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Not Enlightenment To Be?
We need a New Enlightenment, writes Paul Kurtz, who starts his piece by explaining the first Enlightenment (numbers refer to footnotes within the link):

The term Enlightenment refers to a unique set of ideas and ideals that came to fruition in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It began with Bacon, Descartes, Locke, and other philosophers who sought a universal method for establishing knowledge. They looked to science as the model for knowledge and debated whether reason or experience was most important (actually, both are equally important). No doubt they took impetus from the remarkable discoveries of Newton and Galileo in mathematics, physics, and astronomy. The Enlightenment culminated with the French philosophes-Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet, and d'Holbach-who popularized its ideas in Parisian salons, pamphlets, and books, enabling those ideas to spread to a wider educated public.

The philosophes criticized the ancien regime of religious superstition and dogmatism, hidebound social traditions, and repressive morality. They wished to use science and reason to understand nature and solve social problems. They were optimistic that in this way human progress could be advanced. In politics, they developed social contract theories, defended the secular state and the rights of man, and advocated economic liberty. The American Revolution was influenced by their ideals (through Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Paine). They influenced the French Revolution also, though many of them were opposed to its excesses. They wished to reform the penal code and end cruel punishments. They were anticlerical, castigating the corruption and hypocrisy of the churches, especially Roman Catholicism ("crasez l'infme," cried Voltaire). Most were deists; some were atheists. The Enlightenment defended a humanist outlook that drew its values from the Renaissance and Greco-Roman Hellenic culture, which had also extolled the role of reason.

In his influential essay "What Is Enlightenment?" (1785) Immanuel Kant, a key figure of the Enlightenment, sought to define Enlightenment as follows:

Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage. This state is due to his incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance. . . . Dare to use your own intelligence! This is the battle-cry of the Enlightenment.1

According to Karl Popper, "It was this idea of self-liberation through knowledge that was central to the Enlightenment. "Dare to be free," added Kant, "and respect the freedom and autonomy of others. . . ." For Kant, the dignity of human beings lay in their freedom, and in their respect for other people's autonomous and responsible beliefs. However, it is only through the growth of knowledge that a person can be liberated "from enslavement by prejudices, idols, and avoidable errors."2

Due to the fact that the world has now, to a great extent, fallen back on primitive, irrational thinking (decision-making founded on superstition and the anti-empirica; a category which includes most religions), Paul urges an Enlightenment re-up. He spells out his plan, with his thoughts from a new (well, not new for the few straggling fans of rationality and secular ethics) way of approaching everything from decision-making to ethics. Here's a sample:

First, it is incumbent upon us to extend the methods of science and reason to all areas of human interest. This form of methodological naturalism is grounded in the recognition that the methods of science serve us as powerful tools in unlocking the secrets of nature and solving human problems. Scientific principles should be considered as hypotheses, tested by their experimental effects and predictive power, integrated into theories, and validated by their comprehensive character and mathematical elegance. They are always open to change in the light of new discoveries or more powerful theories; hence, science is fallible and self-correcting, though its methods have some degree of objectivity. Since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, science has expanded rapidly, entering into fields never before imagined possible, such as understanding consciousness, the brain, the biological world and the genome, and the micro- and macro-dimensions of the universe. Using powerful instruments of observation, it has probed aspects of nature thought to be beyond reach. We should be prepared in the future to extend the methods of scientific inquiry still further to all areas of human interest. How and in what sense we can do this depends on the subject matter under consideration. In many areas, the best term to describe this process is critical thinking, which provides a normative model for appraising claims to truth. Second, we need to respond to the besetting existential question, "What is the meaning of life?" Many theists believe that, without belief in a supernatural deity, life would be meaningless. People are unable to face death, they say, only belief in life beyond the grave will console them. Science has disabused us of such primitive concepts of God and immortality, though such skepticism has not always penetrated to a wider public. We can no longer accept the ancient metaphysical-theological interpretations of reality in the light of naturalistic accounts of cosmology. Moreover, scientific and scholarly criticisms of biblical and Qur'anic texts have shown the specious character of historic claims of so-called revelations from on high. They lack confirmation or corroboration by any reliable empirical evidence.

