Monday, August 01, 2011

Good Without God

One of the perks of being on vacation is having the luxury of reading the newspaper, or several newspapers, each day. This is a rare occurrence for me: I'm usually so pressed for time each day that I read the New York Times online as I get ready in the morning. This morning, however, I managed to read not only the full print version of the Times but also the USA Today.
I thought this kind of funny. 

I didn't realize that the USA Today carries a Monday "Religion" section, this week's contribution coming from University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. His piece is entitled "As atheists know, you can be good without God."

This is going to be a longer piece of writing on my part, engaging with Professor Coyne's observations. I should like to say, from the start, that I detect in this piece what the philosopher Michel de Certeau who writes: the Expert, competence is transmuted into social authority; in the Philosopher, ordinary questions become a skeptical principle in a technical field’ experts intervene from outside their practice ‘do it through a curious operation which “converts” competence into authority … ultimately the more authority the Expert has, the less competence he has. (7)
With all due respect to Professor Coyne's work in evolutionary biology, I think that his article is another instance wherein this "conversion" from competence in one field (biology) gets translated into "authority" in another field (religion) is seen. That Coyne is a professor in one of the better known research universities carries with it enormous prestige, but credentials in one area do not, a priori, guarantee that observations in another area of study are equally sound.

Coyne begins his piece by recounting an instance of helping a fallen Federal Express worker "without thinking." He writes that, upon reflection, he saw this action as purely instinctive for "there was no time for calculation." This leads him to his next observation that we can see what he calls the "instinctive nature" of morality in many human actions. He admits that some morality - such as sharing toys - comes from reason and persuasion, he seems to hold that much of our moral sense is inborn. He counterposes this observation with the belief of "many Americans" who, he claims, see morality both as a gift from God and as evidence for his existence. This belief in God-given morality, he contends, is the single biggest obstacle preventing Christians from believing in evolution.

If this is a fair representation of the opening of his essay, there is a good reason that we should pause immediately. First off, I am a believing Christian, a Catholic, and I'm a full-blown believer in evolution. Yep, I buy it totally. I think that Creationism is intellectual suicide and that Intelligent Design is, well, stupid.  Simply put, I take it as a fact that evolution occurs (just read the news about mutating bacteria and this not evolution?). Nevertheless, I have real problems with Coyne's understanding of religion and think that his piece is riddled with errors that need to be addressed.

First, as an evolutionary biologist, I should think that Coyne would be more attentive to the social nature of biological life. His response to rush out to help the fallen worker, while instantaneous, was not without prior conditioning. Over many years, he has become the sort of person who would jump into traffic to help another person; he has, in other words, been socialized into this sort of behavior. Could it be otherwise? He has been raised by a family, been involved in numerous social interactions, and has been shaped and formed into the kind of person who would so act. Clearly, not everyone has been so formed: as a counter-example, one need only recall the murder of Kitty Genovese, who was attacked but left unaided by her neighbors. Coyne seems to ignore that there are social influences that shape character. Social animals all, we are formed into morality and shaped as moral agents by those around us (which Coyne does seem to admit at the end of his piece).

Coyne goes on to cite Plato's Euthyphro dilemma: are actions good because dictated by God, or dictated by God because they are moral. Coyne believes that there latter option is the only one that is able to be pursued. This means, he rightly notes, that religious believers have recourse to a sense of morality that is independent of God and that God functions, for the religious believer, as simply the "transmitter of some human-generated morality."

This, I think, is absolutely spurious reasoning, working only if you have some notion of a god, not God. Coyne's god, as put forth here, acts as one agent among others, sort of the old white man in the sky who seems to have nothing better to do than to establish rules and enforce them. Even my former freshmen can spot the problem with this: Coyne has made God into a god, transformed God into a thing. "God," my students know, "is not a thing." God, from the Judeo-Christian standpoint, is not one more thing on the map of creation. God is the reason that there is creation at all.

