Tag Archives: Ethics

Star Trek, Christianity, Ethics and Atheism

It’s coming up on the 21st anniversary of Gene Roddenberry (creator of Star Trek) passing away (October 24). From his grave in space (that’s right! Space!) he would have been able to see mankind launch the international space station, hopefully a first step towards human beings exploring the stars together.

Gene Roddenberry famously said that Star Trek was an attempt to show that mankind will not reach maturity until we come to not simply tolerate our differences, but learn to celebrate and take delight in them. He would have said “humankind” towards the end of his life.

Gene Roddenberry was also a devout atheist, and he imagined that in his utopian future everyone was atheist and “better for it”.

That’s very interesting isn’t it? Creation Ministries International just published an article on Hell that suggests the opposite.

To paraphrase, they believe that Hell is the place people go for sinful conduct. Sometimes, in this life, crime does pay. There is absolutely no controversy on that point. Sometimes human beings profit from immoral conduct. Sometimes living virtuously has harmful effects. Sometimes the innocent are punished. So why should we not behave immorally when we have the chance to get away with it, and why should we behave morally when it only serves to harm us? This is called the free-rider problem by philosophers.

There are many answers to this question as almost all systems of ethics posit some form of answer. Christianity posits Hell and Heaven – the belief is that while justice in this life is imperfect, God will ultimately make sure that perfect justice is done. You may live like a king because of your crimes, but God will give you your just desert; you may live like a pauper for your virtue, but God will give you your just desert.

This is the thrust of the famous Voltaire quote Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer or if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. God being there to look over your shoulder solves the free rider problem by evaporating it. There is no problem because God will always make you pay for your ride in the end (to mix metaphors).

On the other hand, Gene Roddenberry knew that Religion had a terrible track record for starting violent, large conflicts. Further, he knew that conflicts of ideology are more heated, less rational ones which tend to be more harmful (Vulcans were on the verge of annihilating themselves because of age old fiery hatred). Genocides tend to follow theistic lines very tightly; while it is known that Hitler was not a Christian personally, he did appeal to Christianity very strongly and very often in order to rally a nation behind him. That polarizing ideology was necessary for the Nazi movement to become what it was and accomplish what it did.

Further, religions like Christianity prevent moral reasoning. Because there is exactly one authority on right and wrong which is inerrant and infallible we have no latitude to analyze a situation morally. We instead go to our book, find the passage that applies, read what we ought to do and then we do it with the absolute certainty that we are correct. And when we are blinded by authority we often cannot see what would otherwise be an intuitive moral result (see Nazism).

Not to pick on Christianity by comparing it to the Nazis, but the two have the same structure as an ethical system – a wise and benevolent ruler who really and truly loves you is at the top, and that ruler speaks in edicts which give you the exact moral truth and are completely beyond reproach or criticism. If that’s the kind of thing you believe, you’d better be right (see Nuremberg). Christians think that they are right – so did the Nazis.

Gene Roddenberry versus Voltaire is the game then. Religion polarizes and blinds us on the one hand (and historically this is true) but Religion compels us to behave morally even when nobody is looking on the other.

I don’t think either one is right.

Voltaire is correct in that we need something to solve the free rider problem. That something does not have to be God however; Gene Roddenberry is correct there. We just need a belief in ethics, a belief that there is a fundamental way that we ought to behave purely because it is right. In Star Trek moral beliefs are guided by respect for individual autonomy – each person and culture should be free to self-determine so long as it does not harm others. This conflicts with greater utility very often, see A Private Little War for a classic example.

But how can Gene Roddenberry say that mankind will not reach maturity and wisdom until it celebrates its differences and then deny the future its Religions in the same breath?

Gene Roddenberry was surrounded by big Religion/State-Religion conflicts during his life, through WW2 and into the Cold War. Plurality of Religion could not be the answer as a historical fact.

Note that Religious plurality is not the same as cultural plurality. Different religions are not like different cultures – a culture is a way of living, its the combination of art, philosophy, thought, music, law, norms and myriad other things. Culture is something we live, not something we believe. Religion is a set of beliefs about what exists beyond the world we occupy. Religion is something we believe based on faith.

Religion operates on faith – there is no other way to have beliefs about the world outside of experience (ie, God) apart from faith. Atheists and humanists believe things on faith too – any belief about God, including the belief that God does not exist, can only be based on faith. There is no evidence for or against God; God is completely outside the universe we live in.

Cultural differences should not matter; Indians like Naan, Greeks like Pita, Italians like Pizza. That’s fine, you cook whatever bread you want and I’ll cook whatever bread I want. If I don’t like yours I won’t eat it. Cultural plurality is ultimately about living your life the way you want to. And Gene’s point is just this: who would want to live in a world without Naan, Pita, and Pizza? A one bread world would be truly sad.