Theists are mistaken on another count: it is possible to live a full and meaningful life in a naturalistic universe, informed by scientific knowledge and devoid of supernatural illusions. Indeed, countless generations of people have experienced satisfying, creatively enriched, and morally significant lives without belief in God. A person's life in one sense is like a work of art, blending colors, tones, lines, and forms. It is what he or she chooses to do, the sum of his or her dreams and aspirations, plans and projects, ends and goals, tragedies and successes that define who and what a person is. Our ends and values are shared with others and conditioned by the societies in which we live. In open societies that respect freedom and autonomy, an individual's choices are plural and diverse and, though that person may be highly idiosyncratic, he or she is free to pursue them as long as no harm is done to others. Democratic societies afford a wider range of opportunities for free expression than do authoritarian ones. All human beings live out their lives in a universe of order and disorder, causality and contingency, regularity and chance. It is hoped that individuals can learn from experience and modify their choices in the light of consequences. They can develop common goals and values experienced with others. Thus they can find life intrinsically worthwhile and even immensely excitingfor its own sake.

No, you don't have to march in lockstep behind the men in the long black robes. Read on and see why not. Or cling in fear or laziness (you probably prefer to call it "faith") to your antique superstitions, and the way you've been told the world works -- something you believe entirely without a shred of proof...right? Or did the Virgin Mary make you your coffee this morning, unbeknownst to the rest of us?

Posted by aalkon at April 7, 2004 8:47 AM

Comments

can you please use some new insults, i'm getting really bored with these.

Posted by: lauren at April 7, 2004 8:58 AM

Heh, heh...Lauren, you posted your comment literally one minute after I posted the article. Come on, darling, read it -- the whole thing -- you might learn something. You know how to read, don't you? I was hoping it was just your capacity for rational thought that was shut off at the factory.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 7, 2004 9:04 AM

what's reedin? i have a factory in me? that's awesome!

Posted by: lauren at April 7, 2004 9:17 AM

okay, seriously, i don't have to read this article because i could tell from the first paragraph that it's the same crap that you always talk about. i am so intelligent and enlightened and religious people are so dumb and never think for themselves. if they would just let me think for them, or many of the philosophers that tell me what to think, the world would be a better place. sorry, but i'm bored with the same ole same ole.

Posted by: lauren at April 7, 2004 9:21 AM

Amy,

I read the whole post. I haven't read the linked article yet, but I will.

I don't know any religious people who claim an atheist can't have a fantastic life. It's all about choices. Whether you believe in any god or no god, you have choices to make about your attitude in life and what you pursue.

However, if I have no god to answer to, and I am smart enough to get away with it, I can do whatever I want, regardless of what it costs other people. There is no eternity, and I owe nothing to anyone. There is no duty because there is no absolute. With no absolute, I am free to make whatever choices please me. If you say it's not fair, tell me whose standard you're choosing. I want to know who is making the value judgement that my choice of behavior is not fair. What is the basis of your values if there is no absolute?

Oh, but you say society will stop me? That if my behavioral choices are not good for the majority I will be stopped. Who cares what's good for the majority? I owe no man--there is no burden on me because there is no absolute. It is only when a society agrees that there are absolutes that determine what is right or wrong that you can have just laws. Otherwise, you have to admit that there is no sense of 'just' or 'unjust' laws, only what is expedient to the majority who acquire power.

Unfortunately, I'm not the smartest person that posts here and I'm sure you or Chris will shred me, but I still hold that with no absolute, you cannot condemn anyone or anything as wrong. Your campaign against SUV's holds no water because saying the environment should be saved makes a judgement call that you can't back up.

If we're all going to devolve from a 'highly organized state to a highly squishy one' and there is nothing outside of the natural realm, then it makes no difference to me if it happens now or later. I might as well polute--it's all going to rot anyhow. I might as well guzzle up our resources--they'll all be depleted sooner or later. Why should I care about the future when I'm not going to be part of it? I may CHOOSE to care because I find something expedient about it, but there's no way to say that I can apply that as a standard to others since I have no absolute to say that we should care about our environment, or other people, or anything else.

