Monday, November 26, 2007

What I'm *NOT* saying about atheistic morality

Atheists in this combox and over at the Atheism Experience are doing a great job at either misunderstanding or misrepresenting my point. I've corrected them several times, and this is yet another attempt.
Amazingly, one atheist even admitted explicitly that he didn't read the whole of the post in question and yet went ahead and commented anyway, completely missing my point and my questions for him. It's people like him that power my day, man.

1st, what I'm NOT saying:
1) Atheists can't ever act in a moral manner.
2) Atheists can only rarely act in a moral manner.
3) Atheists have no moral code.
4) Atheists can't explain why they hold to that moral code.
5) Only Christianity can denounce child rape.
5) The existence of any moral code proves that the Creator who is the source and standard of this morality is the Christian God.

OK? I'm NOT saying any of those things. With me so far?

Here's what I *AM* saying:

-If a worldview cannot justify making moral judgments that are objective, then any moral statement comes down either to personal/societal preference or borrows from a worldview that CAN justify such.
-The atheist worldview cannot account for any objective morality beyond personal preference or at 'best' societal preference (ie, a bunch of persons' preferences)...
-Therefore, any atheist who argues against Christianity on the basis of morally objectionable things that Christians or the Christian God has done has no basis to make such judgments beyond "I don't like it", and so these arguments have no merit at best and at worst (for the atheist) presuppose a theistic framework of objective morality in order to argue against said theistic worldview.

Quick aside on #6 - that's what's commonly referred to as the Moral Argument for God's existence. I make no comment here one way or the other on how effective I think it is, but it's NOT an argument I use. Maybe you can find some Church of Christ member or Methodist or something who'd like to defend it, but I shan't.

If anyone still has questions about what I mean, I refer you to the previous post and to parts 1-5 of the blogalogue I had with another atheist on the same topic a few months ago. Read at least the first one, and read it all the way thru. Alot to ask? Consider finding some other theist to interact with.

I expect to refer to this post dozens of times in blogging days to come, since I have seen little evidence that there are many out there who actually want to engage the points I *AM* making. It's easier to knock down the strawman of points I might've tried to make and defend 12 years ago in high school when I was a new believer. Not now.

18 comments:

merkur said...

any atheist who argues against Christianity on the basis of morally objectionable things that Christians or the Christian God has done has no basis to make such judgments beyond "I don't like it", and so these arguments have no merit at best

Please explain why these arguments have no merit, since your counter-argument appears to be "God doesn't like it". On the face of it, my argument appears to be stronger, because at least I can explain why I don't like it - whereas you don't appear to be able to explain why God doesn't like it, since all you've given us so far is "that's how he is".

Matt said...

With respect to merkur's statement, perhaps I can be of assistance here. If one holds to materialism, then one's moral preferences are nothing more than certain chemical reactions in the brain. Hence, there is no basis for normative ethics here. If one holds to some abstract standards that are relative, then this is still no basis for normative ethics, as the standards are not absolute, and vary from person to person. You might think something is wrong, but I just might as well think that that thing is right, and there would be no grounds for resolving this dispute, except perhaps by some form of coercion. If one holds to some absolute principles that define some normative ethics, then the question arises of how does one justify that certain set of principles? The principles are supposedly absolute, unchanging, and applicable to all men (else they would be relative, and we're back to the previous case), but men change, die, etc, and we do not have the absolute existence that these principles would. Thus, any justification of a certain set of principles that reduces to something in man (such as my opinion or my own personal reasons for asserting something) cannot ground the justification of absolute principles. Thus, any set of absolute principles that forms a basis for normative ethics must find its justification in something absolute and unchanging - something that is right by the virtue of its own existence, and we hold that the God of the Bible is the only one who meets this standard.

merkur said...

Hi Matt - yes, I have read Rhology's previous posts, as well as some of the thinking behind it (in terms of presuppositional apologetics), so I understand the terms of the argument well enough. The problem is that even within the terms of those arguments, what you've just said is that your position is that things are wrong because God doesn't like them. Now God may well be eternal, unchanging, blah blah blah, but that doesn't change the fact that unless you can explain why God doesn't like them, then all you are saying is that God is sufficiently more powerful than all of us that his opinion counts more than ours. And since God seems to use coercion on a fairly regular basis to impose his opinion (Flood, anybody?), then apparently it operates on the same basis as the rest of us.

