Something I've seen quite a bit on Mumsnet is confusing me slightly

(390 Posts)

...I often read statements along the lines of, 'I'm an atheist because I there is no God,' and, 'I don't want my child to be taught about your fairy stories [religious teachings],' which is all fair enough but what's confusing me is, aren't these just people's opinions? One person can't provide definitive proof of the absence of a deity, anymore than another can provide definitive proof of the existence of a deity, surely? Or am I missing something?

This is a genuine query - I'm interested to know. I'm not trying to stir up arguments, although I'm happy to be argued with and told that I'm wrong.

As a person with a faith, I'd say it's all a matter of faith - either you believe it, or you don't. If I was without faith, I guess I'd say it's a matter of opinion. In any case, I don't get the absolute confidence people have that there is no God. I think there is, but I couldn't prove it and wouldn't think to tell another peson that I'm right on that topic and they're wrong. Where does all the certainty come from?

sieglinde Mon 10-Dec-12 10:47:05

Thanks for this post, mathanxiety.

Grimma, I agree - as a good RC, I think we are better OUT of power. In that sense, IMHO the Reformation was a felix culpa. Better to suffer evil than to do it.

Theocracies are usually fearful things, tyrannical and intolerant, pagan, xtian, Hindu or Islamic, or xtreme Protestant as in New England, blech - or even Jewish, as in Israel - it seems to being out the worst in faiths. So too would the C of E be better out of the state, and part of the Quaker charism is their marginality.

GrimmaTheNome Mon 10-Dec-12 08:43:56

math - thanks for that - some is what I'd gleaned before, and pretty much follows the lines one would expect.

>There is a danger inherent in using the CoE as an example of a Christian church because it had an administrative or political function that somewhat overwhelmed its spiritual function

Surely the 'danger' is to have a religious institution having administrative and political function in the first place. The CofE is the obvious example to use within the UK. Elsewhere, the RC has similar issues of power - as in the 'struggles' over the slavery issue and into the current era its still not exactly great on gender equality.

mathanxiety Mon 10-Dec-12 01:13:21

'In Supremo Apostolatus' text here. It presents the RC case against slavery and denounces it.

mathanxiety Mon 10-Dec-12 01:04:39

The Quakers were prominent abolitionists both in the Americas and in Britain, having condemned slavery in 1688. They were also prominent in dispensing relief without strings attached during the Irish famine of the 1840s. The First Great Awakening, a protestant (non CoE/Episcopalian) revival that occurred in North America and Europe in the early 1700s had as one of the items of belief/planks of its platform the abolition of slavery. The Second Great Awakening a century after the First continued the abolitionist theme. Slavery was opposed on explicit religious grounds -- the equality of all God's children was implicit in the fact that each man was created by God and had a soul. The abolitionists recognised a difference between what the constitution and the laws stated and the claims of a 'higher law'. Of course at the same time southern whites used biblical references to shore up their position, by cherry picking through scripture. Abolitionism contributed to the origins of some churches such as the Free Methodist Church. However, the issue eventually divided evangelical churches into northern and southern branches, with non-abolitionist evangelicals proliferating in the south and abolitionist evangelicals popular in the north, not surprisingly. A cluster of other issues tended to be supported by abolitionists -- temperance, public schooling, prison building and regulation, and asylum-building.

Pope Gregory XVI condemned slavery in his papal bull In Supremo Apostolatus in 1839. The RC church in America struggled with the issue, with bishops in states where there was a RC population hesitant to be too outspoken against slavery. However, others did not shy away. The RC church did not support extra-parliamentary action (John Brown style actions) and did not take to kindly to the interference of individuals or states outside of the US in internal US matters. Daniel O'Connell (Irish Catholic 'Liberator' tried to influence Irish immigrants to oppose slavery and this was resented by the US bishops. Irish Catholic immigrants joined the Union forces in great numbers (because it was a job and because they mostly settled in the north perhaps)

The Clapham Sect in Britain also played a prominent role in abolitionism. As the movement became a mass movement in Britain, women became involved, contrary to the custom of the time. In France, the Abbe Gregoire (a Gallican RC bishop and also a revolutionary but one who wanted to see the church remain operational) was a leader of the French abolitionist campaign. Bartholome de las Cases in the 1500s (RC priest, bishop of Chiapas) advocated ethical treatment of native peoples and also Africans, and against slavery)

Throughout that period the CoE operated much more as an arm of government than as a church with a primarily spiritual role per se. It was very much a body that identified with vested interests both in Britain and in Ireland (where it was an out and out element of colonial policy) and in the US. It found itself somewhat in no mans' land after the American Revolution, for the first time a church without a state backing it, a church that was not required to back the state given the separation of church and state in the US. The habit of identifying with the powerful remained however. There is a danger inherent in using the CoE as an example of a Christian church because it had an administrative or political function that somewhat overwhelmed its spiritual function.