Posted by: Peggy C at April 7, 2004 11:15 AM

Peggy,
I couldn't help but notice that, while you have a strong faith in God, you don't have much faith in your fellow people.
Do you mean to say that, without God, people only develop ethics when it is "expedient"?
True, there are evil people in the world and if there is no hell, then some of them get away with their crimes. True, "society" is not always efficient at affecting justice. However, as many of those people as Christians as atheists.
Chances are, if someone wants to murder, steal, torment or pollute, the threat of eternal damnation isn't going to stop him. Why? Because the threat of hell is just as far removed as the "future." It's years away, and they can't see it, therefore they won't care any more for that then they will for benefitting the future of humanity.
Call it conscience, honor, ethics, morals, piety, or whatever, over time humans develop beliefs as to what is morally "good" and what is "wrong." If they don't learn this from a religion, then they will base it off of a different example (a family hero or philosophical ideal). Just because someone is an atheist doesn't mean he won't think that Mother Teresa or Gandhi is a kind person, worth imitating.
People develop ethics out of a desire to be accepted and loved... a desire to please others who are important to them. That person may be a priest, or it may be a parent, spouse, friend, teacher, cop or public figure.
Children imitate adults that they want to be like (Jesus or even Grandpa) and if the example they are given is morally sound, then the children will learn to be morally sound. Even if doing so isn't "expedient."
And BTW, no set of religious ethics is "universal" because not everyone has the same religion... even within the realm of Christianity, there are different sects with different codes. (Some of which say that you can do whatever you want "regardless of the cost to other people" as long as you apologize to God in a confession afterward. Sorry, that was a pointless digression.)
Unlike Amy, I'm not going to call religious people stupid or lazy or fearful. Any faith that brings you a little bit of comfort and conscience in this screwed up world is a good thing. But please, give the secular community a little credit. It isn't perfect, but there are good things to be found. Save some of your faith and trust for the humans who have earned it.

Posted by: Brie at April 7, 2004 1:49 PM

brie,

if you're so convinced of your argument you should go rent the movie "time changer." you can get it at blockbuster. the whole premise is based on exactly what you're talking about. teaching morals apart from the Source of those morals.

it's a little cheesy, but if you can see through all that, it cuts straight to the heart of the matter.

amy would HATE it but, hey, it's just a suggestion.

Posted by: *tami* at April 7, 2004 2:27 PM

Brie,

I was not stating my position, I'm stating a conclusion that can logically be drawn from a worldview where there are no moral absolutes. And you are correct--there is not one universal set of ethical principles. However, there are some that are close to universal. Read C.S.Lewis's "Abolition of Man"-in the appendix he lists what he calls "The Tao"--the basic morals/ethics that are common across time, distance, and belief systems that he argues come from outside of nature. It's amazing to see the similarities. .

However, as far as having faith in people--you are right--I have very little. I know too many people, myself included, who are capable of great evil (to myself and others) without much provocation. I was challenged by Gavin de Becker's book "The Gift of Fear". He tells his readers to sit for a moment and ponder the most horrendous torture that you could devise for someone. Then he tells you to realize 2 things: Someone has already done that to someone else, and within us 'normal' people, we can come up with extreme cruelty and horrifying torture. If a 'normal' person can conjure up such imagery with very little effort, then it's not so difficult to imagine that we humans are capable of unspeakable horrors.

As a friend of mine said, any person is capable of doing anything given the right circumstances. That goes for both Good and Evil things. So, yes, some secular and some religious people do good things, and some secular and some religious people do bad things. I never said they don't. But I continue to contend that apart from a belief in god (or any other religious system that has some concept of spiritual punishments/rewards), there is no REASON to do good for others at my own expense. And, if doing them harm is expedient for my purposes, then apart from god there is not much reason to avoid the harm--the law, perhaps, but only if you get caught. Many, many people get away with many things that are against the law. Obviously, impressing mom/dad/grandpa or not breaking the law are not very strong motivators for good behavior.

