Monday, July 02, 2007

Secularism - answering Pamela Bone - Part III

As promised this post will analyze an article that appeared in The Australian by atheist Pamela Bone on the 9th January 2007. This analysis does not pretend to be a comprehensive coverage of all the issues. More can no doubt be said. If readers have anything else to contribute please add your own thoughts. The article will appear in italicized text.

Pamela Bone: Let's have faith in society and keep God out of it

I WAS annoyed to find that all the copies of Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation were sold out (the bookshops have ordered more). According to its publicity machine, the book is a "bold challenge" to the influence religion has on public life in the US. Notwithstanding that 44 per cent of Americans allegedly believe the second coming of Christ will occur within the next 50 years, it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Another surprise bestseller over the Christmas period was Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. A range of anti-religion books are soon to be published: Atheist Manifesto by French philosopher Michel Onfray; Against Religion by Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki; Have a Nice Doomsday by American writer Nick Guyatt. The one I am most looking forward to is Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

It may be that the Australians who've bought up all the copies of Harris's book merely want to reinforce their opinions of how stupid Americans are. Then again, it may be that in Australia, as well as in the US, people are looking at the nightly mayhem on the television news, making connections, and wondering how religion can still command the respect it does.

ST: Notice how Bone lumps religion into one large mass without distinction. As a religious person I have no troubling granting that there are many religions with much evil content to them. That is precisely why each belief system must be weighed up on its own merits. It is also important not to confuse the sins of members with what their religion teaches. It would be absurd for instance, to make some sort of logical connection between the ransacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade and the intrinsic truth claims of the Catholic Church. Furthermore I wonder how kindly Bone would take it if we lumped the devastating destruction of atheism and materialism at her feet such as all the carnage done by Communism, Nazism and all the babies that have been ripped to shreds by abortion (although as an atheist, I wouldn't be surprised if she supports this later practice, but I refrain from ascribing a position to anyone without evidence).

These books are giving courage to the rather large minority of people - even in the US, 12 per cent of the population doesn't believe in God - who have no religion and who have been bluffed and intimidated for too long by the convention that religious beliefs, however harmful or absurd, should not be criticised.

ST: Bone is correct about the large minority which is definitely cause for concern. Obviously harmful and absurd religious beliefs should be criticized. But it remains to be seen what Bone would call "harmful" and "absurd." It is also important to understand a religion's teaching correctly. This should be common sense but far too often, and here I am speaking of my own faith, what we believe is regularly mutilated and distorted. Transubstantiation would be "absurd" to many people who do not understand what precisely is being claimed. The doctrine of the Trinity is likewise "absurd" to those who think it involves asserting that the number three is equal to the number one.

Despite the wishful thinking of commentators such as The Australian's Paul Kelly, religious belief is not growing stronger in Western countries. Yes, worldwide, religion is growing because religious people tend to have many children: children who are then indoctrinated with the beliefs of their parents (some call this child abuse). But in countries where people are encouraged to question faith, the intensity of religious belief has been waning for years. People might express an association with a particular religion, but it doesn't affect the way they live their lives.

ST: Sadly true about religion not growing in the West. It's nice to see Bone admit the obvious fact that we tend to have more children. Doesn't this indicated a generosity of spirit in welcoming children and not being selfish in life? Yet, we will see that Bone doesn't think you need religion to be a moral person.

Of course, Bone claims that the children are "indoctrinated." I can only speak for the Catholic religion in my defense here (this applies without saying to the rest of what follows). The Catholic religion has a strong emphasis on not having what is called a "blind" faith but faith supported by reason. St Thomas was the great exponent of wedding faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Given that indoctrination is teaching someone to belief something uncritically, the charge is not sustained. I wonder if atheist parents refrain from passing on their own atheism to their children? Do they encourage them to be "open minded" about religion despite their own disbelief? To be logically consistent they must. In truth, however, it is impossible to not pass on some sort of world view to your children.

That is why in Australia only 40 per cent of couples getting married choose a religious ceremony (of brides born in Britain, only 25 per cent wanted a religious ceremony last year, while of brides born in Lebanon, 82per cent did, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures). Even more telling is that while Christianity regards suicide as a grave sin, opinion polls show that more than 70 per cent of Australians want legislation to allow voluntary euthanasia.

This does not stop religious folk rising in indignation against the "atheist evangelists", as they describe writers such as Dawkins and Harris. Dawkins is as much a fundamentalist as the Islamic extremists, they claim. He is the man who "hates God". This is nonsense, of course. Dawkins is far too sane to hate an imaginary figure (unlike the writer Kingsley Amis, who when asked if he was an atheist is reported to have replied, "Well, yes, but it's more that I hate him"). And none of the above writers has called for believers to be killed. It is also rather unfair, given that Christian evangelism has had such a long and unimpeded run.

ST: Point taken about Dawkins hating God but I think I still agree with St Augustine that "he who does not believe in God has some reason for wishing that God did not exist."

I don't claim to speak on behalf of all non-religious people, but I think I can safely say that a lot of us - the one-quarter to one-third of Australians who either believe God does not exist or admit they don't know - are fed up with the assumption that in order to have a good society you have to have religion.

