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June 29, 2005

Evolution and morality

Here is my long overdue reply to Mark Kleiman on evolution, morality, and torture, and his follow-up on literalism, skepticism, and torture.

In his original post Mark argued that those of us on the culturally liberal, scientifically-minded "blue team" should show more respect for people who resist evolutionary biology. He notes that many religious conservatives are uncomfortable with evolution because it implies that humans descended from non-human animals:

The red team is, I am convinced, wrong to think that believing the account of human origins in Genesis is a necessary condition for behaving well. But red-teamers aren't wrong to think of that account as providing a potentially powerful prop to moral behavior, and can't, therefore, justly be faulted as unreasonable or superstitious for objecting to attempts to kick that prop out from under their children, and other children who are their future fellow-citizens. [Emphasis mine.]

In my last post, I argued it would be irrational and superstitious to reject evolution for the reasons Mark ascribes to the red team.

First off, there's overwhelming evidence that the creation myth of Genesis is wrong.

If members of the red team are rejecting evolution because they think that the story of Genesis might encourage good behavior, they are indulging in wishful thinking. It is irrational to start with the conclusion you prefer and adjust your reasoning to reach that conclusion. Some people are afraid of the implications of evolutionary biology, but the desirability of those implications is irrelevant to the plausibility of the theory itself.

Obviously, not everyone takes Genesis literally. However, non-literalists have even less intellectual justification for opposing evolution than their fundamentalist counterparts. If you regard your holy book as an inspired mixture of fact and allegory, you shouldn't necessarily feel threatened by evolutionary biology. As Mark said previously, the story about humans being created in God's image is a potentially ennobling metaphor. It is a poetic reminder of our shared humanity and our duty to respect other people. This is a good metaphor regardless of whether Genesis is an accurate geology textbook.

As Mark notes in his second post, it's a mistake to approach a holy text as a collection truth-valued propositions. That's the fundamentalist approach. Skeptics who assume that all religious study is an exercise in finding truth values are missing the point. As a skeptic, I approach holy books as literature. I don't expect them to be literally true, or internally consistent. I read the bible much the way I read a Shakespeare history play--as a potential source of moral, aesthetic, and psychological insight that can be appreciated independently of its historical accuracy.

I think my approach is similar to that of most religious believers, except that I deny that the bible is in any sense holy or inspired. Typically, religious people believe that their scriptures are a privileged source of insight relative to other texts or sources of knowledge. If you take that view, you can have the best of both worlds regarding evolution: God gave us these ennobling metaphors and the rationality to investigate his creation. It is our job to decipher the moral message and apply it to the world as we find it. If humans descended from apes, the faithful just have to figure out how the spirit of Genesis applies to an evolved species of primate.

The viability of any religion as a moral framework is simply independent of the truth of evolutionary biology. I have argued elsewhere that so-called revealed truths proffered by most religions are superfluous for morality. Specifically, the alleged supernatural or revealed source of the moral truth is irrelevant to the value of the moral principle.

If there are moral truths, they ought to be discoverable, or at least defensible by reason. Religious traditions may be rich repositories of accumulated moral insight, but at the end of the day, it's the arguments themselves and not the putative mystical authority that matters. Even if some religion turns out to teach the a valid moral code, that set of principles ought to be explicable and defensible to someone who isn't religious. If so-called moral principles must be accepted on faith, they cease to be moral principles at all.

That's what I was getting at when I argued that Genesis could just as easily be a corrupting influence. If you aren't committed to taking your entire holy book as unalloyed and literal truth, you get to pick and choose which metaphors and themes you find relevant and compelling. The story of Genesis only bolsters an appeal to universal human rights among those who already embrace those values. If you have other values, you can use the same source material to justify those baser impulses.

Unlike Mark, I won't say that those who advocate torture are bad Christians or bad Jews. I will say that they're bad people. Being a good member of religion X is just to be a faithful upholder of the tradition in which you find yourself. Sometimes being a good X increases your chances of being a good person, but not necessarily. Depending on the X tradition in which you find yourself, good Xness may be an impediment morality.

