Why I am not exactly a Christian

by Harry on June 14, 2021

The last talk I gave before lockdown (sometime in March 2020) was for the annual Freethought conference held by the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics of Madison (No, I don’t think they know Alan Partridge). It’s much looser, and more fun, than my usual talks: they asked me because the President of AHA had heard from a small group of my students the way I think about these issues, and, to be honest, I think they bugged him to invite me to force me to write something down. Here it is:

This talk doesn’t really contain an argument, unlike most that I give. It’s more an autobiographical sketch on the topic of its title – which is a sort of tribute to Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, but has a twist to it. I’m not a Christian. Not exactly. I’ll explain why I’m not, but also why it’s a little misleading to say I am not.

I’ll start with two stories about students.

First. About 13 years ago an evangelical Christian student was in my office discussing career options with me (this is one of the many great parts of my job). At one point I asked if she’d considered becoming a pastor. She shot back “No, I couldn’t be a pastor”. After a pause she added: “You should become a pastor”. My reaction was immediate: “Um.… I lack one key qualification”. “Oh, that’s ok”, she retorted, “I’m sure lots of pastors don’t believe in God. And, anyway, if you were a pastor, perhaps you’d come to believe in God”. [1]

Second. A student who just graduated [Dec 2019] is getting married and invited me, and many of her classmates from a class that she took (though didn’t much enjoy) as a freshman. Her spouse-to-be, impressed presumably, that she was inviting a professor not in her major, asked her if Brighouse would be willing to do a reading. She told us all that she replied, “Oh no, I don’t think he’d do that because he is an atheist”.

I’m glad she told us this. Because I said “Oh, I’d be happy to do a reading. I’m not that kind of atheist” and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised that she didn’t already know that. [Sadly, COVID prevented me and her classmates from attending the wedding, but I am glad to say it did go ahead without us]

Maybe you can tell something about the kind of atheist I am through this story, from the 1980s shortly after I moved to the US, and was still quite bemused by the culture. I heard a news story about a lawsuit. Football players at a public high school had been praying in the end zone during a game. And someone was suing the school district to try and get it to prohibit them from doing so. My immediate reaction went something like this:

  1. I’m really surprised and kind of impressed that football players openly mock religion during their football games. That doesn’t happen where I come from.
  2. Of course, I think it is quite wrong of them to do so – mocking religion isn’t something we should encourage.

  3. Still, they’re just teenagers, and it seems a bit heavy-handed for the church to ask the courts to force the schools to prohibit such mockery. So I guess I am opposed to the prohibition, even though I can see what motivates it.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered what was really happening. It was self-styled civil-libertarians, not the church, that were trying to get the mockery prohibited. And the churches were supporting the mockery! And most bizarrely of all nobody – not the churches, not the civil libertarians, not even the football players – understood that praying in the end zone mocks Christianity. They really thought that it is somehow religious to call upon God to support a particular team in a football game! That’s when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more.

There really are cultural differences between the US and the UK. I grew up in a country and at a time when there the relationship between religious and secular discourse was much more seamless than it now is. British politicians typically don’t ‘DO’ religion, in Alastair Campbell’s admonishing phrase. If you’re religious, you’re religious, and it might be part of you private identity and even your public identity, but you don’t make a big deal of it. That’s partly because there are no votes in being religious, or anti-religious, and partly because there used to be a rough expectation that i) you live your life reasonably well and ii) that you could give reasons for whatever claims you make and whatever policies you commit to. But the history of the Labour movement in the UK is bound up with Christianity. So if you grew up attached to the Labour movement, most of your heroes were Christians. And, even today, knowing someone is a Christian in the UK, even if they are white, doesn’t allow you to predict anything about how they will vote, or what they think about taxes, the welfare state, foreign policy, etc. My oldest friend, and my oldest cousin, are both white evangelical Christians. My friend would never vote Conservative, and my cousin is a very left wing socialist, and they’re both perfectly normal, for white evangelical Christians

Given that being a Christian is normal in my environment, and that my friends (and apparently cousins) are Christians, why am I not? Well, it’s kind of easy to explain. I don’t believe there is a God.

If you do believe in God it’s typically for one of two reasons. The first is that you have some sort of personal experience/revelation/sense that enables you to have faith despite the absence of any good arguments. I don’t have that. I’m not going to ridicule or look down on those who do, for reasons that will become obvious: I have articles of faith, you do too.

The other is that you believe that there are good enough reasons to believe in the existence of a God. I remember a lot about my life, but I honestly don’t remember whether I ever thought there were good arguments. If I did, I haven’t done for as long as I remember. The arguments I’ve heard for the existence of a God all seem to contain flaws serious enough to reject them. That is not to say that there are great arguments for the non-existence of a God – if there were, then faith should be rejected. But I don’t have faith, I don’t have the arguments, so I don’t believe.

Add to this something that became important to me during my teens. I came up with an argument that would have put me in mind of Pascal’s Wager if I’d know what it was, and which still convinces me today.

My father in law claims to believe in God on the basis of Pascal’s Wager. Every time he does this I point out the widely-noted deep flaw in Pascal’s Wager, and he says “Oh, yes, I never thought of that”. Which is not strictly true, because he did think of it last time I told him, he has just conveniently forgotten it. Pascal’s Wager is that if God exists, believing in God will save you; if God doesn’t exist believing in God will do you no harm; therefore it is rational to believe in God. The fatal flaw, which my father-in-law thinks of whenever I point it out, and then, regrettably, forgets, is “What if God condemns those who believe in God in response to Pascal’s Wager?” a possibility that really should have occurred to anyone who read about the capricious and contrary God about whom the Old Testament is written. Not that such behavior would, in fact, be capricious really.

My argument, the one that relieved me of the need to decide whether to believe in God, was this. If there is a God, and he/she/it is good, then he/she/it wants us to live a good life, and does not care whether we worship him/her/it. If there is a God and he/she/it makes belief in and/or worship of him/her/it any kind of condition for salvation, then that God is bad, and unworthy of our belief or worship. And if such a God exists then we’ve all had it, anyway.

Ok, so that’s why I’m not a Christian. But why am I not exactly a Christian?

Well, here are two thoughts.

The first is just that Jesus, in the Gospels, gets morality just about exactly right. People over profits (and prophets). Kindness. Community. Universalism – distrust of ethnic, religious, racial, national bonds. Humility, intellectual and personal. Distrust of wealth, and its pursuit. Egalitarianism – everybody counts for just as much as everybody else. Sacrifice – not for its own sake, but for the sake of those we have reason to care about. Priority to the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Compassion. Empathy… etc.

Of course, you don’t have to be Christian to understand or embrace the value of all these things, and how much better a life grounded in them is than a life that rejects (or simply ignores) them. But it is striking how rarely this concatenation of values seems to have been embraced prior to the emergence of Christianity. And, in particular, the deep egalitarian commitment that Christianity embraces, that every single person is equal in the eyes of God – or, in its secular version, has equal value that we are all obliged to acknowledge and respect – is pretty new. Jesus derogates tribal ties self-consciously and explicitly – that’s the very point of the parable of the Good Samaritan. And he insists on our duties to the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Why don’t we look at something he says[2]:

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

I don’t want to insult anyone, but when my great hero, Clement Attlee, was asked whether he was Christian, he said “well, I accept the teachings of Jesus, I just don’t believe any of the mumbo jumbo”; which was his way of saying “I’m not exactly a Christian”.

The second thought is about the particular role that Protestantism has played in Western History. Luther was not the first Protestant – throughout church history there have been many egalitarian dissenters, and Luther’s protests were just the first to really catch fire internationally. The Protestant idea was just this: that we are each responsible for our own salvation, and we each have a relationship to God that is not rightly mediated by authority figures like the priest, or the Pope, or whoever. The word of God is to be interpreted by each of us; so it must be translated into the vernacular, and accessible to all, not held back by the priests, because we will each answer for ourselves. That is a profound idea – and in it is the intellectual background of western liberalism—the idea that when it comes to the difficult questions of how to live our lives, and treat others, well, we each bear responsibility for ourselves and so we each must have the resources to make those judgements well. It is the intellectual underpinning for a free, and tolerant, society.

Again, you don’t have to be a Christian to embrace this idea. But, like egalitarianism, it is an intellectual gift to us from Christianity.

I’ll finish with a final thought. But it’s a long one so bear with me….

I said that I don’t ridicule or look down on those who have faith in God. Sometimes when you say “I won’t ridicule someone for X” it sounds like you are congratulating yourself for your forebearance. “They MERIT ridicule, but I am such a good person that I can control myself.” That is not at all my thought. The thought is something different. I, too, have some faith, and what’s more what I have faith in is something that science can’t explain, observe, or evaluate. Indeed, at least there could be observable evidence for the existence of a God – if, every time you did something bad, you said “May God strike me with lightning” and, indeed, lightning struck, you would have a body of evidence in favor (not that it would do you much good).

What I believe in is objective, real, moral, or ethical, standards. So do you. I believe that what the Nazis did was wrong, and that when Nicholas Winton saved hundreds of Jewish children on the kindertransport he did something good, and right, and that when Mildred Fish Harnack, for whom my chair in philosophy is named, risked, and ultimately gave, her life in service of resistance to the Nazis, she was acting well and rightly. That is, when someone says

“The Holocaust was morally bad”
Or
“Mildred Fish Harnack and Nicholas Winton exhibited moral excellence”

they are saying things that are true. There are objective facts, built into the fabric of the world, though not the natural, physical, fabric, not the part of the fabric that the scientific method was designed to help us describe and explain, that make thee statements true.

The moral standards by which we can evaluate the claims that I have just made are just as real as the evidentiary standards we use in science, but are not physically real. We are equipped with reasoning powers that enable us to get some access to the truth about those standards – some are easy to see and in some situations it is easy to apply them; others are harder, and in some situations it is hard to apply them. But they are real. I can’t make sense of the world without them.

I can show you, most of you, if you are being reasonable and honest, that you already believe things that commit you to something like what I believe about this. So. Already, I believe in something for which I need some faith. It’s different from what Attlee called the mumbo jumbo of the Christians, but my stance toward it is much the same as theirs toward that. And, in the gospels, although Jesus, being, perhaps regrettably, a prophet and not a philosopher, makes declarations rather than arguments, and although, not being an analytic philosopher in particular, his declarations are sometimes a little opaque, and require a degree of interpretation, and although the actual Jesus, himself, may not have said many of those things that are attributed to him in the gospels, what is attributed to him gets things remarkably right about morality, at least so it seems when we apply our powers of moral reasoning as well as we can.

So, although I am not a Christian – because I don’t believe there is a God – I am only not exactly a Christian.

