TIA Tuesday: Irony and moralityAugust 26, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Today’s taste of TIA offers just a bit of irony before diving into the morass of morality. Here’s the irony:
[W]hile Breaking the Spell is unquestionably superior in almost every way to the Unholy Trinity’s four books on religion, the scientific-sounding speculation that fills it is nothing more than that, speculation. The literary editor of The New Republic underlined this point in an utterly brutal review of the book which appeared in the New York Times, reminding the reader that at the end of the day, Breaking the Spell is not science, but a book of speculative philosophy written by a science-fetishist.
There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: “I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don’t yet know.” So all of Dennett’s splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and “generating further testable hypotheses” notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.
So desperate is Vox to discredit Dennett’s questions about theology that he accuses them of being “just…speculation.” And yet, since God does not show up in real life, theologians have nothing to study but their own speculations, and the speculations of others, about the meaning of things that still other men have written, that have “no scientific foundation.” In fact, Vox could have condensed his argument a great deal by simply accusing Dennett’s book of being little more than abject theology. It wouldn’t have been entirely true, but at least this would have captured the essence of Vox’s rebuttal: it’s wrong because it’s too similar to what Vox thinks is right.
Now for the morality.
[W]hen asked where society will find its moral foundation, if not from religion, Dennett responds with a tautology:
Rules that we lay down ourselves. . . . Now we can continue to expand the circle and get more people involved, and do it in a less disingenuous way by excising the myth about how this is God’s law. It is our law.
As evidence that moral democracy is theoretically functional, he asserts without evidence that the prison population is distributed according to religious affiliation in the general population, an incorrect assertion that was belied in Chapter I.
Yes, we’ve already seen how Vox massaged the statistics to make it look like atheists were disproportionately represented in prison populations. Unfortunately, Vox never quite manages to explain how Dennett’s response is a “tautology.” Instead, he casually tosses around various studies that, he asserts, contradict Dennett in some way. Except of course for the ones that don’t. But they’re “flawed.”
Dennett further claims that “brights” have better family values than born-again Christians based on “the lowest divorce rate in the United States” which depends on the flawed 1999 Barna study instead of the 2001 ARIS study he makes use of later in the book, a much larger study which reaches precisely the opposite conclusion. It is certainly a quixotic assertion, considering that these family values atheists are half as likely to get married, twice as likely to divorce, and have fewer children than any other group in the United States.
According to Vox’s footnote, the Barna study is flawed because it compared all Christians to all atheists instead of comparing all married Christians to all married atheists. Vox says that the ARIS study shows almost half of all atheists never marry, and thus are not going to be reporting divorces even if their relationships break up. I haven’t looked at the two studies myself, so I’m going to reserve judgment here. Vox’s argument sounds plausible, but he’s proven less than reliable in his descriptions of the actual statistics in the past, and there may be more to these two studies than meets the eye.
In any case, divorce rates can be a misleading indicator of “family values,” since there are (for instance) cases where incompatible couples, or marriages with abusive spouses, remain together legally even though this produces an emotionally toxic environment for the kids to grow up in. Let’s go on and see what else we can find in Dennett’s discussion of morals, and Vox’s attempts to discredit it.
Vox argues that “moral democracy suffers from the same structural weakness as its political counterpart, an inherent mandate to appeal to the lowest common denominator,” and that this invalidates Dennett’s claim that we can make our own moral laws. He overlooks the fact, however, that in God’s absence, we’ve been making our own laws about things like slavery, women’s rights, drugs, mail fraud, software piracy, and other moral issues. What’s more, we’ve been reviewing the moral laws that were handed down to us by our superstitious and dogmatic ancestors, and in some cases making improvements. Like Dennett says, the only thing we’re really changing is that we can now do the same thing without second-guessing ourselves about the purported will of an absentee Authority.
Vox, naturally, has to drag in the Nazis and Hamas and anyone else he can think of to try and poison the well, but it’s no use. Though Vox claims that it would be “insane” to even consider “moral democracy,” it’s not only possible, but it’s the system we’re currently living under right now. It may not be perfect, it may not even work all that well, but as Dennett says, freeing ourselves from irrationalism and superstition can only help.
Vox next makes a rather puzzling observation:
The biggest problem is that even if Dennett is correct and there is no magician behind the moral curtain, the positive consequences of revealing this absence may well outweigh the negative ones.
The “problem” is that the positive consequences may well outweigh the negative ones? Why is that a problem, exactly? I rather like positive consequences myself. I’m supposing that Vox got tripped up in his typing, and meant it the other way around, but even so, he’s actually hitting the real roots of morality: the positive or negative consequences of a proposed course of action. The purpose of morality is to maximize the positive consequences and minimize the negative ones—no deity required. In arguing that Dennett may be wrong (in the moral sense) to question religion’s roots, Vox is inadvertently exposing the true roots of real-world morality.
And with that, we come to the real heart of the issue. I hate to stop here, but I have a feeling this next bit is going to get a little involved. Stay tuned!