University survey affirms we are ‘Bound to Believe’

Universities across Canada started their new academic year this past September.  Hundreds of thousands of students, from around the world, descended on campuses across Canada to participate in orientation events, meet old friends and new, and start another chapter in their student careers.

I was at McMaster University and joined in on some of the orientation events at the start of the year.  Though I was a bit more ‘of age’ than most, I also met old friends, made some new ones and partook in some orientation events.  My participation also confirmed a new stance in what psychologists are now saying about our Spirituality – that it is innately hardwired into us.  At an orientation event, I conducted a ‘Spiritual Interest Questionnaire’ for a TV draw.  Out of 375 entrants the responses for the first question were:

  1. In my view God…
  • __7%_  doesn’t exist
  • _10%_ doesn’t matter to me
  • _19%_  is someone I’d like to know more about
  • _49%_  is close to me
  • _15%_  Don’t know

What may seem surprising is that half the respondents indicated that God was ‘close to them’!  And almost one-fifth indicated a desire to know God ‘more’.  This tells us there is a lot going on in our brains when it comes to God, and it agrees with current research.

Research of Pascal Boyer

Cognitive psychologist Pascal Boyer, in the recent Nature article Religion: Bound to Believe? (NATURE Vol. 455, October 2008, pg 1038-1039) asked “why and how is religious thought so pervasive in human societies.  He was challenged with an issue perplexing to his atheistic beliefs.  If the relevance and case for God seems so weak (from the standpoint of the atheistic establishment in academia that he is part of) why then is it so prevalent and pervasive across all societies and throughout history?  The common assumption that people with religious faith are just superstitious and ignorant seems inadequate to explain the widespread and persistent occurrence of religious faith.  Caricatures common in media and academic circles of religious people depicted as ‘simple’ distorts the breadth of the phenomenon. This has puzzled many thinkers. Boyer argues that research has shown that people have “a slew of cognitive traits that predispose us to belief” and this is only recently coming to light because cognitive research now

“asks what in the human make-up renders religion possible and successful.  Religious thought and behaviour can be considered part of natural human capacities, like music, political systems, family elations or ethnic coalitions.”

And why is this part of our natural capacities?

“… humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence ; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. This goes even further. From childhood, humans form enduring, stable and important social relationships with fictional characters, imaginary friends, deceased relatives, unseen heroes and fantasized mates Indeed, the extraordinary social skills of humans, compared with other primates, may be honed by constant practice with imagined or absent partners.”

His conclusion?

“religious thoughts seem to be an emergent property of our standard cognitive capacities. Religious concepts and activities hijack our cognitive resources, as do music, visual art, cuisine, politics, economic institutions and fashion. This hijacking occurs simply because religion provides some form of what psychologists would call super stimuli. Just as visual art is more symmetrical and its colours more saturated than what is generally found in nature, religious agents are highly simplified versions of absent human agents,and religious rituals are highly stylized versions of precautionary procedures.”

In other words, our brains are wired to have non-physical ‘friends’ just like we are wired for musical, artistic, political, cuisine and fashion expression.   So, in fact, it is not surprising that half of my survey felt that God was ‘close to them.’  Boyer argues that this is the natural way for our brains to operate, even in a setting (i.e. university) where this is considered a naive or foolish way of thinking.  This should give us some food for thought.

All our other capacities, be they physical, aesthetic, or social, are met and satisfied through existing things.  We do not have capacities and needs for which there is no external corresponding answer.  On a physical level we get hungry – and find there is food to meet this capacity.  We have innate aesthetic capacities and find there is music, drama or art ‘out there’ that can meet these needs.   As CS Lewis stated:

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”  Mere Christianity p. 67-68

On every level we find that where we have an innate need or capacity, it is not there vacuously or by faulty happenstance – our needs fit like a lock-n-key system in a Reality that can meet them.  They are not dangling orphans.  So when we turn to our spirits and we find that (according to Boyer) “the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems” is to sense that God is close, perhaps that reflects the truth of the matter.  It would be peculiar indeed if this pattern of inner-capacity-matching-an-outer-Reality breaks down only at this point.  Usually when we consider the question “Does a personal God Exist?” we only look on the God-side of the question.  It is an interesting twist to look at the human-side of the question and when we do, we find that we seem to be made to believe.

We saw in the Session on the Basis for Morality that current research is also showing that we were made to be moral, built with an objective moral compass.  Boyer builds on this rather recent knowledge to show a linkage with our morality to our disposition to religious belief.  As he writes

It is a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualizing spirits… socially involved. This may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents that people believe in have moral concerns. Those agents are often described as having complete access only to morally relevant actions. Experiments show that it is much more natural to think “the gods know that I stole this money” than “the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast”.

Why are we bound to believe?

So Boyer is showing that these different but innate capacities of morality and religious belief integrate within us.  We were made to believe and to be moral.  Looking at how modern psychology is starting to see how our minds are set to function strongly affirms how we were originally made in the image of God.  As the old saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, then maybe … it’s a duck”.  The human disposition to morality and an innate belief in God lends support to the idea that there is a God who has indeed made us this way.  It is the simplest and most straight-forward explanation.

Of course, this is a controversial conclusion so there will always be attempts to advocate natural explanations for this innate convergence between morality with an innate religious belief.  As Boyer states about our innate tendency to religious belief:

Perhaps one day we will find compelling evidence that a capacity for religious thoughts, rather than ‘religion’ in the modern form of socio-political institutions, contributed to fitness in ancestral times.

In other words, Boyer envisages that ‘perhaps one day’ a Darwinian survival-based explanation for our religious predisposition can be developed.  Dawkins tried to develop just such an explanation for our innate morality, attributing it to genetic ‘misfirings’ when he conjectured:

what natural selection favours is rules of thumb … rules of thumb, by their nature sometimes misfire… Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfiring, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo [bird of another species]… I am suggesting that the same is true of the urge to kindness – to altruism, to generosity, to empathy, to pity … it is just like sexual desire… Both are misfiring: blessed, precious mistakes” The God Delusion p 220-221

I do not doubt that scenarios like this appear progressive and modern to many people.  But a misfiring here and another there in our brains explains many disorders and problems that many of us cope with but it will not explain the convergence of our widespread and different cognitive systems to religious belief.  As Boyer describes it:

there is no unique domain for religion in human minds. Different cognitive systems handle representations of supernatural agents, of ritualized behaviours, of group commitment and so on, just as colour and shape are handled by different parts of the visual system. In other words, what makes a god-concept convincing is not what makes a ritual intuitively compelling or what makes a moral norm self-evident. … The evidence shows that the mind has no single belief network, but myriad distinct networks that contribute to making religious claims quite natural to many people.

Our dispositions do not come from one spot in the brain, but from a myriad of interconnected regions that work together – hardly the expected outcome of a few ‘misfirings’.  So perhaps the Apostle Paul’s comments are apropos when he states that “claiming to be wise they became fools”  because Boyer tells us that to snuff out our disposition to believe and instead engender disbelief (which many of us are able to do) requires that we engage in “deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions”.  To explain such deeply ingrained and interwoven predispositions as being simply due to ‘misfirings’ strikes me as rather foolish.

