Answers to Objections

Ten years ago I had a debate in Colorado Springs with Methodist minister, the Rev. Trigg. Nice man and a stimulating debate. The topic was “Theism vs. Secular Humanism as a basis for ethics.” I wrote up a set of answers to anticipated audience objections, which I do not think I have ever posted anywhere. I think they might be of interest here:

Objection: God is the only possible foundation for ethics. Because God’s nature is absolutely and essentially holy, all value must ultimately flow from God. Nothing in the merely human realm would require us to be other than totally selfish. Only the sacredness of God can make values objective and not just the arbitrary products of human desire or choice. Further, only an encounter with the sacredness of God can give us the motivation to be good.

Answer: The quick and dirty answer is that the God of the Bible is a homicidal ogre who could not possibly figure into any acceptable system of ethics. While such an answer is decisive against fundamentalism, it leaves the philosophical argument untouched–namely that without a transcendent ground, ethics cannot have an objective basis. However, there is something very odd in saying that all value must flow from or be supremely manifested in a supernatural being. Holiness is where you find it, and it can be found everywhere, as the ancient pagans realized. Pagans found more sanctity in the whispering of wind in the trees than in chanted litanies, and more awe in the waxing and waning of the moon than in sacraments. The greatest sin of Christianity is one I did not mention in my opening address. Christianity did its greatest harm to humanity by reifying the sacred, identifying it with a remote, transcendent being, and so removing it from the world. This effectively put the sacred under lock and key, making it accessible only through priests, creeds, and sacraments. In the pagan view, the sacred is not a distant heavenly being, it is something “far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it–a sacredness that pervades all things and is available to all persons at all times. I have some sympathy with the view that values can arise from an encounter with sacredness, but I find sanctity in nature, art, and, most eminently, in loving human relationships.

Objection: Though many sins have been committed in the name of Christ, there can be no doubt that Christianity has done far more good than harm. Can you name any other institution or organization that has done as much good as the Christian Church?

Answer: Can you name any other institution that has done as much harm as the Christian Church? Well, maybe the Nazi Party in Germany from 1933-45. After all, the Second World War, and its concomitant holocausts, resulted in the deaths of over sixty million human beings. The Christian Church, despite all its inquisitions, massacres, crusades, witch-hunts, etc., probably never reached that number. Remember though, that as Carroll and others have persuasively argued, the seeds of maniacal Nazi antisemitism fell on ground well plowed and fertilized by Christian anti-Judaism. Centuries of Christian hatred of “the perfidious Jew” made Nazi antisemitism possible, if not inevitable. Well what about Mao and the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960′s? Tens of millions were killed then; surely the Christian Church cannot be blamed for that. No, but look at what such a “defense” of Christianity has to do. Only by comparing the Christian record to the crimes of the greatest monsters of history can the Church’s record be made to look relatively benign. This is a pretty sorry showing for an institution that was supposed to be the Light of the World. As for the claim that the Church has done overall more good than harm, I can only ask “By whose measure?” or “Weighed in what scale?” How do we weigh a missionary’s solicitous care for a leper in the scale with, say, the murder of the philosopher Hypatia by a mob of Christian fanatics? Given such imponderables, I regard the claim of the Church’s overall goodness as quite meaningless.

Objection: You hold the classical Greeks up as a model. Surely you know that the Greeks were slave holders, regarded all non-Greeks as “barbarians,” kept their wives sequestered at home while they fooled around with prostitutes and fancy boys, fought continuously, and had governments that alternated between demagoguery and autocracy. The Athenians massacred the Melians when the latter refused to join the Athenian Empire. The Spartans beat boys to death to show how they could endure pain without complaint. Even your hero Aristotle justifies slavery and sexism. How can you hold such people up for us to emulate?

Answer: All ancient peoples held slaves and, with the partial exception of the Egyptians, kept women in inferior positions. In their vices, the Greeks were no worse, and in many ways better than their contemporaries. By comparison, Christianity has unquestionably been the most intolerant of all the major religions. Even Islam, at the height of its expansionism, gave its conquered peoples three choices–convert to Islam, pay tribute, or die. That’s two more choices than Christian crusaders usually gave their victims. Getting back to the Greeks, they were surely not greater hypocrites than the Founding Fathers of our country, who preached liberty in a nation where chattel slavery flourished and where the Founding Mothers were denied the vote. Yet if we can continue to be inspired by Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Adams, surely we can turn to Homer or Aristotle also. Remember also, that the sins of Christianity I noted are deeply rooted in Christian doctrine, not merely lapses from an ideal. The basic message of Christianity is simple and brutal: Believe in Jesus Christ and you will enjoy eternity in heaven; disbelieve and you will suffer eternity in hell. Intolerance inevitably follows from this most basic of Christian affirmations. Humanity is divided into two groups–those who think like us (the saved) and those who perversely persist in disagreeing (the damned). The self-righteousness of the allegedly elect is an inevitable consequence. Of course, self-righteousness is one of the most seductive of human pleasures, but it is also one of the ugliest forms intolerance takes.

Objection: Christianity is the moral basis of our nation. The Founding Fathers clearly recognized that the people needed the inspiration and motivation of religion to promote civic virtue. This is why they called for national days of prayer and quoted scripture so often in their orations and writings. They recognized that only a religious people would have the virtues of self-restraint and industry necessary for the maintenance of a free society. Only religious people will realize that freedom does not mean license and that all real freedom goes hand-in-hand with self-discipline and responsibility. Therefore the Founding Fathers were right to inculcate religion to promote a virtuous citizenry.

Answer: Again a short answer beckons: If the moral character of America is due to Christianity, then it must have inspired us to enslave Africans and exterminate Native Americans. Now if anyone thinks I am being merely flippant here, he or she should read Forrest G. Wood’s The Arrogance of Faith. Wood carefully shows how many of the most eminent and orthodox American churchmen not only condoned but actively encouraged slavery and genocide. Christianity cannot take credit for the inspiring the good things about America and avoid taking responsibility for inciting the bad. Now once again, I can hear people insisting that those who invoked the name of Christ to justify evil were not acting on true Christian principles. But I simply defy anyone to show that slavery and genocide are contrary to Scripture. On the contrary, the Bible clearly accepts slavery and condones genocide. Getting to the objection’s main point, did the Founding Fathers seek to fortify civic virtue by encouraging religion? First, the Founders clearly did not consider devotion to Christianity or any religion as necessary for civic virtue. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution explicitly says that NO religious test will be required for holding public office. Clearly, in the Founders’ opinion, the civic virtues were not the exclusive property of Christians. Further, contrary to the shameless lies and distortions of the Religious Right, the Founders clearly did intend to erect a wall of separation between church and state. However, they certainly were not hostile to religion in general and were happy to appeal to religious sentiment when they thought it would encourage virtue (the Founding Fathers, for all their genius and greatness, were still politicians, remember). De facto, the majority of the American people are at least nominally Christian, and biblical rhetoric can sometimes inspire us to greater vision, as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently demonstrated. There is nothing in the employment of such rhetoric that humanists need decry. I often quote scripture in the classes that I teach at a state university. My argument here is not that Christianity never has inspired people to do good. That would be silly, just as silly as if someone were to say that the Church had never incited harm. My argument is that Christianity, both in its doctrine and practice, has been too inconsistent to be trusted in a position of moral leadership. When Christianity has been good, it has been very good; when it has been bad, it has been horrid.

Objection: The whole argument so far has overlooked the fact that there is overwhelming evidence that Christianity is true. Jesus appeared numerous times after his death, showing himself to many persons, even those who had not previously believed in him, and even to five hundred at one time. His tomb was found empty on Easter morning with the stone rolled away from its entrance. The disciples, utterly dispirited at the time of the crucifixion, were transformed into invincible witnesses whose courage and zeal began a movement that ultimately conquered the Roman Empire. The only reasonable explanation for these events is that Jesus did triumphantly rise from the dead as predicted by scripture, so proving his divine mission and status. If Christianity is the true religion, then surely we as individuals and as a society should be guided by its tenets.

Answer: I have elsewhere given in detail my reasons for holding that Christianity is not true. Briefly, I find the so-called evidence for Christianity to be extremely weak. There is, and again I do not mean to be flippant here, no more reason to believe in the post-mortem “appearances” of Jesus than in those of Elvis. We now know quite a bit about the psychology of anomalous experiences. Specifically, it is now quite well understood how people can become convinced that they have had paranormal experiences, like abduction by aliens, when no such event has occurred. Very recently, neuroscientists have shown that the brain seems hardwired to produce, when appropriately stimulated, a sense of the numinous or feelings of a divine presence. Further, research by psychologists into the dynamics of memory shows how easy it is for false memories to become implanted and how authentic they can seem to people who have them. Also, folklorists have shown how legends arise and propagate, often in defiance of the eyewitnesses of the original events. In short, the records of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus are more scientifically and economically explained in terms of hallucinatory or visionary experiences, the accumulation of false memories, and the legendary accretions around historical events. As for the empty tomb, as John Dominic Crossan argues, there is no reason to think that Jesus was put into a respectable tomb. Crucified miscreants were usually thrown into dishonorable mass graves. The charming Gospel stories about Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus’s honorable burial are clearly legends that the perceptive reader of the Gospels can watch grow as they are told and re-told. In all likelihood, these stories developed to cover Christians’ guilt over the shameful treatment actually given to Jesus’s body. As for the zeal and courage of the disciples, let Christians consider Mohammed, Joan of Arc, Joseph Smith, and innumerable others who claimed to be motivated by a divine epiphany. Are Christians willing to accept all of these claims as authentic? As for the “appearance” of Jesus to 500, what about the “appearance” of the Virgin to 17,000 at Fatima? Prima facie nothing distinguishes such claimed epiphanies from those of, say, Paul in I Corinthians 15. In conclusion, I find many of the “facts” adduced for the truth of Christianity not to be facts at all, and those events that did probably occur can be better explained non-miraculously.

Objection: You are quick to point out the dark episodes in the history of the Christian Church, but you forget that atheism has its dark side also. Soviet communism was explicitly and militantly atheist and its ideology sanctioned some of the greatest crimes of history. Stalin, with his purges and engineered famines, tortured and killed untold millions. When God is dethroned, the state becomes God, and people are expected to bow before their political masters and worship the all-powerful Total Society.

Answer: The position I am defending is humanism, not atheism. Atheism is defined by some as disbelief and by others as merely unbelief in God or gods. Either way, little follows from atheism per se. Atheists can be political conservatives, libertarians, liberals, or radicals. As cases in point, Antony Flew and Kai Nielsen have been two of the most outspoken atheists among recent analytical philosophers. Their critiques of theism often sound remarkably similar. Yet Flew is a staunch Thatcherite Tory and Nielsen is a committed Marxist. Humanism, on the other hand, is an ancient philosophical tradition with roots firmly in classical civilization. The person in whose life humanist ideals were most fully developed was probably Socrates. Socrates taught that we must follow reason wherever it leads, and that erroneous opinion must be corrected by patient dialogue, not persecution. Intolerance of contrary opinion, salient characteristics of both Marx and Jesus, was utterly alien to Socrates. Humanism despises dictatorships of the left and the right. To humanists, oppression is oppression, whether conducted by ayatollahs or commissars. Christianity, however, has often winked at right-winged autocrats, just as long as they were friendly to the interests of the Church hierarchy. To mention just one example, during his long dictatorship over Spain, Franco and his Falangist thugs enjoyed the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the Roman Catholic Church.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Correction: The passage forbidding a religious test for public office is in Article VI of the Constitution, not the Fourth Amendment as I erroneously state in the post. Sorry. I must have had a "Tea Party moment," i.e., where you tell people to read the Constitution while displaying your ignorance about it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02877111630003823406 Jim Thompson

    Thanks for the post. I really like your answer to the Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot accusation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04359633411932680134 Dennis

    keith parsons does not exist…

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_prizes_for_evidence_of_the_paranormal

    HOW NOSTRADAMUS WON ALL THE PARANORMAL PRIZES!

    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nostradamus

    THE HIGH PRICE OF REVOLUTION

    youtube.com/user/xviolatex?feature=mhum

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    I note that in your rebuttal to the 'Stalin' move, you do not mention the distinction between an atheist performing vile acts and an atheist performing vile acts because he is an atheist. That is, one can account for a great deal of Christian dark episodes as being due to Christian motivations; can the same be said of Stalin? Is the defensible position that Stalin performed vile deeds and he was an atheist, or that Stalin performed vile deeds because he was an atheist? Your Christian questioner depends on it being the latter without establishing it. After all, both Stalin and Hitler had moustaches.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    RBH,

    Excellent point. Without establishing that the atheist committed violence BECAUSE he is an atheist, the charge has no force. Also, it will not do to say that the communists who carried out Stalin's orders were nearly all atheists. Without something substantial linking the atheism to the violence, this could amount to no more than the old "potato theory of crime." It was once observed that 86% of felons had consumed some form of potatoes within 48 hours of committing their crime. Thus potatoes and atheism cause crime–if you conflate a correlation with a cause.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04359633411932680134 Dennis

    Kieth Parsons – we are going to exterminate you… you have forfeit your right to live…. the police will not save you…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00380048898500411561 Corey

    'Constantines Sword':
    http://www.ConstantinesSword.com

    'Theologians Under Hitler':
    http://www.vitalvisuals.com/?q=node/19

    'The God Who Wasn't There':
    http://www.TheGodMovie.com/

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    Keith,

    You write: “Christianity did its greatest harm to humanity by reifying the sacred, identifying it with a remote, transcendent being, and so removing it from the world.

    I’d readily agree if I thought that your claim about Christianity is true. But it seems to me that in Christianity the sacred, the Kingdom of God, is in our experience of life here and now. I can look for quotes in the Gospels, but didn’t Jesus go so far as to say that every time we deny help to somebody in need here and now, we are denying Him for that person was He? There is the bit about building treasure in heaven which thieves cannot steal and moth cannot destroy, but here I think the idea is that the value of an ethical deed is not physical and is thus indestructible. If anything, in my judgment, Christianity has gone too far into the direction of the sacred being here. I understand the classical view is that even the afterlife will be physical, with us resurrecting physically in the end of times.

    Incidentally, to be transcendent does not mean to be “removed from the world”; the idea of Christianity (and indeed of all great religions including the Eastern ones) is rather that the world *is* transcendent, even though it includes a dimension which is amenable to physical modelling.

    This effectively put the sacred under lock and key, making it accessible only through priests, creeds, and sacraments.

    Don’t tell that to Christian mystics. Or to those priests who teach that people should build a personal relationship with God.

    I find sanctity in nature, art, and, most eminently, in loving human relationships.

    Me too. I also find that theism explains why.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    RBH,

    You write: “ That is, one can account for a great deal of Christian dark episodes as being *due* to Christian motivations; can the same be said of Stalin? Is the defensible position that Stalin performed vile deeds *and* he was an atheist, or that Stalin performed vile deeds *because* he was an atheist?

    If you are a theist who believes that if you make a heretic recant and then burn him on the stake then you are saving his immortal soul, *then* you are driven to the evils of the Inquisition. If you are a theist who believes that wearing condoms goes against God’s will, but suffering from AIDS, or dieing from an attempted illegal abortion, doesn’t, *then* you are driven to other evils we see today. It’s no question that wrong beliefs, even when held by Christians, can lead to terrible deeds.

    As for atheist Stalin, if you believe that religion is the opium of the masses, then that belief will move you to evil deeds. If you are an atheist who does not consider that a human being has an intrinsic and inviolable value, then it is easy to organize killing fields or a cultural revolution in order to bring about a better society in the future. Again, it’s no question that wrong beliefs, even when held by atheists, can lead to terrible deeds.

    What remains though is the historical fact that the by far greatest crimes against humanity have been committed by atheist regimes. They say that Pol Pot in one afternoon killed more people than the entire Spanish inquisition in two centuries. Which makes one think about which ontology moves people into the more dangerous wrong beliefs.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    Dianelos Georgoudis wrote

    I’d readily agree if I thought that your claim about Christianity is true. But it seems to me that in Christianity the sacred, the Kingdom of God, is in our experience of life here and now. I can look for quotes in the Gospels, but didn’t Jesus go so far as to say that every time we deny help to somebody in need here and now, we are denying Him for that person was He?

    The historical facts are that in the third and fourth centuries C.E., Christianity metamorphosed into an institution, imperially sponsored and supported, with layers of officials inserted between believers and an increasingly distant God, losing the immediacy of the old Greek Gods (in the domain of the eastern church, at least) who were much more of the world. This is not a theological point, it is a historical point. See, for example, Charles Freeman's "Closing of the Western Mind" for documentation.

    Dianelos Georgoudis wrote

    As for atheist Stalin, if you believe that religion is the opium of the masses, then that belief will move you to evil deeds. If you are an atheist who does not consider that a human being has an intrinsic and inviolable value, then it is easy to organize killing fields or a cultural revolution in order to bring about a better society in the future.

    And there are elements of theism that make it easy to organize the slaughter of other people, for example, by listening to God about what to do about those pesky Midianites. Providing warrant and cover for genocide and mass slaughter is a prominent theme of the Abrahamic scriptures.

    Dianelos Georgoudis wrote

    What remains though is the historical fact that the by far greatest crimes against humanity have been committed by atheist regimes. They say that Pol Pot in one afternoon killed more people than the entire Spanish inquisition in two centuries. Which makes one think about which ontology moves people into the more dangerous wrong beliefs.

    No, at most it makes one think about whether the ontology moves people into "dangerous wrong beliefs." Again, unless and until one can establish a causal link between the ontology and the acts, it is at best a speculative claim and at worst a vile canard. Further, the scale of the deeds by Hitler and Stalin at least are down to the technology, not the intentions. (Pol Pot I know little of and can't speak about.) Your argument might suggest that atheist killers are more efficient than theist killers, but no more than that.

    Once again, if you can establish a causal link between the ontology–Stalin killed a lot of people because he was an atheist (and so were those who did the actual killing)–then one might attend more closely to you.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    Ugh. Make that "fourth and fifth centuries C.E.", not third and fourth. I got myself offset by a century.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    RBH,

    You write: “The historical facts are that in the third and fourth centuries C.E., Christianity metamorphosed into an institution, imperially sponsored and supported, with layers of officials inserted between believers and an increasingly distant God, losing the immediacy of the old Greek Gods

    Perhaps, but we were talking about Christianity, and historical events in the third and fourth centuries CE may have influenced but do not define Christianity, don’t you agree? And, incidentally, Christianity is not an “institution”, rather there are Christian institutions. Perhaps atheists should consider that systematically changing the meaning of words does not a good argument make.

    And there are elements of theism that make it easy to organize the slaughter of other people, for example, by listening to God about what to do about those pesky Midianites.

    So your understanding is that Christian leaders read the OT about God and the Midianites and feel free to resort to mass murder?

    Providing warrant and cover for genocide and mass slaughter is a prominent theme of the Abrahamic scriptures.

    If so it’s the more remarkable that it was without exception non-theistic regimes that have actually resorted to genocide and mass slaughter. At least I can’t think of a single case. Can you?

    Again, unless and until one can establish a causal link between the ontology and the acts, it is at best a speculative claim and at worst a vile canard.

    You don’t see any causal link between the basic atheistic belief “religion is the opium of the masses” and the way atheistic regimes acted to uproot religion?

    And if the great crimes against humanity have only been perpetrated by secular regimes, there is no causal link there, you think? It’s all just a coincidence? Both Hitler and Stalin had a mustache, that sort of thing?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13562135000111792590 RBH

    Dianelos Georgoudis wrote

    So your understanding is that Christian leaders read the OT about God and the Midianites and feel free to resort to mass murder?

    What a silly remark, and a flimsy straw man to boot. But just for giggles see here:

    But the most repulsive part of Durston's talk was when someone from the audience asked why Durston's condemnation of genocide would not apply equally well to the god of the Old Testament, who indulged in genocide himself, in particular the genocide of the Canaanites. Suddenly Durston's tune changed. Instead of condemning this genocide, Durston sought to justify it. Genocide was OK, he claimed, if his god ordained it. Indeed, he said that the only thing that prevented him from going and out murdering people for his advantage was his religious belief.

    Dianelos Georgoudis wrote

    If so it’s the more remarkable that it was without exception non-theistic regimes that have actually resorted to genocide and mass slaughter. At least I can’t think of a single case. Can you?

    See this list of recent genocides. There's a fair amount of religious killing going on there.

    Dianelos Georgoudis wrote

    And if the great crimes against humanity have only been perpetrated by secular regimes, there is no causal link there, you think? It’s all just a coincidence? Both Hitler and Stalin had a mustache, that sort of thing?

    See the list linked above. (And anyone who imagines that Hitler headed a "secular regime" is living in a dream world.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    RBH,

    You write: “What a silly remark, and a flimsy straw man to boot.

    Well, I agree that is silly to think that a theist reads the OT story about God and the Midianites and feels free to resort to mass murder. But I was responding to the following remark of yours: “And there are elements of theism that make it easy to organize the slaughter of other people, for example, by listening to God about what to do about those pesky Midianites.” So, if it is not the silly idea I wrote about, then I wonder how you meant this. It seems you see a causal link between the Medianites story in the OT and theists organizing “the slaughter of other people”. So how do you think this causal link works?

