Monday, January 7, 2013

Possibly The Most Incompetent Atheist Argument In History

If you've encountered many atheists online, you're likely to have read a claim that morality preceded religion and that it is independent of it.  Jerry Coyne is the first person I saw say that online but I've seen it asserted more and more since then.  When that happens on the atheist blogosphere you can be pretty  sure that some line of tripe is being pushed by someone.  Probably from CFI or the "Science" or "Freethought" blogs.  I'd guess someone at least of the alleged authority of Coyne or Orac or PZ is the prime mover of it.

In a recent online argument, I finally got around to demanding that the atheist making the claim back it up by naming the earliest documents containing a moral code and verifying their non-religious character.  Here's what he came up with:

Codes of conduct and morality without any reference to religion:
Code of Hamurabi, Ancient Roman civil law, Aristotle's works on ethics and politics, English Common Law, Confucianism of Imperial China

You probably noticed a few problems with this list as proof that morality came about before religion and independently of it.    Other than the Code of Hammurabi, none of those extend back nearly to the dawn of recorded civilization.  Every one of them are products of religious cultures and governments with either official or de facto state religions, at least three of them have monarchs either anointed by God or claim gods in their actual ancestry.   English common law recognizes "acts of God",  after all.   Every one of them incorporate religion, quite arguably, even that recent atheist hobby horse, Aristotle*.

Even Confucianism,  often listed as a "secular religion" fails in this argument.   The Analects of Confucius,  VII Chapter 22 says:

The Master said, `Heaven produced the virtue that is in me. Hwan T'ui what can he do to me?'

XX Chapter 3 says:

The Master said, `Without recognising the ordinances of Heaven, it is impossible to be a superior man.

So, the atheist's citation says that heaven not only produces virtue but it is impossible to be a superior man without recognizing the ordinances of heaven.   Clearly the atheist use of Confucius in this argument is based on suppression and distortion or, more likely total ignorance.  Its success could only depend on ignorance and being too lazy to look up what the document says.

The one  alleged support of the atheist position that is not disqualified on the basis of chronology, Hammurabi's code, also flops rather badly in the atheist argument, something which would be apparent if one of the atheists making that use of it had performed the most basic of scholarly tests, READING IT.    Here is how the document begins:

When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, God of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule over the black-headed people like Shamash, and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind.

Even taking into account the nearly universal insistence by atheists that everything be a set up job in their favor, there is no way that texts that prove the opposite of their argument actually proves their argument.   Clearly Hammurabi says that his authority to set up his law code comes from a divine command.

Really, even given the appallingly low standards of atheist arguments, this has to count as one of the most incompetent of those I've ever seen.   Though, as I interact more with atheists online, it's clear you can be taken as an authority among them while demonstrating complete disdain for and ignorance of the most basic standards of scholarship.

* Contemporary atheists are generally ignorant of history and the necessity of having to read something before you really know what it says.   As a substitute for reading primary documents they depend, not on scholarly secondary documentation, but tertiary ideological junk and the even less reliable stuff that comes from TV.   I'm not interested in getting into a long argument over the man who introduced the concept of the "unmoved mover" so useful to medieval theology.  For my argument it's only necessary to note that Aristotle hardly represents the oldest documentary evidence of morality and, since it's doubtful he had access to those oldest sources,  his ideas on the origin of morality are entirely speculative.   I'm not a scholar of the history of Aristotelian philosophy but I'd be surprised if he wasn't made most use of by Jewish, Christian and Islamic moral theologians, who found support for their religious ideas in his writing.

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