Religion and Morality
Though I agree with much of the editorial by Paul Kurtz (“The Principles of Fairness contra ‘Gott Mit Uns!’” June/ July 2004), I disagree with enough of what he said to make me uncomfortable with his brand of humanism, that is, “secular humanism.”
Dr. Kurtz contrasts principles of fairness with traditional religious morality. The latter can be different things, but I think most proponents would not accept unfairness as one of their beliefs. Dr. Kurtz lists five examples of actions and policies he says violate the principles of fairness. All of these merit serious discussion, but phrasing them in terms of fairness is misleading. There are aspects of each not encompassed by fairness, which is subject to different and subjective interpretations.
Dr. Kurtz makes much of human rights in the context of gay marriage and stem-cell research. In my view, human rights are whatever society decides they are. Kurtz views gay marriage as a right and gives examples of economic, political, and social benefits of marriage. I think society is justified in reserving these benefits for heterosexual couples in order to promote the welfare of children. Withholding those benefits from homosexual unions is not discrimination.
Dr. Kurtz asserts that the right to privacy is at stake; I don’t think it is. He says that marriage by a public official is unfair to the nonreligious; I don’t think it is. Indeed, marriage by clergy seems to violate the separation of church and state.
Allan D. Halderman
Dr. Kurtz responds:
Fairness is an important moral concept, particularly for secular morality. Violations of elementary principles of fair treatment have been denounced by people from all walks of life, not only secular humanists. Slavery and the mistreatment of women, for example, were roundly condemned as unfair and a violation of human rights—even though earlier fundamentalists defended both. I would apply fairness to same-sex marriage (homogany)—if homosexuals wish to work out a civil union (or marriage), they should have the same rights as heterosexuals. Similarly, the fact that nonreligious people such as secular humanists are not allowed to perform marriage ceremonies, as do religious people, is in our view unfair. I agree that raising children is an important issue and that high standards of adoption need to be maintained. Adoptions should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, always considering the welfare of the child first. Similarly for the freedom of reproductive rights for lesbian or homosexual couples who may wish to conceive children. Marriage by clergy violates separation of church and state, but if religious officiates can marry, why not secularists?
I enumerated some principles of fairness that evangelical fundamentalists today violate: (1) their criticisms of pornography but not of violence; (2) their defense of capital punishment and preventive war, but not of peaceful negotiations; (3) their view that sex is sinful but not an equal criticism of greed and avarice; (4) their double standard that gives a privileged position to the wealthy but very little moral concern for the poor and disadvantaged.
I have finally figured out what secular-hu-manist tolerance, love, and compassion mean. In fact, Paul Kurtz summarizes their meanings in his lead editorial. His opponents are classified as “extreme religious moralists,” (pp. 6, 7); “authoritarian nationalists” (p. 8); “creedal fascists” (p. 8); “Islamic terrorists” (p. 8); and “fascist storm troopers” (p. 8).
And all this noise and jargon for believing “in one nation under god” and “Jesus Christ died for my sins” (p. 9).
Paul, I love you, but my definition of love is a bit different than yours.
David A. Noebel
Summit Ministries Manitou Springs, Colorado
Dr. Kurtz responds:
I hope that Dr. Noebel can appreciate how frightened millions of patriotic Americans are at the threats posed to our civil liberties by the Patriot Act, particularly since patriotism is equated with belief in “one nation under God.”
The evangelicals proclaim (in the Left Behind novels) that only a relatively small number of people on this planet will be saved by the Rapture, and they have condemned to hell Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, humanists, unbelievers, and countless others. In Noebel’s co-authored book, Mind Siege, he appeals to “evangelical foot soldiers” to root out all secular humanists from American life—this is reminiscent of fascist storm troopers of another era. David, we extend love and toleration to you as part of our open democratic society. You claim to speak for God (“got mit uns”), but we have not condemned you to eternal damnation because you do not agree with us.
“Does humanism embrace—or even seek to accomodate—socialism? The Affirmations of Humanism state, “We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society. . . .” By my definition, “fairness” means that the rule of law should apply equally to all people. My dictionary also states that theft is the act of taking, by fraud, force, or the threat of force, the honestly acquired property of another person. By this definition, taxation is no different than theft. Indeed, it is like extortion,
one of the most despicable forms of theft. Those interested in fairness will note that the government of the United States has exempted itself from its own laws prohibiting theft. Are humanists at ease with this forceable method of government redistribution of wealth (supposedly for the common welfare)?
Paul Kurtz informs us that the government is responsible for educating children and for providing food, insurance, and healthcare to those who cannot afford it. First of all, if such a society existed, few would bother to work (why work if everything is free?). Second, with such expensive responsibilities, the government could hardly refrain from resorting to theft (i.e., taxation) to meet its so-called obligations. Those facts notwithstanding, it is not fair to steal from one person to provide for another, regardless of the extent of the victim’s wealth, or of the beneficiary’s plight. One may work or beg in order to acquire subsistence, but theft is no more a justifiable means to obtain subsistence than rape is a justifiable means to acquire progeny.
