Saturday, August 25, 2007

The faith of atheists -- examining the Dennis Prager/Sam Harris debate

Here is my analysis of a debate between Sam Harris, an evangelical atheist, and Dennis Prager, a Jewish theist, that took place back in November, 2006.

Here is Sam Harris' day 1 opening salvo to Dennis:

In the beginning of this debate, Harris declares all religion to be jihadist, loony, and/or prejudicial. Only later in the debate does Harris, hypothetically, consider the value of some sort of religion (which he will later call "Scientismo" in day 4 of the debate). This colors how one is to interpret Harris' statement, "there is no good reason to believe in a personal God", since it can mean two different things: A) there is no good evidence for believing in God and B) there is no good usefulness for one believing in God. In the beginning of the debate, Harris is clearly stating both A) and B). In the course of this ensuing debate, Harris will relinquish assertion B) in favor of assertion A).

Here is Dennis' day 1 reply to Harris:

Here is Harris' day 2 reply to Dennis:

(Harris) Atheism does not assert that “it is all made by chance.” No one knows why the universe came into being. Most scientists readily admit their ignorance on this point. Religious believers do not.

"No one knows why the universe came into being" – that is the statement that needs to be unpacked. It can mean one of two different things A) that no one can have absolute scientific certainly as to why the universe came into being – or B) that it is not possible for anyone to have the slightest clue why the universe came into being. The former assertion leaves room for religious faith, the second assertion doesn't.

If a scientist is operating with intellectual honesty within the limitations of science, he would offer assertion A). However, an atheist is not merely scientific, but is rather scientismist, believing that science is the key to any and all metaphysical questions. As such, an atheist will either firmly believe that 1) the universe was not created -- on account of science or 2) firmly believe that it is not possible for anyone to have the slightest clue as to why the universe came into being -- on account of science.

The first statement is plainly a statement of faith regarding the origins of the universe that asserts a certainty over an uncertainty. The second statement is also a faith statement, albeit more subtle, in that it places faith in the idea that science is the key to all metaphysical understanding and that all knowledge is to be made real/unreal, relevant/irrelevant within limitations of science.

It is also important to note that statement 1) and 2) are tantamount to being the same thing. The first statement plainly says that God does not exist, thereby denying the existence of any sort of God. The second statement says that God knowledge is completely unknowable, and therefore completely irrelevant to questions of truth and knowledge. The second statement thereby denies the existence of a "personal God" who, by definition, has made himself knowable to people. It is on the matter of a "personal God" not existing that Harris asserts total certainty.

And it is not a far leap from the certainly of statement 2) – that no personal God exists-- to certainty of statement 1) – that no God exists at all. At this point in the discussion, Harris is claiming statement 2) in order to downplay his claims of certainty in the face of Prager's charge that Harris is claiming too much certainty. Harris will indicate that he does in fact believe statement 1).

(Harris) Why can’t I say that the cosmos is uncreated?

Of course, Harris can say that the cosmos is uncreated. That is, in fact, what Harris believes, which is why he states it in the first person. Harris is now admitting to having the certainty regarding statement 1) that he did not admit to having earlier. This is part of the reason why Prager will later, in day 4, redirect the blame on Harris for "making maneuvers" in the course of the debate and not owning up to the true extent of his certainty, and therefore, his faith.

Here is Prager's day 2 reply:

Here is Harris' day 3 reply:

(Harris) But it is clear from our debate that you and I differ on the location of the problem. In your view, the problem must be that Europe has lost the moral backbone that only religion can provide (and Islam just happens to be the wrong religion.) In my view, our world has been shattered, quite unnecessarily, by religion itself. As I said, even if you were right, and the only people who could summon the moral courage to fight the religious lunatics of the Muslim world were the religious lunatics of the West, this would suggest nothing at all about the existence of the biblical God. It would only show that a belief in Him might be politically necessary, in a given time and place, to motivate people to fight (as our inimitable President says) “the evildoers.” I am reasonably sure you are wrong about this. But again, this is quite irrelevant to the question before us.

The question whether religion is useful is relevant to Harris' original salvo "there is no good reason to believe in a personal God".

Here is Prager's day 3 reply:

Here is Harris' day 4 reply:

(Harris) While the usefulness of religion might be worth debating in another context, it is completely irrelevant to the question of whether God exists.

