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Answering a reasonable atheist on deep philosophical questions

Published: 30 September 2012 (GMT+10)

To demonstrate that not all of our opponents are hostile and unreasonable, we publish a two-part feedback by Tim W. of the USA. He first responded to Answering the ‘new atheists’ (interview with Doug Wilson). In this, he sought to defend the proposition that atheism can provide meaning and purpose. Tim W.’s email is printed in its entirety, then followed by point-by-point responses by Dr Jonathan Sarfati. Then in Part 2, he argues against CMI’s view that morality must be based on theistic religion. Once again, Tim W.’s email is posted alone first, then with responses.

Wikipedia.orgSocrates
Socrates

This is an interesting article. I think you are on the right track when you suggest that modern atheists are worried at the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the United States. Frankly, it concerns me that so many politicians have anti-abortion views with which I strongly disagree. Part of my moral beliefs value limited rights of women to choose the fate of their unfertilized eggs, embryos and their own bodies. Similarly, I understand that Christians have legitimate reason to be concerned that unbelievers will influence a policy or social climate that permits the destruction of actual or potential human organisms. The stakes are high so it should be no surprise that the voices of atheism rise to compete with the voices of religion./

I also agree with the author, and with Hume, that one cannot infer what ought to be, in a normative sense, from what is, was or will be the case. In this way, it is reasonable to say that naturalism or ‘scientism’ cannot suggest a specific theory or morality. However, that does not mean that morality is not compatible with materialism, naturalism or atheism. It only means that morality must come from philosophy (ethics) rather than from theology. There is no reason why an atheist cannot have a more sophisticated ‘sense’ or theory of morality than someone who bases their beliefs of right and wrong conduct(or thoughts) on the teachings of a formal religion. My own beliefs are more consistent with a general sense of basic ‘fairness,’ than obedience to the demands of a deity.

Lastly, I don’t understand the basis of a statement such as “The atheist cannot put forward, within his own framework, a justification for why reasoning is trustworthy, or even worthwhile,” or “the atheist can’t account for reason if there is no God.” These are philosophical questions that do not seem to be contingent on the existence of a God. Is reasoning trustworthy? Meaningful? Those are matters of epistemology, not theology. Moreover, I think it is far from obvious that neither life, nor anything else for that matter, can have meaning unless one believes in God. God may give your life meaning, but that does not mean that nothing can provide meaning for an atheist’s life. I can imagine an atheist saying her daughter, for example, gives her life meaning. Would you call her a liar?

Response

Tim W.: This is an interesting article.

Dr Jonathan Sarfati replies: Thanks (on behalf of CMI and the article author).

TW: I think you are on the right track when you suggest that modern atheists are worried at the resurgence of conservative Christianity in the United States.

JS: What is really striking is how many modern atheists have become such delicate little flowers. They are hurt and offended by plastic baby Jesuses at Nativity scenes and are in danger of having a stroke if they hear a student-led prayer at a football game. (But of course, anyone objecting to obscenity or porn should just look the other way or change channels.) Even leading atheist Richard Dawkins is not such a wimp; he joins in Christmas celebrations. What a contrast the modern activists are with the far more robust atheists of yesteryear who vigorously debated the formidable G.K. Chesterton, and remained good friends even after finishing second.

TW: Frankly, it concerns me that so many politicians have anti-abortion views with which I strongly disagree.

JS: It would concern me if we didn’t have that many. Once we dehumanize one class of humanity, there is no limit. See for example Unborn babies may “be planning their future”: What now for the abortion lobby?

TW: Part of my moral beliefs value limited rights of women to choose the fate of their unfertilized eggs, embryos and their own bodies.

JS: Well, there’s the problem: the unborn is not part of a woman’s body. A reductio ad absurdum I’ve explained is: this would entail that a mother carrying a son must have a penis.

TW: Similarly, I understand that Christians have legitimate reason to be concerned that unbelievers will influence a policy or social climate that permits the destruction of actual or potential human organisms.

JS: Yes, that’s exactly the issue. Without the protection of life, no other right, real or assumed, has any meaning. ‘Rights’ to private property, housing, employment, medical care, or anything else, mean nothing if one is not alive to exercise them.

TW: The stakes are high so it should be no surprise that the voices of atheism rise to compete with the voices of religion.

JS: The problem arises when voices of atheism try to silence the voices of Christianity. This includes university ‘speech codes’, ‘hate speech’, the persecution of Christians in atheistic communist regimes, and the attacks of the homosexual lobby on the Church and family. See Gay marriage, politicians, and the rights of Christians.

TW: I also agree with the author, and with Hume, that one cannot infer what ought to be, in a normative sense, from what is, was or will be the case.

JS: A key point.

