Dialogue w Atheist: Problem of Good & Miscellany

Dialogue w Atheist: Problem of Good & Miscellany April 9, 2021

BensNewLogin (former adherent of Judaism and for a short time, Christianity) is an atheist who responded to my paper, “Problem of Good: More Difficult than Problem of Evil?” (4-3-21) in the combox underneath. His words will be in blue.


So, you have asked me about the “problem of good“. Now I have some more time to write, but not as much time as I would like.

Thanks for responding and remaining civil, too.

I may not get around to answering your other questions about abortion, but this will do for now.

No need. I made the socratic point I wanted to make with DC Kurtz.

I don’t see that the existence of good is any kind of a problem,

“Good” itself is not a problem. The “problem of good” is in terms of atheism not being able too produce a rationale for why all human beings should be bound to some particular set of ethics, and how any atheist framework for same is inevitably arbitrary.

but then I don’t believe that humankind is inherently corrupt and evil. That would be Christians, and the basis for the Christian religion.

We believe in original sin, but we also believe that the way is open for any human being to be a very good human being, by way of God’s grace. All human beings have the capacity in their free will to be good and to do much good. It’s atheism that can only explain evil by environment, but that is often not nearly as sufficient an explanation as atheists seem to think. Christianity and Judaism before it uniquely explain the curiosity of human beings having the capacity for great good but also of sinking to the most depraved, wicked levels of evil.

As I will discuss later, good is no kind of a problem at all. We are social beings, and we must have morality in order to live together. It’s a simple as that.

No one disagrees with that. It’s not at issue. I presuppose it in my outlook and this current discussion.

For the record, I tried Christianity when I was in my late teens. I read everything I could by CS Lewis. He had a lot to say that was good, and a lot that was absolute nonsense. Eventually, I found I could not buy the Christian story. But it was Christianity itself that convinced me of that.

Or a caricature of it; what you falsely thought it was. No deconversion story I have ever seen lacked massive use of straw men and caricature as the basis for rejecting “Christianity.”

But back to your query. There are three assumptions that your question rests on.

Of course.

The first is that morals somehow exist apart from people. There is practically no evidence that this is so, though there are plenty of assertions that it is so. If there is such a moral principle, I suspect it would be labeled love. I also suspect that you and I would mean very different things by the use of the word. That has been my experience for most of my life: what religion means by love and what the rest of us might mean by love.

I think its objective existence is explained by the fact that all cultures in the world at all times basically agree on fundamental moral precepts. If individuals and circumstances were actually the cause, I don’t believe this would be the case.

The simplest definition of love is “desiring the best for others.”

The second assumption is that there is such a thing as an immutable moral principle. There has never been a moral principle in the history of the world that has been immutable.

Violation in practice (which is what I believe you are implying here) is not proof that the principle itself does not exist.

When we’re discussing the death penalty, we are told that all life is sacred, and killing another person is wrong. If it is immutable, then killing another person is ALWAYS wrong. But of course, there are immediate exceptions always to be made.

It’s the distinction between killing and murder. They are two different things. “Thou shalt not kill” is an unfortunate translation in the KJV, which has confused millions of people for five centuries now. The correct rendering of the Hebrew is “Thou shalt not murder”.

And funny about that, they are almost always made by people who are deeply religious. I learned this 43 years ago when I formed my initial opposition to the death penalty. Antiabortion people, calling themselves “pro-life”— a sarcasm if there ever was one— were suddenly pro death penalty.

I am against the death penalty. But there is still a great (and indeed, essential) distinction to be made between, say, executing a terrorist who blew up thirty people and torturing and murdering a helpless, innocent child and (in atheism) depriving it of 99.999999% of the only existence he or she would ever have.

They were happy to talk about taking the “innocent life“ of a fetus, but had no problem with the uninnocent life of a criminal.

Precisely because he is “uninnocent.”

I was in a discussion with a very Catholic woman a few weeks ago, who went into some length about the drugs in George Floyd’s system and his criminal history, and how his execution wasn’t really murder, but a consequence of his criminality and drug use. Please. Officer Derek Chauvin had 17 instances of violence against people he was arresting. That didn’t impress her. She wanted to justify Floyd’s death. Right to life, my ass.

That issue will be decided by a jury, which is how our justice system works. I’m all for throwing the book at the guy, myself, but of course, degrees and type of crime may be debated on legal grounds. I don’t know everything about it. This is why we have juries: to weigh the known facts and arrive at a unanimous decision. And the people should accept that and not riot in the streets if they don’t get what they want. I accept the judgment of juries and grand juries and judges, even though there are sometimes miscarriages of justice, as we all know.

