Cafe Inquiry: Can we be good without God?
The next University of Toronto Secular Alliance event is this coming Wednesday. The event is a part of the ongoing program entitled Cafe Inquiry. Cafe Inquiry is modeled after Cafe Scientifique, a grassroots endeavor to provide an opportunity for citizens both within and especially outside of the university community to learn about and discuss important issues with other interested people spanning the spectrum from newbie to expert. Cafe Scientifique was born in the UK, but there are now Cafes on every continent. Cafe Inquiry is a new program which is currently being run at at least two Center For Inquiry locations: CFI Ontario and CFI West. Here is the bill for the upcoming Toronto event followed by some commentary on the event topic:
Good Without God?
Discussion + Inquiry
Professors + Students
Relaxed + Thoughtful
Tea + Coffee
Join us for relaxed, thoughtful discussion between professors + students alike over tea + coffee.
Prof. Thomas Hurka – Dept. of Philosophy
Special interests: moral philosophy, political philosophy, ethics, value theory
Prof. Peter King – Dept. of Philosophy
Special interests: medieval philosophy, ancient philosophy, political philosophy
5pm – 7pm at the Centre for Inquiry Ontario
216 Beverley St. (St. George)
A short walk south of College St.
A few comments on the event and topic from me:
The content of discussion need not stay limited to philosophy. I personally will ensure relevant perspectives and findings from the cognitive sciences [e.g., research showing empathy in nonhuman species ranging from mice to primates; mirror neurons (i.e., neurons which fire both when one performs an action or attempts to carry out an intention as well as one when observes someone else perform the action or attempts to carry out the intention; mirror neurons are believed to play an integral role in our ability to be aware of the minds and intentions of others, to put oneself in the shoes of another, and have moral cognition)] and evolutionary biology (e.g., kin selection) are brought up.
Secondly, I think that this discussion could very easily move away from being about whether or not we can be good without God, and become focused on the cognitive science and evolution of moral cognition, and discussion on what constitutes morality. The reason for this being that it’s pretty obvious that we can be good without God. There are a number of nations where both religiosity and crime are low, and other countries such as the US where both are high. Secondly, within the US the more religious states tend to have more violent crime than less religious states. Thirdly, within American prisons self-identifying atheists are severely underrepresented given the proportion of the general population that they make up. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not arguing that religion actually makes one more likely to engage in crime—and crimes tend to be those things which societies view to be immoral or socially destructive. But it’s pretty clear that being an atheist does not preclude or decrease the likelihood of morality, and being religious does not preclude or decrease the likelihood of immorality. Lastly, if theism was a prerequisite for morality, one would expect organizations like the National Academy of Sciences (where only 7% of members of theists) and the Center For Inquiry (an international secularist and nontheist advocacy organization) to be rife with immorality, which is not the case at all.
Now, one might argue that many of our morals derived from early Christianity, and thus we did needed Christianity to teach us what is moral. A few things. Firstly, to say that morals came from Christianity is to assert that prior to 2000 years ago humans had absolutely no clue what morality is and what is moral. People had no reservations against murder, rape, theft, lying, infidelity, betrayal, greed, or other acts that fail to value the feelings and trust of others. Now, certainly there were societies prior to Christ that engaged in many of these behaviours. And there are places today where this happens—including places high in religiosity. But this is what happens during times of political instability, tribal collision, and desparation (e.g., famine). Secondly, that we retain many of the morals espoused by Christ does not necessitate that Christ was divine. Plenty of mere mortals have introduced ideas which came to be embraced by many people for a very long time. To say that Christ needed to be divine to propose what he proposed is to say that such morals were beyond human cognitive and emotional abilities. There is no reason to believe this to be the case and every reason to believe that it is not the case (e.g., evidence for the evolution of moral cognition—demonstrations of morality in nonhuman species; the fact that mirror neurons (which help us simulate the experience of others) jive perfectly with the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have done unto you, and loving others like you love yourself; there is no reason to believe that these moral tenets were beyond humanity).