Monday, February 2, 2009

God, ethics, and humanism - a debate

On Feb. 3, 2009 I will debate god, Nietzsche, science and ethics with Brock University Professor David Goicoechea at the Pelham Public Library. What follows is the text of my opening remarks, which may be abridged for time.

After the debate I will post David's comments, our rebuttals, an overview of the evening and perhaps a video of the debate.

-Grant LaFleche.

Religious faith often dies a hard death. It fights with a particular zeal to keep its privileged control over one’s life. It can root itself so deep into the fabric of our beings, defining who we are, how we act and, ultimately what our fate is, that to cast it off can feel like chopping off a limb. When faith does die you are, after all, left the enormous question of “well, what now?”

But as Jawharlal Nehur said, “facts are facts and they do not disappear on account of your likes.” In my own case facts, evidence and logic were the ultimate corrosive for faith. In as much I was did not want to let go of the pleasant poetry of Buddhist cosmology, or long before that, of the simple certainty of Biblical morality, there wasn’t any other choice. Facts are facts. Evidence is evidence. And they matter.

But trekking off into the undiscovered country of a faithless existence is not a bad thing. You can start off feeling a bit like you are playing tennis without a net. But once you grit your teeth and grapple with that essential question – what now? – you enter a world brighter, more meaningful, more fascinating and, yes, sometimes more frightening, than anything you have previously experienced. That journey, in the spirit of Nietzsche – our patron philosopher this evening – is a critical step in becoming truly human.

I mention all of this because when David and I talked about getting together for this debate, he suggested it might be worth while to recount, by way of an introduction, what lead me to atheism and secular humanism. So I will spend the next few minutes, hopefully without boring you, providing a readers digest version of my own journey from believer to non-believer, and then get into the meat of tonight’s rather weighty subjects of ethics, morals, science and the existence of god.

My father was, not to put too fine a point on it, a “just in case” Catholic. He is not a religious man by any stretch and I have never once seen him pick up a Bible. But he is the sort of fellow who, to borrow the phrase from atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, “believes in belief.” So my brother and I were baptized as Catholics, the faith of my father’s father, in what I often imagine was my father’s metaphysical insurance policy. Should it turn out, when we die, the Catholics were right, we’d be “covered” as it were.

Nevertheless, I was not raised in a particularly religious home. It really wasn’t a subject that came up that often, and from my mother’s point of view, it was really up to us. If we wanted to go to church she’d take us. If not, we didn’t have to go. Needless to say, I spent most Sunday’s eating cereal and watching cartoons.

Catholic school was a different matter entirely. Along with the regular academic course load, there were mandatory meetings with a priest for confession, regular church services and religion class – which really wasn’t a class about religion, but rather about how Catholicism is right and everyone else’s religion is just a bunch of nonsense – including other Christians! (
This is a view expressed by the present pope, who in 2007 declared that non-Catholic churches were “wounded” and because they do not accept the authority of his office, cannot really be called churches at all.) In short, I was well indoctrinated in the Catholic faith.

There were, however, several incidents which slowly, but effectively, drove a stake into the heart of my Catholic faith and by my senior year the Church seemed irrelevant to my life and often rather absurd. The idea accepting the words of a pope, whose election I had no say in, as a guide to how to live my life seemed ridiculous, as did the idea of original sin, the assumption of Mary, or taking sex advice from celibate men who had less experience with it than I did.

Like Abraham Lincoln, I came to see the “unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation” – the reasons for which I’ll discuss as the night progresses – and the inability of the religion to square itself with the mountain of scientific facts we have accumulated since the faith was formed.

But as I said faith dies hard, and like my father, I believed belief. It just seemed proper that you had to believe in SOMETHING. I ended up exploring Buddhism, which expressed a far more enlightened ethic and morality. Where the operating principle Christianity was righteousness, which is doing what god commands, Buddhism was about compassion. As Nietzsche correctly points out in the Anti-Christ, Christianity constantly tries to avoid sin, which is impossible, and so therefore is obsessed with redemption and forgiveness, while Buddhism seeks to end suffering. He regarded both as, ultimately, nihilistic nonsense, but regarding Buddhism as something far closer to what he regarded as the way human beings should live.

In any case, Buddhism, like Christianity, cannot avoid a headlong collision with facts and evidence. Just as Christianity cannot demonstrate the existence of its deity, so Buddhism cannot demonstrate the existence of reincarnation, or the cycle of samsara. And if it is as I have said, that facts matter, then they apply as much to Buddhism as to Christianity. And so it was with some considerable regret that I had to embrace intellectual honesty and let it go.