[1] I’m not sure how well this story ends. She’s now a Philosophy professor.
[2] When I was looking for a lesson to offer to read at the wedding CB suggested this one, and I felt stupid not to have thought of it myself.

{ 99 comments }

1

BruceJ 06.14.21 at 7:59 pm

Another key difference is that here in America religion is used as a cudgel by the right, which now includes a large and influential wing of actual theocrats who believe that only Christians, or more to the point , the right kind of “Christians” are fit to rule.

“Religion” in America actually has little to do with religion. It is a showy cloak put on as a great public show of tribal membership. Hence praying for one side in a football game. Or offering ‘Thoughts and Prayers” instead of anything concrete for the daily ritual human sacrifice to the Gun God. Or as some Fox newsidiots were complaining the other day about some person saying ‘Allah’ “We pray to God in this country, Buddy!” (best not tell them about this dude Dios some Spanish speaking people pray to!)

Nor is this at all new…Mark Twain wrote “The War Prayer” in 1905…

I would also argue that this kind of egalitarianism is not at all the sole province of Christianity; consider, just as an example off the top of my head, the Salish and other groups in the Pacific Northwest, whose potlatch rituals established their social status by who gives away the most to their friends and neighbors.

2

Jerry Vinokurov 06.14.21 at 8:15 pm

That’s when I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more.

Or perhaps that’s when you knew you actually were in Kansas.

3

CJColucci 06.14.21 at 8:19 pm

I long ago came to believe that the Omni-God of the Abrahamic tradition does not exist. It is conceivable, though I see no positive reason to believe it, that some sort of powerful, smart, and well-intentioned, but still limited, being might exist out there — some combination of Superman and the Watcher — who, though unable to redress the evils of the world here and now, can and will even things up in the great bye-and-bye. As Mill said, one could rationally hope for that even though one could not rationally believe in it. And I’d have to be an insensitive jerk not to see its appeal, especially when I lose one of my dogs.
But outside the seminar room or its equivalents, I have no interest whatever in bothering people who believe this stuff as long as they don’t bother me. Once they try to pick my pocket or break my leg, however, all bets are off. If people I know or care about ask me to participate in religious ceremonies marking significant passages in their lives, that I don’t believe in their religion means as little to me as if I am asked to participate in some other club ritual significant to the member but not to me. And I can appreciate the advantage of off-the-shelf ceremonies for significant life events instead of winging it. (You guys have a lot of great music you can use. Like Bach. We’re lucky to have Paul Simon. I didn’t know that his “American Tune,” which I thought the best thing he ever wrote, took the tune directly from Bach.) If I can chat with the officiating cleric later, so much the better: “So, tell me, Father Brown, why is there even a doctrinal dispute over consubstantiation and transubstantiation? Isn’t it enough the the Founder asked you to perform the ceremony and why the Hell not do it? What purpose does the doctrine serve?”
It is a fascinating question how the novel content of Christian morality, different in many ways from predecessor moral systems, came to be, and I would love to know how it arose and why it caught on.
As a sociological and historical matter, most folks in the former Christendom get their moral training in a religious context. It could have come from somewhere else, and for many people it does, but that is, mostly, a mere biographical detail and nothing to squabble over, unless the theist insists that someone else’s morality is necessarily delusional because ungrounded in religious folderol. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that around.
On the whole God question, my view is don’t be an a*****e about it. But it isn’t easy.

4

Luis 06.14.21 at 8:34 pm

This is excellent. Thank you for sharing it—I suspect I’ll refer to it regularly in the future in discussions of my own beliefs.

5

Pejar 06.14.21 at 9:34 pm

As an atheist married to a Christian, I found a lot of this very interesting. However…

“And, even today, knowing someone is a Christian in the UK, even if they are white, doesn’t allow you to predict anything about how they will vote, or what they think about taxes, the welfare state, foreign policy, etc.”

This isn’t right. On voting, Anglicans heavily skew Conservative and have done pretty consistently since WWII (Catholics are more equally split between them and Labour, while the non-religious are more Labour).

https://religionmediacentre.org.uk/factsheets/how-faith-communities-vote-in-uk-elections/

Extensive surveys have also shown major differences on social issues too, although Christians are far from monolithic on any issue. Christians who go to church frequently are particularly likely to be very socially conservative.

https://www.pewforum.org/2018/05/29/being-christian-in-western-europe/#both-non-practicing-and-churchgoing-christians-are-more-likely-than-the-unaffiliated-to-hold-negative-views-of-immigrants-muslims-and-jews

Highlights include:

49% of church-attending Christians agree that “Islam if fundamentally incompatible with our countries culture and values” compared to 32% of the religiously unaffiliated.
52% of church-attending Christians are in favour of legalised abortion compared to 87% of the religiously unaffiliated.
58% of church-attending Christians are in favour of gay marriage compared to 87% of the religiously unaffiliated.

In all cases Christians who didn’t attend church were somewhere in the middle (often, but not always, closer to the unaffiliated.

6

Alison 06.14.21 at 9:58 pm

I feel the reverse. That Christianity destroyed the spiritual equality of humanity. In ancient religious tradition a holy being like Tammuz represented each one of us, and their death or other drama made all lives holy. So all beings were co-participants in the sacred.

But the death of Christ divides humanity into those who are saved by the divine death and those who are not. Our species is split into two halves, which are separated for eternity.

I would not say Christianity is unique, or first, in rejecting human spiritual equality. The idea of an elect seems to have been common to several religions around that time.

7

Alex SL 06.14.21 at 10:29 pm

I have articles of faith, you do too.

This conflates three very different things.

One is believing something about the nature of the world and rejecting all evidence to the contrary even when it is staring you in the face. This, and only this, is religious faith. I don’t have this.

The second is tentatively accepting something you cannot personally prove, perhaps because you believe some kind of experts or books or a model of the world that seems to make sense, but being able to change your mind when presented with sufficiently strong contrary evidence. Religious people love to conflate this with their faith, but it is not religious faith, because of its openness to being challenged. And if this were the nature of religious faith, there would be no religion left.

The third are the values we hold. This is what you conflate with religious faith. Our values may in many cases be immune to argument, but are not faith like that underpinning religion either, because they aren’t about what things and processes (e.g. gods and souls) exist in the universe, they are about, well, values. Very different cup of tea than “I will survive death”, for example, as you point out yourself a bit later.

My argument, the one that relieved me of the need to decide whether to believe in God, was this.

Marcus Aurelius made that argument.

Jesus, in the Gospels, gets morality just about exactly right.

You are giving him too much credit, I think. Jesus asked his followers to not defend themselves either physically or in court, to give away all their possessions, and not to worry about the future. This is not a realistic and sustainable system of ethics. It makes sense only in the context of his belief that the end of the world was imminent, within his own lifetime.

And, in particular, the deep egalitarian commitment that Christianity embraces, that every single person is equal in the eyes of God

You are giving Christianity too much credit. If I remember correctly, Paul instructed slaves to accept ancient slavery. (Again, why improve society if it is going to end soon anyway? Christianity is at heart a doomsday cult.) Christianity was not exactly a great promoter of gender equality, and Christians happily managed to commit genocide and build up entirely new systems of slavery in colonial times without ever doubting that they were being Christian about it. The very, very few exceptions to this could have just as well built their case from the philosophies of any pagan religion, Buddhism, or whatever. Luther was a raging antisemite, etc.

The Protestant idea was just this: that we are each responsible for our own salvation

You are giving Protestantism too much credit. Part of it was political – just don’t want the pope to tell me what to do, and wouldn’t it be nice if I could steal the wealth of the monasteries to fund my rule? – and as far as theology is concerned: some protestant sects believe in predetermination in the sense that you have absolutely no influence on whether you are saved, and others believe that your goodness doesn’t count, only whether you accepted Jesus as your saviour, leading to some rather appalling behaviour.

8

Harmon 06.14.21 at 11:17 pm

OP: It appears to me that you might be making an unwarranted assumption about what those kids in the end zone are praying for. I doubt that it is really along the lines of “let us win the game.” It is more likely “help us do our best,” in the hope that their best will be enough to win the game. Ending, as with Christ on the cross, with “thy will be done.”

As for Pascal’s Wager, the flaw you see seems to consist of the substitution of calculation for belief, but I see the real flaw as coming in on a different level – namely, the supposition that belief in God is a rational process at all. I don’t see the Wager as an argument for belief in God; I see it as an appeal to self-interest intended to soften up the opposition – more along the lines of “what have you got to lose by entertaining the idea that we should believe in God?” It’s just the first step in a process that might open the listener up to gaining some degree of faith.

BruceJ: “Allah” is not the Christian “God”. Sure, they are both the center of a monotheist belief system, and their worshippers appeal to the same mythological heritage, but they are totally different guys, once you get to know them. It’s not the same guy wearing different clothes. Consider, for example, that the Christian God consists of three supernatural beings (the Trinity) sharing one Godhead. That’s not Allah. In fact, Islam rejects the idea that Jesus (being the Son in the Trinity) is in any respect an aspect of Allah.

CJColucci: Well said.

Fifty years ago, I knew a guy who said he did not believe in God, but he suspected in him. Me, too.

9

Chetan Murthy 06.14.21 at 11:21 pm

Harry,

I don’t mean to belittle your beliefs, b/c in fact, I share those beliefs. That is to say, I also believe in the parts of the Christian Gospel that you describe in the paragraph that starts “The first is ….” To use two phrases, “the golden rule” and “whatsoever you do to the littlest of these …”. But. But. But.

(1) it is possible to derive these moral principles without reference to The Gospels, right? Kant did it. You can argue (I suppose) that he could not have done so without the cultural frame of Christianity. I can’t argue against that, since one might say that the Western Enlightenment came about via Christianity. But then others will argue quite the opposite. In any case, one can be a rabid atheist and still believe in those moral principles, and have arguments other than “they’re good”. The categorical imperative suffices.

(2) But more importantly, I have it on good authority from people who claim to have studied the matter, that you have it completely wrong. To be Christian is not to believe in and practice the Gospels. No, most vociferously. To be a Christian, is to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who died for our sins, etc, etc, etc, yadda yadda yadda.

Believing in the actual gospels is superfluous, and not dispositive.

Numerous times, I’ve said things like: “that Jerry Falwell Jr, he’s no Christian” and been reproved by others, who point out that, no, he is indeed a Christian, by the only standard that exists. That is to say, that is accepted by the vast majority of self-professed Christians.

It seems like, by that standard, you aren’t a Christian.

P.S. In case it isn’t obvious, I don’t like or agree with any of what I’ve related above regarding “who is and is not a Christian”. But it seems to be the current state of play.

