How Much Faith to Be an Atheist? Geisler and Turek’s Moral Argument (2 of 4).

How Much Faith to Be an Atheist? Geisler and Turek’s Moral Argument (2 of 4). October 19, 2019

This is a continuation of my response to the popular Christian apologetics book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norm Geisler and Frank Turek. Begin the critique of the book here. For part 1 of this critique of the moral argument, go here.

Fundamental problems with the Moral Law argument

Geisler and Turek (GT) formulate their moral argument as follows:

1. Every law has a law giver

2. There is a Moral Law

3. Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver

What they don’t mention is that every law giver referred to in point 1 is a material being, but then they switch to an immaterial law giver in point 3. They do nothing to address or even acknowledge the fact that their argument can’t explain the change (thanks to commenter MNb for this insight). The problem with the argument becomes obvious when this is made explicit:

1. Every law has a material law giver

2. There is a Moral Law

3. Therefore, there is an immaterial Moral Law giver

Here’s another variant (from commenter primenumbers) that also skewers GT’s flabby argument:

1. Moral values come from a mind.

2. Objectivity means independence from any mind.

3. Therefore, objective moral values don’t exist.

And are we even using the same definition of “law”? Yes, morality is related to human laws, which are to some extent codified morality, but while laws are arbitrary (that is, not objective), some aspects of morality are innate and (from the standpoint of humans) unchangeable. Examples might be the Golden Rule or a prohibition against unjustified killing. Human laws have law givers, but morality is, in part, programmed into humans by evolution and unchangeable.

The analogy and therefore the foundation of the argument fails, but let’s set that aside and see what else GT have up their sleeves.

More redefinitions

One of the problems so far has been to nail down what this Moral Law actually is. They imagine objective moral laws, but what does that mean? Starting with objective morality as a morality grounded outside humanity—rules valid regardless of whether anyone believes in them—the definition changed to the morality that we feel. Then, they back away from the idea that we can reliably access this morality, so it becomes morality that we only dimly feel. Expect more reversals as their moral theory continues to chafe against reality.

Let’s return to GT’s moral argument.

We can’t not know, for example, that it is wrong to kill innocent human beings for no reason. Some people may deny it and commit murder anyway, but deep in their hearts they know murder is wrong. (page 172)

Uh, yeah—murder is wrong by definition. And the natural hypothesis (see part 1 for the natural morality hypothesis that I defend) is sufficient to explain our revulsion at killing innocent people. The supernatural hypothesis is unnecessary.

Relativists make two primary truth claims: 1) there is no absolute truth; and 2) there are no absolute moral values. (172)

I make neither claim.

“1 + 1 = 2” may be an absolute truth. As for absolute moral values, I’ve simply seen no evidence to overturn the natural explanation of morality. I insist on evidence for objective morality, and I suspect I have a long wait.

GT uses “relative morality” in opposition to objective morality, but because the term has been so clumsily defined by apologists, I prefer to state my position as “not objective morality.” To minimize confusion in this post, though, I’ll stick with GT’s terms, “relativists” and “relative morality.”

Relativists are absolutely sure that there are no absolutes. (173)

Nope. I’m just pretty sure there are no moral absolutes. I keep doggedly asking for evidence, though I get nothing in response.

Relative morality fails?

GT relate the anecdote of a paper written by an atheist student. The student argued, “All morals are relative; there is no absolute standard of justice or rightness,” and the professor gave it an F because of the color of the folder it was delivered in. When the student protested that the reason wasn’t fair, the professor asked, “But didn’t you argue in your paper that there is no such thing?” At that point, the student “realized he really did believe in moral absolutes.”

I don’t, and I doubt any student in that situation would. There are absolute morals, and then there are the ordinary kind as defined in the dictionary. The student appealed to the natural non-objective morality he shared with the professor.

This is the Assumed Objectivity Fallacy. GT assumes that everyone knows and accepts objective morality. We’ll be seeing more of this.

The moral of the story [about the paper graded F] is that there are absolute morals. And if you really want to get relativists to admit it, all you need to do is treat them unfairly. (173)

Treat relativists unfairly, and they’ll appeal to shared, natural morality just like the student.

People may claim they are relativists, but they don’t want their spouses, for example, to live like sexual relativists. (173)

So you think relative morality is no morality? Your “moral relativists” have morals; they just don’t pretend that the morals are grounded outside humanity since there is no evidence for that.

Actually, I’m happy for my spouse to use relative morality for all aspects of her life, both because I know of nothing else and because the natural morality that we all use works pretty well.

This reminds me of an observation from Penn Jillette: “The question I get asked by religious people all the time is, without God, what’s to stop me from raping all I want? And my answer is: I do rape all I want. And the amount I want is zero. And I do murder all I want, and the amount I want is zero.” Natural morality—it’s not perfect, but it serves us pretty well.

GT moves on to the visceral horror we felt from 9/11.

Our reaction reinforced the truth that the act was absolutely wrong. (175)

Another redefinition! We’ve switched to emotional gut feelings, and objective morality is now strongly felt morality.

GT go on to admit that we often betray our moral sense with our actions (the bad things we do), but they claim that the Moral Law is “revealed in our reactions.” Our sense of the Moral Law isn’t good enough to keep us firmly on the right track, but the truth comes out when we react. So now—redefinition!—objective morality is instinctive morality.

GT’s sloppy thinking may work with the flock, but it has consequences. One Amazon reviewer of this book titled his comment, “I don’t have enough intellectual dishonesty to be a Christian.”

Continued in part 3.

Bless yourself with holy water, have Masses said, and so on;
by a simple and natural process
this will make you believe, and will dull you—
will quiet your proudly critical intellect.
— Blaise Pascal

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/21/15.)

Image from Megan Studdenfadden, CC license
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  • Michael Neville

    GT relate the anecdote of a paper written by an atheist student. The student argued, “All morals are relative; there is no absolute standard of justice or rightness,” and the professor gave it an F because of the color of the folder it was delivered in. When the student protested that the reason wasn’t fair, the professor asked, “But didn’t you argue in your paper that there is no such thing?” At that point, the student “realized he really believe in moral absolutes.”

    No, at that point the student realized that the professor was being a dick69.

    • Jim Jones

      Relatively speaking.

    • I Came To Bring The Paine

      No, at that point the student realized that the professor was being a dick69.

      I’m not sure if it’s just me, but some comments show “69” at the end of some words. And it is hilarious.

      • Michael Neville

        Several months ago the Patheos Powers That Be (PPTB) inflicted the Patheos Naughty Word List™ on us. Here is a spreadsheet with all 1084 (!) words and phrases on the official Patheos Naughty Word List™ [LINK] Comments which have any of these words go into moderation, so many of us have taken to putting 69 at the front or back of these words to keep our comments out of moderation.

        A couple of months ago I sent an email to the PPTB complaining about some of the words on the list like carpet69, monster69, Hitler69 and beer69. I got the response that I should have expected, complete silence.

        Incidentally, rum69 and vodka69 are on the List™ but scotch, bourbon and gin are not. Transsexual69 is also on the list but transgender isn’t. There’s a lot about the List™ that doesn’t make sense.

    • PacMan

      Perhaps an appeal to the University’s Code of Ethics, rather than an absolute moral code, would also be effective.

    • smrnda

      I kind of feel that’s unlikely. Professors are required to provide clear grading criterion. Capricious and arbitrary grading to ‘make a point’ is more like what K-12 teachers do when they’re being unprofessional.

      Also, I doubt any competent professor would think that way.

    • Phil Rimmer

      “Relative morality” doesn’t mean spurious. It doesn’t mean covert. Most especially it is not about judgement by a law giver. It is about the mechanism for mutuality among peers.

      The religious, in their fear, keen to be under the thumb, betray their impoverished thinking at every turn.

  • Carstonio

    It’s been theorized that our moral sense is an evolutionary adaptation. Some other animal species exhibit behavior that suggests a rudimentary moral sense. The reason that the supposed concept of moral ”relativism” is a straw man is because it isn’t relative but arbitrary.

    The moral law argument is merely another version of the core assumption behind intelligent design, which is that order can only be designed. Just as intelligent design is a Trojan horse for creationism, moral law serves the same purpose for authoritarian versions of religion.

    • I’ve heard some Fundies talking of that and in a way that it’s hard not to see what’s the fuss about.

      That said, morality seems to have been selected by evolution as it’s highly beneficial for a gregarious species as ours.

    • NS Alito

      Fundamentalists often paint themselves into a corner by claiming that God is the ultimate arbiter of morality. If they have no inherent sense of morality, how could they judge that God is moral?

      If, instead, they said that whatever da boss says, goes, that would at least be honest, with no false attempt at excusing why they just follow orders.

      • Carstonio

        The other problem with their argument is that anyone can come up with a rule and claim it was dictated by a deity.

        • NS Alito

          Well, if you want to get picky….

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        Yup. You need a different objective standard to judge god’s standard (and another to judge that, and that, and that…..), and we know how much theists love their infinite regresses. Or you just have to accept subjective judgement at the bottom of it all. Take your pick.

      • Chuck Johnson

        If they have no inherent sense of morality, how could they judge that God is moral?

        They need no inherent sense of morality.
        God taught them that God is moral.
        The Bible and other miraculous revelations are the sources of their information.

        • God taught them that God is moral.

          God’s actions in the Old Testament (demanding genocide, supporting slavery) don’t look like those of a moral being.

        • NS Alito

          I’m going to write on a piece of paper “the person who wrote this and handed is the ultimate moral being. Everything she does is absolutely moral. Quod kumquat memorandum.

        • You can speak Latin … cool!

        • Otto

          Summa cum laude. Magna cum laude. The radio’s too loudy.

        • Chuck Johnson

          That’s where cherry-picking comes in.
          Turning away from the OT God and then relying upon the NT God (Jesus) is a common reaction.
          There are as many Christian Gods as there are Christians.
          But the Christians put a lot of effort into pretending that they all refer to the same God.

  • NS Alito

    Treat relativists unfairly, and they’ll appeal to shared, natural morality just like the student.

    There is a well-known experiment with capuchin monkeys where the underpaid monkey (given a piece of cucumber) got pi‌ssed off that the other monkey was given a grape, and threw his cucumber chunk at the researcher. Seems pretty natural to me.

    • Greg G.

      I read that dogs will do a trick for no reward until they see another dog getting a reward for doing it. They aren’t particular about the value of the reward as long as they get something, too.

  • eric

    they claim that the Moral Law is “revealed in our reactions.”

    It’s just a hidden appeal to authority.
    Christian: “Moral law is revealed in our reactions”
    Nonbeliever: “like when I react with joy when I hear my two single lonely gay friends are now a couple?”
    Christian: “no, not that one!”
    Nonbeliever: “well, how do I know which reactions reveal Moral Law?”
    Christian: “Oh, that’s easy. I/the Bible will tell you which reactions count.”

    In addition, their example of the student is just ignorant. The student isn’t objecting to the professor’s conduct as objectively immoral; he/she is objecting to their conduct as violating the subjective norms related to the class curriculum and professional behavior faculty claim they follow. In this case, they have a reasonable and rational expectation that the professor will grade based on content and understanding of the subject matter.

    • smrnda

      Professors are also usually too busy to attempt to score ‘points’ with capricious grading of undergrads. Grading is usually done by hired graders anyway, who might be grad students or undergrads who took the class and got decent marks, and they’d be working from a set of instructions drawn up by the professor.

      And nobody does pretend grading standards are objective. There’s no objective reason why a paper of x+1 pages is better than a paper of x pages, but a class might set what’s ‘adequate’ in terms of pages and word count.

  • JustAnotherAtheist2

    Relativists are absolutely sure that there are no absolutes. (173)

    Lol! This is rich. Note to Dumbshit Turek: If “absolute” just means “really, really”, I can assure you no one rejects “absolute” certainties. Can’t you at least try to hide you equivocation?

    • I Came To Bring The Paine

      Word games are a standard tactic in apologetics; using different definitions of the same word in the same argument.

      • Doubting Thomas

        When word games are all they’ve got then word games are all we’ll get.

      • JustAnotherAtheist2

        If you look closely, my complaint isn’t that there is equivocation, it’s how stunningly obvious it is. At least the old standards try to hide it.

        Same for the “law” nonsense Bob opens with. That really didn’t deserve more than a sentence or two because the equivocation is just so blatant. I don’t for a second think Turek believes his own arguments. He’s just a repugnant weasel duping marks for cash.

        • Chuck Johnson

          Turek might believe his own arguments.
          The psychology of deceit and willful ignorance is interesting.
          Fanatics and narcissists are strongly motivated to believe their own fraud.
          It seems that many do.

    • Yeah, these “gotcha” arguments in which they claim self-contradictions by opponents are common. In some cases that can be valid, but mostly it’s just semantics.

  • Damien Priestly

    Forget Geisler and Turek…first checking out the the topless eye-candy Bob provided.

    What was that about the Moral Argument again ??

    • Raging Bee

      Using babes to sell philosophy is objectively moral.

    • Doubting Thomas

      I’m guessing it’s because Bob exposed the flaws in the arguments. Or that Geisler and Turek are a pair of boobs. Or something like that. Does it really matter? Boobs.

