Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Muskrat is low-carb | Main | From the Rude Pundit's kind and giving lips to your ears »

June 23, 2005

Religion, evolution, and morality

Mark Kleiman argues that members of the reality-based community (believers and atheists alike) should be a little more indulgent towards our opposite numbers in the culture war who insist on the literal truth of creationism:

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.

The blue team shouldn't back off on its insistence that children be taught accurate biology in biology class, but we should acknowledge that the larger argument isn't really about biology, and cut the folks on the other side some slack rather than dismissing them as ignorant rustics.

I have to side with PZ Myers on this one.

Mark is correct to point out that many people fear Darwinism and the naturalistic worldview because they assume that morality must be a sham unless there's some religious underpinning to it. Or else, because they worry that everyone else will give up on morality if naturalism becomes widely accepted, regardless of whether naturalism actually justifies moral skepticism.

But it's not respectful to play along with those delusions because we think that the red team thinks that the world could only be any good if the Genesis account of creation is true (and/or if it is widely believed to be true).

Real respect requires us to call each other out on wishful thinking and bad reasoning. The members of the red team who cling to the literal story of Genesis are embracing a terrible theory for indefensible reasons.

First, as most modern people of faith affirm, there's no empirical evidence to support any Genesis-based account of the origins of life or the descent of humans. If man really is created in God's image, surely our rational faculties are among our most Godlike attributes. Surely it's a form of self-abuse, and therefore a form of God-abuse to subordinate our intellect to dogma. Mark's a proud member of the skeptical tradition, so I think he might be sympathetic to this line of argument.

As an atheist, I can't say what reality-based believers should tell "red team" creationists, but if it were my God, I wouldn't be very sympathetic to intellectual blasphemy through willful ignorance. (Deists are just too polite, IMO.)

Even if the red team thinks it would be morally better to perpetuate the creation myth at the expense of evolution, they don't deserve much slack for their good intentions. They're just wrong to think that the truth of the story of Genesis must figure in our moral reasoning one way or the other. If all humans were created in God's image, that might be a reason not to torture them. On the other hand, if we also take the rest of Genesis seriously, we have to accept that women were created as accessories for men, that moral knowledge separated us from God and Eden, that humans know that our bodies are shameful despite having been created in God's image, and that God Himself so despised the creatures he created in his image that he killed them all off, except for Noah and his family, that the God of Genesis is a pretty harsh racist, and so on.

Simple Darwinism* tells me that every single human is literally family to me. Darwinism tells me that racism is crazy. Pace Genesis, Darwinism also reminds me that I'm not so different from a lot of other animals who are capable of feelings and therefore shouldn't be tortured, regardless of what any deities have to say about our respective statuses. I'm not saying that Darwinism is the only road to those conclusions, just that these Darwinian-inspired tenets are at least as good prima facie reasons for tolerance as anything in Genesis.

Note that I'm only criticizing the red teammates who have had ample opportunity to compare the scientific and Biblical accounts of creation. There is a lot of non-culpable ignorance out there. Some people simply haven't been taught the biological facts. They are ignorant in the purely descriptive sense and they have been kept in that deplorable state by a few despicable members of the red team who would prefer to deceive themselves and/or lie to their own children and everyone else about the biological facts.

I don't think the blue team should be ridiculing or belittling anyone. On the other hand, I don't consider it respectful to coddle people just because they might be well-intentioned.

Update: *Just a clarificaiton. For rhetorical purposes, I'm borrowing Mark's phrase "middle-school Darwinism," as it appears in his original post:

Insofar as middle-school Darwinism asserts that each of us is merely an animal of a particular species, fundamentally like animals of other species, it undercuts both halves of that double-barreled moral proposition. If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it? And, if you're merely an animal, why shouldn't I beat you up, if I'm so inclined and bigger than you are?

As several commenters have rightly pointed out, "Darwinism" is vague and possibly anachronistic in its connotations. Moreover, strictly speaking, no naturalistic theory logically implies any moral conclusions. Well, a least not without a huge and contentious fight that I'm more than happy to beg off of the time being... Sorry, moral realists, I'm just not going there today.

All I'm trying to show is that the broad metaphorical implications of naturalism are at least as favorable to humanistic values as any reading of Genesis. I don't see where the red team gets off arguing that their Creation myth is inherently more ennobling than our scientific account of the origins of life. At any rate, Mike the Mad Biologist puts these points much better than I did.

