Atheism Debunked! Again!

On his Dangerous Idea blog Victor Reppert refers to a 2007 article by Washington Post writer Michael Gerson:

I did not see this article at the time, and my reason for commenting on it now is that the arguments it gives are ones we have heard many times and ones that will be heard again ad nauseam. Though hackneyed in the extreme, these arguments need to be addressed again and again, and their fallacies must be pointed out for the umpteenth (actually, umpthousandth) time. Why squash bad arguments repeatedly, knowing that no matter how thoroughly you do it, they will soon pop up again, sometimes in slightly disguised garb? Because canards are like weeds. You cannot eradicate them, but you can, by diligent weeding, control the damage they do. Another reason for paying attention to these arguments is that, really, they are almost certainly convictions that motivate even some of the most sophisticated theists. If theistic philosophers were compelled to admit that the whole program of natural theology is a sham, and all of its arguments worthless, it is a good bet that their faith would not budge an iota. The reason is not that they are unreasonable or deceptive people, rather, the reasons they give in the philosophical journals—modal ontological arguments, Kalaam arguments, etc.—are not their real, personal reasons for belief. I think Gerson articulates some of their real reasons.

Gerson is reacting against the “new atheist” books that were high on the bestseller lists when he was writing. The “new atheists” were often chided, accused of boorish tones and disdainful attitudes towards believers. Yet, when I read something like Gerson’s essay, I can’t help feeling like Billy Jack in that godawful movie when the goons dusted his little Native American friend with flour: “I try very hard to control my temper, but when I see something like this, I JUST GO BERSERK!” Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may have been disdainful, but when I hear the smug, sanctimonious, self-satisfaction with which Gerson delivers his platitudinous polemic, well, I try very hard to control my temper…

Gerson says:

“So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma.”

Hmmmm (still controlling). Well, maybe it might be good to look and see what some philosophers have actually said before too quickly making such sweeping pronouncements. Consider Aristotle. Aristotle is not an atheist. He has a sort of God. His God is the Unmoved Mover, the ultimate reason for the eternal movement of the heavenly spheres. Aristotle’s God thinks eternally on thinking; he has no thoughts to spare for the likes of us. Aristotle’s God provides no basis or motivation for morality, and hence Aristotle’s ethic is entirely secular and naturalistic, an ethic quite consistent with atheism. Why be good? Aristotle says that you should be good because only by practicing virtue can you achieve happiness. This sounds like a shallow answer, but the appearance of superficiality is not due to Aristotle, but to the extreme degree to which our culture has degraded and debased the notion of “happiness.” Consumer culture has equated happiness with beautiful 22 year olds with 1% body fat enjoying an endless supply of consumer goods and pleasurable sensations. Hence, we tend to regard people as happy who are, in fact, miserable, worthless, fools.

Aristotle’s word is eudaimonia, which is not well translated by “happiness,” but better approximated as “flourishing,” or “well being,” or “self fulfillment.” Virtue (“arête”) is better translated as “excellence.” You achieve excellence as a human being by practicing the intellectual and moral virutes, and only those who attain such excellence can experience the full richness and fulfillment hat it is possible for a human creature to enjoy. Eudaimonia is the condition in which ALL of our deepest needs are met and we are fully functional as the type of beings nature has adapted us to be: Rational creatures living in society with other rational creatures. I shall not summarize the entirety of the Nicomachean Ethics here, but I would assign it for reading by Mr. Gerson and all others inclined to make such facile and fatuous pronouncements. (Aristotle, BTW, is, of course, not the only philosopher who gives reasons to be moral that do not appeal to God)

Gerson also says:

“Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.”

As discussed in older posts, William Lane Craig says much the same thing in places, and my reply to Gerson is the same as to Craig: Anyone who seriously worries about the sun growing dim and cold in billions of years does not need a God. He needs a life. Love, harmony, and sympathy are things we humans can give to each other. God has nothing to do with it. Indeed, God clearly does not intend for us to find love, harmony, and sympathy because, obviously, so many deserving people do not get them. Ah, but they will get them in heaven, right? Isn’t that the hope Gerson is really intimating? So, let’s get this straight: Life is meaningless, a cruel joke, unless we cherish a fantasy of pie in the sky, up on high, by and by, when we die. Otherwise, why not just go kill yourself (or your neighbor) right now? Isn’t this really what Gerson is saying? Isn’t he saying that our desire for love, harmony, and sympathy amounts to nothing in the end unless those desires are eternally satisfied? If this is what he is asserting, then the assertion is not only false but infantile. On the contrary, it is because the good things in life are ephemeral that they have such value. Atheists say love and live NOW, because now may be all you get.

ISIS Violence IS Religious
Interview with Prof. Axgrind
Lessing’s Broad Ditch and Brad’s Lesser Ditch
Jesus on Faith – Part 6
About Keith Parsons
  • Steven Carr

    'We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them.'

    And we long for food because our overlords intend us to fatten ourselves up before they eat us?

    'Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.'

    Muslims and Jews , of course, have an objective way to judge the conduct of people who eat pork or drink alcohol.

    'Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer.'

    So Gerson claims atheists cannot questions that cannot be answered questions, while theists have answers that cannot be questioned.

    'And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn.'

