Saturday, February 12, 2011

Darwin Day!

I almost forgot; today is Darwin Day!

Happy Darwin Day. Here's to a true and long-lasting appreciation of the giants on whose shoulders we stand :)

Lack of Objectivity = Lack of Morality?

This comes as a sort of footnote to my previous posting, but I wanted to keep them separate for easy reading.

There is a popular assertion amongst theistic "moral objectivists," basically that "atheists have no basis for morality." This is what I want to discuss.

In my previous post I mentioned Hitler. I mentioned the Christian argument that atheism, being a lack of faith (or evolution, being erroneously represented as a "tenet" of atheism), somehow inherently leads to immorality of the kind that allows genocide and racism. This is what most Christian moral objectivists will have you believe:

1) that Christian morality, being "objective," gives us a final judgmental standard that is above human influence (and thus cannot be changed by humans with an agenda), and so if we all play by the objective rules, then anytime someone does something wrong or tries to take power over others and deny them their objective rights, we can safely condemn them based on these rules;

2) that, because atheism does not have this "outside standard," it is thus subject to intersubjective human standards, which can be changed and manipulated to suit an agenda (and further, paradoxically, that this intersubjective standard somehow "becomes" the objective standard of morality). Therefore, based on this worldview, those who seek to "rise above" others by asserting their own beliefs violently will inherently take power, because those who are not violent are obligated to "respect the opinions" of those taking power, because they have no objective basis on which to oppose them.

To keep it simple....the fallacy of this argument is that it assumes the same dogmatic approach to subjectivity as the Christian approach assumes to objectivity.

Hitler's Nazi germany is often touted as an example of this: "if morality is subjective, then Hitler was right to abide by his own subjective opinion, and so if you don't believe in god as an objective moral standard, then you have no way of condemning him aside from your own personal opinion."

What proponents of "objective morality" (OM) fail to acknowledge is that the above statement is twofold:

1) that is an objective statement --- that "Hitler was right" to act on his beliefs. Subjectivity does not translate between individuals; in a world with no objective morality, nobody is "right or wrong" in an objective sense; there is only what people believe. And it's all equal; nobody "has more of a right" than anyone else, so if someone tries to act as if they have more rights than others, then it is only natural for others to take action and "restore the balance" by removing the offender who seeks to elevate himself above others. This is a realist statement as well, but the idea of subjective morality does not contradict a realist worldview; it simply asserts the nature of morality as realistically subjective, like perhaps the preference of a certain flavor of ice cream over another (although the importance of morality is generally venerated much more highly than the importance of ice cream preference; this is a testament to the prevalence of moral judgment as a realistic part of our daily lives. Ice cream preferences, by comparison, do not have that much of an impact on our societies and so come into play much less frequently and powerfully, and so naturally, you won't find too many people who value both judgments in the same).

2) that in a world driven by subjectivity, while it is true that there is no objective basis for condemnation, there is also no objective basis for action; Hitler "breaks the rules" when he rises to power and begins killing others based on a "higher standard" (the idea that Jews are an "inferior race"). In a subjective world, Hitler has no objective basis on which to make that statement, and thus no objective basis on which to act in the first place. Thus a response to his action is justified on that ground, the realistic ground that "we all have the same (zero) objective rights."

3) therefore, in a subjective world, there must be some standard other than "objectivity" which is used to make moral judgments.

In a way, it all "cancels out" --- since there is no "final objective law," nobody has any special rights that place them 'above' anyone else; we are all "equal" in that we have the same rights (or lack thereof). So when someone says, "In a subjective world, Hitler was right to act on his beliefs," what they're saying is, Hitler was right according to Hitler. According to you, he might be wrong. Hence, it "cancels out" in that you have just as much of a justification to respond as he does to act. If you have no objective basis on which to respond, then he has no objective basis on which to act. Yet, you both have your own subjective judgments, which you are acting on by carrying out this conflict.

In closing....I think the fundamental issue that OM and SM proponents have to work out is not that "there is no basis for morality in a secular, morally subjective worldview," but rather that there is a different basis. Just as it's easy for you to play the reductionalist and say, "If there's no objective morality, I can do whatever I want and you can't stop me," I can easily play the reductionalist right back at you and say, "If there's objective morality, I can do whatever I want and you can't stop me." That is ultimately a game of semantics; in order for any of our judgments about morality to have any value beyond said semantics, they have to accurately reflect the world around us as we experience it, and they have to accurately describe (and predict) moral actions and judgments. They can be "objective" in that sense, in that they have to be based on something, but they cannot be objective in the sense that they come from outside of our perceptions of the world. Because morality is prescriptive, it is, by definition, a statement of subjective judgment about the world --- as I have heard it said, "morality is your answer to the question, 'what should we do?'" It is subjective by nature.

