Erik Strandness reflects on a recent Big Conversation discussion asking whether religion is good or bad for society
American brashness met British understatement in a clash of worldviews but unlike the revolutionary war, it felt more like a cordial tea party. I think you would be hard pressed to find two more articulate voices in their respective fields than Ben Shapiro and Alex O’Connor because not only are they deep thinkers but they are also humble enough to respond graciously to well-articulated criticism. I respect both men immensely and while I disagree with many of their ideas, I find that I am nonetheless a better person when I test my thoughts against theirs. You can watch the full conversation here.
The title for their debate was ‘Is religion good or bad for society?’ but it was a bit of a misnomer, as most of the discussion focused on whether religion or atheism provided a more solid foundation upon which to build an ethical society. Shapiro stated up front that he wasn’t trying to prove the existence of God because he believes the issue cannot be conclusively proven one way or the other. He was more interested in making the case that an atheist metaphysic is inadequate grounding for a functional society and that what is truly needed is some sort of supernatural regulative entity. The majority of the discussion consisted of the two guests grappling with the nuts and bolts of morality and free will, and it is from their insights that I will attempt to offer my own Christian perspective on this topic.
What is morality? Merriam Webster defines it as: “conformity to ideals of right human conduct”. In other words, morality is adherence to a set of transcendent relationship parameters universally recognised by all humans, which if violated necessitate correction.
Morality, therefore, requires relationships, relationship parameters and the ability to choose to obey or disobey them.
Morality cannot exist in a vacuum because if I live in isolation without any relationships then my behaviour doesn’t impact anyone or anything. However, once I am situated in a world surrounded by other beings my conduct has the potential to positively or negatively impact those around me thereby making morality relevant.
Subjective morality is therefore an oxymoron because it is impossible for morality to just be personal when it is relational by definition. Shapiro warned of the dangers of practicing subjective morality in a society that must regulate relationships to survive:
“Any morality that can be created on an individual level is inherently dangerous because you immediately graft that morality onto your personal self-interest. The entire purpose of religion, whether you want to ground that in evolutionary brain function or whether you want to ground that in revelation, the entire purpose of religion on a utility level is to remove morality from the purview of my special interest and to say here are things that I cannot do even if they are in my interest, because there is a higher power that says I cannot do these things. I think a society that doesn’t have these moral absolutes is in deep trouble.”
Subjective morality flies in the face of reality because everybody believes that everybody else should behave a certain way, and once you cast aspersions upon the behaviour of your fellow man, your morality has left the confines of your lizard brain and entered a transcendent realm you believe others should both acknowledge and obey.
Morality, therefore, occupies a transcendent space that hovers over mankind providing universal objective rules of behaviour to which all are accountable, but what is transcendence? Merriam Webster once again helps us by defining it as “extending or lying beyond the limits of ordinary experience, transcending the Universe or material existence – universally applicable or significant”. Interestingly, Webster’s definition states that transcendence is supernatural, universally applicable and significant implying that it lies in an immaterial realm that is objectively discerned, universally binding, and holds potential consequences for those who disobey.
It appears that we walk around with our heads in the moral clouds continually monitoring behaviour on the Earth to see if we should warn others of a coming ethical storm. Shapiro challenged the ability of O’Connor’s atheism to create such a transcendent space from which morality could be fairly administered:
“Many of the things that Alex does in his daily life for example are going to be things that rely on principles that are external to a philosophy that would assume a lack of the supernatural.”
O’Connor countered that his worldview does have room for a transcendent morality, but it isn’t a person, place or thing, rather just a helpful illusion generated by the evolutionary process to help us survive:
“That’s what the evolutionary process in my worldview has done so well is provide precisely that illusion.”
O’Connor’s appeal to an illusory moral space however raises some serious questions. How can matter generate something immaterial? How can chemicals delude themselves into believing they must follow the dictates of a supernatural illusion? Creating an illusion is hard work – just ask any magician. So why would evolution waste its precious resources putting on a magic show just to get us to mate and forage better? It would seem, according to O’Connor’s scheme, that natural selection got distracted from its primary job of promoting fecundity and fitness and began dabbling in the dark arts of metaphysical magic.
The problem with filling that moral space with an evolutionary illusion is that morality is far more nuanced than nature red-in-tooth-and-claw could ever be, and the sledgehammer of natural selection is woefully inadequate to sculpt such an intricate space. For O’Connor, a moral illusion is superior to a God delusion, but I must ask: Does his illusion have the societal gravitas to regulate human behaviour?
If the moral space suggested by Shapiro and O’Connor can be known by all people, determines relationship parameters and has the authority to condemn those who violate them, then it would seem that the best candidate to occupy this space would be a Person who is transcendent, who is relational, who understands the parameters necessary for the proper exercise of relationships, and who has the authority to mete out punishment when those boundaries are violated. It seems to fit the profile of a God who is a transcendent, trinitarian, covenantal creator.
