The following comment was written in response to a theist named Bridget from the last Dawkins post [here is her original comment]. I wanted to present this on its own page since I think it begins to address some core issues in Sacred River.
Where does the evil and good come from?
“Evil” and “Good” aren’t substances or states, but moral judgments on behaviors and ideas. All judgments are products of the human mind grounded in the evolutionary necessity of primates to live together in a reasonably harmonious way. We are beginning to find the basic building blocks of human ethics, which are related to such issues as fairness, resource/mate protection, incest avoidance, and reciprocal altruism (to name a few).
As in language, the moral building blocks have evolved into complex structures that are now largely culture-based. These structures form in every group (churches, schools, workplaces, clubs, and even whole cities and nations), and the majority of them are implicit, meaning they are unspoken mandates and rules of thumb that guide how group members behave and interact. When someone violates a rule, everyone knows it, even when that rule isn’t written down. Humans are simply wired this way.
Although the underlying purpose of morality is logical—the creation of social rules that allow humans to live together in groups—individual morals or moral sets are not always rational or even beneficial. At one time, for example, slavery was considered perfectly acceptable by many Americans and was even justified with the Bible. Many people would now consider slavery to be an unambiguous evil.
This is why there is a movement to push morals into a principle-based system rather than attempting a set of absolute rules. For example, increasing fairness and decreasing suffering are “good” principles, but what those look like will change along with a changing society, just as the acceptability of slavery changed with the Civil War. This is but one benefit of a non-theistic perspective—we can approach goodness from a reasonable and compassionate place rather than by attempting to fulfill rigid decrees, regardless of their relevance or logic.
Where does the “self” come from? And please don’t say the self is a set of neuronal connections…that is ridiculous and has not been proven.
The experience of self does indeed stem from complex neural nets in the brain, although the total self certainly includes the whole body. This might seem ridiculous to you, but there is a great deal of empirical evidence for it (and no evidence to the contrary). True, we learn more about the creation of self all the time as we learn more about the brain, but it isn’t the mystery you are making it out to be.
What we call the self is constructed from many psycho-neurological mechanisms, including temperament, emotions, personality (a la the Big Five), subjective perception and awareness, motivations and bodily needs, working memory and long-term memory, worldview and heuristic sets (e.g. social roles), and what you would call thinking. The self is an emergent phenomena that arises from the integration of all these functions, each of which are borne in the brain and derive from a combination of genetics and experience, and shifts according to environmental priming (a great example of this is an experiment with Chinese-Americans: one group was shown American symbols and the other Chinese symbols: each group then interpreted a single image, with the first group preferring a Western concept of individualism, with the other preferring an Eastern communal perspective. So based on how they were primed, different “selves” came to the fore).
To learn more, I strongly recommend “The Developing Mind” by Dan Siegel.
I’m afraid you might be falling for what our ancient ancestors fell for: the assumption that anything we don’t fully understand in nature must be due to a supernatural agent. It’s as if to say that if something in nature is amazing and beyond our comprehension, it couldn’t have “just happened”. But why not? There is no reason to think that anything in nature required an external agent, and the more we learn about the universe, the more we must conclude that indeed no agent could have caused any of it. Nature is self-sufficient; that is part of its majesty.
The abundance of even non-religious conspiracy theories is yet one more reason to challenge faith-based thinking. But it isn’t all roses…
Pascal’s Wager essentially states that it makes the most sense to have faith in the Biblical God because if he is real then a believer will earn entry into Heaven while a nonbeliever will suffer for eternity in Hell, whereas if God is not real, both lose nothing (unless to say the believer loses his sense of reason, which seems a fair stake for the chance of eternal bliss). The matrix looks like this:
|God is real||Eternal Bliss||Eternal Pain|
|God is not real||[Reason]||no loss|
Pascal’s Wager is frequently offered by modern Christians as justification for faith, even though Pascal himself said that the wager is only enough to consider finding faith. Nevertheless, they will say, “You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain…and if you’re wrong, then Hell awaits you!” There are, of course, many logical shortcomings in this wager. For example, it doesn’t include the possibility that:
* The Christian god isn’t the correct deity
* God’s judgment is arbitrary
* God might also reward honest unbelief or punish dishonest belief
* Belief isn’t a necessary or adequate criteria for entry into Heaven
So, let’s take these issues into consideration in the following table, assuming the religion is Christianity with a “good” non-believer and an undefined believer:
|Undefined Believer||Good Non-believer|
|Christian God is real;
only requires faith
|Christian God is real;
requires faith plus good acts
|Heaven or Hell||Hell|
|Some God is real;
only requires good acts
|Heaven or Hell||Heaven + Reason|
|God is real;
but arbitrary or not Christian
|God is not real||Squandered life||Reason|
When we add these choices, then the best choice is to be a good non-believer, because she has the best possible outcome—she gets both reason and Heaven if God is real and rewards those who act good. Likewise, in this choice and the choice where God is not real, the non-believer gets to have a fulfilling life of doing good deeds, without any unnecessary emotional, physical, or material sacrifices in the name of faith.
If the believer is good, then he has two extra chances to get to Heaven, but no one can know for certain what qualifies as “good enough”. The undefined believer might be “good enough” in choice #3, but has nevertheless made unnecessary sacrifices that the non-believer did not make. If God is not the Christian god, then there is equal risk of the unknown, making a rational and good life that much more worthwhile. If God is not real, then the believer does not have zero loss: he has, as Dawkins’ writes, squandered his “precious time on worshiping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.” And Hell becomes less one-sided, since the believer might get there if he is not adequately good (e.g. the mass murderer who repents in the gas chamber).
On top of all this, we then need to take into account the likelihood of God’s existence. There are already many arguments out there about this, but I will keep it at this: God isn’t necessary. God is not necessary to explain the origin of the universe, universal laws and processes, or how we humans came to be. There is no question in science that is best answered with “God”. This doesn’t prove his non-existence, but it does make it very, very unlikely, especially when we consider the countless number of gods humans have created and the complete lack of observable evidence for any of them. Virtually every universal theory that has arisen from religion has been shown to be wrong; why not just admit the concept of supernatural dualism is wrong altogether? With this in mind, we have to put the choices on a scale, with the existence of God being very unlikely and the non-existence of god being very likely.
The fundamental problem with all of this—as has been pointed out by non-theists many times before—is that one cannot be threatened into genuine belief. Faith requires that I honestly think that something is true. Any fear of being wrong does not, in itself, provide evidence that something is real.
And finally, I present my own Naturalist Wager:
If there is a creator God, then he created the universe and the world and humans. He also created your brain that is able to observe and reason and feel compassion. Looking at and learning about His creation using direct observation and empirically-based reason would honor His gifts, while making the world a better place for every human would honor the heart He gave you. If a loving creator God is real, it is reasonable to believe that He will reward you for your faith in Him and for the use of the reason and compassion He gave you. If God is not real, then you will have made excellent use of your life by fulfilling your ability to learn about and find wonder in the natural world and by making life a bit more worth living for those who remain.