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I gave a talk, “Why Blasphemy Matters,” at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg on Monday (90 miles from Columbia). I look forward to giving the talk to more campus groups in the future. This was only the second time I’ve given that particular talk, and although I think it went well, I also think I can improve it. More about that another time: I found out that a philosopher named Andrew Bernstein would be in town the following evening giving a talk called “Religion vs. Morality.” I decided to stay in town an extra day so I could attend.
As it turns out, the Objectivist Club at UCM had scheduled a dinner with Dr. Bernstein before his 8 PM lecture, and I had the fortune of sitting next to him while we all ate. Dr. Bernstein, or Andy, teaches philosophy at SUNY Purchase. He is an objectivist and proponent of Ayn Rand’s work, as well as a philosopher (and novelist) in his own right. He’s written several books about capitalism, philosophy, and objectivism, lectures internationally, and he also wrote the Cliff’s Notes for Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.
At dinner, topics ranged from the current crop of Republican candidates (he plans to vote for “whichever sorry candidate the Republicans nominate”) to how to get into grad schools (his advice: Where you studied isn’t as important as what you have to say). I told him that although one of my majors is economics, I really know relatively little about market forces, capitalism, international trade, finance, etc, compared to most econ majors. I’ve taken a few required courses in those sorts of things, but my interest is game theory. I study altruism and the evolution of morality, especially its interplay with the history of religion, using the tools from behavioral economics & economic modeling. I admitted that this was my first real exposure to what objectivism is all about. He told me that his talk is not about religion AND morality, but more specifically religion VERSUS morality: in his estimation, an either/or proposal. I thought, this should be interesting!
At 8 PM, I joined an auditorium of people on the UCM campus as Angel Munoz Gomez Andrade, the president of the Objectivist Club, introduced Bernstein. Watching Bernstein speak is a real treat: He has a thick New York accent and a raw, passionate tone. Throughout his speech, he spoke with his hands as much as with his voice. The way he rapped his fingertips on the podium, shifted his weight when weighing what to say next, and stood on his toes to emphasize his points immediately brought to mind Al Pacino’s passion and mannerisms. An audience member, during the Q&A, said that he, lacking a philosophy background himself, had trouble following Bernstein on some of the more complex philosophy, but I found myself having the opposite experience: I think Bernstein has a remarkable ability to take complex philosophical ideas and illustrate them with digestible examples in such a way that they are readily understandable [disclosure: I'm minoring in philosophy].
The purpose of Bernstein’s talk, as stated above, is to argue that religion and morality are fundamentally at odds. Religion, because it is necessarily founded upon faith, requires irrational thinking, which Bernstein argues necessarily leads humans away from our values, and results in nothing short of death. There are certainly historical examples of this — he mentioned faith healing a few times, and the abysmal life expectancy of the third-world versus the first-world today. He argued that morality is, in so many words, whatever helps living things achieve their values, which (objectivism argues) are necessarily dictated by nature. These values are neither subjective in the social-consensus sense, nor the individual “whim” sense, nor the religious sense (via sacred text or divine revelation). According to objectivism, we need only look to the facts of what nature has presented to us in order to determine our values: There is, in fact, no need for subjective disagreement on what we “should” value or strive toward, because nature has already spelled out for us what is good and what is bad, whether we consent to it or not. We are living creatures, and what is “good” is whatever promotes life, and what is “bad” is whatever does not.
I’m reminded of Craig Palmer (Mizzou anthropologist) and Lyle Steadman’s (ASU professor emeritus) definitions concerning moral behavior for humans living in groups: Morality is roughly synonymous with pro-social behavior, and immoral behavior is roughly synonymous with antisocial behavior (see their 2010 book The Supernatural and Natural Selection: The Evolution of Religion). A human being in complete isolation is incapable of moral or immoral action, following this line of thinking: Anything s/he does is morally justifiable if it’s a means toward the end of his survival, by virtue of the very fact that lacking are any other living things to harm in the process.
Objectivism, as I understand it, has this to say about the matter: Natural selection has provided every living thing with some sort of tool (insofar as it is necessary, given its biological niche) to aid in its survival. For an elephant, that might be its massive size, thick hide, tusks, etc. For an elk, this might be its antlers and speed. For a tiger or wolf, claws & teeth. Nature has also “provided” (selected for) fur coats to protect some animals from cold climates. In the case of elephants, huge floppy ears are very important for temperature regulation: They have lots of surface area and LOTS of blood volume, such that the elephant can flap its ears to cool down the temperature of its blood, as another example.
