bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 10

When I argue against the resurrection of Jesus, I generally take a two-pronged approach. First, I argue that there are various good reasons to doubt the claim that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday. Second, I make a concession for the sake of argument; I grant the supposition that Jesus was alive and walking around on the first Easter Sunday. Then I point out that this assumption, an assumption that Christian apologists work very hard to try to prove, actually provides a powerful reason to doubt that Jesus died on the cross on Good Friday, and thus the concession hurts the case for the resurrection.
In general, this is a strong way to argue for a skeptical position. First, lay out skeptical arguments that cast doubt on your opponent’s basic assumptions. Second, grant for the sake of argument some of the key assumptions of your opponent, and show that even if those assumptions are true, your opponent’s conclusion does not follow (or better: your opponent’s conclusion is cast into doubt by his own assumptions).
In thinking about Craig’s third objection to AMR, it occurs to me that he is probably using this same strategy in making his case against AMR. His first two objections are arguing that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible ideas. One can be an atheist but this rules out moral realism, or one can be a moral realist, but this rules out atheism. Craig is arguing that we cannot have our cake and eat it too.
But the third objection that Craig makes against AMR is NOT an argument for the view that atheism and moral realism are logically incompatible. Rather, it is an argument that moral realism makes atheism unlikely or improbable. The idea is that moral realism provides the basis for a version of the teleological argument or argument from design.
Namely, it is unlikely that random natural processes would produce creatures who have natures that fit well with objective moral values, if there were such a thing as objective moral values. However, if there were a morally perfect person who created the universe, then this creator would have a good reason to bring about the existence of creatures with natures that fit well with objective moral values. Thus, the existence of such creatures provides inductive evidence for the existence of a perfectly good creator, whose existence would make it somewhat likely or probable that creatures with natures that fit well with objective moral values would come to exist.
Craig is in effect saying, “Suppose for the sake of argument that I’m wrong, and that moral realism and atheism are logically compatible ideas. Nevertheless, moral realism provides a strong inductive reason for rejecting atheism, so moral realism comes with a serious cost for atheists who wish to claim that their atheism is a rationally justified belief.”
This sort of teleological argument for the existence of God is at the heart of the case for God made by Richard Swinburne. Swinburne believes that there are objective moral values, but that the basic principles of morality are necessary truths, and thus that their truth is independent of the existence of God.
So, Craig could have said this:
“Look at Swinburne, he believes that there are objective moral values, and that these values don’t depend on God. Nevertheless, Swinburne argues that human creatures have just the sort of characteristics that make it possible for humans to have morally significant lives: free will, the ability to grasp moral truths, desires that bring temptation to act contrary to morality, desires to be good and loving towards others, and lots of opportunities to be good and helpful towards other people and creatures or to be bad and harmful towards other people and creatures.
If the universe in general, and humans in particular are merely the product of random natural processes, then all of these facts about the universe and human beings would be a very improbable coincidence. But if the universe and human beings are the product of a perfectly good creator, then these characteristics of reality and human beings are to be expected, or are at least somewhat probable.”
To be continued…

