Andrew Denton Knows His Audience

His final question to the three evangelist brothers – admit it, we all wanted to know about that hair.
Denton
Image Credit: ABC-TV

Update: the comments below have moved more to discussing the competing claims of faith and unbelief outlined in Richard Dawkins’ program The God Delusion which was broadcast on Sunday night. If you’re interested in discussing Denton’s program, try the crosspost at Larvatus Prodeo.



Categories: arts & entertainment, religion

47 replies

  1. Didn’t watch this one (should have!) but did watch Richard Dawkins on Sunday’s “Compass”. Sounds like Denton knows his audience better than Dawkins. I was left thinking less about Dawkin’s arguments and more about his profound arrogance and extraordinary rudeness toward those he was interviewing – Muslim, Catholic, or Protestant. That sort of attitude will win him no friends amongst the fence-sitters, and I’m not alone in that assessment (the Herald’s Guide this week makes a similar comment).
    Dawkins needs to realise that we all have a religion of some sort, something we have faith and trust in – for him it is his science. And his overbearing behaviour in that program makes him little different in the exercise of that faith than some of the religious adherents he criticises.
    I’m Andrew Denton was much more humble and polite, while remaining at his incisive best.

  2. Well, Dawkins and Denton have very different purposes and approaches here. I didn’t see the Dawkins program, but I’ve read quite a bit of his stuff, and Dawkins goes for polemic persuasion, while Denton is making a true documentary that lets the interviewees speak for themselves.
    I’m also pretty leery of equating the acceptance of scientific theories as explanations for the way the world works with a faith position, given that the scientific method is based on repeatable observations (trusting the seen) and faith is all about trusting the unseen.
    I get the feeling Dawkins’ bluntness and lack of humbleness towards the religious is a deliberate framing of the issue rather than unthinking arrogance, and it’s worth asking why he feels that is the way to go.
    Dawkins doesn’t see that the religious worldview should be privileged from outside criticism any more than any other ideology, and he wants to demonstrate that position by example. Is it truly counterproductive, or is he opening up the field of discussion for others to appraise religious worldviews without mollycoddling religious sensibilities?
    I don’t necessarily agree with Dawkins on everything, but by setting himself up as a lightning rod for criticism of the in-your-face atheistic position, he wrenches debate back into the middle of the religious ideology field, away from the fundies. I’m mostly glad he’s doing it.

  3. IS faith about trusting the unseen? The Macquarie’s first definition is “confidence or trust in a person or thing” – which I think would be a reasonable description of Dawkin’s relationship to science – he certainly appears to have unshakeable confidence in the scientific process, and in particular the theory of evolution. I would say that makes science, for him, a religion. It certainly shapes is thinking, his behaviour and his decisions – the very thing he was critical of in those who claim faith in God.
    Other definitions of the word “faith” do include an element of trust in the unseen, to be sure. A reasonable question for Dawkins would then be whether or not he has actually seen an evolutionary species change take place. I think he would answer not, but would point to evidence that leads him to conclude that “Darwin’s interesting IDEA” (Dawkin’s own description of it in the program, but my emphasis) stands up very well in line with that evidence.
    Dawkins in his latest book (Mr Kozy not quite finished with it yet, then it’s my turn) claims there is no evidence for God. A Muslim, a Jew, or a Christian would claim that the world around us in all it’s amazing diversity is evidence enough of a Creator God.
    In a way, then, we are all looking at evidence and testing it against a theory. What concerned me about Dawkin’s approach is that he exhibits the same arrogance (which didn’t appear to be unthinking, but quite deliberate) that he criticises in others. He is right to claim that religion should not be protected against criticism, but he is wrong to claim that privilege for his own world view.
    Interestingly, in the program he describes an incident from his youth where an eminent scholar was publicly shown to have been holding a wrong position on a particular theory for some 15 years. This scholar expressed gratitude to the man who exposed his error – Dawkins was in the lecture theatre that day and he claims that the incident shaped his thinking about scientific ideas being open to debate.
    I think it’s sad that he didn’t display that same grace toward those he interviewed. I don’t want him to shy away from challenging those with faith in God. I’d just like to see him do it with better manners.