I think it's pretty clear even in the youngest child--they wait until mom's out of sight before they punch their sibling. People from their earliest age will get away with whatever they can if they think they can and if it suits their purposes. So, no, I don't have too much faith in people.

Posted by: Peggy C at April 7, 2004 4:01 PM

Good stuff. Linking it. Thanks.

Posted by: Alice Bachini at April 7, 2004 6:03 PM

Peggy,
I'm sorry that you've been let down by the people around you. It's true that people are capable of great evil and I'm sorry that you have experienced it.
However, I still cannot believe that there is any religion on Earth capable of making those evils go away. You can tell a person who is contemplating a sin that God is watching, but if they had their mind made up, they will commit the sin anyway. Like a child who waits until Mom leaves the room, they are more likely to do the act they planned and then beg forgiveness later. On a minute by minute basis, people don't think very much about what will happen after they die, particularly when they are young. God's reprisals are not an immediate enough threat to act as a deterrent.
I'll grant you that it may stop a few people, but it's likely they already felt guilty and a secular disapproval could have stopped them had it manifested. So, I still don't think religion is any more (or less) effective than a law. Both can be circumvented by a smart sinner.
You've lost your faith in humanity because you have seen the evil in too many people. I've lost my faith in God because I've seen too many people (in several faiths, some of them priests) who use God as an excuse. I've yet to find any religion that doesn't contradict it's own morals. Ultimately, the Bible (and other religious texts) is one more tool that people have used to justify violence. (The crusades and witch trials of the past... racism, homophobia, bigotry and religious fanaticism in the present.) Religion may stop some crimes, but in some (admittedly rare) cases it goads people to commit crimes as well. Ergo, it isn't much more effective than anything secular society has come up with.
I admit, maybe I should not have lost faith in God because of the actions of people, but I did, and I can't logically talk myself into religion any more than I can talk myself into liking brussel sprouts. It isn't really a decision of my rational mind; it just made me feel worse, and that made me more likely to hurt myself and others.
Thanks for recommending the CS Lewis book... I'll be sure to read it. And I hope you have better experiences with people in the future.

Posted by: Brie at April 7, 2004 6:08 PM

"I don't know any religious people who claim an atheist can't have a fantastic life."

Apparently, you've never met any of the dozens of people who told me I was going to burn forever because I didn't believe in Jesus.

A little short on time today, but I'll try to respond more to what you said when I'm home later. In brief, living ethically is its own reward, and religion is often (not rarely) an excuse for evil and other less nefarious types of self-interest. Moreover, we have built in "checks" on our ethics; for example, a module for cheater detection; ie, taking more than one's fair share (of air, or by endangering others' lives to look chic in the case of SUVs...not that I think driving what looks like an overpriced moving van makes you chic). My values are largely libertarian - that you can do what you want, as long as you aren't injuring others. I'm injuring others if I drive an SUV, moreso than need be. If you can afford a new Navigator, you can afford a Prius or a Volvo station wagon. By the way, I'm trying to work it so I can buy an Insight myself.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 7, 2004 6:28 PM

PS And how icky that people only do good works because they think they'll get squashed under The Big Thumb if they don't.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 7, 2004 6:29 PM

It bothers me when I hear people say "You're going to burn in hell." I am sorry that that has been your experience with religious people (most likely Christians). I know the people that I worship with are not like that, so I tend to forget that there are others out there who still treat the secular world that way.

I don't do good things because I'm afraid of getting 'squashed'. I find the ability to love otherwise unloveable people because I believe that god has loved me while I'm in my worst state, knowing me fully.

And apart from the law, there is no sin--if there are no rules, there is no right or wrong and no rule breaking. So the law, both religious and cultural, both defines and denounces wrong in our world. But what I seem to find in secular people is not a wish to abolish all law, just the laws that conflict with their interests. That, to me, is just as yucky as fearing god for his/her wrath. Here, let me pick which laws let me make out like a bandit and I'll keep those, but the other ones (like non-discrimination based on sexual preference, race, etc.) I'll get rid of since it doesn't serve me. No, I think I'll keep the laws and the rules since the history of man has proven that man is cruel and must be regulated to treat his fellow man decently.

