Friday, January 30, 2015

Six Things David Marcus Gets Wrong (Out of Seven)

I've seen little commentary about the post that appeared on the Federalist website in December Seven Things Atheists Get Wrong by David Marcus. Starting off with a quick vignette about mediocre MSNBC fact-checking as a stand-in for all things atheist Marcus goes on to make seven assertions.

I'd normally leave these alone, because for they are mostly assertions with other assertions offered as support, but many of these claims are frequently tossed at non-theists as serious objections. So let's take a quick look through them, spot the holes, and move on to bigger and better things.

1. Religion Is About Morality, Not Creation Myths

Marcus starts us off with an attempt to claim the moral high ground, by suggesting that religion is concerned with how we live our lives, rather than how our lives came into being. Tell that to Ken Ham and his coterie. Or if Catholicism is more your cup of tea, Humani Generis by Pius XII in section 37 clearly states:

When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.
So, Original Sin, a key point of Catholicism's moral framework is conditional on the literal sin of a literal Adam . Or in section 38:

 This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people.

and 39:

Therefore, whatever of the popular narrations have been inserted into the Sacred Scriptures must in no way be considered on a par with myths or other such things, which are more the product of an extravagant imagination than of that striving for truth and simplicity which in the Sacred Books, also of the Old Testament, is so apparent that our ancient sacred writers must be admitted to be clearly superior to the ancient profane writers. 

We see that Catholicism in no way envisions a morality apart from the creation narrative.

So Atheists 1, Marcus 0

2. Religion Is the Foundation of All Morality, Not Merely an Expression of It

Marcus, after a glancing jab at Christopher Hitchens, tries to support his argument with the follow-up assertion:
All of us, whether atheist, agnostic, or a member of a religion, practice morality based on religion. Without religion there would never have been morality. There was no peaceful, Adamite paradise of moral choice which religion sullied millennia ago. Before religion, there was murder and rape and all manner of horrors just as there are today. 
Which is but a strawperson (check out an excellent post on the concept of religious strawmanning) of the actual atheist argument, aptly stated by Hitchens (quoting Steven Weinberg)

"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

We see loving parents choose to hate their children because of religion, we see regions of the world where violence has festered for centuries because someone spoke Latin while baptizing half a village, and someone else spoke Greek while baptizing the other half. Religious relics that stood for centuries destroyed for "blasphemy".

So we can see lots of practical evidence of Weinberg's claim, but where is Marcus' evidence of religion as the font of all things moral? He doesn't feel obliged to provide any, after he dismisses Hitchens for something he didn't actually say. So "if Hitchens wrong, then Marcus right".

Not so much. Atheists 2, Marcus 0

3. Religion Was the Foundation of Society, Not an Addition to It

Marcus attempts to provide us with evidence in the form of an article by Marcel Gauchet, arguing that religious obligation created the linkages between people that evolved into society. Marcus then goes on to try and push the envelope by stating:
 It was this debt to supernatural, irrational powers that created the very notion of acting in accordance with what is good. Whether all, or some, or none of the admonitions in Leviticus or the Koran are really moral is beside the point.
So he goes from  arguing morality based on religion shared by everyone to a religion based on "supernatural, irrational powers" where the morality of the foundational texts is "beside the point". How does Marcus defend the idea that morality based on unverifiable supernatural pronouncements, that are per his definition "irrational" are superior to a morality based on social consent and mutual benefit?

He doesn't. He is too busy covering his backside by handwaving away challenges to his thesis based on the actual "moral" texts that have influenced societies. To be clear neither Christianity, nor Islam founded any societies, so whatever benefit to religion he seeks to gain with this argument, it would be fallacious to try and apply that benefit to either of those faiths.

We do see from prehistoric evidence of settlements as well as from early written history that societies were built on three things:

  1. Survival (ease in acquiring food, strength and protection in numbers,etc)
  2. Increased well-being (access to better living conditions through shared resources, division of labour, etc)
  3. Shared beliefs (some religious, others about survival and well-being, and some simple codes of morality and fair play)
We've seen these shared beliefs in animal research, and few believers want to give up their privileged position as "God's special creation" to share it with capuchins, bonobos and whales, so it's much more likely that the shared beliefs that helped build societies started with a basis in empathy and kin selection. From there, other shared beliefs have developed, including religious beliefs, but a cursory scan of societies today shows significant differences in well-being, achievement and social growth between those with religion as their societal foundation and those who support religion as one share belief option among many, with a strong secular framework to ensure that individuals and their rights are respected.

