Monday, January 09, 2006

Religion, Morality, and Darwinism: A Response to Carson Holloway

One of the most thoughtful attacks on Darwinian conservatism has just been published by Spence Publishing--Carson Holloway's THE RIGHT DARWIN?--EVOLUTION, RELIGION, AND THE FUTURE OF DEMOCRACY. Holloway is now a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Ever since he was a Ph.D. student in my classes at Northern Illinois University, we have been carrying on a vigorous but friendly debate over these issues.

Although I have not yet read the final published book, I have read the manuscript for the book. My comments will be based on the manuscript.

Holloway argues that Darwinian conservatism is both illusory and dangerous. The Darwinian conservatives are people like Francis Fukuyama, James Q. Wilson, and me--conservatives who think that a Darwinian view of human nature supports a conservative understanding of social and political order.

One of Holloway's main ideas is that a Darwinian account of morality as rooted in human nature cannot sustain morality, because morality is impossible without religion, and Darwianian science denies religious belief. In developing his reasoning, he relies heavily on Alexis de Tocqueville as a democratic conservative who saw the importance of religion for moral order.

First of all, I emphasize that I speak in my book of religious understanding as one of the 20 natural desires that constitute human nature as shaped by Darwinian evolution. Most conservatives believe that religion generally supports morality and social order generally. Even those conservatives who are skeptical about religious doctrines--Friedrich Hayek, for example--support religious traditions as socially beneficial. I agree with this. And yet I deny that morality is utterly impossible without religious belief, because I think that morality rests ultimately on moral sentiments in human nature, which motivate human beings regardless of whether they have any religious belief. Religion doesn't create morality. Rather, religion reflects and reinforces a natural morality rooted in human nature that exists prior to religion. Both religious conservatives and skeptical conservatives should agree on this. (I have a chapter on religion in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.)

When Holloway says that morality necessarily depends on religion, what does he mean by "religion"? Any religion? Would Holloway agree with conservatives like Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk who quote pagan philosophers like Cicero on the virtues of religious belief, and thus imply that pagan religion is as good as any other?

Or does a morally healthy religion depend on specific doctrines that supply the necessary and sufficient support for morality? Sometimes Holloway speaks of "revealed religion." What does this mean? Does this include more than biblical religion? This would seem so, because he associates Aristotle with "revealed religion." But it's hard to see how Aristotle's account of religion depends on "revelation."

Is it necessary to distinguish "true religion," which provides the necessary support for morality, and "false religion," which does not? Or is Holloway implying that even a "false religion" supports morality? If so, how so?

Would any of the biblical religions--Judaism, Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant), Mormonism, and Islam--provide the necessary support for morality? Sometimes Holloway appeals to Christianity. Does this mean that Judaism and Islam do not support morality? Sometimes he speaks of "Catholic Christianity." Is this meant to imply that Protestant Christianity is not as reliable?

Since Holloway does not specify the doctrinal content of religion, I wonder if he is implying that doctrinal content is not important for supporting morality. As I read Tocqueville, he is applying to America Rousseau's idea of "civil religion," in which the only required doctrines are the existence of a providential God who enforces a moral law by punishing the bad and rewarding the good. Is this the doctrinal content of the morally healthy religion?

I don't see much evidence that Tocqueville himself was an orthodox believer. In his letter to Madame Swetchine (February 26, 1857), he describes his loss of faith at age 16. He does, however, suggest that he held onto some vague notions of God and an afterlife, suggesting some kind of Deism. Is this enough for the kind of religion that Holloway has in mind? Does it make any difference whether Tocqueville himself was a sincere religious believer?

How would Holloway's view of the moral necessity of religion differ from David Sloan Wilson's Darwinian (and Durkheimian) account of the social utility of religion in binding people into cooperative communities? Would Holloway say that the only religion with social utility is the one with true doctrines--namely, Christianity?

Holloway repeatedly asserts that religion supports some very specific moral positions--such as condemning slavery. But he never cites any specific religious texts to show how they necessarily support the moral positions that he favors. The case of slavery and "universalism" illustrates the problem. He assumes that religion necessitates a "universal" morality that would deny the morality of slavery. But many religious traditions have allowed slavery, and the Bible never condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. On the contrary, in the American debate over slavery, Christian defenders of slavery were able to cite specific biblical passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament supporting slavery. Opponents of slavery had to argue that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God's image implicitly denied the justice of slavery. But they could never cite any specific passage of the Bible for their position. Here's a clear case of where the moral teaching of the Bible depends on our coming to it with a prior moral understanding that we then read into the Bible.

Moreover, the "universalism" of the Bible is in doubt. I don't see a universal morality in the Old Testament. Moses ordering the slaughter of the innocent Mideanite women and children, for example, manifests a xenophobia that runs through much of the Old Testament.