I could also discuss here the conservative religious response to the coronavirus pandemic. Right to life Christians are falling over themselves to deny that the mask mandate is a good idea, or that vaccinations are a good idea.

I object to masks because they don’t do what they are purported to do. It’s based on science, not stupidity. I have no problem with anyone wearing a mask, and I do where the law requires it. But science has expressed itself, too. I wrote the post, “Face Masks: Is Scientific Evidence Unanimous?”  In it, I cited far-right, fundamentalist, extremist publications like:

American Journal of Infection Control
Epidemiology and Infection
Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses
CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal)
Clinical Infectious Diseases
JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association)
J Evid Based Med
Journal of Virology
BMC Infect Dis
Emerg Infect Dis.
Reviews of Infectious Diseases
Risk Analysis
Nature Medicine
PLoS Pathog
BMC Public Health
Food Environ Virol

Vaccinations are a separate issue. I think it is a good thing overall (the polio vaccine being the case of spectacular success), but one can object to vaccinations on various grounds. And no one should be forced to be vaccinated. In any event, my views are not from knee-jerk extremism or even directly from the Bible. I form them based on reason and my own study of science, including a holistic understanding of health issues.

But whaddya know? Here we are yet again talking about Christians, in a thread devoted to a proposed problem of atheism. Happens every time, doesn’t it? If the discussion gets uncomfortable, then immediately obfuscate and switch it over to the reliable old tired saws about Christians and the Bible . . .

I had a conversation last year with a self described, right to life Christian who was for immediately opening up the economy because he had money to make, despite the death toll. He would move mountains to”save” the Fetus borne by a woman he did not know, but anything to protect the lives of others during the pandemic was a bridge too far that he had no desire to cross. He had to earn his living. If other people died because of that, that was their lookout.

The current data shows little correlation between open and closed states and the rate of infection and death. Here are some stats I analyzed, from the end of March:

The CDC reports that Michigan [very strict policy] recorded the most new cases in the past 7 days with 36,100. [10 million population; one new case out of 277 people]

Florida [completely open] was second with 35,357 new cases, over 4,000 more than the previous week. [21.5 million; one new case out of 608 people]
New Jersey [very strict policy] was third with 31,236 new cases, nearly 3,000 more than a week ago. [8.9 million; one in 285 people]
New York [very strict policy] was fourth with 27,068 new cases, over 2,000 more than the previous week. [19.5 million; one in 720]
Texas [completely open] was fifth with 22,672 cases. [29 million; one in 1279 people]

Controlled for population, then, here are the percentage rates (worst to best) for the five states with the most new cases:

1) Michigan [closed]: 1 in 277.
2) New Jersey [closed]: 1 in 285.
3) Florida [open]: 1 in 608.
4) New York [closed]: 1 in 720.
5) Texas [open]: 1 in 1279.

Thus, one is, statistically, 4.6 times more likely to get the virus in closed Michigan than in open Texas, and 2.2 times more likely compared to open Florida.

[My home state of] Michigan had the highest rate of cases with 361 cases per 100,000 residents over the past 7 days.

New Jersey was second with 351 cases per 100,000 residents, followed by Connecticut at 246 per 100,000 residents and New York with 244 per 100,000 residents.

So my state of Michigan is the hot spot in the whole country right now and we have one of the strictest policies. What good has the latter done, when “open” Florida and Texas are doing far better than we are? That is statistics and rational analysis: not mere party politics. All this stuff has done in the long run is put thousands of small businesses out of business (or get thousands of people in nursing homes unnecessarily killed, as in Cuomo’s New York).

And no. I am not exaggerating this. I’ve had this conversation more times than I can count, and read more new stories about pro – life pastors and priests ignoring sound medical science because as far as they were concerned, church was more important than lives. There was a huge story last summer about a wedding in San Francisco, conducted and promoted on the sly by the archdiocese. Seven people, including the bride and the groom, got sick because some woman had to be a princess for a day. I believe there was one death. But I could be wrong about that.

I eagerly await your analysis of the science and CDC statistics that I provided above. You give me the standard liberal talking-points. I provide actual science and facts.

