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This includes the full interview of Prof Nigel Crook and “Nao” the robot, and the 100+ page ebook edition of Lord Martin Rees & Dr John Wyatt’s Big Conversation about Robotics and Transhumanism.
About this episode:
In this bonus episode formidable Daily Wire host and renowned political thinker Ben Shapiro goes head-to-head with Oxford graduate of philosophy and theology, international public speaker and debater, Alex O’Connor. Guided by The Big Conversation’s host Andy Kind, Shapiro and O’Connor debate Is religion good or bad for society? What is the concept of free will? Does it even exist? What about the idea of the self, and the foundations of morality in society, and do we all have to agree on them?
Ben Shapiro is a distinguished figure in the realm of political discussion, recognised for his bold opinions and remarkable debating skills. Ever innovative in thought and influential in culture, Shapiro brings a fresh and compelling perspective to this philosophical conversation.
Atheist Alex O’Connor, the YouTuber formerly known as the Cosmic Sceptic, and host of the Within Reason podcast brings thoughtful philosophical rigour and insight to provoke deliberation on varying timeless faith-science-philosophy topics. Religion’s effects in the evolution of consciousness, Nihilism’s counter to the concept of free will and, ultimately, the basis of varying worldviews serve as crucial discussion points in this thought-provoking exchange.
This debate wraps up this season on a captivating note, leaving audiences across the belief spectrum increasingly inquisitive of the ever-disputed questions among various worldviews and intricacies in the crossover realms of science, faith, philosophy and culture.
The Big Conversation is a unique video series from Unbelievable? the flagship apologetics and theology discussion show.
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More from this season:
- Episode 1: Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead?
- Episode 2: Christianity, the Sexual Revolution and the future of the West
- Episode 3: Can Science and Religion Tell us What it Means to be Human?
- Episode 4: Do Consciousness and Near Death Experiences Point to an Afterlife?
- Episode 5: The Robot Race, Part I: Could AI ever replace humanity?
- Episode 6: The Robot Race, Part II: How should humanity flourish in an AI world?
Audio Transcript for The Big Conversation (Season 5, Episode 6)
Andy Kind (AK), Ben Shapiro (BS) & Alex O’Connor (AO)
AK: Welcome to The Big Conversation, part of Premier Unbelievable?’s roster of shows brought to you in partnership with the Templeton Foundation. I am your host, Andy Kind.
Today we are talking about a very interesting topic. The question is: Is Religion Good or Bad for Society? And I’ve been joined by two very dapper chaps, Ben Shapiro and Alex O’Connor who some of you, most of you, maybe, will be completely aware of. We’re going to have very substantive conversation and I’m going to introduce them first. I’m going to give a little summary on who they are, and stop me if you’ve heard this before.
So, Ben Shapiro is a prominent American, conservative political commentator and columnist. Okay so far? (BS: So far, so good) A graduate in political science from UCLA and the Harvard Law School, Ben has authored over a dozen books including the number one New York Times Bestseller, ‘The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great’. He is co-founder and editor emeritus of ‘The Daily Wire’ and host of the aptly titled, ‘Ben Shapiro Show’ which in 2021 was ranked in the top ten most listened to apple podcasts. He also has a YouTube channel with over six million subscribers. Kudos to you, sir.
Joining Ben today is Alex O’Connor. Alex O’Connor is a YouTuber and host of the ‘Within Reason’ podcast; a philosophy platform designed to present philosophical discussions in an accessible format. A graduate of philosophy and theology from St John’s College, Oxford University, he is also an international public speaker and debater, having defended his philosophical convictions against a wide range of experts across multiple continents and whose online video material has been viewed more than 70 million times. Is that true?
AC: It might be more now, actually, depending on when that was written.
AK: More than 70 million times!
Well, it’s great to have you both, thank you both for taking the time. And for both of you, I’m a long time listener, first time caller, so hopefully we are going to have a lot of good stuff to say.
We’re talking about religion and society and how they interconnect. And we want to know, really – and I’d like to get this settled once and for all at the end of this conversation so nobody else ever has to discuss it if we can – is religion good for society? Can a society hold together if there are no underlying beliefs that everybody shares?
And we’re going to be exploring what both of you believe are the most important principles undergirding any civilisation. What are the foundations of morality and ethics based on?
So, without further ado, let’s start. I’m not going to go into backstory too much because most people will be aware of who you are. There’ll be a lot of fan boys and girls out there watching. But let’s talk about something that, Ben, you have spoken on and, Alex, you’ve responded to; this idea of the ‘atheist delusion’. Ben, could you concisely, if you can, talk about what you mean by the atheist delusion.
BS: Sure. So, I should start off by saying I don’t actually think that it’s possible to prove the existence of God. I’m also not a believer that you can disprove the existence of God. I don’t think that logical argumentation is going to get you there one way or another and so I’m not going to try and do that with Alex today because I think that if people would have been able to provide dipositive proofs then people would believe them. If people were able to provide dispositive proofs that God does not exist, then people would be more apt to believe those as well.
What I think is in an atheist’s delusion is that it is possible to live ideologically purely in a way that does not rely on fundamental faith principles. I say faith principles; I’m not going to make the claim that those faith principles are direct from Saini or those faith principles require the New Testament, for example. I’m going to make the claim that there are a bunch of principles upon which we base ourselves that are external to what we know about nature and evolutionary biology. And that many of the things that Alex does in his daily life, for example, are going to be things that rely on principles that are external to a philosophy that would assume a lack of the supernatural, a lack of the extra-natural. So, some of those principles, for example, are free will.
So, every day we get up, we believe – virtually all of us, whether we say we believe it or not – we actually act in ways that betray the idea that we believe that we have control over our own actions, at least to a certain extent, and that that control makes a difference in the world. And that’s what gives us purpose. It’s what allows us to wake up in the morning and make the decision to do what we believe is right or what we believe is wrong. And the principles of right and wrong are external to evolutionary biology.
So, both of these principles that I’ve mentioned already; free will, right and wrong, these come from a language that is external to the Darwinian language of evolutionary biology. If you’re talking about free will, there is nothing in nature that suggests the ability to make a decision free of environment and genetics, in combination, in some sort. The same thing is true of right and wrong; the idea that there is a right and there is a moral wrong that we can reason our way to.
Another principle that I think that you’re obviously very big on – it’s something that you rely on all the time, your entire podcast is based on the idea of reason – these ideas do not exist in the context of a purely materialist atheist universe.
Now, I’m not going to make the claim that I can prove that it’s God who’s behind those things, because one of the principles of faith belief is that I don’t understand God. So, for people who don’t believe in God, that’s an easy way out, right? That’s an easy way out for people like me, because I say, well, I don’t have to explain the relationship between God and free will because, frankly, I don’t fully understand God. But that’s not really an open window, that’s just part of pretty much all faith systems is that if my mind were the mind of God then I would either be God or God would not exist, one of the two things.
So, the idea that reason makes a difference in our lives, that we can reason our way to propositions and that that’s more than just saying a few magic words and that’s setting off a few neurons in somebody else’s brain in a naturalistic way, that there actually are principles of truth – another concept that comes from the extra-natural world – that these principles exist. So far I’ve mentioned free will, right and wrong, reason and truth. All things that we consider extremely key in our daily lives and that Alex considers key in what he does. I assume, why you get up every morning, or at least you feel why you get up every morning. What gets you up to do your podcast? It’s because you want to say things that you believe are reasonable, are going to convince people to act in a better way or, I assume, not a worse way, that get people to change their lives in some way, in a self-motivated fashion, that’s not merely in a sort of Pavlovian response to circumstances and environment.
So, if I were going to talk about the atheist delusion, that is what I would suggest is the delusion; that an atheist can use terminology that is drawn from a world that is external to atheism for itself. And, again, that’s not an argument for God, even. That’s just an argument against atheism. Again, I think the arguments against God are fairly compelling and I think the arguments against atheism are fairly compelling. This is one of the things that I’ve said to Sam Harris, and I think that the difference is that most people who believe in God have expressed doubts and a lot of people who are atheists tend to be more religious in this way than many of the people who are God believers.
AK: Well, something’s certain, we don’t do cold opens or soft starts here on The Big Conversation!
AO: Well, I am glad to begin on a point of agreement with you, Ben, that, yes, if there is no God, there is no free will. But I think that’s because of the truth of the latter of those statements; that I suppose the biggest criticism that I’ve made of you in a video response that I made to the atheist delusion – and this show does seem to have an extraordinary capacity for putting me face to face with people that I’ve been talking smack about online, so, thanks again..
BS: By the way, I should say it’s a great video and everybody should watch it if they haven’t.
AO: Well, I’m going to put that in the description, I think, that glowing endorsement.
