Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Diminishing Returns of Unbelief

This is the last item I'll post from the Feb 2009 E-Block, a guest piece by Jeff Stueber. Since I currently don't have contact with Jeff, I won't be approving comments on this entry.


 When I was educated in a Christian day school, the following passage was brought to my attention.
The fool says in his heart this is no God (Psalms 14: 1) [1]
I always took the truth of this passage for granted until many years later when I began to question my faith and embarked upon a mission to check its validity. I read Christian apologetics, of course, and the masters of unbelief and came to appreciate the numerous failures and biases of atheists and humanists. Rather than punch a hole in theistic belief, the suppositions of unbelievers have only become more nonfactual and illogical over time.

 The irreligious have always been with us. Before Darwin, anti-god and pre-Darwin ideas evolved as a counterpunch to Christianity. The ideas in On the Origin of Species were persuasive for that time and were rapidly adapted by those who were looking to dethrone God. Thomas Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, jumped on the bandwagon long before evolution had been rigorously tested and so did a number of other thinkers who wanted to use evolution for political ends.

In 1933, thirty-four humanists quickly embraced evolution to adopt the anti-god philosophy of secular humanism and these ideas were expanded upon in the second manifesto where we are told that because evolution is true and the idea of god is dead, now divorce, abortion, and socialism are "ok." The second manifesto informs us that "in the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly suppress sexual conduct." Humanists are not kidding about this and based on the sexual buffet they respect, one can be forgiven for assuming humanists are hedonists. The contrast between their opinions and those of conservatives is striking. While Christian theists stress the importance of restraining sexuality within the bounds of marriage, humanists stress that there are no limits to the variability of intimate relationships. Seculiarist Guenter Lewy says:
Critics from the ranks of the religious right have accused secular humanists of subscribing to all kinds of immorality that threaten the moral health of the country. In his book Listen, America! Jerry Falwell decries secular humanists' embrace of situation ethics, which, he says, means "freedom from any restraint." Such criticisms are often couched in somewhat shrill language, but an examination of the literature published by the secular humanist movement reveals that these denunciations are not very far off the mark. The authors of articles in The Humanist and Free Inquiry clearly speak only for themselves; there is no official secular humanist doctrine. Nevertheless, the frequency with which certain positions are voiced in these journals indicates that the editors do not consider these positions to be unacceptable. They reflect what Humanist Manifesto II called toleration of different lifestyles. [2]
On occasion you will find the secularist mouthing fears that the religious want to force their religious views on others and what they think is based only on what the Bible says. Ergo, they think, the imposition of Biblical moral standards is akin to the imposition of religion. Surprisingly the religious have often adopted arguments that have shown natural law (a study of what is ethically correct without recourse to religious explanation) acknowledges that religious ethical precepts are valid. Janet Smith, for instance, says in the animal kingdom animals can procreate randomly, but human children require years of love and attention to develop properly. This fact leads her to develop the rational principle that humans should not engage in sexual activities until they are ready to become parents. She even believes that contraception is not a rational or natural act because it has brought fuel to the sexual revolution and led to millions of babies aborted or born out of wedlock. This is because sexuality is divorced from what it is intended for, the creation of children. We take pills when we are sick, yet women take a pill when they are fertile and this is intellectually odd because fertility is not an abnormal sickly condition. Rather than engage in sexual activity, man and woman should wait until the danger of pregnancy is past in much the same way one does not eat if one does not want to gain weight.[3]

Not surprisingly, there are few arguments within humanist thought that stress our obligations to behave ourselves. Secular humanist thought says we have a sexual nature and desires that must be satisfied and people are unable to, and morally not required to, refuse to satisfy them. That means every desire! Of course premature sex leads to unwanted pregnancies and the arguments for abortion hinge on two main claims: the fetus is not a person and women have rights to do with their bodies as they please. The first claim is intellectually bankrupt and the second presupposes we have such rights when, in fact, no person truly has the right to do with whatever one wants with one's body. However, Smith argues that natural law supposes that we are obligated not to act until we are able to deal with the results of our actions. If abortionists were to make such a supposition well known, they might find business not quite as lucrative. Condom sales might suffer also.

