September 11, 2019

J. Craig Bradley is an atheist, with a Master’s degree in philosophy. He is interacting with my paper, The “Problem of Good”: Great Dialogue With an Atheist (the Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity) + the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism. His words will be in blue. My older words, cited from the above paper, will be in green.


I’m now taking the time to read (and reply to) your lengthy exchange with Mike Hardie, what you call the “Problem of Good” dialogue. I too will attempt to have a respectful dialogue with DA, and hope he returns the favor. So Dave and Mike had a discussion about theism. Let’s see how it went!

It went very well, and is my very favorite dialogue of all the multiple hundreds I’ve been in.

The problem of good is not defined (as far as I can see), but if the POE [problem of evil] is the argument where evil disproves a perfectly loving being, the POG seems to be an argument where good disproves a perfectly evil being. 

No; I would say that it strongly suggests that atheism is a less plausible position than theism, and that the problem of good is at least as big of a problem for atheism, as the problem of evil is for theism (it’s a classic turn-the-tables argument). I think the following statement of mine, near the beginning, serves as a definition of the [atheist] problem of good:

Simply put (but I will defend this at the greatest length once we discuss particular moral questions), atheist justifications for morality (i.e., logically carried through) will always be either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require.

If so, yes, both arguments work: our universe shows there to not be either of those beings, as far as we know.

I deny that your evidential problem of evil works to either disprove God’s existence, or suggest that His nonexistence is probable; and you have misunderstood the nature and purpose of my problem of good (at least in the way I use it).

Nothing about the lack of a perfectly evil being fails to disprove the EPOE [evidential problem of evil], which rightly shows that a perfectly good being probably doesn’t exist.

Again, since you have misunderstood my argument, this is a non sequitur.

DA claims that the EPOE (the only POE worth discussing, since the LPOE [logical problem of evil] is quickly a failure) fails, but he doesn’t (yet) show that to be true. (I’ve yet to see anyone come close to refuting the EPOE, but that’s for another day). The dialogue could have been about that, but DA indicates it will be about the nature of morality.

This particular dialogue was a critique of atheism, in response to the atheist problem of evil critique of Christianity. I was saying, in effect, “you say we have a problem? I say that you have a far more difficult problem to grapple with.”

DA thinks there are worrisome moral implications for atheism. There aren’t, at least not intellectually. That is, nothing about existing morality disproves atheism or proves theism. DA is right that an atheist truth seeker would examine apparent shortcomings to atheism. Are there problems (“shortcomings”) with atheism? That remains to be shown.
DA says that atheists have 5 problems:

“The atheist:

1) Can’t really consistently define “evil” in the first place;
2) Has no hope of eventual eschatological justice;
3) Has no objective basis of condemning evil;
4) Has no belief in a heaven of everlasting bliss;
5) Has to believe in an ultimately absolutely hopeless and meaningless universe.”

The first is false: many atheists can easily define “evil” consistently. Nothing shows that if God doesn’t exist, atheists can’t take the word “evil” and define it consistently. Nothing shows that if atheists don’t or can’t define “evil” consistently then God exists. Typically, by “evil” I am referring to actions that aren’t for the greater good, and by that I mean actions like rape (but there are others).

The essence of my statement #1 is in the word consistently. I show how atheist use is inconsistent throughout my dialogue. It is well  summarized in Dostoevsky’s statement, “If there’s no God and no life beyond the grave, doesn’t that mean that men will be allowed to do whatever they want?” [see more on this quotation from The Brothers Karamazov (1880)]. To my knowledge, the way I used the argument (back in 2001) was not to assert that it proves God exists. Rather, I think it helps to establish that theism (considered as a whole) is more coherent and plausible than atheism.

The second is also false. Even though there is no god, atheists can hope for mean people to be punishing “in the end”, and for kind people to be rewarded “in the end”. But if the author means, atheists typically don’t have any strong evidence for such justice, that’s true, but so too true for the theist. If the author means atheists never hope that there is such justice, that’s false.

Again, the key here lies in the word eschatological, which is a fancy theological 50-cent word for “last things.” It refers to judgment after death, and specifically the Last Judgment: where the scales will be weighed and divine / cosmic justice will be applied. Evil people will be judged and sent to hell, and those who are saved by God’s grace will be allowed to enter heaven. Atheism obviously has no such scenario, since it denies the existence of God, the afterlife, human immortality, heaven, and hell, so my statement is absolutely true, as to atheism. It has no such thing, and cannot, by definition. And from where we stand, this is a huge problem. It’s central to the problem of good.

The 3rd one is also false, depending on what “objective” means here. If “objective” means something like “godly” or “supernatural” then DA is right. Atheists have no godly basis for condemning evil. But atheists do have a grounds for trying to stop it, condemning it, etc. It typically does harm and is typically unwanted (or as I defined it above: it’s not for the great good: it’s not maximally loving). Nothing shows that an atheist can’t criticize evil, or cheating, etc., if that criticism is to point out that such things are indeed not maximally kind.

“Objective” in this context means a binding, non-arbitrary standard of absolute morals within the framework of atheism. I’m not denying that individual atheists have such moral / ethical standards for themselves. Of course they do. What I’m saying is that they are all ultimately arbitrary and relativistic without a God to ground them in, and that large atheist systems act in accordance with this moral relativism and/or amorality (Mao, Lenin, Stalin et al): and we see what they produced.

Number 4 is true if it means this: “atheists who believe no gods exist don’t believe in a place called Heaven made by a god”. But 4 is false if it means this: “atheists can’t believe in a future state of everlasting bliss/happiness”.

It’s obvious what it means. Its true for all materialistic atheists. There are dualist atheists, but I am unaware of any who believe in human immortality, and a blissful afterlife. Of course, that is no disproof that they exist. So this curious claim will have to be unpacked and elaborated upon.

Regardless, the author is right that for many/most atheists, they believe that there are no (known) gods, no (known) Heaven, no eternal (a billion years from now) happiness that some humans here today will experience. Since the atheist is right about such things, this causes no problem.

It causes a problem for ultimate justice and morality, and ultimate meaningfulness for morality.

Number 5 is basically true: For the typical atheist who listens to science and reason, all the known evidence shows (so far) shows that in a trillion years (“ultimately”) there be no life, and this nothing that “matters” (is “meaningful”) to anyone. Of course, one can still hope for eternal life. But yes, given that there is no god, and no other evidence of eternal life, atheists typically conclude that “ultimately” there is no eternal life (as far as we know). Nothing about this is a problem (intellectually) for the atheist. Those are just facts, truths, likelihoods.

I’m not talking about the end of the universe. I’m talking about meaningful purpose here and now in our human lives. We would claim that any good and noble impulses within atheist consciences are there because they are innate in human beings: put there by God in the first place. If there were no God, they wouldn’t be there and evil would be far, far greater than it is now (and it is a huge and troubling problem now).

DA says that 1 and 3 basically claim “atheists cannot have objective morality”. Oddly, there seems to be no definition of “objective morality”.

An ethical system of moral absolutes (over against moral relativism). This ain’t rocket science.

If it means “actual values”, then it’s false. Atheists do actually value things.

Of course they do, but that has no bearing upon my argument.

If it means something “godly” then yes, atheists don’t have godly/objective morality (and neither does anyone else).

Those who believe in a God in Whom right and wrong and love are grounded, do possess such a system (especially if that God in fact exists!). Atheists ultimately cannot have it, because the next person can always say, “who cares what you think about morality; that’s just you, and your view is no more worthy of belief or assent than the next guy’s . . .”

DA thinks that something here “rules out these non-theistic ethics in one fell swoop” [that was my opponent’s words], but I see no evidence of this. DA says, “according to the atheist’s presuppositions, taken to their ultimate logical (and above all, practical, in concrete, real-world, human terms) consequences, cannot be carried through in a non-arbitrary manner, and will always end up incoherent and morally objectionable. “ What does this mean? It’s not clear from the get-go.