The third assumption is that religion has a thing to do with morality, an exclusive pipeline to morality, a definition of morality, or any particular insight into morality. I understand that that is what the religious press kit says, but there isn’t the slightest bit of evidence for that. In fact, there is a great deal of counter evidence for that, some of which I just cited.

I presuppose that all people have a moral sense. I believe that only religion can ground morality in a way that is sensible, non-arbitrary, and for the best good of all, but that’s a separate issue from the first thing.

Religion has been used to justify every atrocity, every war, every injustice, every meanness, every spitefulness. In fact, small-G god and big-G God are frequently what are used to justify what cannot be justified by any other means.

Any system can have its “dirty laundry” bandied about again and again (with huge distortion of degree and nature), while ignoring the exponentially greater good that it also produced (in the case of Christianity). Many lies are pressed into service for that end, in order to make Christianity and God look as bad and unappealing as possible for possible enquirers and believers. I don’t spend my time lying about and caricaturing atheists and atheism. Rather, I spend much of it defending Christianity and the Bible from the innumerable lies that are spread about them. So, for example:

Refutation of Atheist Paul Carlson’s 51 Bible “Contradictions”

Refuting 59 of Michael Alter’s Resurrection “Contradictions”

Michael Alter himself just wrote to me, questioning one of my 59 refutations. We’ll see how well he can defend his contentions, and how willing he is to do so. The latter thing is always the toughest thing to get atheists to do.

You and your respondents ask if there are immutable moral principles which both the religious and nonreligious can use and agreed upon. I’ve already looked a bit at the question of immutability, but barring immutable moral principles… Of course there are MORAL PRINCIPLES. That’s what enables society to exist, which in itself argues that morality in the most general sense is both a product of natural evolution and social evolution, not a function of which god or gods society happens to be following at the moment. Or not following at all. We are social creatures with personal agency— what you call free will. Morality is what enables us to live together in societies. As at least one other commenter has noted, morality is a shared social agreement.

As I wrote in my paper above this combox:

It can be shown that all societies agree on basic moral principles. C. S. Lewis in fact did this at the end of his book, The Abolition of Man. (what he called the Tao). We would say that is natural law and the human conscience, grounded in God. Commonalities don’t “prove” God’s existence, but this is perfectly consistent with what I wrote above, and what we would fully expect to find if God did exist. All societies, for example, have prohibitions of murder, as inherently wrong. They may differ on the parameters of murder (the definition). But they don’t disagree that there is such a thing as murder: that ought not be done, and for which there are strict penalties.

To answer to the question asked most directly, as to what My moral principles are, is fairly simple. I don’t treat other people in the way that I would not like to be treated myself.

The golden rule, of course. DC Kurtz (diabolically consistent) even attacked that. But you and I can have a rational and productive discussion because we agree on these basic ethical principles. Kurtz has simply lowered himself to the level of the beasts (and, I say, the Nazis).

I try always to understand the difference between what I can change and what I cannot change— and as importantly, whether I SHOULD change it. I tell the truth. I don’t demand dominion— that word is chosen very carefully— over the lives of other people.

All laws do that, so we all do this indirectly, by the people we elect to office.

I keep my hands off of other peoples stuff. I try always to choose kindness. Violence is rarely a solution, because what you put out in to the world is what you get back. I believe that good is better than evil because it’s nicer.

No disagreement here, as far as it goes. I only point out that your problem comes at the level of definition and application to all. I laid out my case in the paper above. Feel free to directly interact with it if you like: to actually respond to what I specifically argued.

You see, I actually believe in free will.

That’s another reason why we can talk. Many atheists I have come across deny this.

Every moment of our lives, we are faced with choices. What we choose determines who we are. Where we put our attention is what we create in our lives. What we put out in the world is what we get back.

Very true. As the Bible says, “what you reap is what you sow.” Or eastern religionists talk about karma.

But the question I actually believe you were asking is this one: where did I get my moral principles, If I didn’t get them from your God or someone else’s God. And that is another way of asking how they could be moral principles or immutable moral principles if the fount of morality didn’t give them to me. Such a statement ignores entirely a great deal of human knowledge: sociology, psychology, social psychology, anthropology, history, literature, socio-biology, evolutionary theory, and a host of other fields.

I got my morals the same way everyone gets their morals: from their parents, families, community, books that are read, churches that are gone to, experiences with other people, lessons that learned, observations that are made, history, culture, art, poetry and on and on and on. I read George Herbert and John Donne when I was a teenager; “no man is an island entire of itself“ still sticks in my mind 50 years later.