Rhology said...

The answer to why God doesn't like Action X, if X is sinful, is that it is contrary to God's nature. It's not merely that God doesn't like X nor merely that He has decreed that X is bad.

The coercion God employs depends on what you mean by coercion. I don't believe that He totally coerces a decision of repentance and salvific faith in Him, for example, but He does "coerce" pretty much everythg else.
And of course God is free to end anyone's life He chooses at any time, since we are all capital criminals.

As for the might makes right thing, I wouldn't argue with that actually. Only in God's case, it's GOOD power, HOLY power, that makes right. In atheism, it's moral-less power that makes right, and it's human "justice" or mob rule that accomplishes it. I don't see how that's preferable. One cannot know whether the mob's might is making right nor wrong, it just IS. In the biblical worldview, a wholly good God ordains that which occurs in the universe.


And many atheists believe in total biological determinism anyway, where our genes coerce our will, so that we are not free. The problem remains on your end.

Matt said...

Merkur,

but that doesn't change the fact that unless you can explain why God doesn't like them, then all you are saying is that God is sufficiently more powerful than all of us that his opinion counts more than ours.

In a sense, that is exactly what I am saying. God's thoughts on matters are grounded in His nature, in who He is, and insofar as He is infinite, we cannot hope to have comprehensive knowledge of them, but we can expect to understand what He has revealed to us in His Word. Now, I must make a clarification over the statement that "his opinion counts more than ours." What I am saying is not that both we and God have some basis of our own for our opinions counting, but that His is somehow greater than ours. What I am saying is that all thinking is presuppositional, or axiomatic, and the only valid axioms are those that are grounded in God Himself. If we adopt those axioms, then we can also think rightly. If we do not, then we cannot hope to have any basis for sure knowledge, for man cannot justify propositions of an absolute nature on the basis of himself.

Now, as for God using coercion, I would say that a distinction needs to be made. Men often use coercion to force others to think their way precisely because they cannot justify their own position, and argumentum ad baculum is the result. Since what God says is true by virtue of its utterance, there is no need for coercion for man to believe. Man has been given everything that is required for belief in God (Rom. 1:18-21) - it is only a matter of coming to accept the truth. Now, the Flood, and other such matters are more properly classified in terms of judgment, for all humanity is under the curse of sin, and thus death.

merkur said...

Rhology says The answer to why God doesn't like Action X, if X is sinful, is that it is contrary to God's nature. It's not merely that God doesn't like X nor merely that He has decreed that X is bad.

Matt says God's thoughts on matters are grounded in His nature, in who He is, and insofar as He is infinite, we cannot hope to have comprehensive knowledge of them

So according to Rob, we know things are "bad" because they are contrary to God's nature. Yet according to Matt, we cannot have comprehensive knowledge of God's nature. So if I accept both your arguments, then at the very least there must be areas in which humans must work things out for themselves - and this is how God intended it, since it didn't provide us with comprehensive knowledge of its nature - and if humans have such responsibility and capability in one area, then why not in all such areas?

Rhology said...

Just b/c we don't have exhaustive knowledge of God's nature, it does not follow that we do not have sufficient knowledge thereof. God has revealed Himself to a sufficient extent and with sufficient clarity to be able to know these things.

Matt said...

In a sense, that is exactly what I am saying. God's thoughts on matters are grounded in His nature, in who He is, and insofar as He is infinite, we cannot hope to have comprehensive knowledge of them, but we can expect to understand what He has revealed to us in His Word

The inclusion of the last clause of my statement in the quote would have removed the seeming inconsistency, for what God has revealed to us, in agreement with Rhology, is sufficient to comprehend a body a normative ethics.

NAL said...

... what I'm NOT saying:
...
2) Atheists can only rarely act in a moral manner.


Therefore, atheists can often act in a moral manner. But atheists don't believe in God. Therefore, a belief in God is not required to often act in a moral manner.

