Thursday, January 11, 2007

The God Delusion 6

This is number six in a series of posts on each chapter of Richard Dawkins' latest book. In chapter six he gives his attention to morality. Where did it come from, in the absence of God? How do we know right from wrong?

The best conclusion I can come to about Dawkins' morality is that it operates on a sort of glorified case-law methodology. We assess the morality of an action in comparison with other, similar actions.

But first he has to deal with the question of selfishness. If our genes are essentially selfish, concentrating on reproducing at all costs, how does unselfishness evolve? He offers four ways:

1. Genetic kinship (related species learn to care for each other and protect each other, for in so doing they are protecting their own genetic material).
2. Reciprocation (repayment of favours given; giving favours in anticipation of pay back).
3. The benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.
4. Conspicuous generosity (authentic advertising , or 'look at me').

Of course, as ever, the enemy he has in mind is the sort of mindless religious ethics which sees the holy books or leaders as speaking to 'them then' and 'us now' directly and unchangingly. I am one of the many Christians who doesn't feel ethics works like that and that taking religion out of ethics is a good thing. That said I believe there is a God who is in and above the world, whose relationship with the creation is best understood as between carer and cared-for. So I believe that my relationship with God affects my ethics but that I should learn to communicate it to those who do not share my faith without saying 'God says so.'

Dawkins recites three well known ethical posers.

1. A runaway train is heading for five people. You can change some points to divert the train into a siding but you will almost certainly kill one person who is working there. Will you change the points?

2. You are on a bridge next to a very fat man. You can stop the runaway train by pushing the fat man into its path. Will you?

3. You are in a hospital with five people who all need a different organ transplant. A man stands nearby who is fit and healthy. Will you kill him so his organs can save the lives of the other five?

Even though each dilemma poses the same quantity of problem, most people answer yes to question 1 and no to the next 2. Religion seems to make no difference to their answer. Dawkins says this demonstrates that most of us do morality outside the confines of religion. To put it another way, we don't need God to be good. True? Or is it that Judeo-Christian ethics has seeped so far down, so deep down, that we understand, at an almost subconscious level, that you can't co-opt someone to give their life for others, only make that decision for yourself. Life has a million Gethsemane moments a day.

He points out that in the USA there is more crime in Republican (and thus more likely to be Bible-believing) states than in Democrat voting ones. He also says there are no atheists in prisons. An alternative conclusion might be that people surrounded by crime and hopelessness tend to turn to prayer. Just a thought.

Trouble is, although he insists that religiosity is not correlated with morality, recent evidence of research in the UK is that most of the altruism in our society is based in faith communities. I feel quite insulted at the suggestion that I might be being the wrong sort of good and that his version of goodness is somehow superior to mine. Yet I hear the challenge of this quote, and want to encourage us to ponder it, '...adherents of scriptural authority show distressingly little curiosity about the ... historical origins of their holy books.'

It seems that church attendance over Christmas, during a time when anti-Christian thought got more publicity than I can ever remember, is generally up. That must make Dawkins so mad.


Anonymous said...

Dawkins doesn't say that there are no atheists in prisons. Precision with words is important as just one small word can change the meaning of a sentence. What Dawkins said was something about there being a disproportionately small number of atheists in prisons, which is a true statement. If 20% of the general population is atheist then you would expect there to be about 20% atheists in our prison population. This isn't the case. There are far fewer atheists in prison than in the general population, so it cannot be argued that atheism = lack of ethics or morality.

I want to invite you and your readers to join us in reading and discussing Dawkins “The God Delusion” during Q1, 2007. I’m working on getting him in a live chat session for some time in March 2007, but nothing is set in stone. If this chat happens you are welcome to attend.

We had Richard Dawkins for a live chat back in 2003 where we discussed “Unweaving the Rainbow.”

Chris O’Connor

St said...

Thanks Chris. The precise quote is:

'It is often cynically said that there are no atheists in foxholes. I'm inclined to suspect (with some evidence, although it may be simplistic to draw conclusions from it) that there are very few atheists in prisons. I am not necessarily claiming that atheism increases morality - although humanism - the ethical system that often goes with atheism - probably does.'

(Page 229)