Also, Eli has a good post on the rather flimsy theological implications of the claim that something is created in Jahweh's image.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef00d834237ca553ef

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Religion, evolution, and morality:

» More ID/Creationist Madness About Antibiotics, #2 from Mike the Mad Biologist
Not to be a nudge, but I disagree about the "Darwinism" bit [Read More]

» LIteralism, skepticism, and tolerance from Mark A. R. Kleiman
No, theism isn't the same as belief in the Tooth Fairy. [Read More]

» Literalism, skepticism, and tolerance from Mark A. R. Kleiman
No, theism isn't the same as belief in the Tooth Fairy. [Read More]

» Revenge of the Kleiman from Pharyngula
Wheee! Let's have a blogwar with Mark A. R. Kleiman. He disagrees with Majikthise, whom he respects, and me, whom he…well, he doesn't say. My call for the blue team to cut the red team some slack over opposition to the teaching of evol... [Read More]

» Darwin, Evolution, Morality, and the Schools from Thoughts from Kansas
Just like infanticide, polygyny, and a host of other behaviors which might carry some evolutionary benefits, my morality tells me that rape is evil. I don't need a burning bush or a body on a cross to teach me that. I don't know whether a historic... [Read More]

» Morality, Divinity, and Humanity from Philosophy, et cetera
The "larger argument", Kleiman suggests, is instead about morality, and whether evolution undermines it. I'm not sure why he thinks that this makes creationists any less ignorant. Well-meaning, perhaps, but rational and well-informed? I think not. [Read More]

» Evolution and Morality from Philosophy of Biology
Mark Kleiman debates P.Z. Meyers of Pharyngula over the ethical implications of evolution. Kleiman preaches more tolerance for biblical literalism on the grounds that it provides a [Read More]

» Ideology, evolution and the culture-wars from Gene Expression
Mark Kleiman says: Most of my friends...the blue team...are genuinely puzzled by the anti-evolution fury evident among elements of the red team.... To which I say, I am genuinely puzzled by the anti-genetic fury often in evidence among elements of... [Read More]

» Ideology, evolution and the culture-wars from Gene Expression
Mark Kleiman says: Most of my friends...the blue team...are genuinely puzzled by the anti-evolution fury evident among elements of the red team.... To which I say, I am genuinely puzzled by the anti-genetic fury often in evidence among elements of... [Read More]

Comments

So how are your knees these days, Flint?

If anything's worth running to when you're over 30, you're better off sashaying to. I knows you agree wit me.

"The members of the red team who cling to the literal story of Genesis are embracing a terrible theory for indefensible reasons."

Agreed. However, the phrase "red team" is a scary one for progressive politics in America. The Democrats at one point represented the poorest people in the land. A disproportionate number of those people are in the South, and a fair percentage of them are fundamentalist Christian. I've trouble imagining the day when the Democrats again represent the poorest people in the country, that is, the Christian fundamentalists. William Jennings Bryan was a long time ago.

Yeah, and when LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, I believe he is to have remarked that he knew he was giving the South to the Republicans forever.

1) Why not run your life bounded by what you can get away with? Teach your child to be a stronger warrior, and let the strongest culture evolve. Sans deity, the ultimate social ethic is an early Roman one. Sans deity, there is absolutely no moral crime with the United States becoming an Empire and given the inferior state of the world, it might almost be a moral imperative.

2) Democrats lost the poor when they embraced free trade. All this talk about Democrats loving American workers went out the window when they started buying Japanese cars in droves. As soon as Democrats quit promising people anything of real substance economically, they made elections based on religion almost a given.

It's not the Republicans fault that Democrats are stupid.

The idea that poor people tend to vote Republican is a myth. If you divide the electorate by income quintile, you'll find that Kerry did best among the bottom 20%. The more money a person made, the less likely he or she was to vote for Kerry.

In "What's The Matter With Kansas?" Thomas Frank explored the way Republicans drive the national conversation away from economics, and how this has enabled the party to get more votes from poor, working class, and middle-income voters. He points out, though, that it's the middle-income voters who tend to find the anti-economic argument persuasive, and nonwhite voters aren't buying it at all.

