A Note on “Christianity: Good of Bad for Mankind” February 2013 Debate at The University of Texas

   I recently attended a debate titled “Christianity: Good or Bad for Mankind?”.  The participants were Andrew Bernstein and Dinesh D’Souza.  Bernstein argued on the side of “Christianity is bad for mankind.”  Dinesh D’Souza argued on the side of “Christianity is good for mankind.”  The debate was advertised with the following description: “Is Christianity the source of important truths, moral law, and man’s rights and thus profoundly good for mankind—or is it antithetical to all such values and thus profoundly bad?” https://www.theobjectivestandard.com/events/dsouza-bernstein.asp
   I was glad to see the debate, and hear the arguments, especially the arguments of Dinesh D’Souza, since he can be considered a “conservative intellectual”, so his arguments presumably represent the “conservative party line”, to the extent that there is a coherent line of thinking held by most conservatives.  However, I think that an important topic was not directly addressed in the debate, which tended to center around the issue of: “Does god exist?”  It’s possible that the debate devolved to this issue on the assumption that if god does not exist, then Christianity is bad for mankind, and if god does exist, then Christianity is good for mankind. I had mentioned this debate to some friends, and one of them saw the question of the debate not as “Does god exist?” but as: “Is Christianity good for mankind, regardless of god’s existence?”  This was also my major complaint about the direction of the debate right after I saw it.  After some thinking, I think this raises a more general question, which is: What is the relationship between “the true” and “the good”, if any?  Even if some of us atheists know there is no evidence for the existence of god (that it is not true), can it still be argued that belief in a supreme being is still good for mankind (that the belief is good), even if it is a sort of collective delusion?
The dictionary provides several definitions of “good”:
a. 1 a : something that is good  Merriam-Webster (2009-06-12). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Kindle Locations 501629-501630). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
b. 1 b (1) : something conforming to the moral order of the universe (2) : praiseworthy character : goodness  Merriam-Webster (2009-06-12). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Kindle Locations 501630-501633). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
c. 2 a : advancement of prosperity or well-being   Merriam-Webster (2009-06-12). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Kindle Location 501634-501636). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
d. 2 b : something useful or beneficial  Merriam-Webster (2009-06-12). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Kindle Locations 501636-501638). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
   Since the assumption here is that some sort of religion is “good for mankind” regardlessof its truth, then “the good” cannot mean anything mystical or supernatural.  For instance, the person arguing this position cannot claim that religion is “good for mankind” because god exists, and the only way for people to go to heaven is to live in accordance with the Bible.  Someone claiming that Christianity, or religion in general, is “good for humanity” in this context is implicitly claiming that regardlessof its truth, it is good for humanity.  In other words, they are claiming that even if Christianity is false, it still has purely secular benefits for mankind that make it useful.  For this reason, the last dictionary definition of “good” above makes the most sense.  “Good” means something that is “useful” or “beneficial” for mankind not in some other life, but in this life.
   What does it mean for something to be “useful” or “beneficial”?  Tangible items of technology are considered “useful” because they serve some person’s purpose.  For instance, an automobile is “useful” because under the right set of circumstances, people can use it to transport themselves quickly to a particular destination.  A particular scientific discovery can be useful for mankind because it allows for the creation of new technologies.  For instance, discovering the Law of Universal Gravitation allowed men to calculate the trajectories of planets and satellites, and eventually to fly to the moon.  The discovery of germ theory allowed men to develop methods of sanitation that improved human health.  If you consider enough examples of human technology and science, you quickly recognize that something is considered “useful” or “beneficial” because it serves some purpose that men have.  This applies to other areas of human knowledge as well.  We study history because “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it”.  The subject of history is “useful” or “beneficial” because it enables us not to repeat the mistakes of the past.  (I also think it is useful to learn what past generations got right.)
