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This Week: Ask an Atheist Experience

CFIV5: Eugenie Scott

Sam talks science education with Becky and Eugenie Scott. Later, Mike Warbington joins in the studio for discussion of recent news and listener emails.   The column referenced in today’s show is avaiable here.

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13 Comments 1 Trackback
Cheryl in Tacoma December 22, 2013 at 8:39 pm

You tackled a huge topic in the second half of today’s show! I had read that article myself and was disappointed. Leaving aside the deliberately provocative headline, the arguments themselves were clumsy, but not entirely without merit. Perhaps I can try to frame it differently.

First, it is absolutely not true that there is “no such thing as a good atheist.” The guy just titled it that to get hits. I think what he was shooting for is that EVERY SINGLE PERSON (who is not a sociopath, I suppose) has a sense of right and wrong, however twisted or rationalized it might have become (see Ariel Castro) — atheists, theists, and everybody in between. We alone, among all the organisms we know of, have a moral sense.

This is not to say that this moral sense is “handed down” by God like a teacher might hand down a homework assignment, but more that morality itself — the sense that some things are actually right or wrong, versus simply expedient, pleasant, counterproductive, etc. — is a clue of sorts to God’s existence in the first place, because nature cannot produce morality through its normal operation.

In the Christian creation story, the temptation offered to humanity was to know good and evil in order to become “like God.” Until that point, we presumably lived in childlike simplicity, going about our lives with all the innocence of both the frolicking lamb and the shark on a relentless hunt. We don’t attribute either culpability or moral merit to animals, no matter how gratuitously violent or heartwarmingly benevolent they may behave, because they simply do not wrestle with moral questions. Yes, I know that many animals exhibit empathy, but the rule here actually proves the exception — we find such cases so endearing precisely BECAUSE we know that these are isolated, and very special, incidents. And even the most empathetic animal is responding to a deep instinct in some way — it doesn’t ask itself, “Was that shitty of me, to walk by that other hurt animal and not do anything? Should I go back and try to help?”

But even the youngest humans have a concept of fairness. Every mother who has cut pie for dessert knows this. The animal kingdom has no analogous concept. Hierarchies and survival are based on power and strength, nothing more. The wolf pack doesn’t huddle and discuss whether it’s really fair to go after the weakest member of the herd.

You say that we evolved to live in packs, or tribes, and that morality serves the common good. But there are several problems with this. First, many species have survived quite well with a pack structure, without any need for morality. Second, evolution works on an individual, not a collective, level. Whether or not my genes get passed on depends on MY fitness to survive, not some sort of “what’s good for everybody around me” — how would my genes know anything about that? Third, because one’s survivability (and the survival of the species) would often depend on the willingness not to risk oneself for the sake of a less-fit fellow, evolution is actually an argument against morality. When I see a heroin addict shivering in the freezing cold, evolution would seem to demand I look the other way — she should be removed from the gene pool, while healthier specimens such as myself should conserve our limited resources and not waste them on the likes of the sick, the addicted, the mentally challenged, etc.

But none of us — not atheists, and not believers — would agree that looking the other way, or even helping the person shuffle off their flawed mortal coil, would be right. Because we have a conception of the sacredness of every human life, right? Human life is special, no matter how “useful” a particular human being might seem to our long-term survival. Now, humanists might say that of course humans are special, because humans are special — that’s the basis of their religion! It’s an a priori axiom, a given. It brooks no argument, because you’re just supposed to accept it, and everything else flows from there. But if pressed, “Why are humans so special, anyway?” there is no logical answer. We may be smarter than other creatures, but that hasn’t made us less of a pox on the planet, and even on our own kind, than any other species.

Getting back to the morality thing, I think humans are special because we ARE endowed with this moral sense, which connects us to the Divine whether we like it or not. We cannot escape this sense — whoever we are, whatever we believe, we are going to have opinions on what is right and what is wrong. And this sense cannot have arisen purely out of the evolutionary process. So, to me, it’s just another clue to the existence of not just Someone or Something, but a whole other plane, a whole other category of reality, outside the purely material, and if I may be so bold, I think that may have been what the author was trying to get at, in his own way.