TW: In this way, it is reasonable to say that naturalism or ‘scientism’ cannot suggest a specific theory or morality. However, that does not mean that morality is not compatible with materialism, naturalism or atheism. It only means that morality must come from philosophy (ethics) rather than from theology.

JS: It certainly can’t come from the axiom ‘God does not exist.’

TW: There is no reason why an atheist cannot have a more sophisticated ‘sense’ or theory of morality than someone who bases their beliefs of right and wrong conduct(or thoughts) on the teachings of a formal religion. My own beliefs are more consistent with a general sense of basic ‘fairness’, than obedience to the demands of a deity.

JS: But where does the notion of ‘fairness’ come from in an evolutionary world? Surely it’s just a delusion caused by certain neurochemical activity that happened to be useful for our ancestors to survive. Just like rape was useful to spread our genes, as two evolutionists seriously argued in a book (look how one squirmed to justify why rape should be considered ‘wrong’). Similarly, the article Bomb-building vs the biblical foundation documents how leading atheistic philosopher/logician Bertrand Russell could not explain why right vs. wrong was any different from choosing one’s favourite colours.

Think of consistent evolutionist and atheistic philosopher Peter Singer, who justifies infanticide, euthanasia, and bestiality. It’s also notable that some critics of my article Abortion ‘after birth’? Medical ‘ethicists’ promote infanticide claimed that Singer was an anomaly among atheists. Yet I showed that his pro-infanticide views were shared by the Journal of Medical Ethics and the vocal antitheist P.Z. Myers. See also Bioethicists and Obama agree: infanticide should be legal. He also wrote the major Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Ethics (1992), and earlier this year, the Australian Government gave him Australia’s highest honour, Companion of the Order of Australia.

TW: Lastly, I don’t understand the basis of a statement such as “The atheist cannot put forward, within his own framework, a justification for why reasoning is trustworthy, or even worthwhile,” or “the atheist can’t account for reason if there is no God.” These are philosophical questions that do not seem to be contingent on the existence of a God.

JS: But they are. Natural selection explains only survival value, not truth and logic. In Canada, one atheistic philosophy professor argued that these things would have selective value. I responded that this is not necessarily so under his belief system. After all, he must regard theistic religion as one thing that evolved for survival value, yet he would regard this as false and illogical. Thus survival, under his perspective, can be enhanced by the false as well as the true.

TW: Is reasoning trustworthy? Meaningful? Those are matters of epistemology, not theology. Moreover, I think it is far from obvious that neither life, nor anything else for that matter, can have meaning unless one believes in God. God may give your life meaning, but that does not mean that nothing can provide meaning for an atheist’s life.

JS: One of my colleagues wrote in Answering life’s big questions: Only the Bible provides the answers:

Today we are effectively told, in the evolutionary story, that life is a fluke, a cosmic accident. In this case our existence lacks any purpose, so life is a farce. And where are we going, in this view? Fertilizer! In short, life is: Fluke … farce … fertilizer.

Evolutionist Richard Dawkins said that we live in a universe that has “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference”. The evolutionists’ universe has no purpose because it is an accident; a cosmic accident. With evolution so widely taught in schools and universities, is it any wonder that so many lack any purpose or meaning to their lives?

As Susan Blackmore, psychologist and disciple of Richard Dawkins said, “If you really think about evolution and why we human beings are here, you have to come to the conclusion that we are here for absolutely no reason at all.”

TW: I can imagine an atheist saying her daughter, for example, gives her life meaning.

JS: But hardly ultimate meaning, since both mother’s and daughter’s entire lives are just a blink of an eye in the uniformitarian cosmic scheme. Bertrand Russell said in his anti-Christian book Religion and Science:

Man, as a curious accident in a backwater, is intelligible: his mixture of virtues and vices is such as might be expected to result from fortuitous origin.

TW: Would you call her a liar?

JS: Not at all. A lie implies intentional deception, not just falsehood. As you could see from searching our site, we are very sparing with accusations of ‘lying’ (although some evolutionists justify deception and are just being consistent), as opposed to having a faulty interpretive framework. (However, we won’t deny that this prior adoption of this faulty framework is culpable according to Romans 1:20 and 2 Peter 3:3–7 and foolish (Psalm 14:1). But the point remains that a valid deduction from a faulty framework is not a lie.)


Intermezzo

Let me first say that I am impressed by the scholarship and sophistication evident in the articles and comments of Dr Sarfati. I think if more creationists displayed anything remotely comparable to this level of sophistication, Dawkins would be more willing to engage creationists in formal debates. I also praise your objective to educate those who would defend your view against common arguments of atheists. It’s a waste of everyone’s time when people advance weak or false ‘arguments’ in support of their positions, or use distracting rhetoric, fallacies or other offenses to critical thinking and discourse. I also appreciate the links provided in your response to my comments. They allow me to save space here by discussing some issues in a more appropriate context. In my following post, I would like to focus on the common claim that morality must be based on religion.

