Following on from the previous post, I wanted to pull out another couple of ‘pointers to God’ that Francis Collins and BioLogos like to present as part of their argument for belief. I like them because, far from being pointers to god, they are in fact powerful examples of the power of science and the weakness of religion as a tool to help us understand morality. They’re great examples of how science is encroaching into what was once regarding as purely religious territory.
First example is this one – “Why is it wrong to torture an individual for the greater good?”
Evil also poses problems for the nonbeliever. Claims that torture is wrong even though the victims of torture might be terrorists with useful information appeal to some external standard. But what is this standard? Such claims need to be grounded in something if they are to be asserted with such confidence
Now, the interesting thing about this one is that there is nothing in religion that allows you to deduce that torture is wrong. It’s not inherent to the kind of Deism that Collins argues for elsewhere on BioLogos, and of course there is nothing in the Bible, the Koran, the Iliad, the Bhagavad Gita, etc that would allow you to deduce it.
Of course, you can cherry pick pretty much any religious text to make an argument against torture. But to do that, you have to start with the conclusion and work backwards. After all, torture for the greater good has been generally considered morally acceptable by religious people throughout history.
In fact, according to a recent survey of Americans, the Christians are still more likely than the unaffiliated to condone torture. Similar results were seen in another new survey of European nations, which found that Muslims (who are far more religious that the general public) are more likely to condone violence for noble ends.
What’s more, the swing of public opinion against torture has paralleled the retreat of religion in modern times. So whatever the arguments against torture are, they don’t arise from religion. They come from somewhere else.
What could explain the popular disapproval of torture? Well, science can’t tell us what’s moral and what isn’t (it’s a subjective decision that depends on the goals you set). But it can help explain why we have the morality we do.
For example, Haidt’s work shows that religious people are less concerned about harm as a moral outcome. Perhaps this is because, as Scott Reynolds and Tania Ceranic showed in 2007, people who are very certain that they have high morals are in fact more likely to cheat and more likely to be tough on subordinates.
And as for why people reject torture even when it could save lives, well Marc Hauser has written a whole book on that (and related topics). One explanation is that we are programmed to pay more attention to the specific, rather than the general, and to the immediate issues, rather than the longer term ones. (Of course, there are all sorts of other arguments against torture – for example that it does not work).
Regardless, this example is a good demonstration of the difference between science and religion. Science can actually help us understand the world around us. Religion cannot.
Here’s the second – on altruism:
… in its most radical form, altruism refers to situations where individuals risk their very lives to help someone they do not even know, and from whom a reciprocal benefit is unexpected or even unimaginable
At first blush, this does look like a mystery that cannot be explained by evolution. However, in fact evolution would suggest that this ‘radical altruism’ should be extremely rare in the real world. And indeed it is.
It does, however, crop up in laboratory studies. If you make people play a game, then some will be a little bit altruistic even when the game is anonymous, and they are guaranteed to never meet any of the other players. There’s nothing in it for them, and it costs them something. How can evolution explain this?
One obvious answer is the unnaturalness of the experiment. Throughout our evolutionary history, these kinds of anonymous situations would occur so rarely that our brains are not set up to deal with them (Bjorn at Pleiotropy makes this point nicely). It’s the moral equivalent of a visual illusion.
Collins somewhat grudgingly accepts this:
Some have suggested that radical altruism might perhaps be explained as misfiring — we mistakenly go overboard in our desire to be nice. Radical altruism is currently somewhat mysterious.
But in fact there are also positive explanations for radical altruism. One is group selection – the somewhat contentious idea, championed by David Sloan Wilson, that behaviour that benefits the group will be selected for, even if it harms the individual.
Another is the recent study showing that being good for the sake of it can actually benefit you as an individual – but indirectly, rather than directly. This is because you will attract other like minded people, and together you can thrive.
So science can help us understand why, in the right circumstances, people reject torture and act altruistically. Religion, on the other hand, doesn’t help explain either. And that’s the fatal weakness of religion. Because it attributes everything mysterious to the actions of a conscious, supernatural entity whose motives we can’t understand, anything you like can be ‘explained’.
But in the process of explained everything, it in fact explains nothing.
This work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.