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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How religion does dirt on everything good (2)

I'd like to take this theme a bit further with a more general reflection on how religion does dirt on everything good in life. Unless they can somehow be connected up with the supernatural, ordinary good things - such as the enjoyment of health, peace, love, and sexual pleasure - tend to be belittled and disparaged by religious apologists.

In that sense, religion does poison everything. It sneers at the good things of life, finding them wanting by its supernatural standards.

Apologists for religion cannot explain how the supernatural makes things that are not otherwise good become so, or how good things are any less so in the absence of some sort of supernatural power. No one has ever shown how that is a coherent way of thinking about the issues. If something has the properties that are required to satisfy certain human needs, desires, interests, etc., then we are quite entitled to judge it as "good" whether a supernatural power, such as God, exists or not.

An omnipotent supernatural being could doubtless alter our desires (etc.) so that they are satisfied by different things, or it could alter the world so that different things come to satisfy our desires. But it is not coherent to imagine such a being making something good without also altering the natural world in these ways. Most importantly, nothing supernatural is needed for us to make a vast range of perfectly rational and reasonable judgments as to what things are good or otherwise.

Consider Tracey Rowland's speech (the written version) from the recent IQ2 debate about atheism. It contains very little that I agree with - I'd want to contest many of its specific claims. But I'm more concerned about its general tenor that life without God is somehow devoid of value. Though that appears to be the drift of it, nothing Rowland says goes anywhere near to supporting such a claim - there are no premises that we must rationally accept that lead to such a conclusion via cogent reasoning.

Doubtless some of Rowland's value judgments could be supported by secular reasoning - e.g., I agree with her that the cult of celebrity has much disvalue. But this has nothing to do with God's presence or absence. Indeed, most participants in the cult of celebrity are probably not atheists, since atheists make up only a small percentage of the population of the United States, where celebrity worship is surely most pronounced. Nor were atheists to blame for past cultural formations that could attract similar criticism. I'm thinking especially of the value accorded in past ages to kings and aristocrats - indeed, this attitude flourished during periods that are notable for their religiosity.

I don't want to go into every dubious claim made by Rowland, but note how she is unable to conceive that love might be of enormous value to us, even though it is not somehow grounded in the supernatural. And she sneers at the idea that the intellect is a device for satisfying our desires. To be fair, the intellect does more than that. It helps us gain understanding of the world (which, of course, can in many cases help us satisfy our desires). But more fundamentally, what is wrong with taking rational action to satisfy our desires, i.e. to make the world more as we wish it to be? Why is that something to sneer at?

The religious tend to deprecate the desires, values, and so on that people actually have, together with the processes of fulfilling them, but this shows a mean-spirited attitude to ordinary human flourishing.

Rowland rages against what she sees as a world in which:
Sexual relations hollowed out into their materialist shell become mutual manipulation; political relations hollowed out into their materialist shell become brutal power; and market relations hollowed out into their material shell give us consumerism and status anxiety.
Well, I'm sure that status anxiety has always been with us to some extent or other, and to the extent that religion once provided serfs and other underlings with a rationalisation for their lowly status that is hardly to its credit. But set that aside, along with quibbles about what is meant by "consumerism" (there may be some bad things as well as some good things covered by that emotive but vague word).

More importantly, I'm surprised at any suggestion that political power was wielded less brutally in more religious times than today (perhaps Rowland should study how it was used by the Byzantine emperors).

And I really must comment on the insulting claim that sexual relations without God become mutual manipulation. That is outrageous. Whether God exists or not, sex will go on providing lovers with experiences of joy and beauty, of ecstasy and intimacy, of reciprocal giving and tenderness: experiences that only a madman or a religious zealot could describe, reductively, as "mutual manipulation".

Here, as so often, we see religion's deprecation of the body and its pleasures.

In the same debate, Scott Stephens goes even further, claiming that without God there is no good. But with all respect, that is a wild thing to say. Without God many things still "fit" with our desires, needs, and so on (and hence are quite rationally judged as good) while others do not, or are even ininimical to them (and are quite rationally judged as bad, or even as evil where positive malevolence is involved). God's existence or otherwise has nothing to do with this, though we might well wonder why an all-powerful God of love has not created a world with far less suffering and malevolence in the mix.

The religious mind thinks little of human pleasure and desire, and so disparages ordinary kinds of goodness. Note again the sneer when Stephens refers to what he thinks of as atheism's "flattened-out brand of morality as mere 'well-being'."

Now, we can all engage in interesting arguments as to what well-being really amounts to, and we can get into some interesting metaethical issues as to what moral language really means (including whether it is ever strictly and literally true). I've raised these problems myself on numerous occasions. Still, we have a reasonably clear understanding of what well-being is for beings like us, and I see no reason to sneer at it in this way.

Indeed, what is the point of moral constraints if not to aim at something in the vicinity of "well-being"? Earlier in his speech, Stephens complains that we've come to reduce well-being to health, safety, and pleasure, but even if there are other things that we value (as I'm sure there are) why are these things to be deprecated? Does it not matter if, instead of living a healthy life, experiencing varied and intense pleasures in a situation of relative safety, I am stuck with a sick, miserable, endangered existence? Why is the increased ability of modern societies to provide the former sort of life, rather than the latter, not a huge advance? Why do dirt on it?