    Ooh, wouldn't Gerson just love it if had some real evidence.

    But all he can do is point at people and say that if there was some evidence, they wouldn't believe it.

    In Gerson's fantasy world, squadrons of angels land on lawns and prove him right.

    And he would so love to be able to prove himself right.

    Keep on dreaming, Gerson. No angels are going to appear, no matter how much you wish they did.

  • Jeffrey A. Myers

    How do theists account for the fact that if one conducts a comparative analysis of highly religious societies versus highly illreligous societies, highly irreligious societies end up being far more non-violent, have far lower crime rates, far more egalitarian justice systems, greater personal freedom, far less political terrorism, far more generous populations, etc.

    If Theism and God truly are necessary preconditions for a moral society, why is it that those societies in which the greatest number of citizens have consciously chosen to reject the Divine Will nevertheless ACT in a highly moral fashion?

    It seems as though this is precisely why Theists are so uniquely is uniquely unsuited to leadership precisely because its emphasis and focus is not on solving the present problems that exist in the here and now, but on preparing the soul for whatever it is that allegedly waits for us in the next life.

    This is why atheists are uniquely suited for leadership. Why those societies which have the least interest in religion or God ACT in such a moral fashion. Because after looking at the evidence, we recognize intuitively that there will be no reckoning for the wicked in the next life, so we strive to ensure that the wicked are punished in this one. And similarly, Atheists recognize that there will be no justice or reward for those who suffer unjustly in this life. So we must work tirelessly to ensure that this world contains as little pointless suffering as possible. To ensure that EVERY one of us has the longest most fulfilling, most comfortable life possible. Because this is all we have, and nothing is more sad than a life that comes into being and knows nothing but suffering. Such a thing is heartbreaking. Because there is no light at the end of the tunnel unless other humans provide it. To wait on the justice of the divine in the afterlife, is to wait in vain.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    One can discuss the relationship between morality and ontological beliefs on the conceptual level and on the practical level. It’s a good idea not to confuse the two, the way Michael Gerson does in his article.

    The theistic argument from morality works on the conceptual level. It says that in a naturalistic reality there is no right and wrong. Beliefs about right and wrong are social conventions, or some kind of practical inventions. The theistic argument here is based on the premise that some actions, such as to torture a child for fun, are intrinsically wrong. Even if in some context the convention or invention went the other way, such an action would remain wrong. In conclusion theism appears to be quite compatible with our moral sense, whereas naturalism has several very problematic implications (for example the absence of libertarian free will implies the absence of personal responsibility). Keith mentions Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia and how it should be translated as “self fulfillment”. But observe that personal self fulfillment makes excellent sence on theism, whereas it is not at all clear what it means on naturalism.

    When confronted with such conceptual arguments, which in short claim that in a reality without God there is no morality (or meaning), some naturalists react by pointing out the fact that they are moral beings (or that their lives have meaning). They are right of course, but they are not responding to the argument; if anything they are supporting it. The situation is analogous to A claiming that without electricity the phone doesn’t work, and B responding: “That’s nonsense; I don’t believe in the existence of electricity and yet my phone works just fine”.

    The practical problem from evil is that, all other things being equal, a naturalist is apt to be less moral than a theist. I think that’s obviously true because, all other things being equal, the theist has one more reason to be moral, especially the belief in cosmic justice (which is common in all religions), i.e. that come what may it is never the case that a good action is in vain and never the case that an evil action is a smart choice. On theism the fact that nonetheless so many naturalists are moral people represents no problem whatsoever, because it is an implication of one of the basic premises of theism, namely that God has created all people in His/Her image, and thus with the intrinsic capacity for discerning what’s good and with an intrinsic love and appreciation for the good (which of course conflict with the baser instincts of human nature). Having said that, missing an additional reason for doing good does on average have a negative effect on one’s actions, indeed an effect which according to some statistical studies is not only measurable but quite significant.

    Now there is also the idea that it is rather the naturalist who has an additional reason for doing good, namely the belief that her life will shortly end and that’s it. I must say that idea makes no sense to me. Keith says that believing that the good things in life are ephemeral increase their value. That’s obviously not typically the case. And where it is the case it often worsens the practical problem. So, for example, if I believe that this life is all there is then I will tend to value my life and the life of my neighbors (on whom I depend) more, and therefore I will tend to find it acceptable if, in order to protect our life, a huge number of innocent foreigners must die. If I believe that this life is all there is then a neighbor’s money I find in a lost purse will be more valuable to me, and thus I will be less likely to return it. Etc.

    Keith also speaks of how we now tend to equate eudaimonia with material consumism. I agree with him, and I think that this world-wide tendency is driving humanity to the abyss. I personally see no force which can conceivably stop the madness, except religion and its ideals of non-violence, humility, forgiveness, material poverty, love for all creatures, and love for truth.

  • RichardW


    No one has shown how the existence of God would make any moral facts true. I seem to remember that we discussed this once before, and ultimately you were forced to fall back on saying that God is good by definition, which just begs the question.

  • Atheist Wars



    the ungrateful bastards full of hubris…

    a bullet for your head, traitor

    And finally, the *only* man in Minnesota who says there is no God has suddenly become an arbiter on mental health…


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