Saturday, October 29, 2011

What "Everything Is Permitted" Permits

A contemplative Dostoevsky
It's well-known nowadays that Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov that if there is no god, everything is permitted--i.e., there are no absolute moral laws. Many people who have never read and perhaps never will read the Russian novelist (who himself struggled between strong belief and agnosticism, not unlike Herman Melville, though Dostoevsky most likely died a faithful Christian) quote this idea, and, indeed, the notion that "without god, everything is permitted" has become a standard argument against unbelief by theists. After all, if one has no dogma or set of divine laws to follow, how can anyone justifiably prevent anyone from doing anything--murder, rape, physical abuse? I will address this below, but my main point here is really to look at what use of the moral argument reveals about many theists.

You see, when theists resort to asking what moral values unbelief has to offer, it often means those theists have very nearly lost their faith, have virtually accepted that atheism is probably more "correct" than theism.

Extraordinarily, the latter part of that last sentence in fact came almost verbatim out of the mouth of infamous theist Dr. William Lane Craig in a 2011 debate with Sam Harris on morality, when Craig, in his opening statement, said "Maybe Dr. Harris is right. That atheism is true." Craig's point was that it does not matter whether or not a god exists; all that matters is whether or not objective moral values--absolute moral values--can come out of a world without a god, without holy texts telling us what to do.

Here's the thing, though. The moment someone leaves aside arguments for whether or not a deity exists and begins asking how someone can live morally as an atheist, you should begin to look at them with suspicion. The moral argument is important, to be sure, since a world without any morals would not be a pleasant world to live in. But it is an "extra" argument. If there is a god, we must live under its moral code; if there is not, we do not have to. The moral argument cannot say whether or not a deity exists. After all, we can--and do--easily follow the ethics of many thinkers from many cultures and time periods without subscribing to their other views. More broadly, we can accept some of the things people put out into the world without accepting everything they put out. Many people in the world today love Wagner's operas; it would be foolish to assume that all or many of them are unfaithful to their spouses and/or despise Jews. In the same way, we can accept certain ethical ideas from, say, the bible without accepting anything else from it.

Confucius say, Follow this blog.
Moreover, though, there isn't even any need to accept many ethical ideas from the bible, since many of its core tenets existed long before it did. And perhaps the most universal moral truth--The Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you--was uttered by Confucius long before Jesus supposedly walked the earth.

So, when a theist begins resorting to the question of how one can live a morally fulfilling life as an atheist, there is a good chance they either have no arguments for their supernatural claims or even that they are already more or less unbelievers or agnostics themselves. After all, if your foundation rests on whether or not the system is good, you are allowing for the possibility that the system in question--a religion--is replaceable by something else and thus allowing for the possibility that it can be discounted if something more ethically fulfilling comes along.

But the other side of the moral argument about whether or not everything is permitted is much more disturbing for theists than they often imagine. If you argue that there are no absolute moral laws in a godless world, you are conveniently ignoring an absolutely significant fact about the god of the bible (a fact that can also apply to any omnipotent deity). The god of the bible has absolute control over us, we are told, and anything he wants, he must get. If he wishes to revise his ten commandments, you better believe they will be revised. If he tells you to sacrifice your son to prove your faith--as he reportedly told Abraham to do to his own son, Isaac--you must do it. If he tells you to commit genocide--as he repeatedly not only tells people in the bible to do but actually assists in doing--you must do it. And if he decides to murder you through an almost unavoidable flood--the ultimate genocide, ecocide--you must give up yourself for dead.

If you haven't realized it by now, here's the disturbing thing: following this god leads to almost the same thing Dostoevsky feared--that there could be a world in which any and every action, including murder, can be morally justified. This world? The bible's.

The only thing is that Dostoevsky's dictum needs to be rephrased. In a biblical world, it's not that everything is permitted; it's that "with god, everything can be permitted' or "with god, everything can be commanded." Anything can become moral at any moment, if this absolute dictator of truth wills it to be as such. This is unquestionably the least moral of systems.

But atheists do evil things, are dictators themselves, a theist might reply. Look at Stalin. Look at North Korea. Look at the Cristero War in Mexico. State atheism is responsible for some of history's greatest moral crimes. We cannot live under such a system.

But this does not, firstly, say anything about the supernatural claims of religion. The mere fact that the world is not happy and perfect, an endless cascade of milk and honey far beyond the dreams of Winnie the Pooh--what does this unpleasantness have to do with whether or not religion is correct? It doesn't. Life is not perfect. It never has been, and it probably never will be. We are too small, too insignificant on a cosmic, even an earthly, scale. 99% of life is extinct. We will go extinct one day, too, even if we figure out how to escape the planet we are slowly destroying.

Secondly, the above statement about state atheism is true in the sense that it has been responsible for great crimes, but this is primarily because those who enforced it were mad dictators who essentially formed religion-like cults of personality around themselves (Stalin, for instance, was more or less worshipped as a god), dictators who attempted to force communism upon their countries. It is their forced communism, more than their atheism, that is generally responsible for their death tolls. And, moreover, anti-theism, anti-religion--the things the worst of these dictators practiced--is not the same as atheism. One need not persecute the religious, even if the head of state is an unbeliever. This is why the most successful governments are secular, allowing no special privileges for believers or unbelievers. Forcing any belief upon a people, be it a religion, agnosticism, or atheism, is wrong.

So, when you find yourself in a debate about religion next time and you end up talking about morals instead of whether or not there is evidence for the religion's supernatural claims, there is a good chance you've come closer to winning the debate than you might have thought. It's true that we have to create our own systems of ethics, since we do not have a dictator from above telling us what to do; but this allows us to create systems based on centuries of great thought, and, really and truly, how different would many legal systems be, if you remove religious dictums from them?

Robot Devil from Futurama
If there is a god we must follow or risk eternal damnation, anything can be commanded by that god. That certainly doesn't sound too moral to me.

Especially if you have to listen to the Robot Devil from Futurama fiddling away for eternity. Then again, he's a demon on that instrument, a robot Paganini, so eternal damnation might not be so bad, after all....

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