The principle disagreement that I think I had with you, Ben, is that there was a subtle – or not so subtle – implication, in my view, that, yes, with no God there’s no free will but somehow having God can solve this problem. I mean, you said a moment ago that you don’t think you can establish God’s existence through reason alone. But assuming that you do believe in the existence of free will, you think it’s a real thing that you have, (BS: Yes) and simultaneously saying that if there is no God then free will makes no sense, (BS: Yes) that does read to me like an argument for God’s existence such that, in order to say that there is free will one must believe in God. And that does strike me as an argument for God’s existence.
BS: I mean, to slightly curve that or to sand of the rough edges there, I would say that the argument I made is an argument for something extra-natural. (AO: Sure) You can call that God or not God. But the thing that I’m making the argument for is that you cannot get from a materialist, Darwinist universe to free will. That is not possible. So I know that the way you solve that is to say that there is no free will.
AO: That’s right.
BS: And what I’m saying to you is, you don’t act that way.
AO: I hear this all the time. People say, look, you may say there’s no free will but you don’t act as though that’s the case. I suppose that I’m just confused as to what it would look like for somebody to act as if they believe there was no free will. I mean, the very argument that there is no free will, that I subscribe to – at least one of the various forms that it takes – is a sort of Schopenhaurian view that you can do as you will, you just can’t will what you will. And that you are essentially just a biological machine reacting to its internal and evolutionary drives. That’s what’s happening.
Now, call that nihilistic if you like – that’s a separate question – but as to the question of how that would make one act, the idea that this might cause us to sort of lay around in bed all day or something, the very mechanism that I think is responsible for eliminating the possibility of free will; that is, the drives that make people do what they do, like I say, do exactly that: make people do what they do. They make them get out of bed in the morning.
Why do you get out of bed and go and make your breakfast if there is no free will? You go and get breakfast because there’s no free will and something is driving you to do that that’s outside of your control.
BS: For sure. So, to get back to the nihilism point, we should kind of put aside so that means that this conversation is essentially worthless in any sort of real sense. I mean, effectively, we are driven here by evolutionary biology and environment to have this conversation. Everybody who is watching this is driven by evolutionary biology and environment to have a particular reaction to that thing and ever round the cycle goes. That seems like a very purposeless life.
Maybe that’s… again, I’m drawing from a realm that is not evolutionarily, biologically connected. The word ‘purpose’ is really – teleology, obviously, has been taken out of the realm of science pretty thoroughly by atheists and by many people in sciences – although I would argue that, again, most scientists speak in the realm of teleology literally all the time and they are borrowing language from the language of teleology even when they are describing functions of particular body parts, right? The heart pumps blood in order to keep you alive, right? They’re constantly using language that’s teleological in nature.
The real question that I have – and this is what goes to the question you were asking at the beginning, before the pre-question question – which was, the good of religion to society. One of those goods is people believing that their free will matters and this actually is a useful thing. So I believe that it is deeply important for people in society to believe that they have the capacity to change themselves and to make different decisions than what biology would drive them to do. So you say, well, it’s biology that drives you to get out of bed in the morning, which is almost Calvinist in sort of the way that it’s described, right? It’s like you’re predestined to get out of bed in the morning so thus you get out bed in the morning.
But the reality is that we are constantly making decisions as though those decisions make a difference in the universe and, what social science actually does tend to show, is that when people believe that they have control over their own actions and when they believe that they’re capable of changing the way that they live, they do make those changes with more alacrity and in better directions than if they don’t believe that. If people tend to believe in a deterministic universe they do act worse. So it may way work – this is going to be sort of Straussian in its implications – but that may work for you; you’re a very high IQ individual who can somehow reconcile the idea of living a very purposeful life with the idea that actually there is no purpose to anything. But for the vast majority of people that is not actually how they live. And I would suggest that, even in your daily life, you don’t get out of bed in the morning thinking, ‘man, my biology is driving me this morning to get on the bike, have a great day, the sun is shining. That’s my biology doing this’. And I don’t think that most people who live purposeful lives – even if they believe that everything they’re doing is predetermined by the world around them by their own biology – I don’t believe they actually feel that. They have to engage in what they themselves would term an ‘illusion’ in order to feel a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives.
AO: Of course. But that’s what the evolutionary process in my worldview has done so well is provide precisely that illusion. I mean, you say, look, you don’t get out of bed thinking, ‘gosh, look at my biological… (BS: My neurons are firing!) Of course not. Because if I did then the whole evolutionary purpose that illusion serves would fall away.
I mean, you say that this is a fairly purposeless life and perhaps the implication is that it’s a bit of a depressing one. I didn’t come here to inspire optimism in people (BS: You’re succeeding, by the way) I just think it is, in fact, the case that free will doesn’t exist. And we may feel very nihilistic towards that but, as a wise man once said, facts don’t care about your feelings.
And I will say that the argument against free will, in my view, is based upon something broader than just scientific analysis or empirical research. Rather, we can build an argument, I think, from a law of logic. The proposition that P must either be true or false and it can’t be both. It can’t be neither. It has to be one or the other. Now, this law of the excluded middle, one of the foundational precepts of philosophy, we can simply ask a question of any kind of mental activity. And this will be regardless of whether it’s material or immaterial – that’s what makes this a crucial argument, and an important one, a pertinent one – is that you can ask of that mental activity; is it determined, or is it not? That is, is it determined by anything else, or is it completely undetermined by anything. If it’s undetermined by anything, then it’s random and you’re, by definition, not in control of that which is random. If it’s determined by something, then it’s either determined by something further inside your mind, or inside your brain, or indeed inside your soul. Or it’s determined by something external to your brain. If it’s determined by something external to yourself – I should say yourself rather than your brain here to rid this conversation of any implicit materialism – exterior to yourself, if that’s what’s determining the action then clearly you’re not in ultimate control of that action. If it’s something inside of yourself somewhere then all you do is push the problem back and you ask the question again; is that thing determined or is it indetermined? Indetermined; it’s random. Determined; you keep going back until you either terminate in something outside of the self, or, I suppose, something undetermined and therefore random, either of which you are completely out of control in. If you say that it terminates in something like a soul – people like to do this, they say, ‘well look, with a religious philosophy, we have the benefit of introducing a soul’. That doesn’t solve anything. It’s not a matter of having to explain the mechanism by which the soul brings about actions. That may well be a mystery. But if it is the case that whatever it is that’s doing that is either determined or it’s not and that if it’s not it’s random and therefore out of your control. And that if it is it ultimately terminates in something outside of yourself or something random and both of which are out of your control, free will cannot exist.
BS: That argument does rely on the complete deconstruction of the self. You’re using the term ‘self’ in this argument in, I think, a couple of different ways. You’re saying something outside yourself, but then you’re breaking down the self into a bunch of separate components as though the self is a computer. As though if you took the self and you broke it down into a machine and there’s like the microchip, and you’ve got the processor, you’ve got all these different parts of it. So it has to be coming from here or it has to be coming from here. But, I think, the very idea that we have of ourselves as selves is as a deciding being. And so the attempt to carve that down into, so which parts of the deciding being, that is an avoidance strategy. So I don’t think that the argument quite holds.
AO: Well, if we can call the self just a deciding being then that sort of fundamental assumption that we make about the nature of the self, I don’t think is going to be incompatible with atheism.
BS: How so?
AO: Because we’re talking about what the self is here. I mean, atheists believe in the self. Everybody believes in the self.
BS: That I find difficult to believe. Why would the atheist believe in the self? The self is a series of non-deciding mechanisms, as you’ve described. I see that your view of the self is an atheist view of the self; a meatball wandering through space as I’ve put it, somewhat colourfully. The sort of Spinoza idea that you’re a stone that’s been thrown and you can comprehend that you’ve been thrown, but you’re a stone that’s been thrown and that’s just the way that it is. Why would there be, in atheist philosophy, such a thing as a deciding self? The deciding self, the deciding being, is external to the idea of an evolutionary cause.
Because, again, the very word ‘deciding’ suggests uncaused decision making. And you’ve just excluded it through your own philosophy.
AO: Uncaused decision making, I suppose, is a concept that I think is unintelligible and therefore, if there is an unintelligibility of the self on atheism, I suppose the thrust of the criticism that I made to essentially every point you made in that video, except for the argument from motion, is that what you’re saying to me, if it applies to atheism, I think simultaneously applies to theism as well.
BS: How so?
AO: An uncaused decision. I mean, what is the process by which a decision is made?
BS: Ah, but now you’re falling into the same sort of argument that I excluded at the beginning which was, I said that the beauty of religion is that there is bunch of stuff I don’t understand. So, I can’t explain to you how the uncaused self makes decisions.
AO: Well then I can’t explain to you how the uncaused self exists on an atheistic framework.
BS: But you have the burden and I don’t.