Well, that’s what I unpack in the very lengthy dialogue. The key word is ultimate: it’s a “logical reduction to . . .” argument.

DA says if there is no god, then morality “will always be either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require.” Yes, nothing shows this to be true. What is true is that if one continues to ask questions about things we will always get to an arbitrary point (the point in which we don’t have an answer for something). Some of our knowledge is already like that! But DA was wrong to say that it is “completely arbitrary”, unless he meant, “at rock bottom” and was just repeating the point I just made.

Yes, I meant “at rock bottom” or “ultimately.” The Christian “rock bottom” is God. The atheist rock bottom is like peeling an onion: it’s nothing.

So, basically, an atheist morality is ultimately arbitrary (as is any known morality),

I deny that Christian morality is arbitrary at all.

but nothing about that proves God.

I didn’t say it did prove God (let’s not get ahead of ourselves). I argued that it was an internal difficulty of atheism: specifically for atheist morality and ethics.

So far the author hasn’t done anything to show that this atheistic “relativistic” morality leads to any absurdity that falsifies it. Nor has the author shown that an atheistic morality requires Christian ethics (“God”) to be true.

That’s what the dialogue was about. I would have to be shown point-by-point that I supposedly did not succeed in my aim. Overarching statements like this prove nothing. They are not even rational arguments.

God doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t show that we permit any and all things, thus it is false to say “if God doesn’t exist, anything is permissible”. A better phrasing would be “if God doesn’t exist, then God doesn’t stop anything”.

Many atheists (at least those in power) did indeed conclude that any evil was possible in a godless universe. If there is no ultimate morality and justice, of course this is true. It comes down to raw power and “might makes right” and reducing human beings to the “red in tooth and claw” state of primal nature and the animal kingdom, where the strong rule, in an amoral state of affairs.

DA wrongly equates the evils done in the name of Christianity with the evils done by Stalin, who was an atheist, but his evils were not done “in the name of” Atheism. 

It’s irrelevant what they were done in the name of (although “orthodox” / classic Communism is by definition atheistic). What’s relevant is what was done and what was the worldview of the person doing it.

Regardless, nothing here is relevant to the issue of whether God exists. 

I agree!

 Assuming Christians did “evil” doesn’t prove or disprove god (except that, technically, Rapes disprove Evil), but assuming Atheists did “evil” wouldn’t prove or disprove God.

Yep. That’s why I wasn’t arguing for those things. I was pointing out the difficulties for atheism, of the problem of good (see the brief definition above).

It may be true that some atheists “feel” themselves to be the measure of all things. But those atheists are wrong.

On what absolute moral basis can you say they are “wrong”?

They aren’t the measure of how long a football field is, the measure of how painful and hurtful rape is, etc.

What is the measure? And how and why would all human beings be bound to it, in a godless ethical system?

But nothing about this proves God/disproves atheism.

Yep. If we can ever get beyond these non sequiturs, maybe we’ll get somewhere.

Here’s probably the major thing overlooked in this discussion: DA wonders how the kind atheist would respond to the unkind atheist. We kind atheists would say, we hope you act kindly! 

On what absolute / objective basis do you define “kindly” and how and why would all human beings be bound to it?

And we probably would throw unkind atheists (like rapists) in jail.

Yes, folks like you would do that, no doubt. It has no bearing on my overall argument. I seems that you have no fully comprehended the latter.

But DA wants to know how atheists can show “why and how the other person should be “bound” to the moral observations”. And there’s the mistake. Atheists can’t show, automatically, that all persons (including the unkind atheists) are “bound” to be kind, other than to say “if you are mean, we will try to throw you in jail!”.

Exactly! Thanks for conforming a major component of my argument.

Here the theist DA imagines that all atheists have to believe in what’s often called an “Objective Moral Law/Duty”, which usually is spelled out as saying “All people, regardless, MUST be kind”. But this is false. All people, regardless, do not have to be kind. Those who desire to be kind must be kind (if they are trying to satisfy that desire).

You certainly believe (or act like you believe) that rape is a thing that is essentially a moral absolute in all times and places. It’s presupposed in your arguments regarding the EPOE. You apply that and assume it to be true. If you didn’t, the force of your EPOE argument against God would be weakened to almost nil. But Japanese troops during the Rape of Nanking (not particularly religiously observant) did not do so, did they?:

In the mere six weeks during which the Japanese perpetrated the Nanking Massacre starting on Dec. 13, 1937, an estimated 20,000-80,000 Chinese women were brutally raped and sexually assaulted by the invading soldiers. They sometimes went door-to-door, dragging out women and even small children and violently gang-raping them. Then, once they’d finished with their victims, they often murdered them. . . .

The invaders, though, didn’t even stop at simply murder. They made these women suffer in the worst ways possible. Pregnant mothers were cut open and rape victims were sodomized with bamboo sticks and bayonets until they died in agony.

You don’t think that rape is a moral absolute, and that it is wrong at all times? If you don’t, then you just justified the Rape of Nanking, or at least provided the “ethical” basis for someone else (in power) to justify and rationalize it. In atheist “eschatology there is  no ultimate justice for perpetrators of monstrous crimes such as these. In Christian cosmology there is ultimate justice and hell awaiting those who do such things and who do not repent of them.

I think you would agree with me, on the other hand that the nuclear bombing of Japan was immoral insofar as it killed innocent civilians (the US then became as evil as their enemy). But in an atheist world of morality, there is no compelling reason to explain why it is immoral, and must never be violated.

Of course, it is Catholic (and to a large extent, larger Christian) binding moral teaching on just war that provides that rationale.

And that is the solution that refutes (apparently) all of these theistic attempts to use morality to disprove atheism.

It’s no solution at all. This amounts to saying (to paraphrase your words): “All people do not have to refrain from rape. Those who desire not to rape must not rape (if they are trying to satisfy that desire to not do so).”

DA claims that the atheism will result in something that is “incoherent and morally objectionable”. The truth of that depends on how he is defining those terms.

The same way the logician and the one arguing the problem of evil does. The latter presupposes that there are things that are indisputably wrong, and agreed to be so by all, as virtually self-evident. Otherwise, his indictment against God (which fails, even as is) could not even begin to succeed. In other words, he has to tacitly admit that the problem of good is a problem for atheism, in order to proceed against God and theism; and that is incoherent and self-contradictory. He winds up arguing as much for God as against, by utilizing such weak arguments.

The issue here is whether atheism is false.

It’s one of the issues in the “long run” but not primarily in my mind (if at all) when making the problem of good argument. I’m saying, “these are the consequences on the ground of atheism, taken consistently to its logical extreme.” That argument can be made wholly apart from whether God exists or not.

If there is no God and there are rapes, then we live in a world that is “morally objectionable” if one means by that “frustrating to kind people”.

There you go again presupposing the absolute “rape is wrong.” If you didn’t, you couldn’t say that the world was “morally objectionable”.

But nothing about that disproves atheism.

I don’t think anything absolutely disproves it (if e want to get technical). I think it is thoroughly implausible and not worthy of belief, over against the far superior theistic alternative. But that’s an altogether separate argument (or separate large set of arguments). I’m simply stating my position on that,m since you keep bringing it up, for some odd reason.

Those are again just the facts about the world we live in.

Which is neither here nor there, but it has some remote bearing on the present discussion . . .

DA is right about one thing: “morality” is relative in one sense: people exist, and they often desire/prefer/like/want different things. Thus, for those who prefer pizza, what is wise for them to do (what they “ought to do” prima facie) is eat pizza. For those who prefer hot dogs, prima facie, what is wise for them to do (again what they “ought to do”) is eat hot dogs. There is relativism in what we enjoy. 

Subjective preferences related to taste buds hardly has anything to do with morality . . .

