Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Is Sweden Atheist?

Jerry Coyne has an article in USA today called You Can Be Good Without God. Most of it seems quite confused about the relationship between evolution and theism. He assumes the two are mutually exclusive. He must not get out much. He seems to make the error Ed Feser talks about.
The elimination of purpose and meaning from the modern conception of the material universe was not and is not a ‘result’ or ‘discovery’ of modern science, but rather a philosophical interpretation of the results of modern science which owes more to early modern secularist philosophers like Hobbes and Hume…than it does to the great scientists of the last few centuries
That is to say that as a biologist he things biological theories like evolution have obvious philosophical  implications. The trouble is real philosophers see those implications as anything but obvious. So when Coyne says:
As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American's biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. "Evolution," many argue, "could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul."
This is a straw man. I don't know anybody who argues this. But notice the opposites here. We have evolved  morality and God-instilled morality. Why can't it be both? These are no only not opposites. They are not even in the same category. Asking whether something is from evolution is a scientific question. Asking whether something is from God is a religious question. So the thinking is quite muddled.

Then he addresses the question we have been discussing a bit on this blog.
Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it's far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have. Secular morality is what pushes religion to improve its own dogma on issues such as slavery and the treatment of women. Secular morality is what prevents ethically irrelevant matters — what we eat, read or wear, when we work, or whom we have sex with — from being grouped with matters of genuine moral concern, like rape and child abuse. And really, isn't it better to be moral because you've worked out for yourself — in conjunction with your group — the right thing to do, rather than because you want to propitiate a god or avoid punishment in the hereafter?
So what does he think the purpose of morality is? Is it is just to be responsive to what we want to do? Then why have it? An immoral person does what he wants. Is that is the goal of morality? To do exactly what an immoral person would do? Secular morality was very responsive to the communists and the Nazis. It was able to "improve" it's dogmas against genocide.
Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done — in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok. In fact, you can make a good case that those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America.
 About 70% of Sweden's population are members of a church. It is less Christian than the US but hardly an atheist state. Still he begs the question when he asserts Sweden is moral. Sure they have "well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths." But you could say that about Nazi and Communist countries as well. He seems to feel qualified to judge the morality of Sweden. Based on what? 

The problem with secular morality is that whatever the ruling class thinks is moral can be declared to be moral.Western societies are not there yet. There is still a Christian moral sense deep in these populations. But how long will it last? It has given ground on abortion, euthanasia, etc. What is next? Where will it end? In principle all that is required is time and a continued decline in religion and anything can be accepted. Does that mean they will go out and do a bunch of evil things? They will do what is right in their own eyes. Just like Hitler did. Just like Stalin did.


  1. I think you may be somewhat misinformed regarding swedens religious dedication. Most of those swedes who are members of a church belong to the church of sweden that, until recently (2000) you automatically became part of. People hardly ever visit it except for baptisms, funerals or weddings. Its Tradition rather than Piety.

  2. Tradition rather than piety. I get that. But Christian morals are embedded in the tradition. Where do they get the moral principles the state tries to build society around. Could they just make up principles? Not right now. People still have some sense of right and wrong. Less and less all the time but still quite a bit. It comes from Christianity. It is a moral infrastructure that is slowly crumbling due to the lack of piety you talk about. The point is that calling them atheist is a stretch. Maybe in a few decades they will be close to atheist. Right now they are not. I do expect that when they get there their things will get ugly.