Not surprisingly also, these people have difficulty with pure evil, for what is evil but one exercising his or her total right to do as one pleases with little regard to another's existence? Christians have always acknowledged that in each person lies the tendency to do evil and only a strong moral compass prevents such behavior. I recognize that tendency in myself as well and have, at times, slipped into ill behavior toward others. Unbelievers do not acknowledge this tendency and there is no reason they would. Their philosophical livelihood depends on them not acknowledging the validity of any Christian tenet.
Paul Kurtz began his introduction to the second humanist manifesto by stating that events since the first manifesto make it seem far too optimistic. The second manifesto does nothing but reiterate the same humanist hope that mankind can be moral without dependence on God. Clearly the depth of depravity humans fell into in World War II and other wars is not a surprise to Christians. To humanists, the path Darwin put us on and the hope in an evolutionist future should have prevented such a catastrophe. The truly odd feature of such chaos is that evolution was at the heart of it. (But that is a subject for another time.)
This assumption has gradually been melded into a political philosophy of liberalism. David Barash has been an outspoken advocate of this belief and, rather that locate the failures of social institutions in human sin, he locates it in the institutions themselves.
Just as liberals have long held that war could be prevented by certain actions . . . they have been unimpressed with the claim that failing such activities, human beings will naturally slide into war, like a rock acted upon by gravity. Thus, liberals have not bought the argument that war is caused by human sinfulness. They also hold little with innate nastiness, depravity, and free-floating evil. Instead, liberals tend to emphasize the excessive power of political states, psychological "state of mind" theories as well as the role of misunderstandings, and the undue influence of a military/economic/political elite. For many liberals, wars are often analogous to automobile accidents: Most people do not willingly drive their cars into one another. Rather, if they come to grief it is because they were driving too fast, or because of faulty brakes, poor road conditions, insufficient attentiveness, or bad judgment (by oneself or an oncoming driver.) [4]
Readers will notice what is missing in this montage. While it is true that accidents happen because of poor automobile or road conditions, there are those who drive without a license, drive too fast, drive through a construction zone, or drive overly aggressively in a fashion now known as "road rage." In short, it is people clearly exercising free choice to drive in ways they should not that gets them into trouble. People are certainly capable of not fighting others also, but history has shown examples of nation states fighting others for whatever political gains they want and it would be foolish to explain the prevalence of these wars as "misunderstandings." Clearly people have the free choice to engage in poor behavior, and choose to do so, rather than behave as they should and it is Barash's near-sightedness that keeps him from seeing this.
This is an example of the liberal humanist outlook on life. If mankind is sinful by nature, there is limited change to society. However, if mankind's errors are the result of poorly crafted social institutions, then man can change these institutions to eliminate errors.

Barash notes that "liberals have difficulty with evil, notably the evil of monsters of either political extreme, whether of the far right like Hitler or the far left like Stalin . . . they are surprised, troubled and honestly hurt by welfare cheats, greed, or street thugs."[5] Rather than admit this inability to understand evil is a defect of liberalism, Barash claims this inability arises from an optimistic liberal mind set (maybe naïve) and does not miss an opportunity to stick it to conservatives in admitting they understand evil more because they have a little nastiness in them. Later Barash bookends this comment with the admission that the rise of fascism after World War I caught liberals by surprise. Here again, he doesn't suspect there is something wrong with liberalism. Rather, he simply takes a return swipe against conservatives for too much of a "we vs. they" political philosophy.

