I was rather excited that this film got a theatrical release, because I’d heard about it a few weeks ago and it was pretty much going straight to DVD. But Dendy Newtown brought it out for one night (albeit courtesy of a church in the area who sprung a Q&A on us after the film was over).

The story behind this documentary is that Christopher Hitchens, the prominent atheist – an Englishman residing in Washington DC – wrote a book a few years back called God Is Not Great – Why Religion Poisons Everything. From what I understand, in 2007, he invited any religious people who wanted to debate him to come and have a go. Many people have, and for most people who are unprepared, I think he’s pretty much eaten them alive.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, in 2007, a Reformed pastor from a place called Moscow in Idaho (how bizarre is that?) called Douglas Wilson, decided to take Hitchens on and so the two men had an online debate on www.christianitytoday.com. It’s also not mentioned anywhere, but Doug wrote a reply to Christopher’s book called God Is. How Christianity Explains Everything. Anyway, they collected the back and forth debate into a small book called Is Christianity Good For The World? and then someone got the smart  idea of sending the two of them on a debate / book launch tour.

This film is a documentary that covers those three days on the road. For 90 minutes, we watch them debate, sign books, drink beer, ride in taxis, ride in limos, debate, followed by more conversations in cars. And somewhere in there they got a helicopter ride as well.

Considering that there were about three two-hour debates in there (from what I could work out watching the film), there is no way in 90 minutes, you’re really getting the full weight of either of their arguments. And the filmmakers don’t try. Director Darren Doane deliberately steered the film away from being about getting one message across or another and instead tried to make it, as much as possible, about the conflict between the two men. (This does lead to some slightly corny slo-mo scenes where Hitchens and Wilson are filmed in split screen, with gangster rap over the top, to make it look like Theists In Da Hood. But as one friend told me, at least if gave your mind a brief rest before the next round of debating took off.)

What of the arguments themselves? I’ll let you track the film down for yourself – you can get it from Amazon.com – to see the full thing, but as far as I could tell, Christopher Hitchens was arguing the case – most of the time – that Christianity (or religion in general) was just an extra crutch people were trying to use to prop up morality (which could exist quite fine on its own) and that, in fact, it had produced quite the opposite. (You’ll hear the killing of the Amalekites mentioned on quite a few occasions.) I’m sure if we’d seen more of the debate, we’d have come across other objections such as Christanity being unscientific, relies on the supernatural, etc.

Douglas Wilson, on the other hand, was using what’s known as a “presuppositional” argument. He’s right up front in assuming that there is no such thing as neutrality, there’s no “neutral” platform to stand on and engage with facts – instead you have a set of preconceptions. So he’s quite comfortable with believing the Bible is true, and then building his entire worldview around that. The rest of his argument was then pointing out that, if you adopt a certain set of assumptions, you have to live by them. For instance, if you believe, as an atheist, that everything evolved by chance and that there is no rhyme and reason to why we’re here, then you can’t really have any set reason for assuming objective moral standards. You can make some up, to make your life easier, but there’s no reason that they should be true for everyone in the whole world – if we’re all random bits of protoplasm.

Which turned out to be the chink in Hitchen’s armour. It started to clog up the last 30 minutes of the film, but Wilson seized onto the fact that Hitchens kept wanting to use moral terms against Christianity (“It’s a wicked cult”, etc) without giving any justification for his morals (apart from that we “intuitively feel” that certain things are right and wrong). That’s still not likely to convince somebody to become a Christian (human nature is that we like to have justice, but we don’t really like the idea of a God breathing down our neck that we have to answer for), but for me, it’s enough that I could never be an atheist. I couldn’t live with the level of uncertainty that they have to have.

I don’t know that you’d claim that anyone “won” the film, but I would say that Hitchens probably carried the argument for the first hour of the film, because he’s a very good public speaker. Wilson, on the other hand, seemed to be thinking of so many things at once, that his thoughts would come out a bit fast and furious. Also, because Wilson makes no bones about assuming that the Bible is true, when he starts talking about something like Jesus prophesying the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, I’m sure it would have sounded quite foreign to non-Christian ears. (Hitchens’ body language at that point certainly conveyed that he  felt like he was stuck next to the village idiot.) However, over time, this becomes a bit of a strength, and we watch (especially in the non-debating moments) as Wilson is actually teaching Hitchens things about the Bible that he never really knew before.