It might be wiser to conclude again with St. Paul that “God has made it plain”, especially in how we have been made.  Convoluted conjectures to explain away the simple and plain perhaps instead reveal another disposition, hearkening back to a rebellion and corruption from that initial Image, showing we are now armed with a propensity to “suppress the truth … about God” (Romans 1:18-19).

The Hindu Kumbh Mela Festival: Showing Bad News of Sin & Good News of the Gospel

The largest gathering ever in human history officially started this week – the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival which is celebrated only once every 12 years. Organizers expect a staggering 100 million people to descend on the city of Allahabad by the shores of the Ganges River in India through the 55 day festival season, with 10 million having bathed in the Ganges just on the opening day alone. Organizers expect 20 million bathers on the peak bathing day of February 15, according to NDTV. I have been to Allahabad and I can tell you it is a dusty place, with a small-ish town feel because of limited infrastructure. I cannot imagine how these many millions can be there at once without all functions seizing up.  The BBC reports huge efforts being made to bring things like toilets and doctors to meet the day-to-day needs of these people. These Khumb Mela numbers dwarf that of the annual Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca that Muslims make – a ‘mere’ 3.1 million in 2012.

Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela
Millions of devotees at Ganges for Kumbh Mela

So why will 100 million people spend 120 billion rupees ($2.2 billion dollars) to bathe in the Ganges river, one that has high levels of pollution (When I was there it certainly did not look appealing to jump into)?  One devotee from Nepal reported to the BBC that

“I have washed off my sins”.

Reuters reports that

“I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold.

NDTV tells us that

Worshippers, who believe a dip in the holy waters cleanses them of their sins,

In the previous 2001 festival I noticed on the then-BBC interview that pilgrim Mohan Sharma reported that “the sins we have created are washed away here”.

The universal human sense of ‘sin’

In other words, these multiple millions of Hindus will spend money, travel on crowded trains, endure congested situations and bathe in a river that, from a purely ecological rather than spiritual perspective, is very dirty – in order to have their sins ‘washed away’. Many westerners will miss the significance of this in their quick dismissal of such a ‘superstitious’ idea. Because it is not their solution that should draw our attention, but the fact of the problem that these devotees are trying to solve – their sins.

… does not originate with the Bible

Many people I talk to do not like the Gospel because they think that it is the Gospel that is their foremost accuser of sin.  No one likes being told they are a ‘sinner’ – it is something that makes us uncomfortable and guilty.  Many think that it is the Gospel (and Bible) that is the source for this and they think that if they dismiss the Bible then they can get rid of the idea of ‘sin’.  It is true that the Bible declares that we are sinners, which can be seen as missing the mark in a marksmanship metaphor, or as a corruption of our nature as in an orcs of middle-earth metaphor. But the Bible itself clearly says that it is not the source of this accusation. It says

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them. (Romans 2:14-15)

The Bible is saying that it is not the source of the awareness of sin. It is also not a function of a certain faith or religion, but rather it is a function of simply being human – of Adam. It is our human moral compass – our conscience – that is the source of the moral allegations against us. It is we that condemn ourselves.

And it is festivals like the Kumbh Mela where multiple tens of millions of Hindus, who have never read the Bible, but are trying to grapple and make peace with their ‘sin’ that should alert us to the truth of this Biblical statement.  The ‘bad news’ of the reality of our sin is shown in the Kumbh Mela Festival. You cannot wish your sins away by ignoring the Gospel, because it is not the Gospel that is first accusing you – it is yourself.

Hindu understanding of ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’

You may think that perhaps these Hindus have a very different idea of what ‘sin’ is compared to what non-Hindu westerners have. Here are some moral teachings from a Hindu guru, Sai Baba, whose books I have read. Ask yourself as you read them “Is what he says is ‘good’ and ‘right’ really ‘good’ and ‘right’ according to my moral compass”?

“And what is dharma (Our moral duty)? Practicing what you preach, doing as you say it has to be done, keeping precept and practice in line. Earn virtuously, yearn piously; live in fear of God, live for reaching God: that is dharma”  Sathya Sai Speaks 4, p. 339

 

“What exactly is your duty?…

  • First tend your parents with love and reverence and gratitude.
  • Second, speak the truth and act virtuously.
  • Third, whenever you have a few moments to spare, repeat the name of the Lord with the form in your mind.
  • Fourth, never indulge in talking ill of others or try to discover faults in others.
  • And finally, do not cause pain to others in any form”

Sathya Sai Speaks 4, pp.348-349

“Whoever subdues his egoism, conquers his selfish desires, destroys his bestial feelings and impulses, and gives up the natural tendency to regard the body as self, he is surely on the path of dharma” Dharma Vahini, p.4

As I read these I find that I cannot argue with Sai Baba. I agree with him that these are good precepts to live by. But when I turn from judging these precepts to having them judge me I recognize that I am not measuring up. And thus, like these millions of Hindus who have never read the Bible, I am conscious of falling short of this standard.  It is just like the Bible says

all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)

Christopher Hitchens agrees

When you become aware of ubiquity of our moral compass (what I called the Tao in previous posts) you can find it in more and more seemingly unlikely places. For example, Christopher Hitchens, in attacking the Ten Commandments, in a back-handed way agrees with both the universality of our moral conscience as well as our inability to live it (i.e. our sin). After discussing the first of the Ten Commandments he writes:

“…Only then comes the four famous ‘shalt nots’ which flatly prohibit killing, adultery, theft, and false witness. Finally there is a ban on covetousness, forbidding the desire for ‘thy neighbours’… chattel. … No society ever discovered has failed to protect itself from self-evident crimes like those supposedly stipulated at Mount Sinai. Finally, instead of the condemnation of evil actions, there is an oddly phrased condemnation of impure thoughts…. More important, it demands the impossible: a recurrent problem with all religious edicts. One may be forcibly restrained from wicked actions…, but to forbid people from contemplating them is too much…. If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts, he should have taken more care to invent a different species”   Christopher Hitchens.  2007.  God is not great: How religion poisons everything.  P.99-100

Here he tells us two important things. First he agrees that every society ‘ever discovered’ had similar moral teachings as the Ten Commandments. They are universal and ‘self-evident’ as he says, thus showing that they do not get their authority because of the Bible.  Hitchens mistakenly thinks that the Bible is making the claim to a distinct moral authority that is unique from other morals, and is simply grounded in itself.  When he finds similar moral laws everywhere else he then thinks he has dismissed or disproved the Biblical claim.  That Categorically Imperative moral authority comes from something deeper than the Bible – it comes from within ourselves – and it will not go away simply by evading Biblical authority.

Second, Hitchens takes particular issue with the Tenth Commandment against coveting, but the principle applies as he notes to ‘all religious edicts’ – we simply cannot actually live them. He falls short – just like the Bible says. These are two fundamental observations that we can make about our Morals and our behaviour.