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 9

I have argued previously that Craig’s first two objections to AMR are weak at best. The third objection might not be as weak as the previous two. However, the third objection is the most unclear of the three, so if it turns out to be a strong objection, that will be because we help Craig to clearly formulate his third objection.
William Craig’s third objection to AMR is given in a single brief paragraph:
Third, it is fantastically improbable that just the sort of creatures would emerge from the blind evolutionary process who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values. This would be an utterly incredible coincidence. It is almost as though the moral realm knew that we were coming. It is far more plausible that both the natural realm and the moral realm are under the hegemony or authority of a divine designer and lawgiver than to think that these two entirely independent orders of reality just happened to mesh. (WIAC, p.76-77)
Because the objection is stated in just four sentences, it is less than clear what the premises of this argument assert.
What, for example, does Craig mean by “creatures…who correspond to the abstractly existing realm of moral values”? What specifically does he mean by the closely related phrase “two entirely independent orders of reality…mesh”? Before we can evaluate Craig’s objection, we need to be clear about the nature of the alleged “coincidence” to which he is pointing, but his vague and skimpy characterization of this “coincidence” makes it difficult to identify the basic premise or assumption of his argument.
I can only make some educated guesses at what “coincidence” Craig has in mind here:
A. Human beings naturally evolved with free will, and thus were moral agents who are potentially subject to moral duties and obligations.
B. Human beings naturally evolved to have minds that are capable of discovering and understanding objective moral truths.
C. Human beings naturally evolved to have a moral conscience, to have a significant degree of motivation to act in accordance with objective moral duties and obligations.
I suppose Craig might have all three of these points in mind, given that objective moral values would have significance for humans only if all three of these conditions were met: humans have free will; humans are able to discover moral truths; humans have some inclination to act in accordance with objective moral values.
If these are the sort of things that Craig had in mind, then the issue is: Why would the natural process of evolution bring about all three of these necessary conditions for morality to be of significance in human lives? A perfectly good creator would have reason to bring about the existence of creatures that satisfied these conditions, for the very purpose of having creatures for which morality and immorality were real possibilities. But the random and blind forces of evolution would seem to have no such guiding purposes. Natural selection merely favors characteristics that help a species to be good at surviving and passing their DNA to the next generation; good and evil, and right and wrong, have no role to play in such a random, natural process.
One response to this objection that comes to mind, is to try to show that these three aspects of humans have some significant survival value, that they help humans to survive and reproduce more often than if we lacked these three characteristics. For example, altruistic actions, where an individual creature is motivated to put its own life at risk in order to protect its young or the young of its group from a predator, seem to have survival value, in terms of passing on DNA to future generations.
If the sacrifice of one adult in a herd or group preserves the lives of some of the young of that group from being killed by a predator, then that may be a successful strategy for the survival of that species, including passing on the DNA which in turn preserves the tendency of adults to engage in such altruistic behavior. Thus, altruism, an important tendency or motivation that makes morally good behavior a real possibility, can be given an evolutionary explanation.
Let’s suppose that human free will and the capacity of human minds to grasp objective moral truths can also be given a plausible evolutionary explanation. If such explanations were available or became available, would that be sufficient to silence Craig’s third objection to AMR?
I have a feeling that some Christian apologists and philosophers would respond to such evolutionary explanations for the origin of morality in humans along the lines of Richard Swinburne’s divine providence argument. If evolution does provide a good explanation for the origin of morality among humans, then this points back to the existence of God, for a highly intelligent designer would be required to explain how just the right amount and kinds of physical matter and energy and natural laws were present at the start of this universe to make it likely that creatures who were fully capable of being morally good and morally bad arose out of purely random natural processes.
But then, to move to that view of evolution, a view put forward by Swinburne in his case for God, would be, I think, to discard the argument from “coincidence” presented by Craig.