Now, of course, the New Testament does seem more inclined to a universal humanitarianism. But the Book of Revelation teaches that at the end of history the saints will destroy the Antichrist and the unbelievers in bloody battle. The bloodiness of this vision has been dramatized throughout the history of Christianity. (See, for example, Tim LaHaye's popular LEFT BEHIND novels.)

Holloway speaks of the moral universalism required for opposing Nazism. Is there any evidence that those who rescued Jews in World War II were all moved by religious belief? My impression is that religious belief was not decisive for the rescuers. And, of course, there is a continuing controversy over whether the Christian churches in Europe did enough to oppose Hitler. The German Lutheran Church was inclined to interpret the 13th Chapter of Romans as dictating obedience to the authorities. Martin Luther himself was brutal in his expression of anti-Semitism. How would Holloway explain cases like this? Would he say that the true doctrines of biblical religion always require universal love, and therefore any behavior by a biblical believer that violates universal love is based on a misinterpretation of biblical doctrine?

Holloway refers to President Bill Clinton's moral lapses with Monica Lewinsky. But Holloway fails to acknowledge that Clinton met regularly with ministers, prayed for foregiveness, and (he said)was forgiven by Jesus. Holloway might accuse him of being insincere, but the point is that a "civil religion" cannot distinguish between sincere and insincere professions of faith.

In his chapter on the family, Holloway seems to say that marriage and the family cannot be sustained based on nature alone, in contrast to Thomas Aquinas's distinction between marriage as a natural bond and marriage as a supernatural sacrament. But it seems to me, as I argue in my book, that familial bonding satisfies natural desires that will be universally expressed regardless of religious beliefs. In fact, entire civilizations that have had little or no religious belief--such as Confucian China--have nevertheless promoted familial bonds and duties.

The idea that morality has no natural ground and that it would disappear if people did not obey the commands of God implies a kind of nihilism. If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.

I don't agree. Morality is rooted in human nature--in moral sentiments and moral reasoning deeply embedded in the evolved nature of the human animal. Religion can reinforce that morality. And conservatives should always respect religious traditions that sustain morality. But Darwinian conservatives will see that morality can stand on its own natural ground, even without religious support.


Larry Arnhart said...

Presumably, in most cases, human beings who sacrifice their lives for a good cause do so instinctively with little deliberate thought.

As you suggest, if there is deliberation, there is likely to be some struggle between conflicting impulses--the desire for self-preservation in conflict with social desires that dictate sacrifice. Darwin suggests that such deliberate reflection allows human beings to regret their choices. If we yield to an impulse for self-preservation and fail to act for some higher good, we might feel deep regret later.

If we are deliberating whether to make such a sacrifice, might we not decide that life is not worth living if it means that we live a dishonorable life--say, for example, the life of a cowardly soldier who has failed to do his duty?

The human love of honor--the concern for how we appear to others--is a powerful motive that drives human beings to sacrifice their personal interests--and even their very lives--in the service of social goods.

Anonymous said...

Yes that's a good point - the person who sacrifices their life, may feel that if they don't they will lead a life of dishonour.

That is very close to the feelings of the Palestinian bombers depicted in "Paradise Now" (well worth seeing for those interested in this area) - who feel that life in the occupied territories under Israel, is like being in prison.

So the sacrificer is arguably weighing up alternative futures in THIS life.

Nevertheless, I'm still not entirely happy with that explanation. People do sacrifice their lives, it seems to me, in various, much less dramatic and longer term ways, to make the world a better place for others and society at large. Perhaps it can all be explained in terms of risks and payoffs in this life - but I'm still not sure. Needs more thought.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think the supposed "universalism" that one finds in the NT is due to Hellenistic influence (i.e. the Stoics). The Stoics weren't saints but they articulated "universalism" much more clearly than any passage in the NT and, to their credit, they promoted reason rather than the irrational faith of Christianity.

Anonymous said...

I also find it a bit odd that "universalism" is attributed to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The OT and NT are some of the most fascistic documents ever written; if they support anything like "universalism," it is certainly not anything like the cosmopolitan universalism that we associate with modernity. Poor Cicero isn't being given his due:

""There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil. Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law, and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation. Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice. It needs no other expositor and interpreter than our own conscience. It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing to–day and another to–morrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must for ever reign, eternal and imperishable. It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings. God himself is its author,—its promulgator,—its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man. For his crime he must endure the severest penalties hereafter, even if he avoid the usual misfortunes of the present life."

On the surface, the above quote could have been written by Thomas Jefferson or John Locke. It was, however, written in 51 BC by Marcus Tullius Cicero in his work on political philosophy, The Republic. "