Thoughts on a conversation with secular humanists (A first post of many)

A friend of mine and I were in downtown Lincoln, NE, last Friday night (as been our pseudo-ritual this summer), where there is a particular street preacher who we occasionally have discussions with. Evidently, over the course of the past year, the Lincoln Secular Humanists have taken it upon themselves to stand on the opposite street corner with signs that say things like “Good Morals Don’t Come from the Bible,” “Humanists Don’t Blow Up Buildings,” and my personal favorite, “Honk for Tolerance.” Words and their actual meanings aside, the most interesting part of the night was a conversation James and I had with two humanists on the nature and existence of morals.

At one point, we wondered where they thought their morals came from, to which they replied, “our parents,” who got them from their parents, etc. They insisted that they were not relativists, yet some form of moral relativism, while not guaranteed in such a system, is eminently possible (and, I would argue, probable). Eventually, they shifted their position slightly and said we should refrain from doing certain things (like random killings, torturing babies for fun, etc.) because they either are illegal or, more generally, they would prevent the continuation of the species. These are generally true descriptions of the way the world is. If I abide by the law, I will refrain from committing all sorts of heinous acts and I will help to continue the existence of the human race (if only by refraining from taking members out of it). These are true facts, though they say nothing as to whether or not I am a “good” person, because they do not define goodness, only legally acceptable things. Further, they offer no account of the value, or oughtness, implicit in the statement “murder is wrong,” for instance. Why is murder wrong, and not simply illegal? Why is the continuation of the human race considered a “good” thing? Invariably, it seems to me that this eventually, in one form or another, regresses to a statement of “because I/we said so,” without ever addressing the real question of moral content. If a society exists in which murder is not necessarily wrong, but allowed in certain circumstances, we begin to tread relativistic waters. And yet the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), among others, endorses a universal morality.

In his book, “A Christan Manifesto,” Francis Schaeffer points out that “Humanism, with its lack of any final base for values or law, always leads to chaos. It then naturally leads to some form of authoritarianism to control the chaos.” I do not think it’s difficult to see why this would be true, if man is indeed the measure of all things. How dangerous is that idea! One sometimes hates always bagging on Nazi Germany, but it’s just such a good example of what can go wrong when we take our prescriptives for morality and behavior from societal codes: chaos and authoritarianism.

Note that, regardless of what they thought we were saying, we never once accused them of being immoral people. No properly functioning Christian would accuse a humanist of being completely amoral. Of course, everyone is capable of immoral behavior; that’s not the issue. We merely pointed out that they cannot account for a moral order in the world. They may certainly point to laws and parental directives, but that is to simply skirt the issue of the existence of a universal moral order.

As I continue to pursue a career in academia, I am  constantly reminded (and disheartened) at the pervasiveness of secular humanism in the academy, both among my fellow graduate students as well as my professors. As such, I am anticipating an ongoing series of thoughts on conversations I have with my fellow students and others on this subject. I’ll doubtless post on other topics, as well, but this is a theme (along with the more general theme of the intersection of Christianity and the academy) that I will continue to explore, especially as I have a chance to attend the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s National Faculty Forum, entitled “The Crisis of the University: Religion and the Future of the Academy,” this fall.

MKJ

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on a conversation with secular humanists (A first post of many)

  1. Humans are born with an innate moral sense. This is fine tuned by their upbringing and experiences. We see this operate across cultures times and religions. We see it occasionally and tragically break down. It probably exists because human groups without some sense of moral behavior did not survive.

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  2. “And why would they want to survive?”
    Because those that wanted to survive had a better chance of surviving so we mostly got their genes.

    Bugs are a poor choice, because they don’t have the intelligence to need any moral sense. There are other animals that exhibit behaviors that we regard as moral, such as altruism.

    The reality of why we are moral doesn’t change the meaning that being moral or leading moral life has for us. (It seems a no-brainer that we are born with an innate moral sense when we can identify those who aren’t and classify them as socio/psychopaths.

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  3. But he did do a good an noble thing. I don’t see how knowing where our appreciation and understanding for what is good comes from, changes that appreciation. It doesn’t do it for me. It doesn’t change the value I place on those actions.