Again. The question whether religion is useful is relevant to Harris' original salvo " there is no good reason to believe in a personal God". If A) one cannot prove whether or not God exists with scientific certainty, as both Prager and Harris have admitted, and B) believing in God is potentially useful, as Harris has admitted, then there is a good reason, under certain circumstances, for one to believe God as a matter of faith. That is why Prager, in day 1, made a distinction between bad God-belief and good God-belief.

If I believe that there is an afterlife, and believing in that afterlife gives meaning to my struggle to be moral, then there is a good reason to believe in the afterlife. In a similar vein, if I am moved by listening to Beethoven, there is a good reason for me to believe that it is beautiful.

By "good reason", I do not mean "a good scientifically verifiable reason", since I recognize that the question of "good" lies outside the realm of science to answer, whether in the realm of faith, morality or art.

If I believe that there is a moral order to the world, and I believe that an idea of God is the key to that moral order, then there is a good reason for me to believe in God. If someone else does not see that belief in God is important to moral order, then for that person, he/she may not possess a good reason to believe in God in regard to the issue of morality. As someone who believes that believing in God is important to having morality, it is my perogative to state my case and leave it alone for each to decide on his/her own.

Here is Prager's day 4 final reply:

I have more to say on the matter of "moral intuition" which Harris raises in day 3.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Morality and Ethics

This past week I was exploring a classic dorm room philosophical question: what, if any, is the difference between "morality" and "ethics".

As I've been reflecting on various moral and ethical issues, I've realized that it's actually an important question. It matters in terms of how to properly classify, compare and contrast morals and ethics across the boundaries of belief and skepticism. It matters, as a Christian, in regard to many of these inter-related questions in terms of how to discuss morality and ethics with the world at large:

-- Is what is moral also ethical?
-- How much does any one else's moral system fit in with "ethics"?
-- What do these terms mean to those who are hailing from a different ideology or different belief system?
-- What is it to have a moral debate or an ethical debate?
-- How much is a question of Christian morality "exportable" into the realm of ethical inquiry beyond Christianity?
-- Do I have a Christian ethical system or a Christian moral system, or both?
-- Where, if at all, do moral considerations and ethical blend in?

As with any important philosophical inquiry, I went to the internet. In, it offers these definitions:

eth•ic ( th k)
1. a. A set of principles of right conduct. b. A theory or a system of moral values: "An ethic of service is at war with a craving for gain" Gregg Easterbrook.
2. ethics (used with a sing. verb) The study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral choices to be made by a person; moral philosophy.
3. ethics (used with a sing. or pl. verb) The rules or standards governing the conduct of a person or the members of a profession: medical ethics.

mo•ral•i•ty (m -r l -t , mô-)
n. pl. mo•ral•i•ties
1. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct.
2. A system of ideas of right and wrong conduct: religious morality; Christian morality.
3. Virtuous conduct.
4. A rule or lesson in moral conduct.

So to what extent are these terms interchangeable? Here, a gentleman named Lawrence M. Hinman gives his effort at making contrast:

"Ethics. The explicit, philosophical reflection on moral beliefs and practices. The difference between ethics and morality is similar to the difference between musicology and music. Ethics is a conscious stepping back and reflecting on morality, just as musicology is a conscious reflection on music.

Morality. "Morality" refers to the first-order beliefs and practices about good and evil by means of which we guide our behavior. Contrast with Ethics, which is the second-order, reflective consideration of our moral beliefs and practices.

Here is wikipedia contrasting morals and ethics:

"Morality (from Latin moralitas "manner, character, proper behaviour") refers to the concept of human action which pertains to matters of right and wrong—also referred to as "good and evil"—used within three contexts: individual distinction; systems of valued principles—sometimes called conduct morality—shared within a cultural, religious, secular or philosophical community. Personal morals define and distinguish among right and wrong intentions, motivations or actions, as these have been learned, engendered, or otherwise developed within individuals. Bycontrast, ethics are more correctly applied as the study of broader social systems within whose context morality exists. Morals define whether I should kill my neighbour Joe when he steals my tractor; ethics define whether it is right or wrong for one person to kill another in a dispute over property. "

Notice that the two sites listed above distinguish ethics from morality by defining ethics as the disciplined, conscious study applying the broadest examination of society. Morality is portrayed as being more instinctual, reflexive and provincial. Here, below, is a professional trade publication weighing in on the topic. The distinction made here is similar to that made by Wikipedia that morals are personal, and that ethics are global.

