In my book, Religion Refuted, I critique the moral argument, which tries to defend belief in God on the basis that God is the foundation for establishing what is morally right and what is morally wrong. I won’t rehash that argument in this blog post, but I do want to highlight one example of morality that is in no way dependent on any divine authority. This example illustrates that humans express and foster a whole suite of moral judgments without reference to anything supernatural.
I once heard a TV preacher chastise all scientists within broadcast radius, admonishing them that morality cannot be retrieved from a database. He cautioned that the rockets returning from the moon never brought home any moral mandates and that no chemist in a laboratory ever found the formula for right and wrong. No system of ethics, the preacher proclaimed, can be established on a secular basis. Morality requires a Scriptural foundation. (Adolf Hitler similarly argued, “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith…We need believing people.”[i])
The preacher’s sermon got me thinking about “scientific” ethics. Moralists have long taught us that science shows us what is as opposed to what ought to be. Science does not pass moral judgment on anything under its survey. It merely provides us with the facts. Although facts may be useful, they are just as useful to bad guys as they are to good guys. Scientifically discovered facts tend therefore to be dismissed as irrelevant to ethics.
The amoral reputation of science is reinforced by the portrayal of scientists as pallid figures draped in white lab coats, sequestered within their laboratories. Often they are depicted as messy-haired moral innocents, no more culpable than children absorbed in harmless play. They may, however, appear reckless by virtue of their oblivious disregard for the consequences of their discoveries. At worst they assume the role of the mad scientist driven by pathological arrogance and intoxicated by the power to manipulate nature.
The moralist, if he is mindful at all of what the typical scientist does, invariably sees his own task as the higher one. The moralist has penetrated beyond superficial facts and is probing the marrow of normative values. If science is the engine of modern society, ethics is the steering mechanism, and we all know that the poor slob shoveling coal into the engine, though useful, is less worthy of admiration than the captain at the helm.
The liberal Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset published a book in 1930 titled The Revolt of the Masses, in which he denigrated scientists as “learned ignoramuses,” appealing to the popular misconception that specialists who know more than average about a particular topic tend to know less than average about other topics. Granted, some specialists neglect fields outside their specialty. The truth, however, is that the kind of curious person who learns one topic is more rather than less likely to explore other topics.
Literary scholar Michael Pettinger dismissively puts science in its place, “The scientific method of observation, hypothesis and experiment only serves to create a body of reliable knowledge. It offers no advice on what to do with that knowledge, except to use it to pursue more knowledge.”[ii] I believe that drab view of science as a mere data catalog is horribly wrong-headed.
Science is more than a big encyclopedia where we learn on page 6,843 that a common housefly beats its wings over 200 times per second, that on average a person inhales a molecule from a meteoroid every four months, that Neptune’s weather (1,600-mile-per-hour winds, temperatures as cold as -330 Fahrenheit, and seasons lasting longer than 40 years) is even shittier than Minnesota’s, and that monotremes are unique in having a four-headed penis.[iii]
The narrow view of science as a dusty textbook crammed with arcane trivia is flawed in that it severely underrates the ethical relevance of what we have learned from science. Granted, the breeding rituals of the Patagonian armadillo are not of overriding concern to most of us, but nuclear physics, the exploration of the origin of the cosmos, and the search for extraterrestrial life have profound ethical repercussions. The image of our Pleistocene ancestors has increasingly supplanted the Adam and Eve myth and its associated concept of original sin. The fact that our capacity for moral passions is the product of our evolutionary development is of supreme relevance to ethics.
No one disputes that science has a practical influence on morality. We ceased burning witches when we learned that the belief in witchcraft is a dangerous and unscientific folly. We have begun to amend our moral posture toward mental illness, chemical dependency, epilepsy, homosexuality, and other formerly demonized conditions as we have acquired a deeper scientific understanding of the underlying causes. We’re now more inclined to attribute disease to germs than to demons, which is why your doctor asks you to describe your symptoms rather than your creed. The study of Earth’s ecology is reforming the public attitude toward both our planet and its inhabitants. The blossoming of scientific knowledge over the past few centuries has contributed more to the reformation of society than have all theologians and armchair moralists combined.
The professional moralist who dismisses science as a morally neutral activity should recognize that her profession is itself a product of the rise of science and secular modes of thought. Morality is no longer the handmaid of theology. Theologians have through this process lost considerable prestige and are now viewed by educated people as antiquated buffoons. As H. L. Mencken remarked, “Skin a chimpanzee, and it would take an autopsy to prove he was not a theologian.”[iv]
Before the rise of science there were no philosophical revolutions. There was only clan warfare, which is distinctly unphilosophical. Primitive humans lived essentially the same brutish lifestyle for tens of thousands of years. Steven Pinker, in his 800-pound tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature, dispels the myth that our primitive, pre-scientific ancestors lived peaceful, idyllic lifestyles.
