Of Plato and Poultry Poop

Richard Wade here.

A few days ago, Hemant brought to our attention an article written by Randal Rauser, “Atheism: A Cost/Benefit Analysis.” He is an associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary, Edmonton, Canada. Hemant’s post brought on a small avalanche of well-crafted rebuttals both on this blog and over on the site where Mr. Rauser had published, the Christian Post.

Now it appears that Mr. Rauser has re-posted his exact same article, but all the comments and arguments that very adroitly countered his assertions have been deleted. My registration for commenting there, and apparently those of other people have been eliminated. So far, no new comments have been posted, if they can even be posted.

What a very courageous and honest thing to do.*

To his credit, at first Mr. Rauser responded several times to those who visited his site, but during the now-deleted back-and-forth with the atheist commenters, (which was much more interesting than his article) he flat out refused to even consider the real world evidence that refutes his remarks and makes them irrelevant, saying that he was arguing only from philosophical constructs, and that he had showed that atheist morality had no philosophical reliability. The fact that millions of actual atheists are living actual lives of exemplary morality is simply of no concern to him. (Ivory tower living will do that to you.) When several atheists appealed to him to consider the real world negative consequences that his remarks have on those whose ideas he thinks he describes, he said only that that was “regrettable.”

So if it works philosophically but not actually, that’s good enough, and if your elegant thought experiment hurts real people on the ground, oh well.

I guess a Christian theologian who apparently spends most of his time cloistered in a seminary and who builds his arguments only from whatever he finds while blissfully floating around in Plato’s Realm of Forms is going to become a little thin-skinned. When confronted by “the Solids,” you know, those scary three-dimensional beings who somewhere far away on Planet Earth practice the atheism that he so poorly pretends to understand actually got in his face, he did what so many theists wish they could do, he made them all disappear with a single click. Ahhh. So easy. It is as if they never were. Now Mr. Rauser can get back to his lovely, delicate philosophical embroidery, without any threat of it being messed up by those dreadful self-soiling creatures out there in the stormy, dusty, and oh-so philosophically inconvenient Realm of Material Things. Ugh.

* The asterisk indicates that the preceding sentence is heavily laced with deep, biting sarcasm. Read antonyms for the two adjectives.

UPDATE: Mr. Rauser has published two new posts, one saying that the deletions were due to a crash on the Christian Post site, and the other admonishing people like me to not think the worst of people.
Hey, if I’ve become too cynical of late, I’m glad to be wrong about the cause of the deletions. I’ll take a wait-and-see on that issue. My opinions about his rarefied philosophical head games being entirely irrelevant in the face of solid reality and being harmful to real people remain unchanged.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    actually, I guess I’ll play devil’s advocate.

    It seemed to me that although Rauser *did* have some rather silly things to say about atheists (and I too am locked out of Christianpost’s commenting system after all), he did have (what he thought was) a point behind it all.

    He points to the nascent morality of atheists and others and then asks how we can have such reactions to breaches of these moralities if they are not objective.

    I have no problem with subjective values awash in a sea of objective meaninglessness, so I instead argued that even if atheism necessarily implied nihilism (which I don’t think Rauser argued that case too well), this wouldn’t be any problem for me and it most certainly wouldn’t inspire me to play with bears. But I understand too that someone who wants to believe in objective morality would have to take different arguments that I’m not prepared to take up.

  • Freak
  • Miko

    I would argue that the whole point of philosophy is to understand reality. It’s nonsensical to say that an argument is philosophically sound if its contradicted by reality (although we have to be careful to reject such sophistries as the Moorean shift). This is not to downplay reality, but rather to emphasize that a perceived contradiction between philosophy and reality is a strong invitation to reexamine both the philosophical premises and the real-world data.

    And in this particular case, the idea that an objective set of deity-supplied morals are desirable is incorrect. Since morals exist solely to further social harmony and individual flourishing (eudaimonia), any set of ‘objective’ morals imposed by coercion can be seen to be de facto destructive of both ends that morality is intended to serve.

  • http://atheistsandchristians.com Mike aka MonolithTMA

    From the 2nd article: “When it comes to philosophy of religion and theology, each of these authors writes with all the sophistication of a college freshman.”

    So do many Christian authors.

  • mikespeir

    So much of what falls under the heading “philosophy” seems to be, “If I could have the world and the universe just the way I want them, then my beliefs would make perfect sense.”

  • Johann

    Hm, that sounds familiar, Mike. Consider a spherical cow;)

  • grazatt

    As Buggs Bunny would say “What a Maroon”

  • Matto the Hun

    * The asterisk indicates that the preceding sentence is heavily laced with deep, biting sarcasm. Read antonyms for the two adjectives.

    Ahhh, when I saw the asterisk I read it as a reference to Kurt Vonnegut’s drawing of an asshole. Which works just as well in my estimation, though maybe not quite your style(?)

    All in all looks like Rauser had a dishonest reply to the arguments to his dishonest assertions.

  • David Ellis

    It’s nonsensical to say that an argument is philosophically sound if its contradicted by reality (although we have to be careful to reject such sophistries as the Moorean shift).

    The argument that there are no moral truths if atheism is true is not, however, addressed by saying that there are atheists who behave in ways that we approve of.

    If that’s the way the atheist commenters responded and didn’t address the philosophical argument itself then I agree with Rauser that their objections don’t actually raise any sound objection to his argument.

    And given the sound objections to his position that actually exist, like the euthyphro dilemma and the difficulty (impossibility, IMO) in providing a sound connection between A. god exists and B. there are moral truths such that A necessarily entails B, then its a shame that they missed the opportunity to address the actual argument.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    To continue playing devil’s advocate, I’d like to fully agree with David Ellis’s comment.

    Even now, are any of us addressing the argument? Or is everyone too busy denouncing the argument? I recognize I’m a pot calling the kettle black (but then again, takes one to know one?) because to me, it doesn’t matter if there are or are not overarcing moral truths.

  • Infinite Monkey

    Well, I would think the Golden Rule, an ideology that predates christianity, would make sense, both philosophically, and logically. Philisophically because it treats all people as equals, and logically since if you do no wrong against others willingly, then you have less of a chance of retribution.

    Feel free to tear my arguement up-as if I really have to request it.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.
  • http://www.tacomf.com JTorch

    I am ashamed to say that this guy is in my city.

  • Richard Wade

    If that’s the way the atheist commenters responded and didn’t address the philosophical argument itself then I agree with Rauser that their objections don’t actually raise any sound objection to his argument.

    The problem is that now we can no longer see what philosophical arguments were offered against his position. I think there were several, but I was focusing on my angle, that the abundance of contradictory reality makes his position irrelevant, even if he thinks it is sound and consistent from inside his ethereal conceptual system.

    Ah, (thank you, Andrew) I see that Mr. Rauser is now claiming that the deletions are due to a crash on the Christian Post site, and he is appealing to people like me to “not think the worst of people.” I try not to. I really work hard at that, and have the bruises to prove it. I hope I’m wrong. Dealing with so many infuriatingly dishonest and disingenuous theists has left me prone to cynicism. We’ll see.

    My opinion that his position is irrelevant and also harmful to real people still stands, regardless of the cause of the deletions.

  • David Ellis

    I think there were several, but I was focusing on my angle, that the abundance of contradictory reality makes his position irrelevant, even if he thinks it is sound and consistent from inside his ethereal conceptual system.

    Its not ethereal or irrelevent (at least not in the opinion people like me who are interested in philosophy and think it has relevence to the real world) .

    He was taking a position on the philosophical question of what are the necessary preconditions for morality to be more than a matter of personal preference—of what it takes for there to be a fact of the matter on moral questions.

    Its not an insignificant question—even if he takes a position on the issue that I think is pretty clearly mistaken.

  • Luther

    How fortunate that God strikes a blog at the opportune time to trash the comments but spares the post. Glory Be!

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Luther, the posts had to be reuploaded from scratch.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    his rarefied philosophical head games

    You give him too much credit. I have to mention that I have read several of his recent articles, and was not impressed with them on the philosophical level. For example, his post about atheist morality made no mention of divine command dilemma first expounded in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. Divine command ethics has never countered this criticism in the last 2400 years. As a result, even many theistic philosophers of ethics favour ethical systems which do not rely on supernatural dispensation.

  • Richard Wade

    David Ellis,

    Its not ethereal or irrelevent (at least not in the opinion people like me who are interested in philosophy and think it has relevence to the real world) .

    He was taking a position on the philosophical question of what are the necessary preconditions for morality to be more than a matter of personal preference—of what it takes for there to be a fact of the matter on moral questions.

    Its not an insignificant question—even if he takes a position on the issue that I think is pretty clearly mistaken.

    To be clear, I’m not dismissing all of philosophy as irrelevant. A philosophy or a philosophical argument has relevance to the real world if it can explain and describe what is observed in the real world, and can give us helpful guidance through the real world. If there is no connection to the real world, if it merely verifies thoughts with other thoughts within its own thought-world, but none of those thoughts have any correlation with three-dimensional things and people, then please explain to me what its relevance is.

    Let us assume Mr. Rauser somehow manages to show within his own non-corporeal thought system that atheism precludes morality. Then we are still left with the nagging unexplained disconnect with the reality of large numbers of morally behaving atheists. What is the explanation?
    That the atheists are very good at faking morality?
    That they are not really atheists?
    That they are behaving morally only because they’re surrounded by well armed theists?
    These are absurd and Mr. Rauser offers no better explanation. In the lost discussion he unabashedly dismissed the disconnect of his position with real life, saying that that is not important as long as his philosophical argument is sound and consistent. So he is unapologetically irrelevant and only marginally concerned about the support he is inadvertently giving to anti-atheist bigots.

    Build your philosophy from the ground up, reaching for the sky. If you build it starting in the sky, your philosophy will quite possibly never touch the ground.

  • llewelly

    Now it appears that Mr. Rauser has re-posted his exact same article, but all the comments and arguments that very adroitly countered his assertions have been deleted. My registration for commenting there, and apparently those of other people have been eliminated. So far, no new comments have been posted, if they can even be posted.

    What a very courageous and honest thing to do.*

    I’m sure Jesus would have done the same.

  • http://harrytsc.blogspot.com/ Harry Tomlin

    Each of us learn our standards of behavior (moral code) as we grow to adulthood. It is molded by our early caretakers and most influenced by our desire to be liked and respected by all our friends and neighbors. The moral standards promoted by religions are often discussed but rarely practiced in peoples day to day lives. Each of us prefer our personal standards.

    The Bible is taken as the gospel truth by many religions and they accept the many impossibilities, distortions of reality and blatant lies as true. I wanted to know how much truth could be found in the Bible so I studied and researched it for several years and wrote a book titled, The Gospel Truth: A Reality Check. You can check it out at:

    http://www.eloquentbooks.com/TheGospelTruth-ARealityCheck.html

  • David Ellis

    Let us assume Mr. Rauser somehow manages to show within his own non-corporeal thought system that atheism precludes morality. Then we are still left with the nagging unexplained disconnect with the reality of large numbers of morally behaving atheists. What is the explanation?
    That the atheists are very good at faking morality?
    That they are not really atheists?

    No. He simply believes that moral truth DOES exist and that atheists intuitively recognize Moral Truth even if they fail to identify its source.

    This is an idea with a long history in christian apologetics. I’m surprised you haven’t encountered it before. I hear them spouting it (usually quoting CS Lewis or, sometimes, William Lane Craig) all the time.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Let us assume Mr. Rauser somehow manages to show within his own non-corporeal thought system that atheism precludes morality. Then we are still left with the nagging unexplained disconnect with the reality of large numbers of morally behaving atheists. What is the explanation?

    This doesn’t address Rauser’s question and in fact puts words into his mouth. He doesn’t say that atheism precludes morality, but rather that it precludes *objective* morality. So, we are left we two options: to suggest that our morals are subjective or to come up with an argument that objective morality can sprout without a source. And what Rauser is counting on, I guess, is for atheists to recognize that they do believe in some kind of objective morality (so Rauser’s point, *actually*, is to say that atheists are in fact very moral, but then he asks why, if this is so and atheists accept objective morality, that they won’t accept a source of it.)