Women who were involved in abolitionism generally got the opportunity to cut their political teeth through the movement. The evangelical church and especially the pentecostal sects were used to women taking a prophetic role, testifying, witnessing, etc., during services alongside men, and so the idea of women expressing their opinions on a matter of morality or conscience was no surprise to many of their audience. There were also detractors of course.

GrimmaTheNome Sun 09-Dec-12 22:54:02

>Because nobody's perfect?
Quite so. An institution reflects its makers - flawed humans, not a perfect God.

>There were plenty of Christians and 'Christian authorities' who held views that supported women's equality and racial equality

I don't doubt it (I'd be interested to know which you're thinking of, its not an area I'm particularly au fait with - I know the chuch I was raised in ordained women ministers before they could vote in this country). But there are plenty of Christians who opposed equality back when the issue began to be raised (particularly those with power; the HoL bishops of the time voted against both the abolition of slavery and women's suffrage) and unfortunately there significant numbers who to this day still do not uphold women's equality long after its the accepted norm in secular society.

mathanxiety Sun 09-Dec-12 01:34:38

Grimma -- Because nobody's perfect?
(apologies to Nooka, but unless you think you are perfect then that has to be stated)

There were plenty of Christians and 'Christian authorities' who held views that supported women's equality and racial equality. I realise feelings may be sore right now since the CoE shot down the idea of women being ordained as bishops, but to deny the role of certain Christian sects in raising western consciousness is denial of historical fact.

As long as there have been Christians there have been Christians who hated each other and disagreed heartily with each others' views. Doesn't reflect on the ideas of Christianity any more than the prevalence of speeding means the law is crazy.

Iirc, in the creation story the fall happened after the creation.

nooka Sun 09-Dec-12 01:00:33

So, in order to achieve enlightenment (of more than one sort at more than one time) both individuals and marginalised groups had to fight against the prevailing views of the time which were heavily influenced if not prescribed and enforced by the Christian authorities of the time. And this is part of an argument for belief in an all powerful/all loving Christian god?

I'm sure free will/humans are flawed is going to appear somewhere in the counter argument - although I thought that part of the point of creation was that people (well man) were created in god's image, and therefore shouldn't really be that rubbish should they?

I think that the evidence is pretty strong that people created gods, not the other way around, hence as societies change so do their beliefs.

GrimmaTheNome Sat 08-Dec-12 21:53:46

>Christianity and the western ethical system works by reexamining its own definitions of right and wrong

The western ethical system does that; Christianity (at least some brands) seems to mostly follow in its wake. Which begs the question, if a religion was inspired by a god who knew - defined even - right and wrong, why would it be necessary to keep redefining it ?

mathanxiety Sat 08-Dec-12 21:45:32

Christianity and the western ethical system works by reexamining its own definitions of right and wrong. There are few if any norms that have not been affected by Christianity from which ideas of gender equality could have been adopted, certainly not from other religions or non-western cultures. The origin of the theory of gender equality along with that of racial equality was initially far from secular -- they arose from a reexamination in the west (not elsewhere, and western feminism doesn't necessarily speak for women living elsewhere) of the source of western ethics, Judeo Christianity (which encompasses Greco Roman thought). Looking at matters from the pov of what was right vs. what was wrong was the focus of first wave feminists, the same for abolitionists and those seeking racial equality.

GrimmaTheNome Sat 08-Dec-12 20:36:44

>When we deal with the notion of right and wrong then we are looking at a system of ethics that arises from an experience and conceptualisation capacity that only humans have.

Yes - we have got further than the other animals apparent systems of fairness and justice - we are sentient and have a theory of mind, we can empathise. So we are able to formulate ethics such as the Golden and Platinum rules. We can codify 'right' and 'wrong' and think through dilemmas.

>Coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally) the right and wrong thing is also found in many religious traditions

I don't think its coincidence, but I do think that the notion that ethics derive from religion is 180 degrees the wrong way round. Furthermore, while some of the moral teachings of many religions is what most of us would consider to be good ethics, some religions have 'morals' which many of us now find entirely unethical.