Throughout recorded history, the biggest changes in lifestyles, philosophies, and morality have occurred directly or indirectly as the result of science and technology. If you’re not hoveling naked and dirty in a cave, tormented by parasites and invisible goblins while desperately chewing an antelope carcass, be grateful to science.
Apologists boast that early universities had religious sponsorship. Harvard University, for instance, had Puritan roots and Yale University was later founded by Congregationalist ministers disgruntled by Harvard’s growing liberalism.[v] Many universities did indeed have religious origins, and many of the religious sponsors sincerely believed that science and religion were complementary.[vi]
But the broader historical reality is that religious leaders and scholastics jumped on the moving train of science so as not to be left behind. Early Christian interest in the study of nature was heightened by the desire to build apologetic arguments against a rising tide of skepticism.[vii] Religious leaders hoped to hamper the increasingly secular momentum of the train.
Their efforts backfired. The stifling influence of religious orthodoxy in the universities was the catalyst for the founding of independent scientific societies, such as the Royal Society in London and the Académie des Sciences in Paris, which typically elected their leadership from among their peers with no ecclesiastical oversight.
Thomas Jefferson, advocating for the construction of secular universities, complained that the Presbyterians’ “ambition and tyranny would tolerate no rival if they had the power. Systematical in grasping at an ascendancy over all other sects, they aim…at engrossing the education of the country, are hostile to every institution that they do not direct, and jealous at seeing others begin to attend at all to that object.”[viii] These Presbyterians, like Adolf Hitler, believed that “secular schools can never be tolerated.”[ix] Education and science have always been regarded by religious authorities as dangerous tools to be kept under tight regulation.
Modern religionists would like to repair their blinkered reputation by claiming credit for science, touting it as an outgrowth of spiritual devotion. In ancient Greece, Ptolemy and Cicero had similarly held that their intellectual endeavors were born out of piety for their pagan gods. Atheists, too, often see themselves as the most vocal cheerleaders for scientific progress. But we must bear in mind the direction in which the tide flows. The recent rise of modern atheistic philosophy, like Protestantism before it, was the product of escalating literacy and secular knowledge. It has prospered and spread according to how thoroughly it has embraced science.
Given that modern science fuels all successful philosophical and social revolutions, it is hardly surprising when some religions and cults tap into science’s awe factor, hitching their stars to science or pseudoscience. Think of Deepak Chopra’s quantum babblings.[x] Ponder the Raëlian Church and its obsession with UFOs, mind transfers, and human cloning. Scientology, concocted by the science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, is almost comically saturated with science fiction, including Xenu, the galactic overlord, delivering aliens to primitive Earth, E-meters, and implanted extra-terrestrial thetans.[xi] Then there is the Heaven’s Gate cult that planned to flee this corrupt Earth on comet Hale-Bopp in March 1997, all dressed up in their Star Trek costumes.[xii] Members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult wore electric headsets that supposedly synchronized their brain waves with those of the cult’s leader. Let us not forget the convicted conman[xiii] (and presidential candidate[xiv]) Joseph Smith’s revelation that Mormon gods live on the planet Kolob, inspiration for the planet Kobol in the television series Battlestar Galactica.[xv] Last but not least, we witness mainstream apologists’ empty boasts that the Quran or Old Testament is compatible with (or even predicted) the Big Bang. All these religious groups appropriate the trappings of science and try to steal its prestige, while they brusquely winnow out all science’s inconvenient findings, its established theories, its methods, and especially the morality implicit in the practice of science.
I must say more about the morality implicit in the practice of science. The popular misconception that science is just a catalog of facts arises from our tendency to focus exclusively on the content of science, ignoring its context. Even educated individuals, including scientists themselves, sometimes fail to appreciate that the daily practice of science presumes a particular set of ethical values.
Foremost among these values is the unmitigated love of truth. Chat with anyone imbued with the scientific spirit and you will quickly identify this powerful, childlike virtue. It is the root and foundation of science.
But science does more than exemplify and promote the love of truth. Science also makes predictions. Making predictions is a forward-looking enterprise, which implies a desire to be present in the future. The practice of science therefore reflects devotion to life. Beyond the love of truth and life, science fosters an appreciation of widespread education, a spirit of community, respect for the free exchange of ideas, integrity, an ability to trust others, a willingness to admit mistakes, intellectual independence, tolerance, creativity, diligence, and a deep appreciation of well-developed communication skills.
