17 November 2009

Short exchange with an atheist and a buddhist on FB

I have better morals than half the religious people out there, thank you very much.

Atheist voted "No" to the question "Do you believe atheists are immoral?" along with 38,969 other people.

Keith Rickert Jr.: Atheists can be moral, they just don't have a raison d'ĂȘtre for being so.

Buddhist: Because it's right is reason enough to do the right thing. you don't need some promise of reward or punishment to do the right thing.

Keith Rickert Jr.: Under atheist metaphysics, how is anything *right*? Morality assumes some kind of working definition of good and bad. Setting aside any objective definition of good or evil, all moral experiences attribute some kind of value to our choices. For whatever reason -- because it is more kind, non-violent, more tolerant, etc. -- one choice is seen to be better than another. But under atheistic metaphysics, how can anything be intrinsically better or worse than another? In a purely material and therefore godless universe, there can be no final design, direction, or purpose. No-one intended matter or the laws of physics to be the way they are; therefore, the universe and everything in it is just an affair of blind, purposeless chance from beginning to end. How can it be anything more than that? Many people who adamantly doubt the existence of any God or gods will freely project onto the universe some sort of Pantheistic Personality like "Mother Nature" in order to imagine some vague sort of intent or design or purpose or meaning being the goings-on in the universe. But if we're doubting God or gods, what basis is there for believing in such a personality or intent governing or even influencing nature? If the universe is purely material, godless (and mother-less) how can its goings-on--and indeed, it's very existence--consist of anything more than random chance, blind matter, and mindless forces (which are themselves the product of random chance)? In such a universe, what basis is there for believing that anything is better than anything else or that there is any inherent value in anything at all? When it comes to morality, all things, better or worse, come from the same source -- the universe and its laws. Atoms, in blind obedience to the laws of physics, produce in me some kind of personal standard of, let's say tolerance and non-violence. Yet, the very same kind of mechanistic process produces in me the urge to act contrary to that standard. Moreover that very same kind mechanistic process produces the beliefs and standards of Nazis, despotic dictators, serial killers, child molesters, wife-beaters, etc. On what basis do we judge one mechanistic process to be better -- on principle -- than another? What standard is there above the mechanistic processes by which we can judge one to be good and the other bad?

"If there isn’t any God, there isn’t any problem of evil. And if there is no God, then there is a problem of good! . . . . As Nietzsche pointed out, atheists who follow through on all the implications of their beliefs are nearly nonexistent. Most atheists do create an as if world. They act as if reason is connected to reality, at least for pragmatic purposes. They act as if, in a rough sort of way, things make sense. They act as if progress is the law of history. They act as if reason, justice, truth, compassion, solidarity, and love were more than mere breath expelled by lying lips. But they do not say how and why they believe that reason, justice compassion, and the rest are in some way better than irrationality, oppression, the big lie, ruthlessness, and cynicism. What metaphysical commitments justify these beliefs?"
—Michael Novak to daughter, Jana Novak in Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God (New York: Pocket Books, 1998), 89, 97-98.

Buddhist: what you're talking about, Keith, is worshipping science instead of God. There can be fundamental principles of morality without believing in God. There is right and wrong either through enlightened self interest or through a morality that we have evolved over time that is part of who we are. To suggest that the ONLY reason to be a good person is because God wants you to isn't really morality at all. That's doing the right thing just because you expect a reward. I can list a number of reasons why being religious does not lead to living an ethical life if you want, but I think just mentioning 9/11 should be sufficient.

Keith Rickert Jr.: Your telling me what I'm talking about, Buddhist, yet there is nothing in my post that can be construed as the worship of science. And NEVER did I say that the only reason to be good is because God wants us to. What I did say, however, is that our feelings, intuitions, and impulses to moral goodness can only be ABOUT something real if they are rooted as their source in a God who is Goodness Itself. In the atheistic universe these feelings, intuitions, and impulses are not ABOUT anything beyond themselves. In fact, they are illusory because they aren't about moral goodness itself, but about survival value. "Goodness" is nature's way of dressing up survival value. Instead of God, there is Nature; who according to her one, supreme value of "survival value", tricks us into attributing "goodness" and "evil" to certain actions merely to keep the show going. As Yeats said to Chesterton, "You would not get out of your chair and walk across the room, if Nature had not her bag of illusions." But those things aren't REALLY good or bad, according to atheistic metaphysics. Nature just wants us to think and act like they are. On the other hand, if you want to believe in good for goodness sake (i.e. real morality), then God is logically necessary. THAT is what I'm saying Buddhist...nothing about punishment or reward or the worship of science. And I can list a number of reasons why being atheistic does not lead to living an ethical life if you want. I think just mentioning Stalin should be sufficient.