Morality is fundamentally about values, which often differ. Thus moral relativism of the sort described here is true/real/exists. Yes, theists usually here try to say “morality” is not like that. (But it is!) The burden is on the theist to show, even when person A says “I want to be mean (more than anything else)” and person B says “I want to kind (more than anything else)” that one of these people “ought” to do something other than what they want more than anything else. I’ve never seen anyone come close to showing this. What seems to be happening is that (typically) kind people want the mean people to be kind, so they try to trick the mean people by saying odd things like “you just have to be kind! Everyone Ought to be kind!” But there’s no evidence for this. People who want a kind world should be kind. What you “ought” to do (even morally!) depends on what you want. (To be clear, by “ought” I mean something like “is sensible/reasonable for you to do”). What one person has a reason to do often doesn’t apply to a different person with different values/desires. Hence, there is no Objective (necessary, godly, necessarily universal) “ought” (as far as we know).

Thanks for the description! What an utterly terrifying “world” that is . . .

If you then say, but morality (i.e., what we value) is “arbitrary” (we could value lots of different things, and we do!) that’s again just a fact about the world

It’s a fact about the atheist worldview, not the theistic one. What we believe makes a difference in how we act and how we construct moral and ethical systems.

It doesn’t prove God or disprove atheism.

The mantra . . .

Nothing here is “absurd” to the point of falsifying anything I’ve said. And again, nothing here (or elsewhere) requires anything about God or its supposed ethics).

I agree; it’s perfectly logical, according to your [false] premises. And it is perfectly terrifying in its consequences.

Returning to your “immoral atheist” story, you are right about one thing: if the kind atheist says to the immoral atheist, “I don’t like your unkindness!” that might not register/affect the immoral atheist. The kind atheist can try to persuade (I’ll give you donuts if you are kind!), threaten (I’ll thrown you jail if you are mean!”) but you are right: there isn’t anything that guarantees this will work, that, regardless of its meanness, the immoral atheist just “ought” or “has to” be kind. The theists mistake is in thinking that everyone really does have to be kind (and some atheists say this, which doesn’t help), regardless of anything. But that’s false. So, those who are kind live in a difficult world: mean people live here too! So, we can try to persuade or threaten them, or run from them. Or, as most people seem to have done, we can create a false narrative where we trick the mean people by saying “you’ve just GOT to be kind!” (end of story). If one continues this story, there’s nothing that will show that claim to be true.

Of course, this is why societies construct legal systems, which hold that certain behaviors are wrong, and therefore, punishable by law. Law presupposes moral absolutes. And I would say that law in a given country will reflect its religious heritage, because that is what the views of right and wrong, and what should be illegal are ultimately based on: that and natural law.

So, the mistake you made it seems is in thinking that “atheism is incompatible with such reprehensible behavior”. As I’ve shown, atheism is quite compatible with reprehensible behavior (mean people).

Yes, I fully agree (with the second sentence)! But of course, what is “reprehensible” and “mean”? You have to casually assume moral absolutes to discuss morality at all (i.e., if you condemn any particular behaviors).

Whereas of course, the theist hasn’t shown that rapists (mean people) probably are for the greater good (and thus allowed by a perfect in all ways being).

We can get to that in due course. One thing at a time. You have so far concentrated on the problem of good, and I don’t see how you have overthrown it at all.

DA says, “why and how [should] the other person…be “bound” to the moral observations”. I’ve now answered that: they aren’t “bound” in any sense other than worldly, human ways, like jails.

And, as I just argued, jails and judges and laws all presuppose an absolute system of morals and right and wrong. Otherwise, there could be no laws at all, and “everything would be permitted” (legal and moral anarchy). We would be back to Dostoevsky.

DA then says, the reason that all people are bound (“ought”, are required regardless of desires…) to be kind is “because God provides the over-arching “absolute” and principle of right and wrong which allows for coherent ethics and non-arbitrary determination of good and evil.” As I’ve shown, people aren’t all bound. Secondly, if you look closely (at words like “right” and “wrong”), you won’t find anything here that proves “God provides an absolute principle of right and wrong”.

Technically, I likely (without looking at it again) wasn’t trying to prove that God was. I was simply saying, “this is the coherent Christian alternative.”

DA is honest when he says, “Christians believe that God put this inherent sense in all human beings, so that they instinctively have a moral compass, and therefore largely agree on right and wrong in the main”. This is a belief, but it isn’t knowledge: it’s not shown to be probable. 

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.

Nothing shows that God exists, or “put” in (ALL of) us a “sense” of “right and wrong” (knowledge? That rape is unkind?). 

I just showed that there is something very tangible that suggests it (existing moral and legal systems all around the world). All societies, for example, have prohibitions of murder, as inherently wrong. They may differ on the parameters of murder (the definition): such as the present immoral and anti-scientific nonsense about abortion not being a species of it, based on human embryos supposedly not being wither human or persons. 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.

Rather, the evidence shows that we do have inherent biological tendencies (but virtually no awareness knowledge from the get go of conception), most of which are selfish! Newborns don’t even know what rape is. Small kids are typically selfish and want all the toys. We train most kids to be less selfish.

Which, of course, we take as evidence for original sin, or specifically, concupiscence. Thanks!

The point of all this: nothing shows that God exists, and put something in us, in ALL of us, and it was a sense of kindness. Even if that were true (which it isn’t), for those who became mean people (which the author indicated exist), it would be false to say, out of nowhere (automatically, necessarily, regardless of your strongest desires) “you OUGHT to be kind!” This is just a form of intellectual bullying. No evidence shows this (other than that the kind people want you to be kind.

Nothing new here, to respond to.

DA then falsely says “Atheists have this sense (that rape is unkind, the desire to help others?), put there by God, just as believers do, whether they acknowledge it or not”. Nothing shows this to be true.

I thoroughly disagree, as argued. If you really believed this, you couldn’t use rape as your “silver bullet” example to try to condemn God with: in your EPOE arguments.

DA then wrongly says “their behavior proves it.” That is, when atheists say “I like kindness” and say “you ought to be kind!” DA thinks this proves that God exists,

No; I would say, this is supporting evidence for natural law, which in turn suggests (not proves) that God exists, Who is behind it. If I argued more strongly than that in my 2001 dialogue, I must have worded it wrongly, because I know I had pretty much the same views on theistic proofs then as I do now.

and that 2nd claim (“You objective ought to be kind”) is true. It does not. DA is right: without God, values will often differ from person to person. But those are just the facts of our world.

That’s a statement of sociology (my major), not philosophy.

Thanks for the dialogue!


Photo credit: Nanjing Tribunal investigates remains of Nanjing Massacre victims (1946) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


November 28, 2018

[for general, philosophically lay-level background, see my paper: “Logical” Problem of Evil: Alvin Plantinga’s Decisive Refutation]


Atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder (prime mover behind the influential Internet Infidels / Secular Web network) maintains that the former position is currently widely accepted:

Ever since Alvin Plantinga refuted J.L. Mackie’s logical argument from evil, the majority of contemporary philosophers of religion have come to believe that logical arguments from evil are unsuccessful. This opinion is not unanimous, however. Philosophers Richard Gale, Quentin Smith, and Howard Jordan Sobel challenge the conventional view regarding the prospects for logical arguments from evil. Indeed, Smith has formulated a new version of the logical argument from evil to avoid the pitfalls of Mackie’s argument. Nevertheless, many philosophers remain highly skeptical regarding logical arguments from evil. (Logical Arguments for Atheism: Logical Arguments from Evil)

It’s interesting that even some of those who argue against Plantinga’s famous free will defense, do not purport to have totally, decisively overthrown or refuted it. For example, philosopher Quentin Smith writes about his colleague Richard Gale’s attempts (both men are mentioned above):

Gale points out that his argument is not conclusive . . . the analogies may not be sufficiently strong. Nonetheless, Gale thinks his argument has some force against Plantinga’s free will defense. But does it? . . . I think Plantinga’s free will defense can survive this attack.