  4. I forgot to watch Compass and recorded Denton for later. But have read “The God Delusion.”
    The privileged position of religion in society is in need of demotion.
    But I have mixed feelings about Dawkins. Sometimes he is spot on, others he seems to get carried away in his polemic. But he does place the debate where it belongs as tig points out.
    I do often wonder if Stephen Jay Gould was alive what would his contribution to the debate be? I’m quite sympathetic to his concept of NOMA; imperfect but not without merit.

  5. He is right to claim that religion should not be protected against criticism, but he is wrong to claim that privilege for his own world view.
    But does he truly claim that privilege for his own world view? Dawkins response to criticism of his worldview is not “how dare you!” but “bring it on!”.
    He’s constantly pointing out that his trust in science is based on its self-correcting nature, that scientific theories are open to challenge, examination and redefinition as time goes on and new observations are made and evidence collated.
    As John Maynard Keynes said “When my information changes, I change my opinion. What do you do, Sir?”
    Shaun, I’m with you on Gould. He was a very interesting counterpoint to Dawkins’ hyperbole.

  6. Actually he came mighty close to “how dare you” in his interview with Tom Haggard. A very indignant “I BEG your pardon”, as I recall it, when Haggard claimed knowledge of scientists who look at the human body and the way it functions and see that as evidence of a Creator. He did not say “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me who they are. I’d like to discuss their views in more detail. Perhaps there is something we can all learn here.”
    By rejecting religion, calling faith in God the “root of evil” and a “delusion”, and at the same time elevating the scientific process to something that cannot be challenged I think he most certainly is claiming that privilege for his own world view. And falling into the same error that he claims of religion. Not very logical.
    I’m sure this episode of Compass will be repeated incoming weeks. Keep an eye out for it, then decide for yourself.
    Any way off now to my first work choices meeting at work. Perhaps I’ll have something to add to your other posts. You’ll be sick of me by the end of the day LOL

  7. I saw the Dawkins programme but that used up my all of my tolerance for fundamentalists and so I didn’t catch Denton. We seem to have seen a different programme ohmykozy because I’m struggling to see how anything Dawkins said could be construed as even remotely rude. He asked a couple of straight questions and was lectured by Haggard on arrogance in a most arrogant fashion. I thought he was particularly restrained when faced with the Islamic fundamentalist who neatly illustrated his point about violence and the ineluctable conflict of unshakeable faiths by telling him to cover up his women or expect the consequences. His reaction was pretty much the same as mine; stunned silence. How do you even begin to reason with views such as Haggard’s and others which are based on unreason and the perpetuation of ignorance. Sorry I missed the rugged up old fogeys but I just couldn’t stomach any more.

  8. I’ll look forward to you wandering back into the fray later, ohmykozy. I’d like to pick up on this other point of yours:
    A reasonable question for Dawkins would then be whether or not he has actually seen an evolutionary species change take place. I think he would answer not, but would point to evidence that leads him to conclude that “Darwin’s interesting IDEA” (Dawkin’s own description of it in the program, but my emphasis) stands up very well in line with that evidence.
    Is forensic evidence not something seen? One doesn’t have to be an eyewitness to an event to make forensic observations during an examination of an event/organism’s remains.
    This is treading perilously close to the Young Earth Creationist “Were you there?” argument, which standard would, if accepted, mean that any murderer without an eyewitness could never be brought to trial.

  9. PS. “Darwin’s Interesting IDEA” was the concept of Natural Selection as a proposed mechanism for biological evolution. He certainly did not invent the phenomenon of biological evolution, that the populations of organisms on our planet have changed greatly over the eons.