The last scene of the film is also quite an interesting one, albeit it for no other reason, than it proves yet again that alcohol brings thing out that we cover up  in our everyday conversation. I won’t spoil it for you, but it shows that there may be other things going on that are underneath the level of the positions being argued.

To finish, the best thing about this film was simply that I got to get together with a bunch of friends on the Christian side of things and on the atheist/agnostic side of things and have great conversations afterwards. That doesn’t happen very often in our polite, Aussie society where religion and politics are off the table, so I was very grateful to Hitchens, Wilson and co. for the opportunity to have the discussion.

4 1/2 out of 5.

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6 thoughts on “Film Review: Collision

  1. For instance, if you believe, as an atheist, that everything evolved by chance and that there is no rhyme and reason to why we’re here, then you can’t really have any set reason for assuming objective moral standards. You can make some up, to make your life easier, but there’s no reason that they should be true for everyone in the whole world – if we’re all random bits of protoplasm.

    Matt, it’s interesting to me that you (and Wilson) consider this to be the chink in Hitchens’ armour. There’s obviously a fundamental disconnect in worldview here, because I (like Hitchens, I think) didn’t really understand why Wilson considered this such a powerful argument and wondered why he kept going on about it.

    For me, the question of whether or not there’s a god and the question of what morals we should adopt are two completely separate questions (for the record, I believe that God didn’t hand down moral laws, but, over time, we came up with sets that work to maximise the happiness of most people, ie they evolved, too). Now, I’ll grant that if you’re a Christian the two questions are intertwined. But it seemed to me that Wilson was trying to force Hitchens to adopt the same intertwined point of view, which Hitchens simply didn’t see as axiomatic and therefore kept rejecting.

    Ultimately, this is the kind of thing I think that inevitably stalls all such debates. Sooner or later you butt heads against fundamentally different starting points that neither side can properly shake off to argue further.

    I think Wilson’s best arguments (and the ones I struggle with the most personally) came earlier, when he pointed out the circularity of using the scientific method/reason to argue the validity of using the scientific method/reason. It wasn’t a new argument to me, but if I was debating for Team Christian, that’s the one I’d be hitting hard. I’ve heard counters to this argument, but it’s still a great point.

    Any movie that makes me think as much as this one did is a good movie in my book.

  2. G’day Dan,

    Sorry, it took me a week to think of what to reply here (and to then find the time to write it). First off, it’s always helpful to know what does and does not convince other people.

    I’d say here that one of the problems is in a debate that is this epic and multi-faceted (I’m talking about the ongoing atheism v Christianity debate and not just the movie debates), you get caught up between actually making a case for something and answering a criticism. I agree with you, that the moral issue isn’t the most convincing proof for Christianity.

    But in the context of answering Christopher Hitchens, it made sense to me, because this was the area where he kept getting caught out (at least if he was trying to win over a Christian audience).

    To step back: Doug Wilson comes from a school of defence of the faith (or apologetics, as it’s known in Christian circles) called “presuppositional apologetics”, where the defence involves looking at what are the underlying assumptions or presuppositions of a worldview.

    It starts by assuming that the only source of truth is God, as He reveals Himself in the Bible. Some people misunderstand this as meaning that “if it’s not in the Bible, it ain’t true” – but what this really means is that all fields of knowledge – from science to morality – should be viewed with the assumption that there is a God and that He does have something to say about all these areas. Thus, for instance, many famous scientists throughout the centuries have been Christians and considered their scientific explorations part of exploring God’s world. As they learned something new about the universe, it told them something new about the God who made the place.

    This does sound rather quaint nowadays, but as Wilson was pointing out briefly – we all look to a source of ultimate truth somewhere. If it’s not the God of the Bible, it might be some other deity or – as in the West – our own reason is the source of truth commonly appealed to.