When it comes to our sin the Bible is simply a Messenger, trying to make us see the reality of our situation. And as such, its message can fall like ‘bad news’ on our ears. Hitchens responded to this by choosing to shoot the Messenger. The devotees at the Kumbh Mela festival are choosing to respond to the Bad News of their sin through bathing and ascetic sacrifice – without ever knowing if their efforts will be sufficient. But the irony is that the Good News of the Gospel is exactly what Hitchens mockingly cried for. The Good News of the Gospel is precisely God taking the initiative – to use Hitchens words – ‘to invent a different species’, by – to use Kumbh Mela devotee words – ‘washing our sins away’.  The effect of that washing is to transform sin-infested ‘Pinochios’ into real children of Goda different species.  Followers of the Gospel can then rest in the sufficiency of God’s work of ‘washing our sins away’.  The words of Hitchens and the efforts of the devotees show this message of the Gospel is Good News indeed, in the wider backdrop of the bad news of our sin.

The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

I wrote that hostile Jewish rabbis in the Talmud at least give a nod to the virgin birth of Jesus, and in my past post as ‘Santa’ I briefly showed the original prophecy in Isaiah (written about 750 BC) predicting the Virgin birth. There is still another point to cover on this question and it involves an observable aspect of the prophecy. Let’s start by looking at the original Isaiah prophecy in a more complete context.

Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of men? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. (Isaiah 7: 13-15)

Isaiah shown in historical timeline.  He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings
Isaiah shown in historical timeline. He lived in the period of the rule of the Davidic Kings

As I mentioned previously, proofs about virgin status are just about impossible to obtain even in principle. But the complete prophecy links the virgin birth in a cause – effect manner with something that is observable – the subsequent moral behaviour of the offspring from this contested virgin birth.

The son of the virgin ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’

The amazing part of this prophecy in Isaiah is that this son ‘will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right’. What Isaiah is saying is that as soon as he is old enough to make conscious decisions this son will ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’.  In our trying to digest the ‘virgin’ part of this prophecy we often forget this other part – and really that is just as incredulous.

I also have a young son. I love him, but for sure there is no way that on his own he is rejecting the wrong and choosing the right. My wife and I have to work, teach, remind, admonish, set an example, discipline, provide the right friends, make sure he sees proper role models, etc. to teach him to reject the wrong and choose the right – and even with all our effort there is no guarantee. And as a parent while I am trying to do this, it brings back memories of my early childhood when my parents were involved in the same struggle in teaching me to ‘reject the wrong and choose the right’. What do we mean when we say that a certain child is ‘spoiled’? Basically we mean that this child does not reject the wrong and choose the right. And what do we need to do to ‘make’ a spoiled child? If the parents do not expend all that effort and work, but just let nature takes it course – the child is spoiled automatically. It is as if we are fighting a ‘moral gravity’ where as soon as we cease conscious effort it easily goes downhill.

Moral behaviour is to a large extent observable and verifiable. The interesting thing about Jesus in the Gospel accounts is that he never sins. He always ‘rejects the wrong and chooses the right’ – exactly like Isaiah predicts. In fact Peter, a close friend, follower and companion of Jesus said of him that:

He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. (1 Peter 2:22)

The Failings of Other Biblical Heroes Openly Displayed

Now perhaps our first reaction is to dismiss this sinless portrayal of Jesus in the Bible as simply pious veneration. The thinking person must always be open to this possibility but if that is the case it is strange that other towering figures in the Bible are definitely NOT portrayed this way. If the Bible is simply a product of the human mind, we would expect this same pious veneration of other figures like Moses, Abraham and David. But this is not the case. The Bible records that on two occasions Abraham lied about his wife saying that she was only his sister (in Genesis 12:10-13 & Genesis 20:1-2). It also records that Moses murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12) and on another occasion disobeyed God’s command (Numbers 20:6-12). David’s ghastly sin of adultery and subsequent cover-up murder exposed a glaring stain on his character.

In the Gospels the disciples are often seen as petty, arrogant and selfish. They argue about who among them is the most important. They want to call down fire from heaven in judgment on those who did not accept them. The amazing thing about how the Bible portrays all the characters in its pages, the important ones as well as the minor ones, is candid openness about their failures as well as their successes.

As one who has studied and seen ‘pious venerations’ in various traditions, it is not hard to see the contrast in the candid and unembellished failures consistently portrayed in the Bible to that in other traditions.  No, the pattern of revealing the failures of biblical characters is not a naturally religious tendency – yet this is how the Biblical characters are portrayed.

But not the Son of the Virgin

But this son prophesied by Isaiah, born of a virgin, rejects the wrong and chooses the right naturally and from his early age. It is instinct for him. For that to be possible he must have a different lineage. All the rest of us (including these other Biblical characters), trace back to Adam through their fathers and he did not ‘reject the wrong and chose the right’ as we saw.  Genetics passes the characteristics of the father to his offspring, so this rebellious nature of Adam was passed to all of us – even to the biblical prophets. But the son born of a virgin, by definition, would not have Adam as a father in his lineage. The parental line of this son would be different, and thus he could be different.

Jesus’ life fits this prophetic moral description to a tee – and makes sense of the reason for the virgin birth. This was not simply some random ‘miracle’ to bolster religious credulity in a story. There is a very clear reason for the need of a virgin birth. There is the need for a new man that is untainted by Adam. This new man could then have a different, though still human, nature – a nature that would be holy and thus acceptable to a Holy God.

The New Testament affirms this sinless life of Jesus in a very straight-forward and matter-of-fact manner by simply giving an account of his actions and teachings, without use of sensational superlatives or strong religious language. It presents him simply, and therefore realistically, as sinless.

Even if some cannot accept the ‘sinless’ claim, certainly, at the very least, Jesus is universally recognized as someone who lived a radically different moral life than we do.  This was a man who forgave his enemies while they were torturing him, who stood up for the weak and downtrodden, who refused to take up arms against his enemies, who refused to be seduced by the wealth, power and adulation that could have been his  – in short who treated others far differently than we do.  I have heard Richard Dawkins opine that Jesus was morally far ahead of others in his day.  I remember reading how John Lennon thought that Jesus was a moral reformer even if his disciples were not.  Mahatma Gandhi, who led a non-violent resistance to British rule in India, was inspired by the life and teachings of Jesus.  In short, even among those who do not follow him, Jesus is admired for his moral compass – this, at least, is generally not disputed about him.

But this observable effect, is linked causally to the Virgin Birth in this Isaiah prophecy.  And if one is observable and verifiable that gives a rational basis to believe the other.  The life Jesus lived is the visible signature of the Virgin Birth.  And it speaks to our need.

Flashback to Adam

The prophecy and longing for a virgin birth – the dawn of a New Man – coherently hearkens back to Adam.  We saw that the Genesis account records a Fall, much like the corruption of elves into orcs in the Lord of the Rings.  Ever since then mankind has been slaves to sin.  Though some teachings of the Bible cannot be verified by observation, the concept of slavery to sin is easily the most verifiable teaching of the Bible.  Just read a bit of history – pick any country and any time period; read a newspaper; or just reflect on your own thoughts and actions – sin is always there in its mutated and multi-faceted forms.