  10. Su, we could argue for hours about whether or not Dawkins was rude. I think he was. So does Greg Hassell in his Herald review: “At times, he almost trembles with rage and his choice of words is deliberately inflammatory.” “… his emotive approach suits the urgency of his appeal. At times, however, he overreaches, undermining his argument with hyperbole.” I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.
    I’m actually more interested in where tigtog might be going with her point about forensic evidence. You are right, of course, tigtog. You don’t have to see an event to believe it happened on the basis of forensic evidence. That’s why it would be OK for Dawkins to answer my question by pointing to a body of evidence. And, also, why it’s OK for others to look at the world around them and conclude that there is a Creator God.
    What I’m struggling with here is that the rules apparently don’t apply equally. By that I mean that if people, such as the scientists Haggard referred to (and one or two I know myself), look at the world around them and see evidence of a Creator their conclusion is labelled by Dawkins a “delusion”.
    Same for the resurrection of Christ. Many people investigate the Gospel accounts and the historical documents (Josephus, Pliny, Tacitus) and conclude that this body of evidence supports the resurrection as fact. (Very much like a murder trial, infact :)) Interestingly, Dawkins had nothing at all to say about the resurrection in the TV program, nor (as far as Mr Kozy has read) does he in the book. That omission seems strange to me, as it is the issue on which Christianity stands or falls.
    Dawkins says in his book that one of his aims is to raise the consciousness of “atheist pride”. He says “Being an atheist is nothing to be apologetic about.” Reasonable. A valid position to take. Even, dare I say it, true.
    But why does Dawkins choose to do this by belittling the faith of others? Why, in this age of many “truths”, is faith in God so badly thought of by Richard Dawkins that he would also say “If this book (The God Delusion) works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” ?(p5)
    You are right, tigtog it is very much worth it to ask him why.

  11. ohmykozy:

    ”IS faith about trusting the unseen? The Macquarie’s first definition is “confidence or trust in a person or thing” – which I think would be a reasonable description of Dawkin’s relationship to science – he certainly appears to have unshakeable confidence in the scientific process, and in particular the theory of evolution. I would say that makes science, for him, a religion. It certainly shapes is thinking, his behaviour and his decisions – the very thing he was critical of in those who claim faith in God.”

    This comment sounds like it’s conflating the different kinds of faith, and calling them all religion. I have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow morning, that if I drop a knife it will make a “ting” sound – I even have faith in my partner’s love and bond with me. In none of these cases is religious worship involved.
    Every experience I’ve ever had in my life shapes my thinking, my behaviour and my decisions, so I’m not sure quite what you’re getting at there.
    As tigtog says, observation does not only involve data gathered with my very own senses – that would limit everyone to an extreme poverty in their understanding of the world. I believe there are polar bears in the Arctic North, but I’ve never seen one. I believe there’s a person reading this message, but I’ve never seen you.
    The preponderance of the evidence, and above all the rich nature of human communications, gives people access to the observations of many thousands or millions of other humans. It’s more complicated than that, of course – we all engage in constant personal-values-influenced Bayesian analyses to figure out which information to privilege over other information, and which bits of information are important to use – but it’s still all based on observation, on sensory data available to anyone who has access to looking/touching/etc.
    So there’s a difference between “trust in the unseen”, and “faith in the intrinsically unseeable – not now, not ever”.

  12. I thought Denton did rather well, allowing god’s three fundamentalist stooges to skewer themselves on the media altar of septogenarian, metrosexual excess. Those rugs were somethin’ else all right. Don’t think these dudes would garner a great following on Australian TV. Old Moonface’d be mighty put out for starters.
    Andrew is a presenter/entertainer. Dawkins is primarily an academic. Cheese and chalk; slick and earnest. I enjoy the shrieks that Dawkins draws from his detracters, he’s obviously hitting his mark.
    G’day ohmykozy, you wrote:
    “Actually he(Richard Dawkins) came mighty close to “how dare you” in his interview with Tom Haggard.”
    Yes, that Richard can be such a caution. Saw a clip recently where he actually slightly raised his voice to Ted Haggart, a deeply fundamentalist, married, Christian Preacher, who at that stage had not been outed by the male prostitute who got nekkid and meth-crazy with Haggart in a Memphis motel room each month. Pre-arranged bookings they were. Pundits say Haggart’s exposure cost the GOP The Senate. But these are mere earthly considerations. Haggard was one of the brightest stars on the American TV preacher circuit, before his fall, and was a pre-emptive and merciless striker of atheists.
    One could reasonably expect, ohmykozy, that a man of Professor Dawkins’ background, Oxford Don and all that, could at the very least be civilised, when dealing with Rapturists.