"Morals and the expression, “moral values” are generally associated with a personal view of values. Personal morals tend to reflect beliefs relating to sex, drinking, gambling, etc. They can reflect the influence of religion, culture, family and friends.

Ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave. Ethical values are beliefs concerning what is morally right and proper as opposed to what is simply correct or effective.

An individual may personally believe that drinking is immoral. However, drinking is not, in and of itself, unethical. Further, it is unethical to impose your personal moral values on another.
Ethical values transcend cultural, religious, or ethnic differences.

Ethical values embrace a more universal worldview. The Josephson Institute of Ethics recommends six, core ethical values to abide by: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship. "

Here is a link to an atheist at who gives a good breakdown of the different ethical disciplines, defining "ethics" in broad enough terms that it could be used to describe any feature of "morality". He does not explicitly define "morality", though in his writing he uses the term "ethics" more in regard to the disciplines of study and "morality" more in regard to their application.

Here are his categories of ethical inquiry listed as links:

Descriptive Ethics
Normative Ethics
Deontology and Ethics
Teleology and Ethics
Virtue Ethics
Analytic Ethics (Metaethics)

Here is a link to a philosopher who draws no distinction, but who is open to others attempting to make a distinction.

"I draw no distinction between ethics and morality. For me, the difference between the two terms is simply the difference between Greek (ethos) and Latin (mores). That is to say: in my lexicon they are stylistic variants of each other. If someone uses these terms in such a way as to suggest a difference, I have no objection as long as the person explains what difference he has in mind. But one should not assume a difference without explaining it."

So with this peek into the web, allow me to take a crack at this question of morality vs. ethics. I recognize that there is a certain value to all of the above attempts at comparing and contrasting ethics and morality, however, all of the above distinctions between ethics and morality, or lack thereof, leave something to be desired. I want to build on the categories of ethical inquiry listed at to define "ethics" and "morality" in a way that encompasses the way that these words are commonly used, but that allows for a more disciplined understanding of how these terms blend together. So I define

Ethics as the realm of inquiry into questions of right conduct and virtue wherein a common metaphysical understanding among the debating parties is not a pre-requisite.

Morality as a particular value system that is oriented around a particular metaphysical understanding. It is the value system of a morality that will inform matters of right behavior and virtue.

By my definition, ethics is not the only province of conscious examination, nor is it the only idea that is non-provincial. Rather, an ethical discussion/debate occurs when the parties involved do not necessarily have an agreement on a metaphysical principle that serves as an ultimate truth. A moral discussion/debate is an inquiry in which the debating parties agree upon a metaphysical principle and are debating the correct application that flows from that principle.

My definition allows a superficial similarity to some of the definitions offered above, since a system of morality as I've defined it will be more idiosyncratic to individuals, since individuals can have a differing view of what is ultimately true. A system of morality will also be more likely to be connected to religion, since religious beliefs provide people with answers concerning ultimate truth.

It is a tendency among philosophical cognicenti to define morality as the "petri dish" that is examined by the objective "microscope" of ethics. The hierarchical relationship that places ethics above morality that is created for the inquiry elides into the conclusion -- that "ethics" is the meta-morality above morality. The trade publication's definitions of these terms are representative of this tendency.

Based on how I've defined "morality" and "ethics", no one can claim to be a member of a cognicenti that has risen above questions of mere morality. Saying that there is no ultimate truth is, in itself an ultimate truth which functions as the basis of organizing a moral value system. Even those who claim that they have no settled metaphysical understanding, in fact, have one by default. It is also possible for people to have un-examined beliefs and therefore have deeply held moral systems that are in conflict with their overtly stated moral/ethical positions.

A moral system may encompass ideas of right conduct and virtue that are amenable to many others who have differing moral systems. It is these common denominator questions of right conduct and virtue that exist in the realm of "moral overlap" and are considered to be the realm of what is "ethical" by many. Ideas of Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship would fall into this category.

