I've been debating whether or not to write about Daniel C. Peterson's FAIR conference transcript Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism
, which was posted at M*
and at Dave's Mormon Inquiry
. I want to respond because I find his article, well, wrong on multiple accounts, but recognize that nothing I say will (probably) convince anyone or do any good. Alas.
But what is it we're told to do? Endure to the end.
Allow me to make a few general comments about the Peterson article. First, it's not really about "secular anti-Mormonism"--instead, it's mostly a rehashing of traditional religious arguments against atheism. At one point I considered myself an atheist--still do, depending on definitions--so I've heard all this before and it's ridiculous from a non-religious standpoint. That is, atheism and theism have different assumptions that cloud each side. Interestingly, Peterson does talk about this, trying to make it an argument against atheism, but he doesn't seem to see that it cuts both ways:
To an agnostic or an atheist, someone who assigns a very low probability (or even none at all) to the existence of God, the existence of massive human and natural evils in this world constitutes a serious and perhaps fatal, if not merely redundant, blow against theistic belief. To someone, however, who regards the existence of a benevolent and powerful God as probable, even highly probable or certain, on other grounds, the existence of such massive evils represents merely a problem to be worked out in the light of her theistic presuppositions. Her proposed solutions will seem gratuitously ad hoc to atheistic critics, but, from within her paradigm, function much the same way as refinements to broad scientific theories function under the stimulus of new data and problems.
In fact, he says, "I confess that I find those who rejoice in atheism baffling." Which is fine, but not understanding something doesn't necessarily make it wrong or ridiculous. Likewise, wishing for a God to exist doesn't make it necessarily so.
He gives two "arguments" that deserve consideration for why atheism is "baffling." First, he finds it sad that, essentially, we live our life and then we die and it's over and that's it. Admittedly, it isn't the happiest of thoughts--but it does mirror my own. (My views aren't quite so bleak; generally, since I don't know if there is an afterlife and, if so, I don't know what it's like, then, from my frame of reference, there's no reason for it to influence my decisions.) Again, though, just because this is unappealing doesn't make it untrue--which is what Peterson seems to imply. (Of course, considering his intended audience, perhaps I should cut him some slack.)
His second argument concerns morality and atheism. These concerns, unlike the previous ones, are important. There are two sub-arguments he makes here, one that is important and one that is not. The latter concerns a view of eternal justice. Basically, he says that an afterlife is needed to right the wrongs of the world.
A neighbor and friend was stricken with multiple sclerosis in her mid-twenties and now, in her thirties, lies bedridden in a rest home. Barring some incredible medical breakthrough, this is her life. Absent hope for a life to come, this is all she will ever have to look forward to.
Sad, yes, but: meh. If I remember correctly, Kant made essentially the same argument. Although I don't recall the argument, I do remember thinking that Kant may be on to something, but not because of the appeal-to-emotions type argument that Peterson uses here. Besides, if Kant did actually make the argument, then I'm sure that there are rebuttals out there written by better men than I. But here's where he makes the important argument, quoting Dostoevsky:
Perhaps, on second thought, though, I can understand those who might see it as a liberation. "If there is no God," says Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "that means everything is permitted." Why? Because nothing matters at all; everything is meaningless.
Now, he is actually kinda right. He goes on to talk of "objective" morality and "objective" meaning. In so far as we accept his definition. Generally, objective morality' implies some sort of universal, unchangeable ethical system that does not depend on us for its existence. One concern with this kind of morality is where it comes from. Most favor a Divine Command Theory of morality, which essentially says that God makes the rules and because he's God, those are the rules and there's nothing we can do about it.
What Peterson doesn't give us is a reason to inherently support an objective moral system over a more subjective moral system. Considering his audience again, I don't think he necessarily needed to, but it's hard to take his point seriously from a non-religious standpoint without it. In fact, there are quite a few subjective moral systems that have some good points, i.e. Utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc. (Not that I agree with either one of those, but they should be taken seriously as alternatives.)
It seems to me that one of the main difference (at least in Peterson's case) between objective and subjective morality is a shift in who we are accountable to. In Peterson's objective morality, we are all held accountable for our actions before God. In (some) subjective morality, though, we must answer to 'society'. If we all do our part--which we all should--this is just as effective.
I think Peterson's talk is interesting, yes, but wrong. So very wrong. The overall tone that I'm picking up is something like "amused disbelief" that, if used in a talk by a so-called "anti-Mormon" would be roundly mocked. He doesn't treat atheism on it's own terms, which is fine, I guess, but then he shouldn't expect the non-religious to treat Mormonism on its own terms. I assure you, in fact, that I find much of Mormon thought as ridiculous as Peterson finds atheism. However, I try (sometimes I fail, sure) to discuss and interact with the Church on its own ground. And, frankly, I don't think that that's too much to ask.
So, on a more personal note: I've talked about this before. It upsets me when people call me immoral just because I'm not religious. It happens more than you might think. Call me cynical, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens here
before too long.