A selection of Facebook posts, taken out of context

My side of a Richard Dawkins-inspired debate that took place on Facebook… My blog, so you only get my side ;-)

In fact, there is a lot of thought/research/writing coming from anthropologists/evolutionary biologists/etc. regarding the evolutionary advantages of empathy and cooperation. Evolution is not all about competition. Sometimes, what is good for the group is what is best for the individual. The “survival of the fittest” notion most people have of evolution is becoming outdated. E.g., many animals can be observed to share impulses and behaviors that once were considered to define our human-ness: sacrifice, grieving, etc.

What is the underlying principle of a Christian’s moral code? I like the Golden Rule as a succinct expression of Christian ethics. But then I don’t actually feel that there needs to be a god to deliver or enforce the Golden Rule…

I agree with … that atheism is not a philosophy or a set of beliefs, it is just a word to represent a lack of a certain belief. Being an atheist does not dictate a moral system. Where I perhaps differ from … is that I am not sure that our built-in moral instincts are a product of higher reasoning. I tend to think we humans overestimate the value of our intelligence, and underappreciate our similarities to other animals. The more we open our eyes, the more we find that some animals behave like us, and vice versa. And I mean that in a value-neutral way. I could argue that bonobos behave better than humans. So… maybe our moral sense *is* simply product of evolution. And maybe there is nothing wrong with utilitarianism, if we understand that humans are social animals, which therefore expands the scope of the utility we seek to beyond our self. It is kind of odd to fuzz the distinction between selfishness and selflessness in this way, and perhaps a little disturbing to those of raised in a religious way of thinking (including me). But I also find comfort in the idea that kindness is in our genes…

Good debate. I’m not sure we are actually getting anywhere here, or that we are likely to change each others’ minds in a big way, but goo debate, nonetheless :-)

I have been a Christian, and a “non-Christian”. So I think I get how what … is saying above would appear to be “moral relativism”, which is a very nasty thing indeed to many a religious person.

To be very blunt, I would say: like it or not, the decisions about what is moral and what is not come down to *us*. *We* have to choose. We can choose to let someone else choose for us, but we are still choosing.

To be really, really blunt: I believe there is no legitimate communicator of absolute morality on Earth. Who would we trust to convey to us the absolute rules of morality? Why would we trust them? Even if there is a higher power, who is their mouthpiece on Earth, and do we really trust that they can convey such truth without imperfection?

There are moral ideals, and those can be sensed and communicated by people in any place and any time in history. We can strive for these ideals, but it is never simple, and there is no getting around the difficulty of sorting through complicated issues to reach a moral decision. Moral absolutists scare me: they too often ignore nuance, and too often are calloused regarding individual lives, and worse. To me, the more correct reaction to the bewildering life we find ourselves living is: humility.We can do no better than to talk to each other, to try our best to understand each other, to try VERY hard not to judge each other. Judgmentalism seems to come so easily to humans.

To me, the core of Christianity is *love*. The most important lesson of the Jesus story is *tolerance*. But what I see too often from religious people is a need for rules, a yearning for absolutism. I get that, I really do, in the face of the life we live. But you can yearn all you want, it won’t make your rules any more absolute, and the human need for absolutism leads too often to brutality.

So I choose love, respect, tolerance and humility. That is not a small amount of stuff to strive for. To some degree, none of these come naturally to human beings, at least not purely. So it is hard work. I recognize that religions tend to strive, or tell their members to strive, for these very same ideals. But I also think religions confuse the matter if they lead people to believe in moral absolutes – this leads people in the opposite direction, away from tolerance. I find it easier to work towards these ideals outside of a “religious” structure. That makes me what some people call a “humanist”. I don’t much care for such a label, but if I have to have one, I can live with that one.

I should let this thread drop… but I can’t resist a response to some of …’s questions in his last post.

“Who has the moral authority and jurisdiction…”. …, you ask fantastic questions in that paragraph. Who, indeed? Who on Earth deserves to be the final arbiter of such weighty decisions? The answer is: nobody. Can you imagine what a horror it would be if we actually did vest such power in some worldly body? Actually, you don’t need to apply much imagination, you just need to read some history…

Even if we all were to agree that there is an extra-Earthly being with the final answers to all moral questions… that does not help us one whit, because we then need to agree on which Earthly individual or body is officially “certified” to be the interpreter of this superhuman authority. We are back to square one: nobody on Earth deserves or can handle that kind of power.

The only solution to this mess is something like the mess we have: constant discourse among reasonably free people who have the right to challenge *all* authorities. We all have to *think*. We can never cede our right to think and decide to any government or religious body.

Via this messy discourse, we arrive at a (constantly shifting) consensus. The fact that it constantly shifts does not invalidate the consensus, it simply reflects our messy reaility in which there are no easy answers, and there is always room for improvement. There is always room for dissent and objections and calls for change. Good is not a final static state of being, it is a contant striving.

So… Who has the moral authority? Everybody. It is an ugly, unsatisfying answer. Or then again, maybe not. Maybe it is the most beautiful thing there is.

I have to say, I am a believer that we (human beings) are on a tortuous path, but one that is slowly and definitely leading towards a state of greater enlightenment, and more good for more people. It is very hard to see this trend, especially given the horrors of recent history. But I think one can see it if one zooms one’s optic out to encompass millenia. Perhaps the single trait that most defines the negative side of humans is intolerance. Or call it tribalism. The trait that I see growing over time is tolerance: the ability to accept and include people who are very different from you. It is hard to see this signal in all the noise of history – history can so easily appear to be a broken record, always looping, never changing – but I think I can see it.

It can be very hard to “keep the faith” that humans have the capacity to improve themselves, we are surrounded with so much evidence that humans don’t deserve this kind of faith. But when it comes down to it: we have no choice. We must have faith. We guide our own destiny. It is up to us to save ourselves.

Gods be with you :-)


~ by untidymusings on March 22, 2010.

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