    Given that we’re all limited human beings (ie we can’t be everywhere at all times and know everything), all we can really ask is – given my presuppositions about the world – do they work? Are they internally consistent? (This is, of course, assuming that you believe that there is such a thing as logical consistency. Some philosphers have gone down the path that we can’t know anything for certain and that there is no way of telling what’s true or what’s not. But you can’t really have a debate with a point of view like that – except to point out that that assumption is itself claiming to be an absolute truth – and I don’t think that’s the typical atheist view.)

    A lot of Christians don’t like this line of reasoning themselves, and prefer arguments that look for proofs (whether from history or cosmology or whatever) to prove Christianity to see if they can convince non-Christians that it’s reasonable. But for me, I think the presuppositions question can’t be avoided. A lot of the evidence for and against Christianity comes down to the framework we use to interpret it. Our core assumptions can’t be tested in the way that we test a scientific fact, for instance, but I believe they can be queried for internal consistency. (Or at least, this is what I believe as a Christian – because I believe logic, uniformity of nature and the ability of our minds to reason things out were part of the way we were designed by God. I’m not sure why the atheist thinks these things work.)

    So what Wilson was doing was pointing out areas where Hitchens’ view of the world wasn’t consistent with his underlying principles. Now depending on who he was debating, there were any number of areas that could have been discussed. If Hitchens’ primary gripe was that Christianity was unscientific, this would have involved a discussion about the underlying assumptions of science. If his problem was that the Bible was inherently contradictory, then it would have been a discussion about how to understand the Bible.

    However, a large number of his complaints were moral – he calls Christianity a “wicked” cult. He talks about the cruel things that are promoted in the Bible. He talks about how he really became aggressively atheist after September 11, indicating that he had problems with the moral actions undertaken in the name of religion. So to my mind, while morals certainly aren’t the biggest proof for Christianity, it was one of Hitchens’ biggest unproved assumptions, and one that Doug Wilson was right to call him on.

    Because assuming I haven’t misunderstood what Hitchens is on about (and I should disclaim here that I haven’t had a chance to read his book, though I’m hoping to get to it sometime in the next year), he saying that he doesn’t believe in God, and that the world is just a product of chance mechanisms operating over a long period of time.

    Now if this is the case, then I fail to see how you can come up with any kind of morals at all that you can use to make an objective call about somebody else’s actions. For instance, if morals are (as you described it) something that has evolved over time – then that means that Moral Standard A which might have existed now is incorrect and has been replaced by Moral Standard B which exists today. But if things are evolving, then in another fifty years, B will be replaced by C. Also, given that a quick survey of the world’s population today would reveal quite different moral standards, not just between countries, but between individuals all over the place – how would you ever say what is the appropriate set of standards to use to judge something?

    You could set up some sort of human rights committee to sort this thing out, but if they ever change their mind, it proves that it wasn’t ever an objective standard you could use.

    The only position I could see an atheist consistently taking is that morals are something we invent to keep society going. But even the idea of “keeping society going” seems to me to be a bit of an assumption. After all, if man really is just a lump of cells, is there any reason why we have to be nice to each other?

    So all Wilson was doing was asking the quite reasonable question: On what moral basis are you criticising Christianity? If it’s an evolutionary moral basis, it changes over time and thus could quite well be wrong at this present time. If it’s on the basis that most people in America wouldn’t like the things Christianity teaches, well, what if America changes its mind? If it’s on the basis that there are some things we “intuitively” know are wrong – well, why do people do bad things?

    My own opinion is that atheists should avoid moral arguments about why Christianity is bad. Arguments about how Christianity doesn’t appear to match up with the scientific record, I can understand. But I don’t really see how you get from atheism any sort of criteria for judging whether a religion is good or bad. After all, Christian beliefs might just be the way a certain group of people have evolved and view the world. In that case, it was all biology, and how can they help it?

    I agree, though, that even if you concede that atheism doesn’t give you morals, it doesn’t mean there’s a God. But surely the fact that so many people want to make moral judgements (whether it be our newspapers or the current breed of militant atheists) would indicate that there is something inside mankind that wants some sort of right and wrong to guide our path?

    But I think you’re right – I think the debate is more about what are our underlying assumptions – how do we deal with the fact that, by ourselves, we can’t know everything and thus must always have a self-referential starting point? What’s the best starting point?