In regard to the blend of morality, morals, ethics and an "ethic", "morals" are generally referred to those principles of behavior and value which are not subject to any debate within a moral system. A "(fill in the blank) ethic" is a term that may be used by moralists to describe conclusions that certain members of a moral system have made in regard to particular chosen code/patterns of mind and behavior. For example, it may be moral in my moral system for me pray, and I may have a "prayer ethic" of praying in a certain way. Based on my definitions, if I am having a discussion on ethics that is informed by moral view in a way that can be commonly understood among those with different moral outlooks, I can be said to be discussing ethics.

It is this breakdown of ethics and morality that I will be using when I refer to "ethics" and "morality" in later blog posts. If I am echoing anyone else who has opined on this topic, please let me know.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

My Comment at

Here is a comment that I made at on the topic of modesty using the moniker GW. I respond directly to a person's comments. This person does care about modesty and that's good. However, based on her comments, if she is ever in charge of a ministry, I will be sure not to send men to her church who are struggling with lust, since she expects men of God not to have those struggles.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Female Chauvenist Pigs and their defenders

This post is also my 3rd post as a "review of a review", criticizing the book reviewers opinions. Book reviews are an important part of the opinion media, and are an important place where secular apologists of ennui let their opinions hang out.

Ariel Levy's Female Chauvenist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture is a book that I refer to in my Crisis of Modesty in the Evangelical Church. Despite Levy's faults and naivete in certain areas of her analysis, Levy was one of a couple secular authors who began seriously questioning and confronting the raunch culture at large. I am particularly interested in writers like Levy, since secular writers arguing for social sexual boundaries cannot look to Scriptures to back up their arguments. They are often forced to construct better arguments from available evidence in society at large, often doing a better job than many Christians who care about the same topic.

While researching for my Modesty writing, I found that Levy coined the term, "Female Chauvenist Pigs", while it was Christine Smallwood who actually coined the term "raunch feminism" in her 2005 review of Levy's book entitled "Girls gone wild". There are many aspects of Smallwood's review that have vexed me, and I wanted to examine Smallwood's review in greater depth as part of my ongoing look at raunch culture and its apologists.

Here is the book review by Smallwood that was featured in in 2005

Girls Gone Wild

The second half of Smallwood's review has been copied to my post and is featured in blue. My comments are interspersed throughout it in black. Notice that Smallwood acknowledges certain aspects of Levy's analysis while disparaging/questioning others aspects of it. It is my critique of Smallwood that most of her criticisms of Levy are contradictory and are "red herrings" for a central viewpoint of Smallwood that is not contradictory to any other of Smallwoods remarks.

Levy extrapolates from her research subjects to all women, relying on a "we" without clearly defining who she's speaking about, or for. We revel in the porn aesthetic. We fetishize strippers. We do cardio striptease workouts. We have no real erotic role models. We are female chauvinist pigs.

But are we? It's clear that "we" live in a culture permeated by raunch and pornography -- at least white women do. Levy doesn't take account of black, Asian or Latino culture. She doesn't look at booty shakers pouring champagne on themselves, dripping with gold on the music videos on BET, or thumb through Confessions of a Video Vixen, the bestselling book about a hip-hop video dancer. She doesn't think about Japanese anime and manga, with their double-D heroines.

Smallwood accuses Levy of failing to look at non-white women, but it is not clear what the consequence is. At the beginning of the paragraph, Smallwood seems to be questioning whether “we”—in regard to the idea that “we” live in a culture permeated by raunch and pornography—is a tent that includes all women or merely just white women. Ms. Smallwood then promptly fills in the gaps to say that non-white women do live in their own versions of raunch culture.

After second-wave feminism was accused of being a white movement, women of color assumed an important position in academic and activist debate. "We" could have a lot to teach each other about the ways that we are uniquely, and commonly, misused across media. Female Chauvinist Pigs ignores that possibility.

Again, Smallwood is not criticizing Levy’s fundamental analysis that women are misused across the media, she is criticizing the fact that Levy has not done more to weave non-white women into the discussion. While this is not a bad suggestion, to conduct this cross-cultural comparative analysis Levy would have had to have written a longer book, maybe a much longer book. Levy is giving herself permission to be a bit polemic. Perhaps Levy should have described her current as an analysis of white culture and then write a second follow-up book that includes all of the other bits of analysis that Smallwood wants.

