Advertisements
Ethics, philosophy

Morality and Atheism

I am continually baffled by atheistic accounts of morality.* What, on atheism, gives us the grounds for stating that an action is wrong?

Morals can be either objective or subjective. The thrust of the following argument is intended to show that atheism cannot have objective morals. In other words, an atheist has no way to condemn some action as wrong, other than that it is wrong “in my opinion”.

There are only a few ways I have seen it argued that atheism can have objective moral values. These are:

1) Platonistic Atheism- Morals exist necessarily independently, as abstract objects (such as numbers).

2) Humanism- Humanity first. Humans are to be valued objectively, so morals can be based on what benefits the human race.

3) Science can answer moral questions, somehow.

There are horrendous difficulties with all three of these views.

Platonism about morality could be the best way for atheists to have a “way out”, if you will, for accepting objective morality. The existence of moral values such as “Justice” can be posited as brute facts of our existence. They just exist, and that’s all. The problems with this view are numerous.

First, on this view, the moral values of “Sloth”, “Hedonism,” “Masochism” are also platonic forms existing as brute facts. What reason can be given for choosing to prefer “Justice,” “Uprightness”, etc. over “Masochism,” “Hedonism,” etc.? If all of these things are simply brute facts, then why is it that some should be preferred over others? I see no non-question begging method for determining which values should be favored.

There is no reason, on atheism, to value one over the other. Second, how is it that (granting naturalist evolution) natural selection managed to line us up so wonderfully with what appears to be correct moral cognitions? Again, given that the morals themselves are brute facts of existence, it is utterly remarkable that we evolved in such a way as to line up with what appears to be the “good side” of the moral values (one might object by arguing that we don’t know either way, but then they would have to accept that somehow being a sadomasochist could be a moral good. I doubt very much this is a position worth even considering). Third, there is the thus-far ignored question as to what makes the idea of moral facts existing by brute fact even close to intelligible?

Given the huge problems with 1), and the fact that I consider this the strongest position for the atheist wishing to argue for objective morality, it seems these are dire straits indeed for the atheist ethicist.

2) is equally problematic, however, for a number of reasons. First is that humans often do not agree on what exactly is best for humanity. Which humans are allowed to determine what is right for the whole of society? Furthermore, 2) doesn’t actually provide objective morality at all. It merely sets an arbitrary line for morality–it is moral to act for the good of humanity. What basis is there for taking this assertion as truth? We are humans, but this doesn’t, on atheism, entitle us to any kind of superior ethical or cognitive status. Why is it that humans are objectively valued? It just pushes the problem of objective morality up one level.

FInally, 3) is utterly bankrupt as an explanation for objective morality. I have discussed this position before in more detail (see my discussion of Sam Harris’ attempt at articulating this unintelligible position). 3) basically asserts that somehow, we can empirically detect what is moral by figuring out what makes people happy. Surely, this is no way to detect objective morals, for even if the pool of test subjects is the entire human race, one day the entire human race may determine it makes us happy to kill other humans at will, and then this would be objectively, empirically, moral. It makes us happy, so it is moral! Clearly this is no way to save objective morality, for 1) it makes moral values arbitrary, which is clearly not objective, and 2) it falls victim to the same problems of either position 1) or 2) above, for it must grant one of these positions to pursue some background for determining reality. Sam Harris, in his discussion of this position, simply asserts that “Values are… facts” (see video cited in my link above). Wonderful! I agree that values are facts. But simply saying this doesn’t magically explain their existence.

The massive problems with any atheistic position which attempts to give credence to objective moral values show that the atheist really only has two positions open to him/her: 1) abandon the existence of objective moral values (a route not often taken, but when it is traveled, it leads to subjectivity of morals–which of course means we cannot condemn any action as “wrong” other than as a preference) or 2) abandon atheism and accept a position with better explanatory power for the objective moral facts. I suggest theism as one clear possibility.

*I am not suggesting that atheists cannot be moral people. Indeed, some great examples of moral people are friends of mine who are atheists. The point of this post is, instead, that atheism has no grounds for morality, other than total relativism.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author.

Advertisements

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick has an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. His interests include theology, philosophy of religion--particularly the existence of God--astronomy, biology, archaeology, and sci-fi and fantasy novels.

Discussion

68 thoughts on “Morality and Atheism

  1. Baffling or not, you still have the problem of explaining why nonbelievers are as moral as believers. To a naturalist, it is no problem. We all get our values from evolution. We then prune or cultivate them via culture. We admit there are no objectively absolute morals, but find broad consensus in the tribe.

    Here’s one example: cruelty is wrong. I don’t need faith, supernaturalism or scripture to know that. One of the perversions of religion (and other dogmatic systems) is that cruelty can be justified, as in the Catholic church’s condom policy in Africa. When we are freed from authoritarian dogma, we can pursue truly humane policies.

    Admittedly, ethics and morality are messy. I think this is one of the reasons that absolute moralities found in religions are so attractive to some people.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 13, 2010, 9:28 PM
    • “Baffling or not, you still have the problem of explaining why nonbelievers are as moral as believers.”

      Interesting that you should bring up this objection, because Christianity offers a unique answer:
      “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” Romans 2:14-15.

      In other words, on Christianity all people should be expected to recognize that there is objective morality. And those who do not know the message of Christ will be judged by their knowledge.

      Further, how is it that you know “cruelty is wrong”? It seems that you’ve missed the point. How is it wrong, other than as your simple preference? Or how is it wrong, other than within our tribe? If there is another tribe that believes cruelty is perfectly moral (ancient Mayan human sacrifice could be one example), then who are you to condemn this action? In fact, who are you to condemn the Catholic church’s condom policy in Africa? For it is the Catholic “tribe”‘s morality that condom use should be prohibited (not something I agree with). But you have no way to condemn such an action! Well you can condemn it, but it is meaningless. For their morality is their morality and your morality is yours. You can certainly feel such actions are wrong, but that doesn’t mean they actually are wrong.

      Despite your rejection of objectively absolute morals, you really do seem to say some pretty absolute things: “cruelty is wrong”… “When we are freed from authoritarian dogma, we can pursue truly humane policies” (a statement loaded with assumed morality).

      This dichotomy shows the absurdity of your position.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 13, 2010, 9:51 PM
  2. Exactly Don. Personally I think that someone who does something purely for the purpose of doing a good deed is actually more “moral” than someone who does the same deed because of fear of punishment or promise of reward. Religion may have offered us some guidelines by which to live that may have been helpful at some point. However, it is overall too absolute and therefore allows believers to make jumps in logic or to treat people badly because to them God can never be wrong. Do not trick yourself into believing that Christianity is somehow set apart from the more violent religions. You just choose to ignore the uglier things the scripture has to say.

    Posted by moriahbethany | August 13, 2010, 9:58 PM
    • I find it quite profound that both you and Don manage to maintain there are no objective moralities, while still condemning people with “other moralities”. You can only rightfully condemn someone with other morals if you think that your morality has objective worth. Otherwise, you are doing nothing but complaining that someone’s morality differs from your own. You can’t say that what they do is “actually” wrong.

      Now, as far as your statement, “I think that someone who does something purely for the purpose of doing a good deed is actually more ‘moral’ than someone who does the same deed because of fear of punishment or promise of reward” goes, it seems that, unfortunately, you have missed out on what the central teachings of Christianity are. Namely, that Christ died for the sins of all people, and that it is by grace that we have been saved. Christianity is not about morality, but it does infuse morality with objectivity, which is something that your own view lacks utterly. You simply cannot condemn the ethics of others without being self-referentially ludicrous (in that you assert on one hand morals aren’t objective, while on the other you condemn the morality of others).

      “Do not trick yourself into believing that Christianity is somehow set apart from the more violent religions. You just choose to ignore the uglier things the scripture has to say.”

      I’d be curious as to what relevance this has to the current issue. It smells suspiciously like a non sequitur to me. Not to mention I see no empirical or historical evidence for this claim. Christianity has had its faults, but these are explained within the Christian tradition (a common term is that we are “sinner-saints”–we are redeemed by Christ, but we still fall into sin due to our fallen nature).

      Thus, in light of these obvious problems with your position, and the argument outlined in my post, I am forced to conclude that the explanatory power of Christianity in regards to morality is vastly superior to atheism.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 13, 2010, 10:05 PM
      • “I find it quite profound that both you and Don manage to maintain there are no objective moralities, while still condemning people with “other moralities””

        Saying there are no objective moralities does not preclude the possibility of some moralities being demonstrably superior to others.

        Posted by morsec0de | August 13, 2010, 10:16 PM
      • How do you propose to demonstrate this?

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 13, 2010, 10:27 PM
  3. “How do you propose to demonstrate this?”

    By looking at the almost universal values that nearly all humans share and judging moralities on how well they preserve those values.

    One of those nearly universal human (and animal) values is, all else being equal, survival should be achieved. So a moral code that leads to the promotion of the most life and health and the least death and killing can be said, quite easily, to be better.

    Posted by morsec0de | August 13, 2010, 10:31 PM
    • “By looking at the almost universal values that nearly all humans share and judging moralities on how well they preserve those values.”

      This leads us to the dangers of subjective utilitarianism.
      1) It’s arbitrary. Who determines what number/percent “nearly all” humans are?
      2) It can justify any action. If nearly all humans at some point decide that wholesale slaughter of some minority (say it is 99% who decide this for the other 1%) is a value, then it is completely justified to murder these people, on such a view.
      3) It’s really arbitrary. “…[J]udging… how well they preserve those values”. Who does this? The majority? Do we vote? What level is “not well enough”. For example, how much is too much violence? Any violence? What is violence? Who defines these limits?
      4) What about animal values? You rightly mentioned animal values in your response, but the question is should human survival be valued above other animals’ (granting naturalism)? What if it is necessary for our survival to kill off entire other species? Are we simply to be species-ist and assume human values trump all others? What right do we have for doing this?
      5) Denying objective moral values means that any action can be permissible. This is a reiteration in some ways of 1). If there are no objective moral values, then all morals are arbitrary.
      6) It denies the rights of the individual. Individuals who do not conform to whatever position the “nearly universal” values pose are excluded from the moral community. There needs to be some reason given for this. Theistic religions can point to the goodness of God, atheistic naturalism cannot do so. Instead, it seems like the only thing to fall back on is the majority vote, which again means individuals’ rights are destroyed.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 13, 2010, 10:44 PM
  4. This isn’t a contest. JW’s beliefs fit his values and psychology. Mine fit mine. Mine have changed over time because my values and psychology have changed. They will probably change further.

    >that Christ died for the sins of all people, and that it is by grace that we have been saved.

    This is truly puzzling to outsiders. Why would a person buy into this? Only because they think it’s true, I hope, because it’s a strange starting point. At any rate, such a scenario is meaningless to most humans. We don’t need saving, we need each other. We don’t live in Jesus. We don’t even live directly in nature. We live with each other. We need each other. Morality consists in those things that allow us to live together joyously and effectively. Moral relativism is frightening and repugnant to authoritarians, but it is the natural consequence of giving up easy absolutes. But it isn’t as scary as it sounds. There are many non-supernatural constraints on our behavior. Imperfect as it is, Western law is a collection of tribal wisdom. The Mayans had their own version which seems cruel to us. It think it was, perhaps because they were infected with cruel religious ideas. I’m not an expert on Mayan religious culture, so I’ll stop there.

    The issue is that we don’t need supernaturalism to be moral. There are many good discussions to have about it. As JW pointed out, it is tricky to say any act is more moral than another. We can only do so in a relative, provisional sense that is a product of our time and culture. But that is ok, and it has always been that way. There are many religions that claim to have access to the one true morality. They can’t all be right. And they frequently conflict with plain old compassion. Humanism doesn’t offer the false certainty of dogma, but it does guarantee that we will be welcome in our tribe.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 13, 2010, 10:33 PM
  5. One thing I know for sure is that Christians (and religion in general) does not have the monopoly on good deeds. My own personal proof of that is my outlook on life and the outlook of several other atheists I know who simply desire to treat people fairly, and make the world a better place to live. I think that it is you who have missed the point. I certainly know that you don’t need to be a good person to get into heaven (thanks for pointing that out) *Your comment about Christ dying for our sins* which makes me think that Christ missed the point entirely as well.

    Posted by moriahbethany | August 13, 2010, 10:52 PM
    • I fail to see what relevance your comment has. First, I have never claimed Christians have a monopoly on good deeds. This is nothing but a red herring. Further, I actually assert the opposite: that all mankind is certainly capable of doing good deeds. Finally, I am not sure what your point is in the latter part of your comment. Could you clarify your argument?

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 14, 2010, 7:52 PM
  6. JW is right that human moral constructs can trample individual rights. We work to minimize this and offer recourse to those accused. This is the best we can do in a free society.

    >Theistic religions can point to the goodness of God,

    If you’re worried about trampling rights, then this is no solution at all. There is no way to adjudicate religious claims, so there is no way to settle which god to listen to or what his traits or wishes are.

    Human morality is imperfect, but pretending the creator of the universe has told you the answer is no solution.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 13, 2010, 10:54 PM
  7. I understand the appeal of absolute moralities, but they don’t live up to their claims.

    First, we have the problem of choosing between the many religious systems on offer. Then, we are confronted with the data: there is nothing in any absolute morality, Christian or otherwise, that provides answers to ethical dilemmas such as the Trolley or Footbridge problems, or to many of our modern, real-world ethical issues.

    It sounds good to authoritarians to hear that there is an answer to moral issues. But exactly how does Christianity guide us? There is nothing in scripture to tell us how to behave regarding abortion, euthanasia, AIDs or even gingivitis. Christians come down on all sides of these issues.

    The fact is that Christians engage in secular, humanist discussions taking into account all the scientific, social and cultural facts when they try to settle these issues. And we know the world’s scriptures aren’t sufficient to answer our questions. So we see that absolute moralities are empty ideals. In practice, humans work out their moral decisions on their own in the messy, relativist way, even if they think they’re being guided by a magic book or superfriend.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 14, 2010, 8:44 AM
    • “First, we have the problem of choosing between the many religious systems on offer”

      This is not the issue being discussed. At issue is whether atheism can provide any sound basis for morality. Don, I really do appreciate your comments, but it seems like every response you bring up, you always raise the completely unrelated issue of religious diversity. If we were discussing religious diversity, this would make sense, but in this context, it does not.

      Now, as far as the other moral issues you raise, as well as the fact that Christians have different answers to the same questions, that doesn’t mean that there is no objective answer. That there is a diverse array of answers to a question of morality, history, etc. doesn’t imply that there is no answer. Indeed, for any state of affairs, it is either the case that x or ~x. The same is true of moral judgments. Take abortion. The fact that there is a number of views doesn’t mean that all of them are wrong. It is still the case that either abortion is permissible, or it is not. That is the very point of objective morals. Thus, responding to my argument in such a way assumes that morals are relativistic, and thus, once more, begs the question.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 14, 2010, 7:56 PM
  8. Even the theist’s supposed “objective” morality is subjective. The theist cannot know that the deity they are following is not deceiving them. Their experience is subjective, and they have no access to the supposed “objective” morality which they whine on about endlessly and idiotically.

    Posted by scaryreasoner | August 14, 2010, 7:39 PM
    • Unfortunately, this argument fails on a number of points. 1) Classical Theism, and definitely Christianity, assert that God is omnibenevolent, which eliminates the possibility of a deceptive God. Thus, your argument begs the question, or it is non sequitur, pick your poison. 2) Granting the existence of a deity, it seems highly unlikely that such a deity would find it impossible to convey objective morals to its subjects in some manner, which means that on this point, again, you have begged the question against theism.

      Finally, I’ve had to issue many warnings (or simply disallowed posts from certain people)–and you may consider this a warning: I do not allow insults on my site. I’m letting your comment stand as written because it shows that the best arguments you’ve come up with must fall to ad hominems, but in the future, please use some of that “scary reasoning” your name implies, instead of falling into the anti-intellectualism of hurling insults.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 14, 2010, 7:50 PM
  9. >1) Classical Theism, and definitely Christianity, assert that God is omnibenevolent,

    This is also begging the question. I think we’ll make more progress if we stop pointing this out. Anyone who chooses a point of view, which is practically everyone, must at some point make some self-justifying moves. We get it. But we all do it.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 14, 2010, 8:07 PM
  10. >that doesn’t mean that there is no objective answer.

    But it doesn’t mean that there is an objective answer, either. And even if there were an objective answer, no one has special access to it. Believers and nonbelievers end up reaching moral decisions the same way, except that believers think they have special access. Nonbelievers simply admit no one has special access and get busy doing the best we can.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 14, 2010, 8:15 PM
    • Ah, but my point was that atheism can therefore have no grounds for moral judgments of others. Morality is, on such an account, ultimately hyper-subjective. What’s moral for you is moral for you, and what’s moral for me is moral for me. To then assert that I should succumb to a group mentality of ethics means you are trying to impose your ethical theory on me, something which you have basis to do.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 14, 2010, 8:36 PM
      • >To then assert that I should succumb to a group mentality of ethics means you are trying to impose your ethical theory on me, something which you have [no] basis to do.