    Thanks for giving me something to think about during the week.

  3. Interesting, Matt.

    I think I now understand better Wilson’s argument and, having just started to read Hitchens’ book, also understand why he (Wilson) chose to argue on that point. Hitchens is even more vehement in his book about the negatives of religion (not just Christianity, but I understand that was the focus of the movie). The book is full of claims that religion poisons everything (right in the subtitle I believe).

    Now, just for the record, I don’t believe that religion is a source of evil (definition of evil to sort of follow). Yes, evil has been committed in the name of religion. Evil has also been committed in the name of atheism. Evil has been committed in the name of an enormous variety of things. I’d suggest ‘patriotism’ would be the frontrunner, but I don’t yet see an anti-patriotism backlash. Get enough human beings on the planet and evil will be done. To claim that the thing they do it in the name of is the *source* of the evil seems to be confusing cause with effect. Even if all religion was obliterated (maybe leaving Hitchens his one person to argue with), I’m sadly certain that there would still be idiots out there willing to commit atrocities in the name of something else.

    So, to me, that kind of diatribe is Hitchens’ weakest point. I can’t help but think that his attempted taking of the moral high ground is more a debating tactic than anything else – given the historical tendency for religions to be guardians of morals, I’m a little suspicious that Hitchens is claiming the turf more to throw the opposition off rather than because he really believes it. But perhaps that’s too cynical.

    I guess the only point I’d quibble with you would be the notion that you need an ‘objective’ source of morality.

    I completely agree with the idea that, as an atheist, I have no objective standards of morality. I, personally, don’t see that as an enormous problem. Does that mean the definitions of right and wrong can change over time? Sure. Again, I have no problem with this.

    So how do I decide what’s right and wrong? Originally I was going to say I take the societal rules that feel right to me. (This includes, BTW, many Christian ideas – do unto others is a pretty strong foundation for me). But that just ups the question a level, doesn’t it? How do I define what feels ‘right’? Upon further thought, I think, in essence, I consider something ‘right’ (or ‘good’ or ‘moral’) if I could live in a society where everybody operated under that rule. And, conversely, an action is ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ to me if a society built on everybody following that rule breaks down.

    And, in essence, this is how I believe our system of morals evolves over time. By definition, the views that can be adopted by large proportions of society without causing difficulties will be. Those that disrupt society won’t spread and will (at best) be hotly debated (eg abortion) or, more likely, outlawed (murder, robbery, etc).

    In practice, as I alluded to above, I don’t think things through in such a way. I just pick things up from societal customs and make any finer judgements based on a gut feel. But I truly believe that’s where the gut feel comes from.

    Is this objective? No. But I feel it’s very internally consistent (as an atheist) with my adoption of evolutionary theory as the best explanation for where we came from. Because, yes, randomness is a part of evolution, but a far bigger part is the idea that the best replicators win. From my point of view, we’re here because our genes have over enormous amounts of time come up with a very elaborate way of surviving and replicating across the majority of the planet. Similarly, the societal customs and laws that profligate today are the ones that assist us in that replication, ie that don’t cause us to run around making one another miserable. (This, BTW, is not completely my invention – see Axelrod’s Prisoner’s Dilemma computer competitions for a mathematical example as to how ‘niceness’ can evolve among purely selfish entities). If somebody comes up with an idea tomorrow such that its adoption by everybody in society would increase everybody’s happiness (alas, I can’t give an example without thinking of such an idea), then I truly believe it would spread rapidly and eventually become part of our new system of morals.

    Now, I’m perfectly happy for you to reject that moral foundation for yourself, but I’m not sure if you can argue it’s inconsistent. (And if you can in a way that convinces me, I’ll try and update it with something better – which, in itself, is consistent with the scientific process I’ve adopted as an axiom for the best way to solve problems. (Which reminds me – another good book to read which draws all kinds of fascinating parrallels between evolution, the scientific method, quantum physics (!) and computability is David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality – no Christian-bashing in that one, I’m happy to say. It gets heavy going towards the end, but it’s one of the few books that truly changed the way I thought about the world))

    Which is all a long way of saying that I think I *can* justify saying an idea is wrong or evil or immoral, even without ‘objective’ morals. So I feel justified in claiming that ‘flying planes into buildings’ is evil. But, unlike Hitchens, and for the reasons I said in the earlier paragraphs, I don’t think Christianity qualifies.

