Deflatheism on Good People Doing Bad Things

Over at Deflating Atheism, Rob examines the quote, “For good people to do evil, that requires religion.”

I love that he tackles it by just taking it at face value. I don’t come across this quote much—it’s the sign of a complete idiot if you see someone think there’s anything to it, and I tend to avoid complete idiots—but the few times I have I just look at how ridiculous the idea is that people are naturally good. As if theft, murder, rape, adultery, lying, and so forth never occurred to anyone on their own but only came from directives they were taught!

So I found it especially fun that he demolished it from the opposite end.

You Can’t Get an Ought From an Is In Hell

One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)

There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:

  1. If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
  2. If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.

If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:

OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?

This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.

Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)

Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.

What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.

And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)

And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.

And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.

God, at least, has a sense of humor.

Whence Comes the Book?

I read a curious article about a fan of The Mists of Avalon which is about her reaction to learning that the author of the book (Marion Zimmer Bradley) (allegedly) sexually abused her own daughter and other children. It’s curious because of the degree to which it regards the author indulging in astounding amounts of sexual evil as if it were simply a ritual impurity, rather than as something which might be woven into the book itself. A book which, by the reader’s own admission, was very unlike anything else:

I still cannot imagine anything more perfectly aligned with my thirteen-year-old sensibilities than Marion Zimmer Bradley’s masterpiece. Bradley opened my eyes to the idea that, when we look at the past, we are only ever seeing a small part of it — and usually, what we are seeing excludes the experiences of women. Encountering the vain, self-serving, diabolical Morgan le Fay transformed into the priestess Morgaine compelled me to question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men. The Mists of Avalon also gave me a glimpse of spiritual possibilities beyond male-dominated, male-defined religions. In retrospect, I can see that it gave me ways of seeing that helped me find the feminine even within patriarchal systems while studying religion as an undergrad. The impact of this book lingers in my feminism, certainly, but it also influenced my scholarly interest in folklore, and it still informs my personal spirituality.

And this is her analysis of the book in light of the revelations about the author:

The sexual act described [above] takes place around the Beltane fire. As a young reader, I was disturbed by it, but I saw it as a description of people who have passed beyond the normal world and into the sacred time of a fertility ritual. The scene was frightening for me as a child, and repellent, but also, I must admit, fascinating. In context, this passage made sense: The horror of the scene was an element of its power. And that was all I found. Everything I had always loved about the book was still there, and I didn’t find anything new to hate. So, what was I going to do with this book?

And finally, here is her conclusion:

So, what to do with this once-beloved book? I’ve read it once since Greyland spoke out, and I don’t know if I will read it again. Probably not, I’m guessing. Discovering that powerful men are predators is disturbing, but not surprising. Learning that the author who introduced me to feminine spirituality and the hidden side of history abused children — girls and boys, her own daughter — was horrifying in an existential kind of way. I’m a writer and an editor and I know that characters can exceed their creators. I would go so far as to say that that’s the goal. So I can keep Morgaine — what she has meant to me, what she has become in my personal mythology — while I reject Bradley.

This is a common thing I see in the modern world: assuming that all propositions stand alone, unconnected from all others, as if truth is not things fitting into each other but like a butterfly collection on unconnected facts.

This woman never asks herself whether the book teaching her to “question other received narratives in which women are to blame for the failures of men” is just Bradley trying to escape the blame for her own evil, projected. If in most other parts of the world, people who don’t rape their (and other) children take responsibility for their own wrongs, but a rapist teaches how to shuffle the blame off on others, perhaps the right course of action is not to keep the lesson that you should always shuffle the blame onto others.