You may say if everyone were rational there would be no prejudice, no greed, we'd all play nice, etc. I think you give people too much credit. Even being rational, you can find justification for serving yourself over others. Reason alone does not solve the problems of man because we are not just minds--we have emotions too, and I would say a spirit/soul, and those aspects do not respond to reason alone.

Posted by: Peggy C at April 7, 2004 7:29 PM

Peggy,

I have to disagree with your logic that only religion allows one to make ethic decisions that are of lasting valve to themselves and to society. If you read Kolhberg's theory of moral development, you will learn that the highest level of moral development that we all should try to do achieve is a transendent of moral judgement above laws and religion taking everything into consideration. I recommend you have more support for your arugments and a boarder range.

Posted by: Justin at April 7, 2004 7:29 PM

You're right about secular people serving their own interests. The thing is, religious people do it, too. They can't change the words in the Bible, so they change the interpretation and form a new denomination (or other text, I don't mean to single out Christians, although you are correct... they are the majority of my experience). I'm not saying that religion can't help people build morals. I'm just saying that the morals it causes are just as flawed as those gleaned from other sources. I don't think it matters where they come from, which is why I get defensive about people who say that ethics don't exist without God.
Yes, humans are not ruled only by rationality. Like I said, my "conversion" to atheism was an emotional one first and rational one second. But that's a digression, again. I'd like to think that logic and emotion are not always at odds. I'd like to think that the happiness, satisfaction, and pride of doing good are as much motivation as logic or rules. I'd like to think that the personal (emotional) rewards of being good outweigh the often logical reasons for being bad. Morals require thought and feeling (positive reinforcement) more than fear of punishment. The source doesn't matter as long as it comes from somewhere.
My argument is jumping around a bit, and I'm starting to repeat myself here. I think I've said all I can say at this time, so I'll leave it to anyone else who wants to help (or refute) me.
I'm glad you've found support in your faith, though, and as I said before- I hope your experiences with people improve in the future... if the people you worship with are good people, then I'd say you've found a good starting point.

Oh, to answer Tami's post, which I neglected earlier: no, I am not absolutely certain that I am right... but I have more trust in my argument than in the alternative. I have to believe in people, because people (myself included) are all I have left to believe in (much like God is all some others have left). Again, it's not perfect, but it's served me better than religion has. I hope it stays that way. To each his own.

Posted by: Brie at April 7, 2004 8:02 PM

Peggy said;
"However, if I have no god to answer to, and I am smart enough to get away with it, I can do whatever I want, regardless of what it costs other people."

Peggy,

It's called morality. Religious or not, it's a good idea. Most people don't want to be evil asses, they want to make good right choices. Which do not have to include a superstitious being.

Posted by: Camille at April 7, 2004 9:18 PM

I'd like to pick up on that comment about "under the right circumstances, anyone can do anything."

Mainly because I just read something on the subject that was relevant -- during the siege of Leningrad, the citizens starved to death rather than resort to cannibalism. Given that this was the Soviet Union, there's a good chance some of them were atheists.

And incidentally, I'd love to be reasonably certain I had an immortal soul. I envy those who are certain: even if they're wrong, they'll never find out, and thus maintain peace of mind on the subject.

Posted by: LYT at April 7, 2004 10:22 PM

Oh, wait...the topic was another enlightenment, right?

Just to state the really obvious, it'd be great if we could get one of them going in the Middle East.

I don't think over here that most of us have regressed into superstition -- just a few influential folks.

Posted by: LYT at April 7, 2004 10:24 PM

Where the hell has Paul Kurtz been? In the basement of his parents' house, doing bong hits and listening to Iron Butterfly? He talks about positivism as though it's some kind of oh-so-brave new idea. He's incredibly naive.

"We should be prepared in the future to extend the methods of scientific inquiry still further to all areas of human interest."

Just stay out of my bedroom, okay? If Kurtz ever manages to dig his head out of his futuristic ass, he might find that much of modern scientific inquiry has been critically reappraised as a technology of social control. For example, John Poindexter's special brand of data mining, "total information awareness," is an application of empirical methods to new "areas of human interest" -- ie, reducing civil liberties in the war on terror.

