…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

2. Considering Truth: Glimpsing the Moral Law … and God behind it

When I was a student as I described in The Wisdom I learned from a Filthy-Rich, Hard-Drinking Playboy I read C.S. Lewis’s book Mere Christianity.  It intrigued me because in a brilliant way he took examples from everyday life showing how our sense of fairness and right and wrong were deeply embedded in us.  He presented a lucid argument for a Moral Law – implying Reality was more than simply matter/energy materialism since this Law was non-material, and that there was a LawGiver standing behind this Law.

Though I felt, and accepted to some extent, the force of the reasons he presented, I struggled because the ‘data’ that he used was soft and intangible (after all it was ‘just’ human behaviour).  It was not concrete and absolute like more scientific data seemed to be.  I also knew that his arguments for a Moral Law stood in contrast to the academic spirit of our age.

But I re-read his book and as I entered into more life experience I just held his view tentatively out there asking if it made sense of my human situation and the situations of those around me.  And I kept finding that his view on right and wrong seemed to fit so well with what I saw around me.   It gave a shrewdly accurate assessment of human morals.  As I studied philosophy of ethics and world religions at university the Moral Law further established itself in my mind.  The data became less intangible to me than it had been at first.

These two videos summarize some of my journey looking at this fascinating question.  I argue that moral truth is absolute, not subjective.  You may find, as I first did, that this is a very different way of looking at moral truth than what you are accustomed to.  If so, I would simply urge you to, like I did, keep this view tentatively ‘out there’ in your mind and observe how you and those around you reason morally in real-life situations.  You may find it, in time, shrewdly fitting what you see.

In this first video I look at leading thinkers of ethics.  In particular I look at Bertrand Russell in his book Why I am Not a Christian.  Without intending or meaning to (they are trying to argue the opposite), both he and the other academics I cite convinced me that there was indeed a Moral Law.

In the second I then survey the data of human ethics in world religions to see if there is evidence of a uniform Moral Law.  Then I ask the very practical question if I am living up to the Law as advanced by any religion.

Blog Posts Related to this Session

  • 08/10/2013 - University survey affirms we are ‘Bound to Believe’

  • 16/01/2013 - The Hindu Kumbh Mela Festival: Showing Bad News of Sin & Good News of the Gospel

  • 23/12/2012 - The Subsequent Life Lived: Signature of the Virgin Birth

  • 15/09/2012 - Corrupted (Part 2) … missing our target

  • 04/09/2012 - …But Corrupted (Part 1 – like orcs of Middle-earth)

  • 27/08/2012 - In the Image of God

  • 11/03/2012 - Richard Dawkins and our Moral Tao – Part 2

  • 03/03/2012 - Richard Dawkins and the Moral Tao – Part 1

  • 26/02/2012 - Glimpsing the Moral Tao … But not able to Grasp it

  • 20/02/2012 - An Oscar Nominee hints at Objective Truth

  • 06/02/2012 - Origins: Evolution or Design – why touch it?

  • 22/12/2011 - Christopher Hitchens & North Korea’s Kim Jong-il: Is it really religion that poisons everything?