AO: I don’t think that’s the case.
BS: You do though. The simple fact is you’re the one that’s claiming that a reasonable materialist universe is the cause of all. And so, if that’s the case, you do have to explain the mechanism in a way that I certainly do not. My entire philosophy rests on the positing of an entire realm of things I don’t understand in terms of their interaction with the world. Now, as I said at the very beginning, that leaves me a giant escape hatch. I’m not going to pretend that that’s not a giant escape hatch. It acts, in practice, as a giant escape hatch. It also tends to act as a fundamental principle of faith, right? Again, in every moral realm, right? When we get to the problem of good and evil, one of the big questions is, well, how can God allow evil to take place in the world? And the fundamental religious answer, as it has been for thousands of years, is my mind is not God’s. Which is a giant escape hatch. It also happens to be true from a religious point of view.
AO: So, if I may, there are two sort of escape hatches here. There are two appeals to mystery going on here. And it seems to me that what you’re saying is something along the lines of; my simple appeal to mystery here is disallowed in the way that you’re allowed to appeal to this mystery because I’m the one making the claim.
BS: No, not because I’m the one making the claim but because…
AO: I’m the one with the burden? In the context of this discussion…
BS: Sorry, I’m missing the who’s the you and who’s the I in that sense, but yes.
AO: I see what you mean. I’m speaking for myself there.
AO: If… in the context of this discussion, this began, the subject which I think is the first one you bring up in this video, free will. Here’s this thing that I think exists, and on the basis of its existence, think entails the existence of a God. Or at least points to the existence of a God, I shouldn’t say ‘entail’. And then, when I say that I don’t think the concept of free will is intelligible, and you say, well how is it intelligible on atheism? And I say, I’m not sure it is. But it’s not on theism either. And you say, well there’s my escape hatch; I can appeal to mystery. I don’t think the burden is on me there. You are the one who’s making the claim that free will does exist. That there is this mysterious property of the universe… (BS: Actually, that’s not true) that escapes this determined or indetermined dichotomy. And then when I say that this is unintelligible to me and, based on what I see to be fundamentally appeal to a law of logic, suddenly I’m the one making the claim. I’m the one with the burden who has to do the proving? I don’t see it that way.
BS: No, the actual claim that I originally made, if you recall, was a conditional claim. I did not claim free will exists, therefore, God. I claimed, if you believe free will exists, it cannot exist in a materialist universe. Now, you say, fine, it doesn’t exist in a materialist universe, I don’t believe in free will. (AO: Yes). That’s fine, that’s totally plausible. As I said right at the top here, I’m not going to prove to you that God exists today. What I am going to say is that the vast majority of people through nearly all of human history have believed that there is a thing called the self; it is a deciding self, that makes these decisions. If you are a person who believes that, you’re right, it can’t exist in your word.
So, I’m not saying that it does exist. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you’re right, maybe your totally right and all of this is just a series of chemical firings. That’s quite plausible, that’s fine. What I have said – and this is the argument that hasn’t yet been rebutted – is that society does require an extraordinary number of people to believe that they are capable of making decisions for the good or for the bad because, again, not everybody is you. Not everybody is capable of waking up in the morning, putting one half of their brain on hold, the side that says, what’s I’m doing today doesn’t matter and we’re all going to wind up in the cosmic nothingness of space anyway and the sun’s going to explode beneath the earth. Most people don’t function that way.
And so a functional society, a society that actually works, relies on people actually believing that their fate is in their hands. And the way that people tend to understand that on a day to day level is, I get up in the morning and I make a decision whether I’m taking my kids today. I get up in the morning and I decide whether I am giving charity today. I get up in the morning and I decide whether to go to a job today. Because, the truth is, for a huge number of people – and I would say this is true for many, many, many, I would say the majority of people – if they were informed, since the time they were small, that their decision making process does not exist, there is no decision to be made, whatever is going to happen is going to happen, those decisions have no moral weight in the universe because the universe has no moral weight… there is no way to create a functional society on the basis of these premises. There may be a Platonic world were philosophers can think about this in the gardens of their imagination and feel great about it but that’s not actually how society functions. Not for children, not for teenagers, not for adults.
AK: We’ll go on and talk about that in the second section. I had free will to ask any of the questions I’ve had written down here but I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to stop either of you. It’s been breathless and captivating, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Before we go to our first break – we are going to go on and talk about society and how morality undergirds society and civilisation…
AO: May I just say – I know we’re coming to the end of the section, just to close off this moment – that if people listening agree with me, that free will in fact doesn’t exist, and simultaneously agree with you that free will is somehow necessary for the upkeep of civilization, then I would simply ask them to consider who’s relying on the delusion here, you know? And I don’t mean that as an insult but you see what I’m saying?
BS: I totally agree. And so, for my argument, you would be, and from your argument, I would be. Meaning, I think that you are delusional that there is no free will and you think I am delusional in the sense that there is no free will and yet I believe in it.
AK: So for you, Alex, just before we go to the break then… because we’re trying to break it down; we’ve got two insane minds here, really kind of grappling, and I feel as though I’ve won a prize in a competition just to be here sitting with you both.
To break it down for the viewers, Alex, would you say that free will is maybe… if there is no such thing as free will, is it nevertheless a helpful fiction for people? A convenient narrative that we can cling to, to sort of bat away despair?
AO: Precisely why it evolved, in my view. I think, I totally understand that, but because it evolved so strongly, I will say that we are all, if we are sort of delusory in our belief in free will… I mean, you are quite right in saying that I act as if free will exists in the sense of not constantly being aware that it doesn’t. I don’t wake up and do those strange morning affirmations that you mentioned into the mirror about the heat death of the universe.
I think it is good to reflect on your mortality in that manner every once in a while. And it does inspire some serious thought about whether you’re really taking your philosophy seriously. But I will say that the mechanism is so useful and has been so successful in embedding itself into our psyche that we cannot shake it off.
So I can have conversations with people, as I do regularly, talking about the existence of free will and they come away saying, ‘you know what, that’s extraordinary, maybe you’re right about this’ and nothing about the way they live their lives changes precisely because of the fact that the very argument I’m making relies on the assumption that we will still be driven by our drives. All I’m doing is identifying what’s actually going on there, in my view. It doesn’t actually change what happens or what the brain indeed does.
BS: So the utility argument for what you’re saying about free will is that the main utility in you saying these things is for people not to believe you in the end?
AK: We are predetermined to go to a break at this point, so we’re going to continue this.
You’re watching and listening to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable? with me, your host, Andy Kind. I’ve been joined today by Alex O’Connor and Ben Shapiro, and we are having a fascinating conversation about religion and whether it’s good or bad for society. There’s lots more to come, so we’ll be back after this short break.
Welcome back to the Big Conversation from Premiere Unbelievable with me, your host, Andy Kind. Today our topic is, ‘Religion: Is it Good or Bad for Society’? I’ve been joined by Ben Shapiro and Alex O’Connor, and in the first section we basically solved the problem of free will, that’s done. No one need write on that ever again. So congratulations, that’s another credit for you.
AO: Yea, I think on the delusion point we terminated in something like, I know you are but what am I?
AK: Yea, and my dad can beat up your dad. So, let’s move on in this section to talking about another easily solved question; morality and its role in society.
So, Alex, we started with Ben in the first section, let’s start with you. What, for you, makes an outcome good or bad? And feel free to break that down, define things as you want. And how do we determine what is good and acceptable in society?
AO: Here is where I may disappoint you and potentially excite Mr Shapiro in that I don’t have a good answer to that question. In that… obviously attempts have been made for a long time to ground good outside of God. I must say that similarly, to rehash the same theme, I think there are issues with grounding good in God as well. I don’t think that removes the problem.
I don’t quite know what good is, if it indeed exists. I’m quite suspicious of the concept. I think it might be another one of these unfortunately quite nihilistic evolutionary sort of illusions of a sort. I guess I ascribe to emotivism more than anything, which has gone out of fashion in the past decade, but I think still has some truth to it in a sense. It’s more of a philosophy of language than it is a philosophy of what good and bad actually is.
What I do know, however, is that there are problems, I think, with trying to ground morality in the existence of a God, especially if it’s done so on the grounds that it essentially can’t be done anywhere else.
I mean, as far as I’m concerned, the religions of the world are false. I think that they are incorrect. That is, I don’t think there really is a supernatural authority. And what that means is that the inventions of religious morality are just those; inventions. And inventions of a human mind.
Now, if you have a human morality that recognises that it is essentially a series of compromises between the history of mankind trying to get along with each other on a planet, then what happens is sometimes these ideas and these philosophies rub up against the real world and we can adapt them as necessary.