I don't know any atheist who blames religion for all the evils of human societies. But religion is one source of social evils. It encourages an attitude of disparagement toward much that is good in our lives, claiming - erroneously - that "real" goodness depends in some way on the supernatural. If we take this seriously, it can distort our attitudes to much in our own lives, the lives of our fellows, and the operation of society, law, and political power.

Our current social arrangements in industrialised nations still leave much to be desired, but it is ahistorical to imagine that we are living in a time of particular moral decline or malaise. On the contrary, many things are improving - among them, attitudes to equality of the sexes, attitudes to violence and suffering, and our general tolerance of others who differ from ourselves - and religion certainly cannot take the credit for this.

Religion is not the root of all evil, but it is far from being the source of ordinary goodness in our lives. On the contrary, it is an enemy of ordinary goodness. We can lead good and fruitful lives without God or any belief in the supernatural, and that's what I suggest we all do. Life without God is not thereby way diminished or hollowed out. That is an unsustainable claim. It's pathological to think of the world that way.


Anonymous said...

And I really must comment on the insulting claim that sexual relations without God become mutual manipulation.

And thank you for saying so! It is insulting, and I'm damn tired of hearing religious people say it. Consensual sex, in which everyone involved is honest about what they want and informed about what they're going to get, is the very definition of acting freely.

Tim Martin

Dave Ricks said...

Russell, thank you for organizing this. Stephens' last paragraph sums up the conflict for me: I often hear atheists insist that they do not need God in order to be good. But if I am in any way accurate in what I have argued here, we are faced with a far more destructive possibility: that without God, there simply is no Good.

So the slogan "Good without God" is more powerful in practice than some atheists might suppose. I'll only add that for Rowland and Stephens, I imagine they see the world as not so much dirt as dearth:


dearth the lack
oh sheaves of weed by wind
    west wind
who sow what with all shall
and yet those who can
    or will not

    -- Tension Brett

@blamer said...

It is revealing to me when apologists defend the virtues of Religious thinking by appealing to the virtues of poetic thinking. In doing so they lend strength to their critics who condemn the folly of codifying old poems for modern living.

bad Jim said...

This sort of thing reminds me of the quip that sex is so dirty, disgusting and degrading that it can only be shared with the one person in the world you most deeply love.

steve oberski said...

@bad Jim

or the child placed in your care

Verbose Stoic said...

Now, Russell, you've done a lot of philosophy, so you are surely aware of the numerous non-religious philosophies that basically conclude the same thing, and insist that their method is, in fact, far more respectful of what it really means to be human, and that those desires that you champion are, in fact, denigrating humans if elevated above the real proper values? Like, for example, most Virtue Theories. So you don't need "supernatural standards" to question how good the "good things of life" really are.

The key is the distinction between what is good and what is Good. Few will deny that those certain human desires are "good". Since sex brings pleasure it is, in fact, good in that sense. But does that make it Good? Intrinsically desirable in and of itself? Not to be sacrificed for any reason?

Ultimately, for philosophies like that of the Stoics, the Good was something beyond the base desires. For Kant, making happiness the goal was doing morality wrong. All of these, in some sense, do transcend those simple goods that you advocate. But we can all see arguments for it, by asking if, say, one should give up pleasure for Justice, or Honour or Honesty. And it is, then, at least a far more open question about whether the theological approach is in fact getting what humans should really desire better than appealing to those specific desires that you claim religion -- and, presumably, those other philosophies -- sneer at. They do, but they need not in the sense that you need for "doing dirt on". They can, like the Stoics and Kant and Aristotle reject them as being Good but accept them as being good, but argue that good does not trump Good.

To defend the religious view -- even though that isn't how I view the world -- the argument I make is this: To reject God means to them rejecting things like Good, as the mindset does not allow for them (that's why God is out of the picture). If you look for Good, you will find God, and if you insist there is no God you cannot find Good. I think there are problems with this argument, but it's not completely unreasonable, I think.

Ken Pidcock said...

Well, I'm sure that status anxiety has always been with us to some extent or other, and to the extent that religion once provided serfs and other underlings with a rationalisation for their lowly status that is hardly to its credit.

Indeed. How many times do you hear people say, "Well, you might need God, but...", never acknowledging they they're defending existing social strata.

Russell Blackford said...

No one has ever demonstrated that the existence of God makes any difference one way or the other to whether Good (I think I know what you mean by that VS) exists. Rowland certainly didn't; she just made a lot of unsupported assertions to that effect.

Beyond that, it does dirt on every good thing to complain that it is not Good in some metaphysical sense unless a being like God somehow gives it his sanction. That's just I'm complaining about.

Even if (contrary to what happened in the debate) Rowland could demonstrate that the value of sex, for example, lacks some metaphysical oomph if and only if there's no God, it doesn't follow that sex is reduced to "mutual manipulation". All that follows is that it lacks the mysterious metaphysical oomph.

Sex could still have all sorts of characteristics that are quite inconsistent with the idea that is is just "mutual manipulation". Sex could still involve mutual tenderness and good-will, intimacy, the emotional opening up of people to each other, the joy of giving someone else intense pleasure, the sheer ecstasy of the act itself, and the joy of someone else being prepared to give it ... the joy of knowing that the other person is even sharing that joy with you, etc,. etc. To describe sex as "mutual manipulation" when, even from a purely this-worldly viewpoint, there is so much more involved, is reductive (in the worst sense) and false.

Something similar can be said about all the other good things of life. Reductive and demeaning descriptions of them don't become true or even plausible just because there's no God.