Sunday, December 17, 2006

First-Day Thoughts on Relativism and Religion

I was walking on a village street with my ten-year-old this morning, responding to her questions about how to respond to people who say things she doesn't believe (not only religious; for her, the issue is the same when someone says that there was a bug in their eye that was bigger than the eye). And I found myself thinking of Weinberger's Benjamin Franklin Unmasked: On the Unity of His Moral, Religious, and Political Thought which I just read, which talks of course about Ben's development of non-disputative disputation, though it mostly argues that Ben really didn't even believe in the basic Deism that he mostly claimed:

I believe in one God...he ought to be worshipped. ... the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children.
(Interesting and fun, though somewhat repetitive in style, but not really convincing: Ben could take an ironic stance towards anything, including his ironic stance towards anything, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a Deist. Still, it's true that with everything he wrote you have to figure that he was very likely thinking -- with irony -- about its effect on you, and adjusting his words accordingly.) And I found myself thinking of the recent Volokh Conspiracy discussion of
the most common fallacy in discussions about atheism - the belief that atheism necessarily leads to moral relativism
And of the almost-as-recent related argument by the Rev. Sensing at One Hand Clapping on "Can atheism be justified?"
If atheists are true to their own creed, they must admit that the entire concept of human rights crumbles to dust according to that same creed.
Well, it's interesting; it's sort of like saying that if you believe in quantum mechanics then you have to stop believing in objects; there is no such thing as a thing. Well, sure, in a way, but I would tend to say that the meanings of words like "thing" (or of "right", in this case) doesn't crumble; these are words which we understand as having complex meanings. I'm personally not an atheist, I believe that approximately five out of seven Universes are created by Deities, and some of Them are benevolent and Others aren't, and our Universe is -- well, it's a Universe. Maybe yes, maybe no. But my notion of rights is neither relative nor religious; my notion of rights has to do with my notion of right and wrong.

And what is my notion of rights, you ask? I'm not telling, at least not right now; that's not what this note is about. I'm thinking right now about the relationship between God and Truth and Right.

You see, back when I was about ten myself, I did a moderate amount of Bible-reading, and I made a discovery which a zillion other people have made: I discovered the anger of Moses at Numbers 31:15:

And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?...
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.

Now, there are of course many ways of dealing with that passage, and many others like it. Maybe it's all a mistranslation, or God's spokesguy was having a bad day, or whatever. Maybe God (who is giving Moses detailed directions through the whole process, and continues after this) strongly disapproves, and it just gets left out for some reason. But when you get through it all, it seems to me that there are two possibilities: either what Moses ordered is not what God wanted, or God was wrong. If you think that Moses' orders were morally justified then I think there's something wrong with you, and I don't see anything relative about that judgement.

The best religious answer I can imagine is one along the lines of "Yes, it's wrong: the Bible shows us a progression, an evolution, and many of the pre-Christian policies were in fact wrong". Or something like "Yes, that's wrong, and it is God that tells us it's wrong -- directly rather than through the Bible. If you read the Bible carefully, you'll see that that doesn't fit, and those other passages don't fit either."

Well, maybe, but you're no longer using Biblical revelation as core justification. You're deciding what the Bible really really means, making it make sense based on what you know (and I agree) is RIght. So, does that matter? Yes, it does to me: it tells me that the Biblical God is not the source of my moral judgements. They come from inside, or from the basic logic of The Way Things Are. My personal guess is that they come from whatever I've evolved to be, and that this may or may not be due to the planning of a Person. It doesn't really matter. Well, if God is an evil God who did approve his spokesguy's orders and will put me in Hell for thinking independent thoughts, then that really really matters to me -- and it's possible. (I suspect that the Rev. Sensing thinks that this is not possible, which is just one of many things that we disagree about.) But it wouldn't turn right into wrong, or vice versa.

Sensing does have a very strange stance on evolution:

Since religious beliefs are simply the product of evolution, they may be changed or discarded as we might wish.
Wow. I guess we can change ancestors as we might wish? But that might not help; maybe the basic logic of The Way Things Are would give us convergent evolution in the usual way, pushing any sufficiently-thoughtful social animals to perceive the same underlying logic. Maybe he means we can change universes as we might wish? I don't think so.

But mainly, my guess is that Rev. Sensing, and some of the commenters on the Volokh thread, are using internal judgements which basically work the same way mine do, the same way as in any reasonably healthy or (I strongly suspect, though with less confidence) any sufficiently advanced critter from Betelguese, but are then attributing those judgements to God in the hope of a kind of logical coherence which I as a computer geek would love to see but don't expect; Ben Franklin's ironic stance seems about right.

Meanwhile, somebody wants me to read Dickens' Christmas Carol to her again. And I have no problem with Dickens' sense of morality.


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