Sunday, June 3, 2007

Incoherent: I Believe Because It Makes Me a Moral Person

There is another more superficial argument that also deserves mentioning here. Many people have the pessimistic view that the only thing that could motivate essentially selfish and sinful beings to act morally is the threat of punishment or the promise of reward. The only reason that humans are moral, on the rare occasions when they are, is that they either are actually being selfish and just trying to get the big payoffs for being good: heaven. Or again, they are essentially being selfish and it is only the fear of punishment, of an eternity spent suffering horribly in hell, that keeps them from smashing and grabbing everything they want. So again God is invoked to solve the problem of morality. But here the argument is quite queer. The suggestion is not that people act morally, therefore there must be a God. It is more like, if people were to believe that there is no God, then there would be nothing to restrain them from the worst sorts of behavior. So it is better that we all believe. This is a queer argument because it seems to be an argument not for the conclusion that the sentence “God exists” is true, but the conclusion, “To avoid disaster, it is better for everyone including me and you, to believe that God exists (whether or not he actually does.)” It would be like the case where your ailing grandfather has died, and your grandmother is also in such precarious and bad health that the family decides that it would be better not to tell her. It would be better for her not to believe that Grandpa has died because having that belief itself, even though it is true, would have disastrous practical consequences.

The “Believe in God, or else,” argument here gets even stranger when it is allegedly a believer who states it to the non-believer. This person is playing the role of Grandpa, Grandma, and concerned family all by themselves. The believer seems to be saying about themselves, “well, I choose to believe in the existence of God because if I don’t, I know that I am such and awful person and I have such powerful evil urges that I would not be able to restrain them without the fear of eternal punishment.” The obvious question to ask is, “well, who is the executive decision maker who’s in charge enough to be making that decision about what beliefs are needed to keep me in check?” We’d like to talk to that guy—he seems reasonable and thoughtful enough about his behavior and his urges. Even if you did believe this about yourself, and as a result you come to believe in belief, as Daniel Dennett puts it (Breaking the Spell), how would you go about perpetrating this deception on yourself? You don’t really believe in God, or you don’t see any good reasons to believe other than that doing so would help keep you in check and minding your manners, so you set about getting yourself to actually believe that it is true—not just practical, but really true—that there is a God. What would the next step be? Pascal recognized a similar dilemma and recommended that you talk like the believers, surround yourself with them, act like they do, and go through all the motions as if you believe until you have “deadened your acuteness” which brings to mind smacking yourself with a hammer or something.

But here it’s not you’re just trying to hedge your bets to possibly get into heaven like Pascal was doing. You have recognized that it would produce better, more moral results if you were to believe something false or unsupported because otherwise your natural tendencies, which you have decided are wicked and depraved on grounds that must be completely independent of the God question, will win out. Evidently, you are completely capable of figuring out what is right and wrong and acting in accord with it without any reference to God at along. And this is what the non-believer who was scratching her head at your “Believe in God, or else,” argument was trying to say all along.

In James Morris’ novel, Towing Jehovah, they find the 2 mile long corpose of God floating in the ocean. A small group of people are in charge of towing the body with an oil freighter to the Arctic Circle to keep it on ice. As the truth that God really is dead slowly settles in on the crew, a drunken orgy of violence and sin does erupt. But then one of them gets murdered, and they sober up and realize that it was really their own self-restraint that was leading them to behave themselves all along.


Jon said...

Many years ago when I was having doubts about certain beliefs that I had, I had a discussion with a serious believer. I kept raising doubts and questions, and he kept thumbing through the bible and trying to answer my questions and doubts. Finally out of frustration he said "Jon, I would be a wild, wild, person without this." At that time a thought accured to me that something was wrong with that answer. The consequences of psychologizing belief are interesting. All the time people tell me nonchalantly how christian or whatever they are in a given context, but when I nonchalantly tell them what I am in that same context, it makes them pause in serious discomfort. Maybe because they know that it is immoral for me to go to a burning hell forever, and it psychologically questions their belief.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that our natural tendencies are not as evil as portrayed by religion, the bible, belief in God(s), etc. While it may be true that many people are out of control when it comes to bodily and cognitive urges and desires, and that if some of those people were to find Jesus they may become less sinful or more in control, it doesn't follow that belief in God could fix all of this. I personally believe morality to be a sort of natural code that we derive from actual consequences within our lives. Not from potential consequences of eternal damnation or suffering. To me, morality seems to be very circumstantial and situational. Is it wrong always to kill? What if someone is trying to kill you and the one's you love? What if the only way to stop them is to kill them? Is it always wrong to steal? What if you are a staving family whose earned food was stolen from you? Is it wrong to steal it back? Is it wrong to do drugs? Perhaps only if your sick? What about caffeine? Alcohol? Is it wrong to kill oneself? What if you have made the conscious, reasonable choice to do so? Acting in a moral fashion should be dependent on actual consequences and be measured as such from past occurrences and instances of good/bad outcomes. Believing in God to make oneself a moral person seems like a forced move. Nature possesses enough consequences to make me wary of committing immoral acts as well as to understand that immoral acts are wrong. As stated above, morality , to me, is very circumstantial. This may seem to complicate cases in which one could be walking the gray line between moral and immoral, but I think we as humans have the capacity to deal with it. Forcing belief in God in hopes of magically becoming moral seems like a very easy way out of some very difficult questions that need grappling with. This may have not to do with the subject at hand, but it is what came to my mind after reading this blog...err...ya. Aloha.

Anonymous said...

This kind of argument just demonstrates what kind of people are attracted to theism -- people that crave control and restraint.

Are we surprised by this? No.

Look at the wild-eyed critters of Middle America and the Middle East -- these folks really do need some kind of powerful exterior restraint -- because obviously their own will power isn't enough.

A lot of this is just cultural nonsense: people are raised to think that they need theism or government (or whatever) in order to be good.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of mentally unstable people in the world as well, and reason is a poor tool for the insane -- some of these people seem to really need some external forces to control them.

So what is the best answer for these kinds of people? Prison? The military? The asylum? God?

I vote for the university.


Julio CastaƱeda said...

Also i would like to add that the environment and social context also have a lot to do with people's beliefs. To abound on this let's take a well educated nation, with a well-functioning justice system like Switzerland and compare it to a developing country with a lot of corruption problems and violence and with serious problems in the justice system like Mexico. In the first case for every attempt of mocking justice there is punishment not because of fear of god but because all the institutions and society converge in the belief that social interactions need to be regulated by the society itself (in the form of laws and social conventions to which everyone has to obey). But, what happens when there is a weak institutional enforcement of aberrant behavior in the second case? There are no social consequences for bad behavior and these doings become common in the members of the society. In the advent of these circumstances the only path that many people find is to look up and pray to an imaginary entity that would fulfill their lack of justice and wellness. And so, the contribution of these factors are correlated to the “believeness” of people, and this is why we find a lot more atheist people in well educated nations that in any place else. I’m not trying to justify their beliefs simply I thought it was worth mentioning it.