Rhology said...

Nal,

Absolutely correct.
However, atheists have no way to justify calling any action good or bad either way. So when they act in a morally upright way, it is coincidental, revealing the imago Dei in every person.

I am glad that at least one person here understands what I'm NOT saying. Genuine thanks, Nal.

NAL said...

So when they act in a morally upright way, it is coincidental, revealing the imago Dei in every person.

If there is an imago Dei in the atheist, then their act couldn't be coincidental. If the atheist's moral action is coincidental, then the action cannot be considered to be objectively moral, it was just an accident. Hence, the atheist can never be intentionally moral.

merkur said...

There was no inconsistency between your two statements. I was merely pointing out the logical conclusion if one accepts both of them as true.

1. Something is morally wrong if it is contrary to God's nature.
2. We cannot hope to have comprehensive knowledge of God's nature.
3. Therefore we cannot hope to have comprehensive knowledge of what is morally wrong.

You then go on to argue

Just b/c we don't have exhaustive knowledge of God's nature, it does not follow that we do not have sufficient knowledge thereof.

True. However you also have now way of knowing whether the knowledge we do have is "sufficient", since you have nothing to compare it against.

God has revealed Himself to a sufficient extent and with sufficient clarity to be able to know these things.

I fail to see how you can prove this, particularly in light of the existence of ongoing disagreements within Christianity on many issues.

Rhology said...

Nal,

If there is an imago Dei in the atheist, then their act couldn't be coincidental

Why not?

If the atheist's moral action is coincidental, then the action cannot be considered to be objectively moral, it was just an accident.

The *ACTION* could line up with that which is moral and thus be moral. I'm not following you here. I'm not saying THE ATHEIST is "moral" (since no one is perfect).



Merkur,

However you also have now way of knowing whether the knowledge we do have is "sufficient", since you have nothing to compare it against.

God has revealed Himself though, doesn't lie, has never said anythg that was untrue, and has revealed a sufficient amount of moral law so as to inform any moral decision.

I fail to see how you can prove this, particularly in light of the existence of ongoing disagreements within Christianity on many issues.

It is a non sequitur to claim that the perfect computer manual is actually imperfect just b/c people don't read it, don't read part of it, believe some other document or person over and above it, forget or ignore part of it, etc.
If you want to perform an effective critique of the biblical worldview, you have to take it all into account. the Bible tells the history of the fall of man and lists the consequences; don't neglect those.

Peace,
Rhology

NAL said...

rhoblogy,

If there is an imago Dei in the atheist, then their act couldn't be coincidental

Why not?


Because then the imago Dei in every person would have no effect.

The *ACTION* could line up with that which is moral and thus be moral.

Morality cannot be achieved without having a choice. An atheist must choose to take a moral action before I would consider that action moral (same for everybody else). If an atheist chooses to take a moral action, then it wasn't coincidental, it was intentional. For an atheist to act in a moral manner, it must be done by choice. If an atheist (or anyone else) cannot make that choice, for whatever reason, then they cannot act in a moral manner.

merkur said...

"God has revealed Himself though, doesn't lie, has never said anythg that was untrue, and has revealed a sufficient amount of moral law so as to inform any moral decision."

My argument doesn't rest on any of those. As if to illustrate my point, you use the word "sufficient" again here, without defining what would constitute a "sufficient" amount of moral law. The definition of "sufficient" that I will ask you to use is "enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end" (Merriam-Wevster online).

"It is a non sequitur to claim that the perfect computer manual is actually imperfect just b/c people don't read it, don't read part of it, believe some other document or person over and above it, forget or ignore part of it, etc."

You have now shifted the terms of discussion, since I didn't mention the Bible at all. I merely talked about disagreements within Christianity - some of which predated the Bible in its final form, and therefore have nothing to do with the text.

It is irrelevant why people disagree about what the Bible says - it only matters that they do, since they can also apply the same criticisms to you. Acknowledging that none of you truly know the nature of God, and since you deny the possibility of any other moral framework against which to measure good and bad, none of you can ever know which one is right.

Rhology said...

Nal,

Because then the imago Dei in every person would have no effect.