        This is also true of the various theisms. We have reached the end of our discussion. Beliefs are value-laden. You are comfortable with the assumptions and consequences of your beliefs, and I am with mine. Your psychology and values have led you to your beliefs and mine have led me to mine.

        Fruitful discourse consists in uncovering assumptions or consequences of our beliefs of which we had been unaware; not in pointing out that the ones we overtly claim can not be shown to be superior to other systems. Everyone here knows that.

        Posted by Don Severs | August 14, 2010, 9:24 PM
  11. The reason the religious diversity problem comes up is because it is relevant, and as far as I can tell, fatal to theistic absolute morality. If Christianity is an absolute basis for morality, then Hinduism or a religion I invent tomorrow are, too. They can’t all be correct and there’s no way to decide which one, if any, is true.

    >my point was that atheism can therefore have no grounds for moral judgments of others.

    Huh? There are perhaps a billion nonbelievers. Most of these people possess morality. It is a simple fact that nontheistic grounds for moral judgments exist. The US Constitution is a key example.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 14, 2010, 9:36 PM
    • The ground of atheist morality shifts like sand. Objective morality cannot. Atheists often tacitly assume objective morality when they speak of their “subjective” morality. Atheism cannot provide any account of morality other than as utilitarian or egoist varieties, either of which leads to repugnant results. The insurmountable problems with ethics on atheism is another reason, in my opinion, to avoid/abandon the position. This isn’t to say that atheists cannot siphon their morality from other systems. The US Constitution is a key example, with morality siphoned from Western Christianity. That doesn’t give atheism itself any grounds for morality.

      Your point with the problem of religious diversity is, in my opinion, still nothing but a red herring. A tu quoque, if you will. But neither of these a good argument make. Further, you wrote, “If Christianity is an absolute basis for morality, then Hinduism or a religion I invent tomorrow are, too.” What justification do you have for this assertion? You have unfairly weighted this sentence for your own point. If Christianity were the (not an) absolute basis for morality, then there is none other. The problem is non-existent.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 15, 2010, 3:50 PM
    • Non-believers can “possess morality”, but I’m not sure where the US Constitution fits in here. I don’t think it can be convincingly shown that the US Constitution developed in complete isolation from the influence of theistic moral convictions.

      It is obviously possible for an atheist (or anyone else) to adopt the morals of their host culture. By the standards of their contemporaries, they could be supremely moral. I believe JW’s central point, however, is that an atheist in such a position would not have their own independent basis for their morality.

      Posted by Sentinel | August 16, 2010, 9:13 AM
      • “I don’t think it can be convincingly shown that the US Constitution developed in complete isolation from the influence of theistic moral convictions.”

        I agree, but what can be conclusively shown is that many of our founding fathers had strong Christian convictions (read “George Washington’s Sacred Fire” as an example), and it would be quite an assumption to guess that their personal convictions (and morals) had absolutely no bearing on the laws they set forth governing the future of the United States.

        Does it all matter today? Not really. But trying to cover up the idea that at least some of the most influential founding fathers were theists is an affront to their memories, and they would probably be offended to see how they are portrayed in some textbooks today. If we shouldn’t really be using either our Christian beliefs or the founders’ Christian beliefs to legislate morality, then we shouldn’t need to cover up either one.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | August 16, 2010, 5:22 PM
      • @sabepashubbo – I think your comments are pretty much identical to what I wrote. Sorry if I phrased it too circuitously and my meaning was unclear.

        I was questioning donsever’s use of the US Constitution as an example of a “nontheistic basis for morality”, by pointing out that the writers of said Constitution were heavily influenced by their theistically-derived morals.

        Posted by Sentinel | August 18, 2010, 1:48 AM
      • My apologies. I mis-interpreted. Glad we’re on the same page! 😉

        Posted by sabepashubbo | August 18, 2010, 9:51 AM
  12. Interesting discussion. One that will run and run – which does not imply it is pointless. Quite the reverse. It is one of the most important questions we humans can ask ourselves.

    At one point [14/08/2010 (19:56:37)] JWW reminds us that the issue ‘being discussed … is whether atheism can provide any sound basis for morality’.

    There are a lot of arguments aimed at refuting non-theistic explanations for morality. But as a number of the comments here have suggested, some of the same forms of argument can be turned against the counter-claim that a variety of theism is capable of providing a sound basis for morality.

    Kant for example saw theistic and naturalistic bases as equally unsatisfactory as potential grounds for morality, in that both relied on heteronomy rather than autonomy. So either we are making a prudential rather than ethical judgment when, for example, we decide to obey God’s laws (eg to be rewarded by Heaven rather than Hell); or we are ourselves making an autonomous ethical judgment to obey God’s laws because we think that is the right thing to do. Where do we get the idea from that that is the right thing to do? If we say that one of God’s laws is itself that we should obey God’s laws, we are in an infinite regress.

    Even if all non-theistic explanations for morality fail, that doesn’t mean the theistic explanation for morality must be the right one. Maybe all explanations fail – or maybe they all do if the only kind of explanation we are looking for is a key or code or set of values or criteria against which we compare actual or potential actions, attitudes and states so as to judge them as good or bad, right or wrong.

    Perhaps, to use JWW’s original terminology, what is ‘continually baffling’ is not just what ‘on atheism, gives us the grounds for stating that an action is wrong’, but what gives us grounds for saying an action is wrong (or right) on any world-view or belief system.

    But that doesn’t necessarily mean the only alternatives are pure subjectivity or ethical relativism. The original premise ‘morals can be either objective or subjective’ may itself be open to question, if we take it to assume the following statements are the only two possible explanations for our moral sense:

    Either (i) Deciding if an action (or attitude or state) is good or bad (or right or wrong) is a matter of comparing it against an objectively given key or code or set of values or criteria.

    Or (ii) Each person (or family, or tribe… etc) decides for himself/herself/itself what is right or wrong, good or bad.

    Maybe our moral sense is not quite like that. Maybe we are aware we have free will, and we are aware of an actual or potential imperative to choose the better alternative rather than a worse alternative, but without always knowing what that better alternative is, or could be. But that actual or potential imperative could also drive us (should we decide to make the choice) to use better and better criteria for choosing what is the better alternative. Practically, that is what we often do. Any potential ‘objective’ code is always itself subject to evaluation.

    So perhaps the moral imperative (should we choose to accept it) is always to be open to the possibility that we may be wrong, or incomplete in our judgments. This is not circular, and nor does it presuppose there must be an ‘ultimate’ objective standard we can eventually reach.

    Posted by Chris Lawrence | August 15, 2010, 7:43 AM
    • Outstanding, Chris. Just the fresh air we needed.

      Posted by Don Severs | August 15, 2010, 1:43 PM
    • Chris,
      Thanks for your comment.

      One immediate problem I sense is that both you and your evaluation of Kant (which is not, itself, uncontroversial–though that is besides the point) assume atheism as the neutral stance for evaluating morality. This is, of course, question begging. Each view must be evaluated on its own grounds. Atheism, unfortunately, has no such grounds. But if theism is true, particularly Christian theism, then there simply is an absolute basis for morality. The problem that you bring up of autonomy does not apply to theism because, on theism, there is no such autonomy. Rather, God creates and sustains all things. This doesn’t mean there is no freedom of the will, but it certainly does mean that we are not absolutely autonomous. So I must hold that your response is insufficient for attempting to undermine theism as a grounds for objective morality. A person being ignorant of the objectivity of morality does not undermine the objectivity itself.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 15, 2010, 3:54 PM
      • Thanks JW for taking the time to respond.

        I don’t think I was ‘assuming atheism as the neutral stance for evaluating morality’. I was trying to look at the issue from a perspective that neither presupposes there is a God nor presupposes there isn’t one. That seemed to be the appropriate perspective in which to respond to an article whose writer described himself as ‘continually baffled by atheistic accounts of morality’ and went on to ask the specific and interesting question ‘What, on atheism, gives us the grounds for stating that an action is wrong?’.

        Had the article begun something like ‘I believe in [a] God and accept [what I take to be that] God’s word as the basis of my personal morality…’ there may not have been as much of a conversation to join.

        To say ‘if theism is true, particularly Christian theism, then there simply is an absolute basis for morality’ is not really to provide an argument in support of the view that theism in general or any particular theism is a ground for objective moral values. It is just to state the view.

        If for the sake of argument we accept that the God of any particular theism is by definition that entity which grounds objective morality and is the only such entity, then the question ‘What, on atheism, gives us the grounds for stating that an action is wrong?’ immediately becomes far less interesting. The answer would have to be something like: ‘nothing – by definition’.

        But we would then be left with more interesting questions as to whether the definition is sound; what can follow about the world and what we may think about the world from the statement of a definition; what it actually means for an entity to be the grounds for objective morality, and so on.

