We Are The Change We Seek
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This isn't where I thought I was going to be when I looked forward into my life, but here I am....
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2012-03-20 5:19 PM
A-Week: Can you define "good" or "bad" without a God?
This is the "A Week" ... an attempt to raise awareness about atheism. I'm going to be posting a few things during the week about atheism, religion, etc. It would mean a lot to me if you'd take a few minutes to read over them. I'll be respectful and hopefully prompt some thoughtful discussion. Some have already been posted to Facebook, but I'll try to back-fill and post those here as well.
The single most common and persistent argument regarding religion has to do with the idea that morality is impossible without God. That good and bad have no meanings without God to define them. As part of A-Week, I would like to provide you with some food for thought so if you feel this way currently that you might consider a different point of view. I have one common response to this, but today I'll provide you instead with a response from Sam Harris, a philosopher and neuroscientist, that he put forward in a talk he gave at the University of Oxford.
Can you define "good" or "bad" without a God?
Take a moment and imagine a world in which every human being is currently suffering the worst possible misery one can imagine and will continue to suffer this worst possible misery for as long as possible... every conscious creature in the world, all simultaneously suffering a state of absolute misery as defined by each creature which lasts as long as imaginably possible. He calls this the "worst possible misery for everyone."
Sam Harris says, and I agree:
The worst-possible-misery-for-everyone is 'bad.' If the word 'bad' is going to be mean anything surely it applies to the worst-possible-misery-for-everyone. Now if you think the worst-possible-misery-for-everyone isn't bad, or might have a silver lining, or there might be something worse... I don't know what you're talking about. What is more, I'm reasonably sure you don't know what you're talking about either. The moment you admit this, the moment that you admit that worst-possible-misery-for-everyone is the worst outcome, then you have to admit that every other possible experience is better than the worst-possible-misery-for-everyone so a contiuum opens up... and because the experience of conscious creatures is going to depend in someway on the laws of nature there are going to be right and wrong ways to move across this contiuum.
I think this is a rational and very accessible argument for a non-supernatural, non-Godly absolute basis for good vs bad. If you feel there needs to be an absolute basis on which to judge your moral actions, this continuum of bad-to-good/misery-to-well-being should be able to substitute for an absolute morality handed down from a deity. He goes on to make the point that it is still very possible to make decisions which you _think_ will improve the well-being of people, but fail, which is just a problem of navigation across this contiuum from misery to well-being.
If you give me a little more of your thoughtspace, I put forward to you that Harris' suggested absolute basis for morality has the opportunity to lead us to a better state of well-being than the absolute basis put forward in the Bible (or the Qu'ran, etc.). For example, while religious folks certainly work hard, through charity and such, to reduce the misery that many people live in, the religious precepts of these various moralities actually _cause_ much of the misery we see in our world today (not anywhere near all, but much). For example, the Catholic Church may work diligently to help impoverished people in Africa, but at the same time, damn many of them to a life of misery due to their efforts to prevent distribution of condoms and other forms of birth control. Through education and accessibility to condoms in the USA we have been able to make great strides in preventing the spread of AIDS, but in Africa it is running rampant.
Another example would be the personal misery people are subjected to, and even subject themselves to, because they are gay and condemned by the Abrahamic religions. I have a friend who is gay and a devout Christian. She sincerely prays frequently, sincerely reads her Bible, sincerely attends Church weekly (sometimes more often). Her faith is unassailably strong... and she is emotionally tortured by the fact that she is gay. She didn't choose to be gay, she just knew it was true from a very young age. She is emotionally tortured because she believes she will be condemned to Hell and that she is inherently evil and bad because of the absolute morality provided by the Bible. I wholeheartedly believe that her misery could be eliminated by shedding just this _one_ belief. She could remain a Christian in every other sense of the word, but her happiness and fruitfulness in life would skyrocket absent this one bit of Bronze Age morality.
These are just two arbitrary examples, and while I'm sure you could try to provide a counter-argument for these specific situations I ask that you take some time to really think about these concepts and try to consider the idea that God is not necessary for morality in general, not necessary for an absolute basis for morality and that potentially we could form a system of morality that is better than those presented in the Bible/Qu'ran/etc. No doubt the first response from a Christian or Muslim point of view will be that being tormented for eternity in Hell is by definition the worst-possible-misery-for-everyone, but that then leads to requirements for evidence of the existence of such a place, etc, etc. I'm not trying to make that argument today.
All I'm asking is that you take the time to sincerely consider the idea that real judgements of what is good and what is bad can be made entirely based on the natural world and without the existence of God and/or a supernatural basis for morality.
Here is the entire talk, and subsequent discussion, with Sam Harris at the University of Oxford. It is long, but it's VERY good.
He begins talking about his theoretical universe with absolute misery vs well-being at the 10:40 mark.
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