This attitude has results outside the college text book. Alison Hornstein, a student at Yale, says after 9/11 many students held candlelight vigils, but by September 12 the shock began to fade. Fellow students of Hornstein's did not revel in the wrongs of such an attack but instead spoke of the differences between our culture and that of the perpetrators which might have caused them to do such a dreadful act. Such reactions, she says, make it apparent that her generation "is uncomfortable assessing, or even asking, whether a moral wrong has taken place." Hornstein partly blames multiculturalism for this disability. [6]
This also explains some of the liberal disgust at efforts to fight America's enemies. If liberalism is true, then the desire to destroy others originates in poor social conditions that create these fights, not in the desires of people to fight. Hence, we are morally bound to change their conditions rather than punish them for actions they would not normally choose. If liberalism is false, then people are by nature capable of depths of depravity and it is a strong moral compass, human law, or divine law that prevents them acting on these tendencies. Ultimately the existence of evil undermines liberal faith in the perfectibility of humans and reminds them that we are by nature sinful and maybe the Bible is right about the human condition.

Humanists think they can dispose of our moral knowledge as well and for the difficulties of naturalistic ethics one can observe Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil. [7] Shermer advises us to adopt "methodological naturalism" which, he says, assumes all effects have natural causes subject to scientific analysis. This supposition believes "the moral sense in humans and moral principles in human cultures are the result of laws of nature, forces of culture, and contingencies in history." Evolution, he says, created moral sentiments and concomitant behaviors over hundreds of thousands of years, so that today even though we agree that humans created morality and ethics it was our ancestors who created them and we simply inherited them. In that sense human ethics are dependent merely on social approval of them and once a society disapproves of them. the legitimacy of the judgment fades. This creates the familiar problem of naturalistic ethics: they are situational and do not rest on any absolutism. Shermer has an answer to this problem although in answering it he does not address it. Moral sentiments and behaviors exist "beyond us, as products of an impersonal force called evolution." This melds into an option he calls the "transcendent empiricist" that avoids supernaturalism and also avoids the relativism of culturally determined ethics. Shermer tries to have his cake and eat it too: he can have the ethical absolutes which, ironically, are determined by evolution and explainable by them, yet still malleable by culture.
Here there are a myriad of contradictions. How exactly does an impersonal force produce something so personal? This is the hallmark of ethics; it affects people who make personal decisions. Presumably therefore an impersonal force like erosion could produce a map of Texas or a tornado in a junkyard could produce a Buick. Yet these things never happen and neither do apes learn human language or ethics and so there appears to be no evidence that evolution can produce a moral code. Shermer only assumes its generation is possible.
Neither does Shermer take his own words seriously when he discusses possible ethical theories we could adopt. He first surveys what he calls the "god principle" that attempts to derive moral principles from Biblical mandates. Of course he finds such methodology causes believers embarrassment because of the odd precepts it might engender (that women cannot wear male clothes, for instance). If we take Shermer's ideas seriously, these Hebrew codes came about through Darwinian evolution which has produced a transcendent morality which, surprisingly, is not transcendent enough to escape criticism. Clearly the only evolutionist justification for an ethical system is whether it allows its adherents to survive, which the Hebrew system obviously does. In damning the Hebrew code, Shermer is making a metaphysical judgment or, perhaps, even a religious judgment, not a scientific one. Most ethical judgments involve metaphysics; that's the problem to people like Shermer because they want to base their ethics in evolutionary biology alone.

Why not accept that we intrinsically "know" that specific moral claims are true? For one thing, such a claim would upset the apple cart of modern ethics obviously taught at some college campuses and expressed in some modern philosophies (multiculturalism, for instance). People don't like the idea that one particular belief is true to the exclusion of others and so don't like the idea that one specific set of moral "oughts" is valid.

The problem with this view is that it makes it impossible to perceive absolute truth. It also makes it difficult to defend one's view or even defend one's country. If you think that your beliefs are merely shades of gray, then no one clearly knows where the validity of your truth begins and ends. Moslem terrorists have no problem forcing their views on others, but we might have difficulty defending our own views.