        There is also the by no means trivial question as to whether an ‘is’-type statement like ‘God creates and sustains all things’ can entail any ‘ought’-type statement like ‘We ought to obey God’s will’.

        I mentioned Kant because what he had to say seemed relevant to the discussion. As far as I know he saw himself as a Christian. He also thought there was an objective basis for morality – in the sense of a principle explaining why moral obligations are binding. But I don’t think he thought the ‘Word of God’ or ‘God’s law’ could serve as that basis, as the imperative or imperatives it enshrined were heteronomous to the individual will rather than arising from that individual will’s autonomy.

        Of course Kant’s conclusions may not be right, but his arguments are powerful. In particular the position that (if my understanding is correct – I haven’t read it for while) the heteronomous ‘Word of God’ cannot serve as a binding moral imperative. This is because either it boils down to a prudential imperative (we obey ‘God’s law’ to achieve rewards and avoid punishments) or it needs to be supplemented with an autonomous moral imperative which itself requires explanation – something like ‘I must adopt the Word of God as my own personal morality’. This is why I see the question of autonomy versus heteronomy as relevant to whether there is an objective basis for morality, and what that basis could be.

        To reject this argument and instead to see ‘God’s law’ as both heteronomous and binding seems to leave oneself open to familiar arguments of the ‘which God?’ and ‘which law?’ type. One then either has to close down the discussion by fiat and say ‘this God’ and ‘this set of commandments’, or the choice is itself an individual decision and therefore the application of an autonomous moral imperative.

        The last paragraph of my previous comment was an attempt to suggest another perspective on the ‘objective morality’ issue.

        A familiar way of construing ‘objective morality’ is in terms of a code or set of imperatives like ‘do not lie’ or ‘murder is wrong’. Then it is possible to compare an ‘objective’ (and heteronomous) set of imperatives with a ‘subjective’ (and autonomous) set of imperatives which is ultimately just a free-for-all.

        But I’m not sure this is the only way to look at the undoubted fact of the moral sense – ie the undoubted fact that we have a moral sense.

        What worries me about attempts to base the actual content of moral judgments on either a theistic or a naturalistic or even humanistic footing is that once a particular code or basis is selected as the code or basis (or eg regarded as a natural or transcendent fact about the universe or about being) the possibility of moral progress is ruled out. If x is the basis of morality, then any attempt to evaluate x morally is meaningless. But if x (or y, or x + y, etc) is at any time ultimately only a provisional basis of morality, then it is always open to evaluation and therefore improvement.

        Why should we want to do this? Because we are responding (if indeed we are responding) to a moral imperative never to rest content with moral codes and concepts which are past their sell-by date. I am not suggesting we will wake up one morning and realise that murder is in fact OK after all. But we may for example find ourselves rethinking the ethics of how we relate to some categories of animal, or with all animals in general. And we may find ourselves doing this at least partially as a result of what we know now that we didn’t know 50 or 100 or 200 years ago.

        A moral imperative like this towards continuous re-evaluation and improvement is neither completely ‘objective’ nor completely ‘subjective’. It is difficult to see how it comes from completely outside ourselves, and binds us because it is a moral ‘fact’ independent of ourselves. But nor is it only ‘subjective’ in the sense of being possibly unique to just one individual consciousness, and perhaps only mattering to that individual consciousness, while others around him or her are free to feel other completely different imperatives, or no imperatives at all.

        I think what I’m suggesting is that the subjective/objective dichotomy may be less helpful than it appears in analysing and evaluating moral phenomena.

        Thanks again,
        Chris.

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | August 17, 2010, 2:07 PM
      • “To reject this argument and instead to see ‘God’s law’ as both heteronomous and binding seems to leave oneself open to familiar arguments of the ‘which God?’ and ‘which law?’ type. One then either has to close down the discussion by fiat and say ‘this God’ and ‘this set of commandments’, or the choice is itself an individual decision and therefore the application of an autonomous moral imperative.”

        Indeed, this question (that of the grounding of morality) can never be asked in a vacuum. But then theism clearly has an advantage, for if we do manage to get to the point of accepting that the grounding for morality can be in a deity, then the plausibility of competing theories falls, due to lesser explanatory power. When theism is augmented with natural theology and the like, theism increases further in explanatory power. Every piece of the puzzle reduces the plausibility of competing theories. Morality is one huge piece of this puzzle, for atheism cannot appeal to anything to explain the grounding of morality, and thus cannot explain the data we have available to us.

        “What worries me about attempts to base the actual content of moral judgments on either a theistic or a naturalistic or even humanistic footing is that once a particular code or basis is selected as the code or basis (or eg regarded as a natural or transcendent fact about the universe or about being) the possibility of moral progress is ruled out. If x is the basis of morality, then any attempt to evaluate x morally is meaningless. But if x (or y, or x + y, etc) is at any time ultimately only a provisional basis of morality, then it is always open to evaluation and therefore improvement.”

        1) This isn’t any kind of objection to objective morality. It seems nothing more than a wish that morality would be more dynamic.
        2) Your axiom that evaluating “x morally is meaningless” is clearly false. For if x is the basis of morality, then it would simply be the basis for morality. How could the basis for morality be “meaningless” upon evaluation for moral truths? Indeed, it is the very source of all moral truths, and thus most worthy of being evaluated for such truths! I can’t really say anything else on this point, because, as I said, it is clearly false.
        3) Christianity has actually a long tradition of belief that morality can progress and change–see recent work by Geisler, Moser, Swinburne, and others in this area.

        So I really don’t think you’ve really brought up any objections to my points yet. In fact, it seems to me that because 1) theism has superior explanatory power to atheism on the grounding of morality and 2) theism provides the basis for morality which is, contrary to your assertion, very clearly capable of being evaluated, we have even greater support for theism than I initially pointed out.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 17, 2010, 10:04 PM
      • This is a response to [ J.W. Wartick (22:04:39)]: …Indeed, this question (that of the grounding of morality) can never be asked in a vacuum… etc:

        Great, thanks JWW.

        You say: …atheism cannot appeal to anything to explain the grounding of morality, and thus cannot explain the data we have available to us.

        I don’t quite see how ‘atheism’ per se can be expected to offer an explanation of morality, because ‘atheism’ just means something like ‘not having a God’. The term doesn’t refer to any specific content other than ‘not having a God’. It’s a bit like expecting a management vacancy to carry out managerial duties.

        But that doesn’t mean someone who is an atheist cannot subscribe to a body of thought and/or set of beliefs which are both compatible with atheism and also provide potential content for a ‘competing theory’ about human moral behaviour. A potential explanation for morality which is an alternative to a theistic explanation does not have to proceed from ‘atheism’ in order to be compatible with it.

        I can think of at least one alternative theory as to where our moral sense has come from which is compatible with atheism – and which is not necessarily incompatible with every variant of theism. But a theory about where our moral sense has come from does not necessarily have to provide specific moral imperatives. For example an explanatory hypothesis based on evolutionary theory in general or natural selection in particular does not have to be committed to the view that ‘whatever promotes survival is right’.

        To address your other objection, I need to unpack more what I meant by: If x is the basis of morality, then any attempt to evaluate x morally is meaningless.

        What I mean is this. If x is the code or set of commandments or imperatives which literally defines what is right and wrong, then the answer to whether something is right or wrong is provided by x. In measurement, if a meter was literally defined as the length of a specific object (eg the platinum/iridium ‘International Prototype Meter’ – I’m not saying a meter is defined by this, but if it was), then it is meaningless to measure that specific object to see if its length is really a meter. It is a meter by definition – it cannot not be a meter. Yes it is a meter, but the act of measuring it to see if it is a meter is meaningless.

        Similarly, if ultimately we morally evaluate an action or attitude or event by comparing it to x (ie x is our criterion for what is right), and there is by definition no other ultimate way of morally evaluating that action or attitude or event, then the attempt to evaluate x itself morally is meaningless. x is right or good by definition. The act of evaluating x to see if it is right or good would be meaningless. I wasn’t saying that x is meaningless, but that the attempt to evaluate x morally is meaningless – as meaningless as measuring the standard meter to see if it is meter.

        Thanks again, Chris.

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | August 20, 2010, 9:52 AM
    • “Even if all non-theistic explanations for morality fail, that doesn’t mean the theistic explanation for morality must be the right one.”

      Unfortunately that’s not even the topic at play here. This assumption was made because theism is probably the strongest proponent of objective morality. We are talking objective versus subjective, and all that’s really at stake in this argument is whether or not there is a Tertium Quid that is the measuring stick for morality. This doesn’t mean that the TQ is necessarily God, but merely the standard for determining morality.