Atheism, it seems to me, is the rational position to take when one measures the faith claims against evidence.

So without belaboring my own history, I will turn to the point and which David and I agreed this debate would start – which is to say we are starting with the substance of another. Some months ago I moderated a debate, which David attended, between local evangelical preacher Peter Youngren and David Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the United States. Mr. Barker outlined six points to explain why he does not believe in god, and it is on these six points that our debate this evening will begin.

David, obviously, is unlikely to agree with Mr. Barker, or at least not nearly as much as I do. There are some points of separation between Mr. Barker and myself, and I hope to make these clear, so that this debate is not with Mr. Barker, but rather between David and myself:

1) No evidence for god. The evidence for god of the Bible is no different than the evidence for Thor, or Zeus or leprechauns.

On this point there is no argument between Mr. Barker and myself. There is no scientific evidence for the god of the Bible. There is no evidence for it that would stand up on a court of law. The existence of such a creature depends, completely and wholly, upon one’s religious convictions.
The fact of the matter is that faith is not evidence of anything other than what a religious person believes. And yet we treat religious faith, which is in the final analysis belief without evidence, as a virtue. And this is particularly true of Christianity.

There is a story in the New Testament where, after Jesus has risen from the dead, his followers gather. They tell one of their own, a skeptic named Thomas that Jesus is back. Thomas is incredulous. “I’m not going to believe something so insane unless Jesus stands before me and I can stick my fingers in his wounds.” Of course, this is the Bible, so Jesus does appear and Thomas gets to stick his fingers into Jesus’s wounds. Thomas, with the evidence of the resurrection standing in front of him, becomes a believer.

But the story doesn’t end there. Thomas receives a rebuke from Jesus. “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

The message is simple. Don’t doubt. Don’t question. Don’t investigate. Simply believe. Have faith. Thomas, according to Jesus, shouldn’t have been asking for evidence. He should have just believed the unbelievable.

I don’t see how this sort of credulity is a virtue. I rather think Thomas had it right. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

We protect faith from evidence as a society essentially by saying that it is taboo to question it. This is only in the area of our lives in which we do this. In medicine, law and justice, or even the safety features of your car, you rightly demand to have verifiable evidence. We do not respect quack medical claims and we come down rather hard on car manufacturers whose safety equipment fails. But when it comes to religion, we throw evidence out the window.

2) No coherent definition of god, and what definitions there are tend to be contradictory akin to calling a man a “married-bachelor.”

There lays at the root of the Abrahamic religions an unavoidable paradox. God is often described as being Love. Christians will sometimes call this “agope”, to use the Greek word. And something like the Sermon on the Mount is often considered one of the great statements on ethics. However, this is only part of the story of the god of the Bible. For the theology to hang together, Christians need the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament. Without it, the theology of the sequel text, the New Testament, is rendered inert. Yet it is not too much to say that god in the Old Testament is anything but loving.

He murders often and in great numbers. He orders several ethnic cleansings, including a standing order to wipe out the town of any people who dare suggest to the Hebrews that they follow another god. He orders a father to murder his own son as test of loyalty and even personally commits genocide and ecocide on a global level. Even if taken as metaphor, these are not stories about love, but about an uncontrollable, petty rage that would make even Zeus blush. Were such a god to actually exist, it would not be a creature to bow down to, but to openly oppose on basic notions of justice and human solidarity.

Even in the New Testament we see the contradiction continue. It is only in the New Testament that we are introduced to the utterly immoral concept of hell, where one can be tortured forever for rejecting god’s “love.” Where “salvation” comes in the form of a bloody human sacrifice that any of us would feel duty bound to stop if we had been there. It is made worse because the crucifixion would rob us of personal responsibility, upon which all ethics must be based, in favor of vicarious redemption – it encourages us to dump our wrong deeds upon the head of another. I am hard pressed to find a less moral and less loving doctrine than that.

Indeed, I openly reject the “sacrifice” of Jesus. I would want no part of it, were it to be true, because I reject the notion that someone has to die for my alleged crimes. The very notion of accepting personal responsibility is antithetical to the vicarious atonement offered in Christian theology.

3)No argument for god can be falsified – the ontological, moral, cosmological and teleological arguments are all poor arguments.

Imagine for a moment I told you the entire universe was created and governed by the Cosmic Platypus, and the only way to save our immortal souls was to make making offerings of frog eggs to it. Further, the commandments of the Cosmic Playtpus are laid down in the Texts of the Oracle of the Venomous Mammals. Also the Cosmic Platypus, living in a river outside of time and space, cannot be seen or touched or otherwise detected, but I nevertheless claim the Cosmic Platypus, in his all beaky glory, is as real as the nose on your face.

Now, even though that is a farcical example, the fact is you cannot disprove the existence of the Cosmic Platypus, can you? Really, you cannot anymore than you can disprove Shiva, or Baldur, or Mazda. Show me the evidence they don’t exist. So if I was seriously making the above claim about the Cosmic Platypus, his slappy tail be praised, would it not be reasonable for you to demand evidence?

The arguments for god are the same. At the very best they might point to a deist concept of a distant first cause, and all of them must eventually abandon their own logic to say, in essence, “god did it.” But such a claim cannot be falsified because it does not have any evidence to disprove. Some of these arguments, and we may want to discuss them further tonight, sound impressive. But they must, as all things, give way to facts and evidence.

4) There is no agreement among believers on moral issues.

Again, I agree with Mr. Barker. There is no agreement on moral issues, even among believers of the same faith, quoting from the same book! You can find 10 Catholics and ask them about a moral issue, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers.

What is more worrisome to me, however, when examining issues of ethics and morality is not that believers do not agree with one another – but the harm religious institutions cause by unfounded moral pronouncements.

The Catholic Church has an impressive track record in this regard, and one need only look at the Vatican’s continual and consistent condemnation of the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV as an example. We know beyond any shadow of a doubt, thanks to science, that condoms have a significant impact in reducing the spread of this virus, yet the church sees fit to ignore this and reject it as a moral issue – which has a significant impact in the developing world where secularism does not have nearly as strong an influence and where the words of a pope carry significant weight. Well, it is a moral issue and the church’s position is plainly wicked because it contributes to suffering and death. No amount of declaring it to be a faith issue, and thus beyond reproach, can change that.

Where the secular humanist will examine the issue from a utilitarian perspective with an aim of reliving suffering, the church is irrationally dogmatic and dismissive of evidence.

The issue for me is not that believers cannot agree on moral issues. That is a common affliction of the human species. The problem arises when human suffering and well being plays second fiddle to dogmatic statements which have no basis in fact.

5)The problem of evil.

This is of course one of the great stumbling blocks of all Christianity, Catholicism included. If god is loving, if god is pure and benign, why is there such a great amount of suffering and evil. This is the question the Greek thinker Epicurus put forward hundreds of years before the supposed birth of Jesus, and it has gone largely unanswered ever since.

Often, suffering is declared to be the result of the hideous doctrine of original sin, in which the entire species is condemned for the supposed transgression of a mythological first man and woman (whose sin it seems to me to have been the acquisition of knowledge, hardly a crime at all. Indeed, the serpent in the story, far from being evil, is really a spiritual relative of Prometheus, bringing fire to mankind to free him from bondage.)

Others will say suffering and evil are mysterious in someway, and a state that brings one closer to god. We saw this in our lifetimes expressed powerfully in the person of Mother Teresa. In popular culture we treat her as a saint beyond criticism for her work with the poor in India. But as Christopher Hitchens so clearly demonstrates, Teresa was not a friend to the poor, but a friend of poverty. She believed that the more one suffered, the closer one is to Jesus. And who suffered more than the poor souls she “tended” to. Her order raised millions, but built no hospital or improved her own hospices, enacted no programs to put an end to the horrid conditions that lead to many to live such wretched lives. Instead, she gave them a place to die – a place where medical science was shunned, hypodermic needles reused by running them under cold water and people died from treatable illnesses. Her theology, rooted in a very Catholic idea of the “mystery” and utility of suffering, required these poor people remains poor, ignorant and sick.

Grappling with evil and suffering and lending aid to our fellow creatures is something that we, believer and non-believer alike, should gladly do. But never should we treat suffering as mysterious, unassailable or worse, as something good.

6) No need for belief in a god. Non Christians give more as a group than Christians.

Here is where I part company, to a degree, with Mr. Barker. He is correct to say that non-Christians “give” more in terms of charity or charitable works than Christians, but this is merely a question of demographics. Most humans on the planet today are not Christians. In a culture like the United States where most people are Christians of one stripe or another, you find believers giving more than non-believers. In countries like Sweden which have very low levels of religious activity, you see more secularists/atheists giving more than believers.

There is little point to tallying up who “gives” more because the statistics simply are not that clear cut. What does matter, however, is that a belief in god is simply unnecessary to do good things. It is not a prerequisite to do good. I was very proud recently to take part in a blood drive with the Niagara Secular Humanist Association. Those of us who took part did not donate our blood because we are ordered to do so by a sky god who holds out the carrot of punishment and reward. It is done because we know people need help and we are in a position to do so.

Indeed, secular humanism walks on the path of a much greater and humane tradition than what is found in the Bible. The Greeks had a basic moral and ethical idea that can be expressed as “Be careful whom you turn from your door.” It is famously the operating ethical system of Homer’s Odyssey. And it says that you help your fellow creatures in need because one day you might be the one who will survive on the charity of strangers. Human solidarity, as expressed in this fashion, gets us a very long way to creating a better society for everyone. It is not perfect. We will stumble. We will fail. But that is almost the point, that we struggle knowing this to be so. And knowing this is the only life we have, that we will cease to exist when we die as we did not exist before we were born, we have this one and only chance to make a difference.

And if god is not necessary to do good, if there are very human reasons to help one another, why bother with the concept of god in the first place?


Ramon Villalobos said...

"trekking off into the undiscovered country"

Sorry, I'm not done reading yet but that was awesome Grant.

Grant LaFleche said...

ha! Thanks are the first person to pick up on that. lol.

Micky said...

Dear Grant,
Friedrich Nietzsche
called himself “the Anti-Christ,” and wrote a book by that title.

He argued for atheism as follows: “I will now disprove the existence of all gods. If there were gods, how could I bear not to be a god? Consequently, there are no gods.” an old Catholic textbook on modern philosophy, which said only that Nietzsche existed, was an atheist and died insane — a fate which may well await anyone who looks too long into his books.

Do you want to end up like Nietzsche, Grant?

Do you want to end up here, Grant?


Grant LaFleche said...

Dear Micky;

Ok, I am going to give you a hint son: If I don't believe in your particular sky god, don't believe in things for which there is no evidence, and sure don't believe in the holy book you subscribe too, why the hell - if you will excuse the phrase - would you think that I would be impressed by threatening me with hell? If I don't believe in a god, why do you think I would believe in a devil? You might as well threaten me with Puff the Magic Dragon.

Also if you are going to quote a philosopher I have two other hints for you: 1) quote him correctly. Made up quotes that a philosopher never actually wrote makes you look stupid. 2) Nietzsche did not refer to himself as the anti-Christ. The book's title when translated into English more correctly is read as "The Anti-Christian" and in either case it DOES not refer to the Book of Revelation. and 3) Poor Nietzsche had syphilis which got into his brain. His writing did not drive him or anyone else mad.

In other words, Micky, if you want me to take anything you say seriously, come back with something that resembles an argument.

Micky said...

Dear Grant,
I felt some pain reading your diatribe - I imagine you were raging over your fear, pain & shame.

You have conscious fear of intimacy & an unconscious fear of abandonment.

The only way you will be redeemed, Grant, is to go back to the "chamber of horrors" - your childhood - and recover "Little Grant" who I imagine you abandoned many years ago.

Were you abused as a child, Grantham?

Grant LaFleche said...


My name is not Grantham.

My childhood was not a "chamber of horrors" by any stretch of the imagination, although it says a great deal about your mind set that you appear to believe that only abuse victims would be atheists. Psycho-analysts call that "projecting."

Moreover, your attempt at being some sort of therapist speaks, it seems to me, to a huge ego. You don't know me from some bloke you'd pass on the street and yet you feel comfortable enough to say that I have a "conscious fear of intimacy and an unconscious fear of abandonment? " News to my family I'm sure. That you think you could render such a judgement based on nothing demonstrates two things - that your ego is out of control and that you have zero respect for facts and evidence.

Or, you're just crazy and need therapy yourself.

I was not "raging" over anything. If you feel "pain" it should be because you were just dishonest in your previous post. Lets review shall we?

1) Your posting regarding Nietzsche was not your own. You cut and pasted from a apologetic website. It took me all of two minutes to find it. But you passed it off as your own thoughts. Tsk tsk. Don't you Christians have some rule against bearing false witness?