  13. Lauredhel, I was merely doing what Dawkins himself does in the program – equating “religion” with “faith”.
    Dawkins’ examples in the program were to do with organised religion and he speaks often enough of “religion” and “faith in God” as if they were interchangeable. Using his own logic I figure it’s also reasonable for me to suggest that his demonstrated and proclaimed faith in science is, in effect, his religion. He has certainly invested a lot of time and effort in evangelism, and even wants to gain proselytes (see my earlier post).
    I actually think it’s not correct to equate the two ideas. While I would expect that practice of a God-focussed “religion” (at least in the case of Islam, Judaism or Christianty) would include faith in that God, I don’t think it necessarily follows that faith in a God requires the practice of a “religion”. Certainly not the rituals and rules of the organised religions Dawkins attacks.
    The preponderance of the evidence, and above all the rich nature of human communications, gives people access to the observations of many thousands or millions of other humans.
    I think you are so right, Lauredhel. This is one of the reasons that so many people continue to have faith in God – not because they’ve seen with their own eyes, but because of a body of information that convinces them He exists.

  14. Believing the scientific method is a pretty good way of explaining and understanding phenomena and ‘faith in God’, are very different things, ohmykozy. Science is a body of knowledge and methodology for making an testing observed phenomena, one that is self-correcting and has been refined over centuries by human endeavour, and which doesn’t claim, or hope to final knowledge, or make normative claims about what humanity’s purpose is or should be it’s or social organisation and roles.
    Having faith in God requires quite a different set of practices and demands accepting passages and religious instruction as the final word on the nature of human existance, it’s origin, and purpose within the universe. Dawkins has problems with several aspects of this, and his position is questionable but he doesn’t have anything like the equivalent attitude towards science that you’ve attributed.

  15. Actually he came mighty close to “how dare you” in his interview with Tom Haggard.

    This wouldn’t be the same Ted Haggard, founder of the New Life megachurch, who for 20 years railed against gays as an abomination in the eyes of God and drugs as a tool of the devil, who recently quit after being found out for having paid a Denver man over three years for sex and admitting to taking amphetamines?

  16. Enemy Combatant already brought up Haggart’s recent scandal, Morning Dude. Descending into ad hominem there, aren’t you both?
    Although I will give EC props for bringing Moonface into it – I’d pay money to see the rugged-up metrosexual fogey hissing match between Bert and the brothers.
    Regarding my point about forensic observation, ohmykozy, it ties into these statements of yours from separate comments above:

    In a way, then, we are all looking at evidence and testing it against a theory.[…]
    What I’m struggling with here is that the rules apparently don’t apply equally. […]
    That omission [by Dawkins] seems strange to me, as it [the resurrection of Jesus] is the issue on which Christianity stands or falls. […]

    I take issue on each count, and it comes down to the forensic evidence standard:
    The existence of a Creator is a hypothesis, not a theory. Without specific material predictions which can be tested, it cannot be a theoretical model. Examining evidence may or may not support the hypothesis, but as so much is immaterial there simply is no theory.
    The rules of evaluating evidence do apply very equally, actually. Calling the apples of physical evidence which can be constantly re-evaluated using new techniques apples, while calling the oranges of copies of copies of copies of memoirs of eyewitness accounts oranges, is not a double standard. Apples are not oranges, and eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable despite the relict reliance on it in modern courts of law.
    The accounts of the resurrection are simply not amenable to scientific evaluation. Even their historical evaluation is very difficult due to the lack of original documents and supporting archeological artefacts. Even the extra-biblical relative contemporaries such as Josephus, Pliny and Tacitus were merely reporting that the followers of Jesus existed and believed in the resurrection, nothing more.
    Without evidence to unequivocally demonstrate to skeptics that (a) God exists, (b) the Bible came from God, and (c) the Bible we have today is uncorrupted by human reinterpretation, why should Dawkins feel compelled to examine the resurrection narrative at all?

  17. Sorry I jumped to the reply without reading through the thread, since I’ve been reading so many on this subject recently, for that I apologise.
    All I know is you can never ever win an argument against religion, they have come up with a tenet that no matter how much you bang you head against the wall you can never make an inroad. When, with all the mountains of evidence, empirical data and uncontested logical theorems are thrown at religion, they come back with, usually after tomes of religious dogma, the one word reply for which there is no answer or counter to, “FAITH”.

  18. We come back to Gould’s NOMA as Shaun pointed out. Matters of religion and faith cannot be disproved so they are by definition unscientific. What may be considered theological evidence has no relationship to scientific evidence. Actually the “Excuse me” that Dawkins uttered was in response to Haggard saying that he knew plenty of scientists who thought the earth was only 6000 years old.