10

Not Trampis 06.14.21 at 11:27 pm

you were impressed by Jesus on morality.
As you do not believe in god and he claimed to be god as CS Lewis would say your great purveyor of morality is either a liar or a lunatic.
hmmm

11

Megan 06.14.21 at 11:48 pm

This is really beautiful and honest and I loved it.

12

Alan White 06.14.21 at 11:50 pm

Lovely account of your position on theism Harry. I think it very closely reflects my own views.

Born into a not-church-going poor family in the South, after moving to California I came under the influence of the Church of the Nazarene, converting in my mid-teens and becoming a pretty fervent Evangelical Christian. So much so I turned down a full-ride to Berkeley (!) to attend one of their regional colleges in Idaho–I wanted to become a minister. But Northwest Nazarene College had strengths in scholarship in teaching Greek, biblical literature as historically-based, and philosophy (actually only two professors in those areas influenced me), and so I gradually took a much more intellectual approach to religion and less the fervency of “holiness meetings” that I increasingly saw as a kind of sociological manipulation. The breaking point came in reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which made me see that at least for people that care about reason as a foundation for living, faith did indeed require a leap away from the precipice of rational thought. I finished a philosophy-religion and religion degree AB, and even went to seminary–the only avowed non-believer there, sorting out what to do with myself. I went then to grad school in philosophy for a PhD, eventually ending up in the same UW System as Harry at a small campus, where I had a terrific and fulfilling 40-year career teaching. One of my favorite courses was Intro Philosophy of Religion, where I taught an even-handed presentation of skepticism and respect for religion well enough to make my students frequently question my professed admission of being a non-believer. (I reject the label “atheist” simply because it has become such a negative smear–it is a pejorative in the US so strong that merely calling oneself an atheist typically casts one as satanic or such in the mind of the majority of listeners.)

But overall Harry–it is about the kind of moral realism you foster here. Some pictures of Jesus in some of the literature represent that–remember there are very disparate stories of him spread over the canonical and non-canonical gospels (there are dozens of them after all)–but overall I wish Christians would emulate the averaged view of a tolerant and loving Jesus more than the vengeful and jealous Old Testament deity so many in US Protestantism now seem to embrace, especially as they import that belief into politics.

13

floopmeister 06.15.21 at 12:32 am

If there is a God, and he/she/it is good, then he/she/it wants us to live a good life, and does care whether we worship him/her/it. If there is a God and he/she/it makes belief in and/or worship of him/her/it any kind of condition for salvation, then that God is bad, and unworthy of our belief or worship. And if such a God exists then we’ve all had it, anyway.

I’m sure Ivana Karamazov would agree with you here:

It isn’t that I reject God; I am simply returning Him most respectfully the ticket that would entitle me to a seat.”

Or more straightforwardly – you are repeating here, I think, the argument of Stendhal:

The only possible excuse for God’s behaviour is that He does not exist.

14

hix 06.15.21 at 1:58 am

Oh well, my older evangelical cousin is unfortunately exactly how you would expect them to be. Thing is, he’s German, just like me. Some of it are just his priors which made him pick that odd affiliation, albeit not all can be properly explained by it. Somehow he manages to reliable import all kind of US political nonsense that is not even particular connected to the religious core. He is pretty close to corona is like the flu territory for example. Albeit, evangelicals are not even alone in that regard. There are quite a few indications that regions with lots of Freikirchen” (non-mainstream churches, evangelicals only are a relatively small part of the pot) have more corona infections. Also got a couple of acquaintances who are more or less outspoken atheists, that would lose their jobs if they were not officially members of a mainstream Christian church. The various subsidies and the assets the mainstream churches hoard are also a rather strong force against redistribution. Both the institutional power of mainstream Catholicism/Lutheranism and the nuttiness of most alternatives seems to me a good thing to fight against. Guess the British solution with a big state controlled quasi monopoly church is the best pragmatic one to all those headaches.

None of this has anything to do with believing in god or not as such – the problem is just that as long as people for which that is an important part of their identity exist, they are easy to manipulate with it in the absence of a public service type institution to channel and control it. Institutional religion as it can be observed in reality in most nations remains largely a force for bad that has to be fought as an evil in itself beyond the classical left/right wing scheme. General left politics seems to do little against all the child abuse in church run institutions, for example, as the victims were quite often from a rather well off background.

15

Russell Arben Fox 06.15.21 at 2:34 am

Beautiful, Harry. This Christian thanks you.

16

dilbert dogbert 06.15.21 at 2:48 am

Re: Pascal:
Pascal assumes there is only one Glod.
I always thought there are many and they are all vengeful and will condemn you to their brand of hell if you don’t worship them with the correct procedure. Call it Dilbert’s dilemma.

17

J-D 06.15.21 at 5:21 am

… But it is striking how rarely this concatenation of values seems to have been embraced prior to the emergence of Christianity. …

… And, in particular, the deep egalitarian commitment that Christianity embraces, that every single person is equal in the eyes of God – or, in its secular version, has equal value that we are all obliged to acknowledge and respect – is pretty new. …

… That is a profound idea – and in it is the intellectual background of western liberalism—the idea that when it comes to the difficult questions of how to live our lives, and treat others, well, we each bear responsibility for ourselves and so we each must have the resources to make those judgements well. It is the intellectual underpinning for a free, and tolerant, society.

Again, you don’t have to be a Christian to embrace this idea. But, like egalitarianism, it is an intellectual gift to us from Christianity. …

I am curious to know why people might think these statements are true, because they don’t seem at all plausible to me.

18

Alison Page 06.15.21 at 6:05 am

There are clearly many gods, many thousands I assume, whether real or not. And many religious alternatives to the gods. A small number of these gods are currently dominant. It is as if one were confronted with a bunch of beautiful flowers, and must pick only one. Unless you pick one particular flower you will be damned. There is no indication which is the correct flower. Or rather, there are many voices advocating for different flowers. I’m not being facetious – aren’t these the terms of our contract with god according to the modern monotheistic religions? Pascal’s wager gives no guidance in these circumstances. I suppose when he formulated it he lived in a monocultural nation so the issue barely arose.

19

oldster 06.15.21 at 6:05 am

I keep thinking you meant to have a “not” in here?
“If there is a God, and he/she/it is good, then he/she/it wants us to live a good life, and does care whether we worship him/her/it.”

That seems both a better argument and better English prose (the “does” is odd without the negation). But perhaps I am missing something?

20

oldster 06.15.21 at 6:07 am

Oh hell, I forgot about angle-brackets making things disappear.
Try #2
“If there is a God, and he/she/it is good, then he/she/it wants us to live a good life, and does NOT care whether we worship him/her/it.”

[HB: Thanks! about to fix!]

21

Michael Newsham 06.15.21 at 6:20 am

Jesus only got morality right if you’re talking about Sunday School Jesus, not Gospel Jesus. The Jesus who called gentiles dogs, and said his mission was only to the Jews? The Jesus who cursed a fig tree because it didn’t bear fruit out of season for him? More importantly, the Jesus who condemned people to burn in Hell for not worshiping him?

Harmon: ” “Allah” is not the Christian God”. When the Malaysian government tried to restrict the use of “Allah” to Muslims, as you would do, Malaysian Christians pointed out that Christians in the Middle East and beyond had been using the term to refer to God for half a millennium before Islam existed, not to mention 1300 years after.

22

J-D 06.15.21 at 8:29 am

On the one hand, people who translate the New Testament into Arabic have to have a word to translate God (or Θεός)–what else is it if not Allah (or الله)?

On the other hand, there are important differences between the things that Christians say are true about God (if they’re speaking English, or Allah if they’re speaking Arabic) and the things that Muslims say are true about God (if they’re speaking English, or Allah if they’re speaking Arabic).

Attempts to answer the question of whether the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God confront some of the same difficulties that confront attempts to answer the question of whether Ares and Mars are the same god, or whether Mars and Tiw are the same god; or, for that matter, whether the creatures that Chinese people call dragons and unicorns are the same creatures as the ones that European people call dragons and unicorns.

23

Tim Worstall 06.15.21 at 9:26 am

Moving smartly off subject, re Nicholas Winton.

Esther Rantzen has been responsible for more shlock than anyone should shovel out in a lifetime. There’s also one marvellous little piece.

About 2.30 in for the reveal.

24

Tim Worstall 06.15.21 at 9:26 am

Hmm, sorry, didn’t mean to embed that, sorry, just link to it.

25

Lee Arnold 06.15.21 at 9:43 am

26

Francis Spufford 06.15.21 at 9:51 am

This Christian thanks you too, Harry.

27

J-D 06.15.21 at 11:21 am

I’m sure lots of pastors don’t believe in God.

At least a thousand clergy, but the fact that this is confirmed by the existence of a support group for them suggests they don’t find the position a comfortable one:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Clergy_Project

28

Mike Huben 06.15.21 at 12:29 pm

What I believe in is objective, real, moral, or ethical, standards.

It looks to me as if you are mistaking normative standards for objective standards. At best you can objectively (actually intersubjectively) observe that there are normative standards.

29

Jake Gibson 06.15.21 at 12:59 pm

I’m am mostly in agreement.
I do think Rabbi Yeshua was correct about morality being how you treat others and about how we should treat others. American conservative Evangelicalism does not reflect those teachings by focusing on personal sexual behavior, which was almost never mentioned by the Rabbi.
And I find off-putting that the arbitrariness, capriciousness and vidictiveness of their deity is seen as a positive. And I do not understand why the omnipotent, omniscient creator of the universe would be so insecure as to need its creations to worship it.
In response to C. S. Lewis, I would say, “so what”? If you don’t share the delusion, but accept the wisdom, the delusion is irrelevant.

30

steven t johnson 06.15.21 at 1:00 pm

Like some others imply, I don’t believe the factual claims in the OP are correct, insofar as there are any. There’s not much point in developing the consequences of this as the OP is an argument from personal authority. Obviously I have no ground to stand on against that.

But I would still, rashly, argue that the supposedly fatal flaw in Pascal’s wager is not the one stated. After all, why would God invent Hell save as a deterrent, therefore the objection he would damn someone for being deterred is irrational. No, the fatal flaw in Pascal’s wager is that there is a choice of gods to make the wager with. If you make the wager with the wrong one, you’re in hell.

31

Alex SL 06.15.21 at 1:07 pm

OP: the deep egalitarian commitment that Christianity embraces, that every single person is equal in the eyes of God – or, in its secular version, has equal value that we are all obliged to acknowledge and respect – is pretty new

Chetan Murphy: one might say that the Western Enlightenment came about via Christianity

These comments speak to another assumption underlying discussions of religion: that history is largely a history of ideas expressed in philosophical or theological discourse, and that it therefore makes an enormous difference what some Christian theologian wrote in the Middle ages or that he was a Christian as opposed to a Manichean.