    So, I guess, to go back to the original point: I disagree with Hitchens on the point of Christianity being ‘a wicked cult’. But I also disagree with Wilson’s claim that an atheist can’t (consistently) make moral claims such as that.

    I’m just anti-everybody, it seems. Still, I enjoy thinking things such as the source of my morals through. To be honest, I don’t think I’d ever really considered it in any great depth before the last week.

    So, again, thanks for inviting me along to the movie. Certainly the most thought-provoking one I’ve seen in a long, long time (Porky’s 2, notwithstanding).

  4. G’day Dan,

    I do have a couple of things that I wanted to say about your last comment.

    1. Hitchens and the Moral Attack

    “So, to me, that kind of diatribe is Hitchens’ weakest point. I can’t help but think that his attempted taking of the moral high ground is more a debating tactic than anything else – given the historical tendency for religions to be guardians of morals, I’m a little suspicious that Hitchens is claiming the turf more to throw the opposition off rather than because he really believes it. But perhaps that’s too cynical.”

    I wanted to say a bit about this, even though, as we both agreed, it’s not necessarily Hitchen’s best line of attack. It must be always remembered that the debate about Christianity vs atheism doesn’t take place in a vacuum. There’s a fair bit at stake in the argument – and not just the pride of winning.

    I’m always reminded me of one of those spurious stories about atheist professors (I’m not sure if you’re ever on the receiving end of them – but bogus stories about atheist professors were a huge hit in the early days of email back in the 90s). They always involved the professor being reduced to silence by some of the most jaw-droppingly unconvincing arguments you’ve ever seen. Anyway, one story went of a famous professor who was visiting some town and having a rant about God not existing, etc. and an old peasant woman comes up to him. She says (often this is told in a rustic dialect to make her seem really uneducated), “I don’t know a lot about what you were talking about, but can you answer me this one question?”

    Atheist says, “Sure!” Old woman, “If I’m completely wrong, and there’s no such thing as God or Heaven, do I lose anything?” Atheist says, “No.” Old woman, “If I’m completely right and there is a God who’s going to send me to Hell if I don’t believe, do I lose anything by not believing?” Atheist says, “Yes, you do.”

    “Well then,” says the old woman. “I might as well believe in God.” Atheist is shunned into silence.

    Now, the reason I tell that story is that whoever wrote it has no understanding of what’s at the heart of the atheism / Christianity debate. The old woman is kind of hinting that you haven’t got a lot to lose by believing in God, so you might as well do it.

    This is complete rubbish.

    What you lose, if you believe in the Christian God is autonomy. You lose the right to make your own calls about right and wrong. See, despite what a lot of atheists say, you don’t really have to give up logic and reason. You don’t really have to give up the scientific method. (Christians expect science to give us answers as well.) There’s even been plenty of Christians who have successfully merged evolution and the teachings of the Bible without a lot of trouble (though this area is still controversial). But what you do have to give is the right to call the shots in your own life.

    Now, in America, this is a huge issue, because the country is still reasonably well divided between the conservatives who, while not necessarily Biblical Christians, by any stretch of the imagination, are still drawing on the same set of morals that was inherited from the Bible (thus the ongoing debates about abortion, same-sex marriage, etc.). On the other side of the fence, you have the liberal half of America, with a rather different set of morals (certainly not inherited from Biblical Christianity) who are butting heads repeatedly with these people. And they do call them the “Religious” Right, not just the Right.

    So, in the midst of this battle between conservatives and liberals, which is very much a battle over which set of morals should be enforced in the United States, the atheism / Christianity debate has a very important role to play. If it can be demonstrated that Christianity itself is a wonky religion, then it’s a hell of a lot easier to take out right-wing morals. So, no, I don’t think Hitchens’ moral arguments are just a debating technique. I think the rise of what they’re calling the “militant atheists” in the last few years is very much related to a desire to pull apart the conservative right in the States. Especially so in the days of George W Bush…

    That’s why, in the film, much of the enjoyment for me was watching an atheist just hang out with a pastor for three days. Both sides are really not in the habit of talking *with* each other much, so it was good to see.