The fact that so many people think that the Democratic Party signed on to the free traders' agenda tells us something about how damaging the DLC has been to the party. I know of no major vote in which the free trade position was favored by a majority of congressional Democrats. Most Democrats, including most of the leadership, stood by their natural constituencies, but the DLC media machine ensured that people were more likely to see Lieberman and Gore debating the issue, instead of Gephart and Kennedy.

As for Stork's point about religion, it amounts to a straw man argument. I don't believe in God, but I don't believe in imperialism either. Somehow, I've managed to avoid embracing the ethics of the early Romans (who tended to be theists), even without the help of a deity. The most aggressive empires have all rooted their ambitions in a deity-sanctioned fulfillment of manifest destiny, proving the adage, "With God, all things are permissible."

Free trade: the Owellian oxymoron for morons.

PZ Myers…

“As for this--"The number one, super-duper, extra-cool adaptation that genus homo has developed was beer! "--sorry, guy. I just wrote about alcohol evolution. Yeast did it for entirely selfish reasons, and if anything, they've domesticated us as a means of propagating even more yeast.”

No problemo… it wasn’t my thesis! I did enjoy your link though and your last statement was interesting…

“Yeast did it for entirely selfish reasons, and if anything, they've domesticated us as a means of propagating even more yeast.”

Now I know some guys, devote beer drinkers all, who if they read that would probably develop it into a new variation on “Intelligent Design.” Something along the lines of…

“The Holy Yeast developed us to be fruitful so that it could multiply and in return for our labors gave us… Beer! Its time for the sacrament… got another cold one?”


Linnaeus...

"If man really is created in God's image, surely our rational faculties are among our most Godlike attributes. Surely it's a form of self-abuse, and therefore a form of God-abuse to subordinate our intellect to dogma."

Funny that you should mention that because it is consistenet with the Catholic Catechism of Free will. Which roughly stated is that we were given the power of reason to discern right from wrong and given the choice to choose "right" so that we can move closer to God and in so doing "perfect ourselve." From their point of view this is one of the primary reasons for our existence in this life.

All of which I thought was interesting from the stand point of the abortion debate because by deny people choice in this matter, are they denying people the moment of decision, where they can choose to do the right thing?

Mudkitty...

"If anything's worth running to when you're over 30, you're better off sashaying to. I knows you agree wit me."

Yup! its a matter of style isn't it?

Creationism is the first serious effort of the religious to replace the highly successful secular stance toward the world with an all-encompassing explanatory theory of everything.

Secular thought has been so successful that the role of the priest and the religious have been marginalized. Religion's ever-decreasing role in explaining physical things means that it is not needed by ever-increasing numbers of people.

The new religion is a power play by the people who will be displaced if it disappears. They cannot compete with secular thought in explaining the world, so they construct PR versions of thinking to replace the hard-earned facticity of secular thought.

The consequence of teaching people to ignore reality in favor of some weirdness concocted by manipulating PR firms and other fakes is going to be a real disaster for human beings.

"Creationism is the first serious effort of the religious to replace the highly successful secular stance toward the world"

I think you give them too much credit and I don't think it is a "serious" as you make it out to be. I don't know of any serious academic institutions who have adopted it or supported it.

I think that it is just a symptomic of a cultural regression which will be short lived and soon forgotten.

Man, Kleiman's really a dick to PZ in his response. And he says a whole ton of indefensible stuff, some of which I've at least tried to look at, but my very, very amateurish philisophical powers are probably insufficient.

Why doesn't he have comments? I thought only Righties kept their blogs in their own bubbles.

Darwinism tells me that racism is crazy.


It does? How on earth does it do that?

One might plausibly say, "Empirical investigation tells me that racism is crazy, because our genes IN FACT are pretty similar across all so-called races." But that has nothing to do with Darwinism.

Indeed, it would be perfectly consistent with -- and even predicted by -- Darwinism if it turned out that some groups of humanity did, in fact, have a genetic advantage over other groups. Hell, that's supposed to be how we all got from bacteria to humanity in the first place -- a nearly infinite number of steps in which some subset of a species mutated in a particular direction, and turned out to be genetically different from the rest of the species.

Darwinism is nothing but racism writ large, over the entire history of life on this planet.

