Answering Humanists on Organized Religion and Morality

July 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

This religion debate was held at Cambridge University in early 2013. Arguing for the proposition that religion has no place in the 21st century is Andrew Copson, Richard Dawkins and Arif Ahmed. In opposition is the pro-religion team of Rowan Williams, Tariq Ramadan and Douglas Murray.

The entire debate is over an hour and a half long, but I want to focus on the first 12 or so minutes, on the specific arguments brought forth by Andrew Copson. He is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, an organization representing atheists in the UK. Copson proposes that organized religion does more harm than good, that the good in religion can be had by other means, and offers an alternative explanation for morality. How would you respond to Mr. Copson’s arguments?

To give away the ending of the full debate, the house voted overwhelming against the proposition, most people saying that organized religion does indeed have a place in society. And to clarify the statement, Copson clarifies (2:45) what is meant by “a place in society” (because it seems to have a place, right or wrong, because here it is): “When we say it has no place, we don’t mean that is should be banned, persecuted, wiped out or eliminated, but that the harm it does outweighs the good that it does, and that we’d be better off without it.”

I would hope that if he thinks something harmful, that he would also wish it to at least be banned, wiped out, or eliminated. But back to it.

As a Christian apologist, I would not generally seek to defend organized religion, since organized religion as a whole is a human construct, a context in which we practice what we believe about our ultimate convictions. I also view Atheism and Naturalism as religions too. But much of Copson’s argument against organized religion reflects a rejection of many of the ultimate convictions of orthodox Christianity as explained in the Bible, which I do seek to defend.

How does Copson define organized religion? He explains at the very start of his talk (2:00): “We’re not talking about individual men and women on their personal quest for values and meaning and purpose in life… We’re talking about… clearly defined groups which have in-out memberships… hierarchies—whether clergy or otherwise—and an “institutional existence above and beyond their individual members.”

What Copson may not realize is that this definition fits his own organization. Visit the British Humanist Association web site to read about this clearly defined group and their in-out memberships, hierarchies, and an institutional existence above and beyond their individual members. If Copson, as most atheists do, seeks to separate his own beliefs from religious beliefs, he’ll need to do a better job of that. Let’s see if he does.

Copson then posits, “In a world like this, where do we best get our ethics? It is not from organized religion.” He correctly notes that both religious and non-religious groups do charitable work (5:00). Everyone can do good.

The Christian explanation as to why all people are capable of good is because we are all made in the image of God and innately aware of the moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:14-15). We don’t get morality from any religion; we get it by simply being God’s creation.

His main point follows: “Shared values of altruism and care for others on the common heritage of all human beings, organized religion adds nothing to plain human compassion and empathy. (5:50)… We need fellow feeling with all people rather than just with members of our own in-group.” (6:15) On social morality, Copson says, “Organized religion is not a particular good. Good done in its name is incidental to it… can be secured by other forms of organizations.” The harm it does outweighs the good it does, and it “adds great barriers and divisions that we do not need in our age.” (7:00)

Copson again tries to distance his own philosophy from other religions. He says socially organized religion differs from political ideologies “in that they give a reason over and above and beyond human beings to sanctify their commandments.” (7:20) In other words, religious principals provide an external authority that people are subject to, whereas in political ideologies, the BHA, or whatever principals of Atheism or Humanism he follows, such principals are man-made. But are our ultimate principals man-made?

Copson says he bases his morality “solely on human compassion” (7:40). Is this not “a reason over and above and beyond” human beings? When human beings can’t provide a rational basis for the principal, it is presupposed. He says this view of morality is “harmful” and “out of kilter with our modern needs,” however he appeals to the same external type of moral principals that religions do.

What is morality? Copson defines morality (8:00) as “something that has its foundations in biology, in the social instincts that we can see that we share with the animals that are most closely related to us. Morality is an organized attempt to reinforce those social instincts. It’s generated from human beings ourselves in our interactions with each other, both originally at its source and in an ongoing way.”

This is a typical Humanist attempt at a explaining ethics, but it contradicts how morality is always talked about and lived out. Copson assumes morality’s foundation is in biology, but of course doesn’t and cannot on his own worldview pinpoint it’s ultimate source, since everything about morality reveals it as our discovery, not our convention. It’s merely a faith proposition. He goes on to say that morality is an attempt to organize social instincts (i.e. survival of the species is a good thing) but doesn’t explain the morality behind that assumption (why is survival morally good?).

Here is a true statement (9:00): “Genuinely believing that the source of value is located outside humanity and not within it inevitably dehumanizes human ethics.” Of course it does! Morality is dehumanized if it isn’t of human origin. This is not a bad thing, because human ideas of morality are corrupt and in constant flux. We badly need it to be something other than human.

Atheistic presuppositions show up in Cospon’s remarks about blasphemy being too severe in religious circles (9:15). If he doesn’t believe there is a God, we wouldn’t expect him to find the slandering of Him a problem at all. There is no one there to blaspheme in his mind.

Copson speaks of the harm done by organized religion by citing “attempts to limit abortions by American evangelicals. No one outside an organized religion could possibly deem that activity moral.”

Isn’t it amazing how upside-down a godless philosophy can become? The “attempts to limit” the slaying of innocent children in the womb is labeled “massive human suffering” and does greater harm to the living than to the those who are murdered by the procedure. No one outside of atheism could be so blind as to think we follow our own moral laws, that blasphemy slanders no one, and that unborn human beings are of no real value.

Copson notes that nowadays “people are less automatically deferential to authority,” (10:25) following that up with typical platitudes of freedom and democracy. But the things for which he favors freedom are things like abortion and autonomous moral relativism that leads to such tragedy. “Immediate access to knowledge through social media” is what Copson credits for the advancement of freedom, as if religions (“totalitarian ideologies”) are estranged or opposed to knowledge.

As he begins to sum up his argument around 11:30, Copson suggests that we ought to proceed, without organized religion, toward goals of human welfare, with a “commitment to make our moral decisions in the here and now, based on evidence…” (a commitment he makes without evidence) and “organize our affairs globally, in a way that will increase freedom and fulfillment in the one life we know we have.” If one life is all we have, some of what Copson says would make sense.

The opposition lost the full debate because they were unable to present a convincing argument that religion has no place in society. Andrew Copson lost the debate in the first 12 minutes by demonstrating a basic misunderstanding of morality and that his own belief system is itself an organized religion.

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