would call “not even wrong.” He’s caught by his own careless usage “presupposes a Creator” [with a capital C] in that circular and self-justifying netherworld. Wake-up call: Here’s what we can summarize about crime from human history:
The criminal justice system is a proxy for tribal discipline. It is only as moral as the tribal (or governmental) leaders. We have taken away the traditional power of individuals and families to mete out retributive justice and given it to the state. This “civilizing” influence has had mixed results. It only works to the extent that the state adheres to its own ethical principles. When the state begins to act pathologically, it bears outrageous ironies: For example, with the death penalty, we “kill people to teach people that killing people is wrong.” Or we lock people up for non-violent consensual behavior. The former comes from Old Testament traditions of “an eye-for-an-eye” the latter from the mistaken notion of the divine right of kings, “Dieu et mon droit.”
Equality is a quaint fiction. No one actually believes in it. Not even America’s Founding Fathers. When they said “all men are created equal” it’s an ideal, a sense that we are all equal in dignity and have the right to live free from force and fraud. But that’s a recent development. The weak and vulnerable used to be quietly eliminated, most of the time by their own tribes. People couldn’t afford to care for those who couldn’t pull their weight. It wasn’t worth risking the well-being of everyone else. The social ideal of equality of the weak is a recent development which was initially enabled by the establishment of agriculture, and later supported by the Magna Carta and other charters of human rights. Human “rights” were “granted” to the extent that there was enough food to go around. The concept of “rights” became valued once it became less painful for a society to feed a weak person than to slaughter them or leave them to die. It was in a very real sense the beginning of our transition from brute force to empathy and valuing aesthetics.
Whatever “equality” does exist today (which is not to say very much) has been fostered by modern technology and prosperity. The soul has absolutely nothing to do with it. Social Darwinism was the norm before modern democracy, and is alive and well even within it. We’ve only succeeded in slightly blunting its most inhumane excesses. Still, it’s always been every man for himself, even and especially now. Shapiro should ask the victims of Bernard Madoff how they feel about being financial roadkill, and whether Madoff’s religion or supposed “soul” kept his investors safe. On the contrary, Madoff recruited clients for his scheme from within his religious circle.
Without a soul, freedom too is impossible—we are all slaves to our biology. According to atheists, human beings are intensely complex machines. Our actions are determined by our genetics and our environment. According to atheists, if we could somehow determine all the constituent material parts of the universe, we would be able to predict all human action, down to the exact moment at which Vice President-elect Joe Biden will pick his nose. Freedom is generically defined as “the power to determine action without restraint” (Random House). But if action without restraint is impossible, how can we fight for freedom?
As I already covered, we are free to act within the “choice space” determined by our biology. We may experience freedom from external limits, but internal limits can only be stretched, not broken. I’ve never been able to understand what’s so hard about this concept. We all have our limitations. Some people excel, others waste their talents.
Only simple and macroscopic cause-and-effect chains are practically deterministic. Beyond that, causality is governed by chaos theory. It means that small changes in initial conditions have a huge effect on outcomes. So even though we make choices, they’re often not very informed. Nor can we control the reactions of others or the weight of circumstances. God and the “soul” can’t help us out of the “choice” conundrum. We are on our own.
Atheism may work for individuals. There are moral atheists and there are immoral religious people. But as a system of thought, atheism cannot be the basis for any functional state. If we wish to protect freedom and equality, we must understand the value of recognizing God. We must recognize the flame of divinity—free will—He implanted within each of us.
I don’t have to recognize any such thing. As William G. McAdoo said, “it is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument.” Neither UCLA nor Harvard Law School (!) seemed to have sharpened Shapiro’s logical faculties, which were no doubt corrupted by a severe religious brainwashing and strong social disincentives for critical thinking during his childhood.
Should we accept Shapiro’s conflicted concession at the end that “individual atheists can be moral,” but still take his word for it that atheism could never co-exist with a functional or ethical society? What kind of twisted logic is that?
Let’s be clear what he’s really after: To be sure that knowledge and secular principles make no inroads on what’s left of religious privilege. The entire exercise is an intellectually naive and highly tortuous apologetics Shapiro uses to justify at the very least a powerful Judeo-Christian preference in society, and if he could get away with it, a theocracy.