Now, there is a deep problem with this. And that is, if I meet a man who wants to kill me, or a friend, and he says that he doesn’t believe in God, there’s very little I can do to talk him out of that, except I can threaten him with legal sanction, I can threaten him with moral reproach, exclusion from the moral community. But there’s not much more I can do. However, if a person says that he wants to kill me, and he believes that he wants to kill me because God has told him to do so, then I don’t even have that minimal reproach available to me. Because there is no law written by any man of any time that could ever count one iota against the dictates of the creator of the universe.
Therefore, if that God in fact does not exist, and if these moralities are in fact human inventions, then what you have in the grounding of an ethical system in the dictates, allegedly, of the creator of the universe, is all of the arbitrariness and subjectivity and failure and faults of nihilism and human invented morality with all of the certainty and all of the faith and all of the unanswerability of the creator of the universe. That to me seems a dangerous cocktail that we drink at our peril.
BS: So, many things there and so much that you’re saying is quite brilliant. I actually thought you were going in a different direction with that last example, which I’ll explain in a second.
So, to start with the very beginning; obviously, the idea of right and wrong… so there are many problems with emotivism, Alistair McIntyre does a good job of breaking down the problems with emotivism. But the sort of idea that there have to be certain moral absolutes that are beyond contention and those moral absolutes have to be universally accepted. You can ground that, I suppose, in a sort of descriptive universe. The problem is that – to go back to your example, which again, I think is a really interesting one, if a man comes to kill me – I think that the real question of religion versus non religion in the utility sphere here is; is it more likely that a man is going to come to kill you, being a devotee of a religion that says that he must kill you? Or is it more likely that a man is going to kill you out of self-interest because he is not a devotee of a God who says that killing is wrong? So, if you are faced with these two alternatives – to kind of remove your example one step – the question is; why the man has come to kill you? I mean, your premise is the man has come to kill you because God told him to and so he can’t be dissuaded by force? Agreed. We see that full scale in the real world on a fairly regular basis. It is also true that over the course of human history, men have come to kill one another on the basis of self interest in extraordinary amounts of the time. Tribal self-interest particularly, having no particular relationship with God, just the idea that I want to kill you over territory, I want to kill you over resources, I want to kill you because you’re not a member of my immediate kin family, or because you killed a member of my kin family, and so in revenge I need to kill a member of your kin family.
The entire – to borrow from your language – the entire sort of evolution of religion on a utility basis would have been to create moral absolutes that are applicable more broadly than to you and your friends. Any morality that can be created on an individual level is inherently dangerous because you can immediately graft that morality onto your personal self-interest.
The entire purpose of religion – whether you want to ground that in evolutionary brain functioning, whether you want to ground that in revelation – the entire purpose of religion, on a utility level, is to remove morality from the purview of my special interest and to say, here are things that I cannot do, even if they are in my interest, because there is a higher power that says I cannot do these things.
I think that a society that does not have these moral absolutes is in deep trouble. A society that refuses to say that there are certain absolutes that cannot be crossed under any circumstances, that are universally applicable, it reduces things that we all take for granted, like equal justice before the law, like the idea that the law is supposed to equally apply to everybody, whether they’re a member of your family or whether they’re not.
And there are broad cultural differences in these questions. I mean, to pretend that all human societies have equality under law is obviously not true. It’s not even remotely true, actually. There’s a very good book called, ‘The Weirdest People in the World’, all about the idea that we in the West have this sort of ethnocentric view of ourselves where we think everybody thinks like people in the West, but the truth is that because we are western educated, industrialised, rich and democratic, we have a particular view of the world. Those views are drawn from a particularistic tradition. That particularistic tradition is biblical in nature. I mean, it is Judeo-Christian in nature, even if you’re just describing European society or American society, historically speaking.
So the of removal of God from the equation – your suggestion is that God makes a person impervious to countervailing responses – and my answer is, yes, God does make a person impervious to countervailing responses, including the evils of one’s own heart, if you truly believe that God is standing above you telling you not to do that thing. And, again, social science tends to bear this out; people who believe that God is above them tend to give more charity, for example. People who tend to live inside religious communities, within the religious community.
And, again, I’m not going to pretend that I think all religions are equivalent in their truth propositions, because I don’t. I mean, if I did, I wouldn’t be wearing a yarmulke, right? So, that’s just what it is. Inside religious communities, a lot of social bonds and a lot of social frameworks are built on the basis of this shared belief system. In other words, diversity itself, self-interest cannot always check self-interest and it tends to tear apart societies and communities unless there is an orienting goal. That orienting goal, traditionally, has been performed by church. It’s been traditionally performed by the idea that you are serving God together and because of that people build these social bonds, including the institutions of police, for example, to prevent people from killing each other. Because we now all agree that killing is wrong so we ought to have a third party that we can actually give the power to stop that killing.
So, again, I think that the question of utility here is one of whether you think that the chief danger is that people are going to believe in a God who tells them to kill in God’s name or whether you think that the chief danger is in man’s own heart and that man is going to be driven by his own self-interest to commit murder and then call it something else.
AO: I think it’s all very well and good when this religious tradition is protecting what you think is good. But as we know, it can do the exact opposite and it can do so with the same force. And I suppose the question we have to ask is whether this is a worthwhile trade off. That is to say, there may be some social utility in putting our fundamental ethical assumptions outside of the realm of debate, but when those ethical statements begin inspire what we would probably consider to be less than socially cohesive behaviour there is nothing you can do, nothing to talk people out of them because, precisely because, that’s where they’ve placed them. And that seems dangerous to me. For example, a lot of people talk about how religion can make people happier, it can make people more socially cohesive, it can promote people to start families and have children. This is true of most religions. This is also true of Islam, which – I’m not sure you would want to say, I don’t want to put words in your mouth – but I’m not sure you’d want to say is a force for good in the world. I don’t think, in other words, that it’s always a worthwhile trade off. Now… (BS: I agree with you, by the way) just because you mentioned the culture of Europe and its success, and America, is indebted to Christianity, I mean, this is of course true in a sense but there’s been a recent revival, it seems, I don’t really know quite how it’s happened. I think it’s got a lot to do with Tom Holland, maybe. That’s the historian, not the superhero.
AK: Not Spider Man. Although he’s good too.
AO: This idea that actually the… (I wonder what he would have to say on all of this?) that western civilisation depends and should be in gratitude to a religious tradition because it provided this ethical framework in which this could have arisen. We hear about the scientific enlightenment, we hear about the grounding of ethics in God, the creation of natural rights as if these things weren’t established in resistance all the way along to the religious tradition. A society that, today – I’ll expand of this if you like – the society today that decides that religion, throughout its history, has been wrong about the position of women in society, wrong about the mortal fate of practicing homosexuals, wrong about the position of the earth in relation to the sun, wrong about the age of both those celestial bodies, wrong about the common evolutionary ancestry of every animal including the human animal on planet earth, wrong about the ownership of other human beings as private property now has to contend with a religious tradition that doesn’t come to us with contrition and apology and say that maybe we were wrong about these things. But no, these are all our things after all. We are going to claim these things. As, you know, I know that St Paul says, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach nor to assert authority over a man rather she should remain silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve, and that man is the glory of God, but woman is the glory of man’, but don’t you know that the social justice movement is essentially Judaeo Christian in origin? I know that the Old Testament not only explicitly condones the ownership of other human beings as private property, but gives detailed instructions about exactly how to buy and indeed take them, sometimes including as sexual property, but don’t you know that the abolitionist movement was essentially Judaeo Christian in origin? Yes, I know that Galileo was shown the instruments of torture by the Inquisition for having the temerity to suggest that the Earth might orbit the Sun rather than the other way around, but don’t you know that the scientific revolution, which he authored, was essentially Judaeo Christian in origin?
I’d find it funny if it wasn’t so offensive to the people who established these very developments against the very religious traditions that now want to claim them as their own.
BS: Okay, so… I would buy that, except for the fact that many of the people that you mentioned in these contexts explicitly counted themselves as religious believers and we’re speaking in the name of the religion while they were doing it.
So, to take the abolitionist movement as an example, William Wilberforce, obviously a tremendously religious person and a big believer in the New Testament, Isaac Newton, obviously deeply ensconced in the New Testament, certainly important to the scientific revolution. The point about religion – and this is why, when I wrote my book…I have to name the title now and plug myself because that’s the way it works, ‘The Right Side of History’, the reason that I talked about how reason and moral purpose made the West is because I think that one of the fundamental precepts of at least Judaeo Christian religion is that when God gives a text or a set of ideas to human beings, he expects us to use our reason to apply to those texts. And so the sort of evolution of interpretation is part of the religious tradition. I mean, that’s always been the case in my religion anyway. So I can only… I always hesitate to speak on behalf of other people’s religions because I don’t know them nearly as well as I know my own. So, when I talk about the application of reason to tradition in the religious tradition, obviously we have books and books and books of texts discussing and debating these very ideas and the idea of religious debate has always been central to the idea of Judaeo Christian religion, and when it hasn’t been, it’s been seen as repressive and has spawned, then, other Christian movements that then argue with the original movement and end up generating, in almost Hegelian fashion, some new form of interpretation.
