I’ve been reading reviews of the the peevish Jerry Coyne’s new book Faith Versus Fact (I don’t have any money to give him to buy an actual copy). Recommended is Austin Hughes at The New Atlantic, to be read first, and then Steven Pinker in the peer-reviewed journal of science Current Biology (sent to me by reader Jake).
Coyne has never impressed—Hughes finds the man true to form—but what’s interesting to us are Pinker’s words:
Coyne’s final chapter is called “Why Does it Matter?”. The ultimate appeal of belief in belief is that religion is needed (at least by other people) as a bulwark against selfishness, shallowness, and immorality. Coyne replies that agreed-upon moral precepts, such as telling the truth and not harming others, are rules for living together that any intelligent gregarious beings would put into their social contracts, needing no divine sanction. In contrast, little good can come from parochial doctrines that cannot be justified by universal standards of reason. Coyne doesn’t dwell on obvious historical disasters, such as religious wars and persecutions, but he devotes a section apiece to some of the more insidious harms fostered by faith today: the withholding of medical care to sick children, the suppression of heretical biomedical research and public-health policies, the opposition to assisted dying, and the denial that anything should be done about anthropogenic climate change. In several sections, Coyne plays the ultimate empiricist trump card: data from Greg Paul showing that the godless democracies of northern and western Europe are thriving, while the religious ones — most pointedly the United States — have far higher rates of societal dysfunction, such as violent crime, preventable disease, and mediocre education.
We could spend a week with this (how many people did the great atheist-socialist countries wipe out in the Twentieth Century?). But let’s focus on the end. That “ultimate empiricist trump card” is bombastic. And comparing dinky racially, ethnically, and culturally homogeneous countries with populations less than that of New York City on a weekday is silly. It’s done all the time, of course, and Coyne and Pinker are merely the latest victims of pseudo-quantification. But apples aren’t oranges.
A better, but still unfair, comparator is Sweden, which is by government mandate increasing its diversity (on all three fronts). How many grenade attacks were there in Malmö this past week? Or how many rapes in Rotherham England? On the other hand, those statistics might back Coyne and Pinker’s point after all, as some might suggest (none would dare claim) that these degradations were religiously predicated. Not the Christian religion, incidentally.
But skip it. Let education level, happiness index, or percent poverty be the pinnacle of empirical measurement. Whichever social or economic barometer picked is wrong. There is only one metric that matters, and that is the number of souls who slip into the empyrean.
Conditional first on the existence of God. And don’t ask which God. The necessary God, the God responsible for upholding creation in each-and-every moment, the omnipotent, omniscient God, the God who called Himself I Am Who Am. Christ Himself. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost. Accept at least arguendo.
Then it is no argument at all to say that Saved Souls is the only scoreboard worth watching. Anything else, as nice as it is, fades into dimness.
Strange, then, that we have Church bosses who can’t bring themselves to say this, and who instead act like arch-atheist Coyne, prattling on about energy-saving light bulbs, immigration policy, or any of the same empirical measures not of paramount interest.
Side note: a crude rough iffy proxy to this, although one far from perfect, is the yearly or decadely per capita number of saints a region or country produces. Probably next to useless, but it can be counted. Idea is that more officially recognized (by the Church) saints imply more saints overall. Though the opposite argument that more saints are present when times are worse is equally plausible. Skip this too.
Now presume what is false, that God does not exist. Since this is a false premise, we might end up anywhere. Let’s try anyway. We need a metric or metrics. Doesn’t matter what you pick. Say infant mortality rate. (You can even pick groups of these; whatever you like is fine, as long as it’s contingent.)
Are lower or higher rates better? Who says? You? What makes you so special? Suppose you find, as you will, a group of folks who are adamantly opposed to your point of view? You have only three strategies:
- Find enough like-minded folks to overwhelm your detractors. Might (voting) makes right.
- Live with the disagreement and say everybody is entitled to their own opinion.
- Say that it’s not really infant mortality rate that is the true measure, but insist that it is correlated with the true measure of interest, which is something else appealing to you.
Every one of these moves is an admission that the measure you picked is worthless after all. Whichever you select must eventually lead you to concede that nothing matters, not even your own life.
If you select (1), you could easily end up in the minority (somebody will be in the minority). If so, on the pain of logical consistency, you must adopt the viewpoint of the majority. You must flip flop. You must conclude that what you thought was right was wrong. Winston Smith could do it, and so can you.
Number (2) is easily seen to be squishy. What do you do if you find yourself a member of a hated group in a society bent on your group’s extermination? That society adopted (1)—and you suddenly find (2) not persuasive. Not every culture has valued human life.
And the last, (3), is a cheap out. It leads nowhere; or rather, it must stop somewhere. And wherever it does, you’re back at the beginning.
If there is no Ultimate comparator for right and wrong, good and evil, then everything really is arbitrary. Nothing matters. Your life doesn’t matter to me unless I want it to. And you can’t say it should, because who are you? And suicide? See this.
Coyne is wrong: “agreed-upon moral precepts, such as telling the truth and not harming others” are not “rules for living together that any intelligent gregarious beings would put into their social contracts”. This supposes that, for instance, not harming others is a universal good. And who decided that? Jerry Coyne? We have evidence enough that many pagan, atheistic, brutal-religion societies have not thought harming others was intrinsically evil. Coyne is merely relishing that he lives in a society which tries not to harm those who make it out of the womb (in most localities) and is mistaking this historical happenstance as defining a universal good. But then he still has to make his three choices.
Yet we all know that a universal idea of right and wrong, good and evil exists, even if we see it in some circumstances only dimly. Coyne is wrong again. Morality does need divine sanction.