What a heretical idea it must be to contemporary socialists that a government should be limited in its scope and responsibilities could certainly be managed on a budget supplied entirely through voluntary contributions.
In any case, I am pleased that the socialist and totalitarian nature of the average humanist is now manifest. I am also pleased that I have long been reluctant to adopt the humanist moni-ker. My socialist-detection meter must be functioning properly.
Dr. Kurtz responds:
Mr. Walk surely cannot be serious, but of course he is in defending an extreme libertarian perspective. If taxation is impermissible, than how does one pay for the common defense, fire and police protection, the building of bridges and highways? Surely in a democratic society, the people can vote to pay for these services plus the education of children, or the healthcare of citizens uncovered, or food and shelter for the destitute without categorizing this as “socialism.”
These come under the principles of fairness and can be defended on both moral and pragmatic grounds.
In Search of the Real George Bush
The devil is in the details. In the June/July 2004 issue of Free Inquiry magazine, I read of Edmund Cohen’s fear that George Bush’s intentions and actions so closely parallel notions of Christian fundamentalist theological world conquest. I believe it is a stretch to put forward such an outlandish rationale for Mr. Bush’s actions when a much more plausible “rational” explanation exists. As fundamentalist Islam is being embraced by portions of the populations of many of the nations, most foreign-policy experts note there are few democratic examples in the region. Israel appears to serve as an example of imperialism in the region, and Turkey is under assault from fundamentalist forces and is pulling away from Western democratic ideas. Many of the countries are stifling the democratizing process, and that group of 18–25 year olds who would otherwise be protesting for better governance are swept into anti-West-ern martyrdom. To install a democracy in the region is a long-term strategic action to tilt the direction of development of the whole region. Iraq because of post-Gulf War sanctions provided a better candidate than other possible nations like Syria or Iran. September 11 provided the impetus, even though Iraq had nothing to do with it. Most Americans are poorly educated on both history and political science and would find the long-term focus of this policy less than persuasive, or so the focus groups must have found. WMDs, provided earlier by the U.S. and thought to still be there (as it turns out still there not) appealed to the focus groups as justification that could support the U.S. military action. President Bush’s choices in Iraq make more sense when viewed as those of an adept politician making long-term strategic decisions than as those of a reactionary fundamentalist Christian intent on confronting the forces of Islam, (Mr. Cohen’s intimates the latter in his piece.) Mr. Bush is a very good politician, schooled at Yale and developed under the tutelage of his father, his staff and many foreign policy experts. His interactions with Mr. Robinson reflect, as they would with any supporter of his policy, a focus on areas of common reference and agreement. To portray a strategic action as the devil dancing and the winds of Armageddon blowing is against the rational context of this esteemed forum.
Lt. Col. LeGrande Blount (ret.)
Edmund Cohen responds:
If nothing were known about the inner workings of the Bush administration, Col. Blount’s rendition of the reasoning it employed could be plausible. However, much is known thanks to the revelations of Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, and Bob Woodward, among others. We know that instead of discussion about the ramifications of nation building, invading Iraq was an initial presupposition for President Bush. Instead of the usual policy development process, reasons for invading Iraq were cobbled together post hoc. Instead of listening to advisors, President Bush tasked them to justify going to war. Among the most interesting of the revelations is the apparent estrangement of the younger President Bush and his father. The younger President Bush’s Iraq war policy amounts to rebellion against his father’s tutelage. Taken all together, what is known leaves no room at all for Col. Blount’s version of events to be correct.
Col. Blount goes far beyond even the severest responsible critics of President Bush in portraying him as having waged a war of sheer imperialist conquest on a pretext. By supposing that President Bush uses focus groups to figure out what pack of lies to tell the American people, Col. Blount makes him out to be colossally insincere and condescending. I believe President Bush to be intensely sincere. That is what worries me about him. With defenders like Col. Blount, President Bush scarcely needs critics such as me.
Oh, the Humanity
Gregory Stock’s piece in your June/July 2004 issue (“From Regenerative Medi-cine to Human Design”) is the sort of sane and thoughtful discussion that is needed to cut through all the hysterical nonsense surrounding the issue of biotechnology. I’d like to do him one better by arguing that biotechnology is not only a power we have the right to use but also is one that we will be compelled to use.
Existence as a sapient life-form is something full of tradeoffs and responsibilities. Take command of one aspect of nature, and you must take responsibility for the ripple of consequences that follows. In the practice of land management, for instance, we put out natural fires that disrupt our lives, creating an overabundance of dry tinder on the ground that makes an eventual super fire a certainty. Thus we must perform “controlled burns” to clear off the debris that nature would otherwise dispose of in its way. In the matter of human evolution, we war against the cruel process of natural selection that carries off the young and helpless against our moral and sentimental wishes. It is only right that we do so, but then there is left the problem of how to keep the gene pool healthy. The reputation of eugenics has been so tainted by the actions of Nazi brutes that we scarcely want to think about the problem. Yet think about it we must. If we wish to maintain a humane society then we must take over the responsibility of maintaining the genetic health of the species from the Grim Reaper called nature. Genetic engineering is just the ticket. Yes, it will have its risks, but what choice do we have?