As for the fear of crazy Hitler-esque worldviews becoming dominant for lack of an objective standard condemning them? A healthy dose of skepticism prevents views like that from ever rising to power; for as I explained in my previous post, such hierarchies are only possible because large amounts of people buy into them unskeptically. If every Christian/atheist/etc. in Nazi Germany had skeptically approached Hitler's doctrine of anti-Semitism, then things might have been very different, indeed. If I may be bold for a moment....I suspect this is why Christians in particular are so afraid of Hitler, and thus bring him up so often. They realize that the very system of taking "leaps of faith" and trusting in beliefs and doctrines with little or no real evidence, they fear that, if others are lead away from Christianity, the blind faith that they have been conditioned into by Christianity will lead them to want to blindly have faith in other things besides Christianity; they fear that people will choose to have blind faith (which is what Christians want), but in the "wrong" thing (which is what they fear). Ironically, it is their strongest weapon that is also their greatest weakness, and their greatest fear. Perhaps this is why they stress such a powerful, central focus on one ultimate god --- if your blind faith slips away ever so slightly from that god, it may accidentally stick to something else and become as inseparable from that as it formerly was from god. The answer to this dilemma, in my opinion? Stop stressing blind faith! There is no such risk from healthy skepticism, and skepticism applies even to itself. Always demand answers to the questions that hound you. And if there are none, don't be afraid to admit that. That is my prescription.

But I digress....ultimately, without his legions of followers unskeptically absorbing his every word, Hitler would have been no different than a demented preacher screaming on a street corner. So the important thing for me to stress is that atheism and skepticism are not necessarily the same thing. I don't think people should get a big head just because they've managed to apply skepticism to one area --- I know many atheists *coughBillMahercough* who are also conspiracy theorists and the sort, who seem to think that being an atheist automatically makes you smarter than everyone else. This is hypocrisy; what makes you more adept in the real world is to be skeptical of beliefs held without evidence, not one belief that you may hold that happens to be reasonable.

Just remember --- nobody has ever built a tyrannical regime with millions of followers based on "too much skepticism."

Hitler: Christian, Atheist, or Irrelevant?

Today I want to briefly address this accusation, which seems to pop up quite often in any kind of debate about morality and religion, that "Hitler was an atheist," as well as the subsequent response that "actually, Hitler was a Catholic." This is often labelled in internet debates as a reference to Godwin's Law:

Godwin's law (also known as Godwin's Rule of Nazi Analogies or Godwin's Law of Nazi Analogies) is a humorous observation made by Mike Godwin in 1989 which has become an Internet adage. It states: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1." In other words, Godwin put forth the hyperbolic observation that, given enough time, in any online discussion—regardless of topic or scope— someone inevitably criticizes some point made in the discussion by comparing it to beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.

Most primary sources make it pretty obvious that Hitler was a Catholic. He references "Divine Providence" and "Our Lord Jesus Christ" and Jesus' "struggle" against the "Jewish poison" all throughout his many publicly documented speeches. This is what people will tend to refer to when they say that Hitler was obviously a Catholic.

But there are also Christians out there who insist that Hitler was "secretly" an atheist. The primary source for this conspiracy theory is "Hitler's Table Talk," a series of statements consisting of comments Hitler supposedly made "off-the-record," that were recorded and published at a later date by what are said to be first-hand accounts --- comments that supposedly revealed his "anti-Christian" or at least "anti-religious" motivations.

Now for reasons of brevity, I won't go into the actual truth or falsehood of either of these claims. What I want to discuss here is the reasoning behind these claims --- the points they were invoked to defend against, and their effectiveness toward that end.

Hitler is almost unanimously mentioned as an "atheist" in circles where fundamentalist Christians want to equivocate between "science" or "evolution" or "atheism" and genocide. Ben Stein has famously compared evolution to the Nazis, saying that "science leads you to killing people." Hitler is almost always trogged out to support this accusation --- the implied sentiment is, "Hitler is what happens when you accept evolution."

