Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Hitchens/Prager/D'Souza Debate Part II

This is part of an ongoing series based on a debate between Christopher Hitchens, Dennis Prager, and Dinesh D’Souza.

Question 2: What is the proper response to the ethical claims of the new atheists? In the Hitchens / Prager / D’Souza debate, Christopher Hitchens maintained (as many new atheists do) that religion is questionable because it does not conform to his superior morality. He furthermore indicated that human beings are quite capable of having a uniform, agreed to, moral and ethical system that is “good” and indeed better than that obtainable through religions. Hitchens claims to believe in altruism, mercy, and most of the normal virtues as well as the Golden Rule. Is this really tenable? Certainly people have been working on this project for over two-thousand years. People have wanted to have the benefits of objective morality without the cost of believing in the God behind reason and morality. Usually this is motivated by a desire to omit certain parts of morality—particularly those dealing with sexuality. Sometimes I think it is just due to a response of anger against God for specific or general suffering in the world. There have been a wide variety of feelings, approaches, and hypotheses used to try to fulfill this quest for a morality without a divine author. Atheists have attempted to come up with means of claiming that altruism supports the survival of the fittest. Kant tried to find a way to create an objective moral system that was based purely upon human will. In truly post-modern fashion, the community of new atheists have basically tried to claim through sheer force of hubris and rhetoric that every reasonable person agrees with them about morality. But there are problems with these claims.

To begin with, I would admit the existence of common objective moral principles in all of mankind, in all cultures, and throughout all time. I openly admit that those moral principles have not been kept by any human being, culture, or society. But all human beings, cultures, and societies are aware of the requirements of objective moral principles. Ironically, Christopher Hitchens seemed to indicate that he believed in the existence of such an objective moral standard. The problem for him is that the existence of that moral standard is one of the strongest evidences for the existence of God. And not just any god, but rather the specific God found in classic Christian theology. Atheists attempt to argue that natural conditions of the world result in the evolution of identical moral principles everywhere. This makes little or no sense. In the animal world, we see highly diverse and numerous ways of dealing with environmental needs which have evidently “evolved” or been designed to appear in different species in different places. All creatures have the need for obtaining the raw material necessary for life and for digesting it in some way for growth and for reproduction. Yet these simple needs are dealt with through a myriad of strategies. Even in creatures of the same species, various strategies may occur in populations in different areas. The same species of bird in different regions may use different mating calls. Apes in different areas may have different techniques for satisfying their need for nourishment. One group uses primitive tools to eat termites whereas another neglects that but has special techniques for obtaining fruit in higher trees. Likewise, there is no reason to suppose that if human beings genuinely developed through evolution in separate communities, each of these communities would come up with identical and objective moral principles. Yet this is what we find. While application of moral principles may vary in certain ways, the basic moral principles themselves remain the same. And it is difficult to associate those moral principles with mere survival of the race or the best genetic material. Extreme altruism usually results in the destruction of the unit bearing the genetic material that might in some way be associated with the altruism. Yet we all find that altruism is indeed good and desirable. It simply is less likely to result in survival than a certain degree of ruthlessness. The reason altruism has prospered and survived is because there is an altruistic God behind the universe, not because survival in a hostile environment is made more likely through altruistic behavior. Survival of the group perhaps, but not survival of the most altruistic individuals. Scientists are trying to come up with theories that explain how altruism could have developed through evolution, but I have not found any of them particularly satisfying. Instead, it appears to me that the universal existence of an objective admiration for altruism is, in fact, evidence of an altruistic God behind the universe itself. I wouldn’t claim that this is a completely conclusive “proof.” But I would claim that it is evidence. Indeed, in a side note, it is interesting that atheism really is not an adequate explanation for the twists and turns of history. Based on evolutionary ideas, we would expect the “fittest” groups to be those that survive and are dominant. Yet this is not the case. It has quite often been the case that underdogs have survived, flourished, and been victorious due to apparently unexpected and unanticipated twists and turns of history. Certainly you can try to find an explanation for all of them, but it’s really quite amazing how often it happens. In spite of repeated and bitter attempts to destroy them, the survival of the Jewish people and of Protestant Christians is really quite remarkable. By contrast, the great towering empires of atheism such as China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Cuba have not flourished, prospered, or succeeded in their goals. The new Soviet man has not evolved from the socialist economic environment.

Next, another issue within this question, if altruistic transcultural objective morality is not achievable through evolution, is it achievable through philosophy? I would not even hazard to try to attempt a full argument on this subject on a blog. It’s simply too large and I’m probably not well trained enough in all of the aspects of philosophy to answer the most sophisticated philosophical arguments. But if Nietzsche and post-modern philosophers have achieved anything, it is an excellent refutation of the attempt by modernism and materialism to have an objective rational morality without God. I think they make it clear that the real choice is between classic
Christianity and nihilism. Of course within nihilism there are both the “hostile ubermensch branch” and the “community-based wishful thinking branch.” But neither of them meets the need for objective transcultural moral principles.

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