And the necessary link from the predicament of Adam to the solution in a Virgin Birth is why this birth was first foreshadowed and prophesied even earlier than Isaiah, it was Embedded in the Beginning.

The Virgin Birth is not some arbitrarily concocted idea to instill religious veneration.  It is logically, coherently and necessarily part of the overall Gospel – the Good News.  The recorded moral life of Jesus, lived in the open before friend and foe, attests to its reality.  That is Good News indeed, because the Gospel goes on to prophesy that those who receive this Son of the Virgin will inherit this same New Man nature.  Like caterpillars metamorphisizing to butterflies, or wooden Pinocchios into human sons, these many fallen Sons and Daughters of Adam will be transformed into this new likeness.  You have to take it on faith, but given the track record  of the other Messianic prophecies, it is a step of faith I am willing to take.

Corrupted (Part 2) … missing our target

In my last post I looked at how the Bible describes us as corrupted from the original image of God that we were made in.  A visual analogy that has helped me to ‘see’ this better was the orcs of Middle Earth, corrupted from the elves.  So this is how the Bible describes us.   But from the Biblical point-of-view, how did this happen?

The Fall of Man

It is recorded in the book of Genesis of the Bible.  Shortly after being made ‘in the image of God‘ the first humans were tested.  The account records an exchange with a ‘serpent’.  The serpent has always been universally understood to be Satan – an angelic adversary to God.  Through the Bible, Satan usually confronts by speaking through another person.  In this case he spoke through a serpent.  The exchange is recorded in this way.

The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the LORD God had made. One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman. “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

The woman was convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too. At that moment their eyes were opened, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness. So they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves. (Genesis 3:1-6)

The crux of their choice, and thus the temptation, was that they could ‘be like God’. Up to this point they had implicitly trusted God for everything and taken Him at His word for everything. But now they had the choice to leave that behind, become ‘like God’, trusting themselves and taking their own word for things. They could become ‘gods’ themselves, captains of their own ship, masters of their destiny, being autonomous and answerable only to themselves. Long before Dawkins wrote The God Delusion, the first humans fell for the real god delusion – that they could be ‘like God’.

In their Declaration of Independence something in our forebears changed. As the passage recounts, they felt shame and tried to cover up. In fact, just afterwards, when God confronts Adam about his breach of covenant, he blames Eve (and God who made her). She in turn blames the serpent. No one would accept responsibility.

The Fall Today

And what started that day has continued because we have inherited that same innate disposition. That is the reason why the Israelites (in the previous post) of Hosea’s day were behaving like Adam – because they (like us) had inherited his disposition. Some misunderstand the biblical account to infer that we are blamed for the rebellion of Adam. In fact, the only one blamed is Adam but we live in the consequences of that rebellion. We can think of it genetically. We have inherited this mutinous nature of Adam and thus innately, almost unconsciously, but willfully we continue the uprising that he started. We may not want to be god of the universe, but we want to be gods in our settings; captains of our own ships; autonomous from God. Bon Jovi’s chorus “It’s my life”, Frank Sinatra’s more sublime “I did it my way”, Self magazines dotting our supermarket aisles are light-hearted echoes of this desire, while Hitler’s Mein Kempf (“My Struggle”) and North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Il (known as ‘Dear Leader’) cult of personality are much darker echoes. But they are exhibits of the trend in our nature that Adam’s rebellion started.

And this explains so much of human life that we take for granted. This is the reason that everywhere people need locks for their doors, they need police, lawyers, encryption passwords for banking – because in our current disposition we will steal from each other. This is why empires and societies all eventually decay and collapse – because the citizens in all these empires have a tendency to decay. This is why after trying all forms of government and economic systems, and though some work better than others, every political or economic system seems eventually to collapse on itself – because the people living these ideologies are dogged by tendencies which eventually drag the whole system down. This is why no religion has fully brought about the vision for their society – but neither have the atheistic ones (think of Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia) – because something about the way we are tends to make us miss our vision.

Sin is ‘miss’

In fact, that word ‘miss’ pretty much sums up our situation. A verse from the Old Testament gives a picture that has helped me understand this better. It says

Among all these soldiers there were seven hundred select troops who were left-handed, each of whom could sling a stone at a hair and not miss. (Judges 20:16)

This verse describes soldiers who were experts at using slingshots and would never miss. The word in Hebrew translated ‘miss’ above is יַחֲטִֽא׃ (pronounced Khaw-taw). What is so interesting, is that this same Hebrew word is also translated to sin across most of the Old Testament. For example, this same Hebrew word is ‘sin’ when Joseph, sold as a slave to Egypt, would not commit adultery with his master’s wife, even though she begged him. He said to her:

No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (Genesis 39:9)

And just after the giving of the Ten Commandments it says:

Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Exodus 20:20)

In both these places it is the same Hebrew word יַחֲטִֽא׃ that is translated ‘sin’. It is exactly the same word for ‘miss’ with soldiers that sling stones at targets as in these verses which means ‘sin’ when dealing with people’s treatments of each other. This provides a picture to help us understand what ‘sin’ is. The soldier takes a stone and slings it to hit the target. If it misses it has failed his purpose. In the same way, we were made in God’s image to hit the target about how we relate to Him and treat others. To ‘sin’ is to miss this purpose, or target, that was intended for us, and which we in our various systems, religions and ideologies also intend for ourselves.

This corrupted and missed-the-target picture is not pretty, it is not feel-good, nor is it optimistic.  Over the years I have had people react strongly against this particular biblical teaching.  I remember one grad student looking at me with daggers in her eyes saying, “I don’t believe you because I do not like what you are saying”.  Now I find that rather curious.  What does ‘liking’ something have anything to do with whether it is true or not?  I do not like taxes, wars, AIDS and earthquakes – I doubt anyone does – but that does not make them go away, and neither can I ignore any of them.  All the systems of law, police, locks, keys, security etc. that we have built in our society and take for granted to protect ourselves from each other does suggest that something is wrong.  At the very least, this doctrine deserves to be considered in an even-handed way.

But this doctrine of the Fall raises a couple of questions.  For starters, why did God create an evil devil ready to tempt mankind into the Fall.  Secondly, if God is omniscient He would have known the Fall and ensuing corruption was going to happen when he first made mankind ‘in his image’.  So knowing the fall was going to happen, why would He still go through with it?  Finally, what has He done in response to the calamity of the Fall?  We start by tackling the first question next post.

…But Corrupted (Part 1 – like orcs of Middle-earth)

In my last post I looked at the biblical foundation for how we should see ourselves and others – that we are made in the image of God. But the Bible develops further on this foundation. The Psalms are a collection of sacred songs and poems used by the Old Testament Hebrews in their worship. Psalm 14 was written by King David ca 1000 B.C. and records the state-of-affairs from God’s point of view.