Gale has much more to say about the problems with Plantinga’s free will defense, none of which he thinks conclusively refutes the defense. (A Sound Logical Argument from Evil, from pp. 148-157 of Ethical and Religious Thought in Analytic Philosophy of Language, Yale University Press, 1997)

Smith thinks his own rebuttal does succeed where Gale’s fails, but it is interesting to note what he says about the other attempt, and how Gale himself regards his own efforts; he writes:

Obviously, any analogy between man and God will be an imperfect one, since there are such striking disanalogies between the two. For this reason I do not see my argument as in any way conclusive. At best, it might take the smirk off the face of a Free Will Defender and replace it with a worried grin. (Freedom and the Free Will Defense; originally published in Social Theory and Practice, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 1990; emphases added)

Noted atheist philosopher Graham Oppy elaborates similarly on the current consensus about this particular version of the atheological argument from evil:

. . . it is one thing to suppose that ‘the problem of evil’ has some kind of justificatory role in non-theistic rejection of theistic beliefs; it is quite another question whether ‘the problem of evil’ poses some kind of insuperable problem for reasonable theistic belief . . . While it seems clearly reasonable for non-theists to allow ‘the problem of evil’ to have some role in their reasons for rejecting traditional Western theism, it is much less obvious that it is reasonable for non-theists to claim that ‘the problem of evil’ raises insuperable difficulties for theists.

In her book, Weisberger argues a case for the stronger claim, i.e. Weisberger argues for the conclusion that ‘the problem of evil’ amounts to a disproof of the existence of the god of traditional Western theism. For various reasons, I think that her case is not quite as strong as she supposes, and that she doesn’t manage to establish that anyone who is both reasonable and fully apprised of the facts about the amounts, kinds, and distribution of evils in the world will deny the existence of the god of traditional Western theism.

. . . Perhaps the main fault which I find with the overall line which Weisberger takes lies in her appeals to the burden of proof. It seems to me that the right method here is to formulate the competing views – i.e. theistic and non-theistic theories of the world – and then to ask which one is best supported by the total available evidence. If theists can reasonably suppose that they have lots of evidence which supports the claim that God exists, then they may reasonably believe that there is a solution to ‘the problem of evil’, even if they do not know what that solution is. To insist, that theists have to provide a satisfactory theodicy or else abandon their theism, is to fail to pay proper regard to ‘the principle of total evidence’. (Review of Weisberger, A. [1999] “Suffering Belief: Evil and the Anglo-American Defence of Theism,” Toronto Studies in Religion 23, New York: Peter Lang, pp. xvi+245)

David O’Connor is a non-theist professor of philosophy at Seton Hall University. His book God and Inscrutable Evil: In Defense of Theism and Atheism (Lanham/London, Rowman & Littlefield, 1998) was reviewed by Dean Stretton (2001). Note how O’Connor, too, doesn’t regard the logical problem of evil as a conclusive, unanswerable refutation of theism:

In the shorter part II, O’Connor moves to discussion of direct empirical arguments from evil (namely, those whose evidential base comprises certain facts of evil), and in particular the argument formulated by William Rowe. O’Connor then considers the skeptical defense of theism advocated by Stephen Wykstra and others, and concedes that this defense not only succeeds to a large degree against Rowe’s argument, but also refutes (or at least justifiably departs from) the assumptions of the standard model of debate on the problem of evil, and thus undermines the indirect empirical argument of part I as well. This is the defense of theism referred to in the subtitle. The facts of evil, O’Connor says, constitute sustaining evidence for atheism (p.211), in the sense that someone who is already an atheist will regard those facts as further reason to remain an atheist (since those facts are just what we would expect if atheism were true); but those facts do not settle or even tend to settle the debate in favour of atheism, since, as the skeptical defence shows, the facts of evil are equally what we would expect if theism were true (or at least are not particularly surprising given theism).

O’Connor thus argues, in the end, for a “detente” between “friendly theism and friendly atheism”- the term “friendly” denoting “each side’s recognition of failure to either refute the other [side] or to gain decisive cognitive advantage over it” (p.227). “[T]heism,” he says, can be justified for certain persons in certain circumstances, atheism for others in other circumstances” (p.xi); thus the need for an “intellectually tolerant, live-and-let-live view” on the issue of God’s existence (p.236).

Atheist Dave Holloway concurs:

Historically, and in terms of popularity, the argument from evil (AE) is the most important argument of any argument that has attempted to justify disbelief in the existence of a God. Philosophers from Epicurus to J.L. Mackie have put forth the argument; theologians from Augustine to Plantinga have taken the problem seriously and attempted to grapple with it.

The classic statement of the argument maintains that the existence of God, defined as all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good, is incompatible with the existence of evil in the world. Atheologians historically stated this as a deductive argument, attempting to show that the following statements are inconsistent:

(1) God is all-powerful and all-knowing.

(2) God is all-good.

(3) Evil exists.

However, this approach is generally regarded as unsuccessful. The logical compatibility of 1-3 can be seen when one considers that (1) and (2) entail, respectively,

(4) God could prevent evil unless evil is logically necessary.

(5) God would prevent evil unless God is morally justified in allowing it.

(4) and (5) combined entail

(6) Evil exists only if it is logically necessary or morally justified.

which is compatible with (1) and (2).

Because of the general perceived failure of this approach, the focus has shifted to evidential arguments from evil. (Skeptical Theism and the Evidential Argument From Evil [link now defunct] )

The former Christian and doctoral candidate in philosophy “exapologist” (these ubiquitous and unnecessary Internet nicknames will be the death of me) concedes less than all that but still takes a view far less triumphant than traditional post-“Enlightenment” atheism:

[A]pologists are being misleading when they claim that Plantinga has refuted the deductive argument from evil. At best, he’s shown that we can’t be confident that the deductive argument from evil is sound. (Some {Temporarily} Final Thoughts About the Free Will Defense)

What, then, does Plantinga’s Free Will Defense really show? In light of the previous discussion, just this: for people who aren’t theologically conservative Christians, it’s not conclusively ruled out as impossible that the Free Will Defense saves theism from the logical problem of evil . . . (On the Force of “Possibly” in Plantinga’s Free Will Defense)

Now based on what I understand so far of the current literature on this clarification, the FWD is still problematic even on the correct construal (though I can’t say so with any confidence yet). (blog comment under the above paper)

But alas, there is division in Atheist-Land, and not all realize what has occurred in philosophy and philosophy of religion in the past 40-50 years. Steven Conifer, a sharp, zealous young atheist (whom I have debated at least three times), confidently states:

Conversely, many atheological arguments, such as the Argument from Evil, Theodore Drange’s Arguments from Nonbelief and Confusion, various incompatible-properties arguments, and the Lack-of-Evidence Argument (which is based on the very assertion that there exists no good objective evidence for God’s existence) have never, to my knowledge, been seriously challenged. (The Argument from Reason for the Nonexistence of God, 2001)

[Note: I debated Dr. Drange regarding his “ANB” argument, too; I don’t think I did that bad of a job, seeing that I am a mere layman with the formal experience of eight to ten college philosophy classes, going against a philosophy professor]

John W. Loftus, former (semi-heretical sect) Church of Christ pastor-turned-atheist and blogmaster of Debunking Christianity, throws all restraint and nuance to the wind when he writes about the current philosophical status of the logical problem of evil:

The Logical Problem of Evil Is Still Very Much Alive! [title of post]

Of course, this is nothing new to educated people, but I still read where Christians proclaim the logical problem of evil is dead. What gives? In the future if someone says such an ignorant thing, refer them here, and to the books listed below.

. . . Most Christians claim the logical problem has been solved, but there are still versions of the logical problem of evil that have not been sufficiently answered. There are those written by Quentin Smith, “A Sound Logical Argument From Evil;” Hugh LaFollette, “Plantinga on the Free Will Defense;” Richard La Croix, “Unjustified Evil and God’s Choice” [all to be found in The Impossibility of God, eds. Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (Prometheus Books, 2003)], Richard Gale’s On the Nature and Existence of God (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 98-178, and Graham Oppy’s book Arguing About Gods (Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 262-268, who argues at length for the thesis that Plantinga’s treatment of the logical problem of evil is inconsistent in several respects. See also A.M. Weisberger’s critique of Plantinga’s free will defense in her book Suffering Belief(Peter Lang, 1999), pp. 163-184. Just because Plantinga answered Mackie’s formulation, and just because Mackie admitted it, doesn’t mean that all formulations have been answered, or that others agree with Mackie’s admission.