As an example of the way round it works, as you say: 'The Judeo-Christian-based ethical system seems to be standing up pretty well against the competition right now. It has adapted to accommodate the claims of women and other previously oppressed groups ' ....Christianity evolves by adopting ethics arising outside itself. The different denominations vary, but overall its still significantly lagging the secular norms of gender equality (you've read the news in the last few weeks presumably).

mathanxiety Sat 08-Dec-12 19:06:28

Or perhaps we project our notions of ethics onto animals we see behaving in specific ways while all the while we are unaware of small details about the 'punished' animals that make the others pick on them, biological or behavioural details. Maybe we are looking at animal groups where individuals annoy others and because the annoyed parties can knock the irritating one down or drive it away from the group they go ahead and do it? Or perhaps the animals sense the shunned one has some illness or abnormality or parasite?

It is quite a leap from observation of animal groups to suggesting that animals are able to decide between right and wrong. Ethical decision making involves bringing to bear the active involvement of the intellect on issues that arise. Where animals may seem to genuinely engage in conduct that seems to benefit the community (thinking of some primate behaviour here) that is still different from humans engaging in conduct or refraining from it on the basis of a decision as to whether it is right or wrong, which is the foundation of our ethical system. As an example of the criteria we tend to use, does looting benefit the community? If so what community, and again if so, for how long? How do we balance out the interest of shopkeepers with those of looters? Or is it something that is right, or wrong?

When we deal with the notion of right and wrong then we are looking at a system of ethics that arises from an experience and conceptualisation capacity that only humans have. Coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally) the right and wrong thing is also found in many religious traditions. An ethics system that does not regard the best possible outcome for the greatest possible number of people as the standard we are aiming for -- an ethics system that presents us with the right or wrong conundrum as the basis of our decision making -- means we do not kill old people who arguably do not contribute but are a drain on community resources, among many other decisions. We make many decisions on the basis of what is right or wrong even when those decisions may not seem to be in our own best interests as individuals or even in the best interests of the group as a whole, in any time frame or in any circumstances, and we base our laws (which enshrine the values we hold) on those perceptions of right and wrong too.

GrimmaTheNome Sat 08-Dec-12 18:07:20

'Ethics' (at some level) aren't unique to humans. Other societal animals have what can be recognised as a basic sense of fairness and may impose 'justice' (punishing individuas who don't play fair. Such behavious presumably evolve because they help that group (usually related) to survive better than otherwise. So, it doesn't appear to me that religion is the root of ethics, rather a societal construct which may help promote moral behaviour - but in some cases does the opposite.

Himalaya Sat 08-Dec-12 17:58:12

Mathanxiety

It's not that I prefer the term "ethical system" to "god". i dont think the they are substitutable terms, although human ideas about one and the other have clearly been linked over history.

mathanxiety Sat 08-Dec-12 17:21:55

But nationalist and racist chauvinism, unequal sex roles, class deference and unquestioning loyalty to leaders have also been part of the social fabric of human society. Arguably an egalitarian society wouldn't have fared so well in competing for survival. Nevertheless we can still sniff derisively at suggestions that sexism (for example) is a good thing because it helped to get us this far in evolution.

I think we x posted and you can look at my post of 16:50:17 to see if there is anything there that can answer your point. Ethical systems that prove insufficient to the task of ensuring their society's survival collapse. The Judeo-Christian-based ethical system seems to be standing up pretty well against the competition right now. It has adapted to accommodate the claims of women and other previously oppressed groups within the societies it upholds -- obviously it is still a work in progress and there is a long way to go, but I would put my money on its chances of survival against other ethical systems based on past performance.

Clearly, you and I have not been adversely affected by nationalism, racist chauvinism, class deference, sexism and all the other isms that have been a part of human society; if we had been we would not exist. Whatever conditions may have been for our thousands of generations of ancestors they obviously adapted well enough to survive and that is the name of the game.

mathanxiety Sat 08-Dec-12 16:50:17

'You seem to be trying to read biology as a moral system with a purpose ('bringing us thus far in our evolution') rather than as a purposeless process that has given rise to a group of organisms capable of thinking in moral terms.'

You now appear to be tying yourself up in knots trying to back away from the implications of the constant human preoccupation with ethical systems. What I have suggested is that the human need for god (or an ethical system if you prefer to call it that) may well be what makes us the successful human species. It may well be an innate part of our nature, and in fact one of the adaptations that has served us really, really well as we have evolved.