Posted by: Lena at April 7, 2004 10:54 PM

Lena begins to make a good point about Paul Kurtz's complete ignorance of where his ideas sit in the history of philosophy. In the sense that his 'enlightenment' ideas are those my Catholic high school attempted to inculcate in me, it's funny how he thinks 'naturalistic' ideas dispel metaphysical ones.

The very definition of metaphysical excludes the possibility of a naturalistic understanding. They're two completely separate spheres. The metaphysical by its very nature excludes reason and provability. To attempt a proof of the non-existence of a universe outside physical experience is to completely misunderstand the fundamental premise of metaphysical things.

If one chooses to base their experience on religion or metaphysical beliefs, science and reason alone can't disprove the ultimate existence or non-existence of a higher being. Science CAN make a point that evolution, big-bang, etc. are the explanations for various qualities of existence and dispel certain superstitious qualities of religion. At the same time, science often cannot explain numerous peculiar and mystical phenomenon. It's fruitless to use the Enlightenment notion of 'reason' etc. to explain away God and religion. The world revealed by science is a mysterious or 'spooky' (reference here to Einstein and quantum mechanics) world of 'proven' predictable uncertainty rather than absolute certainty.

If you situate Kurtz's thought within the last 150 years or so of anti-Englightenment philosophy or the non-Western philosophies that have been around for like 3000 years or so, then you can see that his hope for a new reason-based faith in science has for decades (if not thousands of years if you count the non-western world) been dismantled and criticized in favor of certain alternatives (which I won't get into).

In another vein, a different kind of criticism has been frequently used against the 'science-is-god' anti-religious rants of Richard Dawkins, et. al on the basis of his unswerving belief in progress and reason with no accomodation for the contingency of history and time. The latter position was representative of evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who being equally anti-creationist, allowed for a more flexible understanding of history and human ability.

The main problem with Kurtz is his focus on a mechanistic logic of selection that reveals 'truth' as if it were in hiding and waiting simply for the glorious power of science and human reason to discover it. The 'truth' of truth is that discoveries don't 'happen' out of some march to an idealistic beat of 'progress' but play out underlying ideologies (i.e. culture). Whether you call it 'superstition' or 'capitalism,' the belief in Enlightenment notions of 'reason,' 'truth,' 'progress,' and 'history' have been thoroughly exploded as cultural constructions and examined (in the west) by Nietzche, Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Judith Butler, etc. and taken up in postmodern art and aesthetics and the often dismissed capitalistic 'culture of the masses.'

In this sense, the so-called 'superstitious' cultures Kurtz criticizes are hardly any different from the Enlightenment's superstitious faith in reason and progress. The conclusion of Kriss Ravetto's The Unmaking of Fascist Aesthetics points out the similarity in aesthetics between contemporary anti-fascist films (such as Schindler's List) and fascist films themselves and the simplistic use and propagation of englightenment notions of good versus evil, identity, and history.

I'm just hastily pointing out how Kurtz's thinking doesn't really take up any of the important thinking on the nature of history (Nietzsche's notion of genealogy, Manuel Delanda has a book called 1000 Years of Non-Linear History) and how enlightenment thinking has been thoroughly displaced by a different 'mode' of thinking, while less systematic, that allows for a kind of 'truth' and a kind of 'history' and an explanatory 'science,' but doesn't require an identity-oriented idealism (cf. research on complexity).

This isn't to say that people today aren't largely failing to grasp basic notions of science, history, and how to reason. I think educational institutions, most of them oriented towards 'enlightenment' notions of reason, causality, and history, fail to understand how the current generation of people need to be 'taught', or rather 'led,' to experience and think about the world. I think the new 'enlightenment' has already taken place and what we need now is to break the chains of the old enlightenment and create institutions that properly and effectively embrace the revelations of anti-idealistic thought.