   Some knowledge can be more immediately useful than other types of knowledge. Knowledge of abstract mathematics may not have any immediate benefit, but knowledge of Calculus is useful if we want to launch artificial satellites to predict when a hurricane is going to strike a major city.  But what is important to understand here is that knowledge is useful because it ultimately benefits human life.  This is true because men are beings of a certain type, with a specific identity, or nature.  We have mental faculties that allow us to gain knowledge by means of a certain method and this benefits our lives.  Our lives are not guaranteed to us, and if we want to live, then we must take certain actions.  We must gain knowledge through a specific process, and use that knowledge, if we want to live.  Objectivism says that “mans life” is the ultimate standard of the good, and that individual happiness is the purpose of holding man’s life as the ultimate standard of the good.  This all boils down to: if you want to live, you must take action that conforms to man’s nature and the nature of reality in general.  As Francis Bacon put it: nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.
     In order to achieve one’s ultimate goal of living, one must adopt certain principles that serve as general procedures of action.  For instance, if thinking is necessary in order for human beings to gain knowledge in order to enhance and maintain their lives, then that must be adopted as a habit.  Furthermore, one must act on one’s thinking, since thinking alone is not sufficient to actually produce the things necessary for survival.  It is not enough just to think about how you would build a shelter or find food.  You must actually implement the knowledge you gain to build a house and grow crops.  The facts of reality dictate what sorts of procedures are necessary.  For instance, the fact that human beings are born with a certain type of mental faculty, that has a specific nature, means that they must gain knowledge in accordance with a certain method.  This is called “rationality”.  The fact that the material values necessary for our survival (such as food, clothing, and shelter) do not exist in nature means that we must use our minds to determine how best to create those values given the pre-existing materials found in nature, and our knowledge of how to organize those materials in a manner that is most beneficial to our needs.  This is “productiveness”.  The fact that human beings can choose to use physical force to deprive others of the material values that they have created means that we must determine whether individual men that we encounter are men who produce the values they need to live, or if they will try to gain values from us by force.  Once this determination is made, one attempts to trade with men that produce, and one uses an appropriate amount of force to stop the men who insist on starting the use of physical force.  This is called “justice”.  These “habits” or “procedures of action”, such as “rationality”, “productiveness”, and “justice” are called “virtues”.  “Virtue” is the act by which one gains and/or keeps the things necessary for living.
   Now that “the good” is firmly established, we can turn to the question of “the true”.  The dictionary defines “true” as:
Dictionary definition: 2 a (1) : being in accordance with the actual state of affairs < description> (2) : conformable to an essential reality (Merriam-Webster (2009-06-12). Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition (Kindle Locations 1230332-1230335). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.)
   In other words, “the true” is: a proposition or statement that corresponds to reality.  Here are two examples of true statements: “The moon is 238,857 miles away, give or take a few thousand miles.” and “Washington DC is the capitol of the United States of America.”
   What is less apparent to most people is that “the good” can also be considered a form of “the true”.  For instance, the virtue of justice can be defined as something like: “Judging men and treating them accordingly.”  A person who uses force to gain the material values created by others is judged to be a criminal, and force is used against him to stop him.  The virtue of justice embodies a number of truths about human nature and the nature of the universe.  For instance, it embodies the truth that man’s survival is not guaranteed to him.  It also embodies the truth that human beings have the ability to choose whether they want to live by means of reason or by means of force.  All of these truths can be stated in the form of propositions, such as: “Man’s survival is not guaranteed to him.” and “Human beings have the power of choice when it comes to their actions.”  The virtues of rationality and productiveness similarly embody certain truths, and I leave it to the reader to think these through. [1]
   In addition to “the good” being a form of “the true”, it also appears to me now that if we want to live, then our knowledge of truth must affect our actions, vis-à-vis the aspects of reality that the truth recognizes. Several instances of true propositions should make this clear:
“If it is true that Washington DC is the capitol of the United States, then if I want to visit Congress, I must travel to Washington DC.”[2]
“If it is true that all men are mortal, then I cannot waste my life on things that aren’t important to me.”
“If it is true that someone is a financial genius, then I want him to manage my stock portfolio.”
“If it is true that human beings must take certain actions to live, and if it is true that the use of physical force will prevent them from taking those actions, then we must create means of stopping the use of physical force in that manner.”