ST: Unfortunately for Bone the rise in secularism has had a corresponding rise in immorality. But the problem here is we would be talking past one another on this subject. That is to say, we would disagree with each other on what constitutes immoral behaviour in the first place. I could list a long list of immoral practices that have been introduced or increased in society as it has gradually grown away from God. Contraception, abortion, cloning, adultery, euthanasia, the rise in homosexual behavior, cohabitation, divorce, in vitro fertilization, pornography and the list goes on and on. However, I suspect Bone would not see anything wrong with a good number of things I have listed. Now the point to make is all of these things can be proven wrong according to the natural moral law (and the existence of the natural law itself). However all of this would ultimately require a proof of God's existence.

So the point is this: atheists decry the idea that religion aids morality but they can't see the problem because a great many of their practices they don't see as immoral in the first place. Of course, I don't believe in an unqualified sense that religion aids or is necessary for morality. It is rather Christianity (and the Catholic faith in particular) along with grace from God that does that. Religion, as such, could just as easily create an immoral society as with the Aztecs and child sacrifice.

Non-religious people are fed up with all the talk about the emptiness, the barrenness and lack of meaning in "secular society". It may surprise religious people to learn that our lives are not empty. Some people might need to believe in an afterlife in order to find meaning in this one; others don't. Some might need to believe in a creator in order to be awed by the majesty of nature; others don't. Some might believe in something higher than themselves and call it God; others believe in something higher than themselves and call it humanity or nature. It makes no difference to how morally they behave. Everything good in religion can be had without religion.

ST: Let's take her statement about the afterlife. It's one thing to state that you don't need to believe in an afterlife to find meaning, it's another to say how on earth you do! Secondly, strictly speaking, a well informed Christian (or anyone for that matter) does not have to "believe" in an afterlife as if it were an article of faith. The spirituality and consequent immortality of the soul are subjects proven in philosophy (specifically the branch known as metaphysics). For such a person it ceases to be something we accept on faith (or at least purely on faith).

Bone's next statement is a matter or complete distortion: "Some might need to believe in a creator in order to be awed by the majesty of nature; others don't." We don't need (or claim to need) to believe in God to appreciate the majesty of nature. Nor do we hold that is a necessary precondition for doing so and that atheists are therefore a priori incapable of recognizing such majesty. Rather we see the majesty of nature as something that supports the fact of God's existence. Anyone is capable of seeing the effect. Not all are capable of identifying the cause. The same principle applies to the natural moral law. Atheists have the natural law written into their hearts just as all human beings do and are capable of recognizing it albeit imperfectly. They can observe the effect (the law) even if they don't see the cause (the lawgiver).

Bone's next statement on some recognizing something higher than themselves and calling it "humanity" or "nature" is to get into a very long discussion on the proofs for God's existence and the consequent attributes necessarily possessed by one who is the First Mover, Cause or the non-contingent being. Let's just say "humanity" or "nature" doesn't fit the bill.

I don't need to talk about the harm religion does: read the books. But the fact is that the most peaceful, prosperous and healthy countries in the world, as judged by the UN's annual Human Development Reports, are the least religious. These are countries - Australia is one of them - in which religion is not banned or suppressed, but it is also not promoted by the state.

ST: Of course, the materialist's scope is severely limited and their survey of violent behavior does not take into account the war on the unborn being waged by these countries.

Rudd is popular now - a pretty, clever drover's dog would be popular right now - but in the longer term he is at risk of alienating progressives. He has already given us a hint of the direction of his beliefs in his opposition to therapeutic cloning for stem cell research, apparently counting the rights of three-day-old human embryos more important than the rights of children with cancer. The majority of Australians support therapeutic cloning.

ST: I'll refrain from commenting on what Bone has to say about various politicians. Let's take her last statement though on embryos. Obviously Bone does not see a three day old embryo as a human person to begin with which obviously drastically affects everything. Apart from that her argument is thus a simple case of the ends justifying means. It is not a matter of counting one set of people's rights as "more important" than another's but in recognizing that no one has a "right" in the first place to have their cancer cured via intrinsically evil means. Here we see the atheist descend into utilitarian ethics, the logical result of their thought. Then in the next breathe they will say moral standards are just as good without religion as they are with. One again, as I said earlier, the crux of the issue is in even recognizing it as immoral behavior in the first place. Of course, she closes by noting that the majority of Australians support therapeutic cloning no doubt implying that this has some sort of ethical significance. The argument from what the majority of people think would have to be the weakest, most pathetic ethical argument anyone can make. What is right and wrong are subject to the majority opinion and results in a tyranny of the majority. The saddest part is that deep down Bone probably wouldn't really accept her own argument (except when it suits). The majority of Americans were once in favor of slavery. What of it?

By the way, no cures have come from embryonic stem cell research and some proponents are admitting it is unlikely to lead to any. All the advances you hear about are from adult stems cells (of course, you may have to keep reading until paragraph ten before this bit of information is finally mentioned a news story).

Religion is not a reliable guide to morals. It would be better, as the former bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, argues in Godless Morality (which may be the best book on the subject), to leave God out of it and find good, human reasons for the decisions we make.

ST: So concludes Bone. I wonder what "good human reasons" are. No doubt more of the same utilitarian, end justifies the means, tyranny of the majority ethics we have been covering in her article.

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