Stealing the ring
O’Connor appropriately raised the concern that if we let our religious inclinations get in the way we may end up filling this transcendent space with the dictates of a superior being who sanctions reprehensible behaviour. “God told me to do it” is a far more dangerous stance to take than just adhering to an illusory but helpful set of evolutionary determined behaviour guidelines.
While O’Connor is correct that history is replete with people justifying their actions by stealing God’s signet ring and using it as a stamp of approval for their behaviour, God is not so easily robbed of his bling, and those with eyes to see would quickly notice that the ring is far too big for skinny mortal fingers, and those trying to justify themselves with God’s imprimatur would instead be exposed as criminals guilty of the crime of gaudy moral accessorizing.
Morality is not restricted to those who claim God’s authority but is universally available and objectively discerned such that no behaviour is immune to moral scrutiny. Morality, therefore, isn’t individually cooked up but is constantly compared to a time-tested recipe everyone has tasted and seen is good. God exists not to empower your agenda but to oversee his, so when someone claims to be his spokesperson, we need to make sure they have been fully briefed by the Big Guy ahead of time.
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Another significant problem with considering morality to be a useful fiction is that it lacks the qualifications to assess human behaviour. We often judge the character of a person by whether they have a healthy respect for the supernatural. Interestingly, atheists are consistently the last pick in generic political races, which seems odd since atheists can be very moral people. Why is that? American writer Vox Day gives us some insight:
“Regardless of what one thinks of a politician’s religion, the mere fact that he has one offers the voter essential information about where his moral and ethical lines are theoretically drawn…In the case of the atheist politician, however, the voter not only has no information, he has no easy means of obtaining that information.”
While it is possible for a Christian or an atheist to be an individual hypocrite when their actions don’t match their words, it is impossible for an atheist to be an institutional hypocrite. Christianity has made it very clear where the moral bar is set and admits, apart from Jesus, that nobody has yet reached that height, a fact that sadly makes all Christians vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy.
But what height is the behaviour bar set at for an atheist? What are the moral requirements on the atheist checklist that when violated makes them a hypocritical atheist? While Christian hypocrisy certainly hurts the body of Christ, you must admit that at least we have a God who isn’t afraid to call us out on our sanctimonious behaviour.
Drug of choice
Free will is the third piece of the morality puzzle because “right human conduct” necessitates the ability to choose “wrong human conduct”. Morality is only relevant if we can choose to do otherwise. If our behaviour is determined, then relationship parameters are nothing but simple observations of the natural selection process at work, a process that is far more concerned with survival than actual human flourishing.
Life is concerned with three main relationships – God and humans, humans and humans, and humans and nature. The common thread between each of these relationships is the presence of at least one person with free will. In other words, one who can choose to conform or not conform to the rules of relationship engagement.
Interestingly, we don’t consider the relationship between nature and nature, or animals and animals, to be moral because neither party can choose one behaviour over another. We don’t hold cats responsible for decimating the mouse population, we don’t get offended when reindeers exclude other reindeers from reindeer games, and we don’t accuse animals of cruelty when they abandon the runts of the litter, yet if humans engaged in similar behaviours they would be accused of ethnic cleansing, discrimination and child abuse. Choice is therefore essential if morality is to be meaningful.
Shapiro made the case that every morning when we get up, we are contemplating the day and beginning a series of free will choices from the mundane selection of breakfast cereal to the far more significant choice of which employees we may have to make redundant at the end of the day:
“That’s what gives us purpose, it’s what allows us to wake up in the morning and make the decision to do what is right or what we believe is wrong…Free will, right and wrong, these come from a language that is external to the Darwinian language of evolutionary biology.”
I would take slight issue with Shapiro because before I begin exercising my free will in the morning, I am determined to enjoy a cup of coffee! However, once adequately caffeinated free will becomes my drug of choice.
O’Connor responded by saying:
“I hear this all the time, people say: ‘Look you may say there’s no free will, but you don’t act as though that is the case.’ I suppose that I’m just confused as to what it would look like for someone to act as if they believe there is no free will. The very argument that there is no free will that I subscribe to, at least one of the various forms that it takes, is a sort of a Schopenhauerian view that you can do as you will, you just can’t will what you will do, and that you are just essentially a biological machine reacting to its internal evolutionary drive.”
Shapiro pointed out that if that were true then “this conversation is essentially worthless in any real sense. We were driven here by evolutionary biology and environment to have this conversation”.
While atheists like O’Connor question whether humans have libertarian free will, most of us act as if we do, and unanimously agree that people should be held responsible when they choose poorly. Shapiro said that free will is important because it is the only thing capable of effecting change and giving purpose to life:
“One of those goods is people believing that their free will matters and is actually a useful thing. I believe that it is deeply important for people in society to believe that they have the capacity to change themselves and to make different decisions than what biology would drive them to do…The reality is that we are constantly making decisions as though those decisions make a difference in the Universe.”