  19. I believe, with all my heart, in a respectful, even loving concordat between our magisteria””the NOMA solution. NOMA represents a principled position on moral and intellectua] grounds, not a mere diplomatic stance. NOMA also cuts both ways. If religion can no longer dictate the nature of factual conclusions properly under the magisterium of science, then scientists cannot claim higher insight into moral truth from any superior knowledge of the world’s empirical constitution. This mutual humility has important practical consequences in a world of such diverse passions.
    Full text here
    Precisely.

  20. Thing is in the US there has been interference by the religious right in the science curriculum. They are trying to dictate the nature of factual conclusions.

  21. And Richard Dawkins wants to tell me what I should and should not teach my children about moral truth and faith.
    Also, don’t make the mistake of thinking that all people with a faith in God are members of the US religious right. There might be a lot of them (scary thought), but they are not all of them.

  22. Su, I should apologise for the abruptness of that last post – I was about to bolt out the door for the morning taxi run.
    Let me respond in a more considered way … I’m assuming that you refer to attempts to compel the teaching of Creation Science as fact?
    You are quite right to oppose this. Although I’m not sure how successful you will be if those trying to dictate on this issue are in the majority. A consequence of living in a democracy is that we have to live with decisions made in accordance with the vote or the lobbying of the majority. Whether we like it or not.
    However you are entitled to take offense, you should object, you should lobby, you should blog.
    It cuts both ways, of course. When Richard Dawkins says “A child is not a Christian child, not a Muslim child, but child of Christian parents or child of Muslim parents” and claims that the teaching of faith matters to children is more damaging than sexual abuse, then I take offense and object.

  23. Objecting to actions/statements we find offensive is fine, from anyone for any reason. But there are circumstances which affect how much notice others might take of that objection – the political effect of the personal offense, if you like.
    There’s rather a large difference between one man with a pundit platform and no other power propounding a philosophical position against religion, and an organised movement to fill positions of authority with conservative religious authoritarians who want to use that power to impose their philosophical position on people who don’t share their religion.
    I’ll also point out that a quibble I have with Gould’s NOMA is that he fuzzes the distinction between morals and ethics, much as we have seen in this thread fuzzing of the distinctions between belief/trust/faith and between hypothesis/theory that required clarification.
    Science and Morals may not overlap, but Ethics and Morals most certainly do, and Ethics are amenable to rigorous objective analysis.

  24. PS. Ohmykozy, your link to Gould’s NOMA stuff didn’t come through. Post again, please?

  25. Strange that didn’t seem to work either – try the old fashioned way
    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

  26. I didn’t think you were abrupt ohmykozy. Tigtog has put the distinction between Dawkins and those he is opposing really well. When the rise of religious fundamentalism began to be discussed (in the nineties I think?), christian and islamic fundamentalism were equally explored. I think it is a mark of how much political influence the christian fundamentalists now have that half of that discussion has dropped from the mainstream agenda. When there is good reason to believe that a range of secular matters including foreign policy are being significantly influenced by a narrow religious agenda then Dawkin’s notion that quiet coexistence of science and religion is not possible becomes understandable. I take your point about not conflating all people of faith with the extreme religious groups. I think Dawkins said something about religious groups being intrinsically prone to extremism precisely because of the absolute certainties they offer. I am inclined to agree with him.

  27. I’m starting to feel really disadvantaged by having not seen the program. According to the Compass website, Compass is repeated on ABC2 for those of us with digital TV receivers: Wednesdays at 8:30am (missed it!), and Thursdays at 5:30pm
    but
    if you click through to the program listing for ABC2, Thursday 5:30 is something else entirely, and this week Compass is repeated again on Thursday Saturday at 7:30pm.
    I’ll have to set the VCR for both times, I guess.
    Edited to correct date

  28. Scary figures on just how many Americans disbelieve evolution and believe that the universe is 10,000 years old.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18061154/site/newsweek/

  29. Here’s a very interesting essay on the epistemology of belief that ties into much of the discussion in this thread: What I Believe but Cannot Prove.

  30. “Enemy Combatant already brought up Haggart’s recent scandal, Morning Dude. Descending into ad hominem there, aren’t you both?”
    “Descending”? OK tigtog, you got me, but I never hit bottom.
    “What I Believe but Cannot Prove.” was a difficult though rewarding read; the comments section there reeked of unemployed rocket scientists. Those guys must burn up acetylcholine by the quart.

