Lazy Luddite Log

5.10.09

Supernatural Moral

I had lunch with a friend recently on the grounds of the Australian National University (ANU). Following lunch I walked past what looked like the start of a public debate. Posters close by told me it was a debate between the local skeptics and evangelical Christians. For a moment that part of my that enjoys arguments (a dwindling part in recent times) wanted to stay and watch the show but I quickly changed my mind and walked on. The topic was presumably over the existence of God which would inevitably have been yet another "coz I say so" kind of exchange. Even the likely tone put me off - skeptics who think they are so clever versus fundamentalists who feel they are so very right. I also think the debate itself is lop-sided.

The objective of the skeptics is to dismiss any and all things supernatural. In contrast the fundamentalists are only interested in asserting the existence of one supernatural thing - a monotheist god. I would rather see a program of two separate debates. In the first of such debates the skeptics would face a mixed panel of anyone who embraces the supernatural (say a Christian and a Hindu and a Shintoist). Seeing such groups interact would be interesting in itself. Only once the matter of the supernatural was debated would there then be a second debate in which the virtues of different religions were discussed.

What kind of decision-making processes are involved in choosing a religion if one thinks that there is such a thing as supernatural agents that expect us to have a relationship with them? For many religious practitioners I suspect context and circumstance direct the decision made. A person decides that monotheism makes sense to them and the society they live in has a predominantly Christian heritage so naturally they become Christian. There is still the matter of which denomination in which to participate but that may be affected by who one knows - family and friends go to a particular church and are happy to provide an invitation to the next gathering.

But what if the prospective religious person decided to make a conscious investigation of the alternatives. A debate between religions would be more focused on morality than on cosmology as different religions vie for adherents. And in introducing morality I am interested in the moral standing of the supernatural agents themselves. So much religion focuses on the actions of mortals but what of immortals?

Is it - for instance - right for a parental figure to allow its wayward children to be tortured forever if it can do anything at all to prevent it. Many parents the world over will have adult children who have done what they consider to be wrong and yet they will still love and accept those children and do anything they can for them. That is the nature of parental love. Should we expect more or less from a supernatural parent? I would think we would expect more. And yet the historical development of religions is such that we assess the conduct of gods on the basis of barbarian monarchs from times in which the concept of compassion lacked any kind of prestige.

An atheist will deny the existence of such monsters of the imagination. But as an agnostic I have to consider the possibility (however remote) that the assertions of the most hateful of fundamentalists may be right. And if they are right what should I do? The pragmatic thing would be to choose the most vengeful of religions and do what it says to the letter. But I have a hunch that resisting intimidation and abuse even if it has a supernatural form is the moral thing to do. It may be a difficult thing to do however once I am shown the instruments of torture.

And those instruments of torture are shown to us even in this day-and-age. There on that street corner on a busy shopping day is the intense stare and the stirring words of an evangelist who rants on-and-on about fire and brimstone and whose placard asks "where will you spend eternity". Such a person may be in a tiny minority compared with those Christians who interpret Hell as the much milder "absence of God". But such a person has the visibility and passion and for many of us is the face of Christianity (which I focus on because of the history of my culture even while I am aware that other world religions have similar problems).

I have sometimes considered asking one of those street corner advocates how they feel peddling terror. I think they may respond that they are warning us of the dangers of Satan rather than of God but for me a protection racket is still a form of assault. Ultimately we work under very different assumptions. For the evangelist goodness is whatever God says it is. For me however 'might is right' is a philosophy we need to consign to the history books.

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2 Comments:

  • Well the cross-posting of this entry generated a lot of discussion (some of it tangential).

    By Blogger Daniel, At 29 October, 2009  

  • I'm copying and pasting comments to this same post from LiveJournal (complete with messy formatting text). This is just a smattering of them. There was an entire sub-debate in which an atheist tried to tell agnostics they were really just atheists, but the recruitment ploy didn't work too well and I've omitted it. For some other comments, see below...

    From: bar_barra
    Date: October 5th, 2009 06:36 pm (local)
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    I think you have it in one. Peddling terror is what they do, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians but haven't abandoned the Enlightenment these guys are very embarrassing indeed. We feel the same way about them as the Muslim kids I used to teach felt about jihadi-loonies. As you know, JRRT's view of hell was a lot saner. Yes, Mordor/Angband are real places where torment is eternal. Don't blame them on God. It's where Satan's incarnations live. Why doesn't God crush them? Well, yeah, but it's hard to do that without breaking the world. What worries me more are the sceptics who say if you can't see/touch/taste it then it isn't real. It's hard to know where to start with those guys. And I haven't got many answers. I've given conference papers on this topic but I fear their non-belief is hermetic and impermeable. So mostly I don't bother. Good luck with that.
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    From: originaluddite
    Date: October 6th, 2009 01:55 pm (local)
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    I like it if someone says that lack answers. That is very reassuring. You refer to the Enlightenment and I am mindful that it was in part a follow-on from the Reformation. My recent Facebook status had me expressing gratitude to Protestantism for sparking the secular society we now live in.

    As for Middle Earth - well one thing that is interesting with it is that I cannot think of a supernatural hell as such (except for the exile of Morgoth from _everything_ but if I remember rightly it only happens to Morgoth). But as you say Mordor is pretty hellish but it is very much a part of the world. And the thing in Lord Of The Rings is that characters act in good ways because they think it is right rather than because of anything Eru is holding over them.

    From: dzurlady
    Date: October 5th, 2009 08:38 pm (local)
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    Even the likely tone put me off - skeptics who think they are so clever versus fundamentalists who feel they are so very right.
    Yes, exactly! You have put your finger on what often annoys me so much about that kind of debate.
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    From: originaluddite
    Date: October 6th, 2009 01:19 pm (local)
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    And it is different - potentially different - from other debates like political debates in which there is some common ground and some desire to come to an understanding.
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    By Blogger Daniel, At 09 May, 2017  

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