   It does appear that there can be true statements for individual human beings that do not affect their actions, but it is only because given their particular purposes and situation, they never deal with the aspects of reality that the true proposition recognizes.  For instance, the statement: “The moon is 238,857 miles away (give or take a few thousand miles)” is a statement that is true, but knowledge of that fact for some people might not be used for anything because they don’t deal with those facts in their own lives.  However, if it is a true statement, and I want to build a rocket to the moon, then I will take it into consideration when doing my math calculations.  Saying ” vis-à-vis the aspects of reality that the truth recognizes” means I may know that it is true that the moon is approximately 238,857 miles away, but for my purposes, that knowledge never affects my actions because I am not in the space program and I am not an astronomer.
   The fact that if we want to live, then our knowledge of truth must affect our actions, vis-à-vis the aspects of reality that the truth recognizes, can also be understood by considering what would happen if one were to act on what one knew to be a false proposition.  The proposition: “I can fly merely by flapping my naked arms.” is false.  If I were to act on that proposition, despite my knowledge of its falsity, I would fail to gain the values necessary for survival.  If I tried to commute to work every day by such a method, my goal would be frustrated, and my life would be endangered.[3]
   An implication of the fact that our knowledge of truth must affect our actions is that the expressed propositions of others, where those others have provided no evidence of their truth, should be disregarded, and should not affect one’s actions.  The “onus of proof” says that the person making the assertion has the burden of proof.  This makes sense because the assertion of a proposition by another person, if accepted as true by the listener, would affect that listener’s actions vis-à-vis the facts that it allegedly corresponds to.  So before the listener changes his actions, he needs to have evidence presented that the assertion is true -that it does in fact correspond to reality.  Otherwise, acting on such an assertion could be disastrous for the listener if it does not correspond to reality.[4]
   Some might argue at this point that even if religion has no actual connection to reality, some of the moral principles it endorses are true because they can be tied to some purely naturalistic, and secular facts of reality.  For instance, Christianity says that stealing is against the Ten Commandments.  I agree that taking the property of others without their consent is generally wrong, absent some extraordinary emergency and assuming you can recompense them later.  The problem is that these “commandments” do not give you any reasons for why you should follow them, other than a non-existent being who said that you should.  (Additionally, some of the commandments are just plain wrong in almost any conceivable situation –such as “remembering the Sabbath day”.) 
For this reason, there is no way to connect these principles to the facts of reality.  Without such a connection to the facts of reality, you cannot know if a particular scenario might make the principle inapplicable because the factual situation is so unusual.  For instance, if you are stranded outdoors during a freak blizzard, and you break into an abandoned cabin and eat the owners food, with the intent to recompense the owner later, then you have not actually committed an immoral act.  This is because the purpose of morality is to provide you with a guide to how to live successfully here on Earth.  A moral principle that would counsel your own destruction has no connection to the purpose of morality, to man’s nature as a living organism, or to the laws of nature.  Morality is not a suicide pact.
   A Christian might respond to my hypothetical blizzard scenario by saying that the commandment only says you cannot “steal” and this is not “stealing”.  But, at that point, he is looking at the facts and attempting to tie the moral principle to man’s nature and the nature of reality, so this just proves my point.  Respect for the private property of others is a principle that you follow -if you want to live. It has a basis in reality and man’s nature.  You cannot even develop concepts like “theft” and “private property” without having some rudimentary understanding of human nature and the fact that human beings must produce the goods necessary for their survival, and be able to benefit from those goods. So, the Christian commandment “though shall not steal” cannot even be understood without some understanding of man’s nature and of the natural world.  Some people think that morality is not possible without religion.  Somewhat the opposite is actually true.  Religious morality is unintelligible without some reference to reality, man’s nature, and the fact that people must choose to live by choosing to act in accordance with reality.
   I suspect that Christian apologists like Dinesh D’Souza will claim that most people are too irrational or stupid to understand a reasoned argument for why they should follow naturalistic moral principles if they want to live.  Others have made similar arguments before.  For instance, Alexis de Tocqueville said:
None but minds singularly free from the ordinary anxieties of life—minds at once penetrating, subtle, and trained by thinking—can even with the assistance of much time and care, sound the depth of these most necessary truths. And, indeed, we see that these philosophers are themselves almost always enshrouded in uncertainties; that at every step the natural light which illuminates their path grows dimmer and less secure; and that, in spite of all their efforts, they have as yet only discovered a small number of conflicting notions, on which the mind of man has been tossed about for thousands of years, without either laying a firmer grasp on truth, or finding novelty even in its errors. Studies of this nature are far above the average capacity of men; and even if the majority of mankind were capable of such pursuits, it is evident that leisure to cultivate them would still be wanting. Fixed ideas of God and human nature are indispensable to the daily practice of men’s lives; but the practice of their lives prevents them from acquiring such ideas…General ideas respecting God and human nature are therefore the ideas above all others which it is most suitable to withdraw from the habitual action of private judgment, and in which there is most to gain and least to lose by recognizing a principle of authority.”( Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter V: Of The Manner In Which Religion In The United States Avails Itself Of Democratic Tendencies, emphasis added, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/816/816-h/816-h.htm#link2HCH0005, last accessed on 2-22-2013.)
