So last night I came across a feisty atheist on Twitter who was using the popular hashtag #JesusChangesEverything in an apparent effort to provoke debate with Christians. His tweets were trying to discredit the existence of a good God by pointing to cruelty and suffering in the world. Being the loveable chap that I am, I decided to chivalrously render my services by helping him see the flaw in his logic. Any guesses how that went? Yes – an hour later we were still debating. Most of the debate focused on mirror neurons (MN) and the ability of science to explain morality.
The challenge we Twitterati must face is that we exercise a medium that doesn’t allow much room for developed debate. It’s like trying to do synchronised swimming with a friend in a bathtub – there’s want for elbow room. But the subject was a good one – and as I’ve encountered many atheists who employ similar reasoning – I thought I’d develop it some more here for those who may also encounter the argument.
What Are Mirror Neurons?
Wikipedia – the fount all of knowledge – defines it as:
a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behaviour of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Such neurons have been directly observed in primate species.
The concept of MN is new - the term was coined back in the 90s. It’s something I have a minor interest in them as I have an autistic son and one theory floating around at the moment is that autism is rooted in faulty MN processing.
It’s relevant to debate about God because MN is used as a materialist explanation of why humans have a sense of morality. What some atheists are now doing – including my tweeting doppelganger last night – is putting an incredible amount of childlike faith in MN theory. Many in the neuro-science world have pointed out how in the last six years MN theory has gotten far ahead of any actual evidence and have called their zealots to calm down a bit (Here for More). The rosy-cheeked naiveté with which some are passionately embracing this infant theory has made some more seasoned scientists embarrassed apparently.
Mirror neurons are an exciting, intriguing discovery – but when you see them mentioned in the media, remember that most of the research on these cells has been conducted in monkeys... we’re still trying to establish for sure whether they exist in humans, and how they compare with the monkey versions. -Dr. Christian Jarett (British Psycological Society)
Can Biology Alone Explain Morality?
So last night - in an effort to dismiss morality rooted in the nature of God – my tweeting partner used MN theory as if it were dogma – and with great pontification. (Go ahead, read the tweets yourself). But to the point: as a Christian, how should you respond to the claim that morality is just something burned into us by biology?
That there may be genuine biological factors to how our consciousness works, we Christians do not doubt. But neither do we get tossed to and fro by the latest waves of neurological theory which will only be replaced in a decade. We are adamant that evolutionary biology alone cannot account for it.
There are many strands of thought on how evolution alone can account for morality (MN theory is just one of the newest). But most are based on the idea of progress, working together in tribes over millions of years, and of learning the idea that what goes around comes around – that we all prosper better when we are kind to one another. It's theorised that our neurons formed altruistic patterns and – viola – empathy!
The result of this tale is that we see ourselves as progressed – in the 21st century West – to a place of great moral enlightenment. We look back at those primitives who lived just two hundred years ago and pat ourselves on the back that we are their moral superiors. Certainly we would never want to return to the morality of the Bible (whatever that’s supposed to be).
The question is, who decides that our moral practices are superior to those practiced 300 or even 3000 years ago? You? Me? Stalin? Do we deicide that our morality is superior to all others? That’s a bit cheeky.
‘Our morality is superior to yours!’
‘How do you know?
‘We checked or moral ideals, and our morality conforms to them better than yours does.’
We may look back at ancient cultures (or even other cultures today) and think them barbaric or immoral. But they might just as well return the compliment. It’s the imperialist in all of us that finds the morality that our group holds to as superior to all others.
This is why atheist Friedrich Nietzsche – and other existentialist philosophers – have reasoned that if ‘God is dead’, all things are permitted. They're right. They aren't advocating immorality as such, they are just consistent enough to recognise that if human life is an accident - that if human beings are just grown up germs who are only a brief abnormality of the universe - then any talk of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is just silly. All we have under such conditions is animal preferences. Your ‘moral beliefs’ are nothing more than chance atoms banging together in your head – no more right or wrong than a nun’s or a psychopath’s. You like beef, I like chicken. You like gang rape, but I don’t care for it myself. You may not like the fact our culture burns adulterers – you may do it differently in your country – but who are you to judge that it’s ‘wrong’?
The evolutionary theories usually skip over the huge ethical differences that do exist worldwide. In the West, we have gay pride parades. In Saudi Arabia, you get your head chopped off for sodomy. In America, I can leave my family religion and become an atheist. In Afghanistan I’ll be on the receiving end of an ‘honour’ killing for doing that. Who decides which culture now has the better evolved morality? What if North Korea is really on the cutting edge, and Swedes are the primitive ones?
Atheists can be moral people – more moral than many Christians I’ve met. I’ve met some who have all the moral zeal of a Puritan (you’re welcome). But what atheists cannot do is give a philosophically consistent explanation for their morality. When pushed back far enough, they are only speaking for what a person or group may prefer, not something that is inherently right or wrong.
Most atheists want to hold on to a concept of morality because they are moral creatures. They are moral creatures because they were created in the image of God with value, dignity and worth. Pride and sin have polluted and soured our moral faculties, but it’s still there. It is usually quite sharp and clear when judging others, but gets a bit evasive and muddle with excuses when we have to face our own trespasses.
Jesus did not come to give us super charged ethical information. He came to die in our place because – whether religious or irreligious, primitive or modern – we all fail to consistently live out what we know is right and true. He comes to offer us forgiveness and eternal life.