Edward Eldritch December 24, 2013 at 4:37 am

Quite a few social animals have a sense of fairness.

Cheryl in Tacoma December 26, 2013 at 12:58 am

Fascinating! But I think the teamwork example (the flint and the hazelnuts), was simply a utilitarian compromise. Since both monkeys were stuck in cages, they had to work together to “beat the system,” as the narrator puts it. The second experiment I’ve seen before, and it is intriguing. But even my dog has learned to negotiate with me. When we’re on a leisure walk, the informal rule is that he gets to call the shots. I’m still the mom, though, and I’m apt to make exceptions, like if it’s starting to rain and we need to get back to the car to close the sunroof rather than take off down an exciting new trail. When I “break” the usual rule like this, Charlie will sometimes insist on a “payment” for acquiescing to my wishes — he’ll demand a treat or a backrub for agreeing to go my way. I consider this an extremely high level of cognitive functioning, and am so proud that I didn’t even teach Charlie to negotiate. But I’m not sure it fully qualifies as a moral sense, per se. Maybe it’s the rudiments of a moral sense, the awareness that one is being cheated, and perhaps an entire moral system could develop from such roots in a sufficiently evolved creature, but the question still remains: “How can natural selection explain the evolution of a desire to, let’s say, rush into a burning building to rescue a kitten?” Obviously, such an act is heroic, but it does nothing to propagate the hero’s genes or even the human race. Natural selection simply can’t explain it. Our species’ survival certainly doesn’t depend on the survival of housecats, and even if it did, it’s not like there’s any shortage of them.

Cheryl in Tacoma December 22, 2013 at 8:41 pm

Dammit, why isn’t there a preview or an edit function on this blog? I forgot the after “a priori.” Grrr….

Cheryl in Tacoma December 22, 2013 at 8:41 pm

And my closing tag didn’t appear in the comment above. Ah, forget it — you know what I mean.

RobWriting December 23, 2013 at 9:14 am

Wow Cheryl, you are so far off the mark. Regurgitating Xtian talking points will only make you look silly. Do a google for “Morality in Animal Species” and educate yourself. Concepts of fairness, right, and wrong are society based. There are no absolutes. Human young learn about them through observation, play, and interaction with others. It is not innate. Gods, goddesses, demi-gods, devils, demons, and other figments of human imagination do not play into it. WE decide what is right, wrong, or fair. And it can change depending on the circumstances or culture. True, there are some things for which we cannot imagine a situation wherein they would be included in a social/cultural norm — raping infants for instance. However, that does not mean it is “god given” or “natural” or “instinctual.” It does mean that WE, as a social animal, have decided that it is in the best interest of our group to inhibit that type of behavior and label it deviant.

You also need to learn about evolution – it is ALL about changes in population, not individuals. Again, check out the volumes of information about evolution on the internet and try to steer clear of AIG nonsense.

One last thing: humans are special to humans because it is our species. As far as we can tell, the universe doesn’t care one way or another. If humans were completely wiped out, the universe would continue just fine, thank you very much. No divine anything needed. No super naturals warranted. And not having all the answers does not mean religions are correct. Far from it – time and time again, the more knowledge we acquire, the more religious concept are shown to be mere mythology.

Cheryl in Tacoma December 23, 2013 at 10:02 am

So, if morality depends on cultural norms, was slavery morally right until the majority decided otherwise? Is the subjugation of women in cultures where that has been the norm for thousands of years right for them, just not right for us? Is marriage equality only just now beginning to be right, because the majority opinion is shifting?

This is a topic of debate among anthropologists, BTW, who strive to study and document other cultures without trying to impose their own cultural values and practices on them.

Since you say “humans are special because it’s our species,” then is it morally right to do anything that benefits the human race, even at the expense of other species? Do I deserve to wear angora fur, even if that fur is ripped from live rabbits, since we, as humans, have the ability and the need, and the rabbits are powerless to resist?