But as a matter of fact, religious differences affect the way we live with other people. Muslims and Jews attach very different significance to a small piece of land in Asia which leads to a good deal of conflict. From the 1100s to the 1600s Christians and Muslims went through a series of long wars called the Crusades over the same dusty little piece of land.

But the answer isn’t to the remove the Religions; that’s a part of culture too, it’s a part of our freedom to live how we want.

The answer is to say who gives a damn about the land?

I use the term Metaphysical Religion to denote a system of beliefs about the things outside of experience which posits no beliefs whatsoever about the world of experience we live in. Atheism and Humanism are metaphysical religions. So is Taoism.

Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are not metaphysical religions. They say things like this sport on the ground, this is where Jesus died. This bit of fabric, this is what Jesus was wrapped in after. This mosque, this temple, this church, this book is important beyond its physical utility. It is an object of faith with direct and deep religious significance. The Bible does not just teach me my religion; the book itself is also holy, and that makes how you use it very important. It cannot be kindling for a fire. These might be called the factual aspects of religion.

That kind of worldview cannot persist. Mankind reaching maturity is not compatible with plurality of non-metaphysical religions. Metaphysical religions are simply a part of culture, they are something we live. The metaphysical aspects of non-metaphysical religions are likewise a part of culture and they should persevere. Mankind is stronger for having them. Gene Roddenberry could not separate the metaphysical aspects of religion from the factual aspects; maybe he did not believe such a thing was possible.

But so long as I think that Jerusalem is a bit of scrub brush with an old city on top while Jews see the Temple Mount and West Wall, Christians see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Muslims see the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa we’re not going to agree about how that land should be used or who should be using it. Further we’ll feel compelled by the religious beliefs we accept on faith – not fact – to see that the land is used in accordance with our theology.

No Idols except me – that got it right in a very fundamental way. If each of those three religions saw Jerusalem the way I do – as an old city in Asia – then think how many fewer people we would have killed.

Creationists are convinced of the literal truth of every word in the bible. They think when you start saying that the Earth took longer than 6 days to be created, that the Universe is 14 billion years old, and than man exists because of evolution and never lived in a Garden with God that you compromise the authority of the Bible and this is a slippery slope to Atheism.

That is wrong. It is a slippery slope to Christianity as a metaphysical religion. The more factual aspects you discard the closer you move to being a pure metaphysical religion. As more and more of the factual tenants of a religion are shown false it must grow increasingly metaphysical to survive. And while factual aspects can be contradicted by things in the world, metaphysical aspects cannot. They are the moral lessons about how to live and why we live, and the metaphysical beliefs about death that soothe us and make life tolerable in the face of inevitable demise.

Moral reasoning remains a problem, but as a religion grows more and more metaphysical it also grows more and more abstract. I believe that that particular dilemma will sort itself out given time. But if it does not, any religion which prohibits moral reasoning and uses its dogma as a moral checklist must also be discarded. Allowing that exception allows Nazism to seep back in.

My fantasy is that one day (although certainly long after I die) all Religions will be purely metaphysical. Christianity will say “this is why we are here, this is who started everything, this is how He says to live your life, and this is what will happen when you die”. And that’s it. Nothing about the history of the world or the importance of anything on it (apart from pure moral significance). Bibles will simply be books that teach you about God, important only for their contents. Like John Lennon mused in imagine, there would be nothing to kill or die for in this world.

Then, and only then, can we truly celebrate – instead of (at best) tolerate – all of our differences.

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How to Build a Bomb in Public Schools?!

I kid you not, Creation Ministries international recently posted an article with that exact headline. Read it here if you like (and aren’t sensitive, the article doesn’t exercise much tact discussing school shootings)

The article starts with the infamous incident in Columbine and asks “how do young men turn into killers?” Well, it turns out to be a 3 step process according to CMI.

1.Teach them that there is no God, the Bible is false, that no absolutes exist, and that people are animals who came to be as a result of accident and death.

2. Remove the Bible, prayer, and the ten commandments from schools

3. Wait. That’s all you need, and you’re guaranteed to have teenagers shooting each other to death sooner or later.

That, of course, is ridiculous. But that’s the thrust of the article, that because “most public schools in Western nations now teach that violence and death are ‘natural’ evolutionary mechanisms that have operated with chance processes to produce man over millions of years” children today have no moral guidance.

Some Christians cannot fathom that morality exists without God. That’s blatantly false. Some also see evolution being taught in biology class as a scheme to destroy the church, another blatant falsehood.