In a deterministic Universe, it would be silly to push for change when everything is determined, and even if you believe evolution gives us the illusion of free will, it’s interesting that many of those illusory choices are directed at making the world a better place for those that evolution considers unfit.
O’Connor wants an ordered determined Universe but is forced to get it from random mutations and must therefore invoke the special powers of natural selection (ironically, a phrase that implies choice) to choose. Natural selection must weigh the value of various survival adaptations against various environmental pressures, some of which may come in to conflict with one another, which means that the mindless, purposeless evolutionary process must make some tough choices.
Darwin cleverly removed the mind from the evolutionary process by replacing artificial selection with natural selection but still felt the need to keep the selection verbiage because he knew that an evolutionary process that wasn’t pro-choice could never promote its pro-life agenda.
Choice and consequences
The reason why choice is so important is because choosing poorly has consequences for us, our fellow humans and the planet. Sadly, we have torn asunder the intimate bond between choice and consequence and filed for divorce due to irreconcilable differences. Interestingly, postmodernism elevated choice to a cultural sacrament and ignored the consequences, while modernism eliminated choice all together.
In both cases, it was a “no fault” divorce where nobody had to accept the blame for the consequences of their poor choices. The modernist blamed the whole thing on a neurochemical misunderstanding, while the postmodernist said that those consequences, while unfortunate, were a small sacrifice to offer at the altar of happiness.
Once you divorce choice from consequence, the legal system becomes irrelevant. Free will, whether illusory or real, must be in the equation for developing any society because laws must be put in place to restrain it from harming others. Systems also need to be developed to use it to promote human flourishing. Shapiro explains:
“Society does require an extraordinary number of people to believe that they are capable of making decisions for the good or for the bad…A functional society, a society that actually works, relies on people actually believing that their fate is in their hands.”
Exercise of authority
If the parameters for proper relationship management exist in a transcendent realm, then we need to ask how that immateriality could possibly have authority over materiality. Why do humans think it’s important to adhere to the mandates of something outside of themselves instead of just making it up as they go?
The problem with the materialistic version of evolved morality is that it requires that matter not only generate illusory immaterial rules but also adhere to them. Richard Dawkins tried to do this by squeezing this enormous moral space into a cellular nucleus and reducing behaviour to selfish genes, which conveniently limited moral understanding to experts in microscopy.
The Judeo-Christian tradition gives us a better explanation for this immaterial-material interface by pointing out that humans were created in the image of that transcendent moral source and therefore have a built-in morality monitor, or conscience, scanning the behavioural landscape for image-bearing violations.
While we tend to look at morality in the context of the relationships between humans and humans, and humans and nature, I think it’s important to remember that we are ultimately breaking a relationship with the One who established the moral code in the first place. King David, despite a chequered moral past, was still considered a man after God’s own heart, which seems incredible given his penchant for murder and adultery. The reason, however, for this divine praise was his public acknowledgment that it was against God alone that he had ultimately sinned. David recognised that his sins weren’t merely relationship infractions between himself and others but were offenses against the cosmic law giver himself.
Illusion of IQ
Shapiro noted the incoherence between an extremely intelligent O’Connor and his worldview:
“You are a very high IQ individual who can somehow reconcile the idea of living a very purposeful life with the idea that actually there’s no purpose to anything.”
It seems odd that O’Connor would pursue higher education, attain degrees and awards, and then get to the podium and be forced to thank his genes and environment instead of taking credit for cultivating his own beautiful mind. I find it ironic that arguably the most intelligent beings on the planet make their life’s work the reduction of human exceptionalism to animal instinct, but in the case of strict determinists, make it even worse by not even giving humans the dignity of being a rat in a maze who has learned to choose the best path to the cheese.
The difference Jesus makes
Listening to their discussion, I couldn’t help but think something was missing. All their fine arguments about free will and morality didn’t address how immateriality, whether an illusion or a God, could influence matter. How did they bridge that gap?
I believe the Christian story offers the best explanation. A transcendent God empties himself and becomes immanent. A God who so loves the world does the unthinkable by offering his son to restore all our relationships. A universal moral law giver incarnates to give us an example of what it means to walk the image bearing talk. The judge of moral conduct seeing the strong case against us steps down from his seat, takes the punishment and then gives us the opportunity to reverse the poor arboreal choice made by our ancestors in the garden by giving us the opportunity to choose a better tree in the wilderness from which our saviour hangs.
It is in Jesus that moral precepts meets behaviour, relationships meet matchmaker, and free will meets choice, satisfying all the requirements for a moral Universe.
“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)
Watch the full conversation between Alex O’Connor and Ben Shapiro here.
Erik Strandness is a physician and Christian apologist who has practiced neonatal medicine for more than 20 years.