How Much Faith to Be an Atheist? Geisler and Turek’s Moral Argument (3 of 4).

How Much Faith to Be an Atheist? Geisler and Turek’s Moral Argument (3 of 4). October 22, 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 with part 1 here. For part 1 of the critique of the moral argument, go here.

We move on to dabble in history.

Founding U.S. documents

About the U. S. Declaration of Independence, Geisler and Turek (GT) say:

Notice the phrase, “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In other words, the Founding Fathers believed that human rights are God-given. (page 175)

Nope. “Creator” to the Founding Fathers wasn’t the Yahweh of the Old Testament, it was a hands-off, deist god. The Declaration is of no help to the Christian cause because it makes clear who’s in charge: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Unlike Harry Truman, God doesn’t have a sign on his desk that reads, “The buck stops here.” God is irrelevant to the American experiment.

And an appeal to the Declaration is always a sign that the apologists couldn’t find what they wanted in the Constitution. The Constitution remains the supreme law of the land, while the Declaration is just an important historical document with no role in government today.

Objective morality in the Nuremburg trials

If there were no such international morality that transcended the laws of the secular German government, then the Allies would have had no grounds to condemn the Nazis. (175)

The Allies won, and they imposed their laws—is that surprising? Isn’t that how wars work? Whose laws do you think they should’ve used?

In other words, we couldn’t have said that the Nazis were absolutely wrong unless we knew what was absolutely right. But we do know they were absolutely wrong, so the Moral Law must exist. (175)

Who said the Nazis were absolutely wrong? The Allies said they were regular wrong, we had a trial of 24 German leaders, and we imposed justice from our perspective. This wasn’t a sham trial with summary death sentences for all—half were sentenced to death, three were acquitted, and most of the rest were given prison terms. Centuries from now, future historians might criticize those sentences from their perspective.

The Problem of Evil

GT move on to address what Christians often admit is their toughest intellectual challenge: why does a good god allow so much bad in the world? They answer with an analogy from C. S. Lewis: “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” God’s actions may appear wrong, but that can only be because we’re comparing them against an absolute good.

The only straight lines we can make are imperfectly straight lines; similarly, the only moral standards come from our own not-objective rules. GT have again only allowed themselves the option of imagining one kind of morality, an absolute or objective morality.

Notice also that to make this argument, GT must admit that there is a Problem of Evil, which puts God in a very bad light.

Lewis, like you and me, can only detect injustice because there’s an unchanging standard of justice written on our hearts. (176)

That’s another redefinition—now the Moral Law has become unchanging. But I don’t know what’s unchanging about it. Is slavery wrong? It sure wasn’t back in the Old Testament. Same for genocide. Same for polygamy. I certainly think that slavery is wrong for all time, but the Bible won’t support that.

The Holocaust

GT want to know, how do Jewish atheists argue against the Holocaust? Are a critique about a meal and a critique about the Holocaust both mere opinions?

That works for me. Perhaps there’s a word difference that will capture the universally held or deeply felt nature of judgments about the Holocaust. Regardless, this still doesn’t get GT their desired objective morality. The natural explanation of morality works fine: we have a shared idea of morality, and killing millions of people is almost universally accepted as wrong.

GT can’t let go of the idea of a moral law that’s not objective. They imagine that a claim like “racism is wrong” has no objective meaning without the god-given Moral Law. This chapter is 25 pages long, but they could distill it to a page if they cut out the repeated groundless assertions. For example:

Unless there’s an unchanging standard of good, there is no such thing as objective evil. But since we all know that evil exists, then so does the Moral Law. (177)

If the Moral Law doesn’t exist, then there’s no moral difference between the behavior of Mother Teresa and that of Hitler. (178)

[C. S. Lewis said,] “If your moral ideas can be truer, and those of the Nazis less true, there must be something—some Real Morality—for them to be true about.” (178)

Suppose I think it’s okay to kill mice in my house, and you say that one must capture them humanely and set them free outside. There’s a moral difference; is that impossible without a Real Morality?

Ordinary, natural morality is quite capable of distinguishing between Mother Teresa and Hitler (let’s assume that Mother Teresa is the shining example of goodness, as they falsely imagine). GT refuse to consider that the natural explanation even exists, let alone explains morality better than any claim to objective morality. This is the Assumed Objectivity fallacy—either assuming without evidence that objective morals exist or assuming that everyone knows and accepts objective morality.

The word “moral” is just another adjective. Can a puppy be cute or a sunset beautiful or a resolution fair without objective definitions of “cute,” “beautiful,” and “fair”? Of course—look them up in the dictionary. The same is true for “moral.” These concepts come from within, not outside, human culture, and they’re not unchanging. Morality is important, like other aspects of culture, but here GT confuse important with supernatural, probably deliberately.

Moral relativists? Hoist by their own petard!

GT imagine a chaotic world where abortion, birth control, and sex were outlawed. What could atheists say about this?

So by rebelling against the Moral Law, atheists have, ironically, undermined their grounds for rebelling against anything. In fact, without the Moral Law, no one has any objective grounds for being for or against anything! (181)

Again, this is the Assumed Objectivity fallacy. We don’t need objective grounds for morality because the regular kind works (and is the only one we have evidence for).

They continue by arguing that excuses for breaking moral rules are evidence for the Moral Law. Excuses like “It was just a white lie” or “I had to steal the bread because I was starving” or even “I had to shoot him because he had a gun himself” point to the Moral Law.

Nope—these excuses point to a shared natural morality. There is no need to imagine an objective morality.

I don’t remember ever seeing so much blather that could be shut down so quickly, in Gordian Knot fashion. Just drop the demand for objective morality, and this empty argumentation blows away like irrational smoke.

Concluded in part 4.

I assert that if you are depressed
after being exposed to the cosmic perspective,
you started your day with an unjustifiably large ego.
— Neil DeGrasse Tyson

.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/23/15.)

Image from Wikimedia, CC license

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  • gusbovona

    I think the better approach is to define morality as concern for the well-being of conscious creatures (h/t to Sam Harris) and then it is an objective issue what actions, laws, etc., will enhance well-being and which don’t. Otherwise, morality could be about wearing two different types of fabrics blended together. It would be absurd for morality to mean something other than well-being. And, otherwise, morality is floating in a metaphysical space and means nothing.

    • Lord Backwater

      Why do you hate unconscious creatures? After all, plants are people too.

      Why do we value consciousness so highly? Undoubtedly our status as conscious creatures has something to do with it. If that is “objective”, then objectivity is useless in this argument.

      • gusbovona

        plants are people too.

        Thank you for a clear, unambiguous statement.

        Moving on, valuing conscious creatures is not the objective part. As I said above, once you define morality as TW-BOCC, then it is an objective question what encourages and discourages that.

        Lastly, denying a moral approach to X does not mean we hate X. It’s not a moral question when I cut a piece of wood in half, because the wood is not conscious, but I don’t hate the wood. When I pluck a tomato from the vine and eat it, I don’t hate the tomato plant.

      • NS Alito

        My objection is to some people’s definitions only including intelligent beings, whereas I want to both extend and limit it to organisms that can experience suffering.

        • Illithid

          I’d want some sort of graduated approach, according to how conscious a creature can be of suffering … and then I start wondering if the capacity for suffering can be decoupled from sapience. Then I wonder how to measure suffering in various animals, and then wonder how that question could be ethically studied.

          What a can of worms… oops.

        • Lord Backwater

          Are you aware of the shift you just made?
          NS Alito: “experience suffering”
          Illithid: “conscious of suffering”

          Bigger can of worms than you imagine.

        • Illithid

          Okay, what’s the difference? This is one of the questions I was musing about. Obviously an entity that has no consciousness does not experience anything. We are routinely made unconscious for surgery, an agonizing experience if we were conscious.

          Do creatures with a less complex nervous system experience the same amount of suffering in a given situation? How would we tell? What would that even mean? We don’t rate fishermen who bait hooks with worms as being on a moral level with Vlad the Impaler. Should we?

        • gusbovona

          BTW, the discussion about whether to limit this only to intelligent beings (wouldn’t that eliminate people, though? Hah!) or not is a difficult one, and reflects something else Sam Harris has said: just because what encourages well-being is an objective question doesn’t mean it is easily answered. We understand that the concept of health is an objective question, but health, like well-being, is so broad, and our reality is so complex, so many questions may well be very difficult to answer, or there may be alternate paths to the same objective result, etc., etc.

  • eric

    In fact, without the Moral Law, no one has any objective grounds for being for or against anything!

    They seem to fail to understand that there’s “objective” in the physical property sense, but also “objective” in the sense of being based on reason or logic codified separate from people’s emotions, i.e. not mere personal opinion. A grading heuristic used to grade an essay can be objective in the second sense, but isn’t in the first sense. It’s a set of codified rules, thus separate from any individual’s personal opinion. But the essay doesn’t have any objective quantity ‘grammar’ that could be measured by a scientific instrument.

    What Bob is talking about when he talks about normal morality is something which is – like the grading heuristic – objective in the second sense but not the first. Any such system, they denigrate as ‘mere opinion’ and attempt to paint it as arbitrary. But such systems are not necessarily arbitrary; they start with goals, premises, a few basic notions of rules, and build out a deductively sensible structure from there. Like any deductive system, they are only as good as their premises. But also like other deductive systems, they are in no way arbitrary or mere opinion in the way they derive conclusions from those premises.

    • Castilliano

      “Arbitrary” has become the go-to descriptor for anything generated by a mind (other than their deity’s, of course). They’re attempting to corrupt the conversation by denigrating human faculties. This may be an unconscious bias from their worldview rather than cunning, yet it amounts to the same anti-humanistic outlook. It’s shameful when people undermine what moral systems (et al) we do have by supplanting in their ones based on fictions.

      I have apologist friends (as well as gamer friends re: rules!) who casually toss out the word “arbitrary” to which I’ve developed two responses:
      1. “How did you determine it was arbitrary?” This is useful when they’re using it as part of an argument, since it can be difficult to (re)phrase without inserting a deity into whichever premise used this. Another way to put this is “Are all things humanity does arbitrary?”, which then highlights the uselessness of the word, at least until they demonstrate other agents in the universe.

      2. “How did you determine it wasn’t reasoned?” Essentially the same question, but it allows me to set up the contrast of ‘reasoned’ vs. ‘arbitrary’ rather than ‘divine’ (et al) vs. ‘arbitrary’. Generally I see a shift in their thinking as soon as I introduce ‘reasoned’ into the conversation. It’s sort of an “aha” or “oh yeah” moment. Not that there aren’t those willing to attack reason, but those sorts tend not to be my friends.

      • NS Alito

        Aye. Often arbitrary must be narrowed by with respect to…. What seems arbitrary from one perspective may have coherent meaning from another.

  • Lord Backwater

    And an appeal to the Declaration is always a sign that the apologists couldn’t find what they wanted in the Constitution.

    I am glad to see you point this out. The Declaration was the colonies breaking away from England. Only later, after the Articles of Confederation didn’t work out, was the Constitution written and adopted.

    • Michael Neville

      The Constitution is a legal document. The DOI was a political and propaganda document.

      • …and not part of the body of US law.

  • Lord Backwater

    The Allies won, and they imposed their laws—is that surprising? Isn’t that how wars work?

    The Kirk-Holden War of 1870

    In which the “good guys” didn’t win.

    h/t PZ Myers

  • Lord Backwater

    “Why were adjectives invented?” chapter 645

    In other words, we couldn’t have said that the Nazis were absolutely
    wrong unless we knew what was absolutely right. But we do know they were
    absolutely wrong…

    Notice that the statements work just fine will all the “absolutely”s scrubbed from the text, thus destroying their argument for a ‘moral law’. These people don’t English well.

    • Lord Backwater

      Unless there’s an unchanging standard of good, there is no such thing as
      objective evil. But since we all know that evil exists, then so does
      the Moral Law. (177)

      Stooooooopid. Evil exists, therefor objective evil exists? I think they missed something. Oh yeah, it was an adjective.

      “Unless a talking hamburger exists, no hamburger can exist” level of stupid.

      • NS Alito

        “Hello. I am the Dish of the Day….”

        • Michael Neville

          “You look a little shy: let me introduce you to that leg of mutton,” said the Red Queen. “Alice –Mutton: Mutton –Alice.” The leg of mutton got up in the dish and made a little bow to Alice, and Alice returned the bow, not knowing whether to be frightened or amused.

          “May I give you a slice?” she said…

          “Certainly not,” the Red Queen said, very decidedly: “it isn’t etiquette to cut any one you’ve been introduced to. Remove the joint!” –Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass

          https://www.goldmarkart.com/images/stories/virtuemart/product/tenniel-glass-87.jpg

        • Raging Bee

          “…you ate my predecessor. Prepare to die.”

      • Michael Murray

        But some hamburgers are better than others. We all know that. So there must be a best hamburger as it wouldn’t be possible to have an infinite regress of hamburgers.
        We call this best hamburger the Godburger.

        • Greg G.

          “What about ‘The Case of the Hamilton Burger’?” says the guy who has been binge-watching Perry Mason shows from the late 1950s.

        • MR

          This takes me back to a conversation with myself when I was a kid. What if there was a perfect strawberry, but the perfect strawberry was only slightly better than the best strawberries, and what if I already ate the perfect strawberry thinking it was just one of the best strawberries I’ve ever had. I could have eaten the perfect strawberry and never known! (bursts into tears)

        • Raging Bee

          And it is written, none shall taste it and live. (That’s why we can’t prove the Godburger Hypothesis.)

    • NS Alito

      That is a very unique observation.

      :-þ

      • TheNuszAbides

        Extreeeemely unique!

    • Greg G.

      “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” –Mark Twain

  • Jim Jones

    Or, why I don’t waste much time on apologists.

    • Raging Bee

      The bluff that keeps on bluffing!

      • Castilliano

        Atheist: “I call.”
        Apologist: “I raise you “one Hell”
        Atheist: “No, I called. You’re supposed to show me your godly hand.”
        Apologist: “My, you play a cunning game. I raise you ‘ABSOLUTELY’!”
        Atheist: “What? Does that even mean anything?”
        Apologist: “I see what game you’re trying to play. Cheaters are sinner, ya’ know.”
        Atheist: “We’re playing the same epistemological game!” (pause) “Aren’t we?”
        Apologist: “Think of the children! And Nazis!”
        Atheist: (throws down cards) “FFS! I’m outta here.”

        ETA: Forgot to go Godwin. 🙂

        • Ficino

          Apologist: “Think of the children! And Nazis!”
          Atheist: (throws down cards) “FFS! I’m outta here.”

          And that’s when the Apologist tells his bros that he totally owned and shut down that atheist.

  • Lex Lata

    A quibble about your characterization of the Founding, Bob, offered in the spirit of constrictive camaraderie (and insufferable pedantry).

    “‘Creator’ to the Founding Fathers wasn’t the Yahweh of the Old Testament, it was a hands-off, deist God . . . . God is irrelevant to the American experiment.”

    Few, if any, Founders would’ve agreed with those statements. “Creator” was a deliberately ecumenical word into which any and all of the theologically diverse Revolutionaries could read their preferred versions of the Almighty. Could the term include a deist demiurge? Yes. But it also certainly encompassed the Christian God in whom most or all of the Declaration’s signatories and their fellow colonists believed.

    When GT writes that the Founders conceived of certain rights as being God-given, that’s an accurate summary of the thinking at the time. The Christianized version of Ciceronian natural law that prevailed in Enlightenment political and legal philosophy, and that the Declaration reflected, held that God vested certain unalienable, natural rights in human beings. (Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, in Jefferson’s formulation. Life, liberty, and property, in Locke’s.) And that notion carried over to the Constitution in some respects. Madison, for instance, would say that the First Amendment doesn’t create any rights; rather, it prohibits the abridgment of certain inherent rights that already exist.

    Now, the crafting of government to protect those natural rights was a largely secular endeavor, as least in the eyes of key Founders. For example, as Adams famously wrote about the process of constitutional composition among the new United States, “It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.” In short, Revolutionary Americans generally believed that God authored natural rights, and that humans authored constitutions of government to exercise and preserve them.

    To be sure, as an atheist, I don’t personally subscribe to the theory of Christian natural law. But there’s no question that the Founders and Framers overwhelmingly did.

    • NS Alito

      Anybody know how they dealt with the Divine Right of Kings?

      • Lex Lata

        In short, by rejecting it. The Founders lived and breathed the theory of popular sovereignty articulated in the political works of Enlightenment heavy hitters like Milton, Sydney, and Locke (and rooted ultimately, I must compulsively note, in the political and legal philosophy of Cicero & Associates, LLC). Authority of governance resides fundamentally and in the first instance in We, the People, not in kings or ministers or magistrates. Legitimate governments are empowered only with our consent, which is essentially a delegation of our inherent authority.

        That delegation can be to kings, but when a king becomes a tyrant who violates the natural rights of his subjects, he breaches the implicit pact between governor and governed, and makes himself a natural outlaw, so to speak, against whom rebellion is permitted. When we read the Declaration top to bottom, we see that argument being made.

        And not only in the Declaration, I should mention. For example, Paine’s highly influential Common Sense was a deliberate rejection of the divine right of kings and a hymn to popular sovereignty. (Actually, it takes the rhetorical form of a sermon, and even makes some patently biblical arguments, which is kinda funny given Paine’s personal deism.)

      • Raging Bee

        Y’know how John Locke’s Magnum-Opus is titled “The Second Treatise of Government?” His “First Treatise” was where he exposed and debunked the theory of “Divine Right of Kings.” Then he had to write the “Second Treatise” to explain the new theory of government that would replace the old one.

    • Thanks. I’ve heard it said that “Creator” wasn’t the Christian god but Spinoza’s god. Even so, I can see the value in everyone being able to see his god (Catholic God, Congregationalist God, etc.) in this catch-all term. And there were deists in the mix, too, right? Jefferson comes to mind.

      My mental model was them zooming out from the concept of God so that it was broad enough (or fuzzy enough) to, as you say, allow everyone to see/imagine his god. Is “deist god” inaccurate as a description for this thing?

      My goal had been to show that even in the DoI, the “America is a Christian nation” argument fails. Do you think this approach doesn’t work?

      • Lex Lata

        1. “And there were deists in the mix, too, right? Jefferson comes to mind.”

        Jefferson was heterodox, unitarian, and deistic in some respects, but he never referred to himself explicitly as a deist, and claimed to be a Christian who admired JC’s “sublime” philosophy. Accordingly, I wouldn’t personally label him a deist, because my default practice is to go with the labels folks give themselves. (Franklin was similarly a nonconformist, unitarian Protestant, a deist in his youth who appeared to migrate to something closer to orthodoxy as he aged.)

        In any event, while Jefferson was the chief composer of the Declaration’s first draft, his was not the only pen to matter. The solid majority of the other signers, whose opinions as empowered representatives of their constituencies were just as important politically, were relatively orthodox Presbyterians, Episcopalians, or Congregationalists. To the extent there were actual deists or crypto-deists in Philadelphia in 1776, they were substantially outnumbered by various flavors of Christians, as they were throughout the colonies.

        2. “Is ‘deist god’ inaccurate as a description for this thing?”

        More like imprecise or incomplete, perhaps, because I think you might be looking for simplicity where there wasn’t any. The Founding Generation used all kinds of poetic, highfalutin terms for God–Creator, Almighty, Great Architect, Supreme Legislator, Supreme Judge, Providence, etc. And each could refer just as well to Paine’s very deistic, rarified God and Witherspoon’s Presbyterian, trinitarian God of the Bible.

        3. “Do you think this approach doesn’t work?”

        To be frank, I think it’s off the mark. But a good part of the problem is that the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation is usually worded in a manner that fails to capture the complexity of the culture and politics of the time, and the difference between a nation and its government. So I’m inclined to break the discussion down into at least four sub-topics.

        a. The Constitution. This was a deliberately and controversially secular blueprint for a federal government, no doubt about it. Even before the First Amendment was tacked on, the omission of a religious test for federal office in particular was groundbreaking in a way that I don’t think we always appreciate today. The Treaty of Tripoli correctly declared that the government of the United States was in no sense “founded” on the Christian religion. It was founded on the consent of the governed, developed by learned thinkers drawing from millennia of political history and philosophy.

        Moreover, contrary to arguments made by charlatans like David Barton, the record of the Constitution’s composition shows little-to-no material intellectual influence from the Bible, while reflecting copious lessons and ideas about the gritty, practical allocation and limitation of political power taken from Greek, Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and other (more recent) European examples. If you could show the Constitution to Moses, he’d be baffled by the notion of representative democracy, the lack of priest-judges, and the absence of tribal patriarchy. If you could show the Constitution to Cicero, he’d nod in recognition at most of the key structures and concepts.

        b. The Declaration. As noted above, this document articulated the right to self-governance in the context of natural law using ecumenical Enlightenment vocabulary. And I think we atheists often dismiss it a bit too readily as an irrelevant relic of history. It was a thoughtful, concise statement of revolutionary political theory, and essentially our country’s birth certificate (considered “Organic Law” in the U.S. Code). Our lawmakers, courts, and popular culture have always recognized the independence of the sovereign United States from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. We don’t set off fireworks in celebration of June 21, 1788, when the Constitution was ratified.

        c. The Nation. This is definitely getting nit-picky regarding semantics, but by my reckoning, We, the People are the nation. The Constitution is not the nation. And the first citizens of the United States of America were overwhelmingly Christian (in fact, overwhelmingly Protestant). So was this a Christian nation at the Founding in the demographic sense? Numerically, yes.

        But was it founded to be a Christian nation? That wording suggests some sort of deliberate intent and planning, and I don’t see it. The first citizens were just predominantly Christian by default, for obvious historical reasons. No-one chose to make this a Christian country, or even considered alternatives. The USA was no more or less founded to be a Christian nation than it was founded to be a nation of English speakers.

        d. The States. Things get even more complicated here. In short, though, most state governments had some form of established church, imposed religious tests for office, and were otherwise conspicuously Christian. So while the government of the United States was secular from day one, the governments of the united states were not. 🙂

        • MR

          Thanks for your thoughts on this, Lex.

        • Wow–that’s a lot of material. Thanks.

          2. If all gods are present (Christian gods as well as a deist concept?), in the DoI’s Creator, could you call the Creator a deist god? Or would you say that, even if only because of the overwhelming Christian demographic, Creator = Yahweh?

          3b: so what are your thoughts about the best response to the Christian’s inevitable appeal to the DoI rather than the Constitution? I’ve pointed to the flaws in the claim that the DoI is a Christian document, but I could just punt and say, “Whatever–the Constitution calls the shots now.”

          3e: IIRC, some of the Christian founding fathers wanted a second “bill of rights” phase, where they’d try to get some belated Christian talk into the Constitution. Light-Horse Harry Lee was in this camp, I believe. That they tried and failed is significant.

        • Lex Lata

          Yeah, sorry, got a little carried away. A few quick responses to your questions:

          2. It’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing in my opinion, which is a bit of a cop-out. And most of the beholders reading the Declaration in 1776 saw the Christian God of their own faiths and of varying levels of heterodoxy reflected in “Creator” (and “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge,” and “Providence,” for that matter).

          3b. Well, it depends on the specific argument, but claims that the Founders’ conception of natural rights as reflected in the Declaration had a religious ingredient have a point. The ius naturale of the pagan Roman jurisconsults passed to–and evolved in–the minds of churchmen through the Middle Ages, spun-off to Protestants with the Reformation, and eventually took on a less orthodox Enlightenment polish. A wild oversimplification, I admit, but there’s no getting around it.

          A couple of potential counterarguments or clarifications, though, mostly having to do with context:

          i. Christianized natural law was only one component of Revolutionary political and legal philosophy. The intellectual inspirations and justifications for the Declaration, the Constitution, and the Revolution included not only natural law, but also classical pagan history and philosophy, ideas about Anglo-Saxon legal customs, the Magna Carta, and secular European history and politics.

          ii. In key respects, US religious history from colonial times to the 20th century was a tale of more-or-less steady disestablishment, and the Declaration was an important transitional instrument at a key point–less blatantly Christian than many of the colonial charters, and not as secular as the federal Constitution that followed it.

          3e. That might be, although I don’t recall what you’re describing specifically. During the ratification debates, there certainly were a lot of complaints about the Constitution’s irreligiosity generally, and lack of a religious test specifically. Anti-Federalists weren’t shy about bemoaning the Constitution’s secularism, and those sorts of criticisms would continue to surface for decades. There were even attempts to add “Christian amendments” beginning during the Civil War, when some believed God turned against us because the Framers hadn’t name-checked him. But yes, I’d agree the Constitution’s enduring godlessness speaks volumes.

        • Helpful, thanks.

        • Alan Mill

          Hi Bob, I’ve just come across a book in my local remainder shop called Founding Faith by Steven Waldman, published in 2008. Only read part of it but Waldman is on the same page as Lex and what I’ve read so far deals with the issue of the faith of the founding fathers pretty evenly. The issue seems to be that they were Christians (because just about everyone except Paine was) but had a lot of issues with the Christianity of their day, particularly from the theocratic nature of it and the persecution of Christians by Christians who had fled Europe cause they were being persecuted by other Christians.

          As an Australian, I find this interesting as Australia and the USA were both colonised by English people yet as they say, we are two countries divided by a common language. Australia has developed socially quite differently, which I think is cause Australia was settled after the Enlightenment had really got going and the English who came to Australia brought a different mindset from either the original US colonists or the revolutionaries.

          As a result it is not unusual for Australian political leaders to be Atheists, either as Prime Ministers, Premiers, Governs General, Governors or as MPs as at various times in our parliaments I estimate between 20% and 40% of MPs are Atheists. It seems this does not happen in the USA, though it does happen in the British government system.

          Anyway, I’m enjoying Waldman’s book. Its a good insight into what the founding fathers thought and why.

        • I think some founding fathers were deists.

          Interesting stat about atheists in politics in Australia. There are usually zero or one atheist in Congress at any point in time (that is, atheists who are willing to admit it). We’ve got a long way to go.

    • smrnda

      Even many atheists think of rights as existing in some Platonic form. I suspect many feel that suggesting they were human inventions makes them lesser, or more open to debate. At the same time, the level of debate around them suggests that there’s little total consensus. Liberty is pretty vague, and even something more concrete like ‘freedom of speech’ will lead to debates about what that actually entails.

  • Michael Neville

    Let’s use the Esmeralda Weatherwax definition of sin as a starting point, our axiom for morality:

    And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. –Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

    We can then argue that the Holocaust was immoral because the victims were treated as things. We can also argue that Mother Teresa’s fascination with suffering reduced those people under her “care” to things which meant she was immoral.

  • RichardSRussell

    natural morality is quite capable of distinguishing between Mother Teresa and Hitler (let’s assume that Mother Teresa is the shining example of goodness, as they falsely imagine).

    After reading Christopher Hitchens’s The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice I will never in a million years use her as an example of good behavior. If you’d like a real-world person who arguably was as kind and understanding as humans ever get, I’d go with Rev. Fred Rogers.

    • NS Alito

      It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.

  • NS Alito

    G&T: If there were no such international morality that transcended the laws of the secular German government, then the Allies would have had no grounds to condemn the Nazis.

    Realistically speaking, the international law the Third Reich broke was crossing into other sovereign nations. Before and since, domestic genocides and ethnic cleansing don’t attract that much official attention from the international community.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      …But why let ugly little facts get in the way of such a ‘compelling’ point?

      /s

    • Michael Murray

      The international community tries. Not enough because of all the compromises that go with foreign relations but it does try.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimes_against_humanity

  • NS Alito

    I have missed something: Is their God the source of [absolute] morality, the definition of morality, or something else? And how, exactly do they know it?

    • Illithid

      Yes, yes, and they feel it in their hearts. They just know it, because God instilled the knowledge within everyone. Yes, you too, you’re just denying it because you want to sin, you reprobate, you.

      • NS Alito

        Ya got me!

    • Michael Neville

      Not only is this god the source of objective, absolute morality, but according to his number one fan, William Lane Craig, if his favorite god does something which would be universally condemned as evilly immoral if done by anyone else, that act is automatically good and moral because Ol’ Yahweh did it himself. It’s the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free Card.

    • Len

      He’s the source, the definition, and several other things too. Everything redefined as the need arises. That’s one of the main problems with apologetics – words have malleable meanings.

    • Raging Bee

      Any, all, one, or none of the above, or something else, defined or undefined, as the needs of any given theological argument dictate (subject to change without notice).

    • Doubting Thomas

      The know it because without their god they’d be raping and killing, and since they aren’t raping and killing, QED.

  • John Grove

    I always consider morals as an emergent property of evolution, rather than some absolute truth. To me, morality is nothing more than a suite of behaviours which facilitate social cohesion among animals.

    How would accepting the demands of one God as being absolutely true and correct enable us to get any closer to objectively grounding morality? How would accepting the conclusion of this God be more objectively grounded than accepting the conclusion of a dictator? Is it only the difference between the two is is that one comes from the thought of a human verses the thought of a supernatural being that defines something as being objectively grounded?

  • I have to say that I think much of the discussion around morality has several problems:
    1. We tend to use imprecise language when we talk about morality, and ignore that morality is largely axiomatic.

    2. For most of us, morality is so intuitive that we rarely have to think much about it. Our brains are wired to process morality largely without thinking

    Unfortunately GT (and many other apologists) seem to exploit both of these to claim that God is somehow necessary.

    I do regard myself as a (mostly) moral objectivist, but not in the way that GT (or most traditional Christians) are. I see the foundations of morality as ultimately subjective, but not arbitrary. We want to avoid pain (it sucks, and most of us will go out of our way to avoid it), and seek pleasure. Those foundations allow us to make objective determinations about behaviours because some actions promote pain, or pleasure.

    Unlike the GT, my position is that if there are no human minds, then morality as we know it is gone (even though other animals exhibit moral systems). I don’t see any reason to believe that there is some cosmic force that makes killing somebody actually wrong. I would hold that the Nazi’s were objectively immoral when they instituted the Holocaust, simply because the consequences of those actions go against our human values, by inflicting so much unjustified pain, on those affected by it.

    • eric

      I see the foundations of morality as ultimately subjective, but not arbitrary.

      Conflating ‘subjective’ and ‘arbitrary’ is Geisler and Turek’s (and our own troll See Noevo’s) entire argument.

    • Michael Neville

      We tend to use imprecise language when we talk about morality, and ignore that morality is largely axiomatic.

      We’re not the ones who claim that morality is absolute and objective. Our argument is that it’s completely subjective and based on each individual’s opinions and biases.

      • But, as I explained, I do regard morality as objective, I just don’t regard it as objective in the same way that theists do, nor do I regard it as absolute. They seem to think that there’s some magical platonic realm that makes actions wrong, just like it somehow makes the number two exist outside of human minds.

        It’s not *just* my opinion, and biases, that being stabbed sucks. We’ve evolved so that broken flesh is painful, and depending on the size (and location) of the stab, it can actually kill you. These are objective facts that we can say about the action of being stabbed. The universe doesn’t care about what happens to us, but we do!

        • MR

          It’s not *just* my opinion, and biases….

          Yup, not my argument for sure. [ETA]: In fact, I find that argument as offensive as theists do.

        • Michael Neville

          You wrote, “I do regard myself as a (mostly) moral objectivist” so I explained that the rest of us don’t see ourselves to be moral objectivists in any way, shape or form. But you did support your argument that “[w]e tend to use imprecise language when we talk about morality”. Certainly you did.

        • MR

          Whoa, whoa, whoa! You‘re the one who used we, and Herald and I are saying that no, you don’t speak for us. I disagree with your assessment as well.

        • Michael Neville

          Okay, there are some who disagree with me. My apologies for thinking that you were intelligent enough to realize that objective morality is nonsense.

        • MR

          Not belief either.

        • It’s not nonsense. By analogy, we invented baseball, but given the fact that there is a goal in baseball we can say that some plays are objective good at meeting those goals, or objectively go against those goals.

          In the same way, we humans have goals. Virtually all of us want to survive, be happy, not experience pain, be healthy, etc. Given those goals, and a context (which is always important when asking moral questions) we can say that some actions either forward, or go against, those goals when people interact. Me walking up to you and shooting you, as you go about your business, is going to have a objective impact on your goal of surviving, and not experiencing pain. In that sense, morality is objective.

        • MR

          The objectivity there is simply “actions have consequences.” Equally, an animal that gets a leg ripped off in a fight with another is going to be impacted as well. Yet “morality” doesn’t even enter into the question.

        • The objectivity there is simply “actions have consequences.”

          To a large extent, yes, but there is also that fact that we can assess those consequences with respect to our shared goals, as well as assess them against various alternatives.

          Ultimately, if we don’t agree on primary goals it would be like one of us is playing baseball and the other is playing cricket. Fortunately, our biology, and shared evolutionary history, means that our goals are innate to, and shared by, all of us. The topic can get complicated when we start introducing artificial, societal constraints, like “honor.” I would hold that the assessments are still objective, but it’s like one side playing baseball and the other side playing cricket. Within those games we can make objective assessments that don’t translate well between them.

          Equally, an animal that gets a leg ripped off in a fight with another is going to be impacted as well.

          Human morality doesn’t tend to address questions of how other animals should behave because human goals and biology are different compared to other animals. That said, we do observe moral systems, and punishment for “bad” behavior, at play in other animal species.

        • MR

          there is also that fact that we can assess those consequences with respect to our shared goals, as well as assess them against various alternatives.

          And that’s where Michael is saying, “opinions and biases.”

          if we don’t agree on primary goals

          Let’s say we witness someone walk up and rip the arm off some baby. In that split second of horror are we reflecting upon some agreed upon goal that we shouldn’t do that to each other or is something more visceral happening?

          Fortunately, our biology, and shared evolutionary history, means that our goals are innate to, and shared by, all of us.

          Ding, ding, ding! That’s exactly where I’m going. (As I reread that those dings came across as sarcastic, they are not meant to be. This is where we agree, and this is precisely the point that I would make.)

          I would hold that the assessments are still objective, but it’s like one side playing baseball and the other side playing cricket. Within those games we can make objective assessments that don’t translate well between them.

          Yeah, but only in the sense of “If this is wrong, then this is wrong.” The inside part is objective, but it’s circular reasoning floating in a sea of subjectivity, which makes it not-objective.

          Human morality doesn’t tend to address questions of how other animals should behave because human goals and biology are different compared to other animals.

          Yes, but the moment you say “human” morality, it automatically becomes subjective. Subjective to humans. (The same for other animals’ “moralities.”) It’s not truly objective morality.

          Let’s say “human beings” believe/feel it’s wrong to shoot your neighbor for no reason. You still have that one psychopath who sincerely and honestly doesn’t believe/feel it’s wrong, so we don’t find objectivity there either. The morality doesn’t lie in the action, it lies in the belief.

          I do understand what you’re trying to say about “actions have objective consequences,” but I don’t think that equates to “objective morality,” and more importantly, that’s not at all what theists think when they say “objective morality.” You’re right, we’re talking apples and oranges with them. That’s why it’s so important to define the terms and you can’t simply insist that they must adopt your definition of objective morality as if it wipes away their concept of the term.

          My disagreement with Michael is that it’s not just opinions and biases. As you’re saying, it’s also biology. And I’d even throw in subconscious processes, though you could argue that those are “biases,” though to say, “just opinions and biases,” doesn’t really tap into the depth of that. I think it misses the mark and I think that theists, rightly, dismiss that phrase as flippant. They understand that there is something more, something visceral there. They attribute it to God, but I think even with them an argument can be made for “human nature,” innate behaviors and even subconscious processes that include internalized beliefs.

          It’s nonsensical to compare the horror one feels at a child getting murdered with one’s preference for ice cream. With them on that I am in agreement.

          A bit of a side thought. When I think about, say, the morality of monogamy vs. the morality of infidelity, I absolutely believe there are “choices” that we make and that we can have “opinions” and “biases” about them. But underlying all of that is the fact that human beings are wired for both. The capacity for monogamy and the capacity for infidelity are biologically a part of us. When we consider our evolutionary past, there were times when spreading one’s seed about helped ensure the survival of your species, and there were times when the cohesiveness of the family unit helped ensure the survival of your species. The same can be said for other “moral” topics. Lying, stealing, cheating and murder can ensure the survival of you or your tribe in times of trouble and we’re biologically hardwired for those behaviors as well as their opposites. So when Michael talks about “just opinions and biases” and you talk about “objective morality,” neither rings exactly true to me. I think you’re both wrong and you’re both right.

          Also, we fall into the trap of reifying morality. Like your baseball, it’s not a thing in and of itself. Baseball is a label we place on a broad concept that includes a complex set of rules for playing the game, the people involved, equipment, the experience, the smell of Dodger dogs, the fights… Morality is equally a complex interplay of our biological and subconscious drives, our actions, intents and goals, the consequences, our emotional reactions and intellectual rationalizations of those things and the conclusions and judgments we reach about them and so much more. Morality doesn’t exist in any concrete sense, it’s a broad label, yet we tend to talk about it as if it does exist. It doesn’t, and in that sense also it can’t be objective.

        • Yes, but the moment you say “human” morality, it automatically becomes subjective. Subjective to humans. (The same for other animals’ “moralities.”) It’s not truly objective morality.

          I’ve long argued that morality is subjective, and depending on exactly what is being discussed, I still hold that view. It’s really the semantics of what is being discussed that is part of the problem.

          There are no objectively correct behaviors, irrespective of humans. Such a view is nonsense. It’s only when we start to consider goals, and how actions relate to goals, that we can start to talk about objectivity. This is where I’ve recently changed my position on objective morality. When I talk about “morality”, I’m really using a shorthand for “how humans should behave in order to promote well-being.” It’s completely meaningless to talk about morality being objective unless we have goals as part of the discussion.

          Let’s say “human beings” believe/feel it’s wrong to shoot your neighbor for no reason. You still have that one psychopath who sincerely and honestly doesn’t believe/feel it’s wrong, so we don’t find objectivity there either. The morality doesn’t lie in the action, it lies in the belief.

          Morality isn’t really about beliefs, but about axiomatic goals. I believe things are wrong because of my axioms and goals, rather than having my beliefs drive the process. At the most fundamental level we humans, because we’re a social species, want to preserve (and even promote) the well-being of others, and avoid suffering.

          and more importantly, that’s not at all what theists think when they say “objective morality.”

          Absolutely, and I’ve acknowledged that in my first reply: I do regard morality as objective, I just don’t regard it as objective in the same way that theists do. I have to make that statement because without it there’s simply too much confusion about what is being discussed.

          Morality doesn’t exist in any concrete sense, yet we tend to talk about it as if it does. And in that sense also, it can’t be objective.

          Agreed. “Morality” (as we know it) is not something that exists outside of humans. It is entirely dependent on human minds, and desires. In that sense, morality is subjective.

        • MR

          It’s completely meaningless to talk about morality being objective unless we have goals as part of the discussion.

          Yes, Bob’s “platform.” Which suggests to me that it’s meaningless to talk about morality being objective, period.

          At the most fundamental level we humans, because we’re a social species, want to preserve (and even promote) the well-being of others, and avoid suffering.

          But not always. So, again, not objective. [ETA]: I should have noted, you’re talking about the “social” aspect here, but we also have non-social, selfish motivations, as well, which can run counter to our social motivations.

          Absolutely, and I’ve acknowledged that in my first reply: I do regard morality as objective, I just don’t regard it as objective in the same way that theists do. I have to make that statement because without it there’s simply too much confusion about what is being discussed.

          I side with them on this one. They think morality is a thing, and that that thing is objective. The way they use the term is the way most people would use it. You’re trying to co-opt it. You need a new term or you need to convince them to call their thing something else. Good luck with that. I think they are using it correctly.

          Agreed. “Morality” (as we know it) is not something that exists outside of humans. It is entirely dependent on human minds, and desires. In that sense, morality is subjective.

          And I say it is only subjective. Morality, no, morality doesn’t exist, the feelings and beliefs that we label as “moral” are rooted in biological drives and motivations: survival, sex, social interaction, empathy, fear…. Without those underlying biological roots “morality” doesn’t amount to much. We all live and die and in what objective sense does it matter the details? The details only matter to us. They objectively matter to us, I’ll give you that. But not in the objective sense we’re talking about here. As you noted and as I’ve often said, The universe doesn’t care, we do.

        • Raging Bee

          Yes, but the moment you say “human” morality, it automatically becomes subjective.

          No, it doesn’t, because it’s still based on objective facts of human nature and needs. It’s definitely human-CENTRIC, but that’s not the same as “subjective.”

