Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil?



Tonight on Wednesday, November 17, 2010, from 7:00-8:30 p.m., I attended the "Is Religion a Force for Good or Evil?" debate at Grand Canyon University at 33rd Avenue and Camelback in Phoenix, Arizona. Grand Canyon University is a Christian institution. The debaters where Dinesh D'Souza, a Christian and influential political conservative who grew up in India, and Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic and the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

In this essay, I will summarize what I found to be the most significant points made by both presenters; afterwards, I will present a few personal reactions.

D'Souza presented first. Although he intended to defend religion generally, he intentionally focused primarily on Christianity. He stated that the secular values that we take for granted in the modern world actually have their foundation in Christianity; in particular, the notion that compassion should be central to our dealings in the world is deeply connected to Christianity. He noted that Aristotle does not emphasize compassion in his list of virtues, and even treats pity with some ambivalence. Even Thomas Jefferson, that most secular of our founders, still appealed to "our Creator" as the source and foundation of our rights. The anti-slavery movement was critically linked to Christianity. He also emphasized the countless millions of people killed by explicitly atheist regimes in the twentieth century as evidence for the idea that, without some kind of religious check, atheism itself can be a dangerous thing if it becomes too widespread and influential.

For D'Souza, atheists tend to argue from the dysfunctions within Islam to the dysfunctions of religion in general, which D'Souza does not think is helpful or fair.

He wrapped up his case by pointing to the general benefits to humans of being religious. He spells out these benefits in more detail in his closing statement, which I will summarize below.

Shermer made his presentation next. He pointed out that he was once an evangelical Christian who became an evangelical atheist who then generally mellowed out. He argued that the Bible endorses slavery, and emphasized verses in Leviticus that we would find repugnant in today's world, including death for adultery and for being a disobedient child. He stated that he can't understand why God would be concerned about our private sex acts. He stated that Islam will need an Enlightenment of its own, without which Enlightenment both Judaism and Christianity would be in much worse shape, and which Enlightenment was the product of secular influences rather than religious ones.

He emphasized the progress on slavery, among other moral issues, was a function of oppressed people being fed up with their conditions rather than with any religious motivations on anyone's part.

He wrapped up by advising the audience members to wear an "atheist cap" for just one full day and to notice how nothing bad will happen and how their moral behavior will not deteriorate.

D'Souza responded by arguing that progress on slavery and other moral issues always required more than merely that the oppressed people stood up against their oppressors--the progress required the assistance of religiously motivated people to assist the oppressed. Christianity, in particular, played a decisive role in many of these cases.

He claimed that Christians read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament, which makes sense of why Christians are under no obligation to follow the literal words of the Old Testament verses that Shermer highlighted.

D'Souza argued that the way we judge religions and the documents they use is, only in part but in fact in part, a function of what the followers of those religions and texts actually do.

He further claimed that the atheist cap, if worn long enough that it "soaks through" will be very destructive to societies in general.

Shermer responded by asking whether people in the audience would begin behaving differently if they found out that there is no God. If the answer is yes, then their character would be shallow. Religions fail to stop war, and Shermer pointed out many examples to illustrate this including Ireland, Israel, Iran, and Iraq. He also pointed out that studies show that non-religious doctors help disadvantaged people more than religious doctors do.

Questions from the audience followed, which lasted for about a half hour. A few highlights:

Shermer believes that ethics are founded in evolutionary history, and defends "evolutionary ethics." Personal note: Shermer's use of words like "freeloaders" is evidence to me that the theory of ethics he prefers is probably Social Contract Theory, which uses such words as technical terms.

D'Souza said that the Ten Commandments is a codification of the knowledge we glean from the "impartial spectator" who operates within us as a kind of conscience. For him, ethics is all about preventing much behavior that evolutionary competition influences us to perform and, as a result, ethics cannot be explained solely in terms of evolution insofar as it often serves to work against Darwinian purposes. Conscience does not compel our behavior--it is, in fact, the voice of God within us and its purpose is to influence rather than to compel.

D'Souza said in this period that the hypothesis of theism is the best explanation for there being a universe at all and for there being a universe with the characteristics that it has. He conceded to Shermer that there is no full-on proof for God's existence, but that their are serious considerations in theism's favor.

Later D'Souza and Shermer argued about Marxism, with D'Souza maintaining that it is not, in fact, a religion and with Shermer claiming that it is. Shermer claimed this to make the case the mass murder of communist regimes was actually religiously motivated and not the result of atheism itself.

Shermer gave a final statement and emphasized that religion is not necessary for a moral life, nor is it necessary for moral progress. He concluded by saying that we should treat each other as we would wish to be treated.

D'Souza summarized four benefits of religion generally. They were: First, religion gives us a sense of meaning and purpose to life, and atheism leaves us in despair in a cold and uncaring universe. Second, religion serves the invaluable function of transmitting morality to future generations, which is something that no other institution can do nearly so well. Third, religion helps us to experience a sense of the sublime in daily life. Although such experiences can be had in other ways, religion gives us the ability to experience the sublime regularly and systematically. Fourth, religion gives us consolation and peace in the face of our inevitable death.

Generally, I have a profound and deep respect for both of these speakers, and I believe that both of them made a number of great points, and that both of them made some errors here and there.

I now briefly lay out what I thought were the strengths and weaknesses of each speaker.

First comes D'Souza. For me, D'Souza's historical case is speculative and contentious. I tend to have a higher opinion of pre-Christian pagan and heathen ethics than D'Souza does, and I think that those ethical systems have the tools to justify an anti-slavery movement, even if the people were not fully aware of the application of those principles to that purpose at that time. In the same way that Christians took time to apply Christian principles to fight slavery, so the case may have been similar in the case of pagan ethics. In other words, had the heathen faith of Europeans survived the encounter with Christianity in any way similar to the way in which Hinduism survived its encounter with Islam, heathen Europeans may well have developed an anti-slavery movement from their own resources. So was Christianity essential to such developments? I would say that the answer is at least not an obvious "yes."

D'Souza's strength, for me, was definitely his closing statement in which he laid out the benefits of religion in general. I would have to say that I fully agree with every one of the benefits he stated. When I was a hardcore atheist, I would not have agreed, but I have reacted to these considerations over the years and they have had a major effect on me and have essentially changed my thinking about religion.

Shermer's major weakness for me was that he was not able to show how objective moral codes can find a basis in mere evolution. Pointing out that non-religious people are more moral, even if true, is irrelevant to the question of the basis of ethical obligations. He mentioned evolutionary ethics, but he didn't have time to develop it very much, in all fairness to him. Just mark me down as someone who cannot, for the life of him, understand how absolute moral obligations can be grounded in matter and energy.

Shermer's strength was to point out that, yes, in fact, even the Bible has some nasty stuff in it. I'm very happy that Christians and Jews no longer take much of Leviticus seriously, but if God really revealed some of those laws to us, then we've got a problem. I don't want to be mean to anybody, but there is some messed up stuff in parts of the Bible and we just have to make our peace with the fact.

I hope you enjoyed my summary of the debate. I tried to be as fair as possible. Maybe I'll see you at the next one!