Christian people like to tout any successes they have since they have so few. But it’s propaganda, plain and simple, and based on out of date information. (The Logical Problem of Evil Is Still Very Much Alive!: 10-26-06)

At the risk of showing how un-“educated” and “ignorant” I am, I beg to differ, based on what we have seen above. The fact is that Plantinga accomplished about as much as anyone can expect a philosopher to achieve, visa-vis his peers: he caused a major change of perception regarding what was previously thought to be a virtually unanswerable weapon in the atheist arsenal. Very few philosophers (theist and atheist alike) are able to manage that.

Of course there will be continued replies and arguments and claims of some that Plantinga failed in what he is widely-perceived to have done. We expect this, but it doesn’t change the fact that the consensus (which is not, as we know, itself decisive, but certainly something to be taken into consideration) is that the traditional logical argument has been seriously weakened: particularly in the premature dogmatism of its classically triumphalistic atheist claims.

I’ve documented above how Quentin Smith didn’t think that Gale succeeded in refuting Plantinga. Gale himself admitted the same regarding a 1990 version of his critique. We also observed how Oppy thought that Weisberger’s argument against the logical argument from evil (1999) was too ambitious and failed in some key respects. He certainly didn’t think that the logical argument trumped all feeble theist replies, since he wrote [see above for sources and more context]:

. . . it is quite another question whether ‘the problem of evil’ poses some kind of insuperable problem for reasonable theistic belief . . . it is much less obvious that it is reasonable for non-theists to claim that ‘the problem of evil’ raises insuperable difficulties for theists.

Perhaps Oppy has changed his mind in the ensuing years (I don’t know), but that is what he thought then, at any rate. The fact remains that Plantinga and other influential theistic philosophers in the last 40 years or so, have changed the very nature and emphases of the debate. Atheists used to run around with an attitude of complete superiority and the thought that theist philosophers were basically (though not stated as bluntly) ignorant, outdated troglodytes and intellectual neophytes and pretenders, improperly mixing mere religion in with supposed theistic “philosophy.”

Bertrand Russell even went so far as to say that Christianity and philosophy were altogether incompatible and contrary, so that even St. Thomas Aquinas or St. Augustine could not be considered philosophers in any reasonable sense of the word. Those heady days of atheist hubris (along with ludicrous positivism) are long gone, praise be to God!

I don’t know about the other people that Loftus mentions above, but if he got it that wrong concerning three of them, I suspect that he is exaggerating about one or more of the others, too. Yet Loftus kept up his insults and exaggerations in comments on my blog about my article on Alvin Plantinga (cited at the top of this post):

Since you seem so well-read, have you read A.M. Weisberger’s Suffering Belief? She’s written over 40 pages on the Free Will Defense. Have you read the essays in The Impossibility of God? I don’t think so. There are still versions of the logical problem of evil that have not been answered, by Quentin Smith, Richard La Croix, and Richard Gale. Just because Plantinga answered Mackie’s formulation, and just because Mackie admitted it, doesn’t mean that all formulations have been answered. This is just bogus. But Christian philosophers like to tout any successes they have till their [sic] blue in the face, since they have so few. But it’s propaganda, plain and simple, coming from an old boys club of guys who hang around together in the Society of Christian Philosophers. (10-13-06)

Right. Well, he is entitled to his opinion. But professional philosophers and other atheists don’t agree that Christian philosophers have fared so poorly or that the logical argument from evil has not been significantly refuted insofar as it claimed to be an absolute disproof of God’s existence and of the supposedly inherently illogical nature of Christian belief. Loftus’s colleague and fellow blogger, the agnostic Edward T. Babinski, who has a BS degree in science, outdoes even Loftus’s triumphalism: he thinks that he refuted Plantinga (one of the most highly-regarded philosophers alive today) with a phone call and one “difficult” question. [defunct link from Haloscan and my old blog]

As I believe I noted in my previous paper on the topic, philosopher James R. Beebe, in his Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, “The Logical Problem of Evil”, reiterates the position for which I have been contending:

Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist. That situation doesn’t need to be actual or even realistic. Plantinga doesn’t need to have a single shred of evidence supporting the truth of his suggestion. All he needs to do is give a logically consistent description of a way that God and evil can co-exist. Plantinga claims God and evil could co-exist if God had a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil. He suggests that God’s morally sufficient reason might have something to do with humans being granted morally significant free will and with the greater goods this freedom makes possible. All that Plantinga needs to claim on behalf of (MSR1) and (MSR2) is that they are logically possible (that is, not contradictory).

Does Plantinga’s Free Will Defense succeed in describing a possible state of affairs in which God has a morally sufficient reason for allowing evil? It certainly seems so. In fact, it appears that even the most hardened atheist must admit that (MSR1) and (MSR2) are possible reasons God might have for allowing moral and natural evil. They may not represent God’s actual reasons, but for the purpose of blocking the logical problem of evil, it is not necessary that Plantinga discover God’s actual reasons . . . since (MSR2) deals with the logical problem of evil as it pertains to natural evil (which claims that it is logically impossible for God and natural evil to co-exist), it only needs to sketch a possible way for God and natural evil to co-exist. The fact that (MSR2) may be implausible does not keep it from being possible. Since the situation described by (MSR2) is clearly possible, it appears that it successfully rebuts the logical problem of evil as it pertains to natural evil.

Since (MSR1) and (MSR2) together seem to show contra the claims of the logical problem of evil how it is possible for God and (moral and natural) evil to co-exist, it seems that the Free Will Defense successfully defeats the logical problem of evil.

. . . The desire to see a theistic response to the problem of evil go beyond merely undermining a particular atheological argument is understandable. However, we should keep in mind that all parties admit that Plantinga’s Free Will Defense successfully rebuts the logical problem of evil as it was formulated by atheists during the mid-twentieth-century.

If there is any blame that needs to go around, it may be that some of it should go to Mackie and other atheologians for claiming that the problem of evil was a problem of inconsistency. The ease with which Plantinga undermined that formulation of the problem suggests that the logical formulation did not adequately capture the difficult and perplexing issue concerning God and evil that has been so hotly debated by philosophers and theologians.

As for recent literature; well, that works both ways. Theists have made further arguments also; for example, see:

The Problem of Evil, by Peter van Inwagen (Oxford University Press, 2006)

The Problem Of Evil And The Problem Of God, D. Z. Phillips (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2005)

Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, edited by Stephen T. Davis (Westminster John Knox Press; Revised edition, 2001)

Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Cornell Studies in the Philosophy of Religion), Marilyn McCord Adams (Cornell University Press: 2000)

Providence and the Problem of Evil, Richard Swinburne (Oxford University Press, 1998)

The Problem of Evil (Oxford Readings in Philosophy), edited by [theists] Marilyn McCord Adams and Robert Merrihew Adams (Oxford University Press, 1991), including articles by theistic philosophers Terence Penelhum, Alvin Plantinga, Stephen J. Wykstra, and John Hick


(originally 11-26-06)

Photo credit: WhiteKnight138 (7-27-17): Alvin Plantinga: the greatest living Christian philosopher [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]


September 19, 2018

Ed’s post appeared on the Debunking Christianity blog. Victor Reppert is a (Protestant) Christian teacher and author of C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defense of the Argument from Reason, published by Inter-Varsity Press. He runs an excellent blog, dangerous idea, whose purpose is to “to discuss philosophy, chess, politics, C. S. Lewis, . . .” My kind of place! Ed’s words will be in blue; Victor’s in green.
* * * * *

I saw through Plantinga’s initial assumptions regarding his “solution” to the problem of evil twenty years ago while reading Plantinga’s book that a Calvinist friend loaned me. I phoned Plantinga years later. He didn’t answer my question.

