Archive for March, 2013

Being an Atheist XIV: Divine Command

March 23, 2013 Leave a comment

I’ll restate it again, and again (probably) the number two thing that people ask me about being an atheist is where I derive morality from. The number one being, of course, what do you think happens after death? The two questions are related in that, for them, number two directly influences number one. The theist belief is that if they follow the wrong morality (for instance worshipping the wrong god, or the right god the wrong way, e.g. getting a tattoo, eating pigs, cows, or shellfish you know, important stuff) they get sadistically punished after death. The punishment, while always the cool part of monotheism—perhaps because they have the most detail, is sadistic and for no other reason than to satisfy the divine being’s lust for vengeance. So I often tell them that I have no idea what happens after death, and that I can get my morality from a number of sources, but one thing I will not do is get it from command.

Of course, that seems odd or even contradictory. If morality forbids something than that is kind of a command, what I mean is that I won’t take it based purely on command. I need an argument that is based on something other than “so and so said not to in this book” or “so and so said this from his throne and he speaks for god.” (or the equivalent in any of the religions). Divine command is a misnomer because no one has actually heard the divine say it. It’s really mortal-command-using-the-divine-for-authority but nevertheless there are many quick and effective arguments that reduce divine command to nothing more than someone’s excuse for ordering people to do things.

The first is the Bertrand Russell argument. Russell was a philosopher, logician, and mathematician; as well as at least an agnostic. He wrote a famous treatise titled, “Why I am not A Christian,” in which he lays out the argument against divine based morality. In short, it runs like this. If god orders you to do something, is he ordering it because it is moral or is it moral because god is ordering it? More concisely, is god moral because he follows the principles of morality or are the principles of morality simply based on whatever god wants. Either answer is no good for god. If god is good because he follows the principles of morality than that means that there exists a law that is higher than god. So what happens if god breaks those rules? Does he get punished or does nothing happen? If nothing happens it’s kind of hypocritical for us to get punished for behaving immorally, if he gets punished we have the further question of who is doing the punishing.

The other answer is equally bad, if every action that god does is good simply by virtue of it being god’s action, then the statement “god is good” is a meaningless statement. It simply is stating the same thing twice, e.g. that shirt is red based on it being the color red. That’s the metaphysical issue, the other issue is more practical and shows the arbitrary nature of this category of goodness. This type of answer leads to some interesting things that are now good, such as ordering someone to murder their son (Abraham and Isaac), killing a whole bunch of innocent people (the final plague inflicted on the Egyptians), allowing the devil to torture a person just to win a bet (the story of Job), etc. We’re just taking these from the Christian Bible because that’s what I am most familiar with. Sure there may be some intellectual hoops to jump through so that one can justify god’s morality here. For instance one could say that god was never going to allow Isaac to get killed, to which I would reply it’s immoral to even ask. Or that the Egyptians had imprisoned and enslaved the Israelites, but that doesn’t mean that Horus the Chariot Repairman has to lose his first born son especially when you consider that all of the Egyptians, except one—the pharaoh, had nothing to do with that decision. These are all good actions according to this answer for how the divine is moral. I chose those stories because they are important stories, and central to three religions. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is celebrated as a testament to Abraham’s devotion while everyone ignores that it’s immoral for god to ask him to do it in the first place.

The final problem with this theory of morality is that it isn’t really moral for a person to behave in such a way out of fear of punishment or the promise of reward. We don’t say that a person who works just hard enough to not get fired is a good worker. They are doing what they are doing not for the intrinsic value but because they have to obey. That makes them competent, just as we should say that those who are behaving out of fear of the law are not good citizens but merely law-abiding ones. Acting out of fear of hell or the promise of heaven is the same morality that you use to train a dog. Surely the reason that we have can propel us beyond such a base stimulus response that is only fit for children. If god ordered you to do something would you do it without question or would you question whether or not it was the right thing to do? What if god ordered you to do what he ordered Abraham to do, we discuss the situation as if Abraham was the pinnacle of morality, but he wasn’t. He was just a tool who did what he was told. Sure he might have the perfect faith but lacks the same moral compass as that which ordered him to do it in the first place.

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The Road to Atheism XX: Questioning Hierarchy and Infallibility

March 5, 2013 Leave a comment

One of the greatest features of the American Constitution is that it admits a certain fallibility to it. That is to say the framers of the document understood that despite their genius, or perhaps because of it, they could be wrong. Further, that if everyone in the country (or a majority) agreed that they missed something or were mistaken about something it could be added to or subtracted from. It’s an important feature that is necessarily the case if the document is to be based on reason and not superstition. For instance the original did not forbid slavery or give women the right to vote. I don’t think that this fallibility is stressed enough when the importance of the document is taught. Perhaps they knew that they were only living in the 18th century and setting a document in stone for the entirety of human existence is not a reasonable idea. Or perhaps they knew, being educated that a person cannot be considered impervious to error.