    2. Consistency of Atheist Morals

    Now, I just wanted to get a bit of clarification on your other point about how you felt that morals could be consistent within an atheist worldview. You were explaining how you got your morals:

    “Upon further thought, I think, in essence, I consider something ‘right’ (or ‘good’ or ‘moral’) if I could live in a society where everybody operated under that rule. And, conversely, an action is ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ to me if a society built on everybody following that rule breaks down.”

    There’s a couple of issues here, which I wanted to work out.

    I take your point about evolution being the progression of the best replicators (and a note to myself that I have to stop just harping on the word “random” without mentioning this replicator idea, because it really seems to annoy evolutionists from what I’ve seen round the message boards). So thus, what you’re saying is that ultimately, the morals that are “right” are the ones that cause the replicators to survive. So my questions are:

    a. Is the goal “best” replication or “most” replication? The reason I ask is because the Nazis with their eugenics experiments were trying to weed out “imperfections” in their race, based on the idea that they would only have the best gene pool to draw on, but the way they went about this was quite brutal and nobody seems too keen on that idea. But what’s particularly wrong with it, if the idea is just to make sure that the strongest and best of our species survive? Could it not be possible, if replication were made the end goal, that a society that is quite violent and kills off all the weaklings is actually better equipped for replication (and thus more “moral”) than a society that insists on looking after the weak, disabled and elderly?

    b. Even if replication is the main biological game of what’s going on, is there any reasons why our morals have to be related to that? For instance, while driving planes into buildings may not be the best thing for ensuring the ongoing proliferation of the human race, does that really matter, considering that we’ll adapt our way around it anyway?

    c. Under such a system, are morals something you adopt? (In other words, you’re a blank slate, and you get your morals from you environment or parents.) Or are morals something you’re hardwired with? (You come from this particular gene pool, therefore you inherit this idea of being nice to people.)

    If they’re something you adopt, given the above questions, and the fact that you yourself admitted that your morals are subjective, how do you decide that you’ve adopted the right set? Or do you just hope it’s the right set for the moment?

    If it’s hardwired, then does it matter what anyone does, seeing as they’re just acting in their biologically predisposed way?

    d. Biggest question for me is – while I completely understand all your reasoning if you were trying to decide your own morals, to achieve any type of society apart from anarchy – we have to make decisions about which morality to enforce on the masses. So if the masses are biologically disposed to their temperament, on what grounds do we try to enforce anything upon anyone? If it’s a matter of choosing your morals, which set do you choose, given the questions I asked in a and b?

  5. Hey Matt

    I’ll deal with the easy part first. Yes, I completely agree that the atheist-Christian debate doesn’t exist in a vacuum (especially in America), but I don’t think that *necessarily* rules out the possibility of Hitchens trying to adopt the high moral ground purely as a debating tactic. After all, if you’re taking it seriously enough, you *could* well adopt the ‘all’s fair in love and war’ mentality and make claims you didn’t necessarily 100% believe in, if you thought it might help sway an extra x% of waverers.

    Having said that, and having now read most of ‘God is not Great’, I don’t think that’s what he is doing. I think he truly believes that Christianity (and, indeed, all other religions) are wicked. It’s peculiar, because I get the impression from most Christians who are interested in these things that Dawkins is considered the biggest, baddest ogre. That, of the militant atheists, he’s the most militant and the most rabid opponent.

    Which is certainly not my impression at all having read both books. I think that if I were religious, the impression I’d get of Dawkins would be that he’s a creature of almost pure logic. If you could come up with a rigorous enough proof of God’s existence, you could change his mind. I don’t get that impression with Hitchens’ book. In fact, I find his obvious aggression off-putting and uncomfortable to read. He has some good arguments and good points in there, but they’re put forth with such venom, that I think, if I were religious, I’d just dismiss him as somebody not worth arguing with (so kudos to Wilson for doing so). He’s emotionally invested to the point where I’d conclude that it would be a futile exercise to debate the point with him. (Whereas Dawkins appears (to me) to be only emotionally invested in the sense that he believes he’s right and wants to show he’s right – in the same way he might doggedly argue the case for, I dunno, gravity.)