I don’t know why he “didn’t answer” your question. Perhaps he was taken aback that you missed the answer, already in his book? Just speculating . . . I don’t think that you stumped him, because indeed, the answer is very simple:

Here’s my question:

A free-willed
All powerful
All knowing
All good
All perfect
All blissful God

creates something SOLELY out of His own will, power, knowledge, goodness, perfection, and bliss, so what room is there for anything less?

God cannot do what you demand because it is logically impossible (a topic that Plantinga amply covered in his book on evil; so you would have read it but didn’t grasp that he had already answered you).

God can’t create another God. It’s impossible for even an omnipotent being to do that.

For if God created another “god” (i.e., something not “less” than Himself); this second “god” is a creation;

A) Therefore, not eternal;

B) Therefore not self-existent;

C) Therefore not all-knowing (because it wouldn’t have known, e.g., about things that occurred before it existed);

D) Therefore not transcendent and out of time (coming into existence at a certain specific time precludes this);

E) Therefore not all-powerful (since it had to rely on another being for it’s own existence and was, thus, subject to its power (in other words, it is a contingent being).


All of this is impossible for a Being described as “God” in the classic, theistic (and/or Christian) sense of the word.

Ergo: God cannot create such a being, and can only create something fundamentally lesser than Himself, by virtue of the inherent constrictions of logic and the nature of reality.

Such creatures are necessarily limited in knowledge, by virtue of being creatures. This opens up the possibility of choosing wrongly (error), as a result of such lack of knowledge, or choosing evil, due to the free will that God gave them (they can choose to be against the God Who created them, which is the essence of evil, because of the all-goodness of God).

How can God overcome that? He cannot. Free will and the finite nature of creatures make evil possible, and even an omnipotent God cannot change that. This is precisely what Plantinga proved through logic alone. But no one here [at Debunking Christianity] wants to take on his argument and disprove it. Hence you are left with awkward, fumbling attempts to undermine it by sophistry or nibbling around the edges, doing about as much damage as a mouse would do to a steel door.

Simply piling up emotional examples of evil and suffering that one knows everyone will react to, does not prove a point philosophically (nor does the fact of being emotionally troubled by something necessarily entail doubt and a philosophical / theological existential or epistemic crisis). So let’s go on and see how your argument proceeds . . .

. . . but out of infinite perfection comes a cosmos where everything dies, where bliss is fleeting, where minds and hearts grow confused, damaged, sometimes even shattered via the process of struggling to earn a living and/or raise a family, or whittled down via repressive labor, or bored to death. Where human development is difficult and perilous, where communication is difficult, even perilous, for both people and nations, where ignorance (inherent in each culture, family and individual) and stubbornness about one’s ignorance is rife (the latter perhaps due to increasing inflexibility of the brain/mind once it has assumed a “system”- or been “assumed by” a system – because we not only “have beliefs,” but there is also evidence that “beliefs have us” as well).

Very eloquent, but this does exactly nothing to further your claims that such things somehow cast doubt on God’s existence or His goodness. Things obviously die because they are subject to natural processes of decay. This is the natural world: a created thing dies, but an uncreated, eternal thing does not. Nevertheless, God allowed the possibility of eternal life, and an eternal life in resurrected, glorified bodies, so He has overcome death. The real “problem” with death, then, clearly lies with the atheist, because it makes a mockery of the meaning of life, if all we have is 70-odd years and then we are annihilated for all eternity.

Most of this “evil” which is so troubling to atheists, up to and including a supposed “proof” of God’s nonexistence or non-goodness, is a result of the necessary nature of “natural” nature, or because of free will choices of human beings to do evil (and good). I shall argue in due course that it is implausible and irrational to expect God to overcome all this at all times (as atheists seem to demand).

A cosmos where we cannot “see” what’s “behind it,”

That may be your view, but it is not the biblical, Christian one (and you purport to be making an argument of Christian internal inconsistency, so this is absolutely relevant). The biblical view is that the universe is a clear argument that God exists; it “speaks” God (Romans 1 and elsewhere). And, of course, the revelation in the Bible reveals God in propositional fashion as well.

where “God” and “heaven” and the “afterlife” (or even the “before birth”) remains “hidden” to the vast majority of the earth’s inhabitants throughout time.

This is not true, either, in the Christian view. People may not have the benefit of revelation and the gospel, yet the Bible says that they are judged by what they know, and that they can know at least the basics of God’s law by virtue of conscience (Romans 2). Thus, they can not only know God (by creation and conscience, even without revelation), but can be saved (still by the blood of Christ, whether they know about Jesus or not).

A cosmos where consciousness does not appear to pop out fully grown all at once, but has to develop just as the brain/mind develops in the womb and during the time of infancy, childhood, adolescent impulsiveness and finally adulthood.

So what? Neither development nor evolution suggest in the slightest that God doesn’t exist.

A cosmos where we continue to struggled against a world of nature that kills with cold, wind, fire, water, earth, desert heat, lava, predators, poisons, diseases, parasites. A cosmos where we strive to lessen the painful effects of, or eliminate, nature’s dangers and pains that haunt not only us, but every other living organism on this planet. So we fighting the cold weather that kills to the desert heat that withers, and we strive to discern early warning signs of natural disasters and epidemics. A cosmos where we also strive to eliminate barriers of communication, or blow each other up trying.

Again, simply multiplying difficult aspects of physical and social existence does nothing at all to disprove God, unless you somehow fatally undermine the premises of the Free Will Defense. But no one has done that, which is why appeal to emotions is the order of the day in the atheological polemic. What one can’t do by reason and logic, they can try to smuggle in by a fallacious appeal to touchy-feely emotions.

Christian apologists like Plantinga ADD to the above mix of confusion and dangers their PRESUMPTION that this cosmos is all for the greater good,

It’s not a “presumption” within the Christian world view: it is a rational belief, accepted in faith, based on the content of the revelation. One has to knock down the revelation in order to undermine that. Of course, you and others (knowing this) specialize in approaching the Bible like a butcher approaches a hog. But there is no internal inconsistency or incoherence in a Christian accepting this revelation, on various grounds. Once having done that, we are assured that indeed there is a greater good that we cannot comprehend, being finite and fallen beings, but which we accept on faith, based on what we do know about God’s goodness and power.

and PRESUME that besides all of the above confusion imperfection and dangers – from the death of everything we see – to insufferable boredom – to daily pains – passions – miscommunications – the ignorance inherent in each culture, family and individual – the inflexibility and inertia inherent in each brain/mind as it develops from youth – or degenerates with age – besides all that – Christian apologists insist everyone MUST believe in a particular holy book written by true believers (even in a particular INTERPRETATION of that holy book), or we will not only continue to suffer as on earth, but suffer relentlessly for eternity, without mercy.

Christians believe in revelation (what a revelation!). YAWN. Complaining about what other people believe is not an argument for the problem of evil or anything else.

Secondly, we’re not saved by a book, but by a Person and by God. Since this can occur independently of a book (the Bible), it obviously is not caused by that book, or by one interpretation of it. Those who go to hell do so in their own free will, by their own free choice, having rejected the God Whose existence and nature is “clearly seen” by all (Romans 1). For the life of me, I don’t understand why this should be so objectionable: God allows free creatures to reject Him and even spend eternity without Him if they so desire. Would you rather have Him force you to go to heaven rather than give you the freedom to freely choose heaven or hell as your ultimate destination? In any event, the existence of hell is no proof whatsoever that God is evil. It proves (almost more than anything else) that men are free.

And Plantinga presents it all like it’s the most “rational” view possible.

Certainly it is more rational and sensible than an ultimately meaningless universe where we die and are annihilated, and many many lives seem to have been cruel and senseless, as you say; a profoundly death-worshiping culture where millions of preborn babies are slaughtered with the full consent of people who themselves believe that this life is all there is: so that these children are deprived of what limited existence they have and can’t even see the light of day or see their mother’s faces (the enlightened modern equivalent of the human sacrifices of the Aztecs or of cannibalism). The true, profound problems come when one ponders a universe of that sort, not the Christian universe. The atheist Problem of Good is infinitely more troublesome than the Problem of Evil.

