What’s So Great about What’s So Great about Christianity? – Part 2

As we saw in my last post, Dinesh D’Souza’s defense of the “moral laws presume a moral lawgiver” argument fails. In this post I want to comment on what D’Souza has to say about atheist “attempt[s] to meet this challenge” (232).

1.Like many partisan diatribes, D’Souza’s book says nothing about the strongest arguments and objections against his position. Instead, he gives unsuspecting readers the misleading, false impression that the only way an atheist might explain morality is “as a product of evolution and natural selection” (232), which D’Souza calls (reasonably enough) the “Darwinian explanation” for morality. For the record, I agree with D’Souza that evolution does not explain moral laws, obligations, or values. But so what? This is of very little philosophical significance.

Why? As Quentin Smith showed in his history of 20th century metaethics, Religious and Ethical Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Languagethe last century saw numerous philosophers provide robust accounts of morality without God, beginning with G.E. Moore and ending arguably with Smith himself. But D’Souza is oblivious to those accounts. Precisely none of these accounts are attempts to explain morality “as a product of evolution and natural selection.”

To put this into perspective, imagine if an atheist wrote a polemic against Christian morality and made it appear as if the only way a theist might explain morality is the (unmodified) divine command theory. That would be just as misleading as what D’Souza has done with atheist morality.

This is sophistry.

In fact, contrary to what theistic apologists like D’Souza suggest, one doesn’t have to be an atheist in order to reject the idea that God is the foundation of morality. There are theistic philosophers, like Richard Swinburne, who also reject that idea. But, again, D’Souza’s readers will learn nothing about those philosophers or their arguments from reading D’Souza’s book.

2. In the course of discussing the Darwinian explanation for morality, D’Souza argues that Darwinians are unable to explain the fact that humans engage in “high altruism.”

The problem is that this entire framework of Darwinian analysis does not even come close to explaining morality. It confines itself to explaining altruism, but it only succeeds in explaining what may be termed “low altruism.” But humans also engage in “high altruism,” which may be defined as behavior that confers no reciprocal or genetic advantage. (233)

As I have argued before, however, this argument can be turned on its head against theism: facts about the distribution of altruistic behaviors in human beings favor naturalism over theism. Humans are effectively self-centered; our tendency to behave in self-centered ways is usually much stronger than any tendency to behave in selfless ways. These selfless or altruistic behaviors can be divided into two types: kin altruism and non-kin altruism.

On Darwinian naturalism, the mixture of moral goodness and moral badness we find in Homo sapiens is easy to explain. The Darwinian naturalist explanation for our overwhelming tendency towards self-centered behavior is obvious. Kin altruism is also easy to explain: behaviors that promote the survival and reproduction of my kin make it more probable that my genes will be inherited by future generations. Non-kin altruism is weaker than kin altruism and also absent more often than kin altruism. Given that kin altruism exists, this pattern or distribution is exactly what we would expect on Darwinian naturalism.

On theism, either God created humans directly (through special creation) or indirectly (through theistic evolution or “Darwinian theism”). Since God is omnipotent and omniscient, He could create humans without making them inherently self-centered. Since God is morally perfect, He would have good moral reasons for creating altruistic humans. Furthermore, He would not create inherently self-centered humans unless He had a morally sufficient reason for doing so. So given that humans are inherently self-centered, theism entails both that God is not constrained by biological goals like survival and reproduction (and hence does not need to create human beings who are inherently self-centered) and that He had a morally sufficient reason for creating inherently self-centered human beings. And that’s a really big coincidence that Darwinian naturalism doesn’t need.

3. Finally, D’Souza argues that Darwinian naturalism cannot explain the tendency of conscience to favor our weaker inclinations to operate against self-interest: in his words, “conscience is nothing other than the voice of God within our souls” (236). I suspect, however, that D’Souza overestimates the degree to which humans experience urges to display non-kin altruism. According to human evolutionary psychology (HEP), human moral knowledge and emotions developed in the Paleolithic environment of our hunting-gathering ancestors. On the assumption that Darwinian naturalism and HEP are true, one would expect human altruistic behaviors to be distributed on a bell-shaped curve skewed towards the self-centered side of the spectrum. There is no reason to predict that each generation will contain no individuals who exhibit non-kin altruism. All that matters is the overall distribution of self-centeredness and altruism among human beings; as we’ve seen, that favors naturalism over theism.