Yeah, we are all products of our influences, and we are what we eat. But this doesn’t go deep enough. I don’t believe mere environment and experience can explain the huge commonalities in ethics and morals that almost all human beings share. I think it’s because there really is a God Who embodies Good, and Who put our conscience and moral notions in us. And there is a real thing called evil which results from the deliberate rejection (using this free will you accept) of God and the Good.

I doubt anyone has ever read the Bible and said, “that’s going to be my moral system from now on.” They would have had to have been raised in a vacuum and become Bible believers when they were three years old for that to happen. That is not how anyone reads the Bible or any other religious text. Nobody reads the Bible and says, “I’m going to be that guy.“ They were already that guy, and they read in the Bible to justify that.

I agree that causation is multifaceted and complex.

Above all, as the summation and culmination of these simple principles, I don’t believe in a God, especially a god that tells me I can do whatever I want to do to other people as long as that God gives me his OK, or I believe that he gives me his OK, or an ancient book from thousands of years ago tells me that it’s OK. The history of the world is replete with people who say, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” The history of the Bible is also replete with that.

This is the usual jaded, distorted view of the Bible and God that I deal with in particulars, in replies to atheists.

When I was studying for my bar mitzvah nearly 60 years ago, our teacher in religious school was discussing the plagues of Egypt, and explained how “God hardened pharaoh’s heart“ after each and every plague, apparently so that he could send another plague. There seemed to be no other purpose to it but that. Pharaoh was ready to let the Hebrews go, and each time, God hardened his heart. I raised my hand and said to the teacher: “but that’s not fair.“ Even to 12 year old me, that was obvious. The teacher replied, “we are not to question God.“ The light went on. The principles of fairness were not important. All that did was make me question the teacher, then my cantor, whom I really admired, then my entire faith.

Then (as always in deconversions: from traditional Judaism as well as Christianity) your forsaking your faith was based on an elementary misunderstanding of biblical idiom and thinking. This “hardening” issue comes up quite a bit and I have explained it many times. It’s not rocket science. See: God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That?

Your story here precisely illustrates how people lose their faith and reject God: they pick one thing, twist and distort it and never truly understand even what it is, but nevertheless utilize it for an irrational and emotional rejection of a thing, that isn’t even truly the thing that is purportedly rejected. It’s classic. This is what I always find — without exception — in now about 30 such analyses of deconversion stories.

A few years later, I realized that the murder of all the firstborn sons of Egypt was even more unfair. They weren’t responsible for the enslavement of the Hebrews, especially the little children who couldn’t have enslaved anyone even if they wanted to.

That gets into judgment, which is another huge topic too complex to address here in an already long reply. I’ve addressed that many times, too.

I’m not about to take my moral lessons from the likes of that, much less proclaim it a fount of all morality. I have a lot of other stories and/or lessons that I could explain, but that’s where it all started.

You based it on untruths and distortions of what the Bible and Judaism teach.

There are no cosmic rewards, and there are no cosmic punishments. There are simply consequences. And because my entire life has taught me that what I put out into the universe is what I get back from it— there is an immutable moral principle if ever there was one— I want to put out the good stuff as much as possible, and bad stuff as little as possible.

You get nothing in the end but meaninglessness and despair and annihilation. Life ultimately has no purpose in the atheist view consistently applied. I’m delighted that you don’t consistently follow atheist false premises, as DC Kurtz does. You have to borrow from Judaism and Christianity to even get to the moral point that you have attained. You yourself implicitly agree with this in your point about everyone’s influences.

I don’t want bad consequences in my life, so I make my choices carefully. That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen; absolutely, they do. But I am quite clear about the consequences of MY bad actions.


But here’s the thing: that point of view requires an ACTIVE moral life, a constant examination of who I am, how I act, and who I am in the world. That is how people grow morally. I’m not the same man I was 20 years ago, when I met my husband. I’m not the same man I was 40 years ago; I’ve learned a lot in that time. I’m certainly not the same person I was 60 years ago. I’ve learned a lot in that time, frequently the hard way. The pretense that anyone lives a “Christian life” based entirely on the Bible, or what the church says, is perhaps the laziest of all of the lazy lies some people tell themselves to simply get through their days.

I see. Not sure what you mean by this, so I’ll let it pass for now.

The Christian God I’ve read about for most of my life would, I think, be offended by the laziness of that lie. Matthew 25:31 onwards is all about that.

Another complex discussion . . .