      If we are talking actions, there are really only four places an action can be: always good, always bad, sometimes good and sometimes bad depending on the circumstances, or having no moral quality at all (e.g. mathematics). It really brings back to logical reason that the initial premise is a valid one, for the first two define objective morality and the third defines subjective morality. There are really no other options you can place on a specific act in regards to morality.

      Where theism comes into play is that it asserts that there is no “we may be wrong,” when it comes to morality, because of the verse in Romans JWW posted previously. That’s why on issues like abortion people take such a hardline stance. The issue with abortion is not whether or not murder is wrong, because everyone agrees that it is. Rather, the issue is when life begins, and how abortion fits into that scale. If the issue was whether or not murder was wrong, pro-choice people wouldn’t have a problem saying, “So what’s wrong with killing a baby if it protects the mother’s health?”

      Everyone has to take a side, because “maybe” gets us nowhere when it comes to right and wrong.

      Posted by sabepashubbo | August 16, 2010, 5:36 PM
    • Hi Chris,

      Thanks for taking the time to make this a well-thought out discussion. I’ll let JW speak to the autonomy/heteronomy part, as he seems to have a better handle on it than myself. I did, however, want to reference one part of your comment.

      “Why should we want to do this? Because we are responding (if indeed we are responding) to a moral imperative never to rest content with moral codes and concepts which are past their sell-by date. I am not suggesting we will wake up one morning and realise that murder is in fact OK after all. But we may for example find ourselves rethinking the ethics of how we relate to some categories of animal, or with all animals in general. And we may find ourselves doing this at least partially as a result of what we know now that we didn’t know 50 or 100 or 200 years ago.”

      The problem is that this isn’t moral progress; this is progress in moral understanding. The two are not synonymous. Rethinking the ethics of how we treat animals, to use your example, could cause us to change our morals but still be in the wrong (and there can’t really be “less wrong” when talking about morality, because morality determines only right and wrong). Or what is to say that our progress in this area couldn’t all of a sudden be considered immoral based on a shift in culture, even though yesterday it was considered completely moral? No, what this is in reality is using an objective moral compass to attempt to move from one side of the coin to the other.

      The other issue is in relation to the past (in reference to your last sentence). How can we criticize our past actions if morality changes? We can’t have progress unless we determine that we were not as moral then as we are now. And how can we know that? How can we know we are more moral than the Nazis, or slave traders, or George Washington, or Jesus Christ? What basis do we have for determining progress if not an objective moral standard? How can it be more moral to condemn slavery today than condone slavery in 1860, if we have no measuring stick by which to judge morality in the past? The only progress we can truly cling to is progress in moral understanding, based on an objective standard for what is right and what is wrong.

      Otherwise, everything in the past is right based on its time, which means nothing is wrong, and there thus ceases to be a right. We can’t have progress if there’s nothing to progress from.

      Thanks for the discussion, and I’m glad we’re keeping it on the up and up! 🙂

      Posted by sabepashubbo | August 17, 2010, 4:51 PM
      • Thanks for the comprehensive response!

        I used ‘moral progress’ as shorthand for ‘progress in moral understanding’, not for (say) ‘getting (morally) better’. Yes I agree the distinction is important.

        The discussion around this post has primarily been about moral judgment (eg how do we decide whether an action is right or wrong), not about how we get better as moral agents.

        Your point Rethinking the ethics of how we treat animals, to use your example, could cause us to change our morals but still be in the wrong… pinpoints exactly the kind of thing that worries me about the assumed idea of an ‘objective moral standard’. If we assume an objective moral standard exists (somewhere, somehow), then yes of course the example might cause us to change our morals but still be in the wrong. What I’m questioning is the coherence of but still be in the wrong. And therefore questioning the kind of notion of ‘objective moral standard’ which leads to a position like this.

        You ask: What basis do we have for determining progress if not an objective moral standard? But I am not sure it is self-evident that the possibility of progress in moral understanding depends on the kind of objective moral standard this discussion has presupposed. To know we are making progress in moral understanding we certainly need a way of knowing our criteria now are better than the criteria which used to apply. But we do not need to know the criteria we are applying now are the best possible.

        I am afraid I disagree with your statement that there can’t really be “less wrong” when talking about morality, because morality determines only right and wrong. This seems to fly in the face of much of our moral behaviour and moral judgments, particularly considering the imperfect cloth we humans are cut from. To take just one example, it would be very difficult – and ultimately possibly pointless – to determine at what precise point in the continuum disciplining of children (as opposed to leaving them to muddle through to adulthood untrained) shades into culpable lack of self-control or even deliberate cruelty. The imperative to be self-aware, vigilant, sensitive and balanced far outweighs any need to draw the exact line between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. (I’m talking about the parent’s own ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ behaviour here.)

        Yes, we could be wrong. We could think we are making progress in moral understanding because we think (ie we think we know) our criteria now are better than the criteria which used to apply. But the only way we get to know that, ie that we were wrong, is by making more of the same progress in moral understanding. And again we could be wrong.
        If we can always be wrong in the moral criteria we apply, and we have no way of knowing if any subsequent re-evaluation is itself wrong (by comparison with a true ‘objective moral standard’), then that means we have no way of being absolutely sure what that ‘objective moral standard’ is.

        We can’t just say the objective moral standard is what the Bible says it is, because the Bible contains both contradictions and moral archaeology; and, as JWW himself admits [response to moriahbethany on August 17, 2010 at 10:20 PM], it needs to be seen in its historical and cultural context. Well – we could be wrong in our interpretation of that context and how the text relates to that context, couldn’t we, and therefore be no closer to certainty as to what the ‘objective moral standard’ really is?

        The example of our treatment of animals shows I think both how progress in moral understanding actually happens and the limits to our certainty about it. There have been times and places when and where it was thought that animals did not suffer physical pain. The best evidence we have now suggests that certainly mammals do, and that therefore we should ensure we do not cause physical pain to mammals as we do in the case of humans. There is also evidence that the higher mammals at least suffer emotional distress, and therefore we should also ensure we avoid causing emotional distress to higher mammals.

        The progress in moral understanding consists in extending to animal suffering the empathy we feel to human suffering. It presupposes that causing and/or not avoiding human suffering is wrong. If there is an ‘objective moral standard’ which exists, but about the content of which we can never be 100% certain (ie we could always be wrong about it), then it is theoretically possible that the presupposition about human suffering could turn out to be false.

        But then we have to consider the moral consequences of how we respond to that uncertainty.

        One option is to do nothing, even not to prevent suffering, for fear we may be disobeying some ‘objective moral standard’ we cannot be 100% certain about. Another option is to act on the best understanding we have of the facts, and with as much empathy and selflessness as we can muster. I’d be surprised if there was much disagreement about which is the morally superior option. That doesn’t of course mean it actually is the morally superior option, against that ‘objective moral standard’ we believe exists but we cannot be 100% certain about. My point about this kind of ‘objective moral standard’ is that it seems to trap us into an inescapable deadlock.

        You say: The only progress we can truly cling to is progress in moral understanding, based on an objective standard for what is right and what is wrong.

        I agree we can have progress in moral understanding, but I do not think it has to be based on an objective standard for what is right and wrong. It can be driven by the imperative (should we choose to adopt it) to extend our knowledge in areas relevant to our moral judgments, and the imperative to be continually open to re-evaluate the criteria we use in our moral judgments.

        I would like to suggest an analogy, which is admittedly imperfect. Our ability to count, and to do arithmetic and mathematics generally, relies on the concept of a number sequence which can stretch to infinity. We can understand the concept of infinity, but we cannot meaningfully assign a numerical value to it.

        The idea of an objective moral standard is a bit like that. It seems to be implied by the area of activity and thought which gives rise to it. But any attempt to assign it incontrovertible content seems thwarted.

        The inability to assign a numeric value to infinity does not invalidate mathematics. By a similar token I do not see why the inability to populate the concept of an objective moral standard should invalidate moral behaviour or ethical language.

        Thanks again,
        Chris.

        Posted by Chris Lawrence | August 20, 2010, 9:47 AM
  13. >Atheism, unfortunately, has no such grounds.

    You’re onto something here. A-theism isn’t a position. It is simply the condition of being unpersuaded that any of the theisms are true. It is the same position Christians take toward the other theisms, wholly or partly.

    >A tu quoque, if you will.

    Thanks for making me look this up again. From wikipedia:

    A makes criticism P.
    A is also guilty of P.
    Therefore, P is dismissed.

    I could have been guilty of this, but i don’t think I am this time. I’m not saying your position can be dismissed because you are guilty of the same criticisms you are making of atheism. I’m just pointing out that your position is in the same boat as atheism. Thus, there is no way to adjudicate our claims, other than making value-based decisions, which are in turn partly determined by what is tolerable to our psychology.