Now, I absolutely believe that what somebody believes informs their actions. But the question is how they pick their beliefs, especially the ones that matter to them. Is the claim here really that, if e.g. Europe had been pagan in the 20th century, it would have been impossible for liberal democracy to appear? That Europeans would in that situation have said, “sorry, because we have several gods we don’t get the concept of everybody being equal, so we will just have to maintain private privileges and feudalism”? Because I find that very hard to believe.

It seems much more plausible to me that history proceeds as follows. Theologian / philosopher A writes that slavery is God’s will; theologian / philosoper B writes that slavery is an evil because we are all equal in God’s eyes. Then the mainstream of a society picks one of them to rationalise what they want to do anyway and ignores (or ostracises) the other, and later generations misinterpret the arrow of causation.

I am pretty confident that most high-level ideas of moral philosophy or political decision making structures that are relevant to us today would already have occurred to farmers sitting around a campfire in 1000 BCE. For example, it would certainly have been obvious to the more cynical of them that all of us are equally being eaten by worms when we are dead, no matter the pretensions of their contemporary nobility and clergy.

To use another example, the idea that atheism is merely a foible of modernity seems equally unlikely. There will always have been those – albeit always a minority – who look at the antics of the priests and can’t shake the feeling that it is all rather silly, or who notice that the results of prayers and sacrifices are indistinguishable from randomness. It is said that the winners write the history books, but even they slip up sometimes, e.g. Psalms 14:1, which I read as an inadvertent admission that there were atheists in a deeply religious society of the 1st millennium BCE.

32

J, not that one 06.15.21 at 2:11 pm

I think it is a fair assumption that whatever institution ran most of the schools for the approximately 2000 years of European history would today be associated with the teaching of morality. I think it’s also a fair assumption that if any institution had a near monopoly on thought and publishing for approximately 2000 years, it would in fact contain a large amount of diversity. Neither of those historical facts are any longer true in 2021. Therefore, I don’t see it as legitimate, as a matter of logic, to infer from the fact that Christianity has historically taught something arguably continuous with what we now view as morality, that morality should now be defined as what a specific Christian Church today holds as true.

A commitment to such an inference is essentially a commitment to exclude from the discussion anyone who won’t join that church or at least decline to challenge its members. I see a great deal of shibboleth-hunting, like the “reality of moral facts” and other surprise gotchas that arise only after one’s agreed to engage, and a great deal of refusal to face reality, like insistence that the US actually could have a state religion if we chose to (which inevitably would be the speaker’s own), or that people would be happier accepting their lowly state than believing themselves equal (in a real sense, not just ask “God’s children”). Some even argue outright for what sounds a lot like the right of church members to organize to use power over nonmembers.

The attitude expressed by the OP sounds fine. It’s hard to disparage someone who prefers holding onto beautiful beliefs that make his life seem better. But it uses language that is specifically English, Protestant, and academic, and outside those contexts actually isn’t especially ecumenical at all.

33

Kiwanda 06.15.21 at 3:04 pm

People over profits (and prophets). Kindness. Community. Universalism – distrust of ethnic, religious, racial, national bonds. Humility, intellectual and personal. Distrust of wealth, and its pursuit. Egalitarianism – everybody counts for just as much as everybody else. Sacrifice – not for its own sake, but for the sake of those we have reason to care about. Priority to the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Compassion. Empathy…

Amen to all of these, especially to the old-fashioned dying values of universalism and egalitarianism. And I understand that respect for the religious beliefs of others is implied by intellectual humility. But belief in an omniscient omnipotent god, who created a universe of creatures who can suffer, and must suffer, and must inflict suffering on others? And that god is good? No, logic, common sense, and faith in moral values collide there with religious doctrine, which makes no moral sense.

34

Frederic G. 06.15.21 at 3:05 pm

Did you mean:
If there is a God, and he/she/it is good, then he/she/it wants us to live a good life, and does -[NOT]- care whether we worship him/her/it.
instead of:
If there is a God, and he/she/it is good, then he/she/it wants us to live a good life, and does care whether we worship him/her/it.
?
[HB: Yes!!!!. About to fix, thanks]

35

Jim Buck 06.15.21 at 3:09 pm

Ancient Egyptian religion/epistemology gave supreme importance to Ma’at. A premortem history of venerating Ma’at is how one escaped the jaws of the fearsome crocodile that devoured those judged cruel and unjust. (The beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount, by any other name are Ma’at).
Once passed the Judgement of the Dead, and furnished with the required passwords, the former mortal was free to strive for reintegration into the eternal and divine premortal state —which the Egyptians called The Land of Light. The latter was conceived as pretty close to everyday life— lots of beer, good company, and sex. Getting to that Groundhog Day apotheosis required a hazardous negotiation of a bizarro netherworld of misrule: shit on plates, walkers on the ceiling, sassy servants, and mistreated kings i.e Ma’at’s scales rebalancing.
Until something better comes along, Ma’at will do for me.

36

cs 06.15.21 at 3:43 pm

@30 “After all, why would God invent Hell save as a deterrent” – perhaps, but as a deterrent from what behavior? What makes you think that the behavior being deterred is non-belief, or that that is more likely to be the deterred behavior than anything else?

37

Larry Hamelin 06.15.21 at 5:07 pm

What I believe in is objective, real, moral, or ethical, standards. So do you.

No, no I don’t, and I think that you do makes you an inferior philosopher, perhaps not a philosopher at all.

Before I started college in 2010, I was leaning towards the study of philosophy. Talking with numerous professors of philosophy online, I understood that your position is not just a matter of faith but of professional dogma and intense emotional investment, and I decided just for that reason that academic philosophy was useless.

38

novakant 06.15.21 at 5:20 pm

What I believe in is objective, real, moral, or ethical, standards. So do you.

Well, I’m afraid I don’t. Even though I have quite strong moral intuitions, I don’t think there are objective ethical facts. It would be easy if there were, but sadly, to my mind, that is not the case.

I think J.L. Mackie made a pretty good case against moral realism in “Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong” – (full disclosure: I was furiously opposed to him as an undergraduate, but have changed my mind since).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._L._Mackie

39

steven t johnson 06.15.21 at 7:59 pm

cs@36 asks directly about Hell as a deterrent “… a deterrent from what behavior? What makes you think that the behavior being deterred is non-belief, or that that is more likely to be the deterred behavior than anything else?”

The reason for thinking disbelief is the behavior being deterred is that the condition for avoiding Hell is belief, aka faith, in practice obedience. The solution addresses the supposed problem. C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe imagined God/Arslan was compelled to sacrifice himself because sin required punishment…but quite aside from Euthyphro’s dilemma rising here, there’s also the issue of omnipotence. It is doubtful that punishment for sin is like a triangle that must have three sides and not even God can will it to be otherwise.

If there seems to be something off about the whole Hell thing, that’s true. But the off-ness lies in the idea. In this case, the argument against Hell-as-deterrent is the argument for what Hell is “really” about.

And since Pascal’s wager is still being defended, I can’t resist adding, Pascal misrepresents the costs of losing: Believing in God can drive you to believe crazy stuff. The cost can be your mind.

40

Jim Harrison 06.15.21 at 8:27 pm

We are saved by grace alone. It follows
The chalice of eternal mercy’s
An earthen cup and not a golden grail.
To be saved by a miracle is not a miracle.
He was not the man with the honey beard and the tender eyes
But an excitable young intellectual
Whose love, like ours, was overgrown with rage
Like the last rose in an abandoned garden
Among the thorns, entangled branch and root.
Certainly he was not very nice,
Moody and hysterical and then suddenly cold;
And if his words were sometimes a new thing in the world,
Mostly he repeated the wisdom and insanity of the prophets.
He wasn’t a good teacher either.
His followers followed him for their own reasons
As if they had caught the power in his voice
But not the sense. As for the rest
They hardly listened at all or heard
What they wanted to hear and already believed.
For the exhausted women he was an Adonis.
For the men,
Against all the evidence, a vengeful sword.
Perhaps he cured the sick or perhaps
The wretched took some comfort from his hand
Because compassion in his day as ours
Is by itself a portent. Beyond that sign
Which either suffices or does not
He gave no other, as you all well know
For you are fools.
He died and he stayed dead.

41

Gareth Wilson 06.16.21 at 1:05 am

“I remember another gentle visitor from the heavens, he came in peace and then died, only to come back to life, and his name was E.T., the extra-terrestrial. I loved that little guy.”

42

dbk 06.16.21 at 5:46 am

Last week I read a piece (David Hamblin, CA) on Aneurin Bevan and his “In Place of Fear,” the only book written by the creator of the NHS. Here’s a passage that spoke to me – and, I suspect, it might to others on this thread:

“The mantra that ‘the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism’ is partially manifested in Bevan’s allusions to the parable of the Good Samaritan: ‘You can always “pass by on the other side”. That may be sound economics. It could not be worse morals.’ While Bevan’s adherence to Christian Socialism lay strictly on the latter half of the equation, In Place of Fear is infused with its language and teachings—a form of secular left-wing Beatitudes. Bevan once stated that, ‘I’m proud about the National Health Service. It is a piece of real Socialism. It is a piece of real Christianity too, you know.'”

For some years, I have followed the consequences of policy-making/implementation in health/care, the environment, justice, education and housing, and am sometimes struck by my sense of what seems “right,” “fair.” I haven’t been a practicing Methodist for 50 years, but the moral compass that informs my take on the above sectors is similar to that outlined in the OP.

43

Jim Buck 06.16.21 at 6:36 am

A less gentle, and false cognate, of ET: Set. A n eternal (f)actor directly implicated in the strife that besets humankind and all our non-human victims If we manage to overcome our propensity to set about each other (and every local living thing) perhaps the technological arc which Set has propelled will allow him to be set in his rightful place: protecting the boat of millions of years from meteors and other threats to everything here.
(Time for me to watch that Kubrick movie again)

44

Tm 06.16.21 at 7:25 am

dbk: ‘I’m proud about the National Health Service. It is a piece of real Socialism. It is a piece of real Christianity too, you know.’

American Evangelicals will tell you the exact opposite: a welfare state institution like the NHS is against the Bible. Christians may support charity but they must not support the establishment of state institutions to help the poor and needy, it’s un-Christian. (If you wonder where in the Bible it says so, don’t bother, Evangelicals can make up whatever they like.)

45

Quiop 06.16.21 at 8:07 am

I can show you, most of you, if you are being reasonable and honest, that you already believe things that commit you to something like what I believe about this.

I would be very interested to read a full post elaborating on this claim from a pedagogical perspective. What percentage of your students start off thinking of themselves (mistakenly, in your view?) as moral anti-realists? How many change their minds, and why? Do any students change their minds in the opposite direction? And given that you have not only declared your own moral realism (which seems pedagogically unobjectionable) but also publicly stated that anyone rejecting the arguments for moral realism is probably not being “reasonable and honest”, how do you facilitate a productive classroom discussion?

46

J-D 06.16.21 at 9:49 am

I can add emphasis to a statement like ‘Water is wet’ by modifying it to ‘It is a certain truth that water is wet’ or ‘It is a fact of reality that water is wet’ or ‘It is objectively the case that water is wet’, but I can’t figure any way that these modifications add content. Likewise if I modify the statement ‘Excrement smells foul’ to ‘It is a certain truth that excrement smells foul’ or ‘It is a fact of reality that excrement smells foul’ or ‘It is objectively the case that excrement smells foul’, the addition of emphasis is obvious, but I can’t figure how there’s any addition to the content of the statement. To me it seems that the same is true of moral judgements. If somebody says ‘There are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make it true that it’s wrong to make death threats’, then apart from the obvious addition of emphasis I can’t figure what additional content the statement has beyond ‘It’s wrong to make death threats’. As far as I can tell, the reasons people might give in order to demonstrate that there are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make it true that it’s wrong to make death threats are just exactly the reasons people might give in order to demonstrate that it’s wrong to make death threats.

Is it just me? Am I missing something obvious? or are other people imagining something that’s not there?

47

Kenneth Oliver 06.16.21 at 9:51 am

OT from the main points of the OP, but surely it is the Lib-Dems, in the form of their predecessor the Liberal party, that was overwhelmingly the party of serious Xtians. Lloyd-George, Welsh Methodism and Ulster Presbyterianism and all that. While on the other hand the Anglican church has long been derided as “the Tory party at prayer”.

48

J, not that one 06.16.21 at 1:27 pm

It seems obvious that in practice religion is as much about damning the nonbelievers as telling members what to believe. Rather then describing one’s own beliefs and values, one creates a label that explains why some other group is wicked. The position is one hundred percent irrefutable. “I am a good person because I learned morality as a child, I could not possibly explain what I mean to you because you must first agree to what I believe I was taught.”

49

Harry 06.16.21 at 1:44 pm

“If somebody says ‘There are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make it true that it’s wrong to make death threats’, then apart from the obvious addition of emphasis I can’t figure what additional content the statement has beyond ‘It’s wrong to make death threats’. As far as I can tell, the reasons people might give in order to demonstrate that there are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make it true that it’s wrong to make death threats are just exactly the reasons people might give in order to demonstrate that it’s wrong to make death threats.”

I don’t think the final sentence is true, though I think the others in your comment are. The reasons people would give in order to demonstrate ‘there are objective facts…” would be reasons to disbelieve nihilism, relativism, subjectivism in ethics. They might not refer at all to the reasons why it is wrong to make death threats. But, I agree, the person doing that would be engaging in the same kind of enterprise (not a scientific one) as the person offering reasons why there are objective facts about the wetness of water.

Why engage in this kind of enterprise, and why do so more often than in offering reasons why there are objective facts about the wetness of water? Because one (more often) comes across people who deny that there are objective facts about morality (indeed, some are on this thread). And why does one come across those more often? Because i) kids are taught to be unreflective relativists about morality but not about science when they’re in middle school (well, mine were anyway) and ii) if there are facts about morality they are more mysterious kinds of entity than the facts that make scientific claims true or false.

Quiop — I haven’t done, and don’t know anyone who has done, a proper study of this, but it would be fascinating (not sure that one could get a good study design past an IRB, but who knows!). For what its worth, I have rarely taught meta-ethics, but when I do I use high quality but accessible literature advancing various positions (including anti-realist and relativist positions) and we scrutinize the arguments in those readings together. My purpose is not to get them to agree with me (and, as with most things I teach, I don’t disclose [1]) but to get them to learn how to think carefully about the issues and the relevant arguments.

[1] There are few exceptions, but one is about whether teachers of controversial issues should disclose their views, and when I teach that, paradoxically, students know I do not hold the view that one is obliged to disclose one’s views because they know that I don’t disclose mine (I suppose they could think I’m a hypocrite, but…).

50

Z 06.16.21 at 2:07 pm

The first is just that Jesus, in the Gospels, gets morality just about exactly right.

Really, no.

It is ridiculously easy to pick any text, fish for quotes that suit our particular sense of morality and find them there, but that is not how you judge if somebody gets morality just about exactly right. At best, that’s how you judge if that text is not (to you) total lunacy. It is also ridiculously easy to stumble on correct or plausible moral pronouncements, at least from time to time.

The real test, the one which is systematically applied to texts which are devoid of the cultural apparatus of an organized religion for instance, is whether coherent principles may be discerned in the text which allow different people to draw approximatively similar conclusions when they test this system against an actual situation. The Jesus of the Gospels fails that test, rather spectacularly in fact. He contradicts himself permanently, asks us to rely on his own personal pronouncements so that absent his authority, we are left in the dark, and he’s quite remarkably vengeful and brutal. To take just one example

And, in particular, the deep egalitarian commitment that Christianity embraces, that every single person is equal in the eyes of God

is not a particularly salient reading of the actual text of the Gospels. At all. Yes, it is there. But other things are there as well, and they are much more salient, much more explicit and much more forcefully put. The idea that if you believe in him because he has just done some magic, you will be saved, whereas if you don’t or doubt said magic, you will be doomed to punishment, for instance. That, not God loves everyone equally nor help the poor, is the bulk of the Gospels.

In addition, the one time Jesus delivers a meta comment on his teachings (Matthew 13:10 to 13:15, if I’m not wrong), he makes it perfectly clear that far from being a commitment to equality of every one, faith in God and/or himself as understood by Jesus himself is an exclusive property of a select group of chosen few. Yes, Jesus let children, women, outcasts and even arguably (but only arguably, even that is pushing the text a bit far it seems to me) non-Jews enter this select group, but the fact remains that equality and the eternal love of God is for that select group, to the radical exclusion of others. For them, well, “the Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will weed out of His kingdom every cause of sin and all who practice lawlessness. And they will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”.

The Protestant idea was just this: that we are each responsible for our own salvation [..]. That is a profound idea – and in it is the intellectual background of western liberalism—the idea that when it comes to the difficult questions of how to live our lives, and treat others, well, we each bear responsibility for ourselves and so we each must have the resources to make those judgements well. It is the intellectual underpinning for a free, and tolerant, society.

Oh come on Harry! Writing this about the man who wrote an entire book (De Servo Arbitrio) whose sole purpose is to explain that we are not free, that we have no power over our own actions, that we are never responsible for the actions we mak, that in particular we have exactly zero impact on our own salvation, and that those who believe that are not actually christians? Seriously?

51

Z 06.16.21 at 2:18 pm

And, lest he be mistaken, explicitly stated in his writings in several occasions that his teachings were not to be interpreted as the intellectual underpinning for a free, and tolerant, society. I mean, almost words for words.

52

Trader Joe 06.16.21 at 3:23 pm

Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful piece.

For myself, I do find that I believe in God but can no more explain that to you than trying to enumerate what makes some sunsets beautiful and others ordinary or why some people find some jokes funny and others do not.

Any two people feel these things in their own way. Trying to explain makes for interesting sharing – but is fairly worthless as far as convincing. Your piece indeed proves this point. Your gifts as a writer allow you the skill to explain your own views irrespective of whether others can, could, should or do agree.

53

Peter Erwin 06.16.21 at 3:51 pm

Alison @ 6:
I feel the reverse. That Christianity destroyed the spiritual equality of humanity. In ancient religious tradition a holy being like Tammuz represented each one of us, and their death or other drama made all lives holy. So all beings were co-participants in the sacred.

I think that’s a very limited and probably incorrect view of “ancient religious tradition”, given that such traditions frequently elevated kings, pharaohs, and emperors to semi-divine or divine status, and encouraged their subjects to worship them. That’s hardly “the spiritual equality of humanity”.

54

Quiop 06.16.21 at 4:22 pm

J-D — I might claim “cilantro is delicious”, while my friend claims “cilantro is disgusting”. What is going on in this situation?
(1) One of our claims is true, and the other is false. We might not be able to discover the fact of the matter (just as we might not be able to discover whether string theory offers a correct theory of quantum gravity), but whether cilantro is delicious or disgusting is an objective fact about the universe. (Culinary realism and/or objectivism.)
(2) There are distinct (possibly overlapping) culinary realities for different individuals or groups of individuals. My claims about cilantro are true for cilantroists, while my friend’s claims are true for anti-cilantroists. (Culinary relativism and/or intersubjectivism.)
(3) The linguistic form of our sentences is deceptive: although it superficially seems like we are making claims about cilantro, we are actually making claims about ourselves — “I love cilantro” vs. “I hate cilantro”. Interpreted in this way, both of our claims are true. (Culinary subjectivism and/or noncognitivism.)

People typically have different opinions about which of these three types of explanations offers the correct account of different types of value judgment. Many people believe something like (3) offers the best account of culinary value judgments, something like (2) offers the best account of aesthetic value judgments concerning art, music, literature, etc., while something like (1) offers the best account of moral value judgments. The claim that morality has the status of “objective facts, built into the fabric of the world” is equivalent to some version of (1), and explicitly opposed to (2) and (3).

Harry — I agree it would be fascinating, although I wouldn’t necessarily insist on a full IRB-approved research study. I’d be happy enough to hear the (even potentially biased) impressions of people who have taught these classes. I am not a philosopher, but I am anecdotally familiar with philosophers’ complaints about beginning students’ tendency to be”unreflective relativists” and would be curious to learn more about what happens next. (Gradual movement towards a reflective relativism? Passionate conversion to dogmatic realism? Turning away from academic philosophy in disgust (c.f. #37 above)?)

55

nastywoman 06.16.21 at 4:58 pm

@54
“cilantro is delicious”,

I believe that is the utmost convincing religious belief…
(sorry – but I couldn’t resist)

56

Quiop 06.16.21 at 5:10 pm

Ahem. That was an atrociously inaccurate summary of the noncognitivist position.
Hopefully this version will come out better:

(3) The linguistic form of our sentences is deceptive: although it superficially seems like we are making claims about cilantro, what we are actually doing is expressing our own mental attitudes: I am expressing my love of cilantro, while my friend is expressing her loathing of the same herb. Although they take the form of sentences, these expressions of attitudes are not actually propositions. They are more like a delighted smile or a disgusted grimace: it doesn’t make sense to say they are true or false. (Culinary subjectivism and/or noncognitivism.)