The problem is that as a young person, in a Catholic school, there was often a conflict between the ideas of freedom and equality that we learned in history class and the medieval style hierarchy that we learned in religion class. Make no mistake, for all intent and purpose, the Pope is a king. His Cardinals are princes, the bishops are dukes, the priests are earls (or whatever the correct hierarchical analogy would be). When the order comes down from the top, questioning it isn’t something you are supposed to do. If you do question it, you are reminded of where it came from, and if you disobey it you are committing a sin. One of the things that is truly universal about the universal church is that the rules are the same everywhere. It’s a global hierarchy and the rules which are in place for Catholics in America are the same rules for the Catholics in Ethiopia. It is, without qualification, an Ecclesiastical State. The Pope is elected for life and their pronouncements aren’t merely opinion but they are law.

As a kid there wasn’t much I could say. Everyone’s word was law when I was a child. Teachers, Parents, Priests, Nuns, various other relatives, etc.; if they were older they were in charge. As I got older I realized, like most people should, that authority isn’t gained by virtue of birth it has to come from somewhere. We also learn that authority isn’t absolute, if a person has authority that authority is derived from something or somewhere. Your boss has authority because they own the company, or are appointed by someone who does. We also know that those in charge can be wrong. It’s just part of the human condition. That recognition is important, it helps us realize that we not only can make mistakes but that we often do. This is why laws can be changed, why rules can be adjusted, and that sometimes things just don’t make any sense.

There is, however, a curious aspect of the noble hierarchy of the Catholic Church with regard to fallibility. It stems from the pedestal that those of the cloth are put on by those that are just like them. They are regarded as being more special than the rest of us. It stems from certain powers that they possess, e.g. the ability to perform sacraments or grant religious favors. The average Catholic Priest is pretty educated, I will do nothing to denigrate that, but that is it. In the end, they are just men and they possess all of the same powers and abilities that anyone else does. I’m not going to delve into the sex abuse cover-up scandal (we have to remember that the sex abuse was a horrible thing, but the scandal was in the systematic cover-up that allowed it to continue) right now, but one of the reasons that it happened was that people were afraid to speak out against a priest, or the church for fear of offending the holy organization and its perceived status. The status is merely that, perceived. It is a fiction derived from a book written by men.

The higher up you go the more “eminent” they get. This is mostly due to their power of appointing those beneath them and the permanence of those positions. We may regard the president as being important but we also know that once every four years we can get a new one, and after eight we must get a new one. Other than this, from whence is the authority derived? The general’s comes from the president’s and ultimately us, as those who elect the president. Despite, evidence to the contrary lately, those who govern are supposed to reflect the will of the people, that is to say, the will of the governed. Any governing body that exists for its own sake is, according to both Aristotle and Machiavelli, a tyranny. Is the hierarchy of the Catholic Church a tyranny? Based on that definition, it is difficult to say. It reflects the will of Catholics, in most cases, but that may be because it also prescribes that will. Most American Catholics do not want to adhere to the strict birth control regulations that the Church prescribes but they are supposed to, and most Americans contradictorily support the Catholic church in some reproductive rights but not in others. So does it reflect the will of those it governs or not? Hard to say.

The history classes I received in grade school always explained that monarchies existed through the concept of inherited entitlement. You are king because your father was king, etc. They self-justified their own existence through the notion of divine right when the memory of conquest had expired. The king was appointed by god, the nobles were sanctified under the king. Then we were taught that a group of brilliant American Colonists threw that notion in the garbage claiming that the governed ought to have a role in the governing thus precipitating the American revolution and the Declaration of Independence. We were then shuffled from history into religion class where we were taught that the exact same concept of divine right that was wrong in history was right in religion. Apparently there was a difference in inherited power through an office bequeathed by a character in a book citing divine will. This was, somehow completely different from the case of George, Louis, or Czar Nicholas…but in what way exactly?

With the church it is the pedestal of royalty that compels the false perception that these people are more holy than the rest of us. It flies in the face of reason and common decency to claim that one person has a greater property of sanctity or holiness because of their position rather than their accomplishments. They are granted the power to forgive on behalf of someone else not due to a necessarily closer connection to that other person, but because some third person granted them the ability. I don’t know if it’s my American upbringing but I fail to see what is so “eminent” about a Cardinal. This was all explained to me as matters of fact that I needed to accept, and that, again, these weren’t the types of questions that good Catholics asked.

This forced me to the realization that I was an American first and a Catholic second. I mean that literally, I was born here thus I was an American while someone had to do something to me to make me a Catholic. No religion really has this kind of automatic induction, it usually is assumed to be the case but if that were really true then why do we have the rights of inclusion such as Baptism? I assume that the general theme of these “road to atheism” blogs is that my religious education failed me. That may be the case but being taught the contradictory lesson that one ought to question authority was a good thing with respect to history but not in religion probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. It’s probably one of the first times I realized that sometimes those with authority are not always correct. One could question civil/secular authority, but religious authority was not to be seriously debated about. To do so would be to endanger your soul.

The real final straw was when, in high school I believe, I was taught the doctrine of infallibility. I know of no other organization that even pretends that this property exists. The tyrannical dictators of this century may have been absolutely right in their pronouncements but that only lasted until their death, and certainly they weren’t correct in matters of historical fact if they contradicted what the dictator desired. Perhaps the Emperor of Rome or China possessed this property but I know of no historical evidence for those assertions.

There are misconceptions regarding the doctrine of infallibility, for one it does not extend to all pronouncements of the church or its leader. A special invocation must be made for something to be considered infallible. If the Pope makes a pronouncement regarding when life begins or makes one of those rare apologies, those do not carry the weight of infallibility. What is true is that when such a pronouncement is made ex cathedra you may as well consider it as coming from god’s mouth. Not only is the judgment or pronouncement correct when it is made but it is correct forever. The pronouncement, and this is the most important and objectionable part, is incapable of being wrong.

I objected to this then, receiving the punishment of being excused from religion class as it didn’t seem to gel with other doctrines concerning god’s infallibility and how that was a property that was unique to him. How could a person or office be as infallible as god…that seemed heretical in itself, which is, I’m sure one of the issues that Luther took up with the Papacy back in the day. To claim that a person can make an pronouncement that is, and forever will be, without error is an absurdity. It’s even more absurd to realize that this power that can also change history, the will of god (allegedly), and doctrine is relinquished upon leaving an office or surrendering a ring. Until now, this hadn’t been a problem for six centuries but the question is raised. From it, the question of where that power lies also begins: does it lie in the person or the chair?

If it’s the chair, this means that such morally upstanding individuals such as Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) possessed at one time the ability to make infallible doctrines. If this power is granted in virtue of the person than merely surrendering the office is not enough to remove the ability from any individual. This power, for that is what we must label it has the power to adjust space-time. The last time it was invoked was the proclaim the Marian Assumption—the story, er fact, that Mary,* mother of Jesus did not die. Rather, she was assumed into heaven by the hand of god. To deny this, is to deny Catholicism. The idea that someone did not die, something that occurred to even Jesus is to defy common sense. If heaven isn’t a place in the cosmos but on some other plane, that means that one day, in full view of the people around her she just up and vanished. On the other hand, if heaven is a place out there in space, it means that she was lifted up into the clouds and flew away. Along with a whole bunch of cherubim, and no one there thought to write this down. We atheists, well the good ones anyway, always maintain that if there was evidence (good solid evidence) of the divine we would start believing and a couple of non-contradictory stories concerning a woman who flew into space would certainly be good start. Heaven being a place in the universe also means that are souls are material and that there is a possibility that we can one day find it with a telescope. If she is still flying out there, I feel bad for her because my commute is an hour and it sucks.

Nevertheless, this pronouncement is interpreted as being literally true, not merely for a Catholics but for everyone. Religion makes claims of all people regardless of their membership in the religion or whether or not they actually believe in it. No other organization in human history is able to make such a claim on other people. It would be like the US passing a law and then wondering why people in Canada don’t follow it. Then further claiming that there is something wrong with the Canadians for not following it and that after they die they will be punished for not following it.

I had difficulty accepting it then and still do now. The claim that a person is moral or infallible by virtue of office on all matters is something that no human can make. While we may defer our own moral judgments to that of another person, that deference is a choice and cannot be imposed. IF I want to believe that the Cardinal has the moral superiority over myself then that is my choice, but for him and others to tell me that he has the moral authority is despotic. I simply deny that any of the hierarchy has more moral authority than myself and it goes away just like that. It’s power lies not in its being granted from top down but from bottom up. If we all decide to one day stop buying into it, it simply goes away and becomes a chapter in our history. To claim that one is infallible is equally ridiculous. Now, one might be one hundred percent right for the present, but the future cannot be predicted. Newton couldn’t claim himself infallible on gravity, Einstein either; and these people were talking about measurable physical forces. Which is probably why the Pope in the 1950s could get away with it on a supernatural event: it can’t be measured, verified, or falsified so it might as well be infallible as long as there is no possible way to refute it.


*The only reason this idea even comes up for question is because there is no record of Mary dying. This of course led to the obvious conclusion that she didn’t die, as opposed to the less obvious and more far fetched theory that she did die but a random person dying wasn’t regarded with any special significance.

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