The point that I’m making is that outside that framework it doesn’t exist. Meaning that, if the argument is over interpretation of particular biblical verses in a context in which there is a God who puts certain moral precepts beyond human judgment, those arguments you can have without threatening the entire social structure. What is very difficult is to have a social structure at all in the absence of fundamental moral precepts that are presupposed by everyone. And I think one of the reasons that you’re seeing a sort of revival of this idea that religion is very important to the West is because one of the things that we have seen is that as religion has become less important to the West, we’ve seen declining birth rates en masse, we’ve seen rises in suicidal ideation (especially over the last ten years), we’ve seen tremendous individual atomisation, certainly an extraordinary amount of less social connection. All of these things are things that, frankly, used to be provided by church and these social institutions that, again, were oriented toward a single purpose.
So, when you talk about the idea that – I’m going to put aside the free will discussion because I think, again, it’s easy to get caught up in the reversion to the argument that I was making before when you were saying that, you know, can you argue the man out of stabbing you? To use your framework, you can’t argue him out of doing anything! I mean, you’re going to say words, the words are going to have an impact, you can’t argue him out of doing anything. But not to get back into a topic that we’ve handled, free will is done.
AO: I’m not going to answer that although hopefully people will know from what I said before that I think it’s still sensible to say you can argue somebody out of something. The first half of what you say there is, in so many words, I think, what I was saying before, which is that, yes, this goes both ways. That is, thanks be to God when he is able to provide us with the grounding for resisting oppression and throwing off tyranny. But what about when the same God is used to justify the exact opposite? All I’m saying is that this goes both ways. And we’ll never know…
BS: But you’re going to have to weigh in one side or the other. Meaning that, in terms of utility, right? You’re building a society… let’s say that, (I won’t say you’re God), let’s say that you are master of a society, and you get to build that society. One of the things that presumably you are going to do is you’re going to build in certain things that are untouchable, right? There’s going be certain moral precepts that you’re going to build in that are untouchable. And how are you going to justify those things to people such that they are going to believe you? You’re going to either have to use compulsion, or you’re going to have to use some sort of other argument that is so strong that they are going to overweigh their self – I mean, there’s a reason why Voltaire suggested he didn’t believe in God but he hoped that his maid did so she wouldn’t steal the silverware.
AO: Yeah, that’s an interesting indictment on the position that theists don’t say that atheists can’t be moral, right? When people have this argument about morality…
BS: Atheists can certainly be moral.
AO: Well, oftentimes people have this misunderstanding of the argument. Christopher Hitchens did it best in saying, you know, we don’t need divine permission to be good and all of this. Fine. But as you say, you don’t need to believe in God to be good, but you need to believe in God to ground that goodness. But then when you sort of casually throw in this statement by Voltaire, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I hope that my maid does’, that implies that actually maybe you do think that without the belief in God somebody isn’t good?
BS: No, I think that Voltaire thought that he was good. Meaning that, Voltaire was an atheist and thought that he was good. But his point was sort of back to the Straussian Platonic point….
AO: His point was that he hoped his maid believed in God because without that belief she wouldn’t be able to act morally.
BS: Right. Because, again, when we’re arguing on the basis of broad societal utility, one of the things… so I happen to be in the happy position of being able to argue that what I think is socially useful also happens to be true. The question I’m asking you – and I think that’s what a lot of this conversation is – is whether you think that what is socially useful is actually false or an evolutionary illusion? And I think that’s kind of the position that you’re taking unless you want to argue that generally speaking religion is either not evolutionarily adaptive, which would be a hard position to actually take…
AO: I think it must be, otherwise it wouldn’t exist.
BS: Or you’d have to argue that even if it’s adaptive, it’s of no general benefit to humankind and/or is an illusion, right? I mean, that’s the position that you’re taking.
So, one of the things I’m enjoying about the conversation is that I don’t think either of us are going to argue each other in anything, but it is clarifying what exactly the lines of the division are.
AO: Yes. To backtrack a moment because you said more than one thing in what I just responded to, you also mentioned… well, you talked about Isaac Newton being a Christian. So, I mean, people were astonished discovering his private notes to find that he spent more time talking about theology than he did science. This is certainly the case. But I do think it’s worth pointing out when people like to notice that the originators of the scientific revolution in particular were believers in God. There are a few things to say on that. First, we don’t know what Galileo thought in his heart of hearts. And part of the reason for that is because, despite tripping over himself to say, now look, I don’t think Scripture is wrong, now look, I believe in God and I am a Christian and I believe in Scripture, but maybe the earth orbits the sun… His life falls apart. So suppose he did secretly have doubts about the existence of God. Do you think we’d ever have even found out about it? I think not a chance. In other words, …
BS: That’s an unfalsifiable argument.
AO: In other words, let’s not be so confident.
BS: Maybe he did have a secret diary, but I have no proof that he had a secret diary.
AO: What I’m saying is, let’s not be so confident about this. The second thing to say is that these men, if that’s what they were remembered for, that is, their theology, then they wouldn’t be remembered. Thirdly, is that – just on the minor point that people often like to point out – that, well, the originators of the scientific revolution were religious, and so science can’t conflict with religion. I’m not going to make the claim that science does conflict with religion in principle, but supposing that it did, this would not serve as a rebuttal. Because if it were the case that the scientific revolution and the scientific method undermines religion, then of course the people who invented the scientific method would themselves have been religious because they hadn’t invented the mechanism by which it came to be undermined yet.
BS: But then afterward they presumably would be irreligious or areligious. Which is what happened to Darwin, for example, right?
AO: It doesn’t happen that quickly, right?
BS: That’s not true. On an individual level it certainly happens.
AO: If we’re talking about the development of the scientific method, we’re not talking about the kind of thing that just happens in a lifetime. I mean, to attribute it to, you know, Galileo and Newton, as we happily do, is far too simplistic. This is something that happens over at least decades.
BS: Right. But you’re making both an individual argument and a broader historical argument. (AO: Yes.) So pick one.
AO: And so what I’m saying is that the individual beliefs of the founders of that revolution, I don’t think that revolution would have gotten off the ground enough from just their contributions within their lifetime to shake decades of prior faith. However, when you get to someone like a Darwin, then we start to see agnosticism. Then we start to see people having their doubts. And then when you get into the modern era, atheism abounds.
And so, in other words, if it were the case that this thesis – which, like I say, is not something that I’m defending here, I’m just sort of rebutting the rebuttal to it – that is, if it were the case that the scientific method were this king of undermining religion, then I think we would expect the fact that those who invented it to have been religious. It would be like saying, isn’t it amazing that the person who invented the motor car didn’t own a motor car before that.
BS: Well, no, because, again, you’ve now also made the case that perhaps they had secret diaries or in their heart of hearts they weren’t actually religious or convinced away from that.
So, again, that’s why I’m saying, I feel like you’re making a broader historical argument that works, and I think you’re making an individual argument that doesn’t quite.
AO: I’m not saying that that is the case. I’m saying that we would never know because, and because of, why is that? Why will we never know what Galileo really thought about religion?
BS: Well, I’m going to just accuse you of assuming facts not in evidence.
AK: Let’s move it away from Galileo…
BS: Because, again, I don’t want to get into the mind of Galileo, nor do I care very much, but the reality is that many of the people who were the progenitors of the scientific revolution, participants in the scientific revolution, specifically were searching for something higher because they thought that that was their godly duty to do so. I mean, this has been true since the time of Roger Bacon. The idea that you have people who are specifically seeking out the nature of the universe because there’s an understandable – again another religious precept – there’s an understandable universe that God has created and your mind is a reflection of certain truths that are in that universe. These are all non-materialist/atheistic concepts. That was the basis for virtually all of science, including the origins of the scientific revolution.
Now, you can make the argument very easily, I mean, I make it all the time because I have to ‘metaphoricalise’ the beginning of Genesis, for example. That the words of Genesis don’t jibe with the words of science when it comes to the age of the universe, for example. And obviously that’s true, which is why both Maimonides and Aquinas are talking about in the Middle Ages the idea that if science comes into conflict with religion, you’re either getting one of them wrong or you’re getting both of them wrong. And so the constant reinterpretation of religion in light of the facts that are established by the scientific method, I don’t think that that’s a rebuttal of religion. And more than that, I think that the peculiar idea that religion itself must fundamentally be undermined by scientific discovery, I don’t see quite why.
AO: Well, I would agree with that. I’m just saying that the rebuttal that’s presented to that opinion, fairly commonly, I don’t think works for the reasons that I’ve said.
