January 28, 2007

Eugenics: It's Only Natural

Something's been troubling me since it first occurred to me many years back.

According to a purely naturalistic view of the cosmos (i.e., there is no God and we are merely children of nature) our moral urges can only find their origin in evolution. And evolution's only purpose — if it can be said to have a purpose at all — is the survival and reproduction of the individual and, by extension, the species. Now, even if it were argued that morality is purely a social construction, then surely the welfare of our species would figure as prominent criteria for what qualified as "good." So by whatever source, according to naturalism, one of the chief ethical concerns must be the survival, reproductive health, and, perhaps, pleasure of the human race. And since there is no outside agent to rescue and preserve us as a species, then it is in our own hands to insure our future.

What is so troubling about this so far? Well, nothing in general. Caring for humanity is certainly a Christian concern as well. The problem is that there is no reason to think that naturalism can have any higher concern than this (but this is not to say that in practice many naturalists are not, in fact, driven by more personal agendas). If there are two courses of action, one of which may seemingly lead to the demise of humanity and the other to its flourishing, what higher standard exists that would suggest that the course of survival is not the preferred route?

And here's where things get dark.

Look at the world around you; look at the condition of its people. How many people do you see suffering from illness or simple imperfections? Retardation, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, heart conditions, paraplegia, schizophrenia — these are just a few of the many conditions we find. And there are many less severe from which even more people suffer, like hypertension, obesity, poor eyesight, color blindness, and baldness. Can it not also be said that simply being unattractive is an imperfection as well?

What is the culprit of all this suffering? Is it not primarily the fault of our genes, since most of what I can list would be considered congenital, hereditary, or genetic disorders? Even where illnesses are triggered by lifestyle conditions, it is often the case that our genetic makeup predisposes us to be affected in one way or another.

Genetic disorders are sourced in mutations that affect the reproductive cells of an adult, or in genetic errors that occur in the developing embryo. Such mutations that are not lethal or sterilizing are carried on by the offspring of the affected person. Evolution is indeed occurring. Well, at least half of it. We are indeed seeing mutations, unfortunately none of which are doing us any favors. What is not happening much in the case of humans is the "natural selection" half of evolution.

The wonders of medical science is remediating the effects of more and more of these disorders, and where once a person with a serious genetic condition might have died before reproducing, today they can live a reasonably normal life. We like to think of this as a blessing, but what is it really doing to our genetic stock, our quality of life, and our economy? Couldn't it be said that if we could remove such anomalies that we could reduce the amount of human suffering and eliminate a huge financial burden from the medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries? Why spend all that time in research and treatment when we could just as well test fetuses (and infants) and dispose of the rejects? Why continue to allow the gene pool to be polluted?

Of course, I am not the first to point out such a concern. The genesis of Planned Parenthood and the Nazi eugenics programs where founded upon the issue, which began to germinate in the late 1800's. Hitler was not the instigator of the Nazi eugenic scourge; he was merely a product of his intellectual time and its most powerful enabler. What Hitler did, however, was to generate negative publicity for the idea of eugenics by means of his zealous application of it and his mistaken idea that the Jew was a genetically inferior race that must be cleansed.

In the nauseating wake of Hitler's pogrom, the idea of ridding ourselves of "human weeds" (to use Margaret Sanger's words) fell quickly out of vogue. While I would argue that it has remained in the ethical climate in some circles, it has dared not show itself publicly to garner an official place in medical and social policy. But as soon as the Nazi stain is erased from our collective hamster-length memories, and a kinder, gentler way to market eugenics is advanced, we will be disposing of our human refuse just the same. As one modern eugenics advocate said:

We are deteriorating genetically, and the only alternative to leaving future generations an increasingly chaotic, violent, degraded society is called "eugenics." What a dilemma! Have we no other choice than to bequeath to our children a poorer genetic legacy than the one we ourselves inherited? And what if they too live in terror of the ghost of Adolph Hitler? Where will it end?

What is to be done in a purely secular society? Isn't eugenics inevitable? Isn't it evolutionary, and aren't we supposedly creatures of evolution? Indeed, how can we rise above our natures in order to find a "higher" moral path? How could there be said to be anything higher than nature for a naturalist? But nature is a cruel matron, especially in that she taunts us with compassionate instincts that are at odds with her purposes. Mother Nature is a hustler and child abuser. She will have us kill our runts with tears in our eyes and think ourselves noble all the while.

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January 17, 2007

Only Two Religions: Meditations on Religious Pluralism

It has often been said that all religions teach basically the same thing, or are just different paths to the same God. This idea of religious pluralism comes both from the mouths of those who have made a career of "religious studies" and from those who simply mean to brush aside the whole question of truth in religion. The claim itself can be answered in several ways, but I think that behind this idea stands a common presumption about the nature of God and what He expects from us.