Christian philosopher Victor Reppert at his blog, “C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea,” seems at least doubtful that Plantinga’s view is the most rational and suggests that it might made a bit more sense if people received “another chance” after they had died to “convert.”

I looked over there and I didn’t see Victor taking this stance. Perhaps it was an earlier article you had in mind. I saw him questioning how the atheist thinks he has a silver bullet in the Problem of Evil. He denied this, and made a link to my recent article summarizing Plantinga’s classic Free will Defense. He takes exactly what is my own apologetic and epistemological position, all down the line, as far as I can tell from his two articles:

Most of us think that it is a good day’s work for a philosopher to provide a cumulative-case role-player, something that might “break the tie” if someone is on the fence between two positions, and in combination with other reasons, might provide a good reason for, say, believing in God or not believing in God.

That is exactly my own position, and has been for many many years now.

The argument from evil seems to have a different status, at least in many minds. Many advocates of the argument from evil suppose that that argument, unlike your typical theistic on atheistic argument, really can stand on its own as a disproof of the existence of God, showing that all who believe in God are just being irrational. Plantinga is widely credited by both theists and atheists with showing that the argument does not achieve this goal.

Exactly. Amen.

Yet, I get the impression from some people that they really think that the argument from evil is something more than a cumulative case role-player, and I do not think that this claim is defensible. I am unsure as to whether the argument from evil can successfully play a role as a cumulative-case role-player, but I do not think it can do more than this.

Precisely. He thinks it fails as a disproof of God.

He asks the rhetorical question:

Would anyone like to argue that it really is stronger than your average cumulative-case role player? That, virtually alone of all philosophical arguments, and regardless of all other considerations both pro and con, really provides beyond a reasonable doubt that God does not exist.

In the comments, former Christian “exapologist” sensibly agrees with Reppert:

I agree with you on the point recently made by Van Inwagen in his new book on the problem of evil, viz., that like many other deductive philosophical arguments with momentous conclusions, it’s imprudent to put too much weight on the logical problem of evil. I also think you’re right that a cumulative case is needed for justifiedly being a theist or atheist.

Well-stated, indeed.

As for the “second chance at salvation,” there is room for some debate. I myself have had lengthy dialogues on the subject: “Dialogue On Salvation After Death” (vs. [more liberal Christian] Sogn Mill-Scout). I ultimately decided against this, yet I did so because I believe that God gives everyone ample opportunity and knowledge enough to decide on following God or not during this life. The only “problem” comes when one thinks that God doesn’t give everyone a “fair chance.” I deny this premise, on explicit biblical grounds.

I assume Vic believes that the ignorant limited brain/minds, and confused or debilitated characteristics of people’s brain/minds from living in this imperfect cosmos will be healed following death (otherwise they might misperceive even the afterlife based on past limited experiences or imperfect brain/mind constitutions). So Vic suggests non-Christians will all be given another chance to “believe” after they have seen God and heaven and had time to investigate and ponder matters on the “other” side of this cosmos.

He and I agree that God is merciful and just. Whether he allows this as a means to fairly judge individuals, or else gives everyone a fair chance in this life, the result is the same: no one is damned unfairly or unjustly or apart from their free choice to pursue the path of rebellion against God.

But Vic also realizes I suppose that this is a rationalization on Vic’s part. (What other of Vic’s beliefs might not also be “rationalizations to believe” as he does, i.e., rather than “reasons to believe?”)

The inevitable digs at Christian honesty make their pathetic appearance . . .

At the very least Vic does not appear to think that Plantinga has “solved” all the problems regarding this cosmos and the Christian view of salvation, since Vic recognizes the need to try and go “further” than Plantinga via Vic’s “second chance” scenario/rationalization.

This appears to refer to an earlier paper. Since you provide no link, I’m not gonna spend time searching for it. It is your job to send us to the place that you are critiquing.

Victor Reppert remains uncomfortable, has more questions than most orthodox Christian apologists on the internet. (Welcome to my mind/brain world, Vic, filled with more questions than answers.)

I’d have to see what those are. But from what I have seen from these two articles on the Problem of Evil, he approaches the matter almost exactly as I do (which I would expect, since we are both avid C. S. Lewis devotees). For example, in his article, “More on the Problem of Evil,” he writes:

I can’t for the life of me see why the Christian theist’s inability to explain some evils is more damaging to theism than the naturalist’s inability to explain consciousness is for naturalism. If anything, the theist at least can, in broad outline, show how in many cases suffering can work redemptively. I would admit that in other cases it’s far more mysterious.

. . . If you look back at Clayton’s reasons why he thinks a hidden good argument won’t work, you will find him appealing to Kantian moral principles and moral principles based on a “respect-for-persons” ethic. To get the silver bullet he wants, he either has to argue that these principle hold true objectively and that everyone ought to accept them even if they don’t, or else he has to argue that all Christians either accept them or ought to accept them. I think that puts an intolerable burden on his argument.

“Exapologist” again makes a very sensible comment:

First, I grant that consciousness is a genuine problem for naturalism . . . Second, while I think it’s possible for a theist to resist the logical or evidential problem of evil in principle, so long as their cumulative case for theism is sufficiently strong, I worry that this case isn’t sufficiently strong to make the sorts of resistive moves you mention.

I only add that if the argument fails on logical grounds, it is irrelevant how strong the cumulative Christian / theist case is as far as the Problem of Evil is concerned. That would have relevance for the overall Christian case, but not with regard to whether the atheological [logical] Problem of Evil succeeds in its initial ambitious purpose of disproving God’s existence.

Exapologist then argues that if the cumulative case is weak, then the Plantingian resistance to the claims of the Problem of Evil are weakened thusly. But this doesn’t logically follow at all. He writes:

I’m not sure how interesting your point is with respect to the ability of theists to resist the force of the problem(s) of evil. Consider it granted that you’re in your epistemic rights to resist it. Still, that’s of no help to the non-theist: it gives them no reason whatever for rejecting it.

To the contrary, it provides every sufficient reason to reject the argument insofar as it supposedly disproves 1) God’s existence, or 2) supposed impossibilities of God being all-good or all-powerful or both. The other proofs and evidences of God and Christianity stand or fall independently of this.

Then you ask:

How do you get from perfect goodness to evil? Or from unconsciousness to consciousness? I don’t know. Seems like in both cases philosophers are trying to get to someplace that’s simply excluded from the beginning of their questioning by definition.

Well, we think we do have a pretty good idea, and “know”. It’s called free will. God (yes, the all-good and all-powerful One) can’t create free creatures and at the same time create a state of affairs where they will not have any possibility of sinning and doing evil. It’s logically impossible. And until an atheist grasps that he will just be spinning his wheels and never comprehend why he is doing so and why it accomplishes nothing whatsoever.

You then try the argument from natural evil, in comments at Reppert’s blog:

Lastly, many of the world’s pains and sufferings are not believed to be due to Adam’s “free will,” but are believed to have been around ages before Adam arose. Death was around before Adam, so was pain and suffering. So God choose to create a cosmos where every living things in it eventually dies and where all the living creatures it contains are living lives in which they “struggle” for their very lives against other living things God designed, or against nature in general that God designed, and her myriad ways to kill creatures–from a sudden frost to a tsunami or even asteroid. I haven’t even gotten into how psychological suffering enters into the picture, or brain diseases.

I’ve made an extensive argument about this in my long paper on the Problem of Evil. I’ll do a nutshell version here:

Supposing we assume for the sake of argument that God should (and should reasonably be expected to) intervene in every case of “natural evil.” Nothing bad could then ever happen.

If a tree is about to fall on my daughter, God would suspend the laws of nature and it would spring back up. If I walk into the kitchen of an army barracks where there is a contageous disease, God would manipulate whatever of my cells He has to change in order for me not to catch it. If a mosquito is about to bite my wife on her pretty face, God takes away the stinger or gives the mosquito an urge to eat leaves rather than drink blood, etc.