To start, teaching evolution in biology class is not the same as teaching that “There is no God” or that “The Bible is not True”. All it teaches is that human beings are here because of a long process of natural selection. It has absolutely nothing to say about the existence or non existence of God. God is the kind of thing that is outside the realm of science; God is metaphysical, and therefore completely outside the ambit of the physical sciences.

Evolution has exactly one thing to say about the Truth of the Bible; the Bible is not literally true when it says that God made all the animals out of dust and then made Adam, the first man, and then made Eve from his bones. That’s doesn’t say that Genesis is wrong, just that it isn’t literally true. The Bible speaks in metaphor all the time. Jesus didn’t actually want the disciples to feed his sheep. That was a metaphor, Jesus wasn’t concerned with actual sheep roaming the fields. The moral and theological lessons are there even if Jesus didn’t have a sheep to his name.

But what about “there are no absolutes”? Can we still have morality in a world with no absolutes? Is there still a morally compelling reason not to shoot everyone to death after the Death of God?

Some Christians think that absolute ethics are impossible without God. Of course the word “Ethics” comes from the Ancient Greek Ethos, which means Character (in the sense of integrity, not in the sense of a character in a play). The PreSocratic philosophers, Socrates/Plato and Aristotle all had no cause to invoke God. In fact Aristotelian views on the Principle of Being would shape Jewish and Christian thought on the absolute nature of God (and not the other way around).

Plato instead taught that if Justice exists it must be an absolute concept. Exactly what that concept is and what it means is the job of the philosopher to discover. But whatever it is, that’s what it is. It’s a universal truth. Confucius was about 200 years older than Plato. He never read a Bible in his life. However his philosophy, the precursor to Taoism, believed in unflinching absolutes. Tao means “the way” and Confucius laid out the Tao, or the Way, which set moral rules to follow as universal maxims. No rewards were offered, one followed the way simply because it was the right thing to do even if it lead you into poverty.

Both Plato and Confucius, without ever having read any Judeo-Christian dogma, had strict philosophies founded on the principle that there was Absolute Truth in Ethics. Later, Immanuel Kant would found a strict ethical system called Deontology which believed that all ethical behavior must be guided by acting in accordance with universal truths about morality. Yet Kant specifically and vocally rejected Christian dogma or God as the grounding principle for ethics.

But the Christian would say “ah, but those guys were all wrong. You can’t fathom absolute truth without God as a reference point!” But that isn’t correct.

Consider the following sentence: One twice is two.

Say that sentence. It’s a true sentence. Have your mom say it. Have your Dad say it. Teach someone who speaks no English to say it. Teach someone who knows no math to say it. It doesn’t matter who says it, it doesn’t matter when they say it, it doesn’t matter where they say it. One twice is two is an absolute truth.

Math is one “language” of logic, and the arithmetic math you learned in school is itself just one kind of math (ancients Greeks had a different kind of math, Sumerians had another, and both were “languages” of logic). Logical postulates do not depend on anything outside the tenants of their “language” to be true (and those tenants can be tested with mathematical induction, a meta-logic).

“One twice is two” does not rely on God to be true. Why would it need to? It would be equally true no matter who said it, when they said it, or what circumstances they said it in. In other words, it would be as true in a world where God exists as it would be in a world where God did not exist. So absolute truth can exist absent God.

Now can absolute moral truth exist absent God? That’s harder, although some (Confucius, Plato, and Kant for starters) are sure it can. But putting that aside let’s ask “do we need absolute moral truth to have morality?”

Now think about this. We have math and logic, those things don’t need God to be true. We also have facts. Fact means a true statement about the world. Logic doesn’t get its truth or falsity from the world (one twice is two is a logical axiom – you don’t have to put one and one together each time to know that one twice is two, it’s true by definition that any time you have one twice you have two). Facts, on the other hand, get their truth from the world we live in. So facts can be true or false at any moment, but they are not absolute truth. They could be otherwise, so we have to check each time. If I say “there are tomatoes in my garden” It might be true right now and false in a month. I have to keep checking. Even if I said “there were tomatoes in my garden”, that’s a sentence that could be false (unlike one twice equals two). I still have to look at the world, specifically at what was the case once, to know if that’s a fact.

Facts get their truth and falsity from the world. Now even if God made the world, even if without God the world would evaporate, God is not the reason that it’s true that there are tomatoes in my garden. The reason that that statement is true is simple – it’s true because when I say it there actually are tomatoes in my garden.

Now without God we may not have absolute Goodness (thought I’m not conceding this point, see Kant and Plato above). But even if we need God to have absolute Goodness, we can still have ethical reasoning without God. Further, there are no practical differences between the God-guided version and the Godless version! Let’s read on and see.