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 8

I am not impressed by Richard Taylor’s appeal to etymology as an argument for the claim that all duties and all obligations are ‘owed’ to some person or persons (see part 7 for my objections to that line of reasoning).
However, to be fair to Craig, Taylor’s appeal to etymology is not specifically and explicitly quoted by Craig in his essay ‘Why I Believe God Exists’ (WIAC, p.62-80). Perhaps Craig is aware of the weakness of Taylor’s appeal to etymology, and so he avoids quoting such appeals by Taylor.
Let’s assume that Craig is also skeptical about such appeals and take a closer look at the quotations of Taylor that Craig does provide, to see if there is a different reason given in those passages:
As the ethicist Richard Taylor points out, “A duty is something that is owed…. But something can be owed only to some person or persons. There can be no such thing as duty in isolation.”  God makes sense of moral obligation because his commands constitute for us our moral duties. Taylor writes:
Our moral obligations can… be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense?… The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone. (WIAC, p.76)
There are at least two different ways to read the above passage from Craig’s essay. First, one can take Craig as making an appeal to authority, with ‘the ethicist Richard Taylor’ being an authority in the field of ethics. Alternatively, one can attempt to find a reason or argument in the words Craig quotes from Taylor, a reason that is, perhaps, based on something other than the etymology of the words ‘duty’ and ‘obligation’.
If Craig is merely making an appeal to the authority of Taylor, then Craig has failed to give us a good reason for his conceptual claim that duties and obligations are always necessarily owed to some person or persons. This is a weak argument, because there are other equally qualified philosophers who would doubt or reject the conceptual claim here. In general, metaethical issues are at least as controversial among philosophers as are issues of normative ethical theories. Thus, in general, metaethical issues are not the sort of issue that should be resolved by appeal to authority, since the authorities in metaethics do not, in general, share an agreed upon consensus view.
So, if Craig gives us a solid reason for his second objection, it must be something more than just an appeal to the authority of ‘the ethicist’ Richard Taylor. It is not immediately apparent what the argument is in the quotes of Taylor that Craig provides in his essay. However, there does appear, on the surface, to be an argument that goes like this:
1. If one assumes that God exists and that God is a higher-than-human lawgiver, then one can make sense of the concept of ‘moral obligation’.
2. An atheist cannot assume that God exists and that God is a higher-than-human lawgiver.
3. An atheist cannot make sense of the concept of ‘moral obligation’.
I cannot be certain that this is the argument that Craig intends us to get out of the quotations from Richard Taylor, because Craig does not explicitly spell out the argument; he just gives us the quotations.  But this does appear to me to be an argument that is strongly suggested by the quotations that Craig provides.
If this is the argument, then we can quickly dismiss Craig’s second objection, because this argument commits the common deductive fallacy of denying the antecedent:
If P, then Q.
Not P.
Not Q.
This form of deductive argument is logically invalid.  Consider the following example:
If it is raining, then my lawn is wet.
It is not raining.
My lawn is not wet.
The conclusion does not follow, because there are other possible reasons why my lawn might be wet.  For example, if a sprinkler on my lawn has been spraying water for an hour or so, then my lawn would be wet even if it was a clear and sunny day.
So, if we consider Taylor’s argument based on an appeal to etymology, then there is only a fairly weak reason to accept Taylor’s conclusion. If, on the other hand, we take Craig to be making an appeal to the authority of ‘the ethicist’ Taylor, then Craig has given us a very weak reason to accept his second objection to AMR. Finally, if we take it that Craig sees some other argument (not clearly stated by Craig) in the quotations he provides of Taylor, then it appears that Craig has put forward an invalid deductive argument in support of his second objection to AMR.
I do not see a good or strong reason to accept Craig’s second objection to AMR.

bookmark_borderCorrection to chpt 2 of Believing Bullshit

Here’s an endnote I am adding to a chapter I am contributing to the upcoming Handbook on Humanism (edited by AC Grayling and Andrew Copson [Wiley Blackwell publisher]). I now realize I got something wrong in chapter 2 of my book Believing Bullshit, so might as well set the record straight publicly. Here’s the endnote of the chapter I am now writing for the new book [n.b. YEC = Young Earth Creationism]:

Elsewhere I have said that because Ken Ham’s theory makes no predictions – takes no risks – regarding the fossil record, so it cannot be confirmed by the fossil record. See “But It Fits!” in my Believing Bullshit (Amherst NY: Prometheus Press, 2011). I now realize I did not get this quite right. Were we to start excavating fossils that were clearly stamped “Made by God in 4,004 BC”, etc., that might indeed confirm – even strongly confirm – YEC, despite the fact that YEC does not predict such a discovery. True, such a discovery may not be probable given YEC, but, given the discovery is nevertheless considerably more probable on YEC than otherwise, it would still confirm YEC to a significant degree. 
So here’s what I should have said in Believing Bullshit (from the new chapter):

bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 7

Richard Taylor’s book Virtue Ethics: An Introduction (formerly published as Ethics, Faith, and Reason) provides a very readable and interesting defense of the view that the modern conception of morality originates with religion, especially with Christianity.
William Craig quotes from Chapter 11 of this book as his primary support for his second objection to AMR. So, in order to evaluate Craig’s second objection, we need to evaluate Taylor’s argument(s) for the claim that duties are always owed to some person or persons.
Before I examine Taylor’s reasoning, I want to mention a general concern. Part of the appeal of Taylor’s view, at least for skeptics and atheists, is something like the genetic fallacy:
1. The modern conception of morality originates with religion, esp. with Christianity.
2. Religion in general and Christianity in particular are anti-humanistic and mistaken viewpoints.
3. The modern conception of morality is anti-humanistic and mistaken.

I don’t think that Taylor presents such an obviously fallacious argument, but I suspect that his readers, especially his readers who are atheists and skeptics concerning religious belief, may be tempted to reason along these lines. The problem with this argument is that false, mistaken, and harmful ideas can sometimes give rise to true, correct, and helpful ideas.
The historical origins of an idea do NOT determine its truth nor its usefulness. But an unstated assumption of the above argument is that EVERY idea that has its historical origin in religion or in Christianity suffers from EVERY defect or problem with religion or Christianity. There are obviously many exeptions to such a broad generalization. So, this argument makes the conclusion only somewhat probable, at best (once the generalization is qualified to something more reasonable).
One counterexample to the false unstated generalization is the saying of Jesus that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” This seems pretty clearly an early hint of humanism. The idea is that ethics or morality serves human needs and/or purposes. It may well be the case that many Christian ideas and beliefs are anti-humanistic, but in this particular case Jesus taught something that looks a lot like a humanistic conception of ethics.
One reason given by Taylor involves an appeal to etymology. Whenever I read an appeal to etymology in support of a conceptual claim, alarm bells ring in my head, and red flags begin to wave. Etymology is a dubious way to support a conceptual claim.
Etymology is a worthwhile approach to asking questions. For example, ‘philosophy’ comes from root words meaning LOVE of WISDOM. So, one can ask ‘What is wisdom?’ and ‘What is the love of wisdom?’ and ‘Is philosophy the love of wisdom?’ But it would be foolish and simple-minded to immediately draw the conclusion that “Philosophy is the love of wisdom, because the word ‘philosophy’ comes from root words that mean ‘love of wisdom’.” If only it were that easy to analyze the meanings of important concepts. If it were really that easy, there would be no need for philosophy!
Etymology is a dubious basis for conceptual claims because words change meaning over time. For example, the word ‘let’ in the King James version of the Bible sometimes means ‘hindered’ (see Romans 1:13), but it means ‘allowed’ in modern English. Since the meanings of words change over time, it is clear that etymology can, at least in some cases, be misleading and fail to point to the correct (current) meaning of a word.
Also, etymology tends to be speculative. Nobody documents the creation of a new word (at the time the new word is coined) with notes about why the particular root words were selected to form the new word (‘agnosticsim’ being a rare exception). Thus, somebody has to guess at how and why the root word or words came to be used as the basis for a new word in the English language, usually hudreds of years after the word entered the language. Some such guesses may be plausible and well-educated guesses that can be rationally defended. But, such explanatory claims about the historical origins of a word are inherently questionable and not subject to firm proof, as we shall soon see in the case at hand.
Taylor gives one argument on the basis of the etymology of the word ‘obligation’ :
