Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Is blogging an ethical act?

From Goosing the Antithesis:

Alison really hit the nail on the head when she told me the real issue was that people actually believe in the act of belief itself. Indeed, the Christians have been positioning themselves as being part of the "belief-based" side and that they support religion against atheism, instead of their regular exclusivism. Because of this, a most vital debate that should be taking place right now, and which people like Dawkins and Harris are starting, is "is belief an ethical act?" (and by ethical we mean: as a social rule or judgment, group norm, etc, as opposed to personal judgments)

That is the real issue that should concern all of us, atheists and religious alike.
Francois Tremblay's writing is very interesting to me, because despite the fact that I rarely agree with his conclusions, he is indeed very adept at cutting to the heart of an issue. The problem with this issue, however, is that he seems to be making some assumptions that I don't completely agree with.

Actually, almost more than the assumptions, the thing that I have issue with is the definitions of the words used in the question. If "ethical" is taken to mean "...a social rule or judgment, group norm..." then the default answer is "Yes!" and really can hardly be anything else. As most if not all societies throughout the world are composed of a religious majority, the answer becomes a default. It seems to me that Tremblay (being an atheist) must either be sarcastic or far more lax in his wording than his usual writing in the above piece.

So I'll make some assumptions of my own to try and simplify the issue just a bit. The easy assumption is, from the larger context, that by "belief" we mean here "religion", that is, faith in a higher power of some sort. That being the case, however (or even if not) I question the use of the word "act", as belief, while something that oftentimes leads to action, is not really an action in itself.

Restating the question as "Is belief ethical?" still leaves us with items to sort out, though. Actually, it may be the reason that Tremblay phrased the question in that manner; are we asking if belief leads to ethical behavior, or if belief itself is ethical? Furthermore, are those two issues at all separable? Most religions come with a code of ethics built in, but such ethical codes may have difficult wrinkles in them that seem to be flaws: The God of Israel forbade human sacrifice, but ordered Abraham to kill his son. What happens when a supposedly moral God (who demands obedience as part and parcel of His moral code) orders a person to do something apparently immoral?

That issue in turn leads to another, probably more important one. How do we effectively define ethics apart from belief? There are many people who feel that there is a need for a supernatural basis for ethics and that without such a basis, ethics is meaningless. This has never been proven to me in a satisfactory manner, and as many an atheist has pointed out in one way or another, taking such a position robs us of our ability to reason out the true nature of ethics. (If you can't say that God is at least possibly immoral, then how is it meaningful to say that God is moral?) It seems that ethics need to either be relative or anchored in something even more fundamental than a supreme being. If a theist wants to propose otherwise, they would need to explain why, rather than take it as a given, I think. However, at the same time, moral relativism is something that needs some explaining; as one person implied in the comments of the original post, if morality is relative, then you once again are not able to say that God (or anyone else) is immoral.

A further wrinkle that I don't believe came up in the comments is that there is perhaps an assumed false dichotomy. If the answer to the question is "No", does that mean that belief is immoral? What if the answer is that belief is amoral? Indeed, I have heard it claimed by devout Jews at times that belief in God is not a prerequisite for being a good Jew; the Torah contains laws that are mostly prohibitive, and among those remaining laws that are requirements, belief in God is not one of them, so even the religious can believe that belief itself is not an ethical issue. If belief is amoral, then what does that imply? Does it make the question more important, or less?

While Tremblay's post is truly meaty food for thought, I fear that the question he raises has no obvious answer in the end.

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