  31. Heh. The essay itself is fairly approachable, methinks.

  32. I used to think that faith was just harmless… but Dawkins makes a good argument for believing that faith is dangerous and stupid.
    When Dawkins talks of “faith” I think he is referring to an instance when people believe something simply “because”. Does a person look at the evidence and then make up their mind… or do they start with their “faith” in the outcome and consider evidence an expendable play-thing.
    People who start with the assumption that the bible is the infallible word of god are stating that as an axiom. There is no reason for that position. It’s totally random faith and cannot be argued against because there is no reason that they hold that position in the first place.
    Such a person has therefore excused themselves from the trappings of logic. Their opinions deserve nothing but contempt.
    An example is my brother-in-law. When he was faced with the evidence that Egypt has a constant written record going back to before the supposed world flood… his answer was that Satan planted a fake Eygptian history in the desert to trick us modern humans.
    When evidence contradicts his “faith” in the bible, the evidence is wrong. And where does the faith come from? It just “is”.

  33. What’s bothersome isn’t the resting of belief on unprovable assumptions, it’s that you think those assumptions are wrong.
    Descartes begins the entire flood of positivist science with a simple “Cogito ergo sum”. An effort to get past the need for faith in the first assumption, it’s a valiant effort but really it’s no different than “The Bible’s infallible because the Bible says it is”.
    It’s just that you think Descartes was right and the Bible isn’t.
    #3 above’s right on about the parallels between formal atheism and fundamentalism, or any other belief system that’s coherent and organized.
    Art sidesteps all that by occupying space too close to the interface with the as-yet unreal – the edge where the present meets the future – so artists don’t have to fit their personal philosophies into Box A or Box B. And ultimately art’s got more to say about the nature and existence of God and humanity than either atheism or organized institutional religion ever will.
    More immediately vital I think is the incapacity in the scientific world-view for creation of a moral system that can transcend self-interest. Because self-interest alone will doom us all and is and will continue to so do unless and until we can get above and beyond it.
    Mealy-mouthing nonsense about rational projections of loyalty toward the generations to come may suffice to rationalize some behaviors but they won’t cut the mustard when the heat comes down. Immediate gratification is a kind of religion, a very dark one for all its popularity.
    There is no moral center to the scientific universe and therefore there can be no moral boundairies in it, just enforcement issues and clamoring competition to be the ones who make the rules.
    Yes, that’s how it is and always has been in every species’ niche, but a lot of the greater scope of our endeavors now is a result of inherited moral architectures – we have these rules that make our lives easier because we got them from people who believed or were forced to pretend they believed in something higher.
    Without something higher all we have is the same old grunting gimme-gimme as every other organism down here on the killing floor. And that won’t give us the room or the time to develop what we need to transcend earthly bonds in a material fashion.
    Ad astra per aspera is at its heart a religious artifact. A greater religion than the blindly canonical remnants Dawkins and Dennett struggle against, but that’s political mostly, and those institutions are deeply compromised politically. The fact that Jerry Falwell’s God was virtually identical to Jerry Falwell’s Satan doesn’t mean there aren’t poles like that, polarities like that, among the infinite possibilities of the world and worlds we really do inhabit. The misogynist racist intolerance of so much of Judeo-Christian practice has a lot more to do with the practitioners than the core elements of what they received as guidance and inspiration. The nature of this world and the place of our lives in it isn’t proprietary for either camp, atheist or believer. Both claim the keys to the mysteries are theirs, but neither has them. Both get much of their strength and confirmation from their opposition. In a very definite and real sense what we’re seeing isn’t an intellectual struggle it’s a Darwinian one

  34. #3 above’s right on about the parallels between formal atheism and fundamentalism, or any other belief system that’s coherent and organized.

    I’m curious as to what you think is coherent and organised about atheism. It’s merely a lack of godbelief. Some may be more strident about their unbelief than others, but where’s the creeds and congregations?

    More immediately vital I think is the incapacity in the scientific world-view for creation of a moral system that can transcend self-interest. Because self-interest alone will doom us all and is and will continue to so do unless and until we can get above and beyond it.