Coyne then mines Scripture for instances of how "god" violates the laws of morality. His amateur-hour exegesis of the Scriptures demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of how Catholics, at least, interpret the Bible. We take scripture literally, but not literalistically.  Do I think that God ordered immoral acts: no, I don't. I look at the Scriptures as inspired texts that recount an evolving sense of a people's relationship with God, a relationship that took many odd paths and is not without shameful acts. But because I am not committed to the belief in some idol or god who inhabits the cosmos, some capricious deity who changes his mind from saying, "Thou shall not kill" to sending a she-bear to kill children, I feel comfortable interpreting these stories. This is not to say that immorality didn't happen: it almost certainly did. It's simply that humans are sinful and very often mistaken and do a singularly good job in screwing up as they try to figure out how to be holy or good.

Coyne's misunderstanding of the role of Scripture in the Christian tradition commits him to seeing the Scriptures as a rule book for morality that must be selectively interpreted (because, truth be told, there really are some crazy things in there). IF one begins with a non-idolatrous notion of God (which Coyne has not done), it becomes infinitely easier to understand the Scriptures and their role in shaping our morality: we have been called to get in sync with God's creative plan for humanity.

My problem with Coyne's piece is that he seems to be aiming at the wrong target. He helpfully takes down a bizarre image of God (capricious deity) but, in his enthusiasm to promote a God-free vision of morality, he leaves no room for the God who emerges after the god he questions. The God-after-god is the creator and sustainer of all creation, the God who makes all things to be and who is self-revealing both through the book of Nature and the book of Scripture. This is the God available to both faith and reason, a God long worshipped by believers and celebrated by sacraments in the Catholic Church.

If a Catholic can believe in both God and evolution, it is because she walks on the two legs of faith and reason. She understands that the depths of creation that are open to scientific investigation sing forth the wonder of their Creator. If Coyne's article limps, it is because he has severed the leg of faith and walks only with what he would call secular reason.

This leads me to my final observation on his piece. At the end, it appears as though Coyne wants to set up group-centered, regional moralities. He writes:

 Secular morality is what prevents ethically irrelevant matters — what we eat, read or wear, when we work, or whom we have sex with — from being grouped with matters of genuine moral concern — rape and child abuse.. And really, isn't it better to be moral because you've worked out for yourself — in conjunction with your group — the right thing to do, rather than because you want to propitiate a god or avoid punishment in the hereafter?
 As a committed believer, I do think it ethically relevant to consider what we eat, wear, work, and with whom we have sex. I believe that God created all humans in the Divine Image and I think it wicked if we are wearing designer clothes that we purchased at low prices because they have been made in a sweat shop. I think it matters that I am having a feast when there is a food crisis in Africa, or that the stability of the family is threatened by a lack of regard for the institution of marriage.

Further, I think it highly problematic to advance regional moralities. How big does the group have to be to constitute a morality? A family? A trio? A city? Where do laws come into place and how do we defend a notion of human dignity if "morality" is reduced to whatever a group decides to be moral? On his account, should I be silent in the face of abuse if it appears that a group has decided it's morally permissible to beat children? If not, what is my grounding? Who am I to judge?

I am a big believer in a notion of the natural law that understands God as the creator and sustainer and that we are, all of us, called upon to use our human reason (secular reason) to cooperate with this. Such a view of natural law goes a long way in ensuring the preservation of human dignity and does not commit any person to a particular religious doctrine.

If Coyne's article is read as denying a particular image of God and a particular (and deranged) notion of morality blossoming from that idol: great. But Coyne does not reject a robust-enough image of God to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Coyne seems to have Dawkins-envy and is trying to find a voice in the stale debate about the existence of God in the light of science. While this may help to sell books, it does nothing more than shoot at targets no Catholic buys into. Though it may unnerve some Christians who hold to a literalistic account of the Scriptures or an idolatrous notion of God, anyone with reasonable faith will remain unaffected by this piece. Humans are good, not because we want to change God's mind about us. Rather, as we change our minds about God and the goodness of creation, our response of goodness brings us into tune with God's ongoing activity and we contribute to the creation and flourishing not only of ourselves, but of others as well.
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