AK: Okay, well let’s give you both a little breather, because we’re going to go to another break very shortly. We’ve fitted in so much and I had all these questions and I haven’t asked any of them and I’m worried now that I’m going to be left unemployed.
AO: Before we move on, I don’t know if I can have one final word on this, on the Galileo point, because I know it seems quite strange that I’m sort of hypothesizing in this way. But you said that when religion and science come into conflict, either one is wrong, or both are wrong. Galileo was wrong about one of these things, potentially. What happens if… I mean, it’s great talking about the utility of his religious belief in inspiring his scientific endeavour, but what happens when the immediate fruit of that is him discovering something which should have been a celebrated idea, and instead was suppressed, and he ends up under house arrest in Tuscany for the rest of his life. Why? Specifically, because the religious authorities in their sentencing of Galileo did not just say that he failed to prove it, did not just say that he was, you know, being a bit of an ‘a’ hole in his approach to things, but said specifically because it is false, absurd, and contrary to Scripture. That is why that scientific position was suppressed, on specifically religious motivations.
BS: And far be it from me to defend the Catholic Church in its crack down on Galileo. You’ve come to the wrong place for that!
AK: Okay, phew, it’s time for another break here. You are watching and listening to The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable? I am almost anonymous here, Andy Kind, but my day will come. And I’ve been joined by Ben Shapiro and Alex O’Connor. We’ve be talking about religion and society; Is religion good for society? So much more still to talk about, we’ll see what we can fit in. We will fit in as much as we can, but we’ll be back after this short break.
Welcome back to part three of The Big Conversation from Premier Unbelievable?. Today we are discussing religion and is it good or bad for society? And we’re having a lot of fun with it, I think. I mean, I know you’re sort of in disagreement on things, but… I think we’re just having fun with it today, aren’t we? (AO: As ever).
Well, I’ve been joined by Ben Shapiro and Alex O’Connor, and, as I say, we’re talking about religion and its role in society. One observation I’ve got from watching you guys talk, I wonder whether religion is being used as a bit of a catch all term? You know, there is no summer festival where Ben and I would meet up because we’re religious and have a beer together. Plenty of Buddhist people don’t even believe in God.
So we probably don’t have the time to unpack it now, but religion is maybe not a helpful catch all term at all points. I wonder whether when we’re saying religion in this context we mean the Judaeo Christian worldview? But it’s interesting, you know, I, as a Christian, there’s lots of things I agree with Ben on, some things I disagree on. Lots of things, as an Englishman, that I agree with Alex on, and on other things that I wouldn’t. (BS: Spelling) So, yes, spelling, absolutely. It’s aluminium. Anyway… I just think that’s interesting – I’m not trying to start this theist gang and gang up on you, Alex, at all – but what do you think, quickly, about that? When we’re talking about religion, do we need to be more semantically accurate?
BS: Rigorous? Yes. I mean, again, I’m not here to defend every form of religion under the sun. There are various forms of religion, ranging from things that people in Judaeo Christian tradition would consider pagan, to Judaeo Christian monotheism, to the distinctions in Judaism and Christianity, which are substantial, obviously.
So, I do believe that there are right forms of religion or righter forms of religion than others. If I didn’t then I wouldn’t be a particularist in my religious practice or my religious belief. And so, I do think that… you know, you’re right to sort of boil down the question so that people don’t end up defending things or being forced to defend things that they wouldn’t defend. I mean, you mentioned before, Islam. I’ll say more radical forms of Islam because, again, one thing that I tend not to do as a religious believer is simply take people’s texts at face value because the reality is that very few people in religious circles take their text at like the, I can just pick up a Bible, read it, and now I know everything that’s going on in the Bible, value that really is not how the practice of religion works. I tend to actually judge faith by faith practice more so than I do by trying to read somebody else’s book and then figure out exactly what they’re saying. Because I’ve seen people do that enough to my religious practice to object to it.
But yes, of course, I think that if you’re going to talk about the value of religion, you should be more specific. I will say that the value of religion more generally – if you were going to talk about it in just general terms, meaning belief in supernatural things that can’t be explained by a materialist universe – the social cohesion point would be the best case in favour of religion. Virtually every study ever done has shown that social cohesion relies on a common orientation among people in order to build commonality between people. There are really only a few structures in human history that do that. One is a kinship structure. The problem with kinship and tribal structures is that they pretty quickly devolve into tribal warfare upon other members of different tribes. One of the things that religion has done is an attempt to universalise that beyond the immediate tribal self-interest that we discussed a little bit ago. And, again, pretty much universally, social science suggests that many of the institutions that we hold dear, that shape us, that provide us social support, that provide us friendship structures, marriages, that a huge amount of this used to happen, anyway, inside of these traditional religious structures, and there really has been nothing to replace it. And so the sort of breakdown of those structures, you could make the case, I suppose, for the breakdown of those structures, but there’s been pretty much no replacement for those structures in secular society, and it’s creating some pretty significant strains on societal bonding.
AK: Great. So, I’m going to ask you… (AO: So, two things to say) yeah, I want you to say both of those things. But I want to ask you, Alex, can secular societies potentially achieve the same level of social cohesion as religious ones?
AO: Potentially. Maybe. I don’t know. That seems to be an empirical question, insofar as we can have empirical data on social cohesion as a subject. I wanted to, I suppose, in response to that question, mention the history of the United States as a constitutionally secular nation. Presumably, the discussion there devolves into whether America can be described as a Christian nation or not? But based on what you just said a moment ago, before we maybe get into that, you said, of course, we need more specificity, (it’s hardly ever worse than less) and that you’re not trying to defend all religious traditions. And then you say, but look, this idea of there being a God, and there being an unalterable authority, and a moral author of the universe, is itself valuable, and without it, all kinds of societal discohesion comes about.
In that case, for example, I wonder – and I hope it’s not a crude question, and it’s one stemming from genuine interest – would you rather your child comes to you and says, you know, I think I’m going convert to Islam, or said, I don’t think I believe in God anymore?
BS: As a Jew, I’m fairly indifferent on the question. Meaning that my priority is for my child to remain a Jew and which direction they go from there is of much less interest to me than staying inside the religious tradition that I believe is correct.
AO: Okay, maybe I should rephrase to say, suppose that, you know, half of the U.S. population immediately, right now, and let’s say half of the Christian population. So it’s not to do with Judaism, and it’s not to do with your own family. Half of the Christian population in the United States are immediately going to convert today to atheism, if you press this button, or to Islam, if you press that button. Which one would you press?
BS: So, I’m going to ask for more specificity… (AO: Sure) in line with the conversation. So, which form of Islam are we talking about, and which form of atheism are we talking about? Because they come in various strains. Meaning, if we’re just starting from the premise of no God or Islamic god, that actually is not enough information. Because, as I say, I’m not judging people. based on their faith propositions nearly as much as I am based on their behaviour, which I think they base on faith propositions.
AO: Well, let’s say this is the only thing that changes; you press this button, half the Christian population become convinced that there is no real God of the universe. Everything else is random, whatever you might… because what we’re discussing here is essentially what are the implications of such a worldview? What are the implications of atheism? (which is just the disbelief in God or the belief that there is no God).
BS: Do people have memories? Sorry, in this hypothetical, do people have memories or they don’t have memories? Because this makes a difference.
AO: Yeah, they have memories.
BS: Okay, fine, so then probably, in the West, atheism, as opposed to a more radical form of Islam. That’s why I was asking for specificity because their more moderate forms…
AO: The button on the right hand side was going to be that they just become convinced that Muhammad is the final prophet of God.
BS: And, again, I was going to ask for more specificity on that because I know many moderate Muslims who are not radical in the implication of their faith, as opposed to some who very much are quite radical in the implications of their faith. So, but let’s, if you don’t mind, I’m going to set up your hypothetical in a way that I think is more clarifying for me anyway and that is, button on the right is radical Islam, like Taliban style Islam and button on the left is, don’t believe in God.
AO: Well, I mean fine you can do that…
BS: The reason I’m doing that is because that elucidates a difference that I think is being obscured by the simple belief in God/not belief in God question. Meaning, the cultural heritage of – that’s why I asked if people have memories or people don’t have memories – if people have memories then that looks very much like secular Europe right now, which does have… (AO: The cultural heritage of Judaeo Christian values) in the bloodstream a lot of Judaeo-Christian values in a way that would not be true if you were without memory, right? Would I rather that a child found in a forest be raised in a moderate Muslim household or be raised in a secular communist household…
AO: Or a secular atheist household, if I may say?
BS: Again, from a tradition? Are we talking in the USSR or are we talking about Britain? Like, what are we talking about here?
AO: We’re talking about Britain. Well, we were talking about the US, but let’s say Britain.