One can't make a value judgment or, for that matter, act on ethical principles without the free will to do so and Shermer tackles this difficult issue as well. To his credit he admits to the difficulty squaring determinism with free will and does not accept compatibilist ways of dealing with this dilemma. Yet, he falters in the end when suggesting that the number of causes and the complexity of all the interactions that produce everything we do is so enormous that we cannot understand or fathom them and this, therefore, is the seat of the soul.
In other words, the enormity of this complexity leads us to feel as if we are acting freely as uncaused causers, even though we are actually causally determined. Since no set of causes we select as the determiners of human action can be complete, the feeling of freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes.
According to this argument, we feel free to act when in reality we are not and Shermer makes the comparison between a computer and us. No computer can ever resurrect all information about all human actions of everyone who has ever lived and hence it is not free to act. Suffice it to say that a computer is causally determined only by the programming inherent in it, but humans are not and this is obvious in the fact Shermer would never or could never make a compelling case that he was pre-determined by genetics, environment, or heredity to write this book exactly as it appears. Even if a computer would have all the knowledge of every action every human has made throughout the history of the world, does Shermer really believe it would have free will? Wouldn't it still be nothing more than a computation machine, but with an enormous amount of data? Even Daniel Dennett's last ditch effort doesn't work when he proposes that free will can be deduced from determinism in the fact evolution has given us a large cortex that allows us to weigh the consequences of many actions at once. However, the "self" that weighs the consequences is merely a metaphor for how our brains monitor what is going on inside it.

At this point we should suggest something has seriously gone wrong with evolutionist ethics and science. If humanist explanations breed these difficulties and logical contradictions, certainly others should crop up as well.

One does not have to search far for these. Jonathan Sarfati has assembled evidence that life is put together by some type of agent or being that has a great deal of knowledge of all our sciences. [8] For instance, U.S. Naval Academy scientists have found that the bumps on a flipper give the swimmer better lift and we can copy this design in our creation of airplanes and ship rudders. The stretchy skin of a bat's wing interacts with air in a different manner than firmer wings of birds and insects and this design is useful for designing small aircraft used in reconnaissance. Sponges use the equivalent of the fiber optics we use now and one researcher commented that we are in the Stone Age compared to nature. If you read Sarfati, you get the impression that some creative being knowledgeable of various scientific disciplines was in charge of creating these biological forms.

Evolutionists are often open and honest at admitting that life appears designed. For instance, Steven Pinker admits that "an eye is too well engineered to have arisen by chance" and "no wart or tumor or product of a big mutation could be lucky enough to have a lens, an iris, a retina, tear ducts, and so on, all perfectly arranged to form an image." Dawkins has been as forthcoming at times also. [9] Their immediate supposition should be, then, to assume that life is designed until science gives us very good reasons to assume it is not, and these they attempt to find with reckless abandon. Both Christopher Hitchens and Dawkins have been successful fighting with their chins exposed at the expense of consistency and this usually involves the supposition that intelligent design is not a valid scientific concept despite their ability to find imperfect design when they survey bodily organs like the eye. They are not unlike the brother who insists his sister is ugly, but then asserts ideas about beauty are superfluous. So we are told to assume evolution is true unless proven otherwise - which are we told is impossible to do.

Is the evidence for evolution that good? Ashby Camp critiqued 29 arguments for evolution from Douglas Theobald for the "true origins" web site and found each wanting. For example, on the claim that "If universal common ancestry is true, then all organisms will have one or more traits in common," Camp shows that there is no reason to suppose that life could not arise more than once with very different features of each descended lineage. Furthermore, similarities could be understood under an intelligent design perspective with a creator using similar features more than once. On the claim that if common ancestry is true, then phylogenies constructed from comparisons of organisms will match the branching evolutionist tree, Camp remarks that often evolutionist phylogenetic trees drawn in a study of morphology don't match those that can be drawn from a study of genetics, so much so that there is no congruity between the two. Hence it cannot be shown animals do match what is drawn on standard branching evolutionist diagrams. On the claim that vestigial structures provide support for common ancestry, Camp notes that "even Neo-Darwinism does not demand vestigial structures; it simply accommodates them [and] they can exist or not exist with equal ease under the theory and can appear with any frequency." Camp likewise demolishes the other alleged proofs by showing that many are not predictions of the evolutionist theory. This makes one wonder if the supposed evidence by which Dawkins and company are so confident is only smoke. [10]