    After all many times those sacrifices do not protect his genes. If a firefighter runs into a burning building to rescue someone he has no relation to that is (in a purely selfish sense) a mis application of his altruistic sense. But we admire it anyways, because we recognize it as an act that most people wouldn’t perform. In a sense we have come to value seemingly counter evolutionary characteristics. Perhaps that is what causes their rarity that makes it so much more noteworthy.

    None of these things should reduce your admiration for altruism.

    I’m not sure what you mean when you say “Your other argument though entails intelligence being a deficit” Are you referring to my comment about the bugs? As far as we know bugs do good things and bad things indifferent to their morality because they do not have a moral sense. I’m not sure what “wasted calories” or “abandoned photons” means, but they are your value judgments, the universe as far as we know makes no value judgments.

    Interesting discussion. I find that discussions with theists often go this way because religion contains so much more content than a simple atheist world view. It doesn’t contain values, morals, taboos, etc… This doesn’t mean atheists don’t have those things! It just means that what they are not a function of pure atheism. You need more (i.e. Humanism) for these things.

    Oh I skipped a bit:
    “Because the reality of why we are moral, determines the meaning, and some interpretations of what that “why” really is, imply that there is no meaning whatsoever, and if no meaning, no morality”
    But there is meaning. My life has meaning. More importantly it has the meaning that I give it. This reality makes that meaning much more…eh…meaningful. It is not some artificial purpose or plan handed down from someone or something that I don’t know or can’t understand. I get to decide what is important and meaningful to me. The why and morals come from the meaning which then is intensely personal and of course entirely subjective.

    This is very different from the religious viewpoint. I think that is why it is difficult for those that haven’t lived without a religion to wrap their brains around at first.

    Thanks for the discussion.

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  4. And why would they want to survive? Survival, without a meaning or value somehow related to that “innate moral sense” you refer to, would make it a needless encumbrance. After all, bugs survive and seem happily devoid of a good moral sense. If there were not some truth to it, some actual relation to the real world, I think I could do reasonably well without it. I hope we realize how dangerous the thought is that we all have a little moral something stuck somewhere in our meat, but there is really nothing to it. It leaves us just a strange moral meat. No more or less meat than cows or fried chicken, and only slightly more interesting.

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  5. “Because those that wanted to survive had a better chance of surviving so we mostly got their genes.”

    I will admit that it is true that things that want to survive have a better chance of surviving. Rather notoriously, things that do not want to survive do not survive as well. And yes, we got more genes from living things than from dead ones.

    Your other argument though entails intelligence being a deficit, because there is no reason to regard survival as a benefit. We’re just a plague of wasted calories. A sinkhole in the universe for abandoned photons.

    The last statement seems to agree far more with what I see the world as being than what you seem to imply that it is, so I’ll just agree with you. Because the reality of why we are moral, determines the meaning, and some interpretations of what that “why” really is, imply that there is no meaning whatsoever, and if no meaning, no morality, because if what we call “morality” is really just physio-chemistry, it doesn’t mean anything like what we use the term to imply, and we should probably use some other terms that more clearly convey the thought. Like, instead of good, “gene-guarding” or RTSI, “responding to survival instinct”. The next time someone risks their life to save someone in need or protect their children from harm, we won’t say they did a “good” or a “noble” thing. We will just say, “That guy really guards his genes efficiently.”

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  6. I’m wondering how (by a non-theistic way) I can justify believing that the killing of an infant is evil/wrong/bad, if the person who has committed the act thinks it good/right/justifiable. Say for instance (and I don’t mean to be flippant about people being killed) a group of people kill another group of people and because this first group of people want to survive they kill all the women and children from the second group so as to not have the chance of a revenge attack and thereby keep their genetical lineage intact…is this a case of the strongest surviving? and therefore I am unable to believe that the act was evil/wrong/bad because it was merely the better traits of survival winning out over the lesser.

    Jordan

    P.S. I’m glad that you engage in conversation instead of just brushing off other ideas; that shows a great deal of maturity and desire for truth that I rarely get to see where I am at.