Atheists 3, Marcus 0

4. Atheists Do Believe

Marcus attempts a little sidestep to presuppositional apologetics here by questioning on what basis atheists can determine "right" from "wrong". Note that the idea that there is one absolute measure has been snuck in with that sentence. Yet, if we were to challenge Marcus to show us "right from wrong" according to his Christianity, it would be no time at all before we would point out contradictions.

Death penalty? Some Christians yes, some no. Contraception? yes and no. Eating meat? Yes and no. Corporal punishment? Yes and no. Feeding the poor? Yes and no. Obeying the government? yes and no. Masturbation? Yes and no. Keep in mind we're only considering Christianity here, and have't spread out to "religion" as Marcus does. This would multiply the contradictions.

Marcus has no objective basis for his morals. He picks and chooses along with everyone else, and while he decries science as a means of determining "right", it can work very well in determining increasing health, increased well-being, and so on. Certainly better than adopting one ancient text at random, in a sea of them. So yes, atheists have beliefs about better actions, but many do base them on science and evidence, contra Marcus' assertion.

Atheists 4, Marcus 0

5. Science Can’t Teach Us Right from Wrong

Not content to be wrong once, Marcus doubles down and makes his "evidence" from point 4 the basis of his fifth point. While the previous section provides sufficient refutation to the idea of "right from wrong" and Marcus' mistaken idea that he has objective knowledge about it, let's look at one of his points, "But even if we accept the premise that morality is entirely subjective, we still have to decide how to act."

Marcus misses the point completely that even if we believe there is an objective morality, we  still have to decide what we think it is and how it is to be applied in actual practice. So in reality, the limitation that Marcus attempts to assert for atheists is the same one faces by believers, our morals can only go as far as our understanding and ability to act. And contrary to his assertion that science can tell us nothing about moral choices, science in fact can show us the impact of moral choices on a society, such as research showing how the most religious parts of the United States show worse performance in several indicators of well-being.

So again, we have subjectivity, masquerading as objectivity to try and discredit other subjective ideas.

Atheists 5, Marcus 0

6. Religion Complements Science, It Doesn’t Oppose It

We saw in the discussion of Marcus' first point, that Pius XII forbade Catholics from even considering polygenism as part of a theory of human origins, because it contradicted the religious narrative he believed. Jerry Coyne, author of "Why Evolution is True" has also provided evidence on why science doesn't support these theological assertions, here and here. Likewise, Marcus' argument in points 4 and 5 that science play no role in morality and must give up the filed to religion, directly contradicts his argument here in point 5. Nuff said.

Atheists 6, Marcus 0

7. Ignorance of Religion Is Ignorance of History, For Atheists and Everyone

Yay! Finally Marcus gets one right. Although it borders on a tautology, since every discipline has an historical component and ignorance of any discipline leaves a gap in one's historical understanding.

That point aside, this post has shown how an ignorance of religion and its history would leave one unable to refute some of Marcus' arguments. The question arises why Marcus continues to suggest that atheists are ignorant of religious history when (1) there is so much good writing on the topic to show that the average atheist has a better grasp of religious history than the average believer, and (b) the simple refutation of some of Marcus' arguments with concrete historical examples makes one wonder why he didn't spend more time fact-checking his argument before publishing it, the same criticism he levels against MSNBC.

So in spite of his own foibles and the fact that atheists don't encourage anyone to be ignorant of religion, let's give Marcus a half point, for effort.

Atheists 6.5, Marcus .5

There you have it, common Christian objections to atheism and some initial starting points to challenge them. None of the arguments I've shared are meant to be the judo chop to the throat killer argument that ends the discussion. Rather, they're meant to cause the believer to pause and reconsider the basis for their certainty and their perception of the non-theist. From there hopefully some dialogue and better mutual understanding. And better society, based on something other than religion.

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