Monday, December 21, 2009

A Response to Francis Collins: On Morality

Francis Collins recent appointment as director of the National Institutes of Health has sparked some outcry in the scientific community as of late. See the fallout at:

Jerry Coyne:

It's easy to see why the scientific community is nervous about appointing a devout Christian as head of all scientific funding and advancement, especially when the majority of Collins' beliefs directly contradict reason, or are limited in scope.

For example, in a recent lecture at Berkley about the compatibility of Faith and Science, Collins stated as a matter of fact like, that: "The existence of a “moral law” (which Collins defines as the universal observance by humans of codes of right and wrong) can be understood only by the existence of a creator."

I live in Japan, and it bothers me when poor theologians and religious nuts espouse that God is a source for a "universal" morality. A man as educated as Collins should know better. And now I can see why the scientific community is so nervous about his appointment.

I always like to teach the religious that what they talk about as “moral” laws are actually ethical standards. Standards which vary depending on culture, and the ebb and flow of trends within societies, separated and distinguished by the procession of time.

In Japanese culture they have the custom of bathing publicly, nude, in relaxing spas called ‘onsen’. Men, women, and children can go to these places to bathe and get clean. It’s an ancient custom, a hygienic necessity, and a cultural norm for the Japanese.

Whereas in Western and predominantly conservative cultures, most often religious, bathing naked with others would be a “moral” crime. It would tarnish the whole notion of bodily sanctity and chastity, of modesty, and of propriety and according to religious belief is viewed as indecent. In Christian circles, I’ve posited this cultural juxtaposition only to find the majority of Christians I talk to are shocked and irate at such a notion. They often snidely comment about how the Japanese are hedonists, unsaved, and will likely burn in hell for such “culturally backwards” and “degrading” practices. Others clam up, not wanting to offend others' sensitivities, but are undoubtedly disturbed or perturbed having heard about such a scandalous idea. But it would seem the point is lost on them.

The cultures are different, so too the cultural norms of what is considered acceptable and contemptible, right and wrong, and all this directly effects what the standard of ethical thought will be. Just to throw out another example, in Japan one of the biggest taboos is having a tattoo. In the West, such ink art is splattered over millions of fleshy bodies, even devout believers in Christ. But in Japan, a tattoo is the mark of villainy, only Yakuza (Japanese mafia), gangsters, and unrefined thugs have tattoos. Such types should be avoided at all costs, and foreigners who happen to have a little pink heart on their shoulder, or a butterfly painted on their ankle, or any little trivial ink done will be omitted and turned out from public establishments. Tattoos are a sign of evil! Well, even as it is an unfortunate stereotype, the point is that it's a cultural difference... an ethical standard unique to one cultural mode of thinking and not another. A moral sense of dissimilar cultural origin, but yet, still man-made.

But for a person of faith to admit that there is no such thing as a “universal” moral law would put into doubt their entire notion of morality. It would jeopardize their notion that they are the morally acceptable because they have God on their side. And so to adapt to such a naturalistic blow they go about demonizing those who are different, instead of embracing the differences and taking a curious interest into why it is so.

And this way of thinking, of holding your beliefs to be of an inviolable status above the rest, as the religious inevitably do, I find, breed intolerance, xenophobia, and prejudice. And is a direct consequence of believing God is a higher source of morality, and that people are not the progenitors of moral conduct. To the contrary, we humans have developed the concept, and moral standards and ethical concepts do vary from culture to culture. There is no universal. And if you ask me, I find it is irrational to assume morals stem from a divine source, when clearly it is not the case.

As for those ethical standards which the majority of humans abide by, such as not murdering, stealing, or sleeping around with others wives, these are common sense rules which have more to do with human solidarity and depend more on our necessity of communal interests and of survival more than they have to do with what is lawful according to imaginary gods of one religious ideology or another. And even if one form of "morality" was better suited than the next, it wouldn't prove it was God's definitive law (or for that matter which god's), it would merely prove to be the rule that was in our best interests.

Nor does it mean that just any one ethical standard will forever remain supreme. In the unforeseeable future there may be hither to unforeseen reasons for why a different or new standard of morality applies, and this constantly changing morality cannot be said to be better or worse--for these are standards we humans apply to it--they can only promise to be the best suited to our immediate purposes or needs. For example, I find rehabilitation of criminal offenders more moral, and better suited to society as a whole, than capital punishment. But millions of believers in God support capital punishment, even as it brings with it a myriad of ethical complications. But totally secular societies like Denmark and Sweden have shown how doing away with capital punishment (pardon the pun) and implementing rehabilitation for criminal offenders and reincorporating them into society, instead of simply eradication them, creates a more peaceful and healthier society. One filled with less crime and in where the value of human life is upheld and justice can still be served. The bottom line is, just to be clear, our moral sense of what constitutes any ethical standard is entirely a human invention. Albeit one that is constantly evolving, changing, and progressing; hopefully for the better.

My local Japanese Onsen's no Tattoos allowed sign.

Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist