Rev. Cwirla, in his review of the Charlotte Allen article on atheism that I linked to in my previous post, summarizes the new atheist (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, Myers, et al.) arguments as follows:
1. The existence of God can’t be proven scientifically, therefore there is no God.
2. Religious people do bad things, therefore there is no God.
3. No one has yet to convince me there is a God, therefore there is no God.
4. The world sucks, therefore there is no God.
5. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don’t exist, therefore there is no God.
Pretty good summary of the shallowness of modern atheism.
Go to Rev. Cwirla’s Blogosphere for his descriptions of the “Fab Five of pop atheism.”
Grace and Peace
47 thoughts on “The new atheists: summary of arguments”
“1. The existence of God can’t be proven scientifically, therefore there is no God.”
It would be more accurate to say “there is no good evidence for the existence of a god or gods, so why believe in one?”
“The world sucks, therefore there is no God.”
I think the world is pretty great, actually.
Thanks for your comment.
No good evidence for the existence of God? I know we’ve been here before on other posts, but I’ll repeat what I’ve said elsewhere: Either 1. the universe/multiverse has existed forever, 2. it created itself, or 3. it was created by something outside of itself. Which one is it? I go for number three, because #1 is scientifically and philosophically unacceptable and #2 is absurd.
“The world is pretty great, actually.” In some ways I agree, and in Christian theology the world as created is “good.” This stands in contrast to many religions where the world is either an illusion or evil. But at the same time, we live in a world with sickness, death, war, hatred, and poverty. For a lot of people, life is very hard. Why is this so? The Christian answer is sin; that we are in rebellion against God. The atheist answer has to be that there is no such thing as sin. Can the atheist really say that murder, child abuse, rape, or torturing puppies is intrinsically evil? (I’m not saying atheists advocate or condone these things, only that they must admit that these things are only evil by man made definition, not because there is really anything sinful about them.)
“I know we’ve been here before on other posts, but I’ll repeat what I’ve said elsewhere…”
I’m sorry, but none of that is evidence of anything.
“The atheist answer has to be that there is no such thing as sin.”
My answer is that bad things happen. Sometimes randomly, sometimes caused by humans.
“Can the atheist really say that murder, child abuse, rape, or torturing puppies is intrinsically evil?”
It depends on what you value.
I value peace, freedom, health, happiness, love…and the list goes on. As I value those things, I can observe that murder, rape, etc. prevent and harm the things I value. Thus, they are bad.
I don’t know what you mean by ‘intrinsically evil’. Morality is situational. If you kill someone (for example), that is not intrinsically evil. If you were defending yourself and killed them, it’s self defense. If you kill them because they upset you, then that’s what we call murder.
Sex is much the same way. When between two consenting adults who care for each other, it’s wonderful. When forced on a child against their will, it’s child abuse and rape.
I’m sorry, but none of that is evidence of anything. You cannot avoid the argument if you want to make a case for atheism. Do you believe that the universe/multiverse has existed forever, or that it created itself?
You are also avoiding the atheist’s problem of evil. You say morality is situational. Is child abuse wrong because it is inherently wrong (the Christian view), or because we define it to be wrong?
“Can the atheist really say that murder, child abuse, rape, or torturing puppies is intrinsically evil?” Evil is a theological concept that has no merit. I would prefer to say that it is inherently bad behavior. Why? Because I would not want such things to happen to me. This is the principle of reciprocation. Nor is it simply an intellectual enterprise. I empathize with victims of such behavior. This is why we feel it is wrong, not just intellectually wrong. Empathy is a trait that everyone has to varying degrees – no belief in a god is required. If atheists did not believe that these things are anathema, the law would be no bar to doing them. However, atheists are incredibly under-represented in prison populations (10-15% of general population are agnostic/atheist, <0.1% in prison populations). The Christian world view that religion or god is necessary simply can not explain this. But all this is simply a deflection from the theological problem of evil, which has never been solved. Why would a supposedly loving god allow suffering? Sin? That’s no explanation. First, the existence of sin has never been verified. Second, a god could just as easily remove sin if it did indeed exist. Third, even with sin a loving god would remove suffering. That is a truly loving act. Standing by and allowing suffering is not a loving act, and ergo the god you describe is not loving. The atheist position solves it very nicely.
“… and #2 is absurd.” Really? Actually, #2 is shaping up to be the even-money bet. The universe began as a singularity and was thus under quantum rules. The funny thing about quantum mechanics is that causation goes out the window. There are a number of events which occur without causation (virtual particle formation/annihilation and radioactive decay to name two) because of quantum weirdness. #3 is the absurd one, since the very concept of ‘outside the universe’ is a non sequitur – there is no such thing. #1 may also be possible since time has no meaning prior to the big bang event and our universe may have been the result of an infinite number of multiverses. And, no, infinities are not impossible, despite the nonsense (and incomprehension) of the likes of William Lane Craig and other members of the Brylcream Set.
“You cannot avoid the argument if you want to make a case for atheism.” Ah, the Burden of Proof fallacy. Sorry, it is up to the claimant for the existence of god to provide the evidence. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is irrational to abandon the null hypothesis (i.e., no god(s)) and thus I maintain it. Atheists are under no obligation to provide evidence for the null hypothesis.
“Do you believe that the universe/multiverse has existed forever, or that it created itself?”
I happen to think the universe, in one form or another, is eternal. But it doesn’t matter what I think. What matters is the evidence. And, I repeat, there’s no good evidence for some sort of being creating the universe.
“Is child abuse wrong because it is inherently wrong (the Christian view), or because we define it to be wrong?”
It’s wrong because it causes harm to the child.
I’ll keep on pressing, because I don’t think atheism has the answers to some fundamental questions.
What evidence do you have that the universe is eternal? None.
Why is harming a child wrong?
1. I am not deflecting from the theological problem of evil. The Bible doesn’t completely explain it, but that does not mean there is no explanation. What I am saying is that atheists have a “problem of evil” as well. No amount of social contract theory or evolutionary explanation of the origin of empathy is going to change the fact that in the world of atheism, there is no absolute way to say that torturing puppies just for fun is evil.
To a Christian, God has done something about sin in Christ, but he is patient, giving the world time to repent. You really don’t want God to step in with final judgment before you are ready.
2. Quantum theory is not a way around the absurdity of the universe creating itself. Where did the laws that allow particles (or the singularity) to pop into existence come from? Did the laws just pop into existence as well? Positing a multiverse just puts the question back one step. But why is there something rather than nothing?
3. Atheists are under no obligation to provide evidence for the null hypothesis. So, you just accept this by faith?
“What evidence do you have that the universe is eternal? None.” morsec0de specified that his statement was one of belief, not of evidence. Yours is no better and you refuse to engage that. What we can definitely say is that the universe appears exactly as we would expect in the absence of any god. Since the null hypothesis is clearly defined (i.e., no gods), I reiterate – it is up to the claimant to produce evidence that would change our minds. You have failed. Simply stating that a god is necessary for the universe to come into being is insufficient – you must state plausibly how said deity performed the act. This would establish a cause/effect relationship and we would take notice. So far, it’s just been the same old, same old.
Rev. Cwirla (the author of the five atheist arguments that are the topic of this post) clarifies his thinking a little bit on the Cranach blog:
“I’ll keep on pressing, because I don’t think atheism has the answers to some fundamental questions.”
Atheism is the position on a single question. Nothing else.
“What evidence do you have that the universe is eternal?”
Energy and matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Which suggests the universe always existed, in some form or another.
Besides, I’m not claiming to know. It’s just my opinion. You’re the one who is claiming to know, and you have zero evidence.
“Why is harming a child wrong?”
It leads to suffering and possibly death.
Why is harming a child not wrong?
How? The theological answer is: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (Genesis 1:1 John 1:1-3; Hebrews 11:3 ESV). These are not “scientific” statements, but to a Christian scientist they are nonetheless true statements.
What is the scientific answer? If God created by means that are outside of the universe, then we will never be able to devise an experiment or make an observation that will allow us to see what happened. I have no problem with that. What we do see is a universe that exists, and that it had a beginning. That is completely compatible with Christianity.
You have not made the case that the universe, with all its laws, created itself. And I’m not talking about the Big Bang.
Morsec0de and Shameless: Arggghhhh. I’ve got work to do.
Piping up again on the cosmological issue – there was no such thing as quantum physics before the universe existed. There was no such thing as non-causality of quantum physics that could have brought the universe into existence – quantum physics exists inside the universe, not outside it.
I realize this is a tough sort of concept to grasp, and you aren’t alone in having trouble with it. Pretty much every college student under the 300-level courses botch this issue, and I’ve known more than a couple people who were starting their doctoral studies to not grasp this.
There wasn’t any sort of anything – not even quantum laws – before the universe began. (at least as best we can tell with our current state of science, which is pretty good on this area)
“The universe began as a singularity and was thus under quantum rules. The funny thing about quantum mechanics is that causation goes out the window. There are a number of events which occur without causation (virtual particle formation/annihilation and radioactive decay to name two) because of quantum weirdness.”
Not quite accurate. “Quantum weirdness” didn’t begin to exist until the universe began to exist. Yes, once the universe began, all sorts of quantum effects that don’t have “causality” involved start to happen. However, those only start to happen after the universe already came into existence.
(The non-causality of quantum fluctuations of virtual particles isn’t quite non-causality – it gets into the statistical nature of quantum physics. Does something “cause” a photon to diffract to a particular location when passing through a diffraction grating? No, so it could be viewed as an un-caused action, but statistically something had to happen, so it is a caused action from a different consideration. Ditto for virtual particle creation – they are un-caused in one sense, but certainly caused in another sense.)
Anyway, back from my rabbit trails – the self-creation of the universe is definitely counter to what science tells us.
The Yo-yo/bang-crunch/infinite-cycle picture of the universe is pretty well disproved, too.
” No amount of social contract theory or evolutionary explanation of the origin of empathy is going to change the fact that in the world of atheism, there is no absolute way to say that torturing puppies just for fun is evil.” Answered and explained. Not my problem if you don’t like it. It certainly works for me.
“To a Christian, God has done something about sin in Christ, but he is patient, giving the world time to repent. You really don’t want God to step in with final judgment before you are ready.” Unverifiable rot. Pure sophistry. Back it up with evidence.
“Quantum theory is not a way around the absurdity of the universe creating itself.” Actually, it is. It is just as absurd as virtual particles forming out of nothing and a nucleus ejecting a particle, both without any causation whatsoever.
“Where did the laws that allow particles (or the singularity) to pop into existence come from? Did the laws just pop into existence as well? Positing a multiverse just puts the question back one step. But why is there something rather than nothing?” I don’t know. Neither do you. Saying “God did it” is just another way of saying “I don’t know” while giving the (very) false impression that you do know. Until you can say how it was done, you have nothing to bring to the table. But at this point there is nothing which indicates that anything supernatural was required.
“Atheists are under no obligation to provide evidence for the null hypothesis. So, you just accept this by faith?” Maintaining the null hypothesis is not faith. Accepting effect (i.e., existence of god(s)) in the absence of evidence is blind faith, not faith, and it is irrational. If I were to accept credulously the existence of god(s) I would have to accept credulously an infinite number of things which are equally likely (and that we would probably both agree are nonsense) – pink unicorns on Pluto, for instance. Don’t believe in my pink unicorns? What – you want evidence?! How dare you!
Why is the existence of god any different? I see no difference between gods and pink unicorns. As Bertrand Russell once said,
You’ve said it better than I did, but it still goes to my point that the classical definition of causality is simply invalid at the quantum level. But I’m wondering if you are confusing mechanism by which an event can take place and the mechanism causing the event to take place. They are not the same thing. Nor does the statistical nature of quantum mechanics help, since (for example, radioactive decay) it can only be applied to ensembles and not to any one nucleus. The former is completely predictable, while the latter is quite a different situation.
“Morsec0de and Shameless: Arggghhhh. I’ve got work to do.” Me too, as invigorating as this is.
The Christian argument for God is fundamentally different than Russell’s argument for a china teapot, or the argument for pink unicorns.
Flying teapots and pink unicorns would be limited objects and are not necessary objects in the cosmological, ontological, or moral arguments for God’s existence. God, on the other hand, is a necessary being if these arguments are valid.
My point is that the teapot/unicorn argument is not valid.
SA #16 – I’m (hopefully) not confusing the mechanism by which something happens and the mechanism causing something. The light-diffraction and virtual particles causality paragraph was a rabbit trail only tangentially related to the main point. Sorry, I’m good at rabbit trails.
The point is that there wasn’t ANYTHING before the universe. (caveat: there was nothing in any way related to the universe that science can tell)
In terms that you used – there was no mechanism by which the universe could have come into existence (causal or non-causal), much less something that could have caused it to happen.
There weren’t any quantum laws by which there could be anything like quantum fluctuations such as virtual particles. Anything to do with quantum “stuff” didn’t begin until AFTER the universe began.
Science, quite solidly, rules out a self-creating universe.
Oh, and you might think about raising your points over at the Cranach site where geochristian found this topic, too. Not to diminish the popularity of this wonderful blog, but the Cranach blog has more readers and you might have a wider variety of views/thoughts on the topic.
The post over there hasn’t gotten too active yet, but I suspect having a blazing critique of a comment over there might liven things up a bit. Just be prepared if you do so, since I’m pretty sure the Christian to Atheist ratio over there is somewhere around 100:1. :-D
It looks like some of the Christians are critiquing the arguments too. Some defending.
But the shallowness of modern Christianity, is simply the reverse….
1. The existence of God can’t be disproven scientifically, therefore there is a God.
2. Religious people do good things, therefore there is a God.
3. No one has yet to convince me there is not God, therefore there is a God.
4. The world looks great, therefore there is a God.
5. Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy don’t exist, therefore there is no God. (Yeah I can’t reverse this one).
It is true that Atheism is shallow, however so is Religious dogma. I count myself as Agnostic.
I totally agree futile, and I would be quick to say that any Christian who tried to seriously use those reasonings is an idiot (and I’ve met a few), just like anyone who tries to use the Atheist version is an idiot.
I think that’s part of the point being put forward by Christians and Atheists alike – Hitchens and Dawkins are being idiots when they put those sorts of arguments forward as a serious “disproving” of Christianity. (just as Christians who put forward those sorts of arguments are being idiots)
There’s also a version of those that both sides use to support their own side, not just tear down the other side’s arguments.
Christian support: There are and were thousands of brilliant Christians, so Christianity must be true.
Atheist support: There are and were thousands of brilliant Atheists, so Atheism must be true.
I also agree with futiledemocracy: Christians can use shallow arguments as well. In fact, there is no shortage of Christians using poor arguments.
Many of us probably make our decisions on the “God question” based on something other than fundamental logic. I’m not even saying that this is a bad thing. Theologically, I believe that I am a Christian not because of my superior intellect (I’m intelligent enough for Mensa, but I’d flounder in a room full of philosophers) but because God in his grace has drawn me to himself. That doesn’t mean that Christianity isn’t rational (it is very rational), but that there is more going on in our heads and souls than just rational thought.
“No amount of social contract theory or evolutionary explanation of the origin of empathy is going to change the fact that in the world of atheism, there is no absolute way to say that torturing puppies just for fun is evil.”
True, but humans blessed with an evolved sense of empathy still know it is wrong.
And, when you get right down to it, it’s that evolved sense of empathy that you yourself probably depend on when you conclude that it’s “evil” or “sinful”. I’m pretty familiar with the Bible, and I don’t believe there is a Biblical injunction on the practice.
You can call that evolved sense of empathy “the holy spirit” and believe that it was only awakened in you when you accepted Christ as your saviour, but if you do I think you’re deluding yourself.
You can claim that God’s law is eternal, and provides that absolute measure of right and wrong which you perceive is lacking in an atheistic world view, but I’d argue that that’s incorrect as well. You don’t get your morals from the Bible, because much of what is in the Bible is immoral by today’s standards. Killing your children is wrong, yet the Bible teaches that it’s okay under certain circumstances (Abraham and Isaac), because blind obedience is a “higher” value.
Offering your innocent daughters to a mob of rapists is wrong, yet Lot is portrayed as a righteous man worthy of salvation when he does so.
Ordering 42 children to be mauled by a bear is wrong, even if they make fun of your bald head.
And torturing puppies just for fun is wrong, even if the Bible doesn’t prohibit it.
I may go to hell for this, or at least Internet hell, but I’m gonna drag Stalin into this. He felt it was perfectly permissible to kill millions upon millions of Russians for his cause.
His evolved sense of empathy says it is OK. Your evolved sense of empathy says it is not OK. By relying just on peoples’ own evolved sense of empathy, there is no way to fundamentally say that it is wrong to do what Stalin did.
Not everyone, but many people, maybe even most, feel quite justified in doing what they do even when it goes so far to start harming others – their evolved sense of empathy says it is OK to rape the women of a village in which they have killed all the men and yours says it is wrong. Where is there any sort of standard to determine which one of you is right?
That’s what (I think) is meant by saying in Atheism there isn’t a way to fundamentally say torturing puppies is wrong. Michael Vick and millions of other people around the world think it is just fine according to their evolved sense of empathy.
Yes, and the various Inquisitions authorized the use of torture, including waterboarding, and executed hundreds by burning them at the stake. They probably felt quite justified too — among other rationalizations, they could always claim that mere pain and death were small prices for their victims to (unwillingly) pay, if they were purchasing salvation for their eternal souls.
The problem is that this hide-and-go-seek God becomes nothing more than a ventriloquist’s dummy for any agenda a “true believer” cares to advance. The eternal principles you claim He decrees turn out to be just as transient and provisional as the evolved sense of empathy you deem inadequate. Is it wrong to eat shrimp, or wear blends? Is there really any way you can fundamentally say?
Lot is not presented as righteous for offering his daughters to the mob at Sodom. The Bible tells the story without moral comment, but that does not mean that the Bible condones his actions. He was acting as a wicked fool in this case.
I’m not going to defend the Inquisition, but consider the following numbers:
–Spanish Inquistion, 1478-1834: between 2000 and 32000 deaths. Way too many.
–Atheists: USSR 61 million, China 35 million, Cambodia 2 million. Way way way too many.
(Source: Tough Questions Answered: Does Religion Kill?)
People have killed in Jesus’ name. But in so doing they have acted horribly inconsistently with the teachings of the New Testament. The communists have killed tens of millions, and there is nothing truly inconsistent with atheism when they have done so.
(Again, I’m not saying all atheists are like this)
Lot is presented as righteous enough to save from destruction, even after he offers his daughters to the mob. You characterize him as a wicked fool, but there is nothing in the Genesis story to suggest that God’s agents regarded him that way.
You’re correct that there is nothing inconsistent with atheism when despots kill millions. There is nothing inconsistent with atheism when someone gives his life to save a kitten in the path of a speeding truck either. Atheism doesn’t imply any moral code; neither does it imply the lack of one. Atheism doesn’t specify a balanced nutritious diet either, but it doesn’t prevent an atheist from having one.
While it is true that killing in Jesus’ name is inconsistent with the teachings of the New Testament, so is public prayer and the accumulation of material goods. Marriage is discouraged. For the most part, Christians ignore these teachings, and I suspect the Christians who forgive those who wrong them 490 times in succession are few and far between. The fact that 99% of Christians observe prohibitions on murder which 99% of atheists also observe hardly serves to distinguish them as acting in accordance with a superior moral code.
To me, the large number of acts of dubious morality which can be justified by referencing a supporting Bible verse suggests that a large portion of a moral believer’s code comes from somewhere other than the Bible, whether they realize it or not.
In most cases, I think the typical Christian’s actual moral code comes from the same place as a typical atheist’s moral code.
Sorry, I get really offended when people start throwing out ad hominem attacks on the Bible (hmmm, is it possible to have an ad hominem attack on a THING?) so I feel like I need to jump into the fray here.
The bible contains many historical stories. It does not weigh in on the morality of many of them, but relays them as factual accounts.
Regardless of that fact, the story of Lot in Sodom is presented to show us how EVIL the people of Sodom had become. Its not showing us WHAT evil is, but rather the DEGREE of evil. Lot apparently felt the only way for him to save his guests (and himself – and thereby his daughters as well) was to offer up his daughters (a lapse and display of weakness, no doubt). Note that both Lot and Abraham recognized these visitors are messengers from God. How? We dont know. These weren’t average men and apparently it was honorable to defend them.
Note the author of Genesis 19:4 goes out of the way to tell us “all” the men from “every” part of the city came to Lot’s house. Note in verse 9 that they refused Lot (did he suspect they would? After all it was one against all) and were going to harm the whole house (don’t kid yourself that a mob mentality would stop only at Lot). Finally, note that Lot never actually gave his daughters away – but based on thier behaviors (and this will sound reprehensible, as it should if you have any moral fiber) in verses 30-38 perhaps it would have been better if he had. These weren’t morally upright women we’re talking about here.
The whole story is to display the incomprehensible evil of Sodom. It is not to make a judgement on Lot. We could make similar claims about others…David, Noah, Abraham – all had moral failures but the stories about them focus on how they ultimately accomplished God’s purpose despite thier failures. The bible isn’t saying those behaviors are right, but that God can use people anyways.
The story of Elisha… Again, a mob mentality which displays the rejection and mockery of God in the form of his messenger. Its a warning. God is not a wimp and is to be taken seriously.
The youths were not innocent – a youth being innocent simply because of thier age is a modern concept and was never entertained in any ancient cultures. (Innocence in the ancient near east was gauged by how well you lived according to God’s design – and actually God’s standard hasn’t changed, only when he has decided to pass judgement, in his mercy)
Elisha was sent to these people that they might repent. When they didn’t – and thus showed they rejected God – destruction was quite literally at thier door, which is a theme that is presented over and over in the Old Testament.
Neither of these stories is presented without context. Before you decide that a bible story displays moral inconsistency you should bone up on its context.
Can we go back a bit and answer an earlier question that has been left behind?
Is there any way for an Atheist to declare something to be fundamentally wrong aside from his own evolved sense of empathy? Even large-scale, socially set standards, is just the conglomeration of individual sets of empathy which are subject to the same difficulty – how can someone fundamentally say one person’s empathetic sensibilities are superior to another’s?
On what independent scale/standard is that superiority based?
(The logicality/validity/reality of the Biblical standards is something I’m glad to discuss, but I’d like to clear up the original question first.)
Matt Strid #30 –
I don’t think “ad hominem” is quite the term you want, but that’s beside the point, so let me address your points.
You cite David, Noah, and Abraham in addition to Lot, as examples that nobody’s perfect but even imperfect people have value. I agree completely.
But then you say, “The story of Elisha… Again, a mob mentality which displays the rejection and mockery of God in the form of his messenger. Its a warning. God is not a wimp and is to be taken seriously.”
I don’t see anything in that tale that justifies calling it a “rejection and mockery of God.” Some little children are making fun of a bald guy, and 42 of them are mauled for it (I assume fatally) “in God’s name”. That’s the kind of “warning” I might expect from the Cosa Nostra, except they’d probably only kill a couple of kids.
Your justification for this barbaric act of butchery continues, “The youths were not innocent – a youth being innocent simply because of thier age is a modern concept and was never entertained in any ancient cultures. (Innocence in the ancient near east was gauged by how well you lived according to God’s design – and actually God’s standard hasn’t changed, only when he has decided to pass judgement, in his mercy)”
Yeah, there’s no “forgiving 70 times 7” in this little morality tale, is there? This is more like Columbine morality — “Those kids made fun of me, and by God I sent them a message!”
The fact is, nobody deserves to die for saying “Go up, bald man.”
And certainly not 42 little children.
The fact that you can actually pretend to justify such a massacre as “moral” is a prime example of how religion can sometimes warp people to the point where they become a danger to civil society.
“Elisha was sent to these people that they might repent. When they didn’t – and thus showed they rejected God – destruction was quite literally at thier door, which is a theme that is presented over and over in the Old Testament.”
And yet, when O. J. Simpson visited destruction on his ex-wife because she rejected him, people called him a monster.
I don’t believe this God of yours exists, but if it did I’d be ashamed to worship it.
WebMonk #31 –
I think our evolved sense of empathy, shaped by the culture into which we’re born, is really what determines what is fundamentally wrong. The problem you perceive with setting standards for society — that different people have different standards — is one that free societies such as ours resolve by discussing the differences. A century ago, most Americans thought it was wrong for people of “different races” to marry, and in many states miscegenation was illegal. That standard changed, and those laws fell by the wayside. I think the same course is inevitable for same-sex marriages, though the recent results in California demonstrate that there will be resistance.
You ask, on what scale is the “superior” standard to be measured, and I have to say it will be measured as it persuades other citizens with their own subcultures and their own sense of empathy.
I know religious people like to claim that their so-called God-given standard is objective in the fundamental way you seem to seek, but from where I sit, it’s just another arbitrary (and often inconsistent) standard. The fact that the Judeo-Christian version is rooted in the standards and mores of a barbaric ancient desert culture means that it often fails to be relevant to the conditions of the society in which we live today — witness Matt Strid’s tortured attempt to justify bear mauling as a teaching tool.
If you want to observe prohibitions on wearing mixed fabric, as specified in the Old Testament, you’re certainly free to do so.
If you want to invoke the “new covenant” as a reason to ignore such prohibitions, that’s fine with me too, but then the question of how “fundamental” and “objective” the standards are must be addressed. If it was wrong then, but it’s not wrong now, how is it any different than any other changing standard of culture and society?
If it was wrong then and wrong forever, should we go back to stoning our children for disobedience?
Regarding Elisha and the youth-mauling bears, it helps if you understand that this was probably not a group of seven-year-olds, but a pack of older teenagers. In our culture we call them “gangs” and recognize them as dangerous.
As a society then, lightsmith, were past Americans wrong to hold the things you mentioned? Thinks like mixed-race marriages, slavery, child labor. Other societies had things even more reprehensible.
Each of those things were accepted by their societies. Were those societies wrong to follow those things? For another example, slightly more modern: how could you say that it is wrong for Muslim societies to kill homosexuals?
“I think our evolved sense of empathy, shaped by the culture into which we’re born, is really what determines what is fundamentally wrong.”
For them, it’s not “fundamentally wrong” to kill homosexuals. By what you’ve said, it is perfectly all right for them to do so, in fact it is “fundamentally” right for them to do so. However, I know you would say it is fundamentally wrong to kill people because of their homosexuality.
How do you resolve this? I’m sure you must, but I don’t see how.
I might as well confess this up front, I don’t read Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. I depend on English translations for my understanding of the Bible, the Quran, and the Baghavadgida. If the one true God ever reveals herself to me, I expect she’ll speak English.
The King James Version translates it as “little children,” while more modern versions use terms such as “youths” and “young lads.” They may well be teenagers, or (more likely, I’m guessing) a group of mixed-age boys ranging from the low single digits to the early 20s.
I don’t see anything in this passage, in any translation, that would justify characterizing them as a gang. They don’t overtly threaten Elisha. They aren’t blocking his way. They aren’t pelting him with fruit, or stones. He has to turn around to curse them, and chooses to do so rather than continue on his way in silence, or turn around to instruct them or ask them to stop mocking him.
If this story actually happened as written, even if they were all 19 and older rather than 9 or younger, I don’t see how the events presented can justify having 42 of them ripped apart by bears.
Sticks and stones may break my bones
And mauling bears my flesh may tear
But words will never hurt me
By the lights of my evolved sense of justice, the punishment is horrifying orders of magnitude worse than the crime. Even so, perhaps it’s consistent with a being who, some say, condemns men, women, and children to an eternity (an ETERNITY!) of unspeakable torture for the crime of failing to believe the (inexplicably concealed) truth.
Yes, I believe earlier American societies were wrong to condone slavery and condemn mixed-race marriages. I believe current Muslim societies which execute homosexuals simply because they’re homosexuals, or oppress women by forbidding them to drive cars or appear in public unescorted by a male relative, are also wrong. While some forms of child labor would be acceptable to me (i.e., forms which didn’t interfere with a child’s education, and which didn’t endanger her physical or mental health), I think exploitative employment (sweatshops, etc.) is wrong for people of any age.
You’re correct, that from the perspective of the people who are killing homosexuals for being homosexual, the practice is considered perfectly acceptable. It’s not perfectly acceptable to me; I consider it wrong.
In a totalitarian society, including unfortunately any theocracy, my ability to convince the perpetrators that it’s wrong may be severely limited. As an outsider, I’m at least free to express my arguments and present my line of reasoning; those inside the society may be threatened or killed simply for voicing opposition.
I won’t present those arguments here, because I suspect you don’t need to be convinced. Leviticus 20:13 says practicing homosexuals should be put to death, yet no modern Christian society does so. There are still people like Phelps who would happily do so if society supported him, and a larger number of Christians who believe homosexuality is wrong, but who (I guess) think God is fully capable of doing His own killing.
How do you think we got from there to here? How do you suppose it is that people who still claim that they believe the Bible is the revealed word of God aren’t organizing homo hunting parties to “do God’s work”? I think it’s because people who are allowed to think more or less freely have largely concluded that doing so would be barbaric, that we’re better than that.
That’s right, we ourselves, mere humans, have managed to mold a better, a fairer, set of laws than the supposedly perfect and eternal God of the Bible.
In time, perhaps (leading by example) we’ll even be able to guide our Muslim brethren into the light.
Wait, I’m still puzzled as to how you can consider them (societies that support exploitation, execution, slavery, etc) to be objectively wrong. I can see how you don’t like them, and I can see how you can certainly work to change them, and they are wrong by your personal standards. (I would tend to agree with you.)
However, how can you say they are wrong by any standard that you (or a society that agrees with you) doesn’t self-generate?
Ultimately, the standards of right and wrong are self-generated that way, and don’t have any fundamental superiority over each other except by their own measurement. And, of course everyone believes their own standards to be best.
You can try to convince them that they should change their views to match yours, and they can try to convince you. (at times that “convincing” has been at the end of a sword or gun) If you say they are wrong (or they say you are wrong), all that really means is “You are wrong by my standards.” To which the reply is “Well, you are wrong by my standards, so there.”
Since all the standards are self-generated, there is no way to say that one set it objectively better than the other.
If I said they’re OBJECTIVELY wrong (and I don’t believe I did), then I misspoke. The law of gravity is an objective standard. When I label slavery as “wrong,” I am speaking as someone with a particular set of values, and using that set of values to make my determination.
I think all such standards (including those attributed to a deity) are generated by human beings, based on a set of (possibly inconsistent) values. A Muslim who thinks “obedience to Allah” is the highest value may feel no guilt whatsoever in cutting the throat of an airline pilot so he can fly the plane into a 100-story building and kill thousands of people he’s never met, if he can be convinced that this is what Allah desires. A Jain who thinks non-violence is a guiding principle may choose to die rather than take antibiotics which might harm the microbes that are killing him. As someone who believes that Allah is imaginary, and that human life is more worthy of being saved than bacterial life, I think they’re both wrong.
And you’re absolutely right, I can try to convince them by appealing to reason, or emotion, or by threatening or using violence. They can try to convince me the same way.
In a way, it’s unfortunate that there’s no objective standard of morality that’s as obvious to everyone as the law of gravity, but that’s the world in which we find ourselves. You say your book, or the God who inspired it, can provide such a standard, but the Muslim and the Jain have their own books and their own gods, so you’re left to try to persuade just as I am. As a believer, you may have an extra lever or two in certain situations that I can’t wield (“The TRUE Christian interprets the Bible the way I interpret the Bible…”), but that doesn’t make your opinions any more objective than mine.
Let me put it this way: If there really is a “supreme being” which “wants” things to happen a certain way (but for some reason (inability? perverse ambivalence?) doesn’t just “make” things happen that way (as in the law of gravity), he really needs to work on his communication skills. Maybe he’s already decided this universe is irreparable, and gone off and created another one more to his liking. That would certainly explain why we’re no longer counseled by burning bushes.
lightsmith, then as I understand it, you have no basis for criticizing anyone’s moral stance (Christian, Muslim, Jew, Atheist, Hindu, whatever) on any other basis than “It doesn’t match up with what I believe.”
If that’s the case, when you discuss the failings of the Bible, you aren’t actually saying they’re wrong by any sort of standard other than your own personally made views which are just as valid and invalid as my own views or those of the Biblical writers.
Once our views start to clash in practice, then things start to have impact. But, here on the Internet where we type soon-to-be-forgotten words at each other, all we’re really saying is “I disagree with you and you disagree with me and we’re both equally valid and invalid.”
There’s a massive difference between saying someone is wrong, and saying someone doesn’t agree with your personal standards.
We can have, and I hope we do have, conversations exploring all sorts of different things, Biblical and otherwise. But, let’s avoid terms that suggest that the Jewish customs of stoning homosexuals and Muslim customs of beheading them are “bad” or “wrong” and just say that they clash with my/our personal views, and that’s it. We can’t claim that our personal views are right and theirs are wrong, except as measured by our own preferences.
At least, that’s how I understand what you’re saying.
As far as God wanting things a certain way but not making them a certain way, the reasons you put forward there are worthy of Hitchens and Dawkins – no serious thought or investigation. You seem to be familiar with parts of the Bible, so this one should be easy if approached seriously and not sarcastically. However, I don’t want to sidetrack my earlier point.
Do you ever make it around the Northern Virginia area? If so, we could head out for drinks sometime and talk ourselves blue at each other in that thing called “real life”. Conversations on the Internet are “fun” for certain values of “fun”, but good philosophical conversations are much better over beer, or better yet, whiskey. :-)
I’m going to be gone for the weekend, so my Internet presence will be spotty. If the conversation dies out over the weekend then I’ll catch you on the next argument, lightsmith!
WebMonk, I usually manage to frame a better argument than “it doesn’t match up with what I believe,” but in the end, that may be what it boils down to.
I find that most people, unless they’re hopeless sociopaths, have a set of core beliefs that I can appeal to, such as “It’s better to help people than to hurt people.” I would regard that as one of my fundamental beliefs, and if I’m arguing a moral position with someone who shares that fundamental belief, it’s entirely possible that one of us can persuade the other.
If someone holds the contrary view, that it’s better to hurt people than to help them, I may not be able to demonstrate objectively that they’re wrong, but (depending on the degree to which they’re willing to act on their belief) I’m willing to step outside the realm of abstract philosophical debate if necessary.
When I argue that certain stories in the Bible seem to be advocating or promoting the “wrong” behavior, more often than not my argument comes down to the proposition that it’s better to help people than to hurt them. Sometimes the Bible advocates that position too, but sometimes (i.e., Abraham and Isaac), some other principle (i.e., obedience to God) is portrayed as more important. To me, that’s wrong, because “obedience to God” isn’t a principle that I attach any value to, but to you it might be right, because you agree that “obedience to God” is a higher value than “it’s better to help people than to hurt people.”
Or maybe you believe in an eternal soul, and regard the act of separating souls from flesh as no more significant on God’s cosmic scale than paring a fingernail. Some crazy woman in Texas thought so, and drowned her five children to save their souls before they could be corrupted by the world and lost for all eternity. Can I show “objectively” that she was wrong? Perhaps not, but I can guarantee that I’d have choked her unconscious and dragged her to the police station rather than watch her murder her children, even though they were, after all, her children and not mine.
She had the same core belief that I do, that it’s better to help the kids than to hurt them, but she had another core belief that I don’t have, as I just stated. If I’d been given an opportunity to try to persuade her, and time enough to explore options other than choking her unconscious, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. Religion is just a complete thought stopper sometimes. I’m glad there are folks like you and geochristian for whom that isn’t true, because people like you have a better chance of reaching people like her than people like me do.
The last time I was in Northern Virginia was 1999, according to the timestamp on my Monticello video. I’m not much of a drinker, but I can nurse a beer (or a Scotch) all night long, if the conversation’s good. If you’re ever in southern California, I’d be happy to meet you over drinks or the dinner table.
And I’m going to be in classes Saturday and Sunday myself, so we can continue this discussion on Monday, if you care to.
I suspect I might be delving too deeply into the theoretical underpinnings of morality here. Or, maybe I’m getting carried away with minutia.
I checked on this thread Saturday afternoon, but wasn’t in a position to type anything. I read it and had a “first thought” that I probably would have typed down. Then, I had to do nothing (as far as posting) and when I came back this lunchtime, I re-read, thought about what I would have written, and thought “Gee, I’m a pedantic ass sometimes.”
I would much rather not come across as an ass, so I think I should give up the “basis of morality” issue. I personally find it mystifying how a person can operate with moral sets based on personal preference. When you talk about it being better to help people than hurt people, my mind starts screaming “But WHY is it better?!?”
Then I (hopefully) look at myself and realize I am asking a person to explain why they think its better to help than hurt. That seems to be getting to the point of silliness.
Sorry that my argumentativeness got carried away. I consider it a VERY good thing that my family didn’t discover the world of debate until I had graduated. I really don’t need any encouragement to argue, and my siblings are more laid back than me and more willing to let things be. :^)
If the topic comes up again after my nit-picky-meter cools off, I’ll see you then!
Webmonk and Lightsmith:
Thanks for carrying on a great (and civil) conversation over the weekend. I was whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and rappelling over the weekend, which was even more fun than exchanging ideas over the internet!
WebMonk, I don’t think you’ve come across as an ass (I enjoy discussing issues too), and I think it’s a valid question. Unfortunately, my most honest answer still comes down to “choice”. I read today that the word “heresy” comes from the Greek word meaning “choose,” and I wear the label proudly. Why should I be bound to the standards of a goatherd living in 4000 BCE, who had no inkling about the world into which I’ve been born?
For him, “thou shalt not steal” only applied to material goods. He had no concept of “intellectual property.” If his neighbor devised a better way of making carts, he would have regarded it as ridiculous if his neighbor attempted to prevent him from using the same method. Yet we, as a society, have chosen to codify that standard in patent law.
Choice, shaped by the lessons of history and culture, but based on the conditions of today. While it isn’t perfect (what is?), I can’t imagine a better way.
I think your system comes down to choice too, if you’re completely honest. While it may be weighted more toward the text you have previously chosen as a guide, neither that book nor any other has all the answers. Someone else, in a recent comment elsewhere on this board, quoted a verse in Romans that said “For the law is written on their hearts.” If that isn’t a prescription for individual (and, collectively, societal) moral choice, I don’t know what it is.
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