I think you forgot the noetic effects of the fall of man.

If an atheist chooses to take a moral action, then it wasn't coincidental, it was intentional.

Well, what I meant was that the atheist chooses to take Action X, and let's say he considers X as "morally good".
He has no way to justify ascribing "morally good" or "morally bad" to any action whatsoever beyond personal preference. But let's say X is actually a morally good thing to do. So by coincidence he has chosen to do a morally good thing.



Merkur,

without defining what would constitute a "sufficient" amount of moral law

Well, one that would allow us to make a moral judgment on Question X and be able to point to divine revelation as the source.

The definition of "sufficient" that I will ask you to use is "enough to meet the needs of a situation or a proposed end"

That'll work.

since I didn't mention the Bible at all.

I think that's probably just a problem of communication between us...
There is no infallible, objective divine revelation outside of the Bible, so that's why I brought it in.

some of which predated the Bible in its final form, and therefore have nothing to do with the text.

Like what?

it only matters that they do, since they can also apply the same criticisms to you.

If that is to stick TO THE BIBLE, then you would need to start by answering the questions about the perfect computer manual I just asked.

Acknowledging that none of you truly know the nature of God,

We don't acknowledge that.
We deny that we know God *exhaustively* but we do know His essence sufficiently.

since you deny the possibility of any other moral framework against which to measure good and bad

My whole point is a denial of that possibility within the ATHEIST framework. Certainly not in the biblical framework!

Peace,
Rhology

merkur said...

"Well, one that would allow us to make a moral judgment on Question X and be able to point to divine revelation as the source."

That is the definition of sufficient, not a measure of what is sufficient. I know what sufficient means, but I'm asking how you judge how much is sufficient.

"There is no infallible, objective divine revelation outside of the Bible, so that's why I brought it in."

Except for the person of Jesus; in your obsession with the bible, you seem to have forgotten all about him.

"Like what?"

The Trinity. Slavery. The role of women. Bear in mind that I'm talking about the Bible as you hold it in your hand, rather than the individual texts that compose it.

"If that is to stick TO THE BIBLE, then you would need to start by answering the questions about the perfect computer manual I just asked."

There are a number of arguments that I could apply to this, but I'll pick the most obvious one. The computer manual is in English, and I don't speak English; thus my understanding of the manual will remain non-existent unless I learn English, and even then it is likely to be different to your understanding of the manual due to the ways in which language shapes outlook. Thus the idea of a perfect computer manual is a nonsense to begin with.

"We don't acknowledge that. We deny that we know God *exhaustively* but we do know His essence sufficiently."

By "truly", I meant "exhaustively", so it is true that you acknowledge that none of you truly know the nature of God. In addition, you have not established what is a "sufficient" level of knowledge to claim knowledge of its essence.

In particular, I would point to the slight difficulty you have; if God is infinite, it doesn't matter how much you know of its nature, that knowledge will always be a fraction that is so small that it is - to all intents and purposes - zero.

"My whole point is a denial of that possibility within the ATHEIST framework. Certainly not in the biblical framework!"

And my point is that, since every Christian would claim to have knowledge of good and evil based on the Bible, you are all using exactly the same measure. Since you deny the possibility of any external measure of good and evil, neither you or I can ever tell which Christian is correct in their moral estimation.

The simple problem for you is that, if faith and bible study were all that is required to know the nature of God sufficiently, then all disagreements about what is good and what is bad should have ended shortly after the bible was first compiled and distributed.

NAL said...

rhoblogy,

Well, what I meant was that the atheist chooses to take Action X, and let's say he considers X as "morally good".
He has no way to justify ascribing "morally good" or "morally bad" to any action whatsoever beyond personal preference. But let's say X is actually a morally good thing to do. So by coincidence he has chosen to do a morally good thing.


It is possible, even likely, that an atheist's morality, whatever it's based on, is highly correlated with Judeo-Christian morality. Based on this correlation, it is not a coincidence that an atheist's morality and a Christian's morality would intersect. Many atheists were raised in Christian families and this could account for the correlation. Most of our society is Christian and this could account for the correlation.