Does that universe not strike one as immediately absurd? I argued elsewhere that the atheist is extremely reluctant to allow that God intervenes at all in the natural world (denying miracles and any sense of creation unless it is literally identified with natural evolution: and a strong materialist will, of course, even deny any connection there). Yet when we switch over to this scenario, He is supposed to do everything.

For if God can do anything or something to prevent evil, why not everything? By what principle does the atheist judge God and claim that He must supernaturally intervene in every case of possible suffering? Are you saying that God is eternally bound by His nature to prevent my wife being bitten by a mosquito, or else He is an evil, sadistic tyrant? That seems to be a clear reductio ad absurdum. But if He is required to intervene in “big” cases of horrible evil, why not also in little ones? How can a line be rationally drawn? That’s one problem.

The other one is what happens to free will in such a world (as C. S. Lewis argued in his Problem of Pain). If God intervenes every time someone is about to stub their toe, get a sore nose from blowing it too much, or when a criminal is about to strangle someone in their bed, then there really isn’t free will, is there?, nor is there a sensible natural world. How could science even be possible to study, since the world would be changed millions of times a second, it seems to me, therefore could not be systematically studied (there would be nothing systematic to study, since science presupposes both uniformitarianism and methodological naturalism).

No person would be free to do evil because God would prevent it. He would be as powerless as a small fish would be to break out of an aquarium with thick glass walls. But if one has no free will to do evil, how could he be truly free to do good? He would only do good because he has to, not because he is truly free and wants to.

God can’t bring this about as a matter of necessity. Free creatures can possibly never sin (the angels who didn’t rebel never did), but there had to remain a possibility that they could have. Indeed, some of them did sin, and we call them the devil and his demons. This is the whole point.

Therefore, natural evil exists because it is the only way to have both a sensible natural world and free will. The same thing applies to evil done by humans to each other, in their free will. The only way an omnipotent God can prevent it is to wipe out free will. But that is not a desirable end at all. So evil must exist. If God could wipe out one instance of it here, He could also (and “should”) wipe out every instance of it. But then free will would go too.

God obviously, then, thought that free will was worth allowing evil. Our multiplications of horror stories do not undermine the logical impossibility (even for God) to have both free will and a “perfect” world. Emotional arguments and retelling of grisly tales of astonishing evil do not dent this at all. That’s not to say they aren’t troubling. Of course they are. Christians are as troubled by evil itself as anyone else (I would say, actually much more so), but shouldn’t be fatally troubled by the Problem of Evil because it simply doesn’t cast into doubt God’s existence or goodness or omnipotence, as shown.

I conclude (allowing that this is mere speculation of a finite human being, but presumably at least of a logical sort) that God could have reasonably done one of two things:

1) Prevented all evil by preventing free will of creatures to occur.

2) Prevented all evil by relentless intervention of obstruction of all natural events or freely willed actions that cause suffering and pain.

But #2 quickly reduces to a scenario of #1 and denial of free will, as I think I’ve shown. And a theoretical #3 (in effect, a weak version of #2) of selective intervention, makes little sense to me, because it is difficult to see where God should intervene and where He should not. On what basis? If He should prevent, say, an instance of chapped lips (a “natural evil,” after all, for someone like myself who can hardly blissfully survive without my constant companion Blistex), why not the slightest stomach cramps over here or an infinitely mild headache over there?

Therefore, I conclude that He opted for allowing free will to exist and a natural world to exist, with only rare miraculous interventions, because this opened up the possibility for much more good, which is better than no good at all (since unfree creatures cannot even do “good” by any reasonable definition of what it means).

But back to your critique:

I have rational difficulties conceiving of a perfectly good and perfectly powerful being squeezing out a cosmos such as this. Furthermore, the experience of this cosmos in which all things die (and struggle not to) with such daily persistence is a shared experience of everyone on the planet.

That’s fine, but I haven’t seen them yet. What I’ve seen is an insufficiently thought-through, illogical argument and a bunch of emotionalism (however eloquent in detailing the human condition in this vale of tears). This doesn’t cut it in establishing your point.

At this point in your paper, you go on to the merest speculation, typical of agnostic hyper-presumptuous game-playing concerning God, which holds less than no interest to me. Someone else can tackle that. I am interested solely in how you supposedly disprove God or a good or omnipotent God by the classical means of the Problem of Evil. As far as I am concerned, you have utterly failed in that task, and I believe I have shown why, above.

You conclude:

Even in the Bible, though Job didn’t curse God, he sought answers. “WHY?” . . . C. S. Lewis admitted a year before he died that he “dreaded most” the thought that he may have been “deceiving himself” concerning the kind of “God” who would give his wife cancer and then himself cancer. Or as in the case of a conversation Mother Teresa had (she didn’t believe in pain killers) with a man suffering intense pain from cancer, “Jesus is kissing you,” to which the man replied, “Then I wish he’d stop.” That’s the problem of pain in a nutshell. The “dread” of C. S. Lewis. The “Whys” of Job and Jesus.

Struggling over this particular pain or evil and wondering what the point of it is, is an emotional response, or one of nerve endings. Everyone understands that. But it’s not an argument against God’s existence or a compelling argument that He is not good.

Christians struggle far more with these questions than atheists do with their own “problem of good.” We don’t need to be lectured about suffering, as if we were unacquainted with it. That goes for me, too. I’ve had plenty of it. My sister-in-law died suddenly of a brain tumor. After she died, my brother lost his job and then found out he had leukemia. He died of that at age 49, after years of intense suffering. I watched all that. My father now has lung cancer. My wife’s father died suddenly, six days before Christmas 2005. His wife is still struggling with grief and depression. Life is filled with such things. My favorite aunt died at a relatively young age, and I still miss her terribly, as I do my only brother.

But note that this doesn’t cause a Christian of robust faith to question that God exists or that He is good. My brother (an evangelical Christian) never lost faith. I never did, watching him suffer and die. In fact, the only thing that made sense of it was the knowledge that he was moving on to a much better life. My mother-in-law hasn’t lost faith at all, despite all her present suffering, nor has my wife, etc. We are not irrational, gullible (let alone cold-hearted) people. We accept in faith that there is some tragic necessity for suffering, even though we don’t always understand it. I think I’ve hit upon the reason why, above.

C. S. Lewis went through a trying time, after his wife died (quite understandably), but he did not die without faith. He regained it. Agnostics and atheists love to quote the parts of A Grief Observed where Lewis is mightily struggling to understand (all this shows is that Christians are both human and honest). But they conveniently neglect to point out that this wasn’t the end of it for Lewis. That book is ultimately one of personal triumph, not despair.

Likewise with Job. He didn’t lose his faith, did he? He struggled with why God did these things (or allowed them to happen), but it is a “problem” precisely because it presupposes that God exists, not that He doesn’t exist.


(originally 10-23-06)

Photo credit: image by Comfreak (2-27-17) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]


August 15, 2018

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18: “I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He also made a general statement on 6-22-17: “In this blog, I’ve responded to many Christian arguments . . . Christians’ arguments are easy to refute.” He added in the combox: “If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply.

It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that at the end, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or in my sidebar search (near the top).


In his post, “God Creates Evil” (4-27-18; update of original post from 8-20-14), Bob stated: “God also has no problem with rape (Deuteronomy 22:28–9), . . .” Later in the article, Bob claims that God “advocated” rape. In another paper (originally 12-13-13), Bob opined: “The Bible . . . talks about when rape is okay.” And again on 6-17-15: “[T]he Bible says much about all sorts of embarrassing marriage customs and prohibitions sanctioned by God: . . . rape for fun and profit, . . .”Alright; let’s take a look at his passage and alleged “prooftext”:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (RSV) “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, [29] then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her; he may not put her away all his days.”

First of all, that is not having “no problem” with rape, in the Mosaic law which we believe was given to Moses and the ancient Hebrews