…to be obligated is, literally, to be bound. …one can have no obligation just as such; it must, again, be an obligation to some person or persons, for the idea of being bound or tied, yet bound to no one or no thing, is without meaning.
(Virtue Ethics, Chapter 11)
There are at least three problems with this reasoning.  First, Taylor is using etymology as the basis for a conceptual claim, which is a dubious and weak sort of argument.   This is NOT a solid argument, even if there are no other problems or issues with it.
Second, obligations can have more than one sort of object.  If I promise to take care of my friend’s child while he is out of town, then I have an obligation to my friend (the person to whom I made the promise) but I also have an obligation to the child (the person whom I promised to care for and whose interests are most at stake in the question of whether I keep my promise or break it).  So, if an obligation requires being bound to someone, it could require being bound to the child in this case, rather than to the person to whom I made the promise.  
Taylor is assuming that the ‘binding’ meant was to  a person with whom a negotiation or agreement was made, but it could be that the ‘binding’ was a reference to the object of the obligation (the child in this case). If this is how ‘binding’ is involved, then we can conlude that ‘binding’ does NOT necessarily refer to binding to a person, because one can promise to take care of a cat or a garden, and a cat is NOT a person. Taylor’s speculation about the relationship of the concept of ‘binding’ to the concept of ‘obligation’ might be correct, but there are other possible explanations available.
Third, Taylor himself admits the obvious, which is that a person can be bound to a thing, to a tree or to a post. A tree is NOT a person. Thus, Taylor says that the idea of being “bound to no one or no thing, is without meaning.” We could grant this assumption, and yet nothing follows about ‘binding’ requiring that an obligation always involves one person being bound to another person. Thus, even if we assume that the concept of ‘binding to something’ is part of the meaning of ‘obligation’ it could be the case that ‘obligation’ implies that the person with the obligation is bound to some thing rather than to some person.
Taylor gives a similar argument about the meaning of the concept of ‘duty’:
A duty is something that is owed, something due, … .  But something can be owed only to some person or persons.  There can be no such thing as a duty in isolation, that is, something that is owed but owed to no person or persons. 
(Virtue Ethics, Chapter 11, from the section on ‘The Relational Character of Ethical Terms’)
As with the previous argument about ‘obligation’, this is a weak argument, at best, because Taylor is making a conceptual claim based upon the etymology of the word ‘duty’.
Because a duty, like an obligation, can be ‘to’ or ‘for’ someone in more than one way (my promise to take care of my friend’s child involves a duty to my friend and a duty to the child) it is not clear which sort of object of a duty is in view in terms of who or what is ‘owed’ the action. If in this case I owe it to the child to care for the child, then that sort of object of a duty need NOT be a person, since I can also promise to care for a cat or for a garden.
Thirdly, the words ‘owed’ and ‘due’ are not used exclusively of relations to persons:
You owe it to yourself to see this movie.
I owe my love of classical music to my dearly departed grandmother.
We are due for a big earthquake in the next ten years.
The recent string of hot days in spring may be due to global warming.
These may not be central or the most common uses of the words ‘owe’ and ‘due’, but these uses of these words shows that their meanings can be stretched beyond the confines of ‘person X owes Y to person Z’. Since the root words upon which the term ‘duty’ is based can be used in ways that do not require a relationship between persons, this suggests that the term ‘duty’ might also not be strictly limited to situations where
‘Person A has a duty B towards a person C’. If ‘owed’ and ‘due’ do not necessariy imply a relation between two or more persons, then the word ‘duty’ might not necessarily imply such a relation either.
To be continued…

