Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Secular Values Do Not Exist

The rallying cry that only secular laws should govern men, and that only secular reasons should be behind those laws, is complicated by there being no secular reasons to begin with.

Or rather, if there are secular reasons - if ultimately a secular reason is just any reason that is not rooted in the commands of a deity or of a "religion" (whatever that is anymore) - then the rule is useless, because it's trivial to take any given reason that is normally rooted in God's existence, God's commands, or the commands of a religion, lop off the parts that are invalid, and simply substitute 'that's just what I like' or 'that's what I value' in its place. All of your religious views about what is right and wrong can become 'secular' in a heartbeat - and without sacrificing an iota of your religious beliefs, no less.

This is short, simple, and straightforward - and also, I'm convinced, inescapable. But I think it's an idea that has yet to sink into the awareness of the religious populace at large, at least in the West. At least part of this is probably rooted in the old idea of Athens versus Jerusalem - that there is faith over here, and reason over there, and while they may run parallel at times, they are not the same thing, and at least in some fundamental sense they are at war with each other. If you have 'faith', whatever that is, then you are in Jerusalem - not Athens.

I've never been on board with that idea, but recently I've come to reject it entirely. It's a false contrast.

11 comments:

Legion of Logic said...

Well since morality under atheism is nothing but majority opinion imposed on the minority, I guess they can just use democracy to vote what is moral every couple years.

Crude said...

Well since morality under atheism is nothing but majority opinion imposed on the minority, I guess they can just use democracy to vote what is moral every couple years.

Agreed, though the worry I have here is that even many professed theists buy into the "government should be secular and laws should be based on secular reasons" argument. I did too for a long time. But it ultimately collapses under any scrutiny.

Graham Marley said...

Crude,

Question. Aside from the pesky "what actually happens in real life" factor that makes utilitarianism a doomed idea, I'm having a bit of trouble actually engaging it with arguments as they sit on paper.

In the collapse of postmodernism, secularists are now adopting a pretty serious stance against moral relativism. Which, on one hand, is a kind of good thing. But they are making definitively deontological claims like "human rights" and dressing them up as teleological (violations of human rights cause suffering, suffering is evil [and for some reason, Hume doesn't seem to bother them]) and then refusing to engage further than that. The standard response seems to be "there is no such thing as moral duty, but the avoidance of suffering delivers the same results, so why not just call them the same thing?"

Basically, my question is, how would you illustrate the importance of an objective morality outside of material-consequentialist thought when people seem to only be concerned with pain-as-consequence?

msgrx said...

"All of your religious views about what is right and wrong can become 'secular' in a heartbeat - and without sacrificing an iota of your religious beliefs, no less."

Although as we saw in the gay marriage debate, your secular views can become "religious" as well -- just wait for someone to declare that your stated arguments are just a mask for your real, religious, views, so nobody's under any obligation to listen to them.

Crude said...

Graham,

In the collapse of postmodernism, secularists are now adopting a pretty serious stance against moral relativism. Which, on one hand, is a kind of good thing.

I disagree that it's a good thing, in large part because nothing's really changed other than the language and the spirit. I think that has far less to do with any 'collapse of postmodernism' and far more to do with politics. Relativism and postmodernism seemed strangely popular with people during a period of time where their preferred behaviors were viewed as abominable, and it's going out the door right around the time they've got an inkling that the wind is at their backs.

I think that intellectual considerations like these impact a certain class of people, an important class, but they are actually pretty small in number.

The standard response seems to be "there is no such thing as moral duty, but the avoidance of suffering delivers the same results, so why not just call them the same thing?"

It doesn't deliver the same results, for one thing. You may as well say that fascism and 'the avoidance of suffering' delivers the same results, so call them the same thing.

I fear when you're dealing with people whose stock response is that kind of handwaving, you're dealing with people who don't really care about intellectual honesty - and that therefore trying to find a way to engage them and advance the argument isn't really in the cards.

Basically, my question is, how would you illustrate the importance of an objective morality outside of material-consequentialist thought when people seem to only be concerned with pain-as-consequence?

