A Religious Liberal Blog

This site hopefully can provide some vehicle by which I can comment, complain, and once in a while praise the state of religion in this country and around the world from a liberal protestant perspective.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Myths to Live By

The newest issue of Free Inquiry and they had a piece by Richard Dawkins and in this he presents a question: why not appeal to universal morality rather than the Bible to mediate morality?

It's odd to read about universal morality, because it's something that is progressive for Dawkins. This vision is being negotiated over time, but always in a better state than before. I'm not sure where the evidence for this can be found, except in isolated cases.

From genocide to slavery our atrocities as humans continues. And if the cases for improvement are isolated, than have we reached a universal morality? I can grant that life is better for gays now than 3o years ago in a few places. And Dawkins appeals to this issue.

But in most of the world, this is *not* the case. Witness Nigeria's consideration of legislation which bans any gays from meeting with each other, supporting organizations, etc. So isn't the universal really some modern liberal sensibilities that Dawkins holds?

I hold them as well. But such ideas have a history and connect little with most of the globe, so what makes them universal? The other question is if we are negotiating these moral standards, why close off resources, including thousands of years of tradition?

Why not look at the Bible, the Qur'an, Homer, Plato as well as the best minds and resources of today in wrestling with the question: how shall we live? We may find something objectionable in these texts, but that's no different than finding things wrong with current thought.

There is no pure standpoint (universal morality) to judge ancient texts. There is nothing higher to appeal to evaluate ancient and current moral understandings. So all we have is us, our history, our tradition, and the resulting engagement of these things.

And in the end, where do we learn these things but by stories/myths, whether it's the myth of Genesis or the myth of progressive development? We're story tellers and listeners of stories. Not abstract philosophic treatises but stories capture the mind.

I'm not sure what Dawkins replaces this with but it may be that the limits of modern atheism is the lack of a good story and the means to communicate that story in an engaging fashion so as to build communities, raise children, and communicate values.

That is, atheism is really bad at perpetuating memes.


At 9:57 PM , Blogger Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Good Post!!!

Whether we like it or not, the moral stories emerge from a variety of religious and philosophical works, most ancient, but continually reflected upon. To appeal to some kind of Universal Morality requires either something that is innate to us all, but then where would such an idea derive from? Or, well, I'm kind of stumped!!!

I think you're right, about atheism's lack of stories, which may be a major reason why it finds so few takers.

At 12:49 AM , Blogger DavidD said...

How much morality is genetic? How much is cultural? How much is spiritual? I know I have a conscience, but it doesn't tell me how much of each of these caused me to have a conscience.

Some people are incredulous about our having a genetic morality, but there are simple possibilities. We have mirror neurons that mimic the movements and emotions of other people. There are genes behind those. Mirror neurons are probably a large part of our having empathy and may be a large part of a simple innate moral principle such as it being wrong to hurt someone who is sufficiently like me. Culture teaches who is sufficiently like me, whether that's all humans and even other species or whether it's only a few people, everyone else being scum. The thing about this is that later this century it will be clear whether such genes exist or not. If they do, one could argue this is not an absolute standard of morality, but at least it is some standard, enough for evolution to have selected it for the benefits of cooperation that come to us this way. It is pragmatic.

Of course there are many ways this innante morality gets sidetracked, from brain disease or a diseased culture. Yet that's true for religiously based morality as well. Religious morality is not pragmatic unless one just sees it as how to get to heaven. Religious morality can become much more rigid and unforgiving when it's not pragmatic. Is that really God's way or is it the biological morality that we will eventually learn is God's way?

At 11:49 AM , Anonymous Chris T. said...

DavidD --

I think we can suss out at least some of what is cultural by looking at the historical picture. The idea that torture is categorically wrong is an incredibly recent innovation in human morality, even among Christians. Surely that isn't genetic, if it's only just appeared, and is even now not universally held? Gay rights are the subject of much argument -- surely support for LGBT people is not genetic? Even among highly cultured societies like ancient Rome and the Italy of the doges, shocking brutality was commonplace. It's commonplace here in the 21st century.

I don't think genetics gets us very far. We seem to be genetically programmed to care most about those who look and act like us. We *also* have the genetic resources to be quite good, but these have to be cultivated and formed through cultural and religious narratives.

Gloria Steinem had an interesting piece on This I Believe, which I blogged about here -- I think she's right that the answer to "Nature or nurture?" is both. Nature doesn't get us 100%, or even 30 or 40%, of the way.

At 1:58 PM , Blogger DavidD said...

You may notice that nowhere did I say morality is 100% genetic. In fact I did say that culture has to teach us who is worthy of our mirron neurons' attention.

The point is that those who say morality can have no basis in biology are assuming too much. Exactly what basis morality has in biology will be better understood when everything about the human genome is understood, but even in the present one can get some sense of that. Empathy is a biological trait as well as something to be taught. How much does biology mean to how well empathy can be taught? No one can put a meaningful number on that. It is possible that someday genetics will show genetic variations that relate to who's more or less likely to have enough empathy which would be among various biological, cultural and spiritual factors that lead to have more or less support for LGBT people. Do you think that's all a matter of choice? Maybe that's true, but I'm skeptical.

No human behavior is 100% genetic. Even how fast we breathe depends on what our environment is telling our autonomic nervous system. But genetics is always relevant as we are biological creatures. So finding torture to be wrong does depend on empathy and the biology that allows us to have empathy. How can it make sense to say that any human behavior or value can be 100% devoid of genetics?

At 2:13 PM , Blogger DavidD said...

Let me put it this way. It is essential to be breathing to be moral in any way. That's not 30-40%. It's also not 100% of what it means to be moral. Still breathing is essential. For some people that comes easily. For some who are ill breathing takes so much effort and attention it's hard for them to do much else.

There is no reality behind saying that genetics or nature gets people 30-40% of the way toward some behavior. Genetics is essential. So are some other things. You can't look to a bunch of essential things and say this one is important and the rest aren't.

At 4:35 PM , Anonymous Chris T. said...

I think the morality that is coded in biologically is quite limited. Again, we have plenty of history, even in the last century, and plenty of psychological studies on top of that, which illustrate just how brutal human beings can be.

That's not to say that it's choice. Biology vs. free choice is a false dichotomy. Culture, religion, family environment, economics, and a host of other considerations trump biology and restrict our own personal choices.

But I think relying on some sort of in-born morality, as Dawkins wants to do, will not get us very far at all. The huge system of laws that civilization rests on are not automatically obeyed. Dawkins is beyond naive for believing that we can give up all the "irrational" ethical narratives we rely on and still keep the rule of law.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home