Virtue is not a simple thing. Virtue is required for people to live together. Virtue is required for people to live together with everything, in fact, even nature. Virtue is what places us into a right relationship with the hierarchy of being. Evil people reject the hierarchy of being; they substitute their own for the real one. At the extremes you have Satan’s nolo servire—I will not serve. The more vicious an author is, the more one expects this to permeate every aspect of their being, because the fundamental solipsism of their orientation to the world cannot but touch on every interaction they have with the world. To learn life lessons from the book of a thoroughly wicked man is a fool’s errand; they will be right by accident. And since they will be right by accident, their effort will not be in making the truth attractive.

In short, if you’re going to sell your soul to the devil, don’t do it in exchange for wisdom.

Heinlein’s Sexual Morality, Good & Evil in Novels, & More: A Conversation with Mr. John C. Wright

I had the pleasure of having the always-interesting science fiction author Mr. John C Wright (who blogs at scifiwright.com) on my show. It was a somewhat wide-ranging conversation, though it stuck (in my mind) surprisingly closely to the topic we set out to talk about throughout. It’s also available on YouTube:

Why You Can’t Have a Scientific Morality

I’ve occasionally seen references to using science to construct morality, so I discussed why this is impossible. (This is also a position which any who believes in scientisim—that the only source of knowledge is science—is forced into if they don’t want to hold morality and all associated human actions, such as law and criminal justice, to be completely irrational. They’re not going to want to do that because then they’d be holding that all the most important things in life are irrational.) And of course you can view this on YouTube:

On Its Own, the Golden Rule is Fool’s Gold

There is a very strange error which many atheists make when debating theists: they think that the word morality means no more than, “how you make decisions”. They will then propose some means by which they make decisions and say that this shows that atheists can be moral too. These rules never mandate nor forbid anything, of course, and always seem suspiciously like what somebody raised with a real moral code would find comfortable, supposing that they’re reasonably well-to-do and live in a peaceful place with little crime.

I recently saw an example where somebody proposed the golden rule, which he claimed required no God. Of course there is absolutely no reason given why one should obey it, but for the moment, let’s ignore that. Suppose that the following were true:

If I were rich and owned a bank, I would really like it if people tried to rob my bank at gunpoint so I could have the fun of patrolling the branches to heroically stop the robbery should I arrive at the right time.

The conclusion, then, would be that a man who felt this way should go and rob banks at gunpoint. No God required.

For the moment, let’s leave voluntarism out of account since anyone who believes in voluntarism has explicitly rejected reason anyway and so can’t be reasoned with (voluntarism is the idea that morality flows from God’s will rather than his intellect, so God could command rape and murder and forbid kindness and mercy). The only way to get an actual morality which both has both positive and negative commands and actually works is for it to be grounded in the nature of things to which the moral rules apply. I’ll give a fuller description of this later, but the short version is that all sin is a diminishment of being. God is love, which means that God is generosity, and in his generosity he has given it to us to be his generosity to the world. He could give my children food directly, but instead has given it to me to be his gift of food to my children. He could have created them directly, but gave it to my wife and I to be his act of creating them. To those of us who pass hungry beggars on the street, he gives it to us to be his gift of food to them. To those of us with tongues he gives it to us to be his speaking of the truth to those with ears to hear it. And so it goes for all moral rules: it is our nature to be God’s act of generous creation to the world, in ways big and small. To tell someone the truth is to create in them knowledge. And so it goes with all things we do that are good.

To sin is to refuse to do this work of creation we were given to do. Being is good, so to refuse to do this work is to diminish being, and is therefore evil because there is less good. (Evil is a negative, not a positive, thing, and has no existence on its own. Evil exists only in the manner of a shadow, which “exists” only where the light does not hit.)

All actually grounded moralities must have this in common as their ground. It is of course possible to take a morality on faith, without understanding its grounding, but it must of necessity come back to some ultimate source for our existence. Atheists will never succeed in grounding a real morality because they do not believe in a reality capable of grounding a morality. Blind matter mechanically acting so arbitrary rules has no further being than merely existing. We might think particular configurations of it interesting, or like them, but this is merely to be entertained by illusions. To have a real morality, you need a real reality.