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Morality Religion

John Lennox and @Eusebius McKaiser debate: does morality need God?

eusebiusMckaisercroppedA trip to Johannesburg last week (for the unlikely purpose of presenting a paper at a nutrition conference!) was well-timed, in that I had the opportunity to both attend a debate between Christian apologist John Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser, as well as to join Eusebius in studio the next day for a chat on religion and its place in state-run schools.

You can find the embedded stream of my interview with Eusebius at the bottom of this post. But while it’s still relatively fresh in memory, I thought I should capture a few thoughts on the debate for those of you who could not attend. A recording of debate will appear on YouTube at some point too, I’m told.

The topic of the debate was “Morality and God: is there a connection?”, although the conversation also ended up touching on other issues including the role of God in generating significance in life, and whether atheists are at all handicapped with regard to understanding science.

In his opening remarks, Lennox made the claim that science and atheism were essentially in conflict, as atheism undermines rationality. This was the first of many occasions where I had the clear sense that Lennox was failing to extend himself beyond certain premises that he considered to be axiomatic.

For him, God generates meaning, in that God creates the syntax and grammar of science – the order of things, the directions in which they flow, how they fit together. So without grasping God, you’re handicapped in your capacity to understand science at all. (This is my analogy, but I think it captures what he was saying.)

This question of mine (above) was put to him later in the evening, and he responded by professing ignorance regarding the state of Islamic science. This evaded my question, in that the dilemma I tried to make him grapple with was the possibility that his religion was interchangeable with any other for the purposes of generating this scientific foundation.

If it was not, he’d have to argue that his was superior – an easy thing to assert, but not easy to make a case for, and one of those occasions where the fundamentalism of the axiomatic premises I spoke of above would be exposed.

Another moment of disappointment to me was when he described evolution as a “mindless unguided process”, which reveals a rather caricatured and false view of evolution. Evolution is strongly guided by natural selection – but if one equivocates around what “guided” means, or rather, stacks the deck in favour of only one sort of guided (by a conscious agent, like God), then Lennox can certainly win the day, but only at the expense of making a plainly circular argument.

And that’s the problem with these debates. I’ve debated a couple of apologists over the years also, and besides the opportunity these debates present for showing an audience how arguments work (or don’t work), there’s pretty much zero prospect of productive argument between the antagonists.

Even strong critiques have little impact, such as when McKaiser exposed the inconsistency of Lennox (and all religious folk, to an extent) happily living in the empirical world of cause and effect when it comes to their day to day lives, but then bringing what is (to an atheist) essentially magic into the conversation when speaking of the souls, free will, morality and so forth.

We have a number of compelling (and competing) accounts for how morality evolves or is generated in animals that demonstrate moral instincts – and many of these are more plausible than an account requiring the sort of leap of faith that religion does (and, never mind the difficulty of then making a principled choice between the various religious accounts).

Again, it would only be if you’re predisposed to be sympathetic to the religious (and Christian) account of these things that they have any chance of gaining traction. In a fair fight, as it were, the religious account would be dropped from the list of plausible hypotheses fairly early on.

Similar tactics (and results) were in evidence with questions around the significance of life – a question that only becomes interesting if you grant that life needs some grand metaphysical meaning. There’s no reason to grant that premise, though – it’s a challenge that only has any force because it’s the product of centuries of religious privilege.

The conversation was fair-minded for the most part, although there were a number of sly digs from each debater towards his opponent. I thought Lennox more guilty of this, but my count might be unreliable, thanks both to my epistemic framework and the fact that Eusebius is a friend.

I suspect that Eusebius and I don’t agree on the morality question, although that requires that I hear his view outside of a context in which he was mostly attempting to rebut Lennox, rather than offer his full explanation of how moral principles are generated.

From what I heard on Thursday, Eusebius is a moral realist, which I’m not, but then, at other times, he seemed to speak as if his account of the objectivity of moral truths was one grounded in something like rationality, reciprocal altruism and the social contract, which together make certain moral principles binding on any rational agent.

If that’s true, we’d agree in substance, but I’d object that this doesn’t mean objectivity or moral realism, but rather that we’d converge on the same principles for pragmatic and contingent reasons – certain moral principles would be akin to conclusions in science, in that they are the best-evidenced, rather than being true by necessity.

Were you there? If so, feel free to let me know what you thought, below.

Categories
Morality Politics Religion

Some updates on God (and related matters)

imagesJohn Lennox – mathematician and Christian apologist – is in town again, and giving talks at UCT, Stellenbosch and in Johannesburg. I’ve twice had the pleasure (or at least, experience) of chatting to him at length regarding his views on whether there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, and there’s no question that he’s a very smart and sincere man.

But he’s also wrong.

I’ve written many posts over the years dealing with meta-ethics and morality, and have debated a few Christian apologists on these topics over the years. There’s little point in doing so with the hope of changing their minds (and vice versa), but these conversations can still be very valuable to an audience, in that listeners or readers could certainly benefit from hearing how much moral behaviour we find in non-human animals, or about the clear lack of correlation between religious belief and “good” moral choices.

If you’re in Johannesburg this Thursday night (September 18), you might be interested to attend a debate between Lennox and Eusebius McKaiser on exactly this topic. It takes place at 7pm in the Great Hall of Wits University, and I’m looking forward to hearing what Eusebius has to say on the topic.