Science is both an intellectual and social force, drawing diverse people together for the common purpose of discovery. Scientific knowledge becomes community property, uniting us in a shared vision of the cosmos and ourselves. Each generation passes its accumulated information base and theoretical constructions to the next generation, like Olympiads who pass the torch, except that the advance of science more closely resembles a chaotic marathon of runners, collectively passing along a starry field of lighted matches.
Science could never have arisen if man were a solitary animal who did not communicate with his fellows. Nor could science survive if its participants were habitually dishonest concerning their discoveries and clinical studies.
Ambition, greed, and zeal afflict all people, of course, including scientists.[xvi] Just as scientists have devised internal methods (such as double-blind tests, control versus treatment groups, large randomized samples, and peer review) to filter out bias and detect errors or fraud, so we also need effective cultural mechanisms for the oversight of our social interactions. The scientific spirit provides a useful model for culture at large. It holds up a clear ethical ideal, accessible to the scientist and the nonscientist alike, so that when we fall short of that ideal, it stands above us to help us rise again.
The model scientist pushes his theories as far as the facts justify and then no further. He attempts to convince with evidence, not through stupefying indoctrination and certainly not with the heretic’s whip. He makes no appeal to personal interest, political advantage, race, gender, or prestige. The only form of persuasion respected in a scientific forum is an observable, testable fact.
In the arena of jurisprudence, this spirit of disinterested judgment forms the basis of our concept of justice. Procedural due process is at heart the application of the scientific attitude to the law.
Democracy is the political corollary to the scientific method. The moral principles requisite to the advance of science, such as personal equality, universal education, and free communication, correspond precisely with those social characteristics most essential for the operation of a democracy. It is no accident that scientifically advanced nations are among the most democratic. Freedom of thought and freedom of action arise from the same cultural climate. Within a well-run research lab, just as within a democratic society, all people may participate on an equal footing, limited only by their own abilities and application.
A wealth of ethical, social, and political principles is entailed by the practice of science. Science has sprung from specific moral values and, in turn, fosters the further development of those moral values. It is impossible to have an amoral science.
Anti-intellectualists struggle constantly to isolate practical science from its philosophical and moral implications. They strive to domesticate science, defang it, and render it culturally impotent. They want to slow down the train.
The TV preacher was factually correct to point out that no chemist in a laboratory ever discovered the formula for right and wrong. But his complaint was, at best, misdirected, or at worst, misdirection. Scientists aren’t asserting that our values can be reduced to molecules—that if we did the right chemical analysis we would be able to align our behavior with some transcendent moral absolutes. The philosopher David Hume’s prohibition against deriving an ought from an is takes that option off the table.
Nonetheless, right and wrong are not beyond scientific investigation. Some chemicals—hormones, for instance—have deep relevance to ethics, a fact we wouldn’t know without science. Without the pervasive ethical underpinnings of the scientific temper, it is doubtful whether the chemist would even exist.
The TV preacher’s antipathy toward science is itself depraved. Anti-intellectualism never has been and never will be the ethical high ground. We must promote universal education and support the advance of reason, not only because they yield practical advantages, but also because they tap our deepest moral wellsprings: integrity, equality, social cohesion, and our passion for understanding.
The preacher complained that the rockets returning from the moon brought home no morality. But when we view the Apollo 8 astronauts’ photographs of Earthrise, do we not feel the unity of all earthly life, and isn’t this a potent moral message?
At the very least we brought home from the moon the morality we took with us, the same morality that took us there. The moon rockets were ultimately propelled, not by liquid hydrogen, oxygen, or RP-1, but by moral values such as our love of knowledge, adventure, truth, life, and civil society. Science is permeated, beginning to end, with morality. Victor Stenger highlighted another comparative moral advantage of science over religion: “Science flies us to the moon. Religion flies us into buildings.”[xvii]
In Religion Refuted, I emphasized three points. First, humans (atheists and theists alike) acquired their basic moral sentiments through the evolutionary process. Second, our subjective moral impulses can be informed and regulated by objective moral standards based on an empirical understanding of human nature. Third, as I have argued in this blog post, our moral values are shaped and reinforced by thoroughly godless activities, including the practice of science.
In other words, morality has natural origins and requires no god for its propagation. These facts are sufficient to debunk the moral argument. And they also debunk the notion that science has no connection with morality.
[i] Hitler’s April 26, 1933 speech during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of 1933
[ii] Michael Pettinger, assistant professor of literature at the New School, a liberal arts college in Greenwich Village, New York City, published this statement on 8/20/12 in a Huffington Post online article titled “New Atheism and the Same Old Story”. www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-pettinger-phd/new-atheism-and-the-same-old-story_b_1788708.html
[iii] Other science trivia: Possums are unique among animals in having thirteen nipples. Some comets have moons. Pheromones cause young women in college dormitories to synchronize their ovulation (the Wellesley Effect). Female southern pine beetles (Dendroctonus frontalis Zimmermann) fart a pheromone to attract males. Half the humans who have ever lived died of malaria or other mosquito-borne diseases. About ninety percent of surface water in India is contaminated by feces. Lightning strikes Earth 44 times per second. The combined weight of all humans is half that of krill. Tropical Hawk moths defend themselves from echolocating bats with blasts of ultrasound from their genitals. Armadillos sleep eighty percent of their lives. If you removed all the empty space within the atoms of your body you would be microscopic. Changes in the direction and speed of the jet stream can alter the length of a day by as much as 120 microseconds (millionths of a second). During a normal lifespan a person generates enough saliva to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. Neurologists think approximately one third of people feel an impulse to sneeze when looking at a light because the optic nerve signal that gets sent to the brain to constrict the pupils leaks electrical current into the nearby trigeminal nerve and causes the brain to falsely perceive an irritant in the nose. Male hippos “tail flick” their feces as a territorial display. Pigeons are better at recognizing themselves in a mirror than are three-year-old humans. Babies under one month have very little color vision.
[iv] H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun (4/4/1927)
[v] Dan Graves, “Yale Founded to Fight Liberalism”, (Christianity.com, April 2007), http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1701-1800/yale-founded-to-fight-liberalism-11630185.html
[vi] One might wonder, on the Christian worldview, why universities are needed. Why don’t Christians just ask their omniscient god the answers to whatever questions they have? Christians do ask questions, of course, but often dumb questions. Is there a quota on good questions? Apparently so. There must be a quota on prayers as well, since Christians build hospitals, wear seatbelts, and make sure their chicken is adequately cooked.
[vii] David C. Lindberg, “The Role of Christianity”, Chapter 7 (Roman and Earlier Medieval Science), The Beginnings of Western Science, Second Edition (University of Chicago, 2007)
[viii] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Cooper dated November 2, 1822
[ix] On April 26, 1933, in a speech during negotiations leading to the Nazi-Vatican Concordat of 1933, Adolf Hitler insisted that “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently all character training and religion must be derived from faith…We need believing people.”
[x] Deepak Chopra has compared himself to other thinkers who relied heavily on metaphor and nonliteral language, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s most famous student, Henry David Thoreau, feared, not that his rhetoric would be too extravagant, but that it would not be extravagant enough. Thoreau observed that the man who is half again as brilliant as the ordinary man will be perceived by the ordinary man as a half-wit because the ordinary man appreciates only a third part of his wit. Maybe. But I doubt it. There is a tendency among the poetic class to believe that, by prancing about in a mist of obscurity, they rise above those who strive for clear and literally truthful communication. Deepak Chopra’s fluffy, flowery statements, which are literally false yet sound superficially profound, seem calculated to awe and befuddle.
[xi] Janet Reitman, Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston) p. 29, (“denyer” engram that causes rejection of dianetics), p. 40. (e-meter based on lie-detector used by Carl Jung and other psychologists)
[xii] Although the founder of the Heaven’s Gate cult wore a spiffy uniform, reminiscent of the Star Trek uniforms, when the 39 members of the cult committed mass suicide (by downing applesauce laced with phenobarbital chased by vodka), ordinary cult members were caught dead wearing cheap uniforms consisting of sweat pants, plain black T-shirts, matching running shoes, and armbands. They also put plastic bags over their heads so they would suffocate if the poison failed to do its job. Thomas Nichols was among the dead. His sister was the actress Nichelle Nichols, who played the role of the communications officer Lieutenant Uhura in the original Star Trek TV series.
[xiii] The court, in issuing its conviction in 1826 in the case People of the State of New York versus Joseph Smith, denounced Smith as “a disorderly person and imposter.”
Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven, (Anchor Books, New York, 2004), p. 59.
[xv] There’s some dispute over whether Kolob is a star or planet. Joseph Smith referred to it as a heavenly body. His Book of Abraham sometimes referred to planets as stars.
[xvi] See relevant articles in The Economist magazine (September 10, 2011) and Discover magazine (April 2012)
[xvii] Victor Stenger, The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY, 2009), p. 59.