    Why a moral system? Why can’t an ethical system do the job?

  35. Well ethical/moral who’s counting? But yes point conceded about the general run of atheist belief not being “coherent and organized” although…
    Just because something is unstated doesn’t mean it’s not there, and if you’d like to commit yourself to a position that involves atheist beliefs not claiming a superior ability to create and maintain a moral, or ethical, functioning society I’m all ears. Because that’s my issue. I don’t care that much about which religion’s closer to the truth or if any. What I care about is who’s going to maintain the ship while we sail on further into the dark unknown.

  36. Well ethical/moral who’s counting?

    There is an important distinction, although both systems aim to demonstrate a need to transcend self-interest and act for the greater good. Certainly both systems appeal to a long term benefit for descendants but they also “sell” themselves by claiming real benefits here and now as well.
    Morals are externally imposed by a “because I said so” authority with a fear of punishment/deprivation of reward motivation. (Behaviour X is wrong because it offends God, Behaviour Y is correct because it pleases God.)
    Ethics are internally imposed by self-will in response to a rational analysis of social costs and benefits. (Behaviour X is wrong because it breeds resentment and revenge and results in a less safe neighborhood; Behaviour Y is correct because it engenders reciprocity in others who then return Behaviour Y which is Benefit Z.)
    Your argument seems to be ascribing some special power to religion in terms of persuading people to behave less self-interestedly. I know that’s part of the alleged “selling points” of religion, but I’m far from convinced. There’s a lot more theists than atheists in prisons.

  37. I wouldn’t want to introduce any more fuzzy thinking into the discussion, but consider this from Dictionary.com:
    mor·al
    ““adjective
    1. of, pertaining to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; ethical: moral attitudes.
    2. expressing or conveying truths or counsel as to right conduct, as a speaker or a literary work; moralizing: a moral novel.
    3. founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom: moral obligations.
    eth·ics
    ““plural noun
    1. (used with a singular or plural verb) a system of moral principles: the ethics of a culture.
    2. the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc.: medical ethics; Christian ethics.
    3. moral principles, as of an individual: His ethics forbade betrayal of a confidence.
    4. (usually used with a singular verb) that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.
    My opinions might be illogical and beneath contempt but I see nothing here to support the claim that morals=external and ethics=internal impositions, and quite a bit to suggest that it is mighty hard to make a clear distinction between them because they overlap (as you said yourself in post #23).
    And a question, or two, or maybe more.
    There’s a lot more theists than atheists in prisons.
    Do you have the stats for this? Are they based on the respondents’ beliefs before or after incarceration? Really, I’m intrigued – do you have the evidence to support your claim?
    I’m not arguing with you about whether you’re correct or incorrect. I wouldn’t care much one way or the other, actually, because the behaviour of theists and atheists doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of God.
    I’m just wondering whether or not you can back your position up with scientific evidence.

  38. My opinions might be illogical and beneath contempt

    One person in this thread has said such a thing. I haven’t and never would.
    If I wasn’t clear that my fuzzy thinking stuff meant that I agreed with your accusations against Dawkins’ fuzzy use of the term I apologise. We can all of us be fuzzy with our terms at times, certainly me even though I strive not to be.
    I can find a cite for the theist/atheist prison rate if you like, but I doubt that it demonstrates anything more than approximate demographics of the population at large – there are more people who describe themselves as belonging to a religion than not. The only reason I mentioned it (and I should have been clearer why I did) in terms of the morality debate is that belonging to a religion seems to have no superior effect in keeping people out of prison.
    As to the morals/ethics terms, I suspect we’re having a conflict between the prescriptivist jargon of philosophy and the descriptivist popular usage of words recorded by lexicographers. I’ll dig up a reference.

  39. P.S. Another explanation for the atheist prison effect is probably simply one of social class. People who self-identify as atheist tend to be mostly tertiary-educated and middle-upper class. Tertiary educated middle class people do not form the bulk of the prison population.

