Monday, April 21, 2008

Can We be Good Without God?

In an event billed as a "conversational debate" between Dinesh D'Souza '83, an early Review staffer, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, professor of philosophy at the College, an overflowing crowd in Alumni Hall were treated to the sight of two men struggling to sell their books and come up with the wittiest insult for the other.  There were several moments of compelling and insightful arguments from both, but there was a marked lack of engagement; neither seemed willing to abandon their pre-existing narrative, making it seem at times that D'Souza and Sinnott-Armstrong were debating different questions.


The topic of discussion was whether or not humans can be moral without God.  Armstrong began with a fifteen minute speech, in which he spent a remarkable amount of time distancing himself from the more militant modern atheists by admitting that he did not believe religion was responsible for all the ills of mankind.  He explained his reasoning for being an atheist, mainly the lack of an obvious benevolent presence in the world, the existence of "natural evil" outside of human free will, and and some rather convoluted problem with the idea of an eternal God affecting instances in the space-time.

Eventually Armstrong got around to disagreeing with choice quotes from both D'Souza's latest book and the Bible, all suspiciously lacking any form of context.  Finally when the mischaracterizations were at an end he got around to two worthwhile points of debate: humans would not follow all commands attributed to God, they judge them themselves, as in the case with passages from the Old testament.  Does this not mean that people are moral without God in the first place, making His specific commands either arbitrary or superfluous?  At this juncture, Armstrong defined secular morality, by judging whether a free agent has committed willful serious harm with no adequate reason.  God need not figure into the equation at all.

D'Souza's opening digression did not share the mundane nature of Armstrong's.  He began with two well-received jokes about feeling as overwhelmed as a mosquito at a nudist colony, and promising to the audience that, like Henry VIII to his wife, "I won't keep you very long".  D'Souza was able to fit more complete points into the remainder of his time which, owing to the format of the event meant that more of his positions were guaranteed to come out unscathed.  He argued that religion does not explain the basic goodness of men, but does account for the values to which societies give their greatest allegiance; he compared the modern West with Sparta, global slavery, and Aristotle's poor view of compassion.  He claimed that there is no reasonable explanation for morality arising from Darwinian evolution; that the supposed moral strength of modern secular nations was really created by Christian institutions; that atheism itself, not just individual atheists were responsible for the crimes of the 20th Century.  

From this point on, Armstrong began comparing religion to alchemy and Santa Claus, claimed that theists are scared of atheists, made the point that secular groups are moral but defeated himself with a joke about Dartmouth's obvious moral compass despite high numbers of atheists, and claimed that just because religions teach morality does not indicate that they or its origin.  D'Souza had more stinging one-liners and a general reiteration of his previous points, but by the time for the two men to ask questions of each other and to field questions from the audience Armstrong had resorted to angrily reusing D'Souza's mosquito line and asking a juvenile question about the texts in Deuteronomy that guide tribal life seeming to indicate an absence of morality, and D'Souza had angered a Hindu professor in the audience with a tangential personal anecdote, and their was no opportunity for a clear winner on any particular issue raised.

Give Armstrong credit for admitting that good things can come from Christians and religion, and D'Souza commendation for superior wit and not losing his temper like Armstrong.  The event was lively, if  unenlightening.  But then man doesn't need enlightenment anyway, does he Professor?   



2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I would hardly credit D'Souza with "superior wit." If anything, his ability to debate the question at hand was extremely disappointing. The Christian advocating charitable values has used that mosquito line in other debates, and barring its ability for a cheap laugh, its simply not true. Sinnott-Armstrong answered the question of goodness without God in his speech, establishing a secular anti-harm take on morality. D'Souza conceded that atheists could be good right away, and then went on a tangent about how Christianity was important for the establishment of those values. (A generally misinformed opinion anyway - I would suggest he read Mencius or something.) I was sorry to see he derailed the question of the debate so early.

And Sinnott-Armstrong's question was far from juvenile. It was central to the debate: if the Bible is the source of your morality, then you need to account for why you accept some passages and reject others. D'Souza DID NOT answer that question. I guess in the end it was just poorly worded (and as you say) motivated by frustration.

Disappointing showing overall.

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