bookmark_borderDraft chapter on Humanism, Science and Skepticism for comments….



Humanism: Science, Reason and Skepticism[1]


What are science and reason?


Humanists expound the virtues of science and reason. But what are science and reason? And we should we think it wise to rely on them?


By science, I shall mean that approach to finding out about reality based on the scientific method. This is a method that was fully developed only a few hundred years ago. Science, as I’ll use the term here, is a comparatively recent invention, its development owing a great deal to 16th and 17th Century thinkers such as the philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626).


So what is the scientific method? Here’s a very rough sketch.[2] Scientists collect data through observation and experiment. They formulate hypotheses and broader theories about the nature of reality to account for what they observe. Crucially, they also test their theories. Scientists derive from their theories predictions that can be independently checked by observation.

  Continue reading “Draft chapter on Humanism, Science and Skepticism for comments….”

bookmark_borderBaudrillard and pseudoprofundity

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Prof Paul Taylor chose for the Radio 3 programme we recorded to be broadcast tonite at 10pm (I am talking about pseudo-profundity and bullshit and pointing a finger at some post-modern thinkers – listen here for a week [I am on from about 14mins30]):
For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been “discovered”, and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn’t every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades … the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.
Paul thought this quote encapsulated some deep insight about science (which he illustrated with an example of an actual remote tribe, the Tasaday indians, who had to retreat further into the forest in order to remain an uncontacted tribe[PS correction, I am muddling two tribes here – Tasaday are Phillipino; the tribe that had to retreat were Brazillian], whom people nevertheless then tried to photograph from a plane [Paul has a paper on this here]).
My view is: this quotation appears as it stands to be a combination of a banal observation and a ludicrous falsehood, puffed up into an impressive linguistic souffle and pretentiously topped off with a reference to Greek mythology.
Well, it is true that ethnology, the study of cultures, can sometimes end up destroying (or at the very least changing) the cultures it studies, if e.g. the culture of a remote rainforest tribe.
But this simple point that science sometimes destroys what it studies, by studying it, is not new. William Wordsworth, back in 1798, said:

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things
We murder to dissect

Yes, we do sometimes murder to dissect. I might kill an individual insect in order to study its anatomy.
That we sometimes destroy what we study (in the process of studying it) is true, but it’s a rather banal, humdrum point that, as I say, Wordsworth made well over a hundred years before Baudrillard. It’s an uncontroversial observation with which we can and no doubt will all agree.
But of course this is not to say that to investigate something scientifically always involves destroying what’s being investigated. That’s obviously false. Indeed it’s a ludicrous suggestion. Someone who studies galaxies does not thereby destroy them. Nor, by dissecting an insect, do I destroy the species knowledge of which I acquire by my dissection.
Yet Baudrillard goes on to suggests every science does ultimately do precisely that – it cuts itself off from and destroys its own subject matter.
However, such is the high falutin, flowery way in which Baudrillard makes the slide from banal observation to ludicrous falsehood that many of us will fail to spot his sleight of hand – that a banality has indeed been replaced by a falsehood. We’ll be too distracted by the seductive analogy drawn with Orpheus and Eurypides to spot the conjurer’s switcheroo.
By the time we reach the end of the Baudrillard quotation, he’s combining words so cryptically it’s hard to know what he is talking about. Science’s “autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form” Eh? Try translating that back into plain English.
But by this stage it doesn’t matter that Baudrillard is drifting into gibberish. In fact it’s very much to his advantage. For, once Baudrillard has got you to come as far as accepting the obviously false but nevertheless terrifically exciting skeptical conclusion: “Oh Wow! Yes science does always destroy, cuts itself off from, what it seeks to know, doesn’t it?” you are likely to think there must be some still deeper insight contained within his parting gibberish (only it’s really, really deep and that’s why Baudrillard needs to resort to such convoluted and baffling prose to try to articulate it).
At this point, it’s job done for Baudrillard. He can sit back, adopt a sage like expression, and let you start doing the intellectual labour for him.
Of course there may be great insight contained elsewhere in the work of Baudrillard. But I cannot detect anything terribly impressive in the brief quote presented above.

P.S. Notice that the above quotation, unpacked, turns out to be very close to what Daniel Dennett calls a deepity: a deepity has (at least) two meanings; one that is true but trivial, and another that sounds profound, but is essentially false or meaningless and would be “earth-shattering” if true.

bookmark_borderThe Alpha course vs. Philosophy

Extract from my OUP book Humanism: A Very Short Introduction, which references the Alpha Course (it’s from chpt 7)