    But, it doesn’t follow that an a-theist can have no basis for morality. You may be correct that a-theism itself is not that basis, but a person who happens to be an a-theist can have a humanist, or other, basis for morality. It’s also not surprising that atheism isn’t a basis for morality. It’s like being a non-astrologer. Non-astrology, or non-anything, isn’t going to be a basis for anything. They are non-positions. So, I’ll agree with this narrow point, and it’s been interesting kicking up all the other dust.

    >But neither of these a good argument make. Further, you wrote, “If Christianity is an absolute basis for morality, then Hinduism or a religion I invent tomorrow are, too.” What justification do you have for this assertion?

    My justification is your approach itself. I am trying to show that your own justification can be used to justify any position whatsoever. If your approach is sound, it leads to a free-for-all, with no scientific way to determine which system is true. Yes, I’m begging the question. I’m a Scientist. I think it’s the best way to obtain knowledge.

    You must have really paid attention the day in Philosophy class when they covered begging the question. I think I understand it, too. It means to use what you’re trying to prove in support of your thesis. How, then, is this not begging the question:

    >If Christianity were the (not an) absolute basis for morality, then there is none other. The problem is non-existent.

    I appreciate reaching your readers and sharpening my thinking against your ideas, but I don’t much enjoy it. Apologist thinking violates one of my core principles: don’t choose your conclusion before you begin. In order to get to know nature, we have to accept whatever it tells us. You have a different agenda: to show why it is reasonable to believe Christianity is true. To me, this is a form of intellectual dishonesty. Interacting with you has made me trust science even less than I had before; but I still trust it more than anything else I have found. Where it fails, I have trained myself to be satisfied with continued curiosity.

    Some people can tolerate this kind of suspense. Others need the feeling that they have found their answers. My concern about this desire is that it can make us stop our search too early, or spend our time confirming what we already believe. For me, it would be unworthy to settle for certainty prematurely.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 15, 2010, 7:50 PM
    • “Apologist thinking violates one of my core principles: don’t choose your conclusion before you begin. In order to get to know nature, we have to accept whatever it tells us.”

      Yet isn’t this just what methodological naturalism does? MN pre-supposes that every answer must come from nature, and so it automatically eliminates any supernatural hypotheses from the start. This seems a lot like choosing the conclusion before beginning. However, if you are open to both natural and supernatural hypotheses, then you are much more open to following the evidence where it leads.

      Posted by sabepashubbo | August 16, 2010, 5:41 PM
  14. >if you are open to both natural and supernatural hypotheses, then you are much more open to following the evidence where it leads.

    That’s a good way to put it. My concern with all supernaturalism is that it’s a slippery slope. I’m very conservative intellectually. If we allow faith claims, then all the world’s religions, myths and superstitions sit at the same table. In fact, the space of all possible belief systems must be considered equal. Since many of them contradict each other, it is logically impossible for them all to be true. So, while it sounds good to be open-minded, we are able to narrow the field substantially. If providing scientific evidence is a bias, then so be it. All believers do this in the courtroom, stock market and operating room. They only drop the requirement when they want to keep their god hypothesis, when facing death, etc.

    Of course it’s question begging to exclude supernaturalism from the beginning, but it’s only a provisional step. Here’s why.

    If a supernatural effect exists, but in no way affects us, it’s equivalent to not existing. Further, we are unqualified to say anything about it.

    Second, if a supernatural effect exists, but does affect us, then it becomes part of the natural world. It thus ceases to be supernatural.

    So, Scientism is perfectly willing to entertain supernaturalism, but refrains until it shows itself. When and if it does, science absorbs it into the natural world. This has already occurred in countless areas.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 16, 2010, 8:01 PM
    • “If we allow faith claims, then all the world’s religions, myths and superstitions sit at the same table. In fact, the space of all possible belief systems must be considered equal.”

      Don, thanks for your courtesy in response. I think your above point only makes sense if you come from a pluralist sense of worldview, where all ways are right and acceptable. But what you’ll find is that neither Christians nor atheists are pluralists. You’ll find that most people who claim to be pluralists really aren’t, either, because most pluralists are intolerant of any view that says they are the only right way (e.g. Christianity or atheism).

      What I’m getting at is that both Christians and atheists are considered exclusivists, where their way is the only true worldview and all other ways (or all other religions) are incorrect. Both Christians and atheists are intolerant of other religions as it comes to truth. Not necessarily to the tenets of these religions or their moralities, but to their view as to what happens after life and how that affects truth.

      So what I’m saying is that if you allow for the existence of the supernatural, then the supernatural could exist in any proffered form. If it is determined that there is a supernatural existence, then the next step is to evaluate all of the supernatural hypotheses and make an inference based on the best explanation. That is really what Christian theists are trying to push from the beginning, whether scientific or not. Weigh the evidence, and make an inference based on the best explanation. That’s really what we do every day. What MN affects is that idea that a supernatural explanation is even possible, and I think we both agree that it’s question-begging.

      “If a supernatural effect exists, but in no way affects us, it’s equivalent to not existing. Further, we are unqualified to say anything about it.
      Second, if a supernatural effect exists, but does affect us, then it becomes part of the natural world. It thus ceases to be supernatural.”

      Effect is not the same as existence though. It’s clearly possible for us to have an effect on cats, but that doesn’t make us cats. We are transcendent of that natural state. So goes the same for a supernatural existence. What you’ll see in terms of worldviews is that most worldviews are really shaped on how they view 2 basic premises: 1) God is transcendent (not of the world), and 2) God is immanent (God is active in the world). Deists believe premise 1 but not 2; pantheists believe premise 2 but not 1. Theists believe in both; atheists believe in neither. So if God exists in a theistic sense, then He is not subject to the laws of nature, but rather is the cause of the laws (Creator and Sustainer, not subject).

      So it’s clearly possible for a supernatural effect on natural law to be independent of such laws. One only needs to look at the space-time argument to validate that claim.

      Posted by sabepashubbo | August 17, 2010, 11:13 AM
    • “If a supernatural effect exists, but in no way affects us, it’s equivalent to not existing. Further, we are unqualified to say anything about it.

      Second, if a supernatural effect exists, but does affect us, then it becomes part of the natural world. It thus ceases to be supernatural.”

      I’d like to see some kind of argument for supposing that everything which affects the world is natural, the axiom which is implicit in your second point. I sincerely doubt it is justified.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 17, 2010, 9:52 PM
  15. >MN pre-supposes that every answer must come from nature,

    Not quite. MN only says that scientific answers must come from nature.

    MN only considers data. If there’s no data, we keep working on it. We admit that ‘answers’ can come without scientific data, but then they aren’t scientific answers. They are stories, myths, wishful thinking, hypotheses or whatever, but they aren’t scientific answers. This simply follows from the definition of ‘scientific’.

    If you want to say you have an answer without scientific evidence, go ahead. It’s an answer, it just can’t be considered a scientific answer.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 16, 2010, 8:05 PM
    • Not sure if I follow this line of reasoning. MN is a scientific methodology, and says a priori that only natural explanations of phenomena are acceptable. MN does not “admit that answers can come without data”, as MN operates exclusively in the scientific sphere and admits only answers which rely on natural explanations.

      When you say that myths and wishful thinking can exist outside of scientific data, but they aren’t real answers, you’re stepping out of MN and into philosophical naturalism. With PN, the claim is that “real” answers can only come from MN (and thus supernatural explanations are again derided as wishful thinking, myths or whatever). So there’s an overlap in that PN extends MN into the real world, but the two are not identical.

      Posted by Sentinel | August 16, 2010, 8:42 PM
    • Unfortunately, MN doesn’t have conclusive answers/data for things like the origin of the universe, so what it does in these instances is proffer evidence. This gets us right back into the “inference of best explanation” discussion, because if we are looking at evidence for a scientific answer, then we have to consider all alternative hypotheses, including the supernatural. This goes back to the question-begging, which we’ve already sort of hashed out.

      Sorry, I think I’m getting a bit off-topic here. We should bring it back to morality to continue the discussion.

      Posted by sabepashubbo | August 17, 2010, 1:11 PM
  16. Ok perfect, I personally think that the idea of God is not terribly insane as an explanation. What makes the idea of God insane to me has always been the religious interpretation OF him. That somehow the all knowing creator of the universe thought that it was a good idea to set us up with a standard that promotes backward thinking instead of concrete evidence. That he didn’t ask that first and foremost we treat each other well instead of asking only that we “have faith”. Lastly, that he would discriminate between religions and condemn all but one to hell…for eternity. Harsh right? Why not speak out in the Bible against slavery, and treating women as second class citizens, and child abuse?
    He didn’t, to me that says that the Bible is a primitive attempt at morality that is now doing more harm than good in this world. Not that the Bible stands alone in that respect. I do not hold any higher regard for any other religions either.