Functional, you appear to be conflating Darwin's major achievements into one finding, and in doing so misrepresenting his point. Darwin both 1) established the fact of evolution, and 2) also proposed a mechanism by which species evolve: natural selection. Darwin achieved his first insight, the fact of evolution, by questioning the prevalent views of his day. Those views separated man from savage and man from other animals, and aligned man with God. Darwin realized that that separation was inconsistent with his observations of specimens he studied, as well as observations of living "savages" he came across. So, the original essence of evolution, and Darwinism, was the corrected viewpoint that all living things are, in fact, related. An act of racism goes directly against this perspective.

Regarding your claim that "Darwinism is nothing but racism writ large": Your statement might make more sense if you'd said "Natural selection is nothing but racism writ large." But Darwin's insights were much bigger than only natural selection. Instead, the fact of evolution, and the fact of the relatedness of all living beings, reveals very clearly the cruelty inherent in the mechanism of natural selection (which is a system that rewards short-sighted acts for selfish gain.) For example, it might help an organism to survive and reproduce to act in a racist way, but that act of racism is in ignorance the fact of the overall system we all find ourselves in- a system where all living beings are related, and are much more similar than we had realized.

PS. How does this relate to God? Well, it cuts so deeply at most conceptions of God to nearly render those concepts unrecognizable. Natural selection is far from "good", so how can God be?

If we speak of Darwinism, it makes sense to refer to what Darwin achieved as a scientist. Functional, you appear to be conflating Darwin's major achievements into one finding, and in doing so misrepresenting his point. Darwin both 1) established the fact of evolution, and 2) also proposed a mechanism by which species evolve: natural selection. Darwin arrived at his first insight, the fact of evolution, by questioning the prevalent views of his day. Those views separated man from savage and man from other animals, and aligned man with God. Darwin realized that that separation was inconsistent with his observations of specimens he collected, as well as observations of living "savages" he came across. So, the original essence of evolution, and Darwinism, was the corrected viewpoint that all living things are, in fact, related. An act of racism goes directly against this perspective.

Regarding your claim that "Darwinism is nothing but racism writ large": Your statement might make more sense if you'd said "Natural selection is nothing but racism writ large." But Darwin's insights were much bigger than only natural selection. Instead, the fact of evolution, and the fact of the relatedness of all living beings, reveals very clearly the cruelty inherent in the mechanism of natural selection (which is a system that rewards short-sighted acts for selfish gain.) For example, it might help an organism to survive and reproduce to act in a racist way, but that act of racism is in ignorance the fact of the overall system the organism exists within- a system where all living beings are related, and are much more similar than had been realized.

Nice try, Lizzie, but that won't work. The bottom line that one gets from Darwinism (or natural selection, the mechanism discovered by Darwinism) is that the WHOLE FREAKIN' HISTORY of life on earth is this: A trillion times over, one species evolves into another because some members somehow acquire a genetic advantage and then are able to outlast or overpower the others. So if you apply that mechanism to humanity, that SIMPLY IS racism. Very inconvenient, I know, but it is indisputably true. There's a good reason that all the early Darwinists were avowed racists who wrote of the white man's superiority to other races. It was perfectly obvious (to them) that white Europeans had a more advanced civilization than Africans, and the perfectly obvious deduction is that whites were simply more evolved than blacks. WE NOW KNOW, of course, from modern genetics that this isn't true. But that is NOT BECAUSE Darwinism or natural selection warned us against believing in racism. Quite the opposite. We disbelieve in racism in SPITE of Darwinism, not because of it.

Mmmm, you didn't respond to what I said, so you're not convincing me...my main point is that one sort of awareness supercedes the other, and you're still combining them: eg."(The bottom line that one gets from Darwinism (or natural selection, the mechanism discovered by Darwinism) " You're still limiting "Darwinism" to be one thing- natural selection. Which it's not. Natural selection is wicked and evil, but evolution itself isn't. The distinction between natural selection (evil) and evolution (fine) is extremely important!

Also, again, those white supremicists you mention were claiming the exact opposite of what led Darwin to his insights: his observations were that "savages" were NOT being a different species than humans, NOT lower than "humans". You are claiming that the white supremicists were more Darwinian than Darwin himself. They knew his own theory better than he did? I think not.

I do think we could agree if you'd use the term natural selection in place of the too broad "Darwinism".

The comments to this entry are closed.