Buddhist: Can't there be a natural law of morality in the universe without the existence of a personal deity? Why does if HAVE to be rooted in a God in order to exist?

Keith Rickert Jr.: Where would values come from in a godless universe driven from beginning to end by blind, random chance?

Buddhist: You're making an assumption that the universe can't manifest a purpose on it's own. That it needs some higher being to make it anything other than random. (did I higher being than god give god a purpose to?) But, I can put that aside for the moment and just say that values come from enlightened self interest. If I put negativity into the world, I am making the world a slightly worse place for everyone, including myself. Therefore, I have every reason that I need to behave in as positive a way as I can. Or, to put it a more complicated way, I believe in Oneness. that is, all things in the Universe are parts of a whole, not nearly as separated as we perceive. From that perspective, I have every reason to be kind to others, since harming others would be no different than harming myself. For that reason, I have every reason to believe in practicing a moral life, without having said practice rooted in faith in a divine figure.

Keith Rickert Jr.:
If there is something higher than God, then God is not God. Enlightened self-interest is not being good for goodness sake: Empathy is not really empathy, but, ultimately self-interest; love is not really love, but, ultimately, self-interest; kindness is not really kindness, but, ultimately, self-interest; self-sacrifice is not really self-sacrifice, but, ultimately, self-interest. I believe in real love, kindness, empathy, gratitude, self-sacrifice; therefore I am not a naturalist or an atheist.

Buddhist: And you feel like you absolutely could not believe in real love or kindness without first believing in God? If doing what God says is right is the motivation, isn't that self interest too?

Atheist: hahahaha come on guys, I know it's a touchy topic, but a Buddhist and Catholic aren't going to be able to agree.

Keith Rickert Jr.: "and you feel like you absolutely could not believe in real love or kindness without first believing in God?" NOPE. Not it at all. I FIRST believe in real love and kindness and then search for the metaphysics that would logically make them possible. I STILL have never said ANYTHING about doing "what God says". Ashleigh: Maybe, but healthy, respectful debate is good for everyone.

Buddhist: and you feel like there is nothing that could logically make them possible other than a personal deity?

Keith Rickert Jr: I don't feel that way, I have reasoned my way to that position. Tell me, in a Godless universe, what would make possible good for goodness sake, as opposed to good for some other sake?

Atheist: Cavemen didn't know God, but when their babies came out they loved them! If they didn't the species wouldn't have made it. Debate is fine, this one is just never going to end.

Keith Rickert JrAnd eventually those cavemen became men and asked, "If love is real, in what is it rooted?" Are you going back to the fallacy that you have to know God to be moral? I can be moral w/o recognizing the metaphysical roots of morality, just like I can eat food w/o knowing where it comes from or how it gives my body nourishment. Actually, 99 percent of all who have ever lived have believed in some form of a deity...so it is probable that cavemen believed in God. As far as the debate ending, it doesn't have to. How long has mankind had this debate? I'm not arrogant enough to think I'm going to have the last word. But I believe that if beliefs aren't worth defending, they're not worth having. Plus, I always learn something each time I debate.

Buddhist: we just have a fundamental difference of opinion. You think that real goodness requires a deity to exist and I think that real goodness can exist on it's own without a need for an explanation. It just is.


Jeff Woodward said...

Keith --

Your Buddhist could use a good dose of St. Anselm, couldn't he?

(But then, I guess most Buddhists could....)

Keith said...

I'm not familiar with St. Anselm beyond his ontological argument. Is there something more apropos he has to bring to this discussion?

Jeff Woodward said...

Keith --

It's the ontological argument I was thinking of. Or, more precisely, Anselm's working definition of God -- "id quo maius cogitari non potest" (that than which nothing greater can be conceived).

When your Buddhist interlocutor asks, "Did a higher being than god give god a purpose too?" he is clearly talking about something other than (less than) the Christian God (which you kindly point out to him). But I'm endlessly surprised at how common this misunderstanding about the nature of God is. Sam Harris in *Letter to a Christian Nation* clearly thinks that the question "Who created God?" is a rhetorical knockout punch for his side. Does he not know that that line of argument hasn't really worked since the 12th century? As the professor in the Narnia Chronicles repeatedly asks, "What do they teach in schools these days?"

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