    And what makes this even odder is that this is totally *not* the impression I got from Hitchens from the movie.

    Okay, now I’ll try and answer the trickier parts of your questions. And a caveat up front here: I don’t know that I’m right about any of this. This is all just a working hypothesis built up from my general way of looking at the world. Generally speaking, my approach to the world has been cobbled together from a variety of different sources, with me adopting the ideas that make the most sense to me. As I said in my previous comment, I hadn’t previously considered the specific question of ‘where do morals come from’ prior to this, so, while I’ve contemplated it hard since and tried to come up with coherent and robust responses, it’s certainly possible that, given further thought, I’ll modify my thinking on this.

    I’ll start with c) Are morals something you adopt, or are they hardwired?

    (To save typing, just assume I’ve written ‘in my opinion’ wherever it seems appropriate – no divine insight from me)

    I think, for the most part, morals are something you adopt. That is, I don’t think you’re born with them. (However, you may not have an enormous say in which morals you adopt – I’ll come back to that)

    However, I think for a species as intelligent and social as we are, a certain basic ‘morality’ would immediately follow. Assume some person was born and grew to adulthood completely isolated from the rest of society. No parents to learn from. Nobody else (we’ll ignore the question of how he survives to adulthood – perhaps wolves feed him.)

    I think if this person was dropped into our society and had the innate, hardwired desires to survive and breed and also possessed the intelligence common to all humans, he’d pretty quickly conclude that it’s in his best interests to try and get along with other people. In fact, a pretty good rule of thumb would be to not do anything to other people that you wouldn’t like done to you. Because doing those things causes aggression. And if people get aggressive enough towards you, that might terminate your chances of surviving and/or breeding. There might be other strategies one could try (eg, just run around raping women), but I don’t believe they’d be as successful in the long run as just getting along with people.

    So, in that sense, the basic idea of ‘do unto others’ would be close to hardwired – maybe not strictly so (or maybe it is – maybe anybody hardwired differently has long since been outbreeded), but as a self-evident step from the hardwired desires, it’s the next best thing.

    But, of course, that conflicts with the other hardwired basic selfishness (that is, you don’t want any old genes to replicate – you want yours to do so). So there’s this constant struggle between the general obvious solution of trying to get along with other people and your own personal desires. And I think in society there’s wide variation along this selfishness-selflessness continuum.

    And that struggle is where I think our attempts to build morals comes from.

    I’ll move onto d) So if the masses are biologically disposed to their temperament, on what grounds do we try to enforce anything upon anyone? If it’s a matter of choosing your morals, which set do you choose, given the questions I asked in a and b?

    I guess we have a fundamental disagreement here. I don’t see morals as something necessarily enforced upon anybody. The difference between a top-down, God-driven point of view and a bottom-up, evolutionary point of view here, I guess.

    I look at the morals of society as something that has developed over time, in an analogous manner to science. While the basic core of ‘do what you want, as long as you don’t harm anybody else’ would seem (to me) to be a pretty obvious first stab of the best way to balance getting along with other people with our own desires, there are obvious subtleties to it that need to be nutted out (eg, what’s the definition of harm? does it include psychological? what about other people’s moral outrage? how much, exactly, should you be forced to compromise your own happiness to avoid minor, even trivial, harm to others’, etc).

    And I think those subtleties are nutted out in a similar way to scientific breakthroughs. Somebody has an idea on how to improve our current understanding and, if it’s a good’un, it’s adopted. Now, it’s not quite the same as science – science has objective ways of telling us if an idea is a good’un or not. In terms of morality, I think we’re more working in the area of memes. If an idea is robust enough to replicate among the minds of people in society then it will be adopted.

    Under this point of view, as time goes on, different ideas as to what’s right and wrong develop – eg, some bright spark notices that slaves are *not* subhuman, they’re also people and that, therefore, since I wouldn’t like to be denied freedom, slavery’s not right. And this meme gets thrown into the mix to fight it out.