57

Alison Page 06.16.21 at 5:35 pm

such traditions frequently elevated kings, pharaohs, and emperors to semi-divine or divine status, and encouraged their subjects to worship them

The bronze age agrarian empires centred their economies around temple/palace complexes, and the differences between sacred and secular were not the same as today. Nevertheless I would say that worshipping a Pharoah as a god makes the Pharoah an icon, an ‘homo sacer’, a taboo or even a cursed / sacrifical role. The people who are not Pharoah are not damned. Nobody is excluded from the sacred by the existence of an embodment of divinity.

58

Peter Erwin 06.16.21 at 9:10 pm

Alison Page @ 57
Nevertheless I would say that worshipping a Pharoah as a god makes the Pharoah an icon, an ‘homo sacer’, a taboo or even a cursed / sacrifical role.

I doubt very much that Pharaoh was considered “cursed” by anyone in ancient Egypt (including Pharaoh him- or herself), or any of the other rulers elevated to deities, which included most Roman emperors.

It’s my understanding that at least some ancient religions conceived of the afterlife as replicating in some ways the hierarchies of earthly life. E.g., this discussion of the Babylonian afterlife:

The status of an eṭemmu in the netherworld was determined by two factors: the social status of the deceased while alive, and the post-mortem care its body and grave or cult statue received from the living on earth. Kings like Urnamma and Gilgamesh remained rulers and judges of the dead in the netherworld, and priests remained priests.

That doesn’t strike me as really embodying “spiritual equality”.

59

Alex SL 06.16.21 at 9:58 pm

Because i) kids are taught to be unreflective relativists about morality but not about science when they’re in middle school (well, mine were anyway) and ii) if there are facts about morality they are more mysterious kinds of entity than the facts that make scientific claims true or false.

I do not actually remember being encouraged to be a relativist as a child, nor do I think my eleven year old daughter is currently being taught that. Indeed I had a very outspokenly deontologist ethics teacher in what would here be called high school. (He was also pretty nuts, and a Nazi apologist, but that is not necessarily related.)

If she were or I had been “taught to be relativists”, I would, however, say that that is indeed correct, at least depending on the intended definition of relativist; my position is not that everything goes, it is that we humans make up ethics and morals, because, who else is there to do it for us? But in that sense they are not arbitrary at all either, as they would be if decided by the whims of a cosmic dictator, because they flow from (a) our nature as individuals and (b) what works for us collectively. It is therefore clear, for example, that we will not find a human society that considers theft, lying, and murder (towards ingroup members) to be virtues; all societies will have to consider those vices, or they could not be functional societies in the first place, and nobody would ever be able to feel safe.

Are “lying is bad” and “compassion is a virtue” therefore objective facts of the universe? Certainly not in the same way as “most water molecules consist of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom”, “Tyrannosaurus is more closely related to chickens than to Stegosaurus”, or “the earth is approximately spherical and rotates around the sun”. Conflating the two kinds of statements into one seems at best to invite conceptual confusion and muddy the conversation.

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J-D 06.17.21 at 12:53 am

I don’t think the final sentence is true, though I think the others in your comment are. The reasons people would give in order to demonstrate ‘there are objective facts…” would be reasons to disbelieve nihilism, relativism, subjectivism in ethics.

I am confident that there are verbal expressions which are described (and reasonably so) as ethical nihilism, ethical relativism, and/or ethical subjectivism, but I am less confident that they have any meaningful content. If somebody gives reasons to dismiss them as contentless, it’s not clear that those would also be reasons to accept that that there are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make it true that it’s wrong to make death threats.

The following statements appear in the Wikipedia article on coriander:

Different people may perceive the taste of coriander leaves differently. Those who enjoy it say it has a refreshing, lemony or lime-like flavor, while those who dislike it have a strong aversion to its pungent taste and smell, characterizing it as soapy or rotten.

Any reasons given for believing the quoted statements would also be reasons for believing that there are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make them true.

(Incidentally, not that it matters, this is personal for me because I’m one of the people who enjoys the taste of coriander while my daughter is one of those who have a strong aversive reaction to it.)

61

Alison Page 06.17.21 at 5:10 am

at least some ancient religions conceived of the afterlife as replicating in some ways the hierarchies of earthly life

yeah. I think this exposes the limitations of my attempt to summarise hundreds of thousands of years of spiritual belief into a few sentences. I guess my point was that the late classical period brought in something new, the idea of religious belief and practice defning an ‘elect’: people eternally separated from our species in the afterlife. I am arguing that Christianity is one example of this and preserves it to this day. If we read Christians writing online they do talk a lot about how other people have a gruesome fate in store that they will escape!

62

J-D 06.17.21 at 5:46 am

Are “lying is bad” and “compassion is a virtue” therefore objective facts of the universe? Certainly not in the same way as “most water molecules consist of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom”, “Tyrannosaurus is more closely related to chickens than to Stegosaurus”, or “the earth is approximately spherical and rotates around the sun”. Conflating the two kinds of statements into one seems at best to invite conceptual confusion and muddy the conversation.

For the statement–
‘Compassion is a virtue’ is not an objective fact of the universe in the same way as ‘The Earth is approximately spherical and rotates around the sun’
–to be clear, we would need to be clear about the answer to this question–
In what way is ‘The Earth is approximately spherical and rotates around the sun’ an objective fact of the universe?

It’s not clear to me that there’s any difference between the information content of this sentence–
The Earth is approximately spherical and rotates around the sun
–and this sentence–
It is an objective fact of the universe that the Earth is approximately spherical and rotates around the sun

As far a I can tell, those two sentences have the same information content, the difference between them being one of emphasis, and anything that would be a good reason to believe one of them would be an equally good reason to believe the other.

In the same way, as far as I can tell, this sentence–
Compassion is a virtue
–and this sentence–
It is an objective fact of the universe that compassion is a virtue
–have the same information content, the difference between them being one of emphasis, and anything that would be a good reason to believe one of them would be a good reason to believe the other.

If somebody can show me a good reason for believing that compassion is a virtue which is not an equally good reason for believing that it is an objective fact of the universe that compassion is a virtue, I will be highly interested.

63

Tm 06.17.21 at 7:40 am

Z is obviously much closer to the mark than Harry concerning the morality content of the Gospels and of the reformation, although it is important to keep in mind that there is a whole diversity of different reformation traditions (and of course they developed over time, so that nowadays Lutheranism in Europe is pretty progressive, despite the vileness of that historical figure Luther).

It is also worth pointing out that some nominally Christian Protestant communities (aka Evangelicalism) have managed to even remove most of the egalitarianism and let’s say socialism from the Gospels and turn Christianity into a purely reactionary morality play, and I understand that under these circumstances, liberals may wish to counter this reactionary tradition and highlight and strengthen the progressive strands of the Christian tradition.

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Tm 06.17.21 at 7:44 am

Conclusion: One can debate whether the OP is good politics but it’s hard to argue that it’s good philosophy.

65

Quiop 06.17.21 at 8:11 am

J-D: As you may have noticed, none of the statements from the Wikipedia article are value claims. They do not help us decide whether “coriander is delicious” is true or false, let alone decide whether there are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make coriander delicious. (There are objective facts built into the world that make some people experience coriander as delicious, but that isn’t the same thing.)

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Z 06.17.21 at 9:28 am

J-D @17 I am curious to know why people might think these statements are true, because they don’t seem at all plausible to me.

Well, 3 is not only false but the exact converse of the truth, making 4 necessarily logically false as well (meaningless, more precisely). 2 is extremely dubious, making 1 more or less meaningless (hard to evaluate whether the set of characteristics attached to X occurred before X when X does not actually exhibit these characteristics).

What is indeed true (and historically of paramount importance) is that the history of the intellectual values of egalitarianism, individual freedom etc. that Harry celebrates have been in the history of Western Europe interwoven with the history of Christianity, through the preservation of literacy in Christian monasteries during the Middle-Ages, the idea of religious reformation during the humanist Renaissance, the actual remarkable spread of universal adult male literacy during the Protestant Reformation, and from then on Wester post-Reformation philosophy. But the same is true, and to the act same extent, of exactly all the intellectual values that have permeated Western Europe, then its colonies and the rest of the world under Western influence.

So the intellectual problem with the statement “Again, you don’t have to be a Christian to embrace [the idea of individual moral responsibility]. But, like egalitarianism, it is an intellectual gift to us from Christianity” is not so much that it is false, it is that it carries no information. You could replace egalitarianism and the idea of individual moral responsibility by absolutist monarchy, extreme racial and social discrimination, collectivist anarchism, total subservience to written dogma, theocracy, indifference towards the supernatural, radical atheism etc. and you would find equal textual support not only in the Gospels but in historical dominant interpretations thereof and in actual historical events. For each Erasmus’s De libero arbitrio, there is a Luther’s De Servo Arbitrio and a Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître; for each Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, there is a Peter the Venerable’s Adversus Judeorum inueteratam duritiem.

For each love thy neighbor as thyself, there is a he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

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J-D 06.17.21 at 12:00 pm

J-D: As you may have noticed, none of the statements from the Wikipedia article are value claims. They do not help us decide whether “coriander is delicious” is true or false, let alone decide whether there are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make coriander delicious. (There are objective facts built into the world that make some people experience coriander as delicious, but that isn’t the same thing.)

As far as I can tell, the two statements ‘Coriander is delicious’ and ‘There are objective facts built into the fabric of the world that make coriander delicious’ have the same information content and any good reason to believe one would be an equally good reason to believe the other. As far as I can tell, the two statements ‘Some people experience coriander as delicious’ and ‘There are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make some people experience coriander as delicious’ have the same information content and any good reason to believe one would be an equally good reason to believe the other. And as far as I can tell, the two statements ‘Compassion is a virtue’ and ‘There are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make compassion a virtue’ have the same information content and and good reason to believe one would be an equally good reason to believe the other.

68

Quiop 06.17.21 at 1:50 pm

J-D @62:

If somebody can show me a good reason for believing that compassion is a virtue which is not an equally good reason for believing that it is an objective fact of the universe that compassion is a virtue, I will be highly interested.

I wrote my @65 while your @62 was still in moderation, but this might be clearer:

Suppose I have never tasted chocolate, but everyone tells me that chocolate is delicious. This is a good reason to believe that chocolate is delicious, but it is not a good reason to believe that it is an objective fact about the universe that chocolate is delicious. The statement “chocolate is delicious” simply isn’t that sort of statement.