Depends on what you mean by 'importance'. Practical importance, what's in it for them, what will the immediate payoff/benefit be? Intellectual importance, why it's right, defensible, makes the most sense, etc? The latter presupposes they care about such things. Your experiences may differ from mine, but I run into very few people who embrace the sort of conclusions you're talking about who don't reek of being motivated by other concerns.

I suspect - and I am off on my own here - that the best response to someone like that is not to try and sell them on objective morality, but to play the skeptic and cynic against their preferred "moral" framework.

msgrx,

Although as we saw in the gay marriage debate, your secular views can become "religious" as well

Oh, I know. Secular arguments become 'really' religious arguments, and vice versa. I'm not going to pretend what I'm arguing here is a recipe for rhetorical victory in and of itself. It's an intellectual point alone, but it's a strong one, and one I think is often missed by many otherwise openly religious people.

I can only speak for myself when I say I sincerely bought the 'secular/religious' divide for a while, but ultimately I started to realize that it wasn't real. It's like the 'natural/supernatural' distinction: much talked about, but it doesn't meaningfully exist.

Andrew W said...

There's a more insidious effect also.

- I believe moral position X for religious reasons
- You also believe moral position X
- Since you and I both agree on moral position X that proves that it is a secular moral truth and my religious basis is irrelevant

Why this is insidious is that, typically, your belief of moral position X is actually just a holdover from previous generations that believed X from a religious basis. Without that basis, it has no basis at all except an apparent consensus. But this consensus is an historical accident.

As such, your moral house is actually ridden with termites, but your belief in the universality of the consensus deludes you into thinking that not only are you not going to look under those floorboards to see what's actually there, but that I'm being unreasonable & anti-social for attempting to do so.

("I" and "You" are examples for the purpose of this point, not specific people)

msgrx said...

"As such, your moral house is actually ridden with termites, but your belief in the universality of the consensus deludes you into thinking that not only are you not going to look under those floorboards to see what's actually there, but that I'm being unreasonable & anti-social for attempting to do so."

Indeed. It always annoys me when atheists say something like "Why not just do X because it's right?" or "Why do you need your [G]od to tell you X is right? Isn't it just obvious?", as if their own lack of curiosity and unwillingness to accept the conclusions of their premises are somehow signs of great moral superiority.

Graham Marley said...

The thing that catches me so off guard is the sheer confidence atheists have in their moral energies. As far as I know, the "basic" virtues haven't really been been in question since the Greeks (as far as Western thought goes), the big question has always been how to realize them in some broadly constructive sense that's sustainable for more than a few decades at a time.

On one hand, Atheists invoke the Problem of Evil, in so far as human's are capable of such a degree of evil that God can't exist. Then when faced with the obvious despair that SHOULD bring about, they turn around and say "No no, don't be such a pessimist, we're totally fine, read this Pinker book."

As far as I can tell, the only "better angels" Pinker can really point to is Police air support.

James said...

msgrx,

I wholly agree with you there. Against my better judgment, as usual, I went and perused the comments section on a recent article by Michael L. Brown regarding so-called organized "hate" against homosexuals by leaders like himself.

I wanted to smash my keyboard to bits and hurl my monitor out the window because the atheists asking those same shallow questions were so thick-headed as to refuse to see that "right" and "wrong" do not exist in the absence of a transcendent teleology. All the while, they continued to mock the person that reiterated his reasoning for this almost a dozen times.

I also get quite irritated when these fools appeal to "human rights" as if they also actually exist apart from a necessary, transcendent authority to grant them to us.

Andrew W said...

Tom, Anne, Jack & Jane are discussing who will win the upcoming motor race.

- Tom claims Bob will win because his car has the best top speed and there are lots of long straights on the track.

- Anne claims Bob will win because he has won 11 of 13 races this season.

- Jack claims Bob will win because Bob's car is red and he likes red cars.

- Janes claims Bob will win. She has very little interest in the topic but thinks Tom is hot and is trying to impress him.

All four agree that Bob is most likely to win. Are all four beliefs thereby equal?

Crude said...

All four agree that Bob is most likely to win. Are all four beliefs thereby equal?

Depends on what's meant by 'equal'.