Imagine two relatively unacquainted people are having a conversation. One or both speakers guide the interaction down the socially perilous path of religious discourse. One confesses that, yes, he’s an atheist. The other, a Christian, leaps into action. “You don’t believe in God? I’m sorry. I can’t imagine a life without purpose.
Socrates taught that an unexamined life is not worth living. Neither, according to many Christians, is an ungodly life.
Before the reader supposes that such exchanges are merely hypothetical, let me, the atheist in the above scenario, assure you they are not. My unbelief has met with the above reaction, or some version of it, so frequently as to suggest that Christians are routinely prepped to meet skeptics with what, to harken back to the classical “proofs” for God’s existence, I’ll call, “the argument from purpose.” In its most basic form, it looks something like this: purpose comes only from God; thus, without God, life is without purpose. Emptiness, depression, and dysfunction follow.
The impact of Christian pastor Rick Warren’s bestselling book The Purpose Driven Life is not to be underestimated in the rise of purpose’s vogue as a proselytizing lever. “Without God,” Warren claims, “life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning.
What do we mean by purpose? Never mind what our dictionaries say. The thing we identify as our reason (assuming we can have only one) for getting out of bed in the morning: that’s our purpose. When we ask ten people what motivates them to throw off the covers, we get ten different answers. “To serve God,” is one kind of answer. “To provide for my family,” is another kind. Other answers might have to do with excelling at one’s vocation or avocation, helping persons in need, advocating for a subjugated class, saving an endangered species, saving the planet, for the love of life, and so on.
On her work commute, does a Christian drive past a hospital, a school, a library, a courthouse, and a church and assert that only the last of these buildings exist for a purpose? It is difficult to imagine so obdurate a stance. And what of the people who work in these civic buildings? Do only the Christians (or at least only the theists) within meet their civic work with a sense of purpose, while the others merely show up for a paycheck (even that is a purpose, though not often what we think of as a higher one)?
Surely this can’t be right. We feel that something must be amiss with the “argument from purpose” to lead one to such dismissive, pessimistic and exclusivist conclusions. What’s wrong, I would assert, is the basic shape of the argument, beginning with its opening premise. To my mind it is a rebranding of the “argument from morality”; both arguments share the same rough outline. The latter argument’s root premise is that morality comes only from God, which for most Westerners signifies the Judeo-Christian God. Are we to believe that no morality was possible during the tens of thousands of years leading up to the relatively late emergence of the Abrahamic religions? Is no morality possible outside of them? In Hinduism? In Buddhism? In Native American or African spiritualism? In agnosticism, atheism or anti-theism? Our common sense balks at the notion. At no level of socio-cultural development can we imagine men surviving, and often thriving, for millennia with neither morality nor purpose. And from all modern collections of people united by a shared ideology, atheists being but one, we require general moral agreement with society at large. The penalty for noncompliance is social opprobrium, from which the targeted group is driven to extinction or at the very least into social exile (see Neo-fascism).
Of man’s moral ledger (history), the selfish and ruthless column is well inked, and much of that ink is Christian. But well-inked too is the cooperative, altruistic, self-sacrificing column, and much of that ink is not Christian. Good acts simply feel good to perform, whatever the context and ideological makeup of the actor (we are excluding only the rare sociopath from a share of this truism). Selfless acts give a kind of pleasure to the benefactor. When that pleasure is shared by the intended beneficiary as well and is not complicated by a sense of his having been patronized, indebted, or having, through disingenuousness, been used to aggrandize the benefactor, these are the ligaments that not only hold the Leviathan together but impart to it a healthful hue, a joie de vivre.
Where purpose and morality are concerned, Christianity is playing a trick that all religions play from time to time. It is trying to pick our pocket and sell us back our watch, as the thinker Allen Watts was fond of saying. We are familiar with the guru who informs the seeker that the thing he’s sought has always been within him and that he had only to lay proper claim to it that it might perform its good in his life and in the world. At this point, the guru’s work is done. Not so with our preachers and pastors. Christianity makes off with our watches (our phones in modern iterations of the saying) and then informs us that if we want the time we’ll have to come to Christianity for it. Modern Christianity needs us to need it, or at least to think that we do. It needs us to believe that only through it can we draw a bead on morality and purpose and that there is no true charity apart from Christian charity. Contrast such assertions with the humanitarian work of expressly non-Christian organizations such as Foundation Beyond Belief and UNICEF, and hundreds of others whose secular mission statements center on the relief of suffering in the world (a higher purpose if ever there was one), not to mention the morally respectable comportment of millions of nameless atheists daily.
Christianity is far from having cornered the acts-of-kindness market. Yet we frequently hear it calling exclusive dibs on an innate altruistic drive that is arguably the possession of every dweller of the earthly kingdom, wherever and whenever born. It is the same with Christianity’s attempts to enclose the whole of right living within its brackets. Many outside the Christian framework see things differently. “Religion gets its morals from us,” observed famous anti-theist, Christopher Hitchens. This cuts both ways, of course, drawing on all that is pro-social and all that is anti-social in us. In Christianity’s case, the us in question was a more warlike, xenophobic and misogynistic us than we find today, over two thousand years removed from Old Testament moral exigencies.
Assuming Hitchens was correct, how might religion get its morals from us? One way is by drawing on an innate personal morality (for a cogent discussion of this phenomenon, see Emily Esfahani Smith’s article in The Atlantic: amp.theatlantic.com/As Babies, We Knew Morality). A second way is through the influence of a fully articulated humanistic morality (more on this later). What evidence do we have that an innate personal morality (testable in infanthood) persists into maturity and continues to inform our moral operations? A strong though circumstantial case may be made for its existence through the narratives of religious defectors, which commonly include allusions to an internal moral compass against which the religion-based moral compass was sensed to have deviated; the seeds of doubt were often sown with an admission that, “Something [about a religious practice or directive] just didn’t feel right.” We observe that when a religious morality gets too far out of true with our innate morality template, we feel, along with Protagoras, that man, and apparently not revealed religion, is the measure of all things.