For most, this claim is simply a matter of ignorance about what the various religions actually teach, or consider to be essential truths, but when the most foundational doctrines are taken into account, irreconcilable differences immediately surface. For example, Islam says that Muhammad was the final and greatest prophet of God and that Jesus was a mere human prophet, while Christianity says that Muhammad was not speaking for God and that Jesus was actually God incarnate. Islam claims that the Christian's divine view of Jesus is a mortal sin (the sin of "shirk"), while Christians say that you must accept His deity for salvation – there is no harmonizing these views. Other examples that could be cited would be the Buddhist idea of a non-personal God (in fact, Theravada Buddhism is essentially atheistic) vs. the eminently personal God of Christianity; or the Hindu/New-Age idea of reincarnation vs. the one-life model of Christianity.

Another thing pluralists are often guilty of is being selective about what religions to include in order to make this alleged harmonization. The religions that most modern people are aware of are relatively tame (especially from a distance), but there are many diverse and eccentric religions out there, and many more that could be added if we took historical inventory. Does the pluralist mean to say that the child sacrifices of the Canaanite priests were simply an earnest effort to reach out to the same God that Christians worship with offerings of praise and thanksgiving? Is the pluralist willing to accept all religions and all sincere expressions of those religions, or are they willing to admit that God is not likely to be impressed when a "sincere" believer flies a hijacked jet into a skyscraper?

In reality, the case for pluralism is most forcefully made by those who deny the orthodoxy of any particular religion (i.e., theological liberals), and often are not, themselves, devout people. It is an outsider's claim; they do not believe that God has clearly spoken through any of these religious systems. These are the people who are not so hostile to religion that they would brazenly claim it all a fiction to be discarded. There is a somewhat commendable (though misguided) spirit of mediation at work here. Unfortunately, in the attempt to reconcile the individual faiths they only succeed in misunderstanding each, and alienating those who take them seriously and would be unwilling to yield their distinctive doctrines. The pluralist is actually proposing a new vanilla religion to which he expects the world to convert. In practice, he is simply adding yet another one into the mix.

Religious pluralism is a bit like saying that all sports are basically the same because they use a ball. But this neglects the puck, the pool, the track, and the mat. Perhaps they might be tempted to say that it is all about prevailing over competition, but that would be both too narrow (many participate for the sheer love of the game) and too broad (capitalism then becomes a "sport" as well). So, again, we come back to the idea that details and distinctions matter.

Yet, pluralism rests on the idea that there is some common element or point of unity between the various religions. So, what is the "ball" for the religious pluralist? When all the world's religions are surveyed, the common denominator of choice always seems to relate to "morality."

I think at the deepest level the pluralist's conclusion is its own theological claim about what God is like, or what He wants (assuming He exists at all). I don't think the conclusion is merely based on observed similarities in the religions being sampled. If this were so then one could claim that God just wants us all to congregate in large halls, or sing songs to Him, or chant prayers – all things found in diverse religions. I think that certain assumptions guide the selective process in what is considered to be a relevant similarity.

It is instructive both that all religions do have something to say about morality, and that the pluralist would pick this out as the key ingredient. In our postmodern age there is much debate over the existence of objective morality, but here we see affirmed the fact that the peoples of the world are all preoccupied with the idea that morality is real and essential. It is both an irony and a further testament that so many moral relativists also happen to be religious pluralists. Even atheists reveal their appreciation of morality when they – as they often do – object to the idea that you need to believe in God to live a moral life. There is something worth exploring here.

So, what do the religions of the world have to say about morality?

Buddha says to "be lamps unto yourselves; work out your salvation with diligence." The path to salvation, according to Buddhism, is through the personal pursuit of "enlightenment" facilitated by such moral guidelines as the Five Precepts and the Eightfold Path. Hindu (and New Age) salvation depends on the idea that one advances upward to the Godhead through cycles of incarnations, where one is rewarded or punished in the next life according to the good or bad deeds in this one. Islam teaches that one's good deeds must outweigh the bad ones, and credits are earned through obedient living, especially by application of the Five Pillars of Islam. The ancient Greeks believed that the dead were judged in the underworld, and the good could ascend to the Elysian Fields while the evil descended to fiery Tartarus. In ancient Egypt, eternal life was achieved if the burden of sin and evil in one's heart weighed less than the feather of Ma'at. And the list goes on and on.

The common theme seems to be one of personal striving for self-righteousness or a level of virtue acceptable to the divine judge. While there may be differences in where that striving lands you, or who/what does the judging, there is still the hope and expectation that the goal is yours to achieve. And the religious pluralist joins them in spirit: he says that if there is a God, then surely all He wants is for us to be "good" people. But there is one religion that is not a good team player, and is often bypassed because of it.

Christianity teaches that it is true in principle that we are justified by our works, but that it is a losing proposition. If there is one thing that is clear from the testimony of history, our social experiences, and our own hearts, it is that humans are fundamentally and deeply flawed creatures. To deny this one would first have to declassify a host of sins. Additionally, even our "good" deeds are suspect when we consider factors such as motives and standards of comparison. But even assuming we have managed some righteousness pleasing to the Judge, how good is good enough? Does He grade on a curve? Maybe just 51% goodness is enough? Yet even that would be found optimistic if we examine ourselves and meditate long on the idea of perfection.