    Posted by moriahbethany | August 17, 2010, 10:20 PM
    • Moriah, thanks for your continuing discussion here! You’ve raised some really interesting points that have been central to Christian tradition and philosophy of religion.

      “That somehow the all knowing creator of the universe thought that it was a good idea to set us up with a standard that promotes backward thinking instead of concrete evidence.”

      First, I’d be interested to know what you define as “backward thinking.” This is, of course, an ad hominem, so I would dismiss it as an argument, but I must point out that I am already sensing a bit of [ungrounded] naturalistic presuppositions.

      “Lastly, that he would discriminate between religions and condemn all but one to hell…for eternity. ”

      Actually, the Bible clearly describes a God who judges people by the knowledge they have. In other words, people who have never heard the message of salvation are judged by the knowledge they have–by the natural law written on the hearts of all men (Romans 2:12ff). This could also be extended to people of other faiths. Suppose Jon, who adheres to Hinduism, has heard of Christianity, but had testimony from a believer. Suppose he feels that there is indeed a power that transcends the universe, to which he gives supplication. There is strong Christian tradition (including Augustine, Aquinas, and, more recently, Moser, even Yandell) who support the idea that Jon would be judged by his knowledge, not by the propositional content of his faith.

      “That he didn’t ask that first and foremost we treat each other well instead of asking only that we “have faith”.”

      I inverted the order here because I think this point follows my previous one. Namely, that if we do assume, for the sake of argument, that God exists (as we must, given your objections being in the form [derived from your response] of “If God exists, then why ____?”), then it seems not at all implausible that the greatest sin would be for one to reject whatever plan God has for oneself. What more heinous sin could there be then to rebel against the being which not only created you, but sustains you, created the world, the galaxy, the universe, etc., and sustains all of them?

      “Why not speak out in the Bible against slavery, and treating women as second class citizens, and child abuse?”

      Well, first of all, one should remember that the Bible should not be divorced from its historical context. To suggest that someone would think that slavery was not a normal part of life in the ancient world is the height of anachronism. The fact that Paul asserts that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) seems to me to point towards a remarkable paradigm shift. Indeed, he asserts that the slave is equal to the master in Christ. Misuse of Biblical texts for slavery (I wrote what I would consider my greatest undergrad paper on this topic) would also be anachronistic.

      As far as women were concerned, I’ve written in private on this at some length, but I can simply bring up Galatians 3:28 once more for a clear example that Christianity specifically does not discriminate against women. Now child abuse, I’m confused as to why this was brought up, because the Bible does, in fact, speak multiple times against child abuse, see Leviticus 18:12, Isaiah 57, Ezekiel 16, Ezekiel 23:37ff for just a few examples.

      Knowledge of the cultural context of the Bible, as well as its actual content, is important when making such accusations against it. To criticize the Bible for its lack of outright condemnation of slavery in a society where the idea was totally forum is akin to Sam Harris’s allegations that it isn’t inspired because God didn’t tell the authors about computers thousands of years ago! If the context doesn’t exist, the idea is meaningless. Bible was inspired by God, but it was written by human authors, who wrote within their historical contexts. I think at this point, such accusations break down (and particularly the one about child abuse!).

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 17, 2010, 11:21 PM
    • “That he didn’t ask that first and foremost we treat each other well instead of asking only that we ‘have faith’.”

      But God did ask us to treat each other well. According to Jesus, it’s the second greatest commandment. Matthew 22:36-40: “‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

      Posted by sabepashubbo | August 18, 2010, 10:22 AM
      • >But God did ask us to treat each other well.

        To an outsider, the dissonance between the second great commandment and Hell is too much to take. It seems Christians can resolve it, but I can’t.

        Jesus said some good things, but he also gave us Hell and thought crime. His offer is the same one given by abusive boyfriends everywhere: Love me, or else.

        To punish someone eternally for believing what their parents teach them is absurd and cruel. If Yahweh were real, we would have to rebel against him out of concern for each other. A moral, compassionate person can not enjoy Heaven while billions of nameless good people burn.

        Hey, author of Mark 3:29!

        I deny the Holy Spirit! 😛
        I deny the Holy Spirit! 😛
        I deny the Holy Spirit! 😛

        Boo!

        Posted by Don Severs | August 18, 2010, 12:01 PM
      • It may be the greatest commandment but it is not the thing that gets you into heaven. Potentially Hitler could be in heaven right now by the Bible’s standards.

        Posted by moriahbethany | August 18, 2010, 10:16 PM
      • Well Moriah, the greatest commandment entails a lot of things if you actually break it down. Part of loving God with everything you have means He must increase, and we must decrease. We need to recognize that nothing we do on our own makes us worthy of redemption, but that God, in His perfect love, made that way for us, and that should cause us to love Him to the fullest that we have capacity.

        If Hitler were to have realized this before his death, I dare say he would have met the qualifications. During his reign of Nazi Germany, it’s fair to say that he did not. It’s when humans try to make themselves increase and God decrease that they don’t fit the qualifications. God alone is worthy of the glory and love that we often times try to show ourselves. Until we realize this fact, NONE of us are fit for heaven.

        But “love your neighbor as yourself” flows naturally from the first, for if you love God with all you have, you won’t be able to help loving everyone around you too. So a respect and love for the God of Christianity logically necessitates a love for humanity. He didn’t ask us to “have faith”; He asks us to “show love.” If we love God first, and that includes accepting His gift of salvation, then we make it, and it makes it even easier to love others.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | August 19, 2010, 5:21 PM
      • I can’t accept that. I’ve met too many good people who aren’t Christians to believe that a so called loving God would be so quick to cast them out and invite people who have spent their lives hurting others into heaven.
        It’s so hard to understand why people are so willing to find an excuse to believe something that they have absolutely no physical proof of.

        P.S. The Bible does not count as proof. This idea of having faith is the biggest scam in history.

        You want to see why i think that religion is dangerous? her is just one modern day reason. Look up the Anti Blasphemy Resolution. It’s terrifying.
        I am past being nice, its impossible to win. I just can’t see why an all knowing God would align himself with so much [edited for content–refrain from language].

        Posted by moriahbethany | August 20, 2010, 12:43 PM
      • Moriah,

        I understand your reasoning. The issue is that if God exists and created us with purpose and with love, don’t you think the greatest affront that could be done would be to spit in the face of this Creator? God is not punishing anyone just for the sake of it in this instance; you have to realize that. It’s an important distinction. God’s nature includes being just, so that He must execute the consequences for our crimes (sins) against Him. Otherwise He would be refuting His own nature, and would cease to be God. But in His love, He sent a way that our sins could be covered and justified so He would not have to give consequences. And what’s more, He made this a free gift based on choice, so we have all of the responsibility to choose or reject. God doesn’t want to send anybody to hell; He does need to exact punishment because He cannot handle sin. So those that don’t accept His gift (and by doing so, really bite the hand that feeds them, so to speak) have to be dealt the consequences of their sins.

        What you also have to realize is that NONE of us are good people. We all mess up. We may think that some of us are better than others because we don’t commit heinous crimes and such, but to God, sin is sin, no matter the degree, and “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23). But again, that’s not where it ends. The second half of Romans 6:23 says, “But the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” He has given us a way to escape eternal death, and no one is denied this chance! So the best person on the planet is still judged on the same merits of whether or not he/she accepted this gift as the worst person on the planet. This really is the most important decision one will ever make. I hope you haven’t closed off your mind to this entirely, because God is still holding His hand out to you, and His greatest desire is that you would reach back.

        As for proof, we don’t have physical proof of a lot of stuff that we believe exists. Take words, for example. We have no physical proof of words. These are immaterial concepts, but we don’t have a problem saying that words exist. What you need is logic and evidence, and there is both when it comes to the existence of God. I hear quite often that “the burden of proof is on the claimant.” Well, counter to that is that “the burden of objectivity is on the respondent.” Someone who is asking for proof needs to objectively weigh the evidence, not come in with a pre-disposition to shoot everything down. If you are willing to be objective in listening to the evidence, and that means asking questions instead of offering rebuttals, then I would love to show you the evidence for God’s existence. Ball’s in your court.

        Finally, please don’t lump Christianity in with all religions. That is a dangerous jump to make in itself. The Anti-Blasphemy Resolution was mostly created for the rights of Muslims, but I don’t think you’ll see the majority of Christians wanting free speech to go out the door. That’s not Biblical. Please weigh each religion based on their individual merits, instead of lumping them all together and calling the hodgepodge you get “evil” or “terrifying.” If you do, you will see that the Christian God doesn’t align Himself with this type of stuff. Again, ball’s in your court.