So when, say, an atheist brings up Hitler's public mention of Christianity, God, Jesus, Divine Providence, and the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, or the fact that the buckle of each Nazi uniform read Gott Mit Uns (God With Us) and asks the theist, "what is the explanation for that if Hitler was an atheist?" The response will be, "Hitler was secretly an atheist, but he used Christianity in order to deceive the public so he could carry out his master 'Darwinist' plan."

This is where I want to come in and say: even if we assume that this accusation is 100% true --- that "Hitler was a secret atheist using Christianity as a front for his conspiracy to 'commit Darwinism'" is a 100% accurate reflection of reality --- it remains true that Hitler would not have been able to do even that if there did not exist a ready and willing followership of Christians ready to accept this "front."

Seriously, stop and think about that for just a few seconds: simply by accepting the idea that Hitler could successfully use Christianity as a front implies that there are a large number of Christians who would agree with such a front. The very idea that "using Christianity as a front" for the Holocaust would have any degree of success whatsoever can only be true if a large amount of Christians are willing to support it. What would have been the use of Hitler "pretending to be Christian" if Christians everywhere had unanimously spoken against the Holocaust and the Jewish genocide? The very idea that such people could be exploited hints at the notion that the ideas commonly attributed to Hitler himself (such as genocidal anti-Semitism) found ground for common acceptance within the Christian populace.

If the Nazis had all been atheists, or even just openly anti-Christian, then there would have been no need for Hitler to "feign Christianity" in order to "exploit" the atheist populace. He would just say, "Hey, we're all atheists, let's take over the world and commit genocide!" There would be no need for such a "front" as Christianity. The idea that such a front would even be necessary insists that Christianity was, in fact, the dominating mindset within Nazi Germany.

Before I make my closing point, I want to say that in casual conversation (or in internet debate), I make it a point not to bring Adolph Hitler and the Nazis up as a counterpoint to anything not already pertaining to Nazism, as to me it reeks of reductio ad absurdum. I personally do not believe that "Christianity made Hitler do it," or that "evolution/atheism made Hitler do it." I have another reason entirely why I believe the Nazi efforts were successful to the extent that they are, even if Hitler's ideology was ultimately idiosyncratic (which it clearly was not). So do not read this as an accusation of either party in that respect.

I believe that regimes like the Nazis (or the current regime in North Korea) are possible not because of "evolution," or even because of "Christianity," specifically. It is my understanding that such regimes come to power because of the effect that irrational faith has on people. Keeping in mind that there are two kinds of faith --- faith established through testing experience, such as the faith you have in a friend or certain family member; and blind faith, the kind we talk about when we say "leap of faith," the kind of faith that people assert to believe in God or in ideas that have not been demonstrated or tested --- I am talking about the latter of the two, blind faith.

For if you take the position that is implied by the Christian defense against Hitler --- that the German masses were really good-hearted, but ultimately unwitting, victims to Hitler's propaganda machine, and were simply being used by Hitler under the guise of "Christianity" --- then it follows that *something* made them believe in Hitler and his cause, in spite of its asserted "deviance" from accepted Christian norms. Today's Christians assert that there is simply NO WAY WHATSOEVER to justify anti-Semitic genocide using the Bible or Christian beliefs, so it cannot be a reason derived from the beliefs themselves (otherwise the entire point of this defense would be useless; even if Hitler WAS using Christians, it wouldn't matter because their beliefs would've overlapped with his anyway, rendering this justification self-defeating). So from a Christian perspective, it couldn't be a rational position; a critical angle would have lead them to oppose Hitler.

So accepting the offered Christian defense against Hitler, and removing the possibility for a skeptical approach to Hitler's ideas on behalf of the Christians serving under him, the only possibility that remains (and that can account for such widespread, zealous and unquestioning support in spite of supposedly "differing" religious ideas) is blind faith. Hero worship. Savior mentality. Hitler was the "saving grace" of the German state and economy; therefore his ideas were perfect and not to be questioned.

Sound familiar?

Let me say in closing that it is not my intent here to argue from scratch that "the Nazis were motivated by Christianity," or to say that "Christianity inherently leads to Nazism and genocide;" I'm not quite as shameless as some of my Christian contemporaries that I would make such a bold and crass blanket statement. However, if we follow the line of reasoning, used by Christians who invoke this argument against atheists, to its logical extreme, then we will see that indeed, the Nazi regime could not have happened without Christianity.

Once again, I'll say it: This is not my argument, this is my response to the arguments made by Christians that evolution or atheism necessarily leads to Hitlerian/Nazi ideology.