Jon, Ron, and the wages of sin

Sat 15 Apr 2006 06:22 AM

Another entry written in Cafe Isolabella, this one riffing on blog entries written by two of my colleagues. They seem related without actually talking about the same thing, so here is a bit of conceptual connect-the-dots.

Jon comments on a study finding that praying for patients seems to have no positive effect on outcomes. As commenters note, the study presumes that the effect of prayer to look for is an effect on the thing prayed about. This views prayer as a kind of divine technology, invoking God to convert the supplicant's faith into worldly outcomes. An alternate view of prayer would direct us to effects on the person praying. Commenters recount being taught the latter view in their Catholic upbringing, and it is the view of some moderate protestant denominations. Studies may observe an effect of this kind, but such an effect does not require a supernatural explanation. It is prayer as divine technology that would be spooky action-at-a-distance.

Ron comments on a study showing that atheists are the most distrusted minority in the US. The religious complaint about atheists is that-- because they don't believe in God-- they cannot comprehend the demands of ethics.

For some, I suppose, this might be a metaphysical conclusion: If there were no God, then nothing would be prohibited. Not everyone sees this as a reason to be religious; cf. Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre. And the conclusion seems to presume the bankrupt divine command theory of morality; cf. Plato. I do not want to kvetch about the metaphysical argument, though, because I think that most people see it as a matter of moral psychology rather than metaphysics. The promise of an afterlife is supposed to motivate good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour. The wages of sin are death.

Mill comments that this vision of the afterlife is barbaric, noting the contrast with ancient Greeks who thought that one might want to do what was good even without threats and promises. Even so, it is easy to see how the vision is motivated. It is disheartening that virtue is not uniformly rewarded and vice uniformly punished in this world. An afterlife would remedy this obvious flaw in the actual world.

The divine technology view of prayer is even more barbaric. It forgets that vice often brings profit and virtue none at all, pretending instead that God will reward believers in this world and just in the way that they want to be rewarded. The divine technology view, were it true, would make an afterlife redundant. If the virtuous thought to ask, final judgment could be apportioned in media res.

Sadly, many of my compatriots believe in both. As the T-shirt says: Dear lord, please protect me from your followers.


from: Dabodius

Tue 18 Apr 2006 07:34 PM

"The religious complaint about atheists is that-- because they don't believe in God-- they cannot comprehend the demands of ethics." I haven't read the study, but trust figures only in the headline and the "what" of the press release, which may have been written by a publicist, not a sociologist. The moral you infer from the press release is questionable as well. The leading researcher, in explaining her results, says, “Our findings seem to rest on a view of atheists as self-interested individuals who are not concerned with the common good.” Such a view is not the same, to my mind, as incomprehension of ethical demands or moral imperatives or their bindingness. My dogmatically libertarian atheist friends are self-righteously self-interested, share little of my conception of the common good and reprobate my "weasel" ideas of social justice rooted in Judaism. For all that, they try as hard as anyone to keep their promises and to assert only things they believe to be true. If religious Americans really distrusted our athiest neighbors or thought their atheism amounted to sociopathy. we would never lend them anything or go out of town leaving our households undefended. Do contemporary atheists need a victimological story in which they can play the Suffering Servant to redeem the religious rest of us?

from: P.D.

Wed 19 Apr 2006 11:32 AM

"Do contemporary atheists need a victimological story in which they can play the Suffering Servant to redeem the religious rest of us?"

Of course not. I don't mean to lament to woes of atheists.

Perhaps for you the suspicion of selfishness is an inductive generalization from the atheists that you know. Many people don't know enough atheists well enough to make such a generalization, though, and there is some rationalization involved.

You are right to point out that there is a large gap between saying that atheists tend to be selfish and saying that they cannot comprehend ethical demands. The study, as reported, suggests only that people say the former. Some theists do say the latter, especially those fighting for myths to be taught in public schools or for a Ten Commandments monolith to stand in a court house.

from: Dabodius

Wed 19 Apr 2006 02:33 PM

I'm sorry if I wasn't clear. Most of the atheists I know are no more selfish than the theists. I used those who are rather too impressed with the ideas of Ayn Rand to show that even atheists who describe themselves as selfish and demur from a robust view of the common good are as trustworthy and trusted as the rest of us. A fortiori we should expect atheists who share a robuster view of the common good and of the moral priority of benevolence with their non-atheist neighbors to be trusted as well. I haven't read the study and don't know its conclusions. But it wouldn't be the first time that a headline wasn't borne out by the story beneath.