      • I’m not sure what my original thinking was. Maybe it was “this is a lot more interesting than this ridiculous apologetic.”

  • smrnda

    If you focus on areas where there’s disagreement about morals, the idea of these ‘absolute morals’ becomes shakier. Is mandatory military service (what some nations have) bad? Some would say it’s merely doing your duty, others would say it’s an infringement on personal liberty. Is it okay for civilians to own firearms? Is it okay for police to have them (some nations do not routinely arm police)? Is it morally wrong for schools to put vending machines that sell soda, candy and other junk foods in schools? Is it morally wrong for governments to run lotteries?

    many people might agree that these are moral issues, but not even have a clear idea which they feel is right or wrong. they may be on the fence. if there’s so much where we don’t agree, shouldn’t that count as much as when we do?

  • That “failing an essay” example so annoyed me when I listened to this book that I wrote my own response to it:
    You appear to think that the only alternative to absolute morality is “everything goes”. That isn’t what I argued. I argued that there is a relative morality, which is societally constructed. Yes, we are free to break those morals (in the same way as we are free to break your hypothesised absolute morality). But breaking with it has consequences (just as you claim breaking your hypothesised absolute morality has consequences). These consequences are not the wrath of an angry God, but the wrath of society.

    Before you fail my essay, you should acknowledge that it is you, not I, who are breaking with the established standards of society. You are the defector. And yes, I accept that you can defect. But you must accept that I am then entitled to use the societally approved methods of bringing defectors into line. This may mean appealing your decision and asking for it to be reviewed. It may mean complaining to the authorities. It may mean attempting to have you censured or dismissed for academic misconduct. It may mean reviewing you badly on end of semester reviews, or actively trying to discourage others from joining your class. This is entirely consistent with my stance on relative morality.

    In taking these actions I am not conceding that I accept absolute morality and an absolute concept of “fair” and “unfair”. I am showing that morality is defined by the society, and the same society develops means to police that morality.

    • eric

      Yes, exactly. A simple analogy: we don’t need any objective morality to understand some actions in poker are cheating while others are not. All that takes is an understanding of the rules of poker. The professor is cheating according to the commonly understood rules of professional academic conduct.

      • smrnda

        We also know that the rules of poker are arbitrary, but ‘cheating’ still means something. Games and sports change rules over time. Same with rules about driving, operating a business, filing taxes.

    • Very thorough! You get an A.

      • Thanks! I won’t need to complain to The Powers That Be about your marking.

        I’ve never actually had to contest a mark given, but there was one time when I got word through back-channels that the marker had been specifically ordered to mark me down. As it turned out, the result for that subject was worse than I hoped but good enough that I didn’t think contesting it would make any difference and so couldn’t be bothered. But I think if anyone had failed me for incorrect reasons I would have made it my personal mission to try and take them down.

        • eric

          I had a teaching assistant tell me one time that they wouldn’t correct their erroneous grading of my test, because they made the same error on everyone’s and correcting them all would be too much work.

        • I read my university’s marking policy for re-marking exams, and one of the things they made clear was that if there was cause for an exam to be re-marked, they would get a second person to mark the entire exam, not just the questions a student complained about, and even if the second marker gave them higher marks on those questions they might get lower marks on other questions and thus stay with the same result. And, reading between the lines, I felt that the university would prefer that outcome, because it would mean they wouldn’t have to re-assess other students’ exams looking for systemic errors in marking.

  • Phil Rimmer

    “revealed in our reaction”?

    Christians are fish swimming in holy water. Like all fish they don’t see the medium that configures their actions.

  • Bill Turner

    The existence of populations of people dancing in the street because they thought 9/11 was a good thing puts the whole objectivity argument to bed.

    • I suppose a similar observation is “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”

    • Alan Mill

      No, it means good is subjective and not objective. Some people thought 9/11 was good. I thought it was bad.
      Good can’t be used as an objective measure of behaviour as Theism continually shows.

      • Bill Turner

        Yes…

  • Chuck Johnson

    1. Every law has a law giver
    2. There is a Moral Law
    3. Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver

    This (as in Intelligent design) is an argument framed in the mindset of monotheistic people.
    It is incorrect.
    Here is the correct version:

    1. Every law has lawgivers.
    2. There are moral laws.
    3. Therefore there are moral law givers.

    (Notice that Moral Law deserves to be written as moral law.)
    (Notice that the monotheistic singular deserves to be written in the plural of human politics.)