Thursday, November 5, 2015

Being Good When Nobody's Watching: A Response to Ben Carson

Helix Nebula. Click for credits
This morning I saw the following quote from Ben Carson, former neurosurgeon and current Republican front-runner in the 2016 presidential race: 
Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires.
Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist--the same denomination as George McCready Price, whose ideas on "flood geology" set the stage for 20th century creationism. He said this in an 2004 interview with Adventist Review magazine.

It's a version of a common sentiment in evangelical/religious right circles: that if you don't believe in God, you have no reason to be moral. Actually, Carson's version is quite a bit more extreme than that. He's not just saying atheists have no reason to be moral. He's saying anyone who believes in evolutionary theory--whatever their beliefs about God--will "dismiss ethics". After all, he's smart enough to know that many Christians believe in evolution, too. Over half of  all Americans believe in some form of evolutionary theory, and the majority of Americans are Christian. So, here we have a man who may very well be our next president, and he is suggesting that the majority of Americans have no real moral foundation. 

I find this a little disturbing. I also find it a more than a little insulting. I don't much like being told that I "dismiss ethics", that I don't "abide by a set of moral codes", and that I base my conscience on nothing more than my own desires. If I were a Christian who believed in evolution, I would feel similarly slandered. The only reason I just find it irritating, instead of infuriating, is that I don't think Carson is deliberately insulting anybody. He's just saying things without thinking about how insulting they actually are. He actually seems like a fairly pleasant, funny guy. Still, what he's saying really is quite insulting, and deeply unfair to millions of decent atheists, agnostics, and progressive Christians. 

Besides, it's demonstrably untrue. How do I know? Because I'm an agnostic who believes in evolution, and yet I still have a conscience. I do abide by a set of moral codes. I do not, in fact, dismiss ethics. Neither do any of my friends, many of whom are atheists (and if they did dismiss ethics, they wouldn't be my friends).

I think Dr. Carson would actually concede this--that even many atheists behave as though they have a conscience and a moral code. What he and people like him seem to have trouble imagining is why. Why, if you don't believe in God (or in Carson's case, if you do believe in evolution), would you feel any need to be moral? 

To explain why, I'd like to tell a brief, sad story. A couple of months ago, not long after I had gotten a new car, I backed it into another car in a parking lot. It only dented my bumper a little, but it smashed the headlights of the other car and left a big crack in the bumper--the kind of crack that looks expensive to fix. But was early in the morning, and there was no one around. I could have driven away, and the driver would have never known who hit his car. 

So what did I do? I cussed a little, and then I got out a pen and paper and wrote a note explaining what had happened, and left my name and number. 

Why did I do that? It's not because I believe it's what God would want me to do--I'm agnostic, and I don't know if there's a God, or what She might want. I also didn't do it because I thought I might be rewarded for it in heaven, or punished for not doing it in hell. I very much doubt that either place exists, and I don't think doing something decent just because you fear punishment or seek reward actually makes you a decent person. So what could I possibly have been thinking? Before I say, I'd like to ask any reader who agrees with Dr. Carson a favor: take a guess. What do you think I was thinking? Can you honestly not think of any reason to I should leave that note, besides "God wants me to"? I doubt it, because I imagine you're a decent person too, so you can easily imagine reasons to leave a note. And I bet you can guess my reasons, which are as follows: 

I left that note because I put myself in the place of the other car owner. I've had people dent my car and run away, and it sucks. The fact that your car is damaged is bad enough, but there's also the extra indignity of feeling you've been wronged. That's the part that really galls--that somebody out there didn't have the decency to own up to their mistake.

So, if I don't want somebody to do that to me, then I can't very well do it to somebody else. More than that, I don't want to live in a society where people don't do the right thing when they think they can get away with it. If I want to live in a society where people are decent to each other, then I have to be decent myself. It's really as simple as that.

And I don't see why it should be so hard for anybody to understand. So let me end by asking the following question to folks who think like Dr. Carson: How would YOU like being told you don't have any ethics or conscience? I'm guessing you wouldn't like it any more than I do.

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