2) The posting you cribbed gets Nietzsche all wrong. It gets the thesis behind the book The Anti-Christ totally wrong. It is also plainly clear you have not actually read The Anti-Christ and the Twilight of the Gods. Yet you attempt to pass yourself off as someone who did. There's that false witness thing again.

3) The post you cribbed from attempts to make it seem that Nietzsche's philosophical works made him, and others, go insane. When in fact we know why Nietzsche suffered so much in his later years. He had an untreated infection that got into his brain.

4) You quote Nietzsche in your cribbed posting. No such quote exists from Nietzsche. It's made up, but you blindly posted it as if it were true - further evidence you have not actually read anything Nietzsche wrote and exposing your our ignorance and your lazy critical thinking skills.

4) When confronted by these facts, you refused to acknowledge. Perhaps you think if you were caught in a lie and don't acknowledge it, it doesn't count'? Instead of acknowledge your massive error, you compounded it with your insipid attempt at psychology , making yourself seem less intelligent and smaller than you had previously.

I am not raging or in pain. I find it sad and somewhat amusing in a pathetic way, that you apparently feel a need to try and pass someone's els'se writing off a your own to make yourself seems smart.

Maybe you were gambling that I had never studied Nietzsche's work, and so could get away with such a thing. Sadly for you, I did, and so you can't.

Micky said...

I was not "raging" over anything. If you feel "pain" it should be because you were just dishonest in your previous post. Lets review shall we? I am not raging or in pain. I find it sad and somewhat amusing in a pathetic way...

Dearest Grant,
Why are you so defensive?

You are a RAGE-A-HOLIC & CONTROL FREAK, who has escaped into his head, because you are too terrified to face your DEMONS.

Romans 1: 19 Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God hath manifested it unto them.

20 For the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made; his eternal power also, and divinity: so that they are inexcusable.

Matthew 13: 13 Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.

14 And the prophecy of Isaias is fulfilled in them, who saith: By hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand: and seeing you shall see, and shall not perceive.

15 For the heart of this people is grown gross, and with their ears they have been dull of hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.

What is your excuse, Grant?

Grant LaFleche said...

The fact, Micky, that you cannot even admit that you tried to pass someone else's work off as your own, used a fabricated quote from Nietzsche, got Nietzsche's history wrong is very telling. It speaks volumes about you that the best you can come up with from the start is personal insults, threats of hell and bible quotes. How petty. How mundane. How predictable. How utterly Christian of you.

Well, you've had your say. And since you have nothing to contribute to this conversation other than being an ass, I invite you to go on your own and pester someone else. IF you want to address the points in my essay fine, but future personal attacks will simply be deleted.

miohippus said...

Mickey, don't you pay attention to that ranting raging Grantham. You are a warrior for Jesus. Now tell Grantham that Jesus died for his sins, or no Armaggeddon for you!

Grant LaFleche said...

Micky, you might just want to look up what a miohippus is before you think you were being given support. Sarcasm is apparently beyond you. You're being made fun of, and don't get it.

Also, you posted your hell link before, no need to do it again. I don't believe in any sort of hell, therefore you are wasting your time.

Finally, please refrain from cutting and pasting long strings of bible passages. I've read the book, I don't need you to be a Jesus drone and just slavish cut and paste parts of it.

This will be the last time I tell you this. If you want to address the points made in the essay above, please do so. IF all you are going to do is launch personal insults or take up space using your cut and paste functions, you will no longer be welcome on this blog.

miohippus said...

Don't let that evil darwinist Grantham win. What is he raging and ranting about? Everyone knows that evolution is a false religion! Look how the banana fits so easily in your hand. How 'bout that huh? It was all designed for us, c'mon Mickey, tell him!

Micky said...

Dictionary. Com


Mi`o*hip"pus\, n. [NL., fr. Gr. ? less + ? horse.] (Paleon.) An extinct Miocene mammal of the Horse family, closely related to the genus Anhithecrium, and having three usable hoofs on each foot.

Grant LaFleche said...

Well, Micky can use a dictionary, although I don't think he gets the joke yet. Keep trying Micky and you might there.

miohippus said...

Micky, tell Grantham that one of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn't possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

Grant LaFleche said...

Gee, miohippus what ever would that giant outside energy source be? The way I see it, it would probably have to be some sort of massive nuclear furnace that baths the Earth in radiation every day all day....there is a name for a source of energy like that....big, hot...glows...huge gravity field....