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  7. “I’m wondering how (by a non-theistic way) I can justify believing that the killing of an infant is evil/wrong/bad, if the person who has committed the act thinks it good/right/justifiable. Say for instance (and I don’t mean to be flippant about people being killed) a group of people kill another group of people and because this first group of people want to survive they kill all the women and children from the second group so as to not have the chance of a revenge attack and thereby keep their genetical lineage intact…is this a case of the strongest surviving? and therefore I am unable to believe that the act was evil/wrong/bad because it was merely the better traits of survival winning out over the lesser.”
    Not at all. Evolution is science and science has nothing to do with morality. Moral questions cannot be considered scientifically. Science tells us the way the world is, and tries to explain how it came to be that way, but it cannot tell us how things should be. That would be determined by our values. If you value human life, like I do, you would find the murder of innocent people abhorrent and immoral. Genetics have nothing to do with morality.

    I kind of think this is an easy mistake for a theist to make, even though to a non-theist it seems rather ludicrous. it is just that the theist is very used to getting their stories of how things got the way they are through the same way they get their moral lessons. For the non-theist these are very separate things.

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  8. So one’s values are completely worthless? What I mean is that if one’s values are merely what they make of them then they have no intrinsic value and are a mere fabrication of the imagination (seeing as how they have nothing to do with genetics, they must be of the mind).

    Although on another account, I’d like to see a good explanation of the mind from a non-theistic belief system.

    Jordan

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  9. “So one’s values are completely worthless?”
    Not at all. They are essential in defining who a person is.

    “What I mean is that if one’s values are merely what they make of them then they have no intrinsic value and are a mere fabrication of the imagination (seeing as how they have nothing to do with genetics, they must be of the mind).”
    Morals do not exist outside the mind. Though something very much like them seem to exist inside other animals. (At least we see the behavior, we can only guess the way they may “think” about it.) This does not imply that they have no value, we give them value like everything else.

    But morals certainly do have something to do with genetics. Our genes are responsible for the framework that our brain uses to make moral decisions. When I said “Genetics have nothing to do with morality” I meant that the science of genetics cannot answer moral questions.

    “Although on another account, I’d like to see a good explanation of the mind from a non-theistic belief system.”
    The mind is simply what the organ we call the brain does. It’s a feeling and thinking machine that runs the body and creates our sense of self and awareness.

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  10. Joe,
    You seem to be contridicting yourself.

    Under comment #9 you stated
    “But morals certainly do have something to do with genetics. Our genes are responsible for the framework that our brain uses to make moral decisions. When I said “Genetics have nothing to do with morality” I meant that the science of genetics cannot answer moral questions.” My focus is on the first two sentences, but I put the whole paragraph in there so one wouldn’t think I am just twisting your words.

    But under comment #7 you stated
    “Not at all. Evolution is science and science has nothing to do with morality. Moral questions cannot be considered scientifically. Science tells us the way the world is, and tries to explain how it came to be that way, but it cannot tell us how things should be. That would be determined by our values. If you value human life, like I do, you would find the murder of innocent people abhorrent and immoral. Genetics have nothing to do with morality.”

    Now I understand that you stated that what you meant by “Genetics have nothing to do with morality” as saying “I meant that the science of genetics cannot answer moral questions”; but my concern is that you said “Evolution is science and science has nothing to do with morality” and yet if “humans are borne with an innate moral sense. This is fine tuned by their upbringing and experiences.” and “The mind is simply what the organ we call the brain does. It’s a feeling and thinking machine that runs the body and creates our sense of self and awareness.” Then would evolution not have everything to do with morals?

    That last paragraph has a lot of quotation in it, let me try to explain:
    When I mean you are contridicting yourself is when you state that evolution (genetics and environment) has to do with one’s moral values and also state that evolution (genetics and environment) has nothing to do with one’s moral values. If the “mind” is just the action of the brain, then how is that not merely the firings of little nuerons that are determined by genetics. And again, if morals are subjective (if they have nothing to do with evolution, and they are ascribed by the individual person: which means by their mind) and the mind is just the action by which the brain operates, then how does evolution have nothing to do with morals?

    I hope you understand what I’m trying to get across, I’m a little sick right now and so if anyone else would like to fine tune what I’m saying that would be great.

    Take care,
    Jordan

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  11. Jordan:
    I think the confusion comes from the use of the word evolution to describe two different things and imprecise use of language.