In religion’s push to monopolize purpose, I read a doubling down on the notion that humans can’t be trusted to act in pro-social ways (that is, in service to family, friends and the commonweal) without the coercive force of an omnipresent, omniscient supernatural overseer who keeps score and who dangles the promise of eternal life as a boon to right religious action (including fealty to the state-sanctioned God), action that conveniently also happens to benefit the social order. The idea is a very old one. Eighteenth-century thinker Jean Jacques Rousseau observed that religion, “…Unites the divine cult with love of the laws, and…teaches [citizens] that service done to the State is service done to its tutelary god.”
While fully developed religious morality arrived on the scene much later than innate morality, for most of recorded history, especially before the Scientific Revolution, the former has stolen the show. Corresponding with the rise of large-scale civilizations and the challenges of their governance, organized religion can be understood to have repurposed our primitive moral software, out-sizing it through the reach and force of a highly contagious narrative (religious texts include the most listened to and later the most-read stories of all time) to meet the challenges of motivating millions to peaceably coexist and sometimes to mount defenses against antagonistic ideologies, especially those arising from without. This isn’t to say that the primitive moral code hasn’t continued to run in the background, in each individual, serving as a normalizing template where needed (think of Giles Corey’s famous individual resistance to religious tyranny under pain of torture in the context of the Salem witch trials).
It is not surprising that our evolutionary history, productive of so much biological redundancy, has favored a redundant moral orienting arrangement: an innate, personal morality; and a transcendent, social morality. The former of these morality systems operate at an unconscious level (through intuitions, repulsions, gut feelings, etc.), being largely unmodifiable by short-term social engineering (though modifiable in the long term through the culling of undesirable traits, such as uncivil aggressiveness, from the gene pool). Conversely, the second of these morality systems is entirely modifiable. In the modern West, the Judeo-Christian religion in tandem with humanistic values, the inheritance of ancient Greece and the Enlightenment, have shaped our social mores. In the game of monopoly, many Christians are taught to ignore and sometimes even to appropriate the contributions of Greek philosophy and Enlightenment social science to the formation of modern Western values. Was the abolition of slavery, for instance, a moral sea change attributable to the work of Christian abolitionists or Enlightenment philosophies? It is worth noting that slavery was often justified biblically in direct contradiction to the stance of Christian abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. Whatever the respective share of these historical traditions in shaping our collective morality, neither is free to fly in the face of our innate moral template. However, I would argue that one is given a great deal more leeway in this regard.
One danger of a morality system based on revealed religion is that it lay especially prone to hijacking in ways that a morality system based on free and transparent dialog does not. Errors in the latter morality system are amenable to real-time correction through contemporary social dialog (such as the Goodmen Project might offer) and through analysis by the sciences and courts of secular justice. On the other hand, errors in a religious morality system, especially when promulgated by a misguided or malicious but charismatic interpreter of God’s will, are more difficult to access for correction, entrenched as they are in fear-based appeals to the highest authority, God Almighty, with His omnipresent surveillance and prerogative to withhold favor and eternal reward for noncompliance. Moreover, owing to the protected and sacred status generally afforded religious doctrine, religious ideas, even deleterious ones, often find safe harbor beyond the corrective reach of social criticism. Suggesting that this safe harbor be blockaded, and instead of demanding that religious ideas traffic in the open waters of general examination, is the primary agenda of books such as philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking The Spell.
As never before, multidisciplinary efforts are underway to expand and refine a humanistic morality (see neurologist Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape or skeptic Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc for two well-articulated examples) rooted in the hard sciences (neurology and evolutionary biology), the social sciences (psychology, sociology, and anthropology) and even the humanities (to provide a check to the possible errors of an unguarded rationalism). Given this modern alternative, is it still necessary to turn half of our moral orienting over to the caprices of a social morality vulnerable to hack by religious demagoguery, and which frequently mires our moral conversations in anachronistic ethics frozen for all time in the amber of a spellbinding reverence for divine authority? As Sam Harris says in dialogue with Ben Shapiro, “I’d rather be having a twenty-first-century dialog, where we avail ourselves of all of the intellectual tools we can get in hand.”
As part of a redundant moral orienting system, our innate morality is an artifact of evolution, highly resistant to modification through conscious individual efforts (our moral disgust reflexes are little different from our gag reflexes in this regard). We do, however, have a choice in the kind of mass-mobilizing moralism that represents one half of our moral orienting system. For reasons already stated, I believe a humanistic morality offers a more temporally relevant and stable complement to our innate moral template. Of course, before we may regard a humanistic moral system as a superior, or even an adequate, stand-in for religion-based morality, we must, at a minimum, require that it be able to dispel the kind of doubts articulated in Christian Smith’s book Atheist Overreach, namely, that atheism is unable to facilitate personal-sacrifice-based, pro-social actions without resort to the kind of transcendent moral standards religious morality claims to offer. To my mind, religious morality’s standards are no less man-made than humanistic morality’s standards; they are just backed by the weight of more extreme punishments and rewards (involving the eternal future of our souls), not to mention an infallible (supernatural) surveillance.
While neither as comely nor as coercive as religious morality, humanistic morality has the significant advantage of being correctible (at a pace that matches the speed of the modern world) by our better angels, which happen to be you and me. As the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins says in the documentary film The Unbelievers, “Let’s take morality back.
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