The LORD looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:2-3)

The phrase ‘become corrupt’ is used to describe the entire human race. Since it is something we have ‘become’ the corruption is in reference to that initial state of being in the ‘image of God’. This passage says that the corruption demonstrates itself in a determined independence from God (‘all’ have ‘turned aside’ from ‘seeking God’) and also in not doing ‘good’.

Corrupted – Thinking Elves and Orcs

Orcs were hideous in so many ways. But they were simply corrupt descendants of elves

To better understand this think of the orcs of Middle Earth in the Lord of the Rings as an illustration. Orcs are hideous creatures in appearance, conduct, and in their treatment of the earth. Yet orcs are descended from elves that had become corrupted by Sauron. When you see the stately majesty, harmony and relationship with nature that elves had (think of Legalos and the elves of Lothlorien) and realize that the depraved orcs were once elves who have ‘become corrupt’ you will

The elves were noble and majestic

get a sense of what is said here about people. God intended elves but what he found was orcs.

This fits exactly with what we noted as a universal tendency among all people in Session Two – that no one lives according to their moral grammar of right and wrong. So here we arrive at a perspective that is very instructive: The biblical starting point of people as sentient, personal, and moral, but then also corrupt, fits with what we observe about ourselves. It is shrewdly spot-on in its assessment of people, recognizing an intrinsic moral nature within us that can easily be overlooked since our actions never actually match what this nature demands of us – because of this corruption. The biblical shoe fits the human foot. However, it raises an obvious question: why did God make us this way – with a moral grammar and yet corrupted from it? As Christopher Hitchens complains:

“… If god really wanted people to be free of such thoughts [i.e., corrupt ones], he should have taken more care to invent a different species.”  Christopher Hitchens.  2007.  God is not great: How religion spoils everything.  p. 100

But this is where in his haste to vent on the Bible that he misses something very important. The Bible does not say that God made us this way, but that something terrible has happened since the initial creation to bring about this difficult state-of-affairs. An important event happened in human history subsequent to our creation. The first humans defied God, as recorded in Genesis, and in their defiance they changed and were corrupted.

The Fall of Mankind

This landmark event in human history is often called The Fall. And we can perhaps understand it better if we think through what Adam faced in his relationship with God when he was created. To give us some further insight we turn to a mid-8th century BC, Old Testament prophet Hosea. As he recounts in his book, his wife had repeatedly cheated on him and run off in a string of affairs. In the midst of his pain and betrayal God commanded him to go and find his wife, reconcile with her, and win her back. Then this episode is used as a picture to show how, in God’s eyes, the Israelites at that time were like the cheating spouse, but God, like Hosea, was willing to reconcile if they would only come clean and come back to Him. In that plea comes a comparison to Adam:

“O Israel and Judah, what should I do with you?” asks the LORD.  “For your love vanishes like the morning mist and disappears like dew in the sunlight. … I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.  I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings. But like Adam, you broke my covenant and betrayed my trust. (Hosea 6:4-7)

In other words, what the Israelites of Hosea’s day were doing was continuing what Adam, the first man, had started. There had been an agreement between God and Adam, similar to a marital contract of faithfulness, and Adam violated it. The book of Genesis records that Adam ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. There had been a covenant or agreement between God and Adam that he would not eat from that tree – all others were available for him. It was not that there was anything special in the tree itself, but its presence gave Adam a free choice as to whether to remain faithful to God or not. Adam had been created as a sentient person, who was both made and placed into friendship with God at the same moment. Adam had no choice regarding his creation, but God gave him the opportunity to choose concerning his friendship with God, and this choice was centered on the command not to eat from that one tree. Just like the choice to stand is not real if sitting is impossible, the friendship and trust of Adam to God had to be given in the context of a viable alternative, and thus Adam was given a choice as to whether he would remain faithful in his agreement to God or not. We look more closely at this account – and how & in what way we ‘miss the mark’ in the next post.

In the Image of God

In the last few posts I looked at ‘signs’ in some landmark passages from the Old Testament that allude to Jesus.  I did so primarily because they are clues that point to a Divine Mind revealing Himself through these remarkable allusions. But they are also clues to help us understand ourselves.  And to continue with that I want to consider implications of what the Bible says about the origins of mankind.  Using the Bible to understand our beginnings is considered the height of folly in many modern circles.  However, at the very least, an open-minded recognition of the bankruptcy of ‘scientific’ evolutionary theories shown here, and the recently confirmed genetic fact of interbreeding between homo sapiens and neanderthals – predicted from the Biblical narrative – should allow anyone, believer and unbeliever alike, to have the freedom to consider what the Bible says about our beginnings, and to think about what it means.

So, in this spirit of considering, I want to chart an understanding of what the Bible teaches about us by looking at a passage from the creation account.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

“In the Image of God”

Now what does it mean that mankind was created ‘in the image of God’?  It does not mean that God is a physical being with two arms, a head, etc.  Rather at a deeper level it is saying that basic characteristics of people are derived from similar characteristics of God.  So for example, both God (in the Bible) and people (from observation) have intellect, emotions and will.  In the Bible God is sometimes portrayed as sad, hurt, angry or joyful – the same range of emotions that we humans experience.   We make choices and decisions on a daily basis.  God similarly in the Bible is described as making choices and coming to decisions.  Our ability to reason and think abstractly comes from God.  We have the capacities of intellect, emotion and will because God has them and we are made in his image.

At a more fundamental level when we consider these aspects of ourselves we see that we are sentient beings, self-aware and conscious of ‘I’ and ‘you’.  We are not impersonal ‘its’.  We are like this because God is this way.  In this fundamental perspective, the God of the Bible is not portrayed as a pantheistic impersonality as understood in Eastern religions, or like the ‘Force’ in Star Wars.  And because we are made in His image, neither are we.

Why we are Aesthetic

We also appreciate art and drama.  Consider how we so naturally appreciate and even need beauty.  This goes beyond just visual beauty to include music and literature.  Think about how important music is to us – even how natural it is for us to dance.  Music so enriches our lives.  We love good stories, whether in novels or plays, or more commonly today, in movies.  Stories have heroes, villains, drama, and the great stories sear these heroes, villains and drama into our imaginations.  It is so natural for us to use and appreciate art in its many forms to entertain, reinvigorate and rejuvenate ourselves because God is an Artist and we are in his image.  It is a question worth asking.  Why are we so innately aesthetic, whether in art, drama, music, dance, or literature?  Daniel Dennett, an outspoken atheist and an authority on understanding cognitive processes, answers from a materialistic perspective:

“But most of this research still takes music for granted.  It seldom asks:  Why does music exist?  There is a short answer, and it is true, so far as it goes: it exists because we love it and hence we keep bringing more of it into existence.  But why do we love it?  Because we find that it is beautiful.  But why is it beautiful to us?  This is a perfectly good biological question, but it does not yet have a good answer.”[1]

Why indeed if everything about us as humans must be explained based solely on survival fitness and differential reproductive rates is art, in all its forms, so important to us?  Dennett, probably the world’s leading thinker on this question from the materialistic evolutionary perspective, tells us that we just do not know.  From the Biblical perspective it is because God is artistic and aesthetic.  He made things beautiful and enjoys beauty.  We, made in His image, are the same.