   In other words, de Tocqueville thought that the majority of the human race was incapable of understanding morality on anything but religious grounds.  In fact, de Tocqueville thought that human beings were inherently “dogmatic”. (Id.)[5] For religionists like de Tocqueville to make this (likely erroneous) condemnation of mankind exhibits stunning shamelessness.  In the history of ideas religion has been the single greatest contributor to genuine dogmatism and irrationality.  Anyone who claims that people are too stupid or irrational to understand morality without an appeal to superstition is responsible for helping to perpetuate that irrationality by supporting religion.  Grasping the truth –by conforming your ideas to reality- is necessary for life.  Evading it only leads to destruction.

[1] This same notion is expressed in “Fact and Value” by Leonard Peikoff: “Cognition apart from evaluation is purposeless; it becomes the arbitrary desire for ‘pure knowledge’ as an end in itself. Evaluation apart from cognition is non-objective; it becomes the whim of pursuing an ‘I wish’ not based on any ‘It is.’” 
[2] Note that even “man-made facts”, such as the fact that Washington DC is the capitol of the United States, necessitate certain actions.  Although DC might not always be the capital of the United States, it currently is, so you wouldn’t go to New York if you wanted to visit Congress.  Man-made facts could be otherwise because they depend on human choices.  If we want to deal with other men, which is useful for living, we have to recognize their capacity to make such choices, and act accordingly.  However, it is even possible that the moon could someday be further away from or closer to the Earth than it currently is due to naturalistic forces or due to human technology, so this is really no different in terms of it being true that the moon is currently a certain distance away -allowing for slight variations due to its current orbital location.
[3] The only example I could think of where believing something to be true even though it is false might gain you something of value was a complicated scenario involving believing that a girl likes you, even though the facts seem to indicate otherwise.  Then you keep trying to court her, and eventually she comes around to liking you.  But, I don’t even think this is an example of this.  I don’t think it is actually productive to pretend that she likes you in this situation.  You would be better served by recognizing that she doesn’t currently like you, but you also must have some evidence that she doesn’t really know you, and if she got to know the “real you”, then she would like you.  So, you are being persistent because you think that she will change her opinion of you once she comes to understand your true character.  (It’s also possible that you think the girl is just a weak-willed fool that you can eventually cajole into liking you, but why would you want to be with such a woman long-term?  Assuming you just want to sleep with her, then it would make more sense to just recognize that she is a fool and target your flattery to appeal to her neuroses.  So it would still be better to recognize the truth in achieving your goal of seduction.)
[4]A note on “Agnosticism” is appropriate here:  “Agnosticism” is not taking a position on the issue of the existence of god.  This is the same as saying: Those who make claims without proof are the same as those who only make claims they can prove.  Which is the same as saying: Truth doesn’t matter.  Which is the same as saying: Living doesn’t require action in conformity with reality.
[5] He basically blurred the distinction between concepts like “dogmatism”, “trust”, and “credibility”.  I also think he failed to see a distinction between accepting the word of a scientist who can give us proof of why atoms exist, despite the fact that we cannot perceive them, and a priest who claims god exists and that no such proof is necessary or even possible.  The difference here is clear.  The scientist can provide proof for any that want to understand, while the priest demands acceptance without proof.  The scientist fears that he will not be understood, while the priest fears that he will be understood. (See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume II, Chapter II: Of The Principal Source Of Belief Among Democratic Nations,http://www.gutenberg.org/files/816/816-h/816-h.htm#link2HCH0002)