It also neglects any mention of class. Male-identified FCPs are financially successful. Even if they're not at the top of the ladder, if they're bartenders or registered nurses, they're not struggling to get by. They would never be forced to strip for money, for instance, which is one reason it's easy for them to dissociate themselves from women who do.

Who are these indentifying males and these dissociating financially successful Female Chauvinist Pigs? It's Smallwood's red herring and a meaningless pronoun minefield that has no bearing on Levy's analysis. If Levy wanted to deal with class nuances—a tangentially important area to her analysis-- she would need to have written a bigger book.

Aside from the question of "white-ness" and class, Levy is writing to and about those women who have the means to consume, who are knowingly or un-knowingly driving raunch into the mainstream by their consumption choices. As it relates to women who have the means to consume, Levy's "we" covers most of the bell curve of consumerist Western culture, and only excludes, perhaps, the utterly destitute poor, who might feel that they were "forced" to strip.

So you have to wonder why Levy doesn't take the time to interview strippers or sex workers. She quotes Jenna Jameson, but she doesn't get an analysis of raunch from the perspective of an actual sex worker. Presumably such a thing falls outside the scope of her subject matter, but you'd think that a G-string diva would have an idea or two of her own on her new role as cultural heroine.

Again, Levy could have written a massive tome to include every angle of cultural analysis that Smallwood criticizes her for not including. We can read Jenna Jameson’s book, How To Make Love Like a Porn Star to learn about Jameson’s own personal cocktail of pride, bravado, denial, ambivalence and cognitive dissonance.

Levy takes it for granted that Jameson's lifestyle is destructive. There are other things that one can read if one is unconvinced of this. If porn women like Jameson were interviewed so that their opinions could be taken seriously in answering the question whether porn as destructive, most would be in some degree of denial. If it is taken as a given that Jameson's public image is destructive as Levy does, then Jameson represents a proverbial "flame", and mainstream girls who aspire to be like her in some way represent proverbial "moths".

Levy's book is about the motivations of the "moths", and so it is actually far more important for Levy’s over-all analysis of mainstream culture to interview “normal” girls like Erin and Shaina than to further probe into what Jenna actually thinks of herself.

Raunch, whether or not we like it, is tangled and complicated, fraught with pleasure, voyeurism, mimicry, excitement, revulsion, exploitation -- a whole host of contradictory impulses.

Smallwood’s description of raunch also sounds like an addiction. At certain points in the midst of an addiction to drugs and alcohol, an addiction includes all of the impulses that Smallwood mentions – pleasure, mimicry, excitement, revulsion and exploitation. To admit that something is an addiction, though, requires that one be capable of super-imposing a higher and better and more wholesome image of health over and above the pleasure, mimicry, excitement, revulsion and exploitation.

While raunch is indeed a tangle of contradictory impulses, the question is whether it can be untangled. Is there is an image of health and wholeness that one can superimpose over and above the pleasure, mimcry, excitement, revulsion and exploitation of raunch or are the contradictory impulses are necessarily and inevitable linked in a sort of yin and yang, held together with an umbreakable centripetal force?

(There's a reason this stuff tore the women's movement apart.) But all is not a matter of false consciousness. Many women are savvy enough to recognize those contradictions and see through the charade that is broadcast into their lives 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The advance of raunch in our culture has come from the tandem forces of A) women at large and B) the men who pleasure from and consume raunch and C) the media who profit from raunch. Perhaps there are some women who are able to see this "through the charade”. There are also a lot of women for whom the media and the culture at large is a “super-peer” ("super-peer" was a brilliant term coined by Jane D. Brown, et. al. in an article in Pediatrics). Even if some women are able to see the manipulative element of the media’s involvement in raunch, many of them are not strong enough to resist the pull into raunch behavior and fashion, or they have thoroughly embraced raunch culture.

The essential drive toward raunch behavior in our culture is a destructive drive, and Smallwood has not denied its destructiveness. There is an element to this drive into raunch that Levy has correctly identified – that women, on some level, view it as an avenue to having power equity with men, or even power over men. As a mutated post-feminism that can bear little resemblance to earlier forms of feminism, raunch feminism is feminist in its essential belief in that women demand power equity with men. Raunch feminists seek this power even at the expense of doing destructive things with their sexuality, often aping and even one-upping various forms of male sexual conquest.

