PZ Myers’ Morality

2 01 2010

You may not be familiar with PZ Myers; however, he is one of the vocal new atheists out there ranting against the existence of God, and Christianity in particular. Myers is an associate professor of biology at University of Minnesota, Morris and publishes a blog by the name of Pharyngula.

I recently came across a post by Myers entitled I’m so sorry for you, Indiana in which he comments about an interview given by Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana where Daniels addresses the topic of morality and Christianity that Myers says was “embarrassingly bad.” Daniels makes the point:

To me, the core of the Christian faith is humility, which starts with recognizing that you’re as fallen as anyone else. And we’re all constantly trying to get better, but… so I’m sure I come up short on way too many occasions.

Myers responds that he believes the “core of Christianity has never been humility , but arrogance.” Why does he draw this assessment? Simply because Christianity claims that we can know and have a personal relationship with God. In fact, he believes that all this Christian talk about being fallen sinners is false modesty. What Myers is claiming is to know the minds of every single Christian living such that he knows that any claim of being a fallen sinner is really just the false modesty of an arrogant person! It seems that Myers, who denies the existence of an omniscient being, is somehow claiming to be one. I’ve often heard that those who deny the existence of God will find a replacement, oftentimes in their own mirror.

Yet, the point of this post is to discuss Myers claim that morality doesn’t need to be grounded in God, but can simply be grounded in man. In fact, Myers makes the audacious claim that there “is no eternal standard of right and wrong.” His claim is that standards change with time. Really what he is claiming is that there is no objective standard of right and wrong.

Myers has already, in his post, castigated the Bible for justifying slavery and God for ordering the slaughter of women and children. Even more, he claims that equality was an ideal of the Enlightenment rather than Christianity. He claims that a 1st century B.C. Judean priest would be calling for the wrath of Jehovah on the likes of Pat Robertson and James Dobson “who lead millions into a life antithetical to ancient Jewish custom.”

Myers, however, has a different answer from Daniels and other Christians when it comes to morality. He says,

I’d answer differently. In the absence of a god-given absolute morality, all that matters is how we treat one another in this one life we have. What flows naturally to me is not brutality, which requires an absence of awareness of the suffering of others, but recognition of the fact that my fellow human beings really are my equals: we’re all going to die, we only have these few brief decades of life, and who am I to deny someone else the same opportunities I’ve been given?

My question to Myers is if morality is not grounded in anything objective or eternal, then why is his answer any better than Daniels’ or Hitler’s for that matter (he also refers to Hitler in his post – for what would a discussion of morality be without invoking Hitler?) Who says that it matters how we treat one another? On what basis does he consider suffering to be bad? We would all agree that not all suffering is bad as many of us willingly expose ourselves to suffering when we go to the dentist or college or even to a football game in temperatures that are below zero (I grew up in Green Bay, WI and did this on a number of occasions). So, obviously suffering is not a universal wrong, on what basis does Myers determine some suffering to be wrong?

Now, I am not saying that these behaviors are right, simply saying that when Myers rejects objective standards, he must then defend why I should consider his standards to be binding on me or anyone else. If morality is not grounded objectively, then he is merely expressing his opinion, or maybe the opinions of a group with whom he happens to agree, but he is not expressing objective morality.

Myers is holds to what is known as hard atheism, in other words, he holds a belief that God does not exist. He says, “There are no gods, no objective enforcement of a benign morality on us.” Since there is no God (or as he says, gods), then that means that we need to figure out our own morality. Myers says that we “should build our morality on reason.” But how is this done? How do we figure out what is right or wrong based upon observation and reason alone without an objective basis against which to test our reason. It is like measuring without an objective standard by which to measure or reasoning without an objective truth by which to check our reason. Whose reason reigns supreme?

C.S. Lewis spoke about this in his book Abolition of Man when he speaks of the Innovator in values, the one who tries to arrive at moral values through reason alone. He explains that reason can be broken out into two categories. First is practical reason which “confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved…are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of ‘rational’ value behind all the sentiments we have debunked.” He says that the Innovator will not take this alternative as it seems too much like objective morality. So, it seems that Myers must explain what he means by reason. Maybe he takes Lewis’ second alternative, which fits better with an evolutionary framework, that of instinct.

This seems to be the only alternative left for the naturalist as reason would require some sort of plumb line against which to assess our reason. There has to be an objective standard or reason will be left to the individual’s own judgment. However, instinct leaves us no better off, for we would ask, whose instinct should we trust? How do we know who is more highly evolved and therefore whose instincts are more trustworthy if we have no objective standard against which to measure?