    To answer your question, while, in theory, I have the freedom to choose which morals I will adopt (excluding for the moment the possibility that ‘be nice to other people’ is hardwired), in reality my choices are constrained. I’ve been bombarded with the memes of what’s right and what’s wrong since the day I was born (as we all are – as Wilson said in the movie, he’s a Christian because his parents were Christians and gave him the memes of Christianity). And, by definition, I’ve been bombarded with the memes of the society in which I was born. If I’d been born in a different era, where the meme of slavery being wrong hadn’t yet spread, it would not be part of my moral makeup. The capacity for me to develop it might be there, but it wouldn’t be such a fundamental part of my makeup. Now, for various reasons, not every meme will stick to a particular brain – the meme of ‘God created the universe’ obviously hasn’t stuck to my brain, despite the fact I’ve been exposed to it a lot.

    Different people have different susceptibility to different memes. But it doesn’t surprise me that we tend to be susceptible to the memes that run rampant in our society. (It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy – if I don’t adopt the morals of my society, I probably won’t have much success in getting along with people and therefore my genes will die out.)

    Can I overrule the memes that society has hit me with and which have stuck in my brain? I honestly don’t know. I’d like to believe I could, but I suspect there are some I simply cannot. They’re sufficiently good replicators in their own right, that once they get in your head, they’re difficult to budge. In fact, they’re so difficult to budge that they, in some sense, define who you are. From this perspective, our personalities are just the sum of the memes that our particular brains have adopted. A little bit of a spooky thought, but, to paraphrase Dawkins, just because we may not like the idea that we’re run by the replicators, that doesn’t mean it’s not true. (It may be untrue anyway, but it’s not untrue *because* we don’t like it)

    Now you may well argue that the reason our brains are wired in such a way as to easily adopt memes that encourage ‘good’ behaviour is because of God. (And you probably wouldn’t phrase it in such a jargon-laden fashion either.) I argue that the memes of morality and the structure of our brains have co-evolved in such a way as to maximise our ability to allow us to spread to 7 (?) billion people on this planet who live in (relative to most other animals) surprisingly good harmony.

    But we both end up at (more or less) the same ideas of what’s right and wrong. You attribute that to God. I attribute it to a framework of ideas built up over time to optimise our ability to live with one another. But we’re at roughly the same point.

    Which brings me to a) Could it not be possible, if replication were made the end goal, that a society that is quite violent and kills off all the weaklings is actually better equipped for replication (and thus more “moral”) than a society that insists on looking after the weak, disabled and elderly?

    I think this is a good place for me to offer a concrete example to my previous comments. Firstly, I agree that killing off the weak is wrong. Why, as an atheist, do I have that as part of my moral framework? Because somebody somewhere in the past came up with it as a moral rule of thumb and the idea spread in such a way that it became part of our societal meme set. Why did it spread? Because there is no guarantee that you’ll always be strong. It’s a safety net.

    There’s a counter-meme (memes are in competition, just like genes) and that’s the one you’ve suggested is more consistent for an atheist to adopt. Which is ‘let the strongest and best breed to perfect our species’. But that counter-meme is far more limited in its ability to spread. It obviously only appeals to the strong. (Even if a weak person could see the logic of it, they’d still reject it on the basis that, damn it, they need their genes to spread also). And its strength actually diminishes as it spreads. For example, once it’s spread to all the people above, say, Genetic Fitness Level 8, I’d suggest a mutation of the meme to ‘actually, let’s restrict the breeding to those with a Genetic Fitness Level 9 or higher’ would soon develop. And so on. Ultimately, it’s a meme that dies out. Which is why it had (and has) no chance of combatting the nicer meme of ‘killing people off because they’re weak is wrong’. And which is why the nicer meme is the prevalent one in our society.

    And I think somewhere in there I provided my rationale for b) Even if the replication is the main biological game of what’s going on, is there any reason why our morals have to be related to that.

    Only in the sense that, without morals, I don’t think we’d have made it to 7 billion people living in relative harmony.

    Whew! I hope I’ve made sense there (even if you don’t buy into my argument). And if I haven’t made sense, then apologies for making you read such an epic comment.

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