(I would go further actually, and suggest that the success of any given society depends on the appropriateness of its ethical system in the conditions in which that society exists, and that ethical systems that are not robust or do not address conditions in which that society functions will generally collapse and bring down the societies that adhere to them).

Biology is not and never has been a moral system with a purpose (and I doubt I ever said it was). However, since we choose to live ethically (in general) and since our intellect tells us that living ethically means we live longer and more successfully together, colonise the planet, harness its resources wisely, where living without ethics or with faulty ones means death and/or destruction of our society or the societies of others, and where adherence to the ethics of our society can often be against what we might see as our own individual self interest in many situations, can our evolution be said to be purposeful? You mention the 6bn world population, and maybe you are concerned with us collectively finding some way to keep our species going? Could it be that that our ability to be purposeful about our survival and our recognition that ethical systems are what ensure that goal can be achieved (as you state) represent a purpose-driven evolution of our species, and evolution/continued life on earth is not all random and a matter of chance where humans are concerned?

I ask why we bother designating 'right' and 'wrong' because if biology is all there is to human development then we might as well just admit that, accept the brutal things we do to each other just as we accept them in animals and forget about complicating our lives with thoughts of morality.

Himalaya Sat 08-Dec-12 16:17:49

Mathanxiety

What is your point?

That religion played an important role in building and communicating ethical systems in time gone by? Doubtless this is true.

That religion is still at the core of ethics? I don't think so.

That we shouldn't "sniff derisively" at it because of its important historical role? OK up to a point. But nationalist and racist chauvinism, unequal sex roles, class deference and unquestioning loyalty to leaders have also been part of the social fabric of human society. Arguably an egalitarian society wouldn't have fared so well in competing for survival. Nevertheless we can still sniff derisively at suggestions that sexism (for example) is a good thing because it helped to get us this far in evolution.

Himalaya Sat 08-Dec-12 16:06:16

Mathanxiety -

You seem to be trying to read biology as a moral system with a purpose ('bringing us thus far in our evolution') rather than as a purposeless process that has given rise to a group of organisms capable of thinking in moral terms.

I guess that is a direct analogy from religion where the creative force and the source of morality are seen as the same.

Biology shows how evolution is behind the "creative source" but it doesn't mean that evolution can be read as a moral process.

You ask: Why shouldn't we kill, hurt or steal from other people (...generally)? Really, do you need to ask??

because they don't want us to, because they feel pain, fear, anguish, because they value their own life. Seriously do you think that if it turns out that human consciousness is 'just' a consequence of genes and neuro-biology that there would be nothing wrong with murdering other people?

mathanxiety Sat 08-Dec-12 14:05:35

"if neuro-biological systems are all there is why do we need ethics" WTF? If you saw someone kicking the crap out of a dog and they said "don't worry his pain is just a neuro-biological system" would you say "oh, ok then"

We need ethics because otherwise there would be rule by the strongest'.

And what is wrong with that - or why is that not ok? After all, we are creatures whose nature is founded in neuro biology and neuro biology alone. Why do we bother deciding behaviour is 'wrong' or 'right' if what we do or think is determined by our genes, our neuro-biology?

'I think you have the gene part of this backward. Because humans had the genetic traits which enabled them to go beyond close kin collaboration they were able to expand massively in numbers, living closely together and depending on many strangers and ever bigger social systems. The ability to construct and enforce ethical rules (sometimes with the help of religious ideas) is what enabled human expansion. Now with over 6bn people on the planet we need ethical systems more than ever before.'
I think you misread me if you didn't think that was what I was hinting at. It was 'nearly always' (if not 'always') with the help of religion that humans developed their ethics systems though. Not 'sometimes'.
How ironic that what may have brought us thus far in our evolution could be something anti-religious posters sniff derisively at.

MostlyLovingLurchers Sat 08-Dec-12 10:45:23

The RC church still requires baptism at the earliest possible opportunity though I can't see a priest giving anyone a hard time if they turned up years after the birth.

Yes, but what they no longer do is tell you that your baby won't go to heaven unless a priest has dribbled some water on it's head.

Himalaya Sat 08-Dec-12 08:15:34

MathAnxiety -

"if neuro-biological systems are all there is why do we need ethics" WTF? If you saw someone kicking the crap out of a dog and they said "don't worry his pain is just a neuro-biological system" would you say "oh, ok then"

We need ethics because otherwise there would be rule by the strongest.