You see, Lewis had it right 65 years ago when he wrote this Abolition of Man, yet, somehow the new atheists still haven’t figured out that reason alone cannot get one to objective morality. Unless we are all using the same external standard to measure weight, length, height or depth; unless we are using the same mathematics and rules of logic (which themselves are not arrived at by logic, but simply known to be true); unless we trust an objective external ground of logic which itself is eternal and to which we are bound, then morality is simply a matter of one’s tastes and preferences and nothing more.

One can deny the existence of God, as does Myers; yet at the same time, one also is denying the existence of objective morality, along with a host of other ideas and concepts which I don’t believe we can live without. Myers wants to give up God, but still retain all of the benefits of what God brings to us. It is time that he faces the reality that if he gives up God, he also gives up objective morality and has no right to say that anyone is wrong; at best, he can say that he simply doesn’t prefer their behavior and ideas. I will take his displeasure into consideration and go on trusting God and living with the reality of real objective morality.
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4 responses

3 01 2010
Arius

Interesting post–albeit, morality is objective in an institutionalized sense, it is subjective in an individualized one–ethics is a different novel of its own.

Regarding the humility Christianity endorses–as you say–becomes a bit problematic. Can humility exist under the banner of exclusivism? The declaration that Christendom asserts of obtaining the only truth, and path to god is counter to humility–as Meyers, it is arrogance.

Process theology (started by Alfred North Whitehead) avoids this pitfall and it is intelligibly applicable.

Good post.

3 01 2010
veritasnetwork

What do you mean when you say that morality is objective in the institutionalized sense? It seems that morality is either objective or it is not. If you are speaking of morality being somehow objective at some group level, then it is still ultimately subjective since we would then ask which group’s morality rules?

The only exclusivism to Christianity is that which is self-selected by those who reject it, and if that is the case, then it seems that it is not unfair, nor does it lead, necessarily, to haughtiness among those who choose to follow Christ. I have nothing to boast about in myself as it was Christ who paid my penalty – I did nothing to earn my salvation.

The fact that some would say that Christianity is not true (e.g., Myers) is a claim to truth that supersedes Christian claims to truth and, in essence, would be reason to claim arrogance on behalf of those making such a claim. That is why I find Myers to be guilty of that for which he accuses Christians.

Regarding process theology, I find that it makes some basic logical mistakes in assumptions. For example, to say that omnipotence would lead to coercion on behalf of the being exhibiting such a characteristic is simply a non-sequitur. There is no reason that coercion necessarily follows the possession of omnipotence. Second, to claim that reality is not made up of matter that endures through time, but merely of ordered events means that you are not the same person (necessarily) as the person who wrote the response to my post, therefore, it seems that life would devolve into absurdity and nihilism would result. To claim that we are somehow agents that can carry out free acts is also absurd since agents would have to have identity that is preserved through time, which process theology seems to refute. It also seems to be special pleading to say that God is changeable, except for his abstract elements. Why are they excepted from this change?

Hey, I appreciate your response and look forward to interacting with you more on this topic.

3 01 2010
Arius

”What do you mean when you say that morality is objective in the institutionalized sense? It seems that morality is either objective or it is not. If you are speaking of morality being somehow objective at some group level, then it is still ultimately subjective since we would then ask which group’s morality rules”?

The religious oligarchy has deemed morality to be excreted from a divine source—hence, it is objective through their theological lenses—however, this assertion is philosophically subjective: it is the opinion of a few—substantially efficient only by those who believe—and as Paine once penned: I am not obligated to believe.

”The fact that some would say that Christianity is not true (e.g., Myers) is a claim to truth that supersedes Christian claims to truth and, in essence, would be reason to claim arrogance on behalf of those making such a claim. That is why I find Myers to be guilty of that for which he accuses Christians”.

It is one thing to convey the truth, respect, adoration, and belief in ones theological tradition—all religions and belief systems uphold such values and would be a travesty if they did not. However, to make the claim that Christianity is the only religion which harbors the universal truth for all to follow, and at the same time, articulate a universal damnation to all that does not follow is arrogant—in a most dichotomous way possible. Even Dr. King believed in the universality of salvation, and deemed Christianity as not the all end to promise—this type of nobility is a rarity amid Christians today. So yes—Christianity retains its exclusive poise—a fundamental blunder.