What is “good” or “bad” when we’re talking about these animals behavior? Well, what’s “good” for a tiger or an elephant or mushroom or mosquito or bacterium is whatever aids it in its “mission” to survive and reproduce. Moral reflection or indeed consciousness at all is actually unnecessary for this. Any living thing will, quite naturally, do whatever it needs to do in order to survive and reproduce (else go extinct). What’s “good” is what leads toward this, and what’s “bad” is what leads away from this.
In the case of humans, natural selection actually took away our survival mechanisms (claws, sizable canine teeth, fur coats, etc) some time ago. Ancient primates gave up claws for nails a very long time ago (65-85 million years), and we still have a hint of canines and body hair, though nothing even close to that of our ancestors. What we do have, what nature has provided to us via selection, is something far more interesting, and far more useful, in exchange: rational, thinking brains. These are our survival tools. They allow us to innovate, to invent technologies, and to increase our efficiency. We don’t need claws; we have hand-axes (for an EXCELLENT discussion of the importance of hand-axes to human evolution, see Matt Ridley’s beautifully-written The Rational Optimist). As time went on, ancient humans further innovated to produce hafted axes (axes with handles), spears, arrowheads, and much later, metal bladed weapons, etc.
We don’t need costly (in terms of energy input/output and time invested) guts & digestive systems; we have fire. In fact, we are the only animals that cook our food: By doing so, we are basically outsourcing a large fraction of our ancestors’ digestive process. By investing fewer calories (less energy) in growing and maintaining a complex gut, natural selection was able to divert that energy into growing more complex brains, instead, and the process went ’round and ’round in a magnificent evolutionary upward spiral of exponential innovation. From controlled fire (and therefore bigger brains) came an increased ability to ward off predators and stay warm, especially at night (meaning even less need for caloric investment in muscle mass and large, powerful jaws, and less need for temperature regulation via thick body hair), which led to even more freed-up calories for investment in bigger brains, and so on and so on, until we get to anatomically modern humans some 200,000 years ago.
What’s “good” when it comes to humans specifically? According to my understanding of objectivism, it’s not determined by a god (divine command theory), nor by societal consensus (moral relativism), nor by the individual: Values are dictated to us by nature, intrinsic in the fact that we are living things. What’s “good” is whatever helps us get closer to living up to those values. Except for rare suicidal cases, humans (like all living things) naturally value survival, and except in (relatively) rare cases, humans (like all living things) naturally value reproduction. This is more-or-less a restatement of the biological imperative. According to objectivism, as I understand it, this is sufficient to resolve Hume’s is-ought problem. There are other proposed resolutions to this problem, for example, Sam Harris also claims that science [the application of reason to evidence] can answer moral questions in The Moral Landscape.
The argument for reason as the best tool for achieving human values (or any living thing’s values, for that matter), therefore, neatly falls into place. By rejecting all forms of irrationality — religion included — we are necessarily left with the path of least resistance toward the end of attaining that which [nature has determined] is of value to us. The application of reason, Bernstein argues, is the most efficient, healthiest, and most direct way to reach our goals. Since these goals are dictated by nature and emphatically not subjective, it is an open-and-shut case.
Religion, because it embraces faith (and is, by definition, irrational), is therefore directly at odds with life itself. According to Bernstein, “Religion is a philosophical system based in faith, not reason,” and it necessarily includes an unquestioning obedience to God. Religion views humans as sinful, and a failure to obey God is at the very core of what it means to be immoral, from the perspective of religion. This is so fundamental to the Abrahamic religions that it’s in fact the very basis of sin itself, illustrated by the Fall of Man.
As a student of anthropology, I strongly disagree with this definition of religion, although admittedly “religion” is notoriously difficult to define, and Bernstein was upfront about this being a purely working definition. Some religions (e.g. theistic Satanism) place zero emphasis on obedience to God or indeed encourage disobedience as permissible behavior. Note: I’m not talking about LaVey Satanism here; LaVey explicitly denounced “devil worship” or the idea of praying to Satan, and LaVey Satanists are generally atheists. In fact, atheistic Satanism can, I think, rightly be called “ethical egoism with ritual.” Other examples of religions lacking a necessity of obedience to “God” are Buddhism, Taoism, and many American Indian religions. In the case of Buddhism, the Eightfold Path is a rough stand-in for a revealed text from a god, and in the case of Taoism, the idea is to live in harmony with reality through compassion, moderation, and humility. Although supernatural elements are present in each system, a rule-giving god is conspicuously absent, and disobedience is not immoral per se.
Bernstein’s working definition of religion is sufficient for the Abrahamic religions in this context, but I don’t think he adequately makes the case against all religion, just religions that require obedience to a god (which, admittedly, is most of the ones we’re worried about in practice).
During the Q&A, an audience member asked if there was room for faith in any of this. He said that he is a farmer and gave the example of having faith that it will rain within a certain window of time when choosing exactly when to plant his crops. He cited weather patterns over the last few decades as informing his choice of when to plant. Bernstein rightly pointed out that the farmer, then, is not depending on faith — there is no supernatural element present there. I wanted to add to this that perhaps a better way to word it might be that the farmer doesn’t have faith that it will rain: He has confidence that it will, in the scientific sense (evidence informing probability). This is very, very different from trust (an emotion) and faith (non-evidence-based belief), and we should take care to correct people who use the word “faith” when they mean “confidence.” If evidence is leading to your belief, you are, by definition, confident. There’s a big difference, and I applaud Bernstein on pointing this out.
My other main objection is that Bernstein, while simultaneously praising Scandinavia’s rational, secular approach to the rejection of irrationality, doesn’t seem to give credit where credit is due with regard to the success they have had in the application of liberal-leaning public policy. Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc has some of the healthiest people on the planet in terms of nutrition, lifespan, and other factors for which he earlier criticized the Dark Ages for lacking . Phil Zuckerman, in Society Without God: What The Least Religious Nations Can Tell Us About Contentment, makes strong arguments for why life in Scandinavia is downright heavenly (har har) for rational people, and atheists especially: Aside from long lifespans, they have some of the lowest abortion rates, divorce rates, murder rates, illiteracy rates, corruption rates, etc. Yes, they have very high tax rates, but health care and college is accessible to anyone who wants it (as I understand it). Looking at GDP per capita, a favored metric by Bernstein (who quoted these figures several times throughout his talk), is not necessarily an optimal way to compare the living conditions in one country versus another. While after-tax income of course measures “lower” in countries with high tax rates (and I of course admit the obvious role Pigovian taxes play on disincentivizing innovation), if tax-funded services are provided in lieu of direct income, if this is not accounted for in one’s metric, an individual’s actual standard of living may be more-or-less unaffected, even as the GDP per capita falls. This is why other metrics have come into favor over GDP per capita, which is easier to calculate but provides less information about the overall picture. More informative metrics are, for example, the Gini coefficient (based on the Lorenz curve), the Human Poverty Index (a composite index which accounts for literacy, unemployment, probability of falling below the poverty line, and the probability, at birth, of surviving to age 60), among others. GDP per capita as a metric, perhaps most importantly, only very weakly accounts for life satisfaction and experienced utility (see my previous article on welfare economics here).
I strongly agree with Bernstein’s overall message that religion and morality cannot peaceably coexist. In the words of Sam Harris, “The problem of faith is that it is a conversation-stopper. As long as you don’t have to give reasons for what you believe, you have effectively immunized yourself against the power of human conversation. You hear religious people say things like, ‘There’s nothing that can be said that will change my mind.’ Just imagine that said in medicine. If there’s nothing that can be said that will change your mind, if there’s no evidence or argument that can be educed, that proves that you are not any state of the world into account in your beliefs. The problem with this is that when the stakes are high, we have a choice between conversation and violence.” Bernstein made essentially the same point in his talk, that giving credibility to faith necessarily results in an irreconciliable struggle for (theoretically!) rational animals like us.
Bernstein is a strong public speaker, a good conversationalist, and extremely knowledgable in his field. I recommend him to any campus group interested in guest lectures about objectivism, reason/rationality, or why religion is harmful to societies.
Until next time!
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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
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