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.
In the (mercifully) final section of their chapter on morality, Geisler and Turek (GT) list five areas of confusion within the topic of absolute vs. relative morality. Since the boys have indeed been quite confused about this, perhaps we’ll get some clarity on the issue. The labels in this enumerated list come from their book.
Confusion #1—absolute morals vs. changing behavior
GT tell us that relativists confuse is and ought. You can change what you do, but you can’t change what you ought to do. GT tell us that relativists sometimes preface their outrage at backwards Christian attitudes about issues like sex with, “This is the twenty-first century!” as if morality adapts to the times.
But of course morality has changed over time—consider changing attitudes toward slavery, genocide, and rape, for example. During every time period, society thinks that they have finally gotten on the right side of these issues. GT can fume about it, but morality changes. Given that the Bible’s morality is abysmal, society’s moral evolution away from that is a good thing.
GT respond to charges that our many approaches to morality undercut the idea of a Moral Law, an objective morality.
But that doesn’t mean there is no unchanging Moral Law; it simply means that we all violate it. (page 182)
No, our contradictory moral actions mean that there is no objective, reliably accessible Morality, which they have already admitted. How they imagine this strengthens their claim of objective morality (when the natural explanation works just fine), I can’t imagine.
There’s also a vague reference to the is-ought problem, which I respond to here.
Confusion #2—absolute morals vs. changing perceptions of the facts
GT try to salvage the idea of objective, unchanging morals with the example of witch burning. We used to burn witches but not anymore. A change in morality? The boys tell us no:
What has changed is not the moral principle that murder is wrong but the perception or factual understanding of whether “witches” can really murder people by their curses. (183)
Not really. The KJV of Exodus 22:18 memorably demands of us, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Western society today includes witches (that is, people who so identify and who have corresponding supernatural beliefs), but only the most fringe Christian would demand the death penalty. This is a change in morality, and our modern morality (which is so familiar as to seem like common sense) wins out over a foreign idea in an ancient book.
Confusion #3—absolute morals vs. applying them to particular situations
Even if two victims wind up disagreeing over the morality of a particular act, this does not mean morality is relative. An absolute Moral Law can exist even if people fail to know the right thing to do in a particular situation. (183)
Translation: “Yeah, but I never said that objective morality was reliably accessible.” (But then what good is it?)
The larger point GT make is, “You haven’t proven me wrong.” That’s correct, but that’s not the skeptic’s job. I’ve given a plausible natural explanation for morality. You want to make the remarkable claim that objective morality exists? I’m listening, but not only have you done nothing but assert it, the moral issues you raise are better explained with natural explanations.
Going forward, I’ll leave pointing out the Assumed Objectivity fallacy as an exercise for the reader.
GT move on to imagine people puzzling over a life-or-death dilemma. They come to different conclusions and conclude that morality is relative.
But the dilemma actually proves the opposite—that morality is absolute. How? Because there would be no dilemma if morality were relative! If morality were relative and there were no absolute right to life, you’d say, “It doesn’t matter what happens!” . . . The very reason we struggle with the dilemma is because we know how valuable life is. (184)
Let’s consider the moral options that GT imagine. They reject option 1, some strange form of laissez-faire, “I have my opinion and you have yours, and whatever you do is fine with me” kind of morality. This strawman morality exists only in GT’s imaginations.
GT hope you’ll pick option 2 and say that an objectively correct answer exists, and our only problem, when faced with a moral dilemma, is calling forth this answer from the phlogiston or ectoplasm or wherever it lives. And GT admit that they have no reliable voodoo to do so.
It’s up to the skeptic to point to option 3, the obvious natural explanation: we all share a common sense of morality, and ambiguous or subtle moral puzzles can separate us into opposing camps. There is no objectively correct answer.
The fact that there are difficult problems in morality doesn’t disprove the existence of objective moral laws any more than difficult problems in science disprove the existence of objective natural laws. (184)
Translation: “Ha! You can’t prove me wrong.” That’s not much of an argument.
Yes, there are difficult problems in science, and there are objective natural laws. Science continually pushes through difficult problems and finds those laws. But you say that parallels our search for objective moral laws?
Show me. Science has uncovered many new laws about nature in the last two centuries, so produce one example of a new objective moral law from that time. Eternal aphorisms like the Golden Rule don’t count because they’re old. And if it’s a new development (say, “slavery is bad” or “no genocide”), it can’t be unchanging and is therefore not objective.
The attempted parallel with natural laws fails.
If just one moral obligation exists (such as don’t murder, or don’t rape, or don’t torture babies), then the Moral Law exists. If the Moral Law exists, then so does the Moral Law Giver. (184)
GT are getting desperate now and have ignored the collateral damage. They’ve thrown out of the life raft any claim that their Moral Law is reliably accessible—or even accessible at all. Their objective morality has become a useless bit of trivia—something that exists but might as well not for all the good it does us. They have no explanation for God’s Old Testament rampages and moral errors. As a result, they have discarded any claim to be honestly searching for the truth. This is all to make the claim, “Well, you haven’t proven that objective moral truth is impossible, so God could still exist!”
Would God want to rule the moral wasteland that you’ve left him?
Confusion #4—absolute morals (what) vs. a relative culture (how)
Morality varies by culture—yes, I agree.
Confusion #5—absolute morals vs. moral disagreements
GT note that there are contentious moral issues within society.
Some think abortion is acceptable while others think it’s murder. But just because there are different opinions about abortion doesn’t mean morality is relative. (185)
Not for sure, but it’s a good clue. This is the “You haven’t proven me wrong!” argument again. The burden of proof is yours.
Next up, GT handwave that “each side defends what they think is an absolute moral value.” Redefinition! No one believes in relative morality, and morality is now only absolute morality.
On the heels of that is another redefinition. If you disagree with GT’s anti-abortion stance,
This moral disagreement [about abortion] exists because some people are suppressing the Moral Law in order [to] justify what they want to do. (186)
So if you’re pro-choice, you’re just wrong. As if the arrogance couldn’t get any greater, morality has devolved to become that which GT believe.
I can’t take any more of the same childish errors over and over, so I’m done with this chapter. I’m amazed that the Christian flock is content to be fed such pablum.
to be a Christian.
— title of one Amazon review of
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 9/28/15.)
Image from Wikipedia, CC license