Readers will probably be familiar with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Muslim apostate and political writer. You may have heard of her in connection with the film Submission, about the opression of women under Islam — for which she wrote the screenplay, and for which its director Theo van Gogh was murdered in an Amsterdam street by a Muslim zealot.
Ms. Ali has not only renounced Islam, but all religion as well; she declared herself an atheist in 2002. She sees Islam as incompatible with reason in that it brooks no skepticism, and she says that there are in fact no “moderate” Muslims — rather, she argues that to the extent that Muslims question or refuse to be bound by Islamic law, they are only “partial” Muslims. In this way she sees the current global struggle not as a war against “terror”, which she rightly points out is merely a tactic, but as a war against Islam. It ought not to be seen as a war against Muslims, she says, because the goal is to get Muslims to learn to question (and hopefully, to abandon) their religion, as she herself has.
OK then, you talk about your conscience, and how your conscience was pricked by 9/11. But if there’s no God, what do you mean by a conscience? And why should we obey it?
‘My conscience is informed by reason,’ says Hirsi Ali, surprised I should ask. ‘It’s like Kant’s categorical imperative: behave to others as you would wish they behaved to you.’
There is a tremendous amount to unpack in this brief snippet, and Dr. Hodges does indeed set about the job, reminding us that Kant’s categorical imperative — which exhorts us to “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” — is a “secularizing and sharpening” of the “Golden Rule” teachings to be found in the Gospels.
But I’d like to focus on two assumptions implicit in the remarks quoted above, because of the extent to which they appear to be, to so many people, simply axiomatic.
First, the interviewer (Mary Wakefield, of the UK Spectator) asks: “…if there’s no God, what do you mean by a conscience?”
To a nontheist like me it is really quite startling that this should be seen as a pointed question. Our conscience is that moral force within us that goads and impels us to act in accord with its intuitions, and which bites at us with remorse when we fail. That we have such a cognitive apparatus is a plain fact, clearly apparent to everybody but the most psychologically anomalous sociopaths; surely Ms. Wakefield needed no clarification as to what the term for this universal feature of the human inventory refers to. So her assumption must be, then, that this ubiquitous psychological feature could only exist if it were put there explicitly by God — although I doubt that Ms. Wakefield would have pressed the same sort of inquiry about other human features, by asking something like: “if there’s no God, what do you mean by a pancreas?” (Or if that’s too physiological for you, then perhaps we might substitute a “sense of literary style”.)
The more interesting question is the next one: “And why should we obey it?” — but unfortunately for the theist it leads straight into the quicksand of the Euthyphro dilemma. Assuming that our moral instructions come from God, do we obey them simply because they come from God? Or does God command them because their moral “rightness” is logically prior to God? In the first case we are unsatisfied because a God unconstrained by pre-existing moral truths might command us to do all manner of awful things, and in the second case it’s hard to see what God is bringing to to the party — we might as well just cut out the middleman and do what’s right for the same reason that God commands it: because it’s right. (This topic has come up often in our little blogging circle, most recently here.)
Next there is the response by Ms. Ali, who, looking for solid ground and unable to prop her conscience on God’s shoulders, uses Immanuel Kant’s instead: “My conscience is informed by reason…”
Frankly, I doubt it. This is a common move by atheists, faced as we are with the fact of our consciences and the extent to which their contents seem irrefutable — but trying to establish a “rational” foundation in this way is very much like the old story about the Earth resting on the back of a great cosmic turtle: when pressed about what the turtle itself stands on, the best one can do is to shrug and say “it’s turtles all the way down.”
Ms Ali does get at least one turtle down the stack: her conscience, she tells us, is constituted (by reason alone!) so as to run according to the eminently rational precept known as the Golden Rule — or in more academic style, the Categorical Imperative. But upon what turtle of ratiocination, then, does the Golden Rule rest? Why is it the most “reasonable” policy to do unto others as you would have them do unto you? Wouldn’t things work out even better, for instance, if we could get others to do unto us as we enjoy, while behind their backs we’re screwing them at every turn?
No, I’m afraid that our consciences, our moral intuitions, are logically prior to any such top-level reasoning on the subject, and Ms. Ali’s blithe response is simply an attempt at post-facto justification (and on closer examination an inadequate one, at that). This doesn’t mean that there aren’t sound, solid rationales for why we have the consciences we do. It’s just that they aren’t our rationales, but rather the “free-floating” rationales of design by natural selection, about which the relatively new fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are just beginning to build a coherent and consistent theoretical framework.
If you really want to be rational about this inquiry, then, I’d say this is the right horse to back: it’s the only account on offer that avoids both the logical regresses of moral rationalizations on the one hand, and the Euthyphro dilemma, theodicies, and invisible gods of theism on the other. Prominent atheists take note.