  40. tigtog, I know that you didn’t (and would never!) say such a thing.
    However the poster who did might still be around (you are getting some visitors from Club Troppo I think?) – he needs to know that it was noticed. And he needs to know that a comment such as that is just as effective at putting a halt to debate as the “faith” reply from religious people that MorningDude complains about in post #17.
    This is what I meant when I wrote that the rules don’t seem to apply equally: it’s just not OK make a claim that those on the other side of the debate are stubborn and opinionated and unwilling to listen, and then behave that way yourself. That has been my difficulty with Richard Dawkins’ approach all along, and would be even if I agreed with the substance of his argument.
    That seems to be part of Roy Belmont’s view, too.
    I agree with you about the possible similarities between the population at large and incarcerated. Prison populations don’t appear to reflect the wider community – in many ways including the one you have mentioned. The most glaring in this country would be race – consider the disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal prisoners.
    The reference on morals/ethics terminology would be useful – so’s we can keep apples with apples and oranges with oranges. I’ll keep watch for it 🙂
    We’re a long way now from Andrew Denton and fluffy hair!

  41. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy examines some of the nuances, conflicts and ambiguities in the differing definitions of “morality”.
    And there’s this, which uses rather simpler terminology, but possibly misses a full examination of the nuances. I had to poked around a bit, but I found an article that it draws its definitions from, here.

  42. Oh, some good stuff there, L. I had no internet for hours today – the pain of it all!
    The last reference of yours agrees with idea of morals as externally derived:

    If society is dominated by a single religious or cultural belief system, as is the case in some countries, then what is ethical and what is moral may be defined as the same thing. In societies where there is not a monolithic belief system there can be very wide differences in opinion in society as to whether a given action is ethical (or moral).

    However, I think his idea that one is ethical if one acts in accordance with one’s morals and unethical if one acts in violation of one’s moral code to be too simplistic. Surely one is simply either being moral or immoral in such cases. He is failing to look deeper at what makes ethics a separate system.
    This short definition from this glossary does better I think:

    Morality. “Morality” refers to the first-order beliefs and practices about good and evil by means of which we guide our behavior. Contrast with Ethics, which is the second-order, reflective consideration of our moral beliefs and practices.

    It doesn’t fully support my contention of an external vs internal locus of compliance, but I think it at least partly supports the idea that Morals are what we are told by others is good/evil, whilst Ethics is the evaluation and examination of those moral edicts, both collectively and personally. Ethics starts off from the base of moral edicts, and asks whether the edicts make rational sense in terms of certain goals of society actually being reached, or certain lauded principles actually being consistently upheld. This is the point where morals and ethics can and do come into conflict.
    Regarding the prison atheists claim, here’s a detailed analysis from a Christian apologist. He quite rightly cuts the most extreme pro-atheist claim to ribbons, but he equivocates on the analysis of some of the figures he does demonstrate. Self-described atheists form approximately 0.5% of the American population. There’s a lot of disagreement about what exactly the category “non-religious” means and doesn’t mean in terms of atheism.
    At one point he makes a great deal of fuss at differentiating between those prisoners who claim a religious background in a particular faith group, those who claim a current religious preference, those who claim a current religious affiliation etc. These are all valid distinctions, but then he’s continually pointing out that “95% of Americans say they believe in God” without making the same differentiations of that number.

  43. Bugger, forgot the second half of a section up there:
    Self-described atheists form approximately 0.5% of the American population by his figures, while self-described atheists form 0.209% of the prison population and are thus underrepresented. (He rejects figures from atheist sources that indicate current rates of atheism in the USA are between 8-16%, but agrees that the same study he cites above puts the figure for non-religious (including atheists) at 9.5%).

  44. I was just wondering; from an evolutionary perspective the instinct to prescribe and proscribe certain behaviours on the basis of good vs evil for the stability of society probably came first. This would fit with the evidence that many unrelated religions have had similar moral codes. So perhaps morality is internally derived but externally maintained? Religion as vector. In psychology they talk about the ability to juggle with moral conundrums, where a proscribed behaviour ultimately results in a “good” outcome for eg, as a sign of increasing maturity in children. Childish certainities about right and wrong are gradually replaced with a much more complex moral code. Fundamentalism sweeps all of that away in favour of a return to absolute certainty; at least superficially – I imagine that defering to church elders to resolve dilemmas is one of the things that entrench their power.
    Dawkins is arguing that people embrace fundamental uncertainty as an alternative- a bit of a lost cause but perhaps he thinks by setting up a wild polarity more people will be drawn to the centre?

  45. I just came across a reference to mirror cells and how that may relate to morality. It is pretty interesting.

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