Wednesday, March 11, 2015

They're Hammering on Hamurabi Again

If you ever had the feeling that the feeling that the arguments you get from online atheists are reiterative, that would be because you're right.  And if you ever got the feeling that they are generally based on never having looked into what they're asserting to be the truth, that would be because a quick look at what they're talking about often proves that.  Sometimes the way they lie about easily seen documents is rather amazing.   But, then, quite often the documents the the blog and twitter based sci-rangers are depending on are three or four generations away from them, published and republished without any fact checking or review for accuracy.  Quite a few of those have come from some Prometheus published book or soemthing said by Sagan or Jillette on TV or typed by some Scienceblog or "Freethought" blog savant, quite often dependent on the same tripe factory.

When an intellectual culture abandons a belief that it is simply wrong to lie, the culture lies.   I think that some of the general loss of faith in our intellectual culture is based on that abandonment of punishment of lying.   Someone can be held to be an intellectual while being caught lying about even rather serious stuff, many of the figures in the Bush II regime who lied us into a horrible war, the consequences of which include the rise of ISIS and many other disasters hasn't kept some of our most elite universities from hiring them.  One, who stands out in my mind this morning is Douglas J. Feith, who has been in and out of government and academia, a Harvard product whose dishonesty and incompetence led to General Tommy Frank giving him the title of the "dumbest fucking guy on the planet" and whose Pentagon Office of Special Plans in regard to the invasion and occupation of Iraq was so bad that it was eventually dismantled.  Last I heard he was hired by schools as reputable as Georgetown and Stanford.  Though I understand the faculty in neither place were happy to have him there.   

Anyway, someone made one of those dishonest citations of The Code of Hamurabi as being a safely atheist origin of "The Golden Rule".   Since I've got some typing yet to do on my post today, I'll repost my answer to that particular neo-atheist factoid until then.  

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 documentbegins:

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.


  1. The Greeks (perhaps Aristotle is the sole exception) we are familiar with (the playwrights, Plato) all make reference to "the gods."

    As for Greek morality, there isn't that much to it. Socrates is considered the major moral character of ancient Greek literature (oddly enough); but he ignored his wife and children and buggered small boys, so....

    Aristotle's idea of "morality" is non-existent by modern standards. His work on ethics is not about "morality" at all (which is why I argue the two terms should not be treated as synonyms). "Ethics" is a Greek word meaning "behavior." Aristotle's famous work is about how to be happy. It's basically Dale Carnegie for the Bronze Age (!). His advice is to find the happiest man in the community (who will be the man most admired by the community) and do what he does.

    That's "ethics" in a nutshell. When you consider Euripides' "Medea," you have an idea of Greek "morality." Euripides uses that story to argue against the Greek xenophobia which lead to the concept of the "barbarian." Hebrew prophets starting with Moses preached a morality that demanded concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien. Several centuries later, at the end of the Greek era, Greek artists started sculpting realistic statues of starving people, depicting the amoral world around them. They were arguing, through their art, for the same kind of morality the Hebrews had written into their law in the desert centuries earlier.

    This stuff isn't that hard to find out. But ignorance is bliss, and it's so much more fun to fill in the blanks in one's knowledge with whatever pleases your prejudices.

    Same as it ever was.

  2. Oh, and isn't it obvious by now that atheists use the term "religion" to refer to some idea they have of the Roman Catholic church circa the 13th century?

    Anything before that is "ancient history" that is beyond human understanding. Because their understanding is consonant with human understanding, donchaknow?