He asked me what were the usual causes or motives that made one country go to war with another. I answered, they were innumerable; but I should only mention a few of the chief. Sometimes the ambition of princes, who never think they have land or people enough to govern; sometimes the corruption of ministers, who engage their master in a war, in order to stifle or divert the clamour of the subjects against their evil administration. Difference in opinions has cost many millions of lives: for instance, whether flesh be bread, or bread be flesh; whether the juice of a certain berry be blood or wine; whether whistling be a vice or a virtue; whether it be better to kiss a post, or throw it into the fire; what is the best colour for a coat, whether black, white, red, or gray; and whether it should be long or short, narrow or wide, dirty or clean; with many more. Neither are any wars so furious and bloody, or of so long a continuance, as those occasioned by difference in opinion, especially if it be in things indifferent.
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, Part IV, Chapter V
Buddha, the “Perfected” and perfecter, asserts not. He refuses to claim that unity exists or does not exist; that he who has passed through all the trials of immersion will persist in unity after death or that he will not persist in it. This refusal, this “noble silence,” has been explained in two ways. Theoretically: because perfection is said to elude the categories of thought and assertion. Practically: because the unveiling of such truths would not aid salvation. In truth both explanations belong together: whoever treats being as the object of an assertion, pulls it down into division, into the antitheses of the It-world — in which there is no salvation. “When, O monk, the view prevails that soul and body are identical, there is no salvation; when, O monk, the view prevails that the soul is one and the body another, then also there is no salvation.” In the envisaged mystery, even as in lived actuality, neither “thus it is” nor “thus it is not” prevails, neither being nor not-being, but rather thus-and-otherwise, being and not-being, the indissoluble. To confront the undivided mystery undivided, that is the primal condition of salvation. That the Buddha belongs to those who recognized this, is certain. Like all true teachers, he wishes to teach not a view but the way. He contests only one assertion, that of the “fools” who say there is no acting, no deed, no strength: we can go the way. He risks only one assertion, the decisive one: “There is, O monks, what is Unborn, Unbecome, Uncreated, Unformed”; if that were not, there would be no goal; that is, the way has a goal.
Martin Buber, I and Thou, pp. 138-9
While I don’t always agree with Huntington’s conclusions and opinions — and I sometimes dispute his “facts” — I must say that this book is an excellent introduction to the issues that we, inhabitants of the world, face as the world continues to “shrink” and members of such a great variety of civilizations and cultures are brought closer and closer together. “The other” is often more different from ourselves — and more difficult to really understand — than most of us would like to admit. Two features of this book that stood out to me as especially worthy of consideration were: 1. Huntington’s consideration of what it is that makes Western Civilization different from the other civilizations of the world and 2. Huntington’s examination of the roots of Islamic violence. In these two areas especially I think that his commentary is especially insightful and helpful. I recommend this book to all people of all civilizations as seek to live together peacefully in this complex world of ours.
I have to say that I find Skierkowa’s first rebuttal very interesting. Nowhere therein does he actually address the topic of the debate, namely, whether a consistent atheistic morality is possible. Nowhere therein does he address my contention that a naturalistic worldview must necessarily result in nihilism. Rather, he spends his entire entry attempting, it seems, to address Christian morality. Fair enough; I will do the same here, but I hope that Skierkowa’s next rebuttal will make an attempt at demonstrating for us why he thinks that I am wrong on the points more relevant to the debate.
Before I begin, I want to make a bit of an appeal to authority. Skierkowa seems to think that my contentions about the development of Western civilization and its moral ideas are something unique and original. They are not. What I stated on this matter in my opening statement is the same view propounded by nearly every historian and professor at every research group and university in the West. For my statements about the development of Western civilization and the important role that Judeo-Christian theological and moral ideas have played in that development, I have drawn upon such eminent scholars as Donald Kagan, Thomas Cahill, Huston Smith, Bertrand Russell, Christine Hayes, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Richard Tarnas. In other words, I’m not making it up.
With that said, I will now address some of the points that Skierkowa raised in his rebuttal.
First, I want to address Skierkowa’s contention that I’ve somehow fooled him as to what is my position here. On the contrary, I’ve been very open since the beginning about what I would be arguing here. I have stated my opinion on these issues many times in the past and sent Skierkowa links to places where I did so, such as in my series of posts here on “Why I’m not an atheist.” If Skierkowa chose not to inform himself of my position beforehand, I cannot be blamed for his negligence.
Skierkowa goes on to give two examples which he believes run contrary to my assertion that the bulk of pre-Christian morality can be defined by the phrase “might makes right.” His first example, that of the Greeks, is rather surprising to me. They certainly did, as Skierkowa points out, make “a rich exploration of morality, from the Good Life, to Normative Ethics, to Virtue Ethics.” They also practiced infanticide, pederasty, and the subjugation of women – and invented moral theories to reinforce these practices. I’m not trying to undermine the contribution that the Greeks have made to Western civilization here – they certainly made a great one – but only to state the facts plainly. The Greek concept of arête, or virtue, is a far different animal from modern Western conceptions of virtue. For the Greeks, the virtuous man was the noble man, the king, the powerful, the strong, the prideful. One can find this conception of the virtuous man throughout the works of Homer and Aristotle, for instance. In short, the Greek concept of virtue has much more in common with Nietzsche’s “master-morality” (in fact, he drew specifically on these Greek concepts in his own formulation) than with modern Western morality. Skierkowa points out that these Greek ideas re-entered the mainstream of Western civilization through the Enlightment. Actually, the reemergence of influence by Greek philosophy and culture really began during the Renaissance. And its influence is especially evidenced by the work of individuals like Machiavelli. Perhaps we should give The Prince another read.
