Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The essay below was written a few weeks back as a response to an opinion article that I read in the city's weekly alternative newspaper. An edited version was published was published there. The full essay is below.

I was interested to read Joshua Welch’s article on morality and religion and I’d like to make some comments on it.
If a guide to living is written (or, as the theologians put it, verbally-inspired) by the person who designed every single thing in universe and knows the location and speed of every single subatomic particle in the universe, then yes, I’d say he knows a heck of a lot more about living rightly than we do and that it may well be valid to live by that guide. If that Person is the infinitely perfect Christian God, than it is totally correct to do so.
I agree with him religious bigotry has fueled a great deal of hatred and violence throughout history. But, frankly, until this last century, atheism just hasn’t had its chance. In the 20th century, Josef Stalin was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia killed 2 million Cambodians, one-quarter of the population. And let’s not forget Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, where at least two students, Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott, were murdered for believing in God. My point is not that atheism leads to more violence then religion, but that people are such that they can be directed to violence by any set of beliefs.
And an additional point is this: that atheism is also a religion. I quote from the Encarta ® World English Dictionary ©, one definition for a religion is, “Personal beliefs or values: a set of strongly-held beliefs, values, and attitudes that somebody lives by.” That sounds very much like Mr. Welch. His religion is a set of beliefs about reality and what is right.
He quotes a prominent atheist as saying that, “‘Our ethics must be firmly planted in the soil of scientific self-knowledge. They must be improvable and adaptable.’” According to the scientific method, nothing even as certain as the “fact” of the theory of relativity is ever completely, 100% certain. It can be proved correct in a hundred different tests, but if another theory proves explains the evidence even better, out it goes. And since ethics is supposed to be established in this, there is no firm footing for ethics.
But this defies logic. If ethics must be improved and adapted, what must they be improved and adapted from? Why, they have to be adapted and improved from a prior standard of ethics. And that standard was adapted and improved from a prior standard. And so on, and so forth back into the mists of time. If that were true, that would imply an infinite number of regressions into time or “improvements.” There has to be a time before which there were no other improvements.
Then, he makes an appeal to common sense. Whose common sense, his or mine? Not everyone shares the same common sense. He says morality should be about things like compassion and ending suffering. But why? Why are they good? What’s his standard of behavior? What if it’s different than mine? Why are certain behaviors wrong and others right?
Mr. Welch is correct in saying that our morality must be based on rationality, not emotionalism. But when morality is based on what one wants to do, rather than on an absolute standard established by the one who knows all and has created all, that seems rather seems foolish at best.