In your terms, the “information content” of “chocolate is delicious” is something like “I enjoy eating chocolate”, or perhaps “most people enjoy eating chocolate”, or even “everyone enjoys eating chocolate”. The claim of moral realism is that we should not think of moral statements as subjective in this way: “compassion is a virtue” would be a true fact about the universe even if everybody believed it to be false, just as “the earth orbits the sun” would be a true fact about the universe even if everybody believed it to be false.

Have you read the SEP articles on moral realism and moral anti-realism? If you have read those articles (or comparable surveys of metaethics) and come to the conclusion that they contain no “information content” —well, that’s a perfectly respectable intellectual position to adopt, but it probably means metaethics just isn’t for you.

From the article on “moral realism:

much of the debate about moral realism revolves around either what it takes for claims to be true or false at all (with some arguing that moral claims do not have what it takes) or what it would take specifically for moral claims to be true (with some arguing that moral claims would require something the world does not provide).

69

Jim Buck 06.17.21 at 1:56 pm

@58 ‘I doubt very much that Pharaoh was considered “cursed” by anyone in ancient Egypt’

Akhenaten?

The Mind of Ancient Egypt (Jan Assman) p 153

“Between the weak and the strong,” Rousseau says at beginning of The Social Contract, “freedom is the oppressive and law the liberating principle.” It would be impossible to give clearer expression to the Egyptian concept of Ma’at.
The state of the Middle Kingdom was coextensive with the ordered world; it created and guaranteed a sphere of security and peace in which the laws of ma’at were valid. Ma’at is the law liberating the weak from oppression at the hands of the strong. The idea of liberation from oppression caused by inequality is informed by at least to a rudimentary extent by the idea of the equality of all human beings. As far as I can see, there is only one known Egyptian source that explicitly addresses this idea, but I believe this text to be representative of the Egyptian view. The text is an apologia by the creator and sun god, justifying his creation in order to “allay the indignation among the crew of the bark.” The sun god sims up his work of creation in the form of four deeds. He has created wind and water for all alike, he has instilled the fear of death into all human hearts, and above all he has made all men the same:

I have made each man the same as his neighbour
and have prohibited that they should do wrong.
But their hearts have violated my commandments.

It cannot be emphasised sufficiently that for the Egyptians inequality was not inherent in the creation or continuation of the world. Quite unlike, say, the Vedic view of the world, which understands caste hierarchy as the divine scheme of things, or ancient Greek anthropology, which regarded the difference between free citizens and slaves as entirely natural, the Egyptians did not see existing differences –between rich and poor, strong and weak–as part of the order of creation.”
(translated from the German by Andrew Jenkins)

70

Quiop 06.17.21 at 2:25 pm

As far as I can tell, the two statements ‘Coriander is delicious’ and ‘There are objective facts built into the fabric of the world that make coriander delicious’ have the same information content and any good reason to believe one would be an equally good reason to believe the other.

The question isn’t about reasons for believing or disbelieving that “coriander is delicious”, it’s about whether “coriander is delicious” can be true or false at all. (If you think it can — does this mean that either you or your daughter is wrong about coriander? If you think it can’t — in what way does “coriander is delicious” differ from “coriander is green”?)

71

Trader Joe 06.17.21 at 3:32 pm

Quiop

Please stop. J-D has been a language pedant on this board for more than a decade and in his mind is indisputably undefeated at such discussions. Your time is yours, but you will lose it. Thanks,

The rest of us

72

J, not that one 06.17.21 at 4:18 pm

There are two possible ways the world could be:

“The Holocaust was morally wrong,” is true, and “there is a fact baked into the world that causes the sentence to be true,” is just a fancy way of saying, “the sentence is true.” If this seems like mumbo-jumbo to you, maybe metaethics just isn’t for you.
“The Holocaust was morally wrong,” is true, because there is a fact baked into the world that causes the sentence to be true. This means it’s inadequate, false, and possibly relativistic to say that a sentence can be true for any other reason (than there being a fact baked into the world). If someone doesn’t see the difference, it might be that metaethics just isn’t for you.

I suppose it’s also possible that both of these are true and false simultaneously, or neither true nor false but indicative of some mysterious state of affairs, and what matters is asserting or denying them in the right place, at the right time, and while being the correct sort of person.

73

Quiop 06.17.21 at 4:50 pm

@Trader Joe:
Noted, with thanks.

74

Grimly Optimistic 06.17.21 at 5:10 pm

We lost so much when we lost the understanding of classical theism. To paraphrase M. David Litwa, educated theology is always Platonic, but popular theology never is. If God is a god—some praeternatural being within creation—then it would take personal experience or good evidence to argue for existence or nonexistence.

But if God is Being with a capital B—Plato’s “the Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” or Aquinas’ “Subsistent Existence Itself”—then whether or not God exists becomes a nonsensical question. God is by definition ultimate reality, the source and ground of all being, in whom we all live and move and have our being. The only question then becomes, what is ultimate reality like?

And if one has the courage to state clearly that moral values objectively exist, are real and true, that already begins to provide an answer.

75

Maria Farrell 06.17.21 at 6:06 pm

I love this talk/essay, Harry. Thank you. It clarifies so much for me.

And would that so many self-styled Christians who believe the ‘mumbo jumbo’ show the same enthusiasm for the teachings!

76

hix 06.17.21 at 6:42 pm

“It is therefore clear, for example, that we will not find a human society that considers theft, lying, and murder (towards ingroup members) to be virtues”
Hu? Most historic societies do not even know the concept of individual property, which makes theft difficult. Lying is a social expectation under many circumstances in every modern society. Even murder is not that clearcut.

77

Alex SL 06.17.21 at 10:29 pm

Grimly Optimistic,

The thing is, so-called classical theism becomes defensible and difficult to refute to exactly the degree it then becomes meaningless and not what the vast, vast majority of people understand the term god to mean, in other words it is not what any real-life discussion or concerns such as “will I persist after biological death” or “will god punish us if we don’t kill the heretics in our midst” are about.

The practice associated with classical theism is to use it as a motte and bailey fallacy:

Community worships a bearded guy on a cloud who helps them win football games and cures diseases if they pray enough. Sophisticated theologian ™ looks on, doesn’t correct them.
Atheist walks past and has a giggle.
Sophisticated theologian steps in and says, “you foolish, boorish atheist, you misunderstand completely how our religion works; we believe in an impersonal ground of being, nothing more.”
Atheist walks off.
Community goes back to praying to bearded man on cloud for personal health and fortune, uses holy book to justify bigotry against minorities, etc. Sophisticated theologian looks on, doesn’t correct them.

78

Peter Erwin 06.17.21 at 10:34 pm

hix @ 76
Most historic societies do not even know the concept of individual property, which makes theft difficult

Really? Can you name any of these marvelous societies? I mean, a quick perusal of ancient and non-Western law codes (e.g. Sumerian and Babylonian; Hittite; Egyptian; ancient Hindu; Maya, Aztec, and Inca) seems to always bring up theft as something bad and (in most cases) deserving of various forms of punishment.

(I’ll note that the three traditional virtues in Incan society were apparently ama sua = do not steal, ama llulla = do not lie, and ama quella = do not be lazy. And even if it wasn’t part of the moral triumvirate, murder was indeed considered a crime that merited the death penalty.)

79

Alex SL 06.17.21 at 10:44 pm

hix,

I am pretty sure that most historical societies would have known personal possessions. When you say they didn’t you are presumably referring to concepts such as land ownership, not to my stone age village neighbour nicking the shell necklace my wife gave me.

I will take everything back if you can point me towards a single society that encourages its members to, and considers it virtuous to: deceive fellow members, murder fellow members whenever you feel like it, steal from and defraud other members, be lazy at communal work, always expecting somebody else to do the heavy lifting, and be cowardly in the defense of the society.

80

Peter T 06.18.21 at 3:00 am

“Most historic societies do not even know the concept of individual property”. I don’t know where this belief comes from, but it is nonsense.

81

J-D 06.18.21 at 4:39 am

If you think it can’t — in what way does “coriander is delicious” differ from “coriander is green”?

For a moment I did think that the property of greenness is (in some relevant way) different from the property of deliciousness, but then I remembered Mark and I wasn’t so sure. Mark has red-green colour-blindness, and I have had the experience of sitting round the table with him and Robert and my daughter playing 7 Wonders and hearing him say that the card he was looking at was one of the colours that he couldn’t distinguish. To me the 7 Wonders red cards, green cards, and brown cards look plainly different, and imagining what it’s like for Mark when he looks at them is stranger than imagining what it’s like for my daughter when she eats coriander (or tries to), but there it is. This is not language pedantry, this is an actual event at which I was present.

Returning to ethical/moral statements:
If Statement 1 is
‘Compassion is a virtue’
and Statement 2 is
‘There are objective facts built into the fabric of the world which make compassion a virtue’
then as far as I can understand moral anti-realists, they don’t believe either of these statements and they don’t believe there are good reasons to believe either of these statements. So moral anti-realists (unless I have misunderstood what moral anti-realism is) can’t be expected to offer good reasons for believing Statement 1 which are not also good reasons for believing Statement 2 because they can’t be expected to offer good reasons for believing Statement 1 at all.

On the other hand, it’s not clear that all moral realists believe Statement 1. If there are moral realists who don’t believe Statement 1, then they also can’t be expected to offer good reasons for believing Statement 1 which are not also good reasons for believing Statement 2, because they can’t be expected to offer good reasons for believing Statement 1 at all.

But I’m sure there are moral realists who do believe Statement 1. For one, this is what Harry seems to be. If Harry believes, as it appears, that compassion is a virtue, it seems reasonable to expect that Harry could, if asked, offer his reasons for believing that compassion is a virtue. At this stage, I don’t know what those reasons are. However, if he did present good reasons for believing Statement 1, then I suspect, just as strongly as ever, despite having been informed about the difference between moral realists and moral anti-realists, that any good reasons for believing Statement 1 which Harry (or anybody else) might present would also turn out to be good reasons for believing Statement 2. It’s not, however, something which can be tested more definitely until the good reasons for believing Statement 1 have been produced.

@Trader Joe:
Noted, with thanks.

I’m not sure how it should affect the weight to be attached to Trader Joe’s opinion that Trader Joe is apparently under the impression that five years (I first commented here in 2016) …

J-D has been a language pedant on this board for more than a decade

… is more than a decade.

I suppose some people might think that insisting that five years is less than a decade, not more, is language pedantry. Do I need to add that I think otherwise?

82

Trader Joe 06.18.21 at 3:27 pm

@81 J-D
Apparently it just felt like a decade and I can’t deny my feelings even if I can’t prove them empirically.