    See this list [http://www.religioustolerance.org/god_cana0.htm] of recent genocides. There's a fair amount of religious killing going on there.

    Really? If you actually study this list you see that the greatest, ugliest, and most unjustified crimes in it were perpetrated by atheistic/secular regimes. Indeed, except for the first two cases (which, just arguably, are cases of genocide under a theistic regime) the rest is mostly about atheistic/secular regimes perpetrating crimes against humanity. So the list you quote proves the opposite of what you think. Perhaps you were confused by the list’s title “A brief history of (mostly) religiously motivated genocides.” The meaning of the title is that the people singled out for killing were often identified for their religion.

    And anyone who imagines that Hitler headed a "secular regime" is living in a dream world.

    What you write here strikes me as so far out of whack, I don’t really care to discuss it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04031407028220844179 Dr. T

    Keith,
    I particularly liked what you said about the sacred in your response to the question about the foundation of value. However, I am surprised that your first initial response to such questions isn't to bring up the Euthyphro Dilemma. While it is true that, as you formulated the question, it does not assume any version of the divine command theory, bringing up the dilemma I think does shed light on the problem with grounding all value in God. One of the more significant conclusions to be drawn from Socrates' argument is that we can meaningfully say that God (or the gods) are good only if there is some independent standard of value against which he (they) can be judged. If God created value (assuming we can make sense of the notion of created value), then there is no standard against which his choices concerning what to create (e.g., what to establish as holy, sacred, good, etc.) can be judged as good. At best his choices are good by definition; but then it is really empty to call them good. Anything that God had done, any decision he would have made, including making murder and mayhem holy, would have been, by definition, good.
    This becomes particularly problematic when we consider that the hypothetical objector says, “Because God's nature is absolutely and essentially holy, all value must ultimately flow from God.” In light of Euthyphro, we are forced to ask, in virtue of what is God's nature holy? If he is holy because he is the source of morality, then no matter what kind of character he has, it is, by definition, holy. So even if he were a lover of death and destruction, he would have a “holy” nature. If there is to be any non-empty meaning to the claim that God's nature is holy, then there must be some standard against which he can be judged. But then, if this is so, the standard is necessarily independent of him and thus he cannot be the source of it.
    In any event, I don't mean to have to rehearse this well-worn argument here, but it always surprises me when atheists pass up the opportunity to use this very good argument to counter this all-too-common objection.

    Jason Thibodeau

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Prof. Thibodeau,

    Thanks much for your comment and your beautifully succinct expression of the Euthyphro problem. My reason for not referring to it here is that I'm not really considering any version of divine command theory or anything similar. My thought (and it is really no more than that) is that in an encounter with what we call the numinous, and atheists may certainly have such encounters, we discover depths of value. My own such experiences–one in the Wyoming high desert and the other in the waters off the Galapagos Islands–were experiences of what Ursula Goodenough calls "the sacred depths of nature." For me, these experiences imparted a sense of being a small but integral part of an inconceivably vast and ancient cosmos. So my numinous experiences promoted my commitment to naturalism!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Concerning atheism and atrocities: Let us suppose for argument's sake that the greatest crimes against humanity, in terms of the sheer numbers killed, were committed under the regimes of Stalin and Mao–regimes with an officially atheist ideology. What does this tell us about the moral influence of atheism? Nothing. Nothing at all.

    As I note in my post, atheism is quite compatible with a very large range of doctrines, "isms" and worldviews. Atheism CAN be an element of a pernicious ideology, and, of course, so can theism. Thus atheism can be an element of Maoism just as theism can be an element of Taliban or Al Qaeda doctrine. From the fact that pernicious atheistic or theistic ideologies have prompted terrible crimes, we cannot infer that atheism or theism must be corrupting influences.

    No, the polemical point of invoking the "holy horrors" perpetrated in the name of religion is to respond to the claim of moral superiority on the part of religious apologists. As I say, it is an extremely feeble defense when the only way you can make your record look relatively innocuous is to compare it to the crimes of the greatest monsters in history.

    Were I to proclaim that atheism is "the light of the world" and its adoption will lead to universal peace, brotherhood, and enlightenment, then the Mao and Stalin counterexamples would be pertinent. But I make no such claim.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    BTW, RBH makes an excellent point about the greater efficiency of killing in a modern society. If Torquemada had possessed the technological, bureaucratic, and communications advantages Mao had, who knows what he could have accomplished!


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