That’s all I can write for now. I will try to write more later as I have time.

Thanks for taking all this time to express your views. I appreciate that: even though we disagree on much. We do have some substantial agreements, too.


[he wrote the following before I replied above. He had written a comment that was mostly about Christianity (rather than atheism’s “problem of good”), which I felt was off-topic, so I deleted it (the only one I deleted in a very long combox: currently at 77 comments), and wrote: “The topic is the problem of good as a proposed weakness of atheism. If you keep trying to switch the topic, as here, your comment will be deleted.”]

If the topic is the problem of good as a proposed weakness of atheism, then a counter example of the problem of Good as a proposed weakness of theism should be a valid point to make. That was my point, of course. And I have addressed what you claim is the issue in several posts, none of which were responded to.

But actually, my real point was that neither theism nor atheism have any kind of a lock on goodness, or a reason for being good. My point was that goodness has no more to do with god than evil has to do with atheism. I said it quite clearly, in fact. This was the conclusion of the post that you deleted: “Here is the reality of the situation. Moral people act morally. Good people act goodly. Immoral people act immorally. Evil people act evilly. Religion has very little to do with morality, despite its press kit. But here’s a thought for you. If you need religion to tell you that Rape is wrong, murder is wrong, sexual abuse of children is wrong, Then your problem is that you lack empathy, not religion.”

That addresses quite clearly the “problem“ of “good“ in atheism. My point was, and remains, that you were asking the wrong question in favor of your own “partisan” point making. “Atheism=immorality or amorality or morality-on-a-whim. Religion=morality, consistent morality, rock-of-ages solid morality.”

No, it does not.

But, Absolutely you’re right— it’s your blog. And you also also entitled to your own echo chamber. But I will not agree that you are being honest about it by ignoring the point I’m making. Again, I have no interest in claiming that religion is evil. I don’t think that, and I’ve never thought that. I really don’t give a small gosh darn what people believe. We all of us need our metaphors. What I care about is what they do with it. You can go back in my comment history for nearly 20 years. I have never wavered from that.

So, given all that, I think I’ll just make my departure from your blog. You guys can all talk among yourselves, and assure yourselves that you are the holders of morality, and that you have a good reason for being moral, and that we atheists aren’t and don’t.

That doesn’t make it true.

I made a very in-depth reply to your longest reply to me just now. Most of what you have posted here was in dialogue with Jim Dailey, so I was happy to let him have that discussion. He does a fine job on his own. But now you want to depart? That was short-lived. And I thought it was a good discussion, too, and that we had significant areas of agreement, as I noted several times.

I simply deleted one post that went on and on about Christianity, to make the point that this thread is not about that (the “your dad’s uglier than mine” syndrome). Once in the history of the world we will attempt to discuss atheism with no reference (let alone incessant ones) to Christianity. Even so, you couldn’t help yourself bringing up religion again and again in the comment I replied to. I patiently answered your objections.

In any event, I have looked for your comment that I deleted, in order to restore it, but I can’t find it in Disqus or on your own Disqus profile. So, sorry about that. I should have just let it be, despite it straying into Christianity as the topic. If that has made you now want to leave, when we were just starting to have some good dialogue, then it was an unwise move on my part.

It’s pretty rich to accuse us here of being an echo chamber, when every atheist forum known to man is indeed that, and places where Christians and Christianity are constantly insulted and mocked and routinely ganged-up on (often 10- or 15-to-one) as fools and idiots and anti-science, anti-reason, flat-earther troglodytes every minute of the day.

Jim and myself know firsthand of what I speak, believe me. But here you and DC Kurtz have been treated with total courtesy and civility. You don’t see us mocking and insulting you. You haven’t seen anyone say you are automatically going to hell due to homosexuality. We haven’t said atheists aren’t moral, either (I think we’ve both taken the greatest pains to deny that). It’s simply vigorous discussion and honest disagreement about ideas (which are not you).

I sincerely hope you will hang around. I thought it was good discussion and was looking forward to more. It was a most refreshing change from the usual atheist-Christian “discussion” [choke and ha ha]. At least, I hope (if nothing else) you will read my long reply and see if it is a dialogue you think is worth continuing.

Take care.


Photo credit: Matryx (4-19-20) [PixabayPixabay License]


Summary: This enjoyable discussion started out ostensibly about the problem of good in atheism, but inevitably it started wandering into critiques of Christianity and the Bible. Oh well, I tried.


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