        Posted by sabepashubbo | August 23, 2010, 11:32 AM
  17. And how does Matthew 18:21-22 square with Mark 3:29? Is forgiveness only required of humans? If God holds a grudge, it’s ok, right? Same with murder, pride, etc.

    You guys are so going to Muslim Hell.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 18, 2010, 1:28 PM
    • I daresay your most recent two responses have betrayed a lack of the standard I’m used to your comments having, Don! Surely we’re above this kind of pettiness.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 18, 2010, 3:19 PM
      • There’s a point at which intelligent discourse ends and we just have to laugh. Christianity is bizarre and cruel. Yahweh is a jealous, petty god who holds children responsible for the sins of their fathers, then decides to sacrifice himself to himself so that he doesn’t have to torture his children forever for those sins. If they refuse this priceless gift, they are tortured forever anyway.

        Sign me up.

        I know, I know, who are we to judge a god? And I know you don’t believe Christianity because it’s beautiful or just. You believe it because you think it’s true.

        Well, it’s not true and we should be glad it’s not true. I left Christianity on moral, humanitarian and logical grounds. You have a good mind. Pity you’ve devoted it to the service of such an ugly worldview.

        Posted by Don Severs | August 18, 2010, 3:27 PM
  18. A former Christian’s view:

    I would allow that religion includes much that is good: ritual, community and service. What must be abandoned is adherence to scripture when it does not make human welfare paramount. Humanism does not make us into gods. It is an insistence that no superstition should prevent us from providing the good life to as many of our brothers and sisters as possible. If any god says otherwise, it is morally necessary to ignore him.

    Reading Bertrand Russell is clarifying some longstanding confusion I’ve had about Christianity. Why don’t Christians follow Jesus? Why do they embrace war, live in opulence, resist evil, punish acts that hurt no one and promulgate policies that hurt people?

    The answer is that 1st century Christians were not interested in how to create a stable, loving society. Jesus expected the world to end in a few years. It didn’t. Modern churches have had to abandon those ideas that come from Jesus’ end-time philosophy. We are left with a weird mix of moralistic prohibitions and careful ignorance of some of Jesus’ core ideas.

    Here are some widely-ignored principles of Jesus’ teaching:

    When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Luke 18:22

    But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. Matthew 5:39

    If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

    And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” Mark 9:1

    Russell points out that Christianity was founded under the iron rule of Rome. Since Jesus’ followers had no hope of affecting change in this life, he instructed them to focus on the next one. Spiritual concerns eclipsed material ones. All that mattered was accepting Christ and death was a welcome release from the false rule of Rome. Family didn’t matter. Money didn’t matter. Only salvation through Jesus mattered.

    So Jesus founded an end-time movement that told an oppressed people that this life was transient and unimportant and that he would rise from the dead and overthrow Rome within his disciples’ lifetimes. His philosophy is overtly anti-social. It is concerned with individual salvation and short-term goals, not with building a stable, compassionate society.

    One relic of his teaching still bedevils us. Sex. As Russell points out, according to Jesus, a man who works selflessly in the tropics helping to cure smallpox, but sleeps with women as he travels, is worse than the lout who beats his wife but remains faithful. Yahweh is preoccupied with our sex life, but condones slavery and oppression of women. Pleasing God is more important than treating people humanely. Our modern, secular societies have largely grown out of this bizarre, neurotic situation, but we still see it in the regular sex scandals that bring down our heroes.

    Another is war. For Jesus, it was senseless to resist oppressors or bother waging war. Heavenly justice was coming soon and death was welcome. That belief was of no use to the Catholic Church in the middle ages. The Vatican had become an empire ruling much of the West. Turning the other cheek was out of the question.

    Today, in the developed world, we don’t live under despotic rulers. Life is comfortable for billions of people. In this environment, 1st century Christianity is an ugly, ascetic, desperate way to live. It’s no surprise that Christians have radically filtered Jesus’ teaching. In our country, no one running for president can get elected unless they say they believe in God, but they can’t get elected if they endorse turning the other cheek, either. Jesus’ teaching has been radically changed in the last 2,000 years because his message is completely inappropriate to modern times.

    Russell concludes:

    “It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but, if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.”

    Posted by Don Severs | August 18, 2010, 3:30 PM
    • Ugh, Don, if we’re going to stoop to using Bertrand Russell as a definitive source of First-Century Christianity, this isn’t a game that’s even objective any more. If we’re going to stoop to ad hominems or railing against theism in Dawkins-esque fashion, and we’re supposed to laugh at each other, I, again, don’t want to play this game. Anti-intellectualism is a game that can be played elsewhere, but not here.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 18, 2010, 3:48 PM
      • Ugh? That’s an argument? Sounds more like an ad hominem. Thought I’d get in one more Tu quoque.

        By the way, just because an argument is guilty of ad hominem, or any other fallacy, that doesn’t mean its premise is not true. Granted, if its premise is true, it’s not true because of the ad hominem component; but it still could be true in spite of it. So, we have to look past some fallacies. Simply identifying a fallacy isn’t enough to dispose of a point.

        You and I hold different values, so we will reach different conclusions. This is what is so objectionable to absolutists: that any position can have a reasoned basis. Our values and psychology corral us to certain conclusions. In many cases, it is very hard for us to change our minds.

        I place humanity above any god. Any god worth worshiping would approve.

        Posted by Don Severs | August 18, 2010, 3:59 PM
      • Don, I think you’ve effectively cut off any kind of developing dialogue here. I am saddened, because we actually had a good discussion going. What confuses me, however, is that you have seemingly stooped to such intellectual genocide when you clearly think your case is superior on a number of intellectual levels. I don’t really see anything I need to argue against in your most recent posts, which are just bald-faced assertions. I don’t see any evidence or historical argument in your comments about Christianity. Just, as I said, assertions. Assertions which have been soundly rejected and made impossible by people like N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, Keener, and reaching back into history, Augustine. I don’t really even see any need to answer such wild speculation, particularly when I consider how utterly unrelated it is to the discussion we were having.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 18, 2010, 4:06 PM
      • I’m curious to know which of Don’s particular arguments are ad hominems. I think that you are using the phrase incorrectly.

        Posted by moriahbethany | August 18, 2010, 10:20 PM
  19. I’m sure any old Christian apologist can bat away each of my points like flies. That’s their job, to defend the core beliefs. I’m with Lawrence Krauss:

    “There is too much ink spent worrying about this question. Religion is simply irrelevant to science, and whether or not science contradicts religion may be of interest to theologians but it simply doesn’t matter to scientists.”

    Posted by Don Severs | August 18, 2010, 3:34 PM
  20. Religion is winning. Unfortunately. The Anti Blasphemy Resolution passed in Europe.

    Posted by moriahbethany | August 18, 2010, 10:24 PM
  21. A couple things:

    I have agreed with JW, since atheism is a non-position, that atheism can not be a basis for morality. I maintain, however, that evolution and humanism can both do the job, at least as well as a theism. Further, there is nothing to distinguish Christianity from other systems as a source of morality. Finally, declaring by fiat that a particular system is the correct source of absolute morality is meaningless. Anyone can do that, for any system. Yes, MN does the same thing, but we feel that nature is a superior authority to any god. That choice is a matter of values.

    I ran this discussion by my philosophy instructor and he provided some clarity. He offered this:

    It looks like he [JW] is giving the following sort of argument (schematically)

    P1: Morality requires X
    P2: A necessary condition for X is Y
    P3: If atheism is true, then Y is not the case
    C: Therefore, if atheism is true, then there is no morality

    I think that Y = Objective/Absolute morality. This argument is stronger than “atheism can not be the basis for morality”. It is that “if atheism is true, there is no basis for morality”. This is a sound argument schema, so if we are to refute it, we have to go after the premises. I would question P2. I don’t agree that if atheism is true, then there can be no basis for morality, for the reasons stated above.

    It can be very hard for an absolutist to think this way. To them, if morality can change, then it can’t be genuine. It seems to me that this premise itself is driven by personal intuition and psychology.

    Being a naturalist and finding no objective basis for morality in nature, I have trained myself to be content with relative, humanist justice. This is also what Western jurisprudence has done. Of course, it is steeped in a predominantly Christian culture, but modernity has purged it of its purely religious edicts. Adultery is a Christian sin, but it’s not a crime. In America, in practical matters, we don’t practice or subscribe to an absolute morality. Even most Christians wouldn’t want to change this. Theocracy means the religion in power is the correct one. That’s a nightmare.

    Posted by Don Severs | August 20, 2010, 6:10 PM

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Problems With Evolutionary Morality « - September 9, 2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Advertisements

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,244 other followers

Archives

Like me on Facebook: Always Have a Reason
%d bloggers like this: