Saturday, December 09, 2006

Is Christian Morality Immoral?

I was having a discussion recently with a couple of atheist friends I met at my local Skeptics Society dinner when one of them mentioned a debate that Richard Dawkins had engaged in with a scientist who was also a Christian. I made a comment that one of the problems I had with the arguments I had heard from Dawkins was that they were reacting to the worst forms of Christianity or he was responding to “straw men” – beliefs that many Christians don’t hold or that he misunderstands. One of the atheists in conversation with me started to make dogmatic assertions about the stupidity of Christianity, using a word that I can’t repeat on this blog. I tried a couple of times to make the point that, if one wants to argue against Christianity, one needs to do so by interacting with the best theology of Christianity rather than knocking down things that don’t reflect what most Christians believe. I didn’t get far. The gentleman sitting next to me threw an article on the table and said, ‘Read this and think about it.’ That was the end of the conversation. As it turns out, the article was written by the very person I was speaking to! So I decided to take his advice – to read the article and think about it. The article in question is entitled Christian Morality and is written by Dean R Dowling (1996a). Since reading the article, I have also come across a version on the internet (Dowling 1996b) which is essentially the same with some minor variations. You might like to check it out and read it for yourself. In a series of blogs, I plan to take a look at Dowling’s argument. It is a poor one that commits some very basic logical fallacies. If the author of Christian Morality has the opportunity to read my critique of this argument, I hope he gives it the same level of consideration that I have given his. In this first instalment, I want to state, as clearly as I can, the argument offered by Dowling and make an initial assessment. At the end of his essay, Dowling declares that ‘the best weapon against the religious[*] is their own Holy books.’ The reason for this, according to the author, is that ‘it is difficult to use reason, logic, facts and evidence in debates against them [the religious].’ This difficulty is ‘[b]ecause religious belief is a form of insanity.’ In other words, because religious people are insane, there is no point in trying to reason with them. Instead, you use their holy books as weapons against them. How do you do that? By showing that the teachings of the holy books cause
  • Persecution of the Jews
  • The condoning of slavery
  • The burning of witches, pagans, and heretics
  • Hostility to sex and women
and, finally, provide ‘the psychological underpinning and conditioning for authoritarian undemocratic political regimes.’ Dowling is, apparently, elaborating on an argument from Dr Joachim Kahl’s book The Misery of Christianity who, according to Dowling, says has led to ‘centuries of outbreaks of violence, mass psychosis, perversion, sadism, cruelty and neuroses.’ There is an extra sentence in the online version of Downing’s article which clarifies his essential claim even more pointedly. He writes:

You do NOT need a Holy Bible to tell you to give charity to the poor and sick, but you DO need the Holy Bible to tell you to persecute the Jews, burn alive witches, pagans and heretics, condone slavery, justify hostility to sex and women and obey authoritarian dictatorships … (emphasis in original)

This is a very clear statement of Downing’s argument. He is claiming that, to be moral, you don’t need a Holy Bible. There are other ways of knowing what is moral. However, in order to act immorally in the ways he describes, you need the Holy Bible.[†] For Dowling, the Bible is the necessary condition for immorality. In other words, persecution of Jews, burning of witches, pagans and heretics, slavery, hostility to sex and women, and obedience to authoritarian dictatorships would not occur if there wasn’t a Bible. You need a Bible for these things to occur. Without it, they wouldn’t occur. Before looking at his evidence that the Bible teaches such immoral behaviours, we need to point out the first of Downing’s logical fallacies in this paper: the fallacy of causal reductionism. Causal reductionism is when one tries to explain something using one cause when, in reality, the cause may be very complex or multifactorial. (Lindsay). For Dowling to suggest that the cause of all of these evils is the Bible is to ignore a whole range of other possible factors in the development of them – political, cultural, developmental, economic, and so on. It is easy to show the simplistic nature of this belief. Take slavery, for instance. If we can show that slavery occurs in the absence of the Bible, then we know that the Bible is not a necessary nor sufficient cause of slavery.[‡] A quick look at the article on slavery in Wikipedia informs us that ‘[s]lavery predates writing and evidence for it can be found in almost all cultures and continents. Its many origins remain unknown.’ (Slavery 2006) There we have it – slavery has many origins and occurs across continents and cultures. The cause of slavery is much more complex than Dowling suggests. Finding a logical fallacy so quickly and early in Dowling’s article serves to warn us to be cautious as we examine the rest of his argument. What about the claim that it is difficult to use reason, logic, facts and evidence in debates against the religious because religion is a form of insanity? Dowling is drawing on an article by Richard Dawkins (cited in Dowling (1996a)) entitled Is Religion a Form of Insanity? The idea that religion might be a form of insanity is not new. For example, Emmet F Fields wrote:
Once we can look at religion objectively and impartially, it becomes entirely obvious that religion has all the characteristics of a form of insanity. To one degree or another the religious mind must accept, and believe in, another world; a supernatural or unnatural world, a world filled with all sorts of imaginary beings called gods, devils, angels, saints, demons, etc. These imaginary creatures are talked to, asked for favors, guidance, "signs", or miracles, and then blamed or thanked for natural events that follow. Except for the cloak of religion, such beliefs and actions would otherwise cause an individual to be judged insane, and committed to an institution for treatment. (tom 2004)
But do you see what is happening here? Firstly, the language suggests that the writer is looking at this topic ‘objectively … impartially’ and the conclusion is ‘obvious’. It would be a courageous person indeed who would argue against what follows, for the implication of such a response would be that the person was biased, partial, and overlooking the obvious! However, this writer is begging the question. Insanity is defined as believing in something imaginary. Religion is assumed to be imaginary. Therefore religion is insanity. But this is true only if the claims of religion are imaginary. And that is the very thing under debate. It so happens that I have a mental health background and have worked with those who are “insane”. One of the essential features of insanity is a lack of reasoning ability. Thought processes are usually disturbed. Anyone who takes the time to pick up a Christian book on apologetics will immediately recognise that reasoning well is highly valued by Christians.[§] To suggest that a carefully reasoned book arguing for a religious position, even if one disagrees with it, is a symptom of insanity is to indulge in an argument from spurious analogy. (Lindsay) Just because insanity includes imaginary experiences and religion is believed by some to include imaginary experiences doesn’t mean that insanity and religion are both the same. So the heart of Dowling’s argument is deeply flawed. Logic, evidence, facts – all of these are valued by Christians as any brief reading of the best of Christian theology will show. And, as Dowling’s fallacious reasoning shows, even the “non-religious” can think poorly! Dowling goes on to provide what he considers evidence that the Bible provides justification for his list of social evils. Despite the fact that Dowling’s main argument is flawed, I plan to look at these other claims. Even if the Bible is not the cause of this list of social evils, does it provide justification for them? Looking at this question will be the topic of the next post. References Dowling, DR 1996a, 'Christian Morality', S.A. Humanist Post, pp. 8-9. ---- 1996b, Christian Morality, Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, viewed 9 December 2006, Lindsay, D A List of Fallacious Arguments, viewed 9 December 2006, Slavery, 2006, Wikipedia, viewed 9 December 2006, < tom 2004, 15. religion, Urban Dictionary, viewed 9 December 2006, Footnotes [*] Although the author uses the term ‘the religious’ to refer to all religious believers, the majority of the evidence offered by Dowling is Christian-oriented. The title of the essay is ‘Christian Morality’. The author seems to have a particular aversion to Christian belief. [†] Notice the change from a to the in Downing’s paragraph. Another evidence that his particular concern is Christian morality. [‡] This, of course, doesn’t mean that the Bible is not a sufficient cause. But that is not what Downing is arguing. He is suggesting that the Bible is a necessary and sufficient cause. [§] That is not to say, of course, that all Christians value good thinking or that no Christians are insane. Like any human group (including atheists) there are some who are insane within Christianity.

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