BluePrint December 23, 2013 at 12:33 pm

The problem with debating morality between theists and atheists is that each side defines the M word differently, and until someone explains what they mean when they say Moral/Morality, any claim of morality would be meaningless or a false statement to the other side.

Cheryl in Tacoma December 23, 2013 at 12:56 pm

When I say morality, I mean the capacity to evaluate the moral rightness or wrongness of an action, an entity, or a system. “Moral” means having a moral quality, such as humans being kind or cruel to animals, versus “amoral,” such as animals preying on one another. Actions or systems can be morally good or righteous, like helping the poor, or morally bad or evil, like scamming the gullible or vulnerable. Or they can be amoral, like deciding to wear the blue dress or the red dress to the party tonight.

It gets confusing when people start using the word “morality” to mean “what is morally right.” Of course we all have different moral value systems. I may think it’s immoral of you to buy a Big Mac, and you may think it’s immoral of me to smoke cigarettes. But the very fact that we even pass these moral judgments on one another and on ourselves puts us in a class of beings outside of anything else that has arisen out of billions and billions of years of evolution. That’s the interesting part about it, to me.

ZenEris December 24, 2013 at 9:12 am

Cheryl, you wrote: “But the very fact that we even pass these moral judgments on one another and on ourselves puts us in a class of beings outside of anything else that has arisen out of billions and billions of years of evolution. That’s the interesting part about it, to me.”

I think that it’s important to note: it does NOT put us outside of nature. It does NOT put us above other life forms. We are in a rare place, but not a different place. There are other animal groups where they have names for group members, working ‘language’, and rich emotional lives. See killer whales, dolphins, gorillas in particular.

Also, I don’t find it confusing at all. It makes all the sense in the world that some of the finer points would differ within groups as we evolve and move forward together on the ideas covered by morality, doing the least harm, etc.

Cheryl in Tacoma December 26, 2013 at 1:21 am

I totally agree that we are in a rare — and daresay, unique — place, evolutionally speaking, with our moral sense (which should not be confused with emotions — all sentient beings possess some form of emotional life, I think. Fear and anger are essential to survival).

Language doesn’t imply morality, either. Computers have a language — it doesn’t mean they possess a moral sense. Language is simply a communication vehicle.

But I find your final remark quite interesting: “It makes all the sense in the world that some of the finer points would differ within groups as we evolve and move forward together on the ideas covered by morality…” In what ways do you see the human race evolving, morally? I think of the Fertile Crescent, the cradle of civilization, and its many wonders. Now it’s a barren, war-torn, strife-ridden region that nobody seriously thinks will ever again be a beacon of knowledge and exploration. I think of our own nation, which built its immense wealth and power on the backs of, first, the indigenous people of our own continent, and then, on that of those of another continent. As recently as our own lifetimes, kids used to be able to walk 4 blocks to a bus stop, go to school, no metal detectors, no suspensions for biting a cookie into what an adult interprets as the shape of a gun, etc. People think the Old Testament is extremely violent, but are we any less violent today? Our understanding may have evolved some, but has it made any difference in our morality? Our violence is just more indirect now. I may not physically, directly, enslave a young Chinese girl, but if I buy a product made from her slave labor, am I not complicit? I don’t necessarily believe we’re all evolving and moving forward together. I think those who are the most vulnerable are increasingly exploited, and those in power are calmly, steadily working to expand their power base at everyone else’s expense.

matthew December 24, 2013 at 8:29 pm

Slow down friend. These women are very informative and uber eclectic. You pop in and sound like a person who may b shall i say…. over zealous.

Cheryl in Tacoma December 26, 2013 at 8:00 pm

This show is local to me, and I listen when I can. On this particular occasion, I was only able to catch the second half, which is what I was addressing. It’s been a real busy week, as you might imagine, so I haven’t heard the first half yet.


[…] it all…  Actually, I searched for his article because I heard about it on last week’s episode of Ask an Atheist, and wanted to read the absurdity for myself.  I am, however, eager to pierce him with my wit, […]


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