I don't think humans are anything other than particularly smart, sociable, adaptable animals, but this doesn't change the experience of being human . I wouldn't be ok with someone kicking the crap out of someone else just because their pain is a neuro- biological symptom.

I think you have the gene part of this backward. Because humans had the genetic traits which enabled them to go beyond close kin collaboration they were able to expand massively in numbers, living closely together and depending on many strangers and ever bigger social systems. The ability to construct and enforce ethical rules (sometimes with the help of religious ideas) is what enabled human expansion. Now with over 6bn people on the planet we need ethical systems more than ever before.

Himalaya Sat 08-Dec-12 08:00:24

Mathanxiety -

As I am sure you know human beings did not evolve from lesser spotted gerbils, but at some point in our history we do share a common ancestor with them.

Of course the traits that amount to being human evolved later than that but it is doubtless they evolved. Nature doesn't "draw lines" - whether it happened relatively fast or slow, there will have been many individuals who were slightly more like humans and slightly less like their non-human ancestors (not to mention the poor old Neanderthals)

Basically what you are saying is that you draw some artificial line after the basic features of modern humans have evolved and then say "we were always like that", "there is no evidence that those features evovlved".

You can do this with any trait - there is no evidence that the human eye evolves if you define the human eye as only something that existed after it had evolved into its current state!!

I wonder if you are thinking this way because you are trying to place the idea of a non material human soul into a natural history framework? Are you placing the "event" of ensoulment at the human soul at the Great Leap Forward? Is it the "soul" which you are arguing couldn't have evolved?

mathanxiety Sat 08-Dec-12 06:45:31

The RC church still requires baptism at the earliest possible opportunity though I can't see a priest giving anyone a hard time if they turned up years after the birth.

Himalaya -- if you're going to expand your definition of 'human' to include small mammals then this discussion is going to get really ridiculous. A line has to be drawn somewhere and I don't think it should be drawn to include lesser spotted gerbils.

Grimma -- if neuro-biological traits is all there is to human nature then why do we bother with ethics? Are ethical systems redundant and futile? Or do we have a gene that makes us need to construct a god/a system of ethics and is that something essential to a definition of humanity?

Himalaya Fri 07-Dec-12 23:03:19

Mathanxiety -

You've lost me again.

Human nature evolved, just as worm nature evolved and bat nature evolved. I really don't see what is controversial about this.

Yes there are questions about how and how quickly characteristics evolved, but quick or slow it was, but it was still evolution.

What are you suggesting shaped the nature of human behavior?

You have absolutely no evidence for your claim that any of the elements of human nature you mention have evolved

confused

I'm not sure what you are suggesting as an alternative.

evidence to support your claim that we didn't always have that trait?

Because if you trace our ancestors back far enough you get to pre-human primates, if you go back further the family tree is made up of small mammals etc...we. None of these creatures could write poetry (or whatever uniquely human characteristics you like). I'm not sure what it could possibly mean to say "our ancestors always had" a sense of injustice, reflexive thought or whatever. That can only be true if you draw an artificial line as to how far back you want to go.

If you are able to prove that there are physical or biological foundations to 'human nature' then you will be able to prove that evolution affects human nature as well as human physical development.

As opposed to what?

you will also open the door to categorising humans according to evolution of their nature

Again you seem to be reading something that is not there.

GrimmaTheNome Fri 07-Dec-12 16:01:22

>but is that in our nature or more of a neuro-biological trait?

what on earth do you think constitutes 'our nature' except 'neuro-biological traits' and the interplay of physical factors? Do you think there's a ghost in the machine? I'm at a loss to understand where you're coming from on this.

>If you are able to prove that there are physical or biological foundations to 'human nature' ...

eh? what the heck else is there? Start with the amygdala maybe, consider the effects of hormones (testosterone, oxytocin, etc etc)... possible genetic markers are being found for psychological variations ... we may not like what people could do with knowledge about some of the factors which form human nature but that is completely irrelevant to whether those factors exist. (its the neutrality of science and the necessity for ethics thing again)

nooka Fri 07-Dec-12 15:51:31

The nature of domesticated animals has certainly evolved though, and dogs are a particularly good example of that because they did evolve from wolves, a process that started about 15,000 years ago. and yet they are now a separate species with very different behaviours to their wild cousins.

Now dog life spans are much much shorter than ours, so the evolutionary process is much faster (many more generations) and of course man has been actively involved, so it's not a particularly natural process, but essentially everything changes over time.

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