This tacit affirmation of power in raunch culture is “false”, in the sense that it is not a true and constructive measure of a woman’s value.

The ways that they consume and digest endless streams of newspaper stories, television shows, magazine covers, books, advertising campaigns, billboards and Internet pop-up ads would have been worth investigating.

Again Levy could have written a book the size of War and Peace, or could write a follow up book.

After all, being a woman faced with infinite images of other women taking their clothes off, gyrating, tittering, moaning and pushing product can be exhausting and demoralizing. (Shockingly, there are those rare mornings that the New York Times online goes down better without the Victoria's Secret pop-up ads.) Raunch, like so much of mass culture, is both out of our control and impossible to ignore. We must develop a smarter strategy for living with it than simply wishing it would go away.

Who’s "simply wishing" it will go away? Is it Levy? Surely Levy desires that it will go away, and which decent person wouldn’t desire that it went away? Smallwood seems to be implying that Levy has not done something constructive in trying to usher the end of raunch. In fact, Levy has done something in her effort to raise consciousness, and raised consciousness is always penultimate to action.

Raunch is a fungus that grows of a critical mass of popular ennui and blasé. If that ennui and blasé were to end, then raunch would diminish. If we believe that it is out of our control then it is. As Andrew Carnegie said, "Whatever you think, you're right", and any reform movement seems like an impossible dream to those who first dare to conceive of it.

Levy's book diagnoses, but it doesn't prescribe. After carefully documenting the sale of female sexuality, Levy closes with the call for readers to believe they are "sexy and funny and competent and smart." Apparently the solution to a system of objectification in which women themselves are complicit, in which feminism has been co-opted by and for profit, is for us to be ourselves. It's a little hard to swallow.

Smallwood seems to be saying that self objectification is in the very nature of womanhood. That for women to "be themselves" is to necessarily live out this impulse to self-objectification, and that to tell women to "be themselves" at the expense of self-objectifying is nigh impossible.

Unless there is a political dimension to our personhood that extends to other women, we will never be more than marketing niches.

"A political dimension to our personhood that extends to other women" that Smallwood suggests would require that women as a group presented a clear objective to the world that could be advanced through the peculiar medium of politics. Feminism was just such an attempt to define a political dimension to the personhood of women that extended to other women and, so says Smallwood, it was torn apart by the contradictions of raunch. So the raunch sexuality that split the political unity of feminism will be fixed by the political unity of feminism? Generally speaking, if this is the "smarter strategy for living with it" that Smallwood suggests, then it's not a very good one.

Raunch is about individual choices. It is a juggernaut that is created by what individual people wear when they get up in the morning, what they do with each other in relationships, what they consume and what they excuse. It is in the intimate realms of life that raunch must primarily be contronted.

Levy has done the good work of documenting raunch culture. What next?

Having offered no hint a substantive solution, and after hinted spuriously at fatal flaws in Levy's analysis, Smallwood is basically saying that self-objectification is an intractible part of modern womanhood.

So what is next? The patent destructiveness of women’s self-objectification and seeking power equity via raunch behavior and the destructiveness of men who participate in raunch will only end with this: when men and women are transformed by a God into the image of Christ who is higher than their sin. While it is possible for certain lone secular thinkers to grasp the problem of raunch, at bottom, there is not other "strategy" for dealing with it other than the individual transformation of people's hearts and minds to an image of spiritual health and wholesome-ness that lies outside of the human predicament of bondage to sin. This is the only strategy that will confront raunch in the intimate realms of life where it is flourishing.

If Smallwood were to consider this suggestion an intrusion of “conservatism” that would erode feminism “hard won gains”, then, for Smallwood, nothing is “next”, and people will continue to be titillated and excited and then demoralized and exhausted by an addiction to raunch that is, and always will be, out of control.

To her credit, Smallwood is at least willing to admit that there is a destructive aspect to raunch feminism. Read some the passionate letters in response to her "Girls gone wild" review, and you'll see the full-throated denial of any dark side to the raunch culture.