Why we are Moral

In addition, being ‘made in God’s image’ explains the innate moral grammar or Tao we looked at in Session Two.  Because we are made in God’s image and morality is intrinsic to His nature, like a compass aligned to magnetic North, our alignment to ‘fair’, ‘good’, ‘right’ is because this is the way He is.  It is not just religious people who are made in this way – everyone is.  Not recognizing this can give rise to misunderstandings.  Take for example this challenge from Sam Harris.

“If you are right to believe that religious faith offers the only real basis for morality, then atheists should be less moral than believers.”[2]

Harris is dead wrong here.  Biblically speaking, our sense of morality comes from being made in God’s image, not from being religious.  And that is why atheists, like all the rest of us, have this moral sense and can act morally.  The difficulty with atheism is to account for this objective basis of our morality –  but all of us have it hard-wired into us (as Dawkins says) because we are in His image.  Dawkins’ speculations about the cause of our innate morality from a materialistic perspective are less than compelling.  Being made in God’s moral image is a far simpler and straightforward explanation.

Why are we so Relational

Thus Biblically, the starting point to understanding ourselves is to recognize that we are made in God’s image.  Because of this, as we gain insight into either God (through what is revealed about him in the Bible) or people (through observation and reflection) we can also gain insight into the other.  So, for example, it is not hard to notice the prominence  we place on relationships.  It is OK to see a good movie, but it is a much better experience to see it with a friend.  We naturally seek out friends to share experiences with.  Meaningful friendships and family relationships are key to our sense of well-being.  Conversely, loneliness and/or fractured family relationships and breakdowns in friendships stress us.  We are not neutral and unmoved by the state of relationships we have with others.  Now, if we are in God’s image, then we would expect to find this same relational tilt with God, and in fact we do.  The Bible says that “God is Love…” (1 John 4:8).  Much is written in the Bible about the importance that God places on our love for him and for others – they are in fact called by Jesus the two most important commands in the Bible.  When you think about it, Love must be relational since to function it requires a person who loves (the lover) and a person who is the object of this love – the beloved.

Thus we should think of God as a lover.  If we only think of Him as the ‘Prime Mover’, the ‘First Cause’, the ‘Omniscient Deity’ or perhaps as the ‘Benevolent Being’ we are not thinking of the Biblical God – rather we have made up a god in our minds.  Though He is these, He is also portrayed as almost recklessly passionate in relationship.  He does not ‘have’ love.  He ‘is’ love.  The two most prominent Biblical metaphors of God’s relationship with people are that of a father to his children and a husband to his wife.  Those are not dispassionately philosophical ‘first cause’ analogies but those of the deepest and most intimate of human relationships.

So here is the foundation we have laid so far.  People are made in God’s image comprised of mind, emotions and will.  We are sentient and self-aware.  We are moral beings with our ‘Moral grammar’ giving us an innate orientation of ‘right’ and ‘fair’, and what is not.  We have instinctive capacity to develop and appreciate beauty, drama, art and story in all its forms.  And we will innately and naturally seek out and develop relationships and friendships with others.  We are all this because God is all this and we are made in God’s image.  All these deductions are at least consistent with what we observe about ourselves as we laid this foundation.  We continue in the next post to look at some difficulties.


[1] Daniel Dennett.  Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  p. 43

[2] Sam Harris. 2005. Letter to a Christian Nation p.38-39

Richard Dawkins and our Moral Tao – Part 2

In my previous post I looked at how Richard Dawkins argues that experimental evidence shows that we have a universal moral grammar hardwired into our brains.  At simple face value this is easily explained as a result of a moral agent doing the hardwiring of our brains.  But this is a metaphysical explanation, and not being able to accept such an explanation because of his materialistic worldview, Richard Dawkins instead attributes our moral grammar (or Tao as per the post on it) to natural selection.  In his view, emerging humans in the distant past actually did have subjective and random morality but the process of selection across all peoples over time has weeded out all other moral alignments so that only this current one remains.  Our Tao today is just due to the selective advantages that this Tao had over other past ones.  Thus (in his view) it appears to us today to be an absolute Tao (both in terms of how it operates in us, and that people all share a similar Tao) but in the emerging primitive tribes there were some Taos that extolled lying, greed, cheating, dishonesty, cowardice etc. as virtues but these were selected out because these tribal societies could not compete with those who had the Tao that we have today.

Dawkins:  Natural Selection as the cause of our Moral Tao

Dawkins puts forward explanations of why our modern Tao rather than other ‘selfish’ ones have greater survival value and thus would be selected for.   Let’s read his explanation:

“We now have four good Darwinian reasons for individuals to be altruistic, generous or ‘moral’ towards each other.  First, there is the special case of genetic kinship [a gene that programs individual organisms to favour or be ‘moral’ to related kin].  Second, there is reciprocation: the repayment of favours given, and the giving of favours in ‘anticipation’ of payback [‘You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’].  Following on from this there is, third, the Darwinian benefit of acquiring a reputation for generosity and kindness.  And fourth, if Zahavi is right, there is the particular additional benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising”[1]

In other words, according to Dawkins, there are four reasons why natural selection could cause the Moral grammar or Tao that we have today.  First because this Tao allowed us to better cooperate with kin, and close kin would carry more or less the same genes and this cooperation allowed this gene expression to be selected for.  Secondly, again within a group of emerging humans, our current Tao increased a symbiotic cooperation of helping and being helped (‘you scratch my back and I will scratch yours’) and thus increased survival.  Third, with enough cooperation in the group there would then be a reputation for generosity and the reputation, in and of itself, would enhance survivability and thus selection.  Finally, again within a group, extraordinary generosity would be a sign of dominance, and since they could afford to pay for this generosity they would have higher fitness.

None of these reasons that Dawkins gives are moral reasons, they are solely utilitarian and survival-based.  If these are the reasons that brought about our current Tao it would only prove that morals are indeed ‘an illusion’ (as Provine calls them in Session Two).  They only exist and are ‘moral’ because they selected for certain survival traits.