    And what people have been saying is that no one has addressed this. Instead, they’ve gone on tangents which are still being gone on in this topic. David Ellis has really gotten a good grasp of this

  • Richard Wade

    David, thank you for that explanation. Sounds like one more invisible, intangible and unmeasurable magical force we’re being asked to believe in. The good side of the Force.

    So, if atheists can simply intuitively recognize “Moral Truth” without all the indoctrination, dogma or belief in the rest of the mumbo-jumbo, then what is the need for religion in order to be moral? I mean, that’s the Christians’ favorite argument from bad consequence, that without religion we’ll all become immoral.

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    How do we simply intuitively recognize “Moral Truth?” For example, how do we come to have such a negative reaction to indoctrination, dogma, belief and the rest of the mumbo-jumbo?

    Rauser would probably state this is a concession to a Moral Truth that he would say requires a deity. It doesn’t mean that Christianity or any other religion has the lockdown on objective morality or that God/Jehovah/whatever is the deity who created it, but rather, for our morality to have any backing, there does have to be *some* force in place.

  • Richard Wade

    Andrew S,
    Thank you for that clarification. I really don’t understand what is the oooh terrible fear of morality being subjective. It’s not like all people use a strictly individualistic subjectivity. We follow the social norms learned from our families, communities and cultures. What is acceptable is a social contract hammered out over centuries of finding what works for the society and what does not. Even within a single major religion, one culture will say a behavior is moral while another culture will say it is immoral. The religion has not unified those opinions with its over-arching “objective moral truth.”

  • http://irresistibledisgrace.wordpress.com Andrew S.

    Richard, that was ultimately my point and argument too. But even as I make the case, I recognize that for someone who wants to believe in objective morality, that sounds woefully inadequate. In the end, his charge that atheism cannot provide a backing for objective morality is not defeated (even though, as you say, it’s not like any religion has a monopoly on it either, even though each *says* there is some objective morality)

  • David Ellis

    David, thank you for that explanation. Sounds like one more invisible, intangible and unmeasurable magical force we’re being asked to believe in. The good side of the Force.

    I didn’t say it was plausible. Only that its their position.

    So, if atheists can simply intuitively recognize “Moral Truth” without all the indoctrination, dogma or belief in the rest of the mumbo-jumbo, then what is the need for religion in order to be moral?

    Those making this argument generally don’t claim that religion is required to be moral. They almost always acknowledge that atheists can be moral then go on to explain that, though they can be moral, that there is, if they are right about atheism being true, no reason to call anything right or wrong—other than in the sense of being approved of by us or our culture.

    They’re wrong. But that’s their position. And its one that’s not addressed by simply pointing out that atheists can live in ways we find commendable.

    We need to, and can, address the serious philosophical problems with their position.

  • David Ellis

    I really don’t understand what is the oooh terrible fear of morality being subjective.

    Nor do I. Subjective doesn’t mean arbitrary.

    There’s an error, right from the start, in most discussion of the basis of morality in our equating “objective morality” with “moral truth”.

    Truths can be grounded in the subjective. Agony, as an obvious example, is “bad” or intrinsically undesirable in any reasonable sense of the word. And this is true, not in spite of agony being a subjective state of consciousness, but precisely because of the content of this subjective state. To look for the reason agony is a bad thing to be in anywhere BUT the subjective is to fail from the start.

    The people searching for moral truth with the idea of objective morality in mind are like a man whose searched the whole house for his glasses without realizing that he’s wearing them.

  • http://luckyatheist.blogspot.com Mike Caton

    I commented on Rauser’s article, and I was impressed that he took the time to respond (thoughtfully) to many if not most of the comments. This is not usually the case for theist articles and his willingness to engage in discussion is really positive. I would be surprised if the deletion in comments was from a change of heart rather than a technical problem.

  • http://www.quietatheist.com Slugsie

    I had a bit of fun with the original article on my own blog:
    QuietAtheist


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