Let me compliment you in return: your arguments for atheism have avoided playing the man and make it possible to discuss the issues without distraction. I will just say that I don’t agree about Dawkins—he seems to avoid the best opponents and pick those whom he thinks will offer little opposition (see Introduction to The Greatest Hoax on Earth? and Polarized reaction to atheists’ refusal to debate CMI).


Part 2: morality and atheism

Wikimedia CommonsImmanuel Kant
Immanuel Kant

It is a common claim that morality, and the idea of ‘goodness’, only makes sense in the context of religion. I would argue that this is (1) not a premise that is so self-evident that it can be treated as an axiom in itself, and (2) not logically supportable, and simply incorrect without defining morality in narrowly religious terms, in which case you are simply making a circular argument, or postulating Christianity as an axiom. That is hardly an effective way to argue against claims made by atheists or other unbelievers.

To refute these claims, I need only point out that there are in fact other ways of defining ‘good’ consequences, motivations or conduct, in a normative moral theory. One cannot define morality in terms that everyone can agree, but I would say most satisfactory moral theories aim to protect or promote the interests of members of the moral community, based on consequences and/or non-arbitrary, rule-like principles such that to do otherwise would be to behave improperly in some meaningful way. Certainly one way is to treat Christianity as an axiom, and define goodness in terms of God’s nature or commands, but the fact is that there are many other options. For example, even Kant, who did believe in God, based his morality on moral ‘imperatives’ based on reason. Indeed, few philosophers worth reading would argue that goodness is dependent on religion. In ‘Religion and the Queerness of Morality’, George Mavrodes takes a stab at this in his response to Russell’s ‘A Free Man’s Worship’. In my opinion, his argument fails miserably.

Another way to argue against the claim that ‘goodness’ is based on God, is to consider the challenge based on Plato’s Euthyphro’s Dilemma. I do not want to get into the details of that, but the reader can find a good discussion of it here. You could argue that this is a false dilemma because there is a third possibility, but even if such a third possibility is acceptable, it merely defends Christianity from this substantial criticism. It does nothing to support the false claim that the standards of ‘goodness’ can only be defined, or understood, in terms of religion.

Response to part 2

It is a common claim that morality, and the idea of ‘goodness’, only makes sense in the context of religion. I would argue that this is (1) not a premise that is so self-evident that it can be treated as an axiom in itself, and (2) not logically supportable, and simply incorrect without defining morality in narrowly religious terms, in which case you are simply making a circular argument, or postulating Christianity as an axiom.

At the foundational level, we do treat the propositions of Scripture as axioms, which is different from circular reasoning. I won’t repeat too much what I explained in Agnostic asks whether biblical Christians commit circular reasoning: role of axioms, internal consistency and real world application, in reply to another reasonable critic. To summarize: this set of axioms, the propositions of Scripture, are both self-consistent and consistent with the real world, and provide the basis for meaning, morality, and even science. None of these can be deduced from the axiom of atheism: God does not exist.

That is hardly an effective way to argue against claims made by atheists or other unbelievers.

I’m not so sure. The alternative would be playing evidentialist ping-pong, but there is an advantage to looking at the underlying assumptions. See for example Presuppositionalism vs evidentialism, and is the human genome simple? We are certainly not denying the importance of evidence, even in the previous article, but we advocate a ministerial rather than magisterial use of science.

To refute these claims, I need only point out that there are in fact other ways of defining ‘good’ consequences, motivations or conduct, in a normative moral theory.

It’s a fairly standard view in Christian ethics to look at these aspects. The error of many other positions is that they unduly restrict their ethical analysis to only one of these. E.g. utilitarianism considers only the consequences. Many flawed political policies err by considering only lofty goals and intentions, not the incentives and results that inevitably follow from people following these incentives. Economist and political theorist Dr Thomas Sowell argues this well,1 explaining elsewhere:

Wikimedia/BungleAuschwitz—site of the German concentration camps
Auschwitz—site of the German concentration camps

“I’d like to get them to think in terms of incentives and empirical evidence, and not in terms of goals and hopes. Over the years, I’ve reached the point where I can hardly bear to read the preamble of proposed legislation. I don’t care what you think this thing is going to do. What I care about is: What are you rewarding, and what are you punishing? Because you’re going to get more of what you’re rewarding and less of what you’re punishing.” 2

The biblical Judeo-Christian position goes further because it defines some acts as intrinsically immoral. Also, because it doesn’t just consider this life but the life to come, it regards it as worse to inflict harm than to suffer harm. This is not talking about legitimate self-defence or the right of a civil ruler or soldier to use force, even lethal (Romans 13). Rather, it’s a case like: a sadistic Nazi SS Commandant during WW2 puts a pistol into the hand of a Jewish prisoner in the death camps, and tells him to shoot another Jewish prisoner or be shot himself. In this case, the Judeo-Christian ethic would tell the first Jew not to commit murder, even if it means that he is himself murdered by the Nazi.