Members of the red team who reject evolution because of its moral implications are deeply confused about science and morality. I would argue that their reticence also bespeaks a lack of faith and/or a muddled theology. They deserve the same courtesy as anyone who is advancing a view in a public debate, but they don't deserve any special deference from us because their beliefs are well-intentioned and/or faith-based.

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» http://WWW.markarkleiman.com/archives/_/2005/07/.php from Mark A. R. Kleiman
Today, as I was printing out copies of the Declaration of Independence in preparation for a ceremonial group reading of the document in celebration of the Fourth, it occured to me that I had missed a trick in my colloquy... [Read More]

» "Endowed by natural selection with certain unalienable rights"? from Mark A. R. Kleiman
The Declaration of Independence builds directly on the Genesis myth about human origins. [Read More]

» "Endowed by natural selection with certain unalienable rights"? from Mark A. R. Kleiman
The Declaration of Independence builds directly on the Genesis myth about human origins. [Read More]

Comments

Moreover, experience shows that most non-fundamentalists who reject evolution do so because they haven't a clue what evolution actually is. The best way to counter that isn't to make reassuring noises about Genesis, but to teach them about evolution properly.

These two remarks really get to the heart of the matter...

"One of the things that drives me most nuts about this "debate" is that not all Christians deny evolution."
- Mnemosyne

and Lindsay's comment:

"If you regard your holy book as an inspired mixture of fact and allegory, you shouldn't necessarily feel threatened by evolutionary biology."

The fundagelicals are using an "all or none" argument on creationism that is fallacious prima facie.

They're taking a piece of allegory, claiming it to be the literal truth. Further they claim that by denying it as literal truth it kicks the "moral underpinnings" out from under their children?

Are they then claiming that their entire religious belief is founded on creationism? That kind of arguement seems to reduce your religious belief to a pretty fragile house of cards.

I'm still trying to wrap my noodle around drawing moral imperatives from a creation myth in the first place.

Start by telling them they "haven't a clue" and what they know is "bunk." That'll win them over.

This is Tom Frank stuff, people. The threat from intelligent design is real. I live in the South and have school-age children -- I worry about this issue. But the way to defeat the Religious Right know-nothings doesn't involve flashing our diplomas at them.

Constructive engagement is *vital*. Between the Bible-thumpers and the blog-readers, there's a large swath of people who are on the fence, who on one hand value their religious culture and fear assaults from the popular culture, yet on the other hand realize we are living in the 21st century and have to educate our kids so they're prepared for modern life.

Organize, educate, litigate when necessary, elect progressives to school boards, hold to facts, don't be bullied, yet acknowledge your opponent's POV rather than talking down to him/her.

I really liked Mark Kleiman's post -- he captured one of my frustrations with this dialogue over theism/atheism. Namely, proponents of scientism have trouble dealing with metaphor and ambiguity.

Crosspost with Flint. Who makes a good point: The God of the fundamentalists must be pretty small to be unable to withstand scrutiny and discussion.

I just don't buy the "metaphor and ambiguity" stuff. I come from a pretty religious place. I've been around religious people my entire life. And I have never, ever met one who didn't contend that the actual existence of God was central to their religious belief. Maybe they think specific Bible passages are symbolic and non-factual, but they very much do believe that God is an intelligent being that exists and has certain qualities, even if it's just the watered-down, vague, feel-good ones. That isn't a metaphor. It's an assertion about the existence or non-existence of something that acts or acted on the physical world - and conceding the point that it is wise to believe in the existence of something that acts on the physical world just because you feel like it would be a huge step, and one many of us are not willing to make. Believing in physical phenomena for no reason other than that you want to is bad policy across the board.

Volokh had a pretty good post on this a few weeks ago that I think will support what Mark Kleiman is trying to argue.

Well, of course evolution is not a threat to any religious belief except religious beliefs that are directly incompatible with evolution.

Maintaining a scientific, skeptical mode of thought, however, is a threat to religious belief. And to many of us maintaining stringent standards of analysis and fact-gathering is also an important issue, if not one of the most important issues, in our current culture.

"If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it?"