The second example that Skierkowa brings forth is that of the Eastern religions. This is certainly a better example than the Greeks, but there are, however, a few problems with this example as well. First, this does not address the topic of atheistic or naturalistic morality as the Eastern religions are not atheistic or naturalistic; they all posit some form of eternal being or existence – this is a key matter in determining the nature of a morality that results from any given philosophy. Second, though the Eastern religions are famous for non-violence, the basis of this activity is far different and the activity itself is of a far different nature from that found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the Eastern religions, this non-violence takes a passive form – “do not hurt” – as one seeks escape for oneself from the karmic cycle. The motivation is selfish and the activity is passive. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, however, morality takes an active and altruistic stance. Not only are we not to harm, but we are to heal, and not for our own sakes alone but for the good of all living creatures. A final major problem with Skierkowa’s example here is that these Eastern religions had little, if any, effect on the development of Western civilization; in other words, they aren’t relevant to our discussion here.
Skierkowa then goes on the offensive in regards to the Old Testament stories concerning the warfare of the ancient Israelites. I’m more than willing to admit that these stories demonstrate a glaring inconsistency on the part of the ancient Israelites; there is no doubt of that. More to the point of this debate, Skierkowa has failed to ask himself why he believes their slaughter of their enemies, which included non-combatants such as women and children, to be wrong. Such practices were standard in ancient warfare; if a city was conquered, it was the normal course of action to enslave and/or exterminate its inhabitants. Why does Skierkowa think this is wrong? He believes this is immoral, of course, because of the heritage that he derives from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Early Christian thinkers such as Basil the Great and Augustine of Hippo were the first in the world to work toward the development of a concept of “just war” and, of course, they did so on the basis of the Judeo-Christian understanding of humanity. Skierkowa does not share this understanding; why then does he seek to retrospectively condemn the tradition from which he derives his modern perspective on the basis of that tradition itself? As I said, I’ll readily admit that the ancient Israelites acted inconsistently and contrary to their own beliefs in their conduct of warfare, but, more to the point of this debate, can Skierkowa admit – and demonstrate – that the atheistic regimes in Russia, China, and Thailand have acted contrary to their own philosophical principles in conducting their various massacres in the 20th century?
Skierkowa later makes the claim that rates of infanticide have dropped off significantly because of modern access to abortion. This is a very strange claim, given that condemnation of infanticide has always been coupled with condemnation of abortion in both Jewish and Christian writings. This is also a strange claim in the light of history. Skierkowa conceded early on, for example, that the ancient Jews – who certainly didn’t have better access to safe abortions than did their pagan contemporaries – had significantly lower rates of infanticide than their pagan neighbors. The same is true of the early and medieval Christians. In the end, this claim about abortion and infanticide is, to be blunt, a ridiculous one devoid of either philosophical or historical evidence.
Continuing on, Skierkowa claims in response to my words on Bertrand Russell’s response to Nietzsche that “apparently, appealing to emotions is okay for Christians, but not for Atheists.” I have no idea how Skierkowa got this from my words. On the contrary, I don’t think that an appeal to the emotions is an intellectually cohesive or logically satisfying argument from anyone, whether Christian or atheist. Appealing to emotion proves nothing for either side; that was exactly my point.
Skierkowa ends his rebuttal by doing essentially what I chastised Bertrand Russell for doing. He appeals again and again to his own preferences and emotions, which are, as I stated already in my opening statement, deeply ingrained with and shaped by the Judeo-Christian tradition. In essence, Skierkowa has done nothing in his opening statement and nothing in rebuttal to demonstrate how it is that a naturalist and atheist worldview can allow for a consistent, objective morality. He has done nothing to explain how it is that such a worldview does not tend naturally toward – and inevitably result in – nihilism. In short, he has done nothing to rebut Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky. I hope that his subsequent responses will make some headway in this direction. Thus far, my contention — and that of Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky — stands firmly.
For instance, Skierkowa chastises me for “conflating descriptive Darwinian Evolution with a proscriptive ethos” and yet goes on to do the exact same thing. Only a few sentences later he says “I am a human. Love, empathy, compassion, reciprocity; these are all a part of what that means.” Certainly. There are a few obvious problems here, though. First, as Skierkowa already said, he is conflating descriptive elements of human bio-mechanics with a prescriptive ethos. Second, hate, despair, disdain, and selfishness are also all part of what it means to be human; they are entirely natural. Upon what basis does Skierkowa choose the “love, empathy, compassion, [and] reciprocity” in his nature over the hate, despair, disdain, and selfishness in his nature? Finally, the question is not only why value these human traits over these others, but why value any of them at all? They are, after all, natural events. Earthquakes, the grass growing, and the wind blowing through the trees are all natural events as well. Why is Skierkowa’s love of more value than the wind blowing through the trees?
Skierkowa has simply re-stated the proposition that infanticide — whether within a society or against another society — is immoral and appealed to some vague notions of “love, empathy, compassion, reciprocity.” He has not told us yet why it is that he believes infanticide is morally repugnant. This is the heart of the matter. Until this question is answered in a consistent manner (i.e. one that doesn’t draw upon Judeo-Christian ideas or otherwise require a step outside of a naturalistic worldview), we have no reason to believe that a consistent atheistic and naturalistic worldview can indeed produce a consistent, objective morality.
In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held. Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second. Two things are to be remembered: that a man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence, but that no man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever. When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.
Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, pg. 39