Thursday, August 10, 2006

Carson Holloway in SCIENCE & THEOLOGY NEWS

Carson Holloway's book The Right Darwin? is a general criticism of any attempt to ground morality in human biological nature. His main idea is that there can be no morality without religious belief, and therefore any purely natural morality rooted in natural desires cannot work, because the natural desires are both moral and immoral. In particular, he criticizes my defense of Darwinian morality.

On January 9th, I posted a response on this blog to Holloway's book. Recently, he wrote a brief summary of his book's argument for Science and Theology News, which can be found here.

He implies that a Darwinian view of morality rejects religion as a source of moral instruction. This is not true, because as I have said on various occasions, Darwin emphasizes the importance of religious traditions as a source of moral principles. But insofar as morality is natural for human beings, morality can stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief. By contrast, Holloway insists that morality is impossible without religious belief. So it would seem that, for Holloway, atheists or those who don't have the right kind of religious beliefs cannot be moral. I disagree.

In this commentary, as in his book, Holloway is vague about what he means by "religion" and about exactly how religion supports morality. The only specific example he provides in his commentary is the moral debate over slavery. Darwin was a vigorous opponent of slavery. And I have argued that the human moral resistance to slavery was rooted in a natural human resistance to exploitation. Holloway suggests that this natural resistance is not enough without a religious ground for opposing slavery.

Holloway does not explain how exactly religion condemns slavery. He says nothing about the debate in the United States over the Biblical basis of slavery. The debate was so intense that some of the major Protestant denominations--such as the Baptists and Methodists--were split into northern and southern schisms, because southern Christians thought the Bible supported slavery, while northern Christians thought slavery was contrary to the Bible.

Slavery is never clearly condemned in the Bible. On the contrary, there are many passages that seemingly endorse slavery. Some recent books--such as Eugene Genovese's The Mind of the Master Class and Mark Noll's The Civil War as a Theological Crisis--have surveyed the Biblical arguments for slavery in the American South before the Civil War.

What would Holloway say about this? Would he say that the proslavery Christians misinterpreted the Bible? But where then does the Bible clearly condemn slavery? Does he really want to say that without the Bible it would be impossible to recognize the immorality of slavery?

This illustrates the implausibility of Holloway's argument. He assumes that religious texts such as the Bible provide a clear, reliable, and authoritative set of moral teachings that cannot be known by natural human experience. But it's hard to see how we could rely on the Bible for moral instruction if we could not pass it through that natural moral sense that Darwin saw as rooted in our evolved human nature.


Anonymous said...

How is lack of morality expressed? If atheists have no morality, how can we observe it?

Crime rates?
Anti-social behavior?

I guess we would expect atheists to be over represented in jails and in anti-social behavior if Mr. Holloway is right.

Perhaps we will also find lots of atheist suicide bombers too.

Is Mr. Holloway's theory supported by empirical observation?

Larry Arnhart said...

As far as I can tell, Holloway offers no empirical evidence that atheists are less moral than religious believers. Rather, he appeals to the vague sense that those who lack religious belief cannot be trusted to be moral. This all seems very dubious to me.

Anonymous said...

There are a number of things I found surprising about Mr. Holloway’s argument. Near the end discusses the “failure” of Darwinism in supporting morality in democracy (and presumably everywhere else), Holloway says:

“We are led by this failure, then, to reconsider Tocqueville’s emphasis on religion as a necessary part of the cultural equipment of a decent democracy. Our decline in moral consensus presents a real challenge. In light of Darwinism’s moral failure, however, Tocqueville would instruct us that a love of democracy does not mean replacing religion, but restoring its credibility.”

I wonder how Holloway deals with the whole of Toc’s teaching re: religion. In other words, our French visitor seems to find religion that promotes the immortality of the soul as politically useful in combating the materialism of the modern philosophers – and the opportunities everywhere in American commercial life. Toc argues that when “any religion has taken deep root in a democracy” it ought not be shaken. An impious man might see the term “any” and think that (for Toc) it doesn’t matter whether or not the religion is true – just that it is there.

Elsewhere in D in A, it is better (for democratic citizens) to believe that the human soul “would pass into a pig’s body than to believe it is nothing.” So I wonder if Mr. Holloway would argue that this sort of religion is a better support of morality than evidence found in the work of Darwin…

Toc goes so far as to suggest in the section on “Religious Beliefs and Thoughts of Spiritual Things” that even Platonic philosophy offers a better support of American democracy (and democracy as such) than the materialism accompanying modern philosophy and modern societies.

Perhaps a more honest use of Toc’s work in rejecting the supports of morality found in Darwin (and other sources in evolutionary biology) might be that ultimately “Darwinian natural right” (or whatever we may call it) becomes a materialist doctrine of a different sort. But it seems that what Toc does is reject materialism and the political philosophy guided by it – rather than embracing religion as the sole support for morality. There would be problems with taking this position as well, but I am wasting precious space in your blog.

I found this by accident Professor Arnhart and I look forward to reading your previous entries. Blogger is a much better format than My Space and I am glad to see you are using it this way. There may be hope for this “series of tubes” after all.

Anonymous said...

Now I feel bad because I read your Jan 9th entry and found you made many of the same arguments. At any rate, it is very exciting to find you writing on blogger. I will continue to read here with great interest.