Eusebius is unlikely to say much that I’ll want to disagree with on this topic, but I do want to use the debate as a segue to briefly return to a topic he and I do disagree on, namely the question of whether we should call ourselves atheists or agnostics.

I’ve written about this at length too, so I’ll just summarise the disagreement here. All knowledge – excepting technical points like Descartes’ cogito – does not entail certainty. We can be overwhelmingly convinced of the truth or falsity of any given proposition, and for the sake of communicative efficiency, we call those propositions “true” or “false”.

Furthermore, we’ll in all likelihood often right to call many of those propositions true or false. In other words, they correspond to the way the world actually is.

What does it mean to say that you’re an atheist, as opposed to an agnostic? Here’s the problem: it can mean at least three things. First, you could mean that you’re sure that there is no God – that “God exists” is a false proposition. Second, you could mean that you are sure that there are no gods at all, or in general – that all god claims are false. Or third, you could be saying that you regard it as overwhelmingly likely that one of the two formulations above are correct, without claiming certainty.

The third formulation is consistent with the way in which I treat all other propositions, and I see no reason to treat propositions relating to God(s) differently. I don’t claim certainty for any other propositions, and wouldn’t want to claim one here, even if the chances of God(s) existing are vanishingly small.

Does that, then, make me an agnostic, as opposed to an atheist? Eusebius says yes, it does, and that it’s a more epistemically responsible choice to call myself an agnostic. And here’s where he’s not so much wrong, but perhaps reaching a slightly hasty and unsubtle conclusion.

We don’t need a qualifier like agnostic (in the sense that it qualifies that you’re not certain) when we speak about propositions like grass being green, or smoking causing cancer. Everyone from one interpretive community – the philosophically inclined one – will fill in the epistemic doubt for themselves, and know that you’re not making an absolute claim.

However, everyone from a different interpretive community – those who regard truth claims as being absolute – will simply assume you’re using language in the conventional sense (and to be honest, how most of us use it, most of the time), and that you are making a claim of absolute certainty.

And this, in turn, opens up the possibility of using these words – just like we use most words – to signal a certain stance or attitude towards the proposition in question, cognisant of who the audience is. If Eusebius and I are talking, we could both say we are atheists, and neither of us will assume the other is claiming certainty. Likewise, we could both say we are agnostics, and neither of us will assume that the other is in doubt about the overwhelming likelihood that we are correct in saying God(s) don’t exist.

But when talking to other people, especially ones we don’t know, we can be fairly confident that the common understanding of “agnostic” is “we’re not sure” – in other words, it signals that it’s an open question to us as to whether God(s) exist or not. And while it’s an open question in a strictly logical sense, it’s not an open question in any practically relevant sense, just like it’s not an open question whether grass is green or not.

So, using the word “atheist” – in situations where we don’t have the time to explain all this – might well both capture our position more accurately (in the mind of the audience), as well as serve a useful political function in reinforcing the notion that the proposition in question (that God exists) is one that we consider overwhelmingly likely to be false.

Having said that, I’ve come to prefer “agnostic atheist”, in that it seems a “best of both worlds” response, as well as one that tends to open up an interesting conversation, thanks both to not appearing to be dogmatic, and because it tends to discourage a dogmatic response (except in the case of some atheists, who think it a cop-out).

Before moving on to a different topic, I’d encourage you to take a look at Eusebius’s column this week. I agree with most of it, but would again want to disagree on some elements of politics and strategy, especially with regard to his example of Richard Dawkins, who has progressed from being a useful lightning rod to becoming somewhat of a troll.

In relation to the column, all I’ll say here – before this becomes far too long – is that while it’s of course true that the concept of God shouldn’t be treated with kid gloves, that logical point can be used as an excuse to be quite the bully (I don’t think Eusebius and I disagree on this point, though).

Moving on:

You might remember Andrew Selley, the chairperson of the Christian advocacy group FOR-SA, for his valiant (sarcasm font) efforts to secure parents the right to beat their children, because that’s apparently what Jesus would have wanted. He has written a more recent post arguing that the OGOD case against 6 schools entails “The Court … being asked to order that Christianity be removed and banned from the schools.”

That’s simply untrue – the point of the lawsuit is equality of representation, and obeying existing regulations that require schools to be essentially secular. He goes on to argue that the schools are welcoming to other faiths, but as I’ve said in the past, paying lip-service to inclusivity does not amount to inclusivity in practice. If a school advertises themselves as having a Christian character, that immediately a) decreases the likelihood of other faiths (and nonbelievers) getting a welcoming reception, and b) increases the likelihood that the school will remain Christian, because those of other faiths (and nonbelievers) will be less likely to apply to that school.

Lastly, I’m pleased to see the launch of an “Open Mosque” in Cape Town, where women will be treated equally, and where homophobia will not be tolerated. It should be noted that Sataar Parker, spokesperson for Cape Town’s biggest mosque, Masjid Ul Quds in Athlone, says this is “nothing new”, with their mosque having been “open” in these senses for 25 years. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, but if it is, we can simply celebrate their now being two such mosques available to Cape Town Muslims.