I stand corrected on your posting timeline.

83

Quiop 06.18.21 at 4:20 pm

@JD, Trader Joe:
I’m pretty sure that at least a decade has passed since 2016. I’m surprised to find that other people don’t feel the same way. Depending on your philosophical assumptions, this might or might not commit me to believing it is an objective fact built into the fabric of the world that at least a decade has passed since 2016.

84

hix 06.18.21 at 4:46 pm

So what happens if someone takes “your” or “your wives (the role your wife does not even necessarily exist, even if it does sure not with the quasi property exclusivity claims of today…)” trinket 30000 years B.C. and wears it ? Suppose if it is a trinket that signifies a social role, that might have been considered a challenge to it. Other than that, your wife will pick it up and wear it the next day if she likes it and nothing happens.

Fast forward to today, and you got police intervening, when 300€ property damage is caused, while the same officers will watch and consider it disproportional to intervene while the same large crowd of drunks that is now doing the 300€ damage did a group hug with no mask half an hour before during the hight of the pandemic, since that part was “peaceful”. Or you get yelled at because your car door might have touched someone else´s car even so the person admits himself that there is definitely no damage to his car…..

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Jon Boeckenstedt 06.18.21 at 5:36 pm

I like to say, “I’m a Christian philosophically (a term I know I’ll be chastised for using with philosophers), but not a Christian theologically.

86

Alex SL 06.19.21 at 9:26 am

Hix,

I am sorry to say you have completely lost me. Are you making the argument that ethics are arbitrary in the sense that they are completely disconnected from human nature, that a human society could be found where stealing and lying is openly encouraged, because somebody gets mad at you if you bump your door into their car? I really can’t follow that argument, if that is the argument.

87

Tm 06.19.21 at 10:28 am

Jim Buck 69: „ I have made each man the same as his neighbour“

Wow, So this predates the US constitution‘s „all men are created equal“ by threethousand years and was already just as phony? Does anything ever change?

88

Jim Buck 06.19.21 at 8:09 pm

TM @87 If I understand Assman aright, it was more a matter of a primordial unity suffering a necessary disintegration; necessary, that is, in order to constitute the vocational roles of the crew of the boat of a million years e.g
I am he, as you are me, and we are all together.
One’s death initiated a reintegration, setting broken bones, and settling scores. Better out than in.

89

Tm 06.19.21 at 9:53 pm

Alex and hix: hix originally took issue with the claim that „we will not find a human society that considers theft, lying, and murder (towards ingroup members) to be virtues”.

Hix is definitely right to question that claim. Our society’s obsession with property is almost certainly a relatively recent phenomenon in the ca. 40000 year history of our species. I would however point out the obvious fact that there are very obviously societies that consider murder a virtue, at least under certain circumstances. Societies in fact that invest immense resources to train some of their members in murder, and commend them for being successful murderers.

You might object that this applies only to the murder of outgroup, not ingroup members. But the historic record (or the Bible if you prefer) shows that these concepts can be quite fluid, almost arbitrary, that even ingroup members can very quickly become victims of socially sanctioned („virtuous“) murder. It seems to me that sweeping claims about moral universals need to address these empirical observations.

90

Tm 06.19.21 at 10:11 pm

And regarding lying: just look at Trump and how many self-declared Christians really do consider his habitual lying virtuous.

91

John Quiggin 06.20.21 at 12:39 am

@89 “Treason never prospers, what’s the reason? If it prosper, none dare call it treason”. I think much the same can be said about theft and murder. If society approves of taking something, it isn’t theft, and if society approves of killing someone it isn’t murder.

I’d be willing to defend the claim “All societies have rules about who can take and use things and about the circumstances in which people can be hurt or killed”. Moreover, most of the time, breaking the rules is regarded as morally wrong.

But I don’t think that gets us to moral universals.

92

Alex SL 06.20.21 at 5:42 am

Tm,

I may not have expressed myself clearly enough, because a lot of this has nothing to do with my argument, which, again, was that human morals are not entirely arbitrary.

“You might object that this applies only to the murder of outgroup, not ingroup members.” Yes, that was a major caveat of my argument from the start, and it follows logically from the idea that our morals evolve out of (a) our nature and (b) what makes a functional society – how that society treats non-members is secondary, because, yes, it could treat them appallingly while still working well as a society. (Until the neighbours have had enough and do to it what happened to the ancient Assyrians, that is.)

“Trump lies” – again, to harm an outgroup. They are deluded, of course, but his followers think he is on their side when he is ‘triggering the libs’.

Apart from that, what John Quiggin said: killing, stealing from, or enslaving the “other” is not even murder, because they don’t have the status that makes it murder. Consider, for example, how colonists would have rationalised their treatment of the indigenous people when taking their land or chaining them up for forced labour. Then consider what they would have had said about one colonist doing precisely the same thing to another colonist who hasn’t broken any rules. And when you say “training people for murder” you presumably refer to armies, which aren’t designed for murdering ingroup members either but to conquer new resources for the ingroup, so it doesn’t fit the definition of murder either.

“Our society’s obsession with property is almost certainly a relatively recent phenomenon in the ca. 40000 year history of our species.” Quite apart from the fact that I never quite understand why people locate the origin of our species where they do (why not 400,000 years, or why not ~5,000,000 years ago when our lineage split off from the chimps?), I just really strongly doubt that statement.

Yes, hunter-gatherers 35,000 years ago would not have had, very specifically, cars to consider their personal property. But they would also have had personal property that they either had an emotional attachment to (e.g. shell necklace) or that they required for their status or even survival (e.g. the stone axe that I spent quite some time getting just right, and now would rather use myself, and you can make your own, thank you very much). They would also have divided up the meat in a way that guarantees that everybody gets a fair share, and then punished a bully for stealing that share from somebody else.

The moment they started farming and becoming sedentary, concepts such as “our clan’s farmland” or even “my farmland” and certainly “our family’s house” become not a ‘weird obsession’ but entirely unavoidable if you want farming and being sedentary to work in the first place. You are simply not going to spend half the year tilling the soil and weeding if you know that some other guy can just walk off with all your harvest.

93

Gorgonzola Petrovna 06.20.21 at 1:11 pm

@Alex SL 92 “…but entirely unavoidable if you want farming and being sedentary to work in the first place”

So, then, ethics is not an attribute of ‘human nature’ (per 86) but of ‘relations of production’?

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Peter T 06.20.21 at 2:17 pm

The assertion about property is weird. Forager groups have reasonable well-defined territories, and clear ideas about what is general property (anyone of our group can fish in that stream), property of some particular sub-group (only emu clan members can take fruit from those trees) and personal property (my stick/bag/fur cloak). These are well documented by anthropologists. Where any other notion came from I have no idea.

95

steven t johnson 06.20.21 at 3:03 pm

If by moral universals, one means timeless; logically necessary; potentially knowable by a priori reason; a coherent system, at least, if not capped by a summum bonum, and such like, personally I do not believe any such project has ever succeeded. Nor can it. I think morals, given the pragmatic sanction of being rules for living (which after all most people do want,) are how you treat other people. Thus, objective morals are dependent on social construction, historical tradition, rational critique by individuals coping with change, contests between groups devising new ways of life.

The thing is, it seems to me that objective knowledge is not about discovering the metaphysical. But knowing the origins, the changes, the outcomes is to actually know something. Imagining something eternal is just that, imagination, not knowledge. The functions and contests of morals are moral knowledge, not a code by which anyone can play Lord Acton’s hanging judge.

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Tm 06.20.21 at 8:32 pm

If murder is defined as illegal killing and theft as illegal taking, then the statement „no society considers murder and theft virtuous“ is pretty much a tautology.

If the commandment not to kill doesn’t apply to outgroup members, and if it’s easy for those in power to declare anybody they wish to kill outgroup (e. g. heretics, traitors, people accused of a crime), you are really saying not much more than: it depends.

And if lying is considered acceptable „to harm an outgroup“, how exactly do you distinguish between an ingroup liar and an outgroup liar? Trump is a particularly bad example because he’s lying to everybody, very much including his supporters. But let’s take a nonpolitical example. If you have the intention to leave your spouse for somebody else, and you lie to her, she’s outgroup and you are fine, right? You are ending up with let’s say a very high degree of relativism. Whether or not lying, stealing, killing are wrong really depends on the circumstances and how they are perceived by the relevant members of the society in question. And that, no more and no less, was my point, and JQs if I’m not mistaken.

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Tm 06.20.21 at 8:43 pm

94: My understanding is that these claims are rather disputed, at least as universal claims supposedly true for all societies. But I agree with JQ that probably all societies have had some form of rules about resource use. In many cases, most resources were considered communal and decisions concerning them were taken collectively, and individuals that disregarded such collective decisions might have been sanctioned, but it doesn’t follow that our society’s concept of theft is a useful frame of interpretation for how different societies dealt with such questions.

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Alex SL 06.20.21 at 9:33 pm

Gorgonzola,

I refer to my comment at #59, where (b) is what you are saying in slightly different words.

Peter T,

Indeed. I can only guess that it is either some kind of noble savage myth-making, or a dismissal of personal property like “my clothes” as somehow unimportant compared to land, which was collectively owned and managed in many societies.

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MisterMr 06.20.21 at 10:46 pm

@J-D 81

Suppose that I buy a book with a green cover about ancient Rome, and find it very interesting.
Both the fact that the cover is green and that the content is intetresting are empirically true to me.

Then I lend it to a friend who is color blind, and after some days he tells me: that book with a red cover you lent me was extremely boring.

The assertion that the book has a red cover is objectively wrong, it is an assertion about chemicals on the cover and is not a matter of opinion, in the same sense that infrared light exists even if we don’t perceive it.

The assertion that the book is boring though is not objectively wrong: if I’m interested in ancient Rome and my friend is not, the book will click my buttons but not those of my friend. This assertion then is not about an objective property of the book, yet it is absurd to say that the assertion “this book is intetesting” has no meaning. This would fall in Quiop’s category 2.

The assertion “this book is objectively intetesting” is different from the assertion “this book is interesting” because it carries the additional meaning that the interestingness of the book is part of the same group of phenomena as the greenness of the book.

In the 20th century a good number of philosophers of science, math and logic were worried that a lot of funny stuff was passed as science and thus developed a set of criteria, like that of falsifiability, that serve the purpose of ruling out a lot of statements that don’t fall into the objective class 1 from science.

This is arguably a good scientific method but suck at describing “meaning” because the purpose of it is to distinguish between scientific and unscientific and not between it carries meaning and it doesn’t carry meaning, even if said philosophers often conflated the two things.

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