First Annual Cliché Festival … Venting About Half-Truths and Outright Nonsense

skepticI hope you, my Faithful Readers, will give me leave this time around to be somewhat self-indulgent and to simply “vent” about some assertions that I have heard seemingly more often than usual over the last six months or so. (Why? I dunno ... maybe it's because we are heading into an election year.) Whenever anyone says anything like the following, I usually just smile vacantly, nod my head, sometimes mumble some conciliatory generic mouth-noises, and wish for a tumbler of good bourbon … preferably Maker’s Mark. But sometimes “my cup runneth over” and I have to respond. The redeeming social virtue of the following is that, by reading the following mini-rants, you may be encouraged to become skeptics yourselves about such verbal white noise, at least to the point of beginning to separate out the forensic wheat from the chaff. I say “wheat from the chaff” because none of the following sentiments are altogether and categorically wrong … which makes critical examination all the more necessary.

     o "You cannot legislate morality”


In one sense, this is true, of course. For example, I seriously doubt that the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in and of itself, made any racists less racist, or that the US v. Windsor and Obergefell (and Lawrence v. Texas and Romer v. Evans and … etc.) Supreme Court decisions made any homophobes less … well … homophobic. Insofar as racism, homophobia, islamophobia, gynophobia (fear of / bigotry against women), etc., etc. are matters of the spirit and heart -- and deep spirit- and heart-matters, at that -- to that same extent they are beyond the reach of mere legislation and juridical influence. That is true of all subjective matters of attitude and value. (I do not completely discount the theoretical possibility that maybe, somewhere, sometime an anti-gay bigot underwent a Damascene conversion by reading the text of, e.g., Obergefell v. Hodges, but I think it is safe to say that such a conversion does not occur the second Thursday of each month.) What is not beyond legislative and juridical influence, however, is overt behavior. Laws and courts can mandate that I act differently even if they cannot mandate that I actually like acting differently. I do not like being forced to wear seat belts as a passenger and, left to my own devices, would not do so. But wearing a seat belt is preferable to getting dinged with a $124 fine, so I change my behavior: I wear the seat belt. But as overt behavior changes, over time, gradually, incrementally, usually with the speed of an onrushing tectonic plate, matters of value, attitude, and personal morality can change, as well. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the 1200s, referred to changes in character resulting from incremental changes of behavior as habitus:  repeated behavior that, over time, changes the character of the person doing the changing. There was a time when I even chafed at wearing a driver’s-side seat belt, but over several years I was “converted”: now I feel distinctly uncomfortable if I do not wear a seat belt while driving. Likewise, racists, homophobes, etc., can sometimes – not always, of course – be converted away from racism and homophobia by being forced under penalty of law to act as if they are not racists and homophobes. (And if not them, then their children.) Homophobic people start out acting – under duress – as if they are not such, and, while there are no guarantees, habits of mind may form that result in them really not being such. It is a matter of habit ... habitus.

     o "One must respect all cultures and their practices, because there are no criteria to use in evaluating them"


This cliché is reminiscent of conservative evangelical and fundamentalist Christians alleging that, because atheists and agnostics do not believe in God, therefore atheists and agnostics have no “objective basis for morality”. This is odd for a couple of reasons: (a) it was precisely passionate believers in God that plunged European civilization into at least two centuries of bloody religious war -- odd behavior for people whose belief in God ostensibly gave them such an “objective basis for morality”; and (b) that God is the sole and only basis for morality simply breezes past the fact that homo sapiens sapiens has at least 10,000 years’ worth of experience in living in community, and that during those (at least) 10 millennia the species has accumulated vast reservoirs of hard-earned and experientially validated expertise in what conduces to the survival and flourishing of the human company. (I recently published a fuller treatment of this topic, which I call “anthropic ethics".) In fact, more often than not, the insistence on rigorous adherence to a religiously grounded code of ethics has caused human civilization to backslide, to regress from what it has learned from experience, e.g., prohibitions against women’s equality and homosexuality. Does anyone seriously believe that barring women from certain professions (e.g., coaching professional football) and practices (e.g., driving a car) and political activity -- in other words, frustrating the talents, creativity, energy, and wisdom of roughly half the human population -- does anything to further the welfare of the human community? Similar questions can be asked about LGBTQIA rights. (Remember: Alan Turing, the man who ran the Bletchley Park code-breaking operation in England during World War II that rendered Nazi military communications readable, was persecuted to the point of suicide simply because he was gay.) Yet both beliefs were once matters of course, and both relied for their validation on various religious categories and theological precepts. Most of the time, human society would be immeasurably better off if it had taken collective action based on what it knew on the basis of its collective experience instead of what it simply believed on the basis of religious authority. The latter has been a constructive influence only when consistent with, and validated by, the former. There is indeed an "objective basis for morality". Conservative religious folks are right about that. But that "objective basis" has nothing to do with Divine revelation, and everything to do with human experience.

     o "Science and religion deal with utterly incommensurable aspects of reality, so there can be no contradiction"


This is another of those cliches that is, not altogether false, but just true enough to be misleading.  It is all the more deserving of critical examination because it has gained such wide currency, not only among the general public, but also among those who really should know better, e.g., people of such eminence as Prof. Stephen Jay Gould, late of Harvard University, who coined the term "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA).  The principle is true and reliable, but only as long as the "magisteria" (bodies of authoritative and validated teaching) really are and remain non-overlapping. When either science or religion crosses into the territory of the other, the result is confusion and misapprehension concerning issues of efficient and final causes. The most blatantly obvious "cross-border incursions" between science and religion are usually committed by advocates of fundamentalist religion. You can think of examples as good as any I could cite:  Ken Ham and the "creationist museum", the attempts by fundamentalists in Kansas and Pennsylvania to incorporate explicitly creationist / intelligent design elements into the science curricula of public schools, etc. As long as religious individuals and groups confine their comments and activism to matters of theology and religion, they have a perfect "free exercise"-clause right to articulate their beliefs. But when they cross over from theology and religious doctrine and begin to make scientific statements, then it is altogether fair to examine their statements by scientific criteria. In fact, not doing so, e.g., in the name of "tolerance" or "dialogue",  is intellectually irresponsible. There is nothing remotely theological or religious about saying that human beings and dinosaurs were contemporaries. That is a scientific assertion -- laughably wrong, of course, but a statement that can be examined according to the canons of science -- and it is not religious bigotry, and least of all a "War on Christianity," to treat it as such. But by the same token -- to look at the other side of the above principle -- when, e.g., Stephen Hawking says that the progress of science has rendered the whole concept of God superfluous, that is a category mistake easily the equal of anything emanating from the "creationist museum". Questions of great magnitude get begged by such fallacies. Perhaps the most glaringly begged question in the latter case is "Superfluous for what purpose?" I am not aware of anyone, scientist or theologian, who proposes using God as a construct in scientific explanation. (Pace Ken Ham & Co!) From that standpoint, Hawking, Dennett, Dawkins, & Co. are on solid ground. But their critique only holds if one assumes that scientific explanation is the only game human beings play with religion ... which itself requires a highly non-trivial degree of ... well ... faith.

       o “Judging others is always wrong”


Again, this is one of those statements that is, not altogether false, but true in one sense and false in another ... and, even at that, just true enough to be potentially misleading. Insofar as one is referring to one's competence to judge the intrinsic worth of another person or to assess their degree of responsibility for an act, the "Judge not" rubric is usually more right than wrong.  But if the object of judgment is acts that people commit, then a categorical admonition to refrain from all judgment per se would result in a nightmare world of nihilism incarnate. Consider the program of ethnic cleansing carried out against Muslims by Slobodan Milosevic and his accomplices during the Balkan War of the '90s. Does anyone seriously propose refraining from judging the morality of, e.g., the slaughter of civilians at the "refugee camp" of Sbrebrenica? Judging the morality of such actions is not only valid, it is a precondition for living in a civilized society -- in fact, for living in a society, period. What, then, of Milosevic himself as the principal architect of the slaughter? It is tempting in the extreme to enter a similar judgment about him ... until one remembers that, as a young child and adolescent, Slobodan Milosevic witnessed, at different times, the suicide of both his parents. This circumstance is not exculpatory. But it is mitigating to the extent -- and this is also a matter of judgment -- that such traumas must have played a role in "programming" Milosevic's subsequent approach to life and his attitude toward people. Rather than expand this point, I will only refer you to Sam Harris's brief but provocative books The Moral Landscape and Free Will.

The moral of the story -- so to speak -- is "The Devil is in the details". So is God. Principles that superficially sound warm and fuzzy and tolerant may, in practice and absent careful discernment, lead to the opposite, e.g., acquiescing to the marginalization of women and genital mutilation in theocratic Muslim societies in the name of "respect for culture". But then, practice and careful discernment are of the essence of all judgment, moral and otherwise.

James R. Cowles


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