Julius Wroblewski, M.D.
Vancouver, British Columbia Canada
A Perplexing Dilemma
While I appreciate the contribution that Free Inquiry makes to the cultural dialogue, I am disappointed, at times, by the quality of some of your articles and op-ed pieces.
Massimo Pigliucci’s op-ed, “Socrates and Religious Morality,” (June/July 2004) is a case in point. Pigliucci obviously enjoys the opportunity to jar naïve intro to philosophy students by constructing Plato’s duly famous Euthyphro dilemma—an academic setting for “shock and awe.” Yet his confidence in that dilemma is questionable. Philosophers have demonstrated that this dilemma can be overcome. See, for instance, atheist John Mackie’s analysis in his Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, pp. 229 ff., or Paul Helm’s essay in the Encyclopedia of Ethics, pp. 1082–83. Furthermore, the last century of philosophy reflects a good deal of confusion about matters moral once the religious foundations were removed. And secularists such as Stalin and Hitler were hardly paragons of virtue. Religious traditions do not have sole possession of the dark side.
Granted, both Mackie and Helm show that certain assumptions must be introduced to overcome the dilemma and religion-based morality has a cluster of problems. But Plato’s dilemma, as such, does not succeed in impaling theological ethics on its horns. I do hope that Pigliucci’s colleague traces the rebuttals after his visit. I gather that Pigliucci himself has not.
Wayne G. Johnson
Professor Emeritus of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin–Parkside Racine, Wisconsin
I was surprised by Massimo Pigliucci’s enthusiasm for the (literally) Socratic question, “Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?” He claims this simple challenge is “the most powerful argument ever produced to show that morality and religion are independent.” If one answers that the gods approve of things already holy, it obviously means that morality has a standard independent of the gods. In modern terms, God really is “one of us” in that He is a fellow detective of the good—though a perfect one. But I think it is an easy move to claim that what is holy (good) is good because God approves of it and not have this claim reduce morality to a matter of whim in any important sense. If God is the author of the world, He is clearly the author of that subset of creation called morality. Calling the act of creation a matter of whim seems to have little argumentative power. The world and morality would still exist, and they would still be wholly dependent on God for their existence. To use the word whim seems to steal the concept of a created person making decisions inside a set of existing facts and misapplying it to the very source of all creation (facts).
As a long time atheist, I’ve concluded that by the time one is debating the nature of God (including His relationship to morality), the rational horse is already out of the barn. The only real argument against God (and his relevance to anything!) is Ockham’s razor. If you don’t stand your ground there, you’ll soon find that real swords can’t slay imaginary dragons.
Massimo Pigliucci responds:
Professor Wayne G. Johnson makes two points: first, he accuses me of poor scholarship for not citing the alleged overcoming of Euthyphro’s dilemma by philosophers such as Mackie and Helm. The problem is that, not only Johnson doesn’t tell us what arguments Mackie and Helm have used, but admits that they were forced to introduce “certain assumptions” in order to bypass the conundrum posed by Socrates in Plato’s famous dialogue. I’m sure Professor Johnson appreciates that arguments from authority (“You are wrong because so-and-so said this”) are actually a form of logical fallacy. Furthermore, surely in an op-ed column, I am entitled to present a simplified version of the dilemma, which wouldn’t be appropriate for a technical philosophical publication. Second, Johnson invokes the usual, and highly questionable, claim that secular morality isn’t any better than religious one, just look at what Hitler (who was not a secularist) and Stalin did! This is another well-known philosophical fallacy, known as a non sequitur. Just because some secularists engage in morally wrong conduct, it doesn’t follow that secular morality is itself wrong.
Brion Carlson agrees with one-half of the dilemma: if gods approve only of good things, then the concept of “good” must exist independently of the gods themselves. He thinks, however, that the other choice available to Euthyphro isn’t quite as bad: if gods created morality, together with the rest of the universe, in no way can this act of creation be considered arbitrary. I fail to see why not. Since the gods created a particular universe out of all the (infinite) possible ones, and they chose (for the sake of argument, of course) one code of morality out of an infinite number of available ones, then that choice was arbitrary, exactly as Plato has Socrates claim. One can, of course, make the argument that it may be wise to follow the arbitrary morality invented by an omnipotent being, but that doesn’t make it any less arbitrary (the “He made me do it” defense wasn’t allowed at Nuremberg). As for Occam’s razor being a better argument for the nonexistence of god, Carlson is missing the point: Euthyphro’s dilemma is not meant as an argument for the nonexistence of god, but as one for his irrelevance to moral questions (of course, once gods become irrelevant to morality, why bother with them at all?).