BS: In Britain? It depends on the strain of Islam. If we’re talking about like a liberal form of Islam, which do exist, then probably a liberal form of Islam. If we’re talking about a fundamentalist form of Islam, then probably a secular strain of Britain.
AO: Fine. The second point I wanted to say… I mean, you mentioned not wanting to just take Scripture at face value, and I understand the difficulty of taking Scripture essentially out of context and trying to take a literal approach where a literal approach isn’t supposed to be taken. I mean, people forget that the Bible is a… It’s a collection of books rather than a book, with lots of different with genres… (BS: With an oral tradition and all the rest). I saw a video once of somebody trying to use the Bible to disprove the divinity of Jesus by quoting the book of Job saying, ‘God is not a man that I might question him’. God is not a man, you see? And I thought, not only is this in the mouth of Job, but also, you know, that’s the kind of thing that we want to avoid.
But it does seem to me that there are some things within religious Scripture that do need to be taken seriously and do need to be taken essentially at face value. That is, some of the very specific legalistic commandments of the Old Testament, for example, or of the Hebrew Bible, I should say. These are not… when people list these and say that these are potentially morally problematic, and may have done something towards hindering, for example, like I mentioned earlier, the abolition of slavery in the United States… Of course, there was a great deal of religious influence on both sides, which is something that I’ve already mentioned. But don’t you think that this problem could have been solved a lot more easily if there had been a stronger religious tradition of opposition to the ownership of other human beings? Why can’t that have been the case? Because Scripture quite explicitly condones it and in fact gives you the details of how to do it. That’s something that couldn’t have been done, in other words, because you’ve taken this moral principle that’s placed outside of meaningful debate.
AK: Before we move on, can I ask? Where are we getting these buttons from? Are they from Amazon? You know, you press one and everyone’s an atheist. Are these available on the market?
AO: There’s this wonderful thing that I think you both need to use in this conversation, which is imagination.
AK: Oh, right!
BS: So, as far as why didn’t the Bible prescribe the perfect world as I would see it, or as you might see it, and the answer is because, two reasons. 1) As stated right up top, I’m not God, I assume he has different logic than I do. 2) The Bible is in an inherently problematic position in the sense that on the one hand, it’s trying to divulge important truths for all time. At the same time, it’s talking to a people of a particular time. And this is a well-worn tradition inside Judaism.
So to take the slavery example; there is no mandate to hold slaves in the Bible. There are lots of mandates in the Bible. Many, many mandates. There are 613 of them according to my religion, right? That’s why I do all these weird things that I do. But one of those mandates is not to hold slaves. And so the idea of there was a society that existed at the time of the Bible in which slave holding was not only ubiquitous, it was universal, which was true for virtually all of human history and could be justified not just in terms of religious scripture, but in terms of Aristotelian thought, right? I mean the great philosophers we like to cite sometimes in the secular tradition are big fans of slavery, and that’s true virtually up until the 18th century. (AO: Yes).
So, the idea would be, is this verse attempting to woo people away from a tradition of slavery or to humanise the slaves, or is it attempting to reinforce that by making it harsher and more difficult? And that’s why actually one of the things I enjoy doing in terms of how I study the Bible, for example, is I like to look at contemporaneous religious texts of the time. So I like to study the Bible alongside, for example, Hammurabi’s Code. And it’s really interesting to notice the differences and where the Bible is liberalising Hammurabi’s Code, for example.
AO: Yes, absolutely.
BS: And so the idea that a divine revelation has to be given to human beings who are capable of following that in the time, again, that’s part of the difficulty of, I think, rebutting religion in a certain sense. Because, again, it seems wiggly but it really isn’t in the sense that if you believe, as I do, in a God who spoke to human beings in some form or fashion and has to speak to them on a level that they can understand, in ways they can understand, then that immediately is going to discount the ability to do a lot of very radical things that would have appeared radical in 1200 BC, but now appear to be commonplace for us.
AO: Yes, I understand this argument and I’ve heard it many times. I must say that it seems strange to me that God does seem willing to completely and utterly condemn a bunch of other practices, including, by the way, imaginary crimes like witchcraft, just done away with entirely. And even if it is the case that God, for some reason, couldn’t just say – couldn’t even hint at the idea – that maybe, eventually, we should be moving towards the abolition of the idea of owning human beings as private property, he just has (1:02:27?) to condone it, I still think it’s the case that he would not permit a flat immorality, and I think you would agree with that too. And so when I open the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, and when I look at the texts saying that if you lay siege to a city, if the Lord delivers it into your hand, you can kill the men and the women, but keep… or you can kill the men and keep the women and the children and the livestock as plunder, as Deuteronomy says. And in the very next verse… sorry, the very next chapter says that if you see a good looking woman – and I’m not interjecting that – if somebody finds an attractive woman…
BS: Yes, Ishah Yafa (1:03:06?) is the actual Hebrew, yeah.
AO: Then they can take them for themselves, and if they want them as their wives, and they take them home, they shave their head, they cut off their fingernails, they give them 30 days to mourn their old husband, who you may very well have just killed, and then you can take them as your wife. When Numbers 31 has Moses instruct the slaughter of the Midianites saying, kill all the men, and this time the women get killed too, but not the women who haven’t slept with a man. And why might that be? And it says that, you know, keep them for yourselves. And I hear all the time that this is some kind of liberalising process; maybe it’s because, you know, these people wouldn’t survive on their own, it’s some kind of protective measure to make sure that you’re looking after them. If that’s the case, then why does it only apply to the virgins? That seems a little bit suspect to me. You know, it’s sort of… Scripture’s littered with these kinds of problems.
BS: Well, again, so to go back to the sort of oral tradition nature of what I’m saying…
AO: I don’t think God would permit a proactive immorality even if he can’t, for some reason, abolish the practice altogether, if you see what I’m saying?
BS: Well, no, that last point I don’t see. So, when you say, even if he can’t abolish the practice altogether, well, no.
AO: Which already I think he would be able to do.
BS: Right, so the question is, whether he can or whether he can’t? If he can’t abolish the practice, then the idea of wooing people away from a particular type of sin through a gradualistic process is known throughout societies across human history. I mean, the gradualistic processes are the way that most things get done across human history. And, by the way, the universal practice, unfortunately, up till today in many places in the world is, in fact, the extreme version of what you’re talking about; raze everything, kill everyone. That sort of stuff, unfortunately, does take place even on planet Earth, even in the year 2023.
And so the idea of a culture arising from the Bible that not only abolished slavery on its own shores, but then abolished slavery literally everywhere else, which is what Great Britain did. That, again, to separate that off from a tradition that also says that every human being is made in the image of God, right, which is the verse from Genesis, or that you have to treat the stranger well which is repeated more than any injunction in the Bible…There are these traditions that are at war with each other inside the Bible, which is why there is this hotly fought kind of argument inside biblical circles about all this stuff, which again is one of the reasons why I said right up top that when it gets to… I can’t just open the Bible and interpret the text as I would see fit, and say, well, I don’t like this verse right here…
AO: You say that Scripture is contradictory?
BS: Well, I say that some Scripture is time bound and some scripture is not. So, the sort of easy way to distinguish is that when the Bible says not to do a thing, then that tends to be non-time bound.
AO: And when it says to do a thing?
BS: And when it says to do a thing, that may be a temporary permission structure, but it could also be a wooing. And by the way, again, I’m not speaking out of turn here, this has been 1,500 years of Jewish reinterpretation of (H A Fattoh?? 1:05:45) to take a quick example, right?
That – sorry, the War Bride – the long standing Talmudic tradition, which again is almost 2,000 years old at this point, is that that was deliberately an attempt to avoid mass war rape. Which again you can scoff at that, but mass war rape happened on this continent 70 years ago when the Russians literally raped everyone as they came into Germany. So, you know, these evils continue to exist in the human heart.
AO: Even if this was a liberalising force, and even if this was not as bad as other slavery. Do you think that the ownership of other human beings under the conditions of the Hebrew Bible are immoral?
AO: So, how do you account for God commanding something which you now see to be… or rather, permitting something and explicitly and giving you details about how to do something which is proactively immoral?
BS: Because he’s not permitting me. Permitting my great-great-great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great Grandfather to do something that at the time was not considered immoral.
AO: It wasn’t considered immoral, but was it immoral? Now who’s the moral relativist?
BS: Now, by today’s standards, that were developed by the Judaeo-Christian tradition, sure. By today’s standards, developed under the Judaeo Christian tradition? Immoral. Which, by the way, you’re, living off the – again, not to get back to the Tom Holland argument – you’re living off the remains of this. I mean, where’s your morality coming from?