        • MR

          And it’s not the same as “objective.”

        • Raging Bee

          If it’s based on objective facts and reason, then yes, it is.

        • MR

          It’s based on the agreement. Depending on the circumstance, not everyone may agree. Again, (from my discussion with Herald) the “morality” doesn’t happen in the actions and consequences, the “morality” happens in our beliefs and feelings about them.

          There are situations in which people technically lie, cheat and steal and nobody cares. Things die at the hand, beak and claw of other things all the time. The universe doesn’t care. We care.

        • Raging Bee

          It’s based on the agreement.

          Yes, and agreements like that tend to be based on an understanding of observable consequences of actions, and the further understanding that everyone wants certain harmful things not to happen to them. You may call that “beliefs and feelings,” but they’re based on objective facts, and in many cases, such feelings are so uniformly felt by such an overwhelming majority of people (including those who do harmful things to others while protecting their own from same), as to be, for all practical purposes, an objective fact on the ground.

        • MR

          and the further understanding that everyone wants certain harmful things not to happen to them.

          But that doesn’t necessarily translate to others. [meaning, we don’t necessarily care about harmful things happening to others]

          but they’re based on objective facts

          But those objective facts aren’t where our moral beliefs happen.

          and in many cases,

          Non-objective terminology

          by such an overwhelming majority of people

          Non-objective terminology

          for all practical purposes

          Non-objective terminology

          objective fact on the ground

          You’re not doing a very good job of convincing me of that with all these non-objective subjective [D’oh!] examples!

          I know what you’re wanting to say, and I completely agree that we should strive to achieve the things desired by “the overwhelming majority, for all practical purposes,” yadda-yadda. I just don’t think it fits into the “objective morality” definition you want it to fit into. You have a great argument and motivation, and if you called it something different we wouldn’t be having this conversation. My only disagreement is that this doesn’t smell like objective morality to me. And, referring to the other post, what are you going to call what everyone else calls objective morality, then?

        • Raging Bee

          The way you keep on repeating “non-objective terminology” kinda reminds me of Jordan Peterson fanboys saying “out of context” over and over.

        • MR

          I’m just pointing out that your own language undermines what you’re trying to convince me of. And again you dodge the question. Ok.

        • Raging Bee

          Let’s say “human beings” believe/feel it’s wrong to shoot your neighbor for no reason. You still have that one psychopath who sincerely and honestly doesn’t believe/feel it’s wrong, so we don’t find objectivity there either.

          69Horsemuffins: one dissenting opinion — especially an insane one — does not make any morality subjective if it isn’t already so.

        • MR

          I suspect there are more than one psychopath in the world, and I’m not convinced psychopaths are insane so much as wired differently. Also, our own “objective moral beliefs” can change in an instant given apocalyptic conditions. As I mentioned, I think we’re wired for both sides of moral issues and depending on the circumstance, good can become bad and vice versa. Again suggesting to me the non-objectivity of what we call “morality.”

        • Raging Bee

          I suspect there are more than one psychopath in the world, and I’m not convinced psychopaths are insane so much as wired differently.

          That still doesn’t make any objectively-based moral rule any less objective.

          Also, our own “objective moral beliefs” can change in an instant given apocalyptic conditions.

          Well, yeah, our actions will change in response to radically-changed circumstances. But again, that alone does not necessarily make any of our moral rules less objective than they already were. The change you speak of, after all, is an objective fact; so either our moral reasoning much change because the factual grounding it’s based on has changed and thus leads to different conclusions; or the change has caused irrational responses such as panic, scapegoating, etc., and people are losing sight of reason.

        • MR

          But again, that alone does not necessarily make any of our moral rules less objective than they already were.

          But just look at your language, “that alone,” “does not necessarily,” you’re placing your objectivity into a subjective box. “Within this narrow box of definition, I hereby decree that everything within it is objective.”

          Again, morality doesn’t fall in the actions and consequences. Morality happens in how we feel about those actions and consequences. Everyone wants to discount the example of animals because “they’re not humans,” but they precisely illustrate what I’m talking about. We can look at those actions and consequences and literally have no moral opinion about them. An alien species observing us can look at all the lying, cheating and murder and shrug their shoulders and say, “That’s what the human species does. That’s how they evolved.” 40% of the American public can look at the Middle East and shrug and say, “They’ve been killing themselves for centuries. Leave them alone.”

          Morality, no, “morality” doesn’t exist, what we label as our moral feelings and beliefs, happen in each individual’s mind. [As Herald noted.] It’s nonsensical to talk about objective morality. You can talk about the concept, but it doesn’t really exist. For the theist, it’s a thing that exists out there, independent of us. As I [touched on with] Herman [(I didn’t say this exactly)], if you want to co-opt their term and make it your own, then what are you going to call what they believe? To me, the term they are using is the correct use of the term. It doesn’t exist, but we can refer to the concept. What you are describing is something very different, and to my mind very subjective, and I’m not completely on board with it. I know what you’re saying, but to call it “objective morality” seems false. You can’t just co-opt their term and call it done. If yours is truly “objective morality,” then what are you going to call their definition, and can you convince them and the rest of us that we should call it that?

          [edits]

        • Raging Bee

          …you’re placing your objectivity into a subjective box.

          No, I’m really not. You sound like you’re flailing about.

        • MR

          Your language is subjective. Your “really” tells me you’re not really convinced yourself.

          Anyway, I’m not flailing at anything. I’m not here to convince you that you haven’t convinced me. I’ve told you why I don’t buy your story and I had no illusions that you would care. You’ve chosen not to address my points or answer my question, so I guess I have nothing more to learn from you. Are we done?

  • Lark62

    Seeing as how the spokesmen for the font of perfect, absolute morality couldn’t figure out it is wrong to do nothing as children are raped, it is safe to conclude anything they say about morality is garbage.

    • Michael Neville

      They had two choices, either claim to be the font of perfect, absolute morality or act in a thoroughly and blatantly immoral fashion. We know what choice they made.