”Regarding process theology, I find that it makes some basic logical mistakes in assumptions…it seems that life would devolve into absurdity and nihilism would result…

I chose to mention “Process Theology” as a means to articulate the logicality of a so-called entity whose mere existence may be interchangeable—as with the ancient gods of Egypt—they were born and died. There are a myriad of variations to “Process Theology”, and the particulars you’ve chosen are a few out of many. The absurdity of nihilism (the correspondence of many facets) is only absurd to the believer—I would expect nothing less.

But again, my main point entails the lack of humility within Christianity, and its exclusive poise which has spawned not only religious, but cultural bigotry worldwide. It must abase its arrogance in order to survive in this post-modern era. I believe that is what Meyers was alluding to—a point I still agree with.

Thanks for the feed back man.

4 01 2010
veritasnetwork

The religious oligarchy has deemed morality to be excreted from a divine source—hence, it is objective through their theological lenses—however, this assertion is philosophically subjective: it is the opinion of a few—substantially efficient only by those who believe—and as Paine once penned: I am not obligated to believe.

Actually, philosophically, morality must be grounded in an objective source if it is to be objective in nature (ontologically), it has nothing to do with theological lenses. If you have some other way of grounding morality objectively, I would be happy to hear it and consider it; however, I know of no other way. I’m afraid that Paine was mistaken in his view. No one is obligated to believe this; however, it seems to be the reality of the situation unless someone can prove otherwise, which to my knowledge has not been accomplished.

It is one thing to convey the truth, respect, adoration, and belief in ones theological tradition—all religions and belief systems uphold such values and would be a travesty if they did not. However, to make the claim that Christianity is the only religion which harbors the universal truth for all to follow, and at the same time, articulate a universal damnation to all that does not follow is arrogant—in a most dichotomous way possible. Even Dr. King believed in the universality of salvation, and deemed Christianity as not the all end to promise—this type of nobility is a rarity amid Christians today. So yes—Christianity retains its exclusive poise—a fundamental blunder.

The claims of Christianity would only be arrogant if they were untrue. If they are true, then it is not arrogant to simply exclaim what that truth is any more than it is arrogant for a doctor to tell someone when they have a terminal disease and to tell them what to do about it. If you believe that Christianity is false in its claims, then rather than simply calling Christians arrogant for proclaiming what we believe the evidence bears out, then it would be better to explain what evidence you have to prove it false. If Dr. King believed in the universality of salvation, then he was not proclaiming the same message that Jesus Christ proclaimed two millennia before he lived. Jesus spoke more about hell and judgment than he did about heaven, so apparently he didn’t believe in universal salvation. Jesus rose from the dead to confirm his claims to be true, so far, Dr. King remains in the grave. With respect to Dr. King, I think I will believe what Jesus said.

I chose to mention “Process Theology” as a means to articulate the logicality of a so-called entity whose mere existence may be interchangeable—as with the ancient gods of Egypt—they were born and died. There are a myriad of variations to “Process Theology”, and the particulars you’ve chosen are a few out of many. The absurdity of nihilism (the correspondence of many facets) is only absurd to the believer—I would expect nothing less.

But again, my main point entails the lack of humility within Christianity, and its exclusive poise which has spawned not only religious, but cultural bigotry worldwide. It must abase its arrogance in order to survive in this post-modern era. I believe that is what Meyers was alluding to—a point I still agree with.

Thanks for the feed back man.

I am still not sure how one avoids nihilism when following process theology and I am not sure that your explanation helps me to understand it any better. If you are not the same person from moment to moment as process theology prescribes, then life becomes meaningless as there is no lasting you to have meaning. You are a mere Humean bundle that changes with time and situation. God too is a moving target and there is no reason that he should not be an evil megalomaniac any more than he should be a good being, if process theology is true. To say any different seems to be special pleading for some unchanging characteristics while at the same time gratuitously claiming that others are variable.

Again, I see no reason to claim that Christians lack humility when we claim objective truth. Either Christianity is true or it is not, and if it is not, then one merely has to show and give evidence of where it is not true. However, to say that Christians lack humility simply because we believe that Jesus was telling the truth (in light of the fact that he rose from the dead as confirming evidence of his claims) is a specious charge. Now, I am not saying that Christians cannot be arrogant or lack humility; however, it does not necessarily follow that one who follows Christ is automatically arrogant for doing so. The fact is that Christ calls for his followers to be humble (see, the Sermon on the Mount) as did the Apostles Paul, Peter and others in the NT. The fact that some Christians choose to disobey these admonitions is not an indictment on Christianity, but on the particular Christian. However, I don’t see why Myers gets off with his arrogance in your eyes, arrogance that I pointed out in my blog post.

Good feedback.

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