Wednesday, 15 October 2008

God ontology

I'm reasonably sure that the gods nobody believes in any more (for example, Zeus, Odin etc.) were not considered omniscient. I suppose they couldn't be, since there was more than one of them. It's hard not to wonder whether this has some bearing on their going out of fashion. Superficially, we might expect that this is a value judgement - my god is better because he has extra abilities - but it has a much more sinister aspect as well. Perhaps the concept of omniscience is directly responsible for the many outrages committed daily in religion's name. Or to put it another way, monotheism - inevitably accompanied by omniscience - might in itself be greatest evil imaginable.

This is what I mean: if god can read your mind, then to do something he wouldn't approve of, you need to lie to yourself. This is by no means a new idea. The most effective way to lie to someone is to convince yourself that you're telling the truth. That way, you don't betray the tell-tale signs of deception in your body language, galvanic skin response, voice stress etc. It's a technique used to beat lie detectors including other humans.

By convincing yourself that your actions are what god would want, you render yourself capable of practically any evil. If god can't read your mind, there is no need to submit to that higher authority: you are left with your own conscience and the judgement of others. If he can, then you need to convince yourself that you are doing the right thing and therefore make any argument to the contrary - logical, emotional, evidence-based, whatever - pointless.

This is my response to the suggestion - which any atheist is certain to encounter within five minutes of talking to any believer - that atheists are necessarily immoral because they do not have an overarching and unchangeable moral standard to adhere to. My response is nuanced, and I haven't found a good way to express it to non-believers yet, let alone to faith-heads, but it is conceptually a devastating rebuttal.

Part of it is about personal responsibility, of course: the Nuremberg defense is no excuse for obvious reasons. Anyone other than a sociopath or a psychopath knows when they are doing wrong and blaming it on someone else is simply an abdication of responsibility, albeit a compelling one at the time. But it goes further than that when omnipresence is involved because a person can convince himself not that following orders is the right thing to do, but that the act itself - or the malice behind it - is the right thing to do. Remember, god (whichever god) is supposed to be 'good' and 'moral'. To do something immoral in the name of god requires a skewed sense what is moral in the first place. Frankly idiotic phrases like 'god moves in mysterious ways' are helpful here. Theologians have tied themselves in philosophical knots for centuries over how to justify the presence of evil in a world ruled by a moral god. If they believe their own specious arguments, they are necessarily lying to themselves.

It is perfectly possible to skew your sense of morality like this without religion: people can fool themselves into believing that almost anything is right. But religion mainstreams it. The idea of an ultimate authority who reads your mind and can dispense eternal punishment forces people to convince themselves that their prejudices are divinely sanctioned. Non-religious people have to rely on what their conscience (and society) tells them. Religious people can appeal to a 'higher' 'truth'.

With or without religion, 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.
-- Steven Weinberg
Perhaps it's not religion itself at fault, but monotheism. With religion, you always have the Nuremberg defense - and the same is true of other evils such as patriotism (which is only jumped-up xenophobia) - but with monotheism you are bound to get omniscience and therefore get into that murky world of claiming your personal preferences as right. How else could we live in a world where homosexuals, women (or insert any group you like here, some religion or other is bound to have a problem with it), are blithely discriminated against; brutally disregarded by law; tortured and killed as an everyday matter of course? How else can the world turn a blind eye to genocide? How can we in Britain, who are acutely aware of the idea of equality, tolerate a powerful group that wants to exclude women and homosexuals from holding positions of authority, yet sanctions and protects widespread child rape and the de facto murder of millions by convincing people and governments that condoms are worse than AIDS based on dogma created by people, based dubiously on scripture created by other people across a span of millenia?
I'm not going to get into a tit-for-tat argument about whether religion has more evil chalked against it than atheism. There's an important semantic argument here since nothing can be done in the name of a lack of belief in something, but I don't see the point in such sums. What I'm saying is that people need an excuse to do evil. Monotheistic religion seems to provide the most powerful and above all most convenient excuse. Non-religious people don't have that excuse and plainly sometimes still do evil things, but they don't pretend that evil things are good and they don't in general try to mainstream that evil.

As I said, I haven't yet worked out this argument in a form that will convince anyone, but I find it a compelling response to the tired old argument that atheists are necessarily immoral.

Edit: I meant to say something about how the idea of absolute morality as dictated by god would be more credible if a) religious people didn't cherry-pick which bits of scripture to act upon: for example, many religious homophobes wear garments made from different types of cloth and are disrespectful to their parents, both of which are also decried as abominations. If they believe in an absolute authority, they must surely adhere to all these rules. If humans decide and moderate which rules are relevant in today's society, then the moral authority cannot possibly be absolute. Especially since people disagree. and b) scripture actually had much to say about morality, which - astonishingly - it tends not to. The ten commandments are mostly not about morality, in that they are hardly concerned with reducing suffering either objectively or subjectively. The whole sorry business of Leviticus is a joke, plainly based on the concerns of the time. Sowing wheat and barley in the same furrow is an abomination in the eyes of the lord? WHAT? I'm less familiar with other bibles, but I'm doubtful that any really gives us a proper, unambiguous, workable framework for morality other than the self-evident golden rule.

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