In what sense can we call the Judge "just" if He winks at so much sin? There is certainly nothing in our experience that reflects this sort of attitude toward law and crime. We are not entitled to knock off a bank for our retirement fund even if we've been law abiding for the balance of our lives. Anyone who is looking for a God of unconditional loving tolerance has not been a parent, or has neglected all lessons of child rearing. If absolute holiness is not required, or imparted to us, then heaven will be filled with a great many persons with marginal credentials, and that is no heaven at all.
Christianity is absolutely unique among the religions of the world. It turns these ideas of morality and merit on their head: salvation comes before works. It teaches that it is the height of arrogance to think that our goodness can match God's holy standard, or that He owes us anything for our petty deeds. Christianity demands that you repent not only of your sin, but of all your labors to bury it, and your presumption that you can impress God.

God has already provided the perfect righteousness in Jesus Christ; we have merely to put our trust in this provision. It is both the hardest and easiest religion to follow. Hard, in that one must first yield up the ego. Easy, in that one has but to "enter the Sabbath rest." And those moral motions, which every other religion is so keen to affirm, spring inevitably from a genuine faith.

At the end of our days when we stand before God and He asks why He should receive us, the answers will fall into two categories. On the one hand the proud will say, "I performed the rituals and festivals and prayers," or "I was basically a good person." On the other hand the humble will say, "I am unworthy and filled with sin. Even my good deeds are as filthy rags before your Holiness. I throw myself solely on your mercy." One seeks to be judged on his own merits; the other throws himself on the mercy of the court. Scripture tells us how this will play out. For those not covered by the atonement of Jesus, the books will be thrown open and everyone judged according to his works. The results leave no room for optimism.

Ultimately, there are only two religions: man's religion of self-righteousness vs. God's righteousness and His provision for sinful man. One must be surrendered to the other, and the religious pluralist says it must be the latter. This is why classical Christianity is implicitly excluded in talk of pluralism. It is the black sheep (or I should say, the spotless white lamb) in this pasture. If the distinctive doctrine of the atonement of Christ is removed from play, as liberal theology seeks to do, then Christianity becomes just another moral system founded by just another man telling us how to get to God. We may just as well recall the missionaries; there is already enough "religion" in the world.

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January 03, 2007

Coin Toss Morality

Awhile back I had a dialog with a cousin where we discussed the merits of different ethical systems. He is something of an agnostic, so I was keen for him to recognize morality as an objectively real concept that he must work into his thinking. To this end, I asked the leading question, "Why not just flip a coin for each moral decision?" Now, this may sound flippant (no pun intended), but I think it begins to expose one of the problems of ethical theory.

You could say, as my cousin did, that this simply removes reason from the equation and replaces it with chance. But what is it that reason can do that chance cannot? Flipping a coin certainly qualifies as an ethical system, but why is it a "bad" or "wrong" one? You can certainly use "reason" to lay down the options, manage the coin toss, and implement the resulting decision.

I think the real problem is that the outcome of a coin-toss moral decision can clearly lead to undesirable results. Think of the following situation: Your neighbor's toddler wanders over into your yard (you've left your gate open) and falls into your pool. Do you, heads, save her or, tails, wait for her parents to come retrieve the corpse? You know what to do and you don't need an ethical system to help you out. You know that the coin toss may lead to the wrong decision.

Ideally, you want your ethical system to act as a sort of formula for helping you to get to correct decisions, and it is most helpful when the situations are complex. But the entire system can come crashing down if it runs afoul of your moral intuitions. A well placed reductio ad absurdum can prove the shortcoming of the theory. For instance, you might at first hold to a utilitarian ethic that whatever promotes the happiness of the majority is what is "good," but then it could be pointed out that the torture for sport of a single human could give a large (depraved) viewing audience a large sum total of happiness. For most people, that would put an end to that moral theory (and for those who it wouldn't I haven't got much more to say here).

The point is that we seem to have preexisting moral intuitions, and we will never be satisfied with any ethical system that does not accommodate them. (Well, perhaps not entirely true, since we also have competing selfish desires that we often seek to rationalize.) I would argue that in our ethical theories we are simply trying to systematize our moral intuitions.

A chance ethical system cannot do the trick if it is true that there are right and wrong answers. If there are indeed objectively right answers to moral questions, then reason is certainly an ally, since it can help us to assess the conditions and marshal our intuitions, but it does not in itself make the answer right. Neither does an ethical system make right answers; it can only (if legitimate) help us to navigate through real passes with real reefs and currents. But you could never say that any ship of history had hit a reef unless you were first willing to admit that things such as ships and reefs actually existed. That's a very big pill to swallow for anyone committed to a purely material world, where truth and ethics extend no farther than the will and imagination of the biochemical flukes we call "humans."

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Westminster Presbyterian Church Columbia, TN