In the third debate in God or Godless Loftus and I talk about moral value and moral accountability. The title is borrowed from Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov so that what it lacks in precision it makes up for in literary and historical significance.
My opening statement recounts a serial killer entering retirement after a successful “career” torturing, killing, and dismembering his victims. And it leaves the reader to ask, by what standard do we judge the life of such a person as morally wicked? Does our worldview have the resources to ground that which we all recognize as true?
Loftus’s rebuttal consists of attempting to turn the statement on its head, i.e. if there is a God, then everything is permitted. His Coup de grâce is to recount the tragic incident where Andrea Yates drowned her five children because she believed God told her to do it. Loftus engages in some literary license as he reimagines her reflective process:
“Here I am Lord, your servant Andrea Yates. Speak to me. What would you have me do today? Let’s see what’s in your Holy Book. Hmmm, you say, ‘Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.’ Really? What do you mean? You want me to kill my children?” (34)
So what are we to think of this as a response to the scenario I presented?
Note first that Loftus doesn’t even try to explain why we would judge a serial killer’s life as morally evil.
As for his choice of Andrea Yates, I take it the thought here is that Yates’s theism somehow contributed to her evil act, that had she not been a theist she would not have committed the act.
This is a deeply problematic claim. To begin with, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity as she was suffering from severe postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. True, her belief in God was appropriated into her psychotic delusions. But that raises the central question: does Loftus think that Yates’s belief in God caused her psychotic delusions such that, counterfactually, had she not been a theist she would not have been delusional? If he does believe this, he must defend the claim. If he doesn’t then his argument falls flat because theism becomes incidental to Yates’s psychosis and her resulting actions.
Perhaps I should unpack the notion that theism was incidental. Yates killed her children under the stated justification that she wanted to save them from hell. Had she not believed in God and an afterlife, she could just as well have killed her children to save them from a hopeless future in a cold, dark , cruel world. (Crime! Global Warming! Economic Collapse! The Coming Zombie Apocalypse!) When people are severely depressed and psychotic, they will construct a suitably grim scenario out of the beliefs that they hold whether they are a theist or not.
This brings us to a more general problem. New atheists often make facile causal connections between religious beliefs and anti-social behaviors and actions. In that respect, Blaise Pascal’s famous quote serves their interests well:
“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”
It’s a nice quote, especially if you’re a religious prophet interested in spurring your belief community to some soul introspection, or if you’re an anti-religious prophet interested in spurring your belief community to contemplate the evils of religion.
But while Pascal’s quote is fine rhetoric, it is most doubtful that it is true. Ethnic, socio-economic and nationalist convictions can be every bit as powerful and dangerous as religious ones. From the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey to the killing fields of Cambodia to the blood soaked soil of Rwanda, time and again we see ethnic and socio-economic boundary markers and nationalist narratives spurring on acts of egregious violence.
The fact is that those who hate will use whatever beliefs are at hand to confabulate a justification for their hatreds.
And those who are mentally psychotic will use whatever beliefs are at hand to develop and perpetuate their psychotic delusions.
But all of this still leaves unanswered the question of how one judges a life well lived. How does one account for the basis of moral value and our knowledge of it?