Religion vs. shallow, selfish individualism
Let’s now turn to religious practice. Setting aside the issue of whether God exists, perhaps it might still be argued that religious reflection or observance is required if our lives are not to be shallow and meaningless. Here is one such argument.
It is sometimes claimed, with some justification, that religion encourages people to take a step back and reflect on the bigger questions. Even many non-religious people suppose that a life lived out in the absence of any such reflection is likely to be rather shallow. Contemporary Western society is obsessed with things that are, in truth, comparatively worthless: money, celebrity, material possessions, etc. Our day-to-day lives are out often lived out within a narrow envelope of essentially selfish concerns, with little or no time given to contemplating bigger questions. It was religious tradition and practice that provided the framework within which such questions were once addressed. With the loss of religion, we have inevitably slid into selfish individualism. If we want people to enjoy a more meaningful existence, we need to reinvigorate religious tradition and practice (some would add that we need, in particular, to ensure young people are properly immersed in such practices in school).
There is some truth in the above argument. Religion can encourage people to take a step back and contemplate the bigger issues. It can help break the hypnotic spell that a shallow, individualistic culture can cast over young minds.
However, religion can itself also promote forms of selfishness – such as a self-interested obsession with achieving ones own salvation or personal enlightenment. And of course religion has itself been used to glorify material wealth, by suggesting that great wealth is actually a sign of God’s favour.
Is it true that only religion encourages us to think about the big questions? No. In chapter 1 we saw that there is another long tradition of thought running all the way back to the Ancient world that also addresses the big questions – a secular, philosophical tradition. If we want people, and especially children, to think about such questions, we are not obliged to take the religious route. We can encourage them to think philosophically.
Indeed, as I point out in chapter 6, there is evidence that introducing philosophy programmes into the curriculum can have a dramatic impact on both the behaviour of pupils and the ethos and academic standing of their schools.
Most contemporary humanists are just as concerned about shallow, selfish individualism as are religious people. They too believe it is important we should sometimes take a step back and consider the big questions. They just deny that the only way to encourage a more responsible and reflective attitude to life is to encourage children to be more religious.
If we want to encourage young people to really think about the big questions, philosophy is, arguably, a much more promising approach. The Church of England poses the question “Is this it?” on billboards and buses, promising those who sign up to their Alpha Course “An opportunity to explore the meaning of life”. However,when the religious raise such questions, they are often posed for rhetorical effect only. They are asked, not in the spirit of open, rational enquiry, but merely as the opening gambit in an attempt to sign up new recruits. Unlike religion, philosophy does not approach such questions having already committed itself to certain answers (though it does not rule out religious answers, of course).  Philosophy really does encourage you to think, question and make your own judgement – an approach to answering the Big Questions that, in reality, many religions have traditionally been keen to suppress.

Recommendation: If you are interested in exploring the meaning of life, an alternative to the Alpha Course is to get into Philosophy instead. Why not try this?!


bookmark_borderAtheistic Moral Realism – Part 6

Some internet resources about  William Craig’s views on morality and Richard Taylor’s views on morality:
Is The Basis Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural?
A Debate Between Richard Taylor and William Lane Craig
Union College, Schenectady, New York
October 8, 1993
The Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality
By Dr. William Lane Craig
Is The Foundation Of Morality Natural Or Supernatural?
William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris
Universityof NotreDame, Notre Dame, Indiana, United States– April 2011
Book Review of Richard Taylor’s book Good and Evil
By H. Benjamin Shaeffer
Virtue Ethics: An Introduction
(originally published under the title: Ethics, Faith, and Reason)
Prometheus Books, 2002
By Richard Taylor
Available at Google books (preview of first 25 pages):
Irrefutable Ethics
Article in Philosophy Now
By Richard Taylor
Interview of Richard Taylor
in Philosophy Now
The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life
By William James
An address to the Yale Philosophical Club, published in the International Journal of Ethics, April 1891. (a major influence on Richard Taylor’s views about morality)
On the Basis of Morality
By Arthur Schopenhauer
(a major influence on Richard Taylor’s views about morality)
Available on Google Books:
Richard Taylor Remembered
Philosophy Now