I am finding it difficult to respond to Alan P Ryan’s diatribe (Skeptic Autumn 2004) as it borders on the incoherent and self-contradictory. I wonder if it will help if I summarise my views on moral values, about which he seems confused.
Moral values vary between individuals, groups, societies, nations, and time periods. They consist of a complex mixture of conventional wisdom, prejudice, religious dogma, superstition and fantasy, plus a dose of community spirit, experience, facts, evidence, common sense, and scientific and technical knowledge. The question is, which particular combination does Mr Ryan support, and what proportion of it emphasises the earlier items?
Genocide, murder of unbelievers, opponents and minorities; discrimination against women, homosexuals and “inferior” races, and slavery exploitation and oppression of the weak figured large in the “moral values” of many of our ancestors, and these precepts are unfortunately still widespread. They were often successful, on a Darwinian basis, in securing survival of dominant groups or nations.
If we wish to promote world peace, human rights, freedom of thought and expression, democratic institutions and equality before the law, we have to state our views plainly, and we have to give reasons why such values are consistent with human survival and progress.
Science and technology have a major influence on moral values. Copernicus, Newton and Darwin caused profound changes in moral behaviour, as did the factory system, electricity, the motor car, the computer and the contraceptive pill.
Attempts are made to impose, or promote moral values. Those emanating from ancient books, such as the Bible, or the Koran, are not always as rigid as they pretend to be. Christians no longer burn heretics or witches, although some feel justified in assassinating legally authorised abortion doctors. Most Muslims disapprove of stoning rape victims or cutting off the hands of thieves. Gandhi was killed because he advocated tolerance for Muslims and the abolition of Hindu castes. Skeptics and atheists have a responsibility to promote humanist values, free from ancient dogma.
There is one unfailing recipe for extinction: a resistance to change.This principle can be found as a factor in the downfall of all the great empires of the past. It is perhaps a matter of faith in the future, that if we are to survive we must find means of preventing wars and other violent behaviour, encourage individual and social development, freedom of conscience and criticism, and the embracing of new ideas and technology.
Mr Ryan is a sucker for disaster scenarios. The “Species Extinction” scam was based on the absurd assumption that climate is the only influence on biological success. Estimates of “extinctions” are notoriously unreliable. A recent estimate I have seen has been unable to justify more than three to five per year. Also, Ryan must be one of the few people who can believe what comes out of the Pentagon.
Vincent Gray, Wellington