Dawkins:  Why Biblical Morality is Deficient

Unfortunately for Dawkins, we know from the rest of his book that he himself does not believe his own reasons.  For these reasons to be even conceivably plausible they must operate within a social and kin-based group where individuals can help their blood relatives, gain reputation, help each other out, and be conspicuously generous.  Now just a few pages further on in his book Dawkins attacks Biblical morality and Jesus’ maxim to ‘love thy neighbour’.  The point of his attack is to show that these moral teachings were ‘only’ meant to apply solely within Jewish society.  Referring to Hartung who wrote about this he says:

“Hartung clearly shows that ‘Thou shalt not kill’ was never intended to mean what we now think it means.  It meant, very specifically, that thou shalt not kill Jews.  And all those commandments that make reference to ‘thy neighbour’ are equally exclusive.  ‘Neighbour’ means fellow Jew. …  For me, this demonstrated that our morals, whether we are religious or not, come from another source; and that source, whatever it is, is available to all of us, regardless of religion or lack of it”[2]

Dawkins: Contradicting himself

OK.  But he just argued that supposedly our morality was forged because people were within a blood-related social ‘in-group’ which favoured the selection of ‘altruistic’ genes in that society, and hence favoured that society.  The Jews of the Bible precisely formed such a blood-related social in-group.  If he really believed that selection in such a group brought about what we now know as ‘morality’ then he would be showcasing the Jewish Old Testament as proof positive of this process.  But he does the opposite – saying their morality was deficient.  So he gives us a deeper insight into our Tao by criticizing Biblical morality as fake or deficient precisely because (he thinks) in their case it was only to be applied among kin and not universally.  He makes us ask, in effect, “Which is a better morality – one where I am good only to my blood relative, or where I am good to all people?” And we instinctively agree with him that an ‘in-group’ morality is in fact deficient, that it does not measure with our Tao.  But he cannot have it both ways.  Kin-based natural selection cannot both be the cause that forged our moral Tao while this same Tao tells us that kin-based morals are deficient or immoral.  He really believes morals are ‘good’ when they are universal, and we agree with him on this point.  But this contradicts his Darwinian speculations about their ‘in-group’ basis.  In his zeal to discredit the Bible, to show its deficiency, he helps us see that our Tao cannot have such an ‘in-group’ root.

Our Moral Tao – from where?

Thus we are left with his statement that ‘our morals … come from another source…’.  Now Dawkins is absolutely correct in saying that since all people have a similar Moral Tao (this universal moral grammar) that religion is not the source.  The cause is deeper than religion.  And that is why we have a moral Tao whether we are religious or not.  And since natural selection is not the cause of our morals we are once again back to ultimate metaphysical causes – the Moral Lawgiver – who hardwired this into us regardless of our culture, our religion, or our lack of religion.

Biblical view of Morals

So what is this other source?  The Biblical explanation is that we were originally made in the image of God – giving us our moral Tao – but then mankind had a fall into corruption, so that we cannot grasp in practice the morals that we can glimpse.  The Biblical view shrewdly captures the essence of our morality, and from the beginning of its narrative unfolds the Divine Plan to restore us from our condition.


[1] The God Delusion.  P.219-220

[2] The God Delusion p.254-255

Richard Dawkins and the Moral Tao – Part 1

In my previous post I introduced the term ‘Tao’, borrowed from CS Lewis, to designate reality as having values of an essence that demands appropriate (moral) responses from us.  Perhaps surprisingly, Richard Dawkins, in his well-known book The God Delusion, cites experimental evidence supporting this view of the Tao.  I briefly mentioned this in the videos of Session Two.  In this post I want to explore it further.

Morals built into our brains – the tests of Marc Hauser

Dawkins references the work of biologist Marc Hauser where Hauser had developed experimental tests given to people posing a series of moral dilemmas.  The dilemmas involved hypothetical cases of people about to die in accidents, with possible ways to save them that sometimes involved risk to others.  The goal of the tests was not to determine the right course of action in each situation, but to see how and why people responded as they did.  As Dawkins reports:

“The interesting thing is that most people come to the same decisions when faced with these dilemmas, and their agreement over the decisions themselves is stronger than their ability to articulate their reasons.  This is what we should expect if we have a moral sense which is built into our brains, … as Hauser himself prefers to say like our capacity for language (the details vary from culture to culture, but the underlying deep structure of grammar is universal)”[1]

“In an intriguing venture into anthropology, Hauser and his colleagues adapted their moral experiments to the Kuna, a small Central American tribe with little contact with westerners and no formal religions…the Kuna showed the same moral judgments as the rest of us”[2]

“Hauser … compared the verdicts of atheists with those of religious people… there is no statistically significant difference between atheists and religious believers in making these judgments”[3]

Hauser’s work is experimental corroboration of CS Lewis’s Tao.  When we reason morally we are not inventing morals, we perceive absolute moral truths.  And this ability flies beneath the radar of our awareness.  This is why sometimes it seems unnatural to even ask the question “why is dishonesty wrong?”  Our moral sense just tells us that it is though our ability to articulate why does not come as readily.

Mankind: Equipped with a universal moral grammar

Dawkins and Hauser conclude that:

“Driving our moral judgments is a universal moral grammar, a faculty of the mind that evolved over millions of years to include a set of principles for building a range of possible moral systems.  As with language, the principles that make up our moral grammar fly beneath the radar of our awareness”[4]

Dawkins and Hauser both attribute this moral grammar (i.e. ‘Tao’) to evolution, but there is nothing in the fact of its existence that requires an evolutionary explanation.  It is simply that their worldview requires that everything must be explained by naturalistic evolution.  But stand back and look at the big picture: the concept of innate moral laws hardwired into our brains fits readily with the idea of a Lawgiver who put them there.

Human Morals – Built into us like SciFi robots with Laws

Dawkins concludes from these experimental results that since non-westerners with no formal religion (the Kuna), as well as religious westerners, and atheists alike all have the same moral Tao, that therefore religion does not change or improve morality.  But this is to miss the point.  The important question is not whether religion improves our Tao; it is rather ‘Do we have a Tao grounded in absolutes outside of society’?  Dawkins and Bertrand Russell (in the first video of Session Two) themselves, using two distinct approaches, have shown us that we do.  Without intending to do so, they have actually helped us to see through our culture’s current widespread misconception that morals are relative.

Russell (in Session Two) has done so by showing how morals actually worked in him when he was ‘wronged’; in his indignation, when he forgot he was not trying to create a case for subjective morals, he showed us that in him they were absolute.  Dawkins showed that morality is a capacity within us that is like a ‘universal moral grammar’. We are morally aligned alike, with a moral ‘up’ and ‘down’, as if in reference to an absolute standard.  If this is the case, then morals are rooted outside of us and outside of society; they are absolute.  For us science fiction buffs, it is analogous to Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics in his books and the movie I Robot.  These were moral laws planted into the circuitry of robots to give them ‘robot morals’.  But they were hardwired in by the robot creators – humans!  If a moral circuitry is wired into us, in a similar way, it hearkens back to the Creator who made us – a Moral Creator.

So Dawkins does not want this moral basis because this raises the natural question: where does this absolute moral reference come from?  As Dawkins puts it.

“Not all absolutism [ie an objective moral Tao] is derived from religion.  Nevertheless, it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones” [5]

He knows he is flirting one step away from admitting that a Lawgiver stands behind this Moral Law.  So instead, he advances reasons why natural selection (ie physical rather than metaphysical reasons) can explain why we have an objective morality.  In our next post I want to examine these reasons.


[1] The God Delusion.  p. 223

[2] Ibid. p. 225

[3] Ibid. p. 225-226

[4] The God Delusion. p. 223

[5] Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion” 2006 p. 232

Glimpsing the Moral Tao … But not able to Grasp it

In the 2nd video of Session Two I summarized the ethical teachings of major world religions of today.  What I found striking when I first studied them was their degree of congruence.  Every teaching upholds honesty, truthfulness, self-control, chastity as morally right.  None teach that cowardice, fickleness, unfaithfulness, dishonesty, greed etc. are virtues.  Though there are differences in emphasis and detail there is uniformity in direction.

