Tag Archives: Bruce Charlton

Are non-sociopathic atheists hypocrites?

Bruce Charlton of Scientists considering Christianity has finally enabled comments on his blog, at least in theory, but my first attempt at taking advantage of this new feature was not a success. Not only was my comment not approved, but the post in question was completely rewritten and the paragraphs I was commenting on were deleted! So until I see an actual example of someone successfully leaving a comment on Dr. Charlton’s blog, I intend to play it safe and do my commenting here.

Charlton’s recent post about the alleged hypocrisy of atheists has me scratching me head. He makes the following main points:

  • If there is no God, then life doesn’t come with any predetermined meaning or purpose. The only meanings and purposes are those people choose for themselves based on their feelings. But human feelings are (according to atheists) biological products of evolution, and — follow me closely here — amoebae and clumps of grass are also biological products of evolution! Therefore human life is “as meaningless as the life of an amoeba.”
  • Hedonism logically follows from atheism, and if atheists were to “live by their beliefs,” they would “seek pleasure and avoid pain with utter ruthlessness,” suppressing any pangs of conscience as being merely biological in origin and therefore irrelevant. (Amoebae, you will recall, are also biological, and we don’t let them tell us what to do!) Dr. Charlton helpfully suggests “crack addict” and “serial killer” as possible career choices for the philosophically consistent atheist.
  • Fortunately most atheists are nice people who try to live morally just like anyone else. This is completely hypocritical, but Christians don’t usually call them on it because they’d rather the atheists be harmless hypocrites than murderous crack fiends. Of course the third option, the one Dr. Charlton hopes his atheist readers will go for, is to trade in their atheism for Christianity and no longer be forced to choose between sociopathy and hypocrisy.

So, where to begin? I guess the amoeba thing is as good a starting point as any. Does Christianity really do a better job than atheism of explaining why a human life is more meaningful than that of an amoebae? Atheism seems to put them on equal footing by ascribing the same origin — biological evolution — to both men and microbes. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that human beings were created by God for a divine purpose, whereas amoebae — oh, wait, I forgot, Christianity teaches that amoebae (and plants and animals and rocks and everything else) were also created by God for a divine purpose! The crucial difference between man and amoeba must involve something other than their origins.

The “meaning of life” — where it comes from, what it is, whether the phrase itself has any meaning — is a tricky issue that I intend to explore in later posts, but for now the important thing is not to assess the validity of the ideas summarized in the first bullet point above, but to note how completely they are contradicted by those in the second. Under Charltonian atheism, all feelings and purposes and desires are supposed to be equal in their amoeba-like meaninglessness, but it quickly becomes clear that Charlton sees some on them — the hedonistic ones — as more equal than others. For reasons that are never made clear, an atheist who suppresses his meaningless biological hedonistic urges in order to follow his meaningless biological moral instincts is considered to be a hypocrite, while one who does the reverse is living by his beliefs!

The strongest case Charlton can logically make is that atheism gives us no compelling reason to choose either morality or hedonism — that, while thankfully most at least try for the former, atheists have no good arguments to make to the determined sociopath who wants to know why he should be moral. The worst you can say is that atheism places morality and hedonism on equal footing, giving us nothing higher to appeal to in choosing the one or the other. Charlton goes wrong when he tries to push the point even further, saying that hedonism follows from atheism and that morality is inconsistent with it. If, as Charlton maintains, an atheistic world provides man with no predetermined purpose or values, how could an atheist possibly be guilty of hypocritically living by the “wrong” set of values or pursuing the “wrong” purposes?

Of course, Christianity is equally unable to give a reason for choosing morality over hedonism. It avoids the whole issue by teaching that such a choice is unnecessary. In a world governed by a just God, no deep distinction between morality and hedonism is possible, since the only effective way for a hedonist to pursue pleasure (heaven) and avoid pain (hell) would be to behave in exactly the same way that a genuinely moral person would. (“If I have not charity,” as Paul infamously puts it, “it profiteth me nothing.“) Christianity deals with the problem of morality by concocting a world in which morality no longer has any meaning.

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You say revelation, I say hypothesis

Bruce Charlton’s interesting new blog Scientists considering Christianity (the title refers to the intended readers, not to the writer) does not, regrettably, allow readers to leave comments, so I’ll just have to do my commenting here. I should mention at the outset, I suppose, that I myself am neither a scientist nor seriously considering Christianity.

In a recent post called Hypotheses and revelations, Mr. Charlton addresses those who think “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories.” After describing the way hypotheses often occur to scientists suddenly and inexplicably in a flash of inspiration, he concludes that the formation of a scientific hypothesis is not itself a scientific process, and that hypotheses are no less “made up” than revelations. He closes with this (I’ve proofread it a bit):

My point is that hypotheses in relation to [science] are analogous to revelation in relation to religion — both come from outside of the system, but science is based on hypotheses in the same way that Christianity is based on revelation.

But the point is that in formal terms (in terms of systems theory, to be exact) Christian revelations are no more bizarre than scientific hypotheses. Or both are equally bizarre.

To say that a revelations and hypotheses are “analogous” is actually an understatement. I would go further and say that a revelation simply is a hypothesis. Prophets and scientists come up with their ideas in pretty much the same ways — hunches, flashes of intuition, even dreams or visions (see KekulĂ©). The choice of words, “revelation” or “hypothesis,” is simply a reflection of one’s opinion about where the idea came from and how trustworthy it is. If you think it came from God and is therefore True, you call it a revelation. If you think it came from God-knows-where but might turn out to be true after being tested, you call it a hypothesis. Revelations are not a category apart; rather, a “revelation” is just a hypothesis you don’t feel the need to test.

When Mr. Charlton introduces the issue — “that Christian revelation is arbitrary (or made-up) compared with scientific hypotheses or theories” — he’s being a little sneaky, lumping hypotheses and theories together. Once he’s convinced you, correctly, that a hypothesis is no more reasonable or “scientific” than a revelation, you’re meant to conclude that revealed religion is therefore just as reasonable as science. But while Christianity has hypotheses aplenty, in the form of “revelations,” it offers nothing as robust as a good scientific theory — that is, a hypothesis that has proven itself through rigorous and systematic testing.

Of course religious people test their hypotheses, too, after a fashion, since they don’t indiscriminately accept every purported revelation (Christians, for example, don’t generally accept the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad), but the testing is of a very different — and, it must be said, rather arbitrary — sort. Christianity generally focuses on the source of the hypothesis: Did he have a vision? Did your heart burn within you? Is that in the Bible? In science, on the other hand, the source of the hypothesis is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether the hypothesis originated in a hunch, a dream, a bit of wishful thinking, or even in scripture; all that matters is whether it can be tested and how well it passes those tests. If a hypothesis consistently makes true predictions, we accept it, regardless of where it came from; and if it doesn’t, we don’t.

John Dominic Crossan had the right idea:

And only when [the] human normalcy [of “revelation”] is accepted can a proper response be offered. It should not be this: We deny the fact of your vision. It should be this: Tell us the content of your vision. And then we will have to judge not whether he had it or not, but whether we should follow it or not. (The Jesus Controversy, p. 7)

And so did William Blake:

The rat, the mouse, the fox, the rabbet; watch the roots,
the lion, the tyger, the horse, the elephant, watch the fruits.
(The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)

So, yes, Christian doctrines seem arbitrary compared with scientific theories. But the difference lies not in the admittedly arbitrary hypotheses/revelations that provide the raw material for both disciplines, but rather in the differing ways in which hypotheses are tested or validated. — whether by the objective tests of the scientific method, or by the arbitrary ones prescribed by various religions.

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