One cannot define morality in terms that everyone can agree, but I would say most satisfactory moral theories aim to protect or promote the interests of members of the moral community, based on consequences and/or non-arbitrary, rule-like principles such that to do otherwise would be to behave improperly in some meaningful way.

All the same, Hitler argued that his horrendous eugenics and genocide program would benefit the German ‘master race’. I.e. gross immorality can be defended by defining certain people out of the ‘moral community’. This was a problem at the Nuremberg trials—many of the Nazi defendants argued that they were following the laws of their country. The prosecutors argued that they were breaking a higher law, but whence this law? C.S. Lewis pointed out:

The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other.3

Certainly one way is to treat Christianity as an axiom, and define goodness in terms of God’s nature or commands, but the fact is that there are many other options. For example, even Kant, who did believe in God, based his morality on moral ‘imperatives’ based on reason.

wikipedia.org: Photo by Arthur StrongC.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis

Right, Kant’s famous ‘categorical imperative’, which for the benefit of our readers is on the lines of:

Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.

Actually Kant was a strong proponent of the moral argument for God, declaring:

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, … the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.4

He argued that an objective and absolute moral law required an objective and absolute moral Lawgiver. He argued also that humans ought to achieve the highest good possible (Summum bonum), where virtue is rewarded justly. And because he famously argued ‘Ought implied can’, the Summum bonum must also be possible:

For if the moral law commands that we ought to be better human beings now, it inescapably follows that we must be capable of being better human beings.5

And since virtue was not always rewarded in this life, there must be an afterlife where this does happen. And this requires a God to create this afterlife.

There is a lot of truth to Kant’s reasoning. The extremely wise King Solomon, near the end of a very unwise life, had observed how all the pleasures of life were ultimately meaningless because people die. Even good people meet the same fate as bad ones (Ecclesiastes 9). So he concluded (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14):

“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”

The defect of the Kantian view is the fallen nature of man, which means a culpable inability to avoid sin, and omitting the essential doctrine that Christ is the only way fallen man can be put right with God.

Consider also one of Kant’s other famous moral formulations:

“Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means.”

As we have often argued, this makes sense under a biblical framework of man being made in the image of God. But why should man be regarded as an end in itself if the human body is just a survival machine whose end is to propagate genes (as per Dawkins)? I.e., why not rape, since as two evolutionists argued, this helps men to spread genes.

Indeed, few philosophers worth reading would argue that goodness is dependent on religion. In ‘Religion and the Queerness of Morality’, George Mavrodes takes a stab at this in his response to Russell’s ‘A Free Man’s Worship’. In my opinion, his argument fails miserably.

Mavrodes is one of the leading thinkers in this area, certainly—pity about his theistic evolutionism; he appears not to deal with the great problems with this belief.

Another way to argue against the claim that ‘goodness’ is based on God, is to consider the challenge based on Plato’s Euthyphro’s Dilemma. I do not want to get into the details of that, but the reader can find a good discussion of it here.

I’m not sure why you linked to an article by Christian apologist Greg Koukl. I have a lot of respect for him, apart from his love for billions of years (with its inherent disconnect between sin and death), and he seemed to do a good job of answering this dilemma. Indeed, I linked to this very paper in my own article on this very question, What is ‘good’? (Answering the Euthyphro Dilemma).

You could argue that this is a false dilemma because there is a third possibility, but even if such a third possibility is acceptable, it merely defends Christianity from this substantial criticism. It does nothing to support the false claim that the standards of ‘goodness’ can only be defined, or understood, in terms of religion.

Well, as I said in the above article:

God indeed commands things which are good, but the reason they are good is because they reflect God’s own nature. So the goodness does not come ultimately from God’s commandments, but from His nature, which then results in good commandments.

References

  1. Sowell, T., The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, Basic Books, 1996. Return to text.
  2. Sawhill, R., Black and right: Thomas Sowell talks about the arrogance of liberal elites and the loneliness of the black conservative, Salon.com, 10 November 1999. Return to text.
  3. Lewis, C.S., “The Case for Christianity” in The Best of C.S. Lewis, p. 409, Iversen, NY, 1969. Return to text.
  4. Kant, I., Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck, p. 166, Library of Liberal Arts, Indianapolis, 1956. Return to text.
  5. Kant, I., Religion within the Bounds of Bare Reason, trans. di Giovanni, G., in: Immanuel Kant, Religion and Rational Theology, trans. and ed. Wood, A.W. and di Giovanni, G., p. 94, Cambridge, 1996. Return to text.

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