Well, if you want to do that kind of "natural law" based ethics, you should act like an animal of your species: namely, you should act like a human being. Cows and crows are both animals, but a cow shouldn't act like a crow. Humans and salmon are also both animals, but that doesn't mean that humans should act like salmon. What is "acting like an animal" without reference to specific species? As for what "acting like a human being" means, that's a tougher question. In purely positive terms, it is everything we do, from the heights of moral heroism to the depths of depravity. Which is, of course, a problem for natural law based ethics, at least as far as I can tell.

IMHO, Mark, the proper response to "naturalism leads to weakened moral standards" is "okay, do you have any evidence?"

We'd have to pick moral standards that everyone agrees on: e.g. theft, murder, rape, charitable giving, honesty etc. If "regular church attendence" is considered a moral issue, then obviously it's likely that those who don't believe evolution's right are more moral than those who do.

While stuff like the existence of God may not be falsifiable, I'd say propositions like "naturalists behave less morally than creationists" can and should be studied empirically.

Maintaining a scientific, skeptical mode of thought, however, is a threat to religious belief. And to many of us maintaining stringent standards of analysis and fact-gathering is also an important issue, if not one of the most important issues, in our current culture.

No it isn't. My belief system informs my choices with respect to behavior, not the methods by which I'd observe my surroundings.

Faith means that you'll never know for sure. And I accept that. Science not being able to prove God's existence is in line with this, because, like I said, I'll never know for sure if there's a God or not. Science also can't disprove anything about my faith.

As I believe it, Jesus came to us and tried to get everyone to love each other selflessly. That's it. That has absolutely nothing to do with science. All the scientific discoveries in the world (which I will be quite excited to learn about) would never alter that teaching.

I am utterly stumped as to how I would be unable to maintain a sufficiently skeptical worldview on knowable things, while having faith in the existence of unknowable things. Perhaps it's pretty convenient that my God exists above and beyond the physical world and thusly cannot be debunked by it, but that's the way it is for me. No interesting, accurate, illuminating theory on quantum physics (that I would support, of fucking course) is going to stop me from believing that there is a benevolent Creator behind all this stuff.

By the way, even the term "God exists" is problematic because "exists" is a human term, and could not hope to describe what God is actually doing.

Maybe the way to put it is, scientific thought and religious belief are ultimately incompatible. That's okay with me, I think each has its own domain, but obviously to many people it's a troubling state of affairs. Religious beliefs may be true but they're not factual.

IMHO, Mark, the proper response to "naturalism leads to weakened moral standards" is "okay, do you have any evidence?"... While stuff like the existence of God may not be falsifiable, I'd say propositions like "naturalists behave less morally than creationists" can and should be studied empirically.

Look, I don't think morality necessarily resides in religion. Of course atheists can be moral people. But if nothing else, religion is a moral methodology that many people have used and that works for them, they feel. I'd put it this way: Naturalism threatens religious belief, and religious belief is a buttress that many people have used for many years to encourage moral behavior.

I suppose you could study this issue empirically, but I doubt you could ever satisfy most people. I think people are mistaken to think that Darwin invalidates religious belief -- I can rationalize the conflict -- but clearly there IS a conflict. And people are deeply invested in their religious cultures and traditions. There are deep, tribal emotions involved.

Maybe a tangent, but this reminds me of discussions of violence in the media. It's hard, maybe impossible, to show definitively that violent films or video games lead to crime or other bad observable outcomes. Yet I monitor my children's media diet anyway.

It's hard, maybe impossible, to show definitively that violent films or video games lead to crime or other bad observable outcomes. Yet I monitor my children's media diet anyway.

If you monitor your children's media diet without having a basis to believe violent movies lead to crime, then you act irrationally.

Incidentally, there is some research that shows that the introduction of television into American communities caused the crime rate to soar, but I don't know that this research distinguishes between violent and non-violent media, nor do I know whether individual parents can do anything about that.

I'm happy to show respect for people who demonstrate some morality of their own. Likewise, I'm extremely careful, and often avoid, encounters with those who repeatedly demonstrate a lack of morality.

Sorry, Mark, but many of those who are the most resistant to evolution have clearly demonstrated they will and do act without any of this morality which they claim they are so afraid of losing.

The issue isn't that some of those with anti-evolution beliefs aren't cranks, fanatics, or true-believers. The issue is that the anti-evolution rhetoric comes from those who clearly are.

I'm proposing constructive engagement with those whose opposition to teaching evolution in the schools is based on the fear that, in the hands of typical schoolteachers, Darwin will be made to sound like Herbert Spencer.

From a marketing standpoint, I agree. If that's a psychological sticking point, then the blue team should try to allay those fears, if we can.

I'm just not sure that we'll help our cause by broaching "the larger argument" directly.

"Look, I don't think morality necessarily resides in religion. Of course atheists can be moral people."

i find those two troubling statements, it's so inherently doubtful of atheists. ascribing morality to religion ('necessarily', 'of course ... can be'). morality does not reside in religion. it resides in 'free will' which creates a whole other set of conundrums. and to defend atheism, doesn't the very nature of not having a belief in a creator and divine care-giver give rise to a wonderment and a spiritual/moral responsibility in the realization of the very uniqueness of things? that acknowledgment inherits morality directly.

quite a bit of the problem here is ideological semantics. fundies, those with literal ideologes, will not accept metaphor. That would conflict with the very stringent belief structure. Just as those who believe in empirical thought will not accept, what they would consider, an ancient piece of folktale and fiction (metaphor) as a literal reality to explain biology and history. this is the obvious 'larger arguement'. i agree with lindsay that we probably need to broach 'it' indirectly, and i agree with mark that some sort of reconciliatory position is needed by both parties, but what would that be? isn't it unacceptable and inconceivable to teach mythology in science class, just as it's inconceivable to allow the teaching of ideas which are 'against' god's will and your family's core beliefs? what one calls biology the other calls god, what one calls god the other calls 'what god means', what one calls faith, the other ideology.

How widespread is creationism among solidly Christian African-Americans? Are there any black creationists at all? Is the majority of creationist sentiment covert unconcious racism?

Hear, hear, Majikthise & Mnem - this is exactly what the whole Theistic Evolution mini-movement is about. There's no necessary contradiction between poetic statements about humanity interacting with the universe and scientific statements about humanity interacting &c.

It's like trying to moderate a debate that's going like this:

"You said you went to the mall a couple days ago! Liar!"

"I'm not lying, I DID go to the mall a couple days ago!"

"No, you went THREE days ago. A *couple* is TWO! Liar!"

There is no resolution because one person insists on a literal [sic] interpretation of a term, against the good-faith informal, looser but still normative usage of the same word. And you can bet your last dollar that in some other occasion you will catch that "literal" user - who in this analogy is ironically *also* the "scientific" speaker - making the same sort of informal misuse [sic] of terminology!

I *highly* recommend the Pulitzer-winning book The Beak of the Finch for advice on how to talk to the poorly-taught and/or hostile about evolution. Several sections of the book explicitly address this problem. The fact that it's ten years old or so doesn't make it any less valuable.

And it's *chock-full* of appropriately-used Bible quotes...!

Doesn't it seem probable that moral activities gave rise to religion, and not the other way around?
With regard to Lindsay's(?) statement .."He notes that many religious conservatives are uncomfortable with evolution because it implies that humans descended from non-human animals.."
couldn't we reframe that as "ascended"; and, by doing so, remove some of the onus of the implied thermodynamism from the context? ^..^

A paper about the Darwin debate and racism. Apparently there is some anti-Darwin sentiment (connecting Darwin with eugenics) in the African-American community. Disturbing.

The rise of the religious right correlates with the backlash against the civil rights movement. At the same time, African-Americans Christians are very socially conservative, and blacks harbor some anger at the scientific community (see: the Tuskegee experiment). It's complicated.

Bob Crane: I didn't mean to slight atheists per se. I was feeling defensive, sensing a presumption around here that I as a religious person think that atheists are all immoral due to their status as atheists. I don't think that, is all I wanted to say. The frustrating thing in this discussion is the tone -- many of us don't understand how we come off.

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