Posted by: Kelvin at April 8, 2004 2:03 AM

I did not say a non-religious person cannot have morals and ethics. I re-read my posts to make sure. What I said was that without any absolute values (truth that is true no matter what religion/culture you are in), then you have no compelling reasons to do good to others if it is not expedient for you, and no compelling reason to not do harm if you can get away with it. You very well may CHOOSE to do so or not to do so, but that choice cannot be based on a worldview without absolutes.

My experience with non-religious people has been that they verbally assert that there are no moral absolutes, but they live as though there are. A very simplistic example: I am waiting in a crowded parking lot for a car to pull out of its spot so I can park. I have been waiting with my signal on, indicating that I am going to turn into the spot. But as the car backs toward me, a driver from the opposite direction whips into the spot.

How many of you would be frustrated? Why? Do you have a 'claim' to that parking spot? No, only the rules of fair play would allow you to be peeved at the other driver. But you can't apply those rules to him if you have no absolutes. He broke no law, he's not on your property.

That's really simplistic, and maybe some of you wouldn't be bothered by that. But you can take the 'no absolute truth' rule to an extreme. If nothing is absolutely wrong, then I can kill my own baby (who for this example is born and is a person regardless of your take on abortion). Murder is not an absolute wrong, because there are no absolutes. Our culture may have a law against murder, but that does not make it absolutely wrong, just legally wrong. However, I doubt any of the posters here would agree that it is not just legally wrong, but also truly wrong. Why? Because they do live with a concept of absolutes. And that is what civilization is built on--we agree that certain things hold sway over all men, because they are absolute truths. You and I may disagree about marriage, SUV's, etc., but odds are we aren't going to disagree about murder, stealing, etc.

And, for the record, I make NO CLAIM that religious people have a better record or don't do bad things. I simply state that with a religious belief, you acknowledge that there are absolutes, and you have a compelling reason for either doing good things or not doing bad things for others that our laws may not necessarily demand.

Another simplistic example--there's a large religious women's event held at a local venue every year. I have heard from the management at that venue that they love having this event, because the attendees are courteous, respectful and clean up after themselves more so than any other event held in the arena. Why? Because they have a compelling reason to do so. That doesn't mean that irreligious people CAN'T do that, but the experience of most vendors will tell you that they don't.

Yes, you'll all have horror stories of religious people who do wicked things. I agree--they do. But as Tolstoy said, "Because I walk the path drunkenly, that does not make it the wrong path." The fact that religious people cannot live up to their ideals reinforces to me what my religious faith teaches--people are incapable of doing good at all times, and are in need of help.

Posted by: Peggy C at April 8, 2004 8:34 AM

I recently read this quote and want to share it with any who are still reading or give a rip.

"The fact is, evil people of all religious persuasions may seize upon religious justification for their immoral behavior, even when the behavior itself is condemned by the religion they purport to serve. When that happens, its simply mistaken to blame the religion. It may be that some of the greatest acts of cruelty came from professing Christians who used their religion as a cloak for evil. Christianity itself, though, doesnt cause such evil. Rather, it consistently condemns it."

Greg Koukl, from his article "Is Christianity Cruel?"
http://www.str.org/free/solid_ground/SG0309.htm for the whole article.

Posted by: Peggy C at April 8, 2004 11:18 AM

Found this in the full article, "The application of the methods of science heralded new breakthroughs in science and technology that contributed to the betterment of humankind," Kurtz goes on to say "...a reduction of drudgery and labor (which has shortened the work week and has afforded more leisure time to ordinary people)" Does anyone believe this to be true? I don't think there's less drudgery. As far as leisure goes I think many people spend so much time trying to have leisure that you could hardly call it that.

Posted by: A.Ho at April 8, 2004 1:47 PM

I see Pascal's wager in play here in Peggy's and Lauren's comments. I guess hedging one's bets is as old as time.