It is a fact that raping a woman is harmful. That’s a true statement, rape is the kind of act which has consequences that are harmful. But because it’s a fact it could be otherwise. If we reproduced asexually like amoebas then rape would be impossible, so raping a woman would not be harmful. But if there are women then raping them does do harm. That’s true,and it’s by definition.

So we have no absolute moral rules. Rape may be bad, but there are some possible things you just can’t rape. But we do have rules that are true for people like us. All people like us are harmed by certain things. If you make a list of those things, and say “don’t do these things because it does harm” then we have a list of rules that are true for people like us. These rules are not absolute moral truths, but instead are moral rules that will be able to govern any moral situation any human being will ever be in. So God says “Do not rape because it is an absolute wrong” and the Atheist says “do not rape because it is wrong for people like us.”

In fact, even though the Atheist cannot say “Rape is wrong” with absolute certainty, the Atheist can say “Rape is wrong for people like us” with absolute certainty. See the difference? The Atheist, if his moral reasoning is correct, can know with absolute certainty what morally wrong for human beings.

That isn’t to say that there is exactly one way to formulate ethics after discarding God. There are many many ways of conceiving of ethical behavior regardless of the presence or absence of God as a grounding principle. One conception is Moral Relativism. Relativists hold that ethics is something we cooked up as a society, and it has no meaning outside of that society. There is no higher truth to appeal to because whatever definition we give ethics as a society is exactly what ethics is. America in 2012CE has one definition, Rome in 30CE had another, Germany in 1939CE had yet another. They are all different, but there is no way of saying which is better.

That doesn’t mean that there is no ethics of course. What happened at Columbine was ethically wrong even to a moral relativist. Columbine was contrary to our societal notions of morality; that’s as wrong as it gets for a relativist. The holocaust, on the other hand, was perpetrated by people acting in accordance with their society’s ideas of right and wrong. We say it was wrong, but the Nazis would not have. Neither view has a privileged position.

Note that relativists are not the only ethical black hats, and they aren’t even the worst. Egoism is the philosophical view that the only moral imperative is to look out for yourself. Egoists are jerks. If something does more long term good for the egoist than it does long term harm then it is the only ethical course available for that egoist.

Another Black Hat ethical worldview is called Nihilism. Famously (and incorrectly) identified with Friedrich Nietzsche, ethical Nihilism is the view that there is no truth in ethics. Right and wrong are just words, they have no underlying meaning. Nihilism is worse than egoism. Egoism at least posits that there is some kind of ethical truth. Nietzsche was the man who declared “God is Dead” – he wasn’t being literal, he was declaring the end of appeal to authority as the justification for absolute truth. His view was that after the death of God we have to find ethical truth for ourselves and within ourselves. In fact, the thing Nietzsche valued above all else was seeing Christian Love divorced from the dogma of Christianity. Atheists don’t like Nihilists any more than Christians.

The absence of absolute standards of right and wrong are necessary for Relativism, Nihilism, and Egoism. But those philosophies are all also devoid of standards of the form “[such and such] is wrong for people like us” too. They aren’t just philosophies devoid of absolute ethical truth, they have no universal ideas about human goodness. Most Atheists and Christians regard egoism, nihilism, and relativism as Black Hat philosophies.

The point I’m driving at is that atheism requires each individual to sort out personally what they believe to be right or wrong. That doesn’t mean there’s no absolute truth, it just means that there’s no one stop-shop for guaranteed absolute truth. We have to work hard and subject our lives to rigorous moral reasoning, and some people are going to do a poor job at that. Voltaire famously said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him; an easy, one stop guide to all moral questions is no doubt very useful to society. But that doesn’t mean that such a guide is the correct ethical world view.

So there we go.Summary.

1. Atheism can lead to relativism nihilism and egoism, but it doesn’t necessarily do so. Each individual must come to a considered opinion on questions of ethics. Many of these views posit universal ethical truths.

2. Ethical statements do not require God to be absolute truth. Even if they did, absolute ethical truth and absolute ethical truth for people like us are indistinguishable in the field.

3. Egoists are jerks: Atheists and Christians agree. Relativists are wrong: Atheists and Christians agree. Nihilists are wrong: Atheists agree, Christians agree, fuck even Nietzsche agrees. Columbine was wrong. Atheists agree, Christians agree, and even moral relativists agree.

4. Taking the Bible out of school doesn’t lead to school shootings. However it creates a gap that needs to be filled. Taking the Bible out of schools means that children need to learn ethical reasoning somewhere else. Science class is not the place to teach ethics and nobody thinks it is. The challenge is to find a tolerant, non dogmatic way to address questions of ethics in an open, academic environment. Teaching the Bible in school does not accomplish that goal.