    Obviously evolution has to do with morals in the sense that our mental faculties to ask and answer moral questions is a human feature that is the result of evolutionary processes. In that way evolution is involved with morality.

    When I said “Evolution is science and science has nothing to do with morality” I was being careless. What I was really trying to say is that science cannot be used to answer moral questions. By moral questions I mean questions like “Should one steal?” Such a question is beyond the ability of science to explore. It might be able to tell us that there is a selective pressure acting on human groups to discourage stealing (or encourage it), but it can’t tell us whether or not that SHOULD be the case.

    In other words, science is descriptive not proscriptive. It says what is, not what should be.

    The reason for this is that morality is subjective and depends on the values of the individual or society. If you value personal property than you say stealing is wrong, but if you value your life more than personal property than there are situations where you might decide that stealing is wrong. If you have to choose between starving and stealing the choice is obvious because your life is more valuable to you.

    I hope this clears up the apparent contradiction for you.

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  12. “And so it is with many atheistic thinkers. Truth, is subjective.”
    NO! Truth is not subjective! Values are subjective. Morality is subjective.

    But brute facts about the world are either true or false. There is a big difference between a statement like “The Earth orbits the Sun in about 365.25 days” and “You should not steal”. One is objective and can be supported by evidence, the other is subjective and must be qualified by an appeal to value.

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  13. But Jordan, Joe already stated his meaning of life…

    “But there is meaning. My life has meaning. More importantly it has the meaning that I give it. This reality makes that meaning much more…eh…meaningful. It is not some artificial purpose or plan handed down from someone or something that I don’t know or can’t understand. I get to decide what is important and meaningful to me. The why and morals come from the meaning which then is intensely personal and of course entirely subjective.” Joe.

    And so it is with many atheistic thinkers. Truth, is subjective. You cannot have a truth and then give the meaning of such things to a merely subjective interpretation, and then say the truth is, that there is no God. He has already said that our truth is as good as his merely because we choose to define it as we do. So even if he were right, he would be wrong. If his truth is that my truth is whatever I make of it and decide it to be then when I choose to think that he is wrong, by definition, I am right. He gets to decide what is meaningful to him, and apparently, it is opinions. Of course, none of this has anything to do with what is actually true but in order to get to truth one must first understand that there is a truth to get to. If someone really believes that they create their own meaning from some subjective impulse, so be it, but then atheism is just as subjective an impulse as any other and cannot really be called true with any rational import. It is a mood. Like melancholy or fatigue.

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  14. Joe,

    Sorry to sidetrack, but I just read a previous comment: “You need more (i.e. Humanism) for these things.”
    Could you define Humanism for me? And how it differs (if it does) from Atheism?

    Thank you,
    Jordan

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  15. I am not a Humanist so take anything I say with a grain of salt. I think their website is humanism.org or something if you want to know more about it.

    Humanism goes beyond atheism (the simple lack of belief in god) to define a set of positive human values. A system of values essentially defines a moral/ethical system. It is in a way an attempt at a “godless church”. A social and active community with a common world view and common values.

    I am not a Humanist though, so I don’t specifically know what they do.

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  16. This may seem trivial, but I would think of atheism not as “the simple lack of belief in god” but the assertive belief that there is no “higher being”. Maybe I’m just arguing semantics, but atheism isn’t just a lack of belief but an assertive claim to a belief and thereby knowledge…I guess I kind of touched on this on your blog Joe on the question of Richard Dawkins and his proselytising (I hope I’m spelling that correctly).
    Jordan

    P.S. hopefully in a few days I’ll be over my cold and will come back to some questions I have for you on genetics/evolution/morals/values/whatever/else/I/can/put/in/between/these/slash/marks 🙂 come on…laugh.

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  17. I won’t laugh cause that’s the kinda crap that stretches my screen! 😦

    Atheism can be used to mean either, but the most general use (i.e. most accurate and inclusive) is the simple lack of belief. See my Strong vs. Weak post on my blog for more details.

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  18. I laugh more than most, but I also have an odd sense of humor. I was just teasing you, it wasn’t long enough to mess up the screen. It’s those god-awful mile long URLs that do it.

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