Dr. Ronald E. Osborn is the latest speaker in Burman University’s ongoing Herr Lecture series and will be presenting his talk titled “Values After Darwin”.
The lecture will be in the McKibbin Centre’s Underhill Lecture Hall at Burman and will run from 7:30 – 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4th.
Osborn is the author of several books, including Humanism and the Death of God: Searching for the Good After Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche.
His talk will focus on how whether Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection, “And evolutionary biology can provide an adequate or compelling basis for values.”
Osborn, who describes himself both as Christian and a believer in Darwin’s theory, said an issue with Natural Selection is that it can have, “Corrosive influences on values” — something Darwin himself recognized when he wrote the Origin of Species in the 19th Century
“If values are adaptive traits, the same as sharp teeth or talons, then that could mean values become completely malleable and irrelevant,” he said.
The problem, according to Osborn, is that for those who reject religion for naturalism, the question remains of where do values come from.
“I accept Darwinian Theory as a scientific matter, but I don’t think philosophical naturalism is adequate for having a cohesive, coherent ethical framework,” Osborn said.
To outline the problems with creating legitimacy for morality, Osborn referenced Canadian Philosopher and Scholar Charles Taylor, who describes a, “Three cornered fight” between secular humanism, post-modern anti-humanism and “Acknowledgers of Transcendence” — what Taylor uses to describe religious believers.
Secular humanists are people who value human rights and human dignity, without the need for metaphysical frameworks like religious institutions; post-modern anti-humanists trace their lineage to thinker Friedrich Nietzsche and views liberal ideas like human rights as, “Language games that mask agendas of power”; and Acknowledgers of Transcendence approach things from the perspective that metaphysics are needed beyond rationalism.
For Taylor, each of these groups teams up with one of the other groups to discredit the other with anti-humanists and humanist pushing the other to reject metaphysics; anti-humanist and religious groups rejecting humanist for having baseless lofty values and humanists and religion criticizing anti-humanist for being against liberal values.
“The short answer is liberal values and humanistic values are under attack,” Osborn said. “I think for a long time people took them for granted, but now we see globally a rise of authoritarian figures including in the United States and now Brazil. There is a sense these values are being exposed as fragile politically and also fragile intellectually.”
For Osborn, anyone who has an interest in defending human rights should have, “A coherent, compelling basis for our commitments.”
Part of that commitment is for humanists to realize, according to Osborn and other thinkers, that much of the Enlightenment narrative came from theological ideas, even though humanists look to reject religion.
“Many of the enlightenment’s highest values and aspirations actually took directly from powerful theological ideas. Ideas about the human being and the integrity of the human being. Can the project of enlightenment and humanism have the tools to be self-sustaining once it is cut off from religious wellsprings,” Osborn asks.
Despite this criticism of humanism, Osborn also points out that Christians in the United States have a lot to account for with the rise of Donald Trump.
“I tend to think that many people who call themselves Christian and Evangelical in the United States today are actually worshipping the religion of nationalism. Christians will have an awful lot to account for in this period of our history. It won’t look well for them or Christianity,” he said, adding that he believes there is a link between the loss of moral clarity and a commitment to virtue.
“There is something corrosive in adopting a strictly materialistic framework that doesn’t give us the resources we need to resist the forms of violence and intolerance we see in the world today,” he said.
Ultimately, Osborn is hoping to create more honest dialogue with his project regarding morality in our world.
“A lot of people assume the ideas of how we should behave and a lot of people take it for granted. A lot of these values steeped in our culture have a genealogy and cultural origin and a lot of it traces back to ideas that were grounded in theological claims,” he said.
Osborn points out that, obviously, non-believers are good people all over the world but worries whether Nietzsche’s idea of the “Death of God” means that non-believers would eventually not value human rights.
“With the Death of God, does that mean the death of the image of God in the other? What does it mean when we stop looking at the other, no matter how unsavoury, as a child in the image of God? Is there slippage? Do we lose our grasp on the idea of the self-evidence of human rights?” he asks.
Osborn said he believes the questions he will pose on morality at the lecture are already on the minds of many thinking people.
“Partly what I am trying to do is add clarity to conversations that people are already having with family members and friends that aren’t always addressed in a careful, systematic way,” he said, adding he is looking forward to having a Q and A with the audience.
“I hope we can model good conversation in an age where that is increasingly rare,” he said.
Tickets are available at www.burmanu.ca/herrlectures.