Posted by: Rojak at April 8, 2004 5:49 PM

Thanks for mentioning that, Rojak. Here's a terrific site that explains why believing in Pascal's Wager doesn't make much sense:

http://www.abarnett.demon.co.uk/atheism/wager.html

Moreover, I haven't had much time to respond here lately, but I did want to say to Kelvin, who ended his rather long screed against Kurtz' words with "This isn't to say that people today aren't largely failing to grasp basic notions of science, history, and how to reason" -- that that's precisely the point. There's no way anybody can believe in god and say they got to that point by using reason. I'm not concerned about whether there is or isn't a god. I have yet to see evidence of one's existence, so I don't choose to believe in one out of blind belief in the statements of "authority" figures or out of some very backward fear of burning someplace those authority figures tell me I'll spend "the afterlife" -- when they say this based on ZERO evidence that there is one or this happens. To believe in this - don't people feel a little embarrassed for being so gullible? How do you shut down your ability to reason to allow yourself to believe in god? Or do you just choose to use it selectively? Weird. Pre-modern.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at April 8, 2004 6:29 PM

There are a lot of things that can't be seen (can't be proven empirically) that I believe in.

Love
Joy
Happiness
Friendship
Knowledge

I happen to believe that just because I can't taste, touch, see, smell or hear a thing does NOT mean it doesn't exist. I may not be able to reproduce Friendship in a beaker in a lab, but I still believe in it.

You see no 'evidence' for god, and there is no empirical evidence for god, just like there is no empirical evidence for what I've listed, and many things beyond these. But there are other types of evidence, if you choose to admit them into the equation. I'm not asking you to believe. But I do believe, and that doesn't mean I turned my brain off to do so. The problem for an pure empiricist is that they refuse to allow into the equation anything that isn't empirical, which of course cuts god out of the equation right from the beginning. But it also cuts out all of the other things that can't be measured.

And no, I did not base my faith on Pascal's wager. I'm not the sort to hedge my bets. If I think something is not true, I'm not going to waste my time on it. Otherwise, I'd chuck the whole idea of god and be an atheist--why would I bother trying to do things that are difficult and contrary to my nature if I couldn't find a compelling reason to do so? If I didn't think that it was absolutely true and therefore that it has a claim in my life?

I feel more in line with CS Lewis on this point. Some philosophers say that we invent god because we want god to exist. However, a very large portion of the time I DON'T want god to exist. His existence can be quite inconvenient. But wishing a thing weren't true or wishing someone out of existence does not make it so. I find enough evidence for god that convinces me of his existence (not empirical evidence, but more than enough to make me throw my energy and time into it for the rest of my life), and therefore, whether I like it or not, I deal with it.

I feel like I sound very negative in my posts on this topic. The reality is that I have found great joy in my faith, the best friendships that I've ever made, and a purpose that has added nobility to my endeavors. If you knew me in person, you'd know that I laugh often, love deeply and have a rewarding life. So don't get the impression that I'm all Eeyore--doom, gloom and misery.

I have made no claim that people without a faith in god cannot enjoy their lives and be good people. I also have made no claims that Christians have not done horrible things in the name of Christianity. But those are both completely different topics than my assertions all along that apart from an acceptance of absolute values you cannot create an ethical framework that compels you or anyone else to do good or to refrain from doing harm. You very well may choose to be a 'good' person, but if you claim that there are no absolutes, then 'good' is completely subjective. You give no one a ground for assessing whether you truly are good. In fact, why bother saying "I'm a good person" if you don't believe that Good exists as an objective value that other people can measure you against?

Posted by: Peggy C at April 8, 2004 10:48 PM

Peggy -- You can't observe love, joy, happiness, friendship, or knowledge? How have you managed to survive this long? You should have coffee with me and Amy Alkon sometime. Indicators for all five of those fabulous qualities would pop up and wave at you within the first two minutes, because I adore her! hugs, Lena

Posted by: Lena at April 8, 2004 11:10 PM

Paul Kurtz says (Re: fascism and Stalinism), "Surely the world has recovered from that historical period of aberrant bestiality."

Really? It's not like the world stubbed it's toe, that was serious stuff, and in the terms of global effects 'recovery' seems, to me, a bit of a hasty conclusion.

Posted by: A.Ho at April 8, 2004 11:35 PM

"Because I walk the path drunkenly, that does not make it the wrong path."

That's my new favorite quote.

Posted by: LYT at April 9, 2004 1:32 AM