AO: But who’s the moral relativist now? I mean, it seems that a moment ago you say that the great success of religion is providing a sort of untouchable moral basis that sort of transcends human affairs and human debates. And now when I say, well, look at this, open your own religious Scripture and look at this blatant immorality, you say, yeah, but, well, that was considered to be fine at the time, it’s considered to be bad now by the progress of Judaeo Christian values. Who’s the moral relativist?
BS: Well, it’s not relativistic to say that a thing that is wrong today is considered wrong today because of a tradition that developed over time.
AO: The question I’m asking is not, was it considered right or wrong at the time of biblical slavery? Was it wrong?
BS: It was wrong then to hold a slave. Yes, it was wrong then to hold a slave, obviously. And also if you are God and you are pragmatically attempting to woo people away from slavery, was it a practicable thing to simply “abolish” slavery?
AO: Here’s an idea, for example. In the book of Exodus, God says, I think in chapter 21, maybe 22, says that if you have a Hebrew slave, you must let them go after seven years. If that Hebrew slave comes to you with a wife, then after the seven years you let them go to. If you give the Hebrew slave a wife and they have children, then after those seven years are up you give the man a choice. He can go, after the seven years, as per, but you keep his children and his wife. Or, and here the Scripture says, if he says, I love my wife, I love my kids, and my master (as if that’s going to be one of the principal considerations), then he can stay with you at which point you take him outside, you pierce his ear like cattle, and he becomes your property for life.
Now, here’s a suggestion, for example; if it was already established that Hebrew slaves go after seven years, and it’s already established that if they come with a wife they can go after seven years. Then if I give them a wife and they have children would it not be… it doesn’t seem to me particularly revolutionary, it doesn’t seem to me the kind of thing that would have caused such social discohesion that God just couldn’t have found a way to do it, to say, well, why not let the whole family go free after those seven years? With the knowledge beforehand that if you give this Hebrew slave of yours a wife and children, they’ll get to leave with them. That seems to me, for example, a minor improvement that would not cause this kind of revolutionary earth shifting. He couldn’t have just gotten away with slavery, maybe that’s true. But something as obvious as this, to me, it seems that if that is the case, that that could have easily been done, then the failure to do so, and the keeping of that Hebrew wife and their children as the master’s property, that itself becomes an immorality that is dictated from the heavens.
BS: If I agree with you premises, I agree with your conclusion. I think that the question as to how much social discohesion would it have caused to do a thing is an open question. I think the other question that sort of remains open here is the incentive structure as to whether you accept a wife from your master. So, I don’t want to get into the abstract – I mean, we can do this literally all day….
AK: And we need to step from the past into the future anyway.
BS: I mean, there are 70 volumes of the Talmud that are literally about this sort of stuff and then copious writings in terms of reinterpretation.
AO: Yeah, we’re hardly the first people to talk about this.
BS: Yeah, exactly, this is not the first time these questions have come up. But I think the general point is sort of one where either we can dive into that full time and you can spend your life becoming a rabbi, which, you know, enjoy.
AO: It could happen. Never say never.
BS: You have the beard for it. Your beard is further along than mine. Or we can sort of, you know, stipulate at the top that there are certain biblical interpretations that are abstruse and difficult (AO: Yea) and that has been a reality of religious life since the beginning.
AO: Well, I can agree with that.
AK: We need to step from the past into the future through this conversational portal that we’ve got available to us. Obviously everyone at this table would agree that holding a slave is wrong in the same way that the man you kept talking about who you thought was coming to kill you, we would all agree that that’s a problematic thing.
And it does seem – so I’m not going to get you to defend this because I want you to come up with another game show where you solve the future problems of society for us, Alex – it does seem that on an atheist worldview it is difficult ultimately to say, what is good? What is right? What is wrong? But we can be practical about it, we can be functional about it.
So, come on then, for the future, give us some practical, secular philosophies that can really help to build social cohesion for the future. You’ve got about a minute to do that, then we’ll give Ben a minute to respond, and then we’ll wrap up.
AO: I can provide an answer that I don’t think will be cause of further debate, which is to say… (BS: That’d be shocking!) I think everything that I’ve heard you say, Ben, on this subject and everything that I think you may be about to say, not everything, but some of it, involves saying that, look, you know, what we need to do is encourage strengthening family and having children, and not doing drugs and all of this kind of stuff, which people, like you say, traditionally this has been somewhat the prerogative of the church to maintain.
I think that people just don’t believe in God anymore. And so what I would say is just to encourage those things without the God. The question I would leave – and, I’m sorry, I’ve just promised no debate, but here’s something – Look, suppose it’s the case that I agree wholesale with your proposition that religion is good and maybe even necessary for society in some way, right? Suppose I just say that that’s true. I don’t believe it’s true. I’ve tried, I’m sorry, I just don’t believe it. And so, I’m now left with a choice here. I don’t think it’s true. But I’ve become convinced that it’s somehow useful or beneficial. What am I to do with this information? You can’t just choose to believe in God. People say you can choose to act as though you believe in God.
That’s kind of true until something really testing comes along. If you don’t really believe it in your heart, you will falter at the first opportunity. How am I to raise my children? Am I to lie to them? Am I to say, well, I don’t believe in any of this nonsense. But because I think it promotes a sort of non-replacement birth rate then I’m just going to bring them up believing things that I think are false? I don’t think this can happen.
It’s amazing how quickly ostensible deontologists transform before our very eyes into utilitarians on this question. That out go the idea of being, you know, truthful and being honest and talking about things that you think are philosophically sound, now it’s essentially faith based and it’s about trying to make as many people… you know, the greatest good for the greatest number across society and societal cohesion, even if you think it’s false. In other words, me, I’m someone who is an atheist, I don’t believe it’s true. If I just grant everything you’ve said about the utility that religion provides, what am I to do?
BS: So, let me ask…
AK: You’ve got about 30 seconds.
BS: Really, it’s a quick question which is, do you know it’s not true, or do you not believe that it’s true?
AO: I don’t believe that it’s true.
BS: You believe that it’s not true, or you don’t believe that it’s true?
AO: I believe that it’s not true.
BS: You believe that it’s not true, in a full fashion?
AO: Let’s say that’s the case, yeah.
BS: Right. So, if you believe that then, obviously, I think that you’re wrong in the sense that, as I said right at the outset, I think that a lot of atheists are more religious than religious people. Religious people constantly admit to doubts and problems in interpretation and all the rest of this sort of stuff. I don’t think that a true religious believer can be truly religious without experiencing those doubts because you’re taking a leap of faith right off the top. And what I would normally say to somebody who is not fully committed to disbelief, I would say, is that you’d be in the position of being able to say to your kid, I don’t know if it’s true or not, which I think is a more honest answer, by the way. (AO: Yes). And I think that that is something that you can teach your kids. You can say, here’s an atheist perspective, here’s a religious perspective. I don’t know what’s true. I can provide you evidence on my side why I don’t believe it fully, but there are people who provide evidence on the other side and arguments on the other side that are not foolish, that are not out of the sky crazy, you know? And so make your own decision. I think that’s the way that you would address that with a child. If you’re somebody who believes in the social utility of religion but doesn’t necessarily believe in the religion itself, I think giving the child the ability to choose that themselves by saying, I’m not sure, or by presenting both sides of the argument would not be a bad way to go, I mean, just in terms of practical solutions.
In terms of what I would say to better society, I have a much easier answer, which is, I think that you should re engage with your social institutions, including your church. I think that saying to people on an individual level, don’t do drugs, study hard for your tests, get married before you have kids, get a job… like, it’s easy to say that to people and I think that without supporting social institutions that reinforce that nearly every day and make it part of the culture that surrounds you, it’s very difficult for people to live that. And so, I think that removing God as sort of the capstone of these institutions, the whole institution tends to fall apart.
So, on a practical level, if you get rid of God, the institution just ceases to exist, and you can yell as much as you want, but individuals are far less likely to provide the social reinforcement and social networks for support that actually create the bases of a good, fundamentally solid civilization than an individualist civilization in which all you can do is basically encourage someone to “do the right thing”.
AK: Amen. Well, the fact we’ve managed to keep Ben Shapiro within the 24 minutes is a miracle in itself, a miracle that Alex doesn’t believe in.
But we have been talking today on The Big Conversation about religion and whether it’s good or bad for society. And I’ve been joined by two literally world beating minds, Alex O’Connor and Ben Shapiro.
I have enjoyed it so much. Thank you so much to both of you, you’re both so wonderful and impressive. And we’ve seen areas of convergence, we’ve seen areas of divergence. Alex has given some ground on the areas where religion is good for society. Ben has conceded that it’s not always good for society in certain iterations.
So we didn’t come to a full verdict about whether religion is good or bad for society, but what we have seen is two men, avid and persistent in their pursuit of reason. And I can tell you something, that is good for the future of society. Join us next time on The Big Conversation. Goodbye.