We also looked at moral teachings from ancient Egyptian & Babylonian religions.  Again we noted the striking degree of congruence in their moral teaching – with each other, with us, and current world religions.  C.S. Lewis noted this congruence of values across cultures and called it the Tao, borrowing the term from the ancient Chinese.  He used it to signify an intrinsic values ‘compass’ that exists in people.  He explains:

“In early Hinduism that conduct in men which can be called good consists in conformity to, or almost participation in, the Rta … Righteousness, correctness, order, the Rta, is constantly identified with satya or truth, correspondence to reality.  Plato said that the Good was ‘beyond existence’… The Chinese also speak of a great thing (the greatest thing) called the Tao.  … It is Nature, it is the Way, the Road…. It is also the Way which every man should tread in … conforming all activities to that great exemplar.

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’.  … What is common to them all is something we cannot neglect.  It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain values are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are….[it is to] recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not”[1]

Examples of the Moral Tao from ancient moral thinkers

Consider the following from esteemed thinkers in history – again coming from diverse cultures -articulating ‘good’ and ‘right’ behaviour.

Analects of Confucius – Ancient Chinese

  • Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.
  • The master said, “Respect the young”.
  • Gentlemen must learn to be faithful to their superiors and to keep promises.

Cicero De Off. 1. Vii – Ancient Rome

  • Men were brought into existence … that they might do one another good

Homer  Iliad ix 340 – Ancient Greece

  • Every good man, who is right-minded loves and cherishes his own

Christopher Hitchens Helps us Glimpse the Moral Tao

Though not trying to advocate objective values, well-known humanist Christopher Hitchens (whom I covered in these previous posts: The Passing of Christopher Hitchens: Carrying Misconception to the Grave, Christopher Hitchens and the Efficacy of Pascal’s Wager, Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il: Is it really Religion that Poisons Everything?) gives a modern-day example of what Lewis means by the Tao.  Hitchens tells the story of how a Muslim cab driver searched him out to return a large amount of cash that his wife had mistakenly left in his cab.  When Hitchens offered him some money the cab driver refused saying that he was only doing his duty in returning the forgotten money.  Hitchens comments:

“And if all Muslims conducted themselves like the man who gave up more than a week’s salary in order to do the right thing, I could be indifferent to the weird exhortations of the Koran.  If I search my own life for instances of good or fine behaviour I am not overwhelmed by an excess of choice.  I did once, shivering with fear, take off my flak jacket in Sarajevo and lend it to an even more frightened woman who I was helping to escort to a place of safety.”[2]

It was the ‘right’ thing to return the money.  It demanded a response from the cab driver that he was free to make or not.  Hitchens, the cab driver – and we ourselves – recognize this.  Hitchens admires this value so much that he says he would move from hostility and opposition to Islam to being neutral about it – if all Muslims would consistently exhibit this Tao in their behaviour.  Hitchens thinks in his own life that it was ‘right’ (in a situation that demanded a response which he was free to make or not) to help someone more vulnerable than he when they were both in a dangerous situation.  In these situations the basis of what made the action good had nothing to do with benefits to society or preferences of the individuals.  They were just what ought to have been done.  The Tao, to borrow from Lewis, is the Way – the Good Way – that we can all glimpse.

The Moral Tao – Hard to Grasp

But Hitchens also lets us on to something else.  He does not find this conformity to the Tao in the behaviour of most Muslims.  But closer to home, he says that in his own estimation about his own life he is not overwhelmed by evidence of actually practicing – or grasping – behaviour demanded by the Tao.  In fact, elsewhere he says it is impossible.  His own Tao is able to judge his own actions – and by his own words he does not find many instances where he himself grasped the Tao.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not Grasped by the Vikings

Being of Swedish origin I learned much about the activities of the Vikings 1000 years ago.  Though they were fearless explorers, discovering and colonizing Iceland, Greenland and even North America, they were also feared throughout Europe for their plundering, raping and pillaging raids.  They also traveled east raiding the Byzantium Empire and used the Volga River to launch raids into Russia.  Therefore I had always assumed that my ancestors of that era had no sense of moral values – a Tao – to speak of.  How surprised I was to learn something of what they taught about values.  Consider the following:

In Nastrond (=Hell) I saw … murderers … beguilers of others’ wives … the perjurers

Volospa 38, 39 (i.e. these things are vices)

Brothers shall fight and be each others’ bane

(Account of the ‘evil’ age before the World’s end showing that fighting among brothers to be a vice) Volopsa 45

This first I rede thee; be blameless to thy kindred.  Take no vengeance even though they do thee wrong

Sigrdrifumal 22

Anything is better than treachery

Havamal 124

Their ability to glimpse the Tao resonates both with ours as well as that of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians from the 2nd video of Session 2. But when we read of their raping and pillaging raids that terrorized Europe in the Middle Ages we see a discrepancy between what their moral intuition glimpsed and what their actions grasped – a discrepancy that parallels (though perhaps not as big) the discrepancy that Hitchens noted in his own life.  We noted this ability to glimpse the Tao (but not the term) along with a corresponding inability to grasp it in the previous post about the Iranian movie A Separation, amongst both the religious and the less religious in the modern Shia Islamic society of Iran.

The Tao: Glimpsed but not grasped today in Hindu India

The world’s largest recurring festival, the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival where devout Hindus travel long distances to wash ‘their sins away’, also shows how our ability to glimpse but not live morals crosses cultures, languages and religions.

The Biblical View of Morals

How do we explain this paradox that we humans can glimpse the moral, but not grasp it in how we live?  The Biblical explanation is that we were originally made in the image of God – giving us our moral Tao – but then mankind had a fall into corruption, so that we cannot grasp in practice the moral plumb line that we can glimpse.  The Biblical view shrewdly captures the essence of our morality, and from the beginning of its narrative unfolds the Divine Plan to restore us from our condition.

CS Lewis was a theist – a Christian even.  His view of morality was foundational to his belief in God.  Surprising as it may seem, Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most prominent atheist today, also frames an objective basis for morals.  How he does so, and what it means, we look at in our next post.


[1] C.S. Lewis.  1944.  The Abolition of Man.  p.10-11.  This book, though not as well-known as his other books, has influenced me more than his other writings.  The moral statements from Confucius, Homer, Cicero & The Vikings come from the appendix in this book.  They, in turn, come from the Encyclopedia of Religions and Ethics (ERE)

[2] Christopher Hitchens.  god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything  p. 188

An Oscar Nominee hints at Objective Truth

A couple of weeks ago I was staying with some Iranian friends.  After supper we watched an Iranian film, A Separation, which is being nominated for two 2012 Academy Awards – Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.  It is a gripping tale of an upper-middle class couple in Tehran divorcing because the wife wants to leave Iran to provide a better life for their young daughter while the husband wants to remain and care for his father who has severe Alzheimer’s. Continue reading “An Oscar Nominee hints at Objective Truth”