In a recent podcast episode, “Stop Being a Christian and Start Being a Person,” one of the things I talked about is that we Christians should not assume that because a scholarly endeavour is overtly Christian, it will be good. I also stressed that we should be prepared to recognise the gifts and goodness manifested in scholarship regardless of who presents it.
I wanted to start by reminding the reader that this is my position in case this blog entry tempts you to think that I’m someone who just likes to bash any work that is not Christian and that I’m just biased in favour of arguments presented by Christians. I try not to be. However, reading an article today by Paul Kurtz I once again, as I so often do, got the sinking feeling that there is just no hope – none at all – of some committed opponents of religious belief ever understanding (or perhaps acknowledging) some big, obvious and simple distinctions in philosophy.
There’s one type of mistake that irritates me because I see it needlessly re-enacted so many times in various different ways. The mistake consists of attacks on ethical theories that invoke God as the basis of morality in some way that manage to completely misconstrue those theories in a way that any first year student would be taken to task for (albeit graciously, being only a first year student after all).
Take the Paul Kurtz example that ticked me off tonight. Allow me to first paint the philosophical background. Many philosophers who are theists (and even some who are not) have entertained the belief that unless God exists, moral facts do not exist either. Some of those philosophers have used this belief to construct a moral argument for theism, reasoning from moral facts to the existence of God. Philosophers who have reasoned in this way include Thomas Aquinas, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, as well as contemporary defenders of theism like William Lane Craig and C. Stephen Evans. Here’s a sample of Paul Kurtz’s comments. See if you can spot what I might have found so irritating:
I believe there are moral truths, and I believe these truths can be drawn from ethical reflection. Philosophers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant have defended the autonomy of ethics as a field of inquiry.
Human beings are capable of either good or evil. We are potential moral beings; how we develop depends on a complex of biogenetic and social influences, including parental care, belonging to some community, character formation, and the cultivation of some degree of moral cognition. Thus, it is possible to develop, through moral education and life experience, an empathetic-cognitive appreciation for the needs of others. I do not deny that there are exceptions, such as psychopaths and sociopaths, but morality is natural to the human condition, especially as human beings have evolved in sociocultural communities. I present a naturalistic perspective on the good life, not one rooted in otherworldly hopes and fears.
I submit that a kind of autonomous moral sensibility can be brought to fruition in a variety of tangible ways and that belief in God is not a prerequisite for knowing moral truths or acting morally. I must say that I am puzzled by the mantra, intoned by so many theists today, that “a person cannot be moral without a belief in God.” If this is supposed to be a factual claim, it is patently false; many good people have neither gone to church nor believed in God and yet have behaved morally, and the converse is often true as well. Is there a necessary logical connection between the fatherhood of God and basic moral principles? I would rather suggest that the belief of theists, that morality presupposes religious faith, is grounded in the apprehension that they would not behave morally without God (or Big Brother) looking over their shoulders.
Paul Kurtz, “On Human Values,” Science & Spirit July/August 2006, 35.
Where to start. The first and most important complaint here is that Kurtz is inventing arguments out of thin air. Theists do not argue, much less repeat as a mantra, that “a person cannot be moral without a belief in God.” Kurtz does not quote a single example of anyone doing this, and if he bothered to search for an example he would have a hard time finding one. Yet he has given the clearly deliberate impression that this is a common phenomenon, so common that it apparently amazes him. The argument that theists do present is an argument that unless there is a God, then moral truths do not exist. How moral a person you will become if you adopt belief in God is not even a component of the argument. What’s even worse is that one of the philosophers that Kurtz named as an influence on his thinking in this area, Immanuel Kant, was himself a Christian philosopher who used a version of just this argument! I literally do not know how to read Kurtz’s article in a way that does not result in him looking like someone who just does not want to really engage with his opponents, but who instead is doing what some Christian hacks might be tempted to do at times: preach to the converted, presenting alternative views to his own in such a way as to ensure that his readers will neither truly grasp them nor accept them.
Another example is Peter Singer. In passing he dismisses theologically grounded ethical theories as follows:
Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of “good” is nothing other than “what God approves”. Plato refuted a similar view more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods approval that makes them good. The alternative view makes God’s approval entirely arbitrary: if the gods had happened to approve of torture and disapprove of helping our neighbours, torture would be good and helping our neighbours bad.
Peter Singer Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 2nd ed.), 3.
As is common (but mistaken), Singer thinks that the divine command theory of ethics (the theory is is referring to here without naming it) is refuted in Plato’s Euthyphro. It’s not. More importantly, no theistic philosophers argue that “good” or “right” have the very meaning of “what God approves.” This is a misrepresentation of the divine command theory of ethics, which takes several forms today, but not that form. What’s more, even the Euthyphro dialogue that Singer refers to does not deal with a theory like that. There, Plato dealt with a theory in which moral obligations are caused by the will of God, a theory that Singer ought to have no difficulty distinguishing from the one he described.
It doesn’t make sense to me that things should be as bad in the state of the literature. There’s no reason and no excuse for getting things so badly wrong. Volumes have been written by Christian thinkers over many centuries, and their views are readily accessible. There isn’t really even anything at stake for men like Kurtz and Singer. Accurately understanding and portraying the arguments used by many Christian philosophers is not at all to concede that they are correct. What’s more, the people who are the worst offenders are people who are themselves totally immersed in the subject matter to such an extent that they more than nearly anybody else should be getting these things right. Paul Kurtz is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. It is impossible for him to be unaware, for example, that Kant used the argument from morality to theism, or what the actual theistic argument is (as opposed to the caricatured version that he presents). Peter Singer teaches at Princeton. Princeton! There is no way, as an author in the field of ethics, he has not actually read philosophers spell out their theistic views on the relationship between God and morality. Why, I ask in my perhaps naive way, do people who engage in this kind of argumentation get paid to teach people about it while I, who sit here getting ticked out about it and writing corrections like this, cannot seem to be able to land a role teaching the the field? But I digress.
The point is, it is rather depressing to invest effort into getting my fellow Christians to respect scholarship no matter where it comes from and to keep our standards high so that nobody can accuse us of being lazy and partisan and trusting that we will have a credulous audience that shares our religious preconceptions, only to look “over the fence” as it were and see that there are professionals operating in roles that influence many who just don’t care. They have a goal, and they don’t seem to give a toss how it is reached. It paints a very depressing picture of debates around philosophical issues where believers and unbelievers disagree. With scholars/author/speakers like this out there and a student and internet fan base out there behind them, I feel like a coach urging his team to get out there, play fair and keep it clean because we know that we have the skill to win and win decisively, knowing all the while that the other team is packing knives, the referee is going to award them goals even when they miss (and never be paying attention when we score), and the rabid commentators are going to announce to the fans at home that we lost fair and square.
On the other hand, things like this serve as a further motivation to actually succeed in the field. It’s a scene that badly needs to be cleaned up and someone has to do it.