The Evisceration of Our Moral Sensibilities

December 6, 2011

There is an interesting article in Education Forum a publication of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, The author Dr. Stephen Anderson reports the reaction of students in his class when he shared with them the details of the case of Bibi Aisha, an Afghan woman was mutilated by her in-laws for fleeing her abusive husband. Time magazine had done a cover story on her, featuring her horrifically scarred face absent a nose on the cover.

When Dr. Anderson presented this to his students in his senior philosophy class during a discussion on making moral judgments he made a startling discovery – the students couldn’t bring themselves to criticize Bibi’s mutilators:

But I was not prepared for their reaction. I had expected strong aversion; but that’s not what I got. Instead, they became confused. They seemed not to know what to think. They spoke timorously, afraid to make any moral judgment at all. They were unwilling to criticize any situation originating in a different culture. They said, “Well, we might not like it, but maybe over there it’s okay.” One student said, “I don’t feel anything at all; I see lots of this kind of stuff.” Another said (with no conscious-ness of self-contradiction), “It’s just wrong to judge other cultures.”

As a teacher, I had to do something. Like most teachers, I felt uncomfortable with becoming too directive in moral matters; but in this case, I could not see how I could avoid it. I wondered, “How can kids who have been so thoroughly basted in the language of minority rights be so numb to a clear moral offense?” Where are all those “character traits” we inculcate to address their moral formation? You know them — empathy, caring, respect, courage—the wording may vary among boards, but we all know the script.

My class was “character developed” and had all the “traits” in place. They were honest – very frank in their views. They had empathy — extending it in equal measure to Aisha and to the demented subculture that sliced her up. They were accepting — even of child mutilation. And they persevered — no matter how I prodded they did not leave their nonjudgmental position. I left that class shaking my head. It seemed clear to me that for some students—clearly not all — the lesson of character education initiatives is acceptance of all things at all costs. While we may hope some are capable of bridging the gap between principled morality and this ethically vacuous relativism, it is evident that a good many are not. For them, the overriding message is “never judge, never criticize, never take a position.”

Any many ways this incident shows the vacuity of what passes for secular morality. I am often told by atheists that ‘morals’, such as they are, are a product of our natural inclination to feel empathy and our evolutionary tendency toward cooperation – but as Dr. Anderson notes, neither of those traits is particularly ‘moral’ in and of itself. Absent a truly objective moral framework such traits could just as easily result in the moral weakness we see pictured above. True moral courage requires a clear ability to ascribe inherent value to individuals and a sense of confidence in the right based on transcendent eternal values. Those values can be derived from the teachings of Christ, but they cannot be derived from either nature or mere reason – and it is increasingly clear the ongong secularization of our culture is eviscerating the moral sensibilities of our children.

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Atheist Contradictions – Secular Human Values

November 10, 2011

Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation recently wrote this in reply to his fellow New Atheist Jerry Coyne:

During my debates on morality I point out that all of the good teachings in the world religions (which show up in all of them) are really HUMAN values: peace, love, cooperation, and so on. Those values transcend religion, and are in fact the values we use when we are judging from the outside whether we think a particular religion is good or not.

This is of course the sort of gobbledygook one hears often from New Atheists. At the very first his assertion is based on an absurdity. There is no such thing as a ‘human value’; humans value many things – love, happiness, wealth, power, sex, ambition, equality, etc. Some value some of those over others. People differ about which values are legitimate and which aren’t.  Christians don’t claim they invented their values, merely that they provide a logically consistent basis for preferring some values (like peace, love, and cooperation) over others, like aggression, hatred and selfishness. Atheism of course provides no basis for preferring one set of values over another.

Because there are no such things as ‘human values’ the idea that we ‘judge’ whether a religion is ‘good or not’ is ‘bass ackwards’ as they say. Different people judge various belief systems (religious or otherwise) based on the values they hold but how they got those values to begin with isn’t merely a product of being ‘human’. Invariably, as we explore where the values individuals came from we end up looking at culture and history – and this always leads us back to religious beliefs. Atheists haven’t created or adopted any values that didn’t emanate from an earlier religious foundation and any values they do adopt are merely a matter of personal preference, not an objective consideration.

So Barker is begging the question here – to say that certain values ‘transcend’ religion is to say that there must be some source of values that preceded religion. This is problematic because the very things that distinguish us as human – our consideration of values and morals, our spiritual capacity and the fact that we produce and are the product of culture are intertwined. To say values transcend religion is like saying that biological ‘life’ transcends respiration; proving this false is as easy as putting a pillow over someone’s face.

So once again we see an atheist not only confused about what Christians claim, but confused about the origin and definition of values all together.