This refusal to give way to competing evidence is a hallmark of humanism - and a sure sign of dogma. This tendency expresses itself in ruminations over religion. Over seventy years ago, humanists told us the time was ripe for religion's overthrow. Today when religion has as much a hold on our minds and it is burgeoning an Islamic revolution, humanists talk as if the religious impulse is merely a side effect of some other biological urge, a mere remnant that has not disappeared (like, maybe, pimples one has not outgrown). Jim Corbett, like other humanists, asserts that eventually we will find our way out of this religious malaise using our knowledge of science.
Better than anyone else on the planet, humanists can appreciate the fact that evolution is a slow process. But it is also a relentless process. And we are in the midst of that evolutionary process that started 40,000 years ago as a belief in animism, then evolved to paganism about 10,000 years ago. Another evolutionary step was taken about 6,000 years ago to monotheism, and now we exist in the age of science; the evolutionary steps will come much quicker until such time that the society generally accepts the philosophy of humanism with all of its mature, beautiful, and deep understanding of our world. [11]
This follows a standard line of thought: it is only mankind's stubbornness that prevents people from embracing atheistic Darwinism. After thousands of years people have not embraced this line of thought. Is it really logical to continue to assert that the embrace of humanism is possible? Here we see humanists cannot learn from the past. They would be as successful as arguing that it is immaturity that leads people to continue to want to marry and one day we will outgrow this desire. It is quite possible some feminists have said as much.
What if science, however, shows us that religion is a natural part of humans and will never die out? History has shown us this much. Clearly humanist arguments would change, of course, and Corbett's words would not mean much. It would also mean that perhaps mankind is created to desire a deity and it is only the inability of it to find the correct one that often leads to so many ills. This also suggests there is a correct deity that is the object of the search.
Humanists have, instead, often said they really are not interested in a world without religion. What they want is a new religion founded on evolution with its side effect the hope that we can solve our problems without relying on God's advice.

Modern unbelief has been haunted by the specter of evil, especially more so now than before because of the danger of terrorism. In a sense, humanist belief is "out of date." It would rather live in a world where the only threat to humans was school prayer. However, the world is much larger and dangerous now and so is our understanding of it. We've gathered new data about how biological "machines" operate, but evolution has hindered our understanding of them by restraining their actions to a paradigm of shoddy workmanship. Humanist ethics has provoked an idea that people are unable to right their own ship of personal conduct and, rather than expect them to fix their behavior, we ought to medicate it. This results in disastrous social policy and we continue to pay the price for this. Politicians have seen it is in their best interest to please the whiners in life if they need their votes rather than exert moral leadership at the expense of votes. What has been a promising liberal humanist prospect has so far produced contradiction, has produced mediocrity when courage is needed, and has produced poor scientific reasoning when clarity is needed. The returns promised have not been kept and the prospect of them being kept looks bleaker every day.

[1] The NIV Study Bible by Zondervan Publishing
[2] Guenter Lewy, Why America Needs Religion: Secular Modernity and Its Discontents, (Grand Rapids: MI, William Eerdmans, 1996), p. 31-32
[3] Edward McLean ed., Common Truths: New Perspectives on Natural Law, (Delaware, ISI Books, 2000). See chap. 9
[4] David Barash, The L Word: An Unapologetic, Thoroughly Biased, Long Overdue Explication and Celebration of Liberalism, (New York, William Morrow and Co., 1992), p. 182
[5] Ibid, p. 17, 185-186
[6] Alison Hornstein, "The Question That We Should be Asking," Newsweek (December 17, 2001)
[7] Michael Shermer, The Science of Good & Evil, (New York, Henry Holt & Co. , 2004)
[8] Jonathan Sarfati, By Design: Evidence for Nature's Intelligent Designer - the God of the Bible, (2008, Creation Book Ministries)
[9] Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, (New York, Viking, 2002), p. 51
[11] Jim Corbett, "Humanists Take Heart: We're Still Evolving," The Humanist (May/ June 2008), p. 28

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