Saturday, March 8, 2008

noble morality

I heard about two minutes of an interview with Richard Dawkins yesterday on NPR. It was on Fresh Air, with Terry Gross of the wonderfully comforting voice. Dawkins sounded eminently reasonable and smart, and I always sigh when I hear very hard-line atheists on these programs, because being me, I am always swayed by (as a friend put it) a good argument. And, being Dawkins, of course he had a good argument.

Except I wasn't swayed so much this time. (Perhaps all this time praying through my faith doldrums is helping?)

His argument is that the reason religious people have to be moral is either a) because they think it's God's will, and/or b) because they're afraid of Him punishing them if they're not moral. Which, he says, is not very noble, because it's only being moral because someone is watching us. Much more noble, Dawkins argues, is being moral when you think we're alone in the universe, because then you're doing it for the right reasons--the morality itself.

Except when I thought about it, I don't think he's right.

Dawkins' argument assumes that each of us is this independent, wholly other being that can be separated completely out of the web of interconnectedness that binds us to other people (and I would argue, God). Because morality is, after all, about relationship, is it not? So how can you be "independent" in your morality? I think that's ridiculous. In other words, even the most hard-core atheist considers the opinions and interests of his loved ones (or just the neighbors) when he's deciding whether or not to be moral or not. Which makes his or her morality no more "noble" than anyone else's.

What is morality, anyway, if you take relationship out of the equation? Some kind of cold, scientific decision made in the privacy of our minds? No, it's an acknowledgement of our connectedness to others--our shared humanity, or life, in the case of animals or plants, or the earth. I think were in relationship to God, as well as our neighbors, and so have to weigh His (or Her) opinion and interest just as we weigh others' interests. Because if God is the creator of all of us--he's hardly disinterested. To make an analogy: if someone is mean to Lucy, it affects me, too. It pains me. Just as God is affected by our immorality.

And that idea of us all being independent actors, atomized and separate from everyone around us? I'm tired of that idea. I think it's ridiculous. And vain, and selfish, and probably ridiculous, if we're honest with ourselves. I think this idea is largely a construction of our time, that would seem incomprehensible to most other cultures and times. And I think it is going to be less and less useful as our society runs into the limitations we've been ignoring so long (like depleted water, oil, and natural resources).

So there you go, Richard Dawkins. I think you are a very smart, articulate person, but I heartily disagree with you. Although your accent is pretty sweet.

1 comment:

Todd Stadler said...

Ah, Richard Dawkins, fundamentalist televangelist for atheists (telenonangelist?)! It isn't really fair in a sense to respond to his thoughts via your characterization of them, but, well, I'm going to.

First off, did he give any idea what he meant by "moral"? I know it annoys some non-theists when people suggest that they don't have morals as such, but it seems clear to me that I and they might mean something different by the term. After all, my morals are based on God's words in the Bible. If it's not pre- or proscribed there, I don't think I have a problem with it one way or another. Obviously, this is not the definition Dawkins or any of his ilk would use.

So what would his morals be? A system of behavior either of itself or to an end (propagation of the species is the usual candidate here). But where would that system come from? Either a collection of people or an idea (held by a collection of people to be endemic to our system). In short, from something outside the individual. And why adhere to that system? Because someone is -- or might be -- watching or find out later.

Now that I think of it, I can't think of many morals universally held by non-theists that don't involve the interaction between one or more people. But implicit in them is the idea that someone is going to be harmed by what you do -- in short, you act so as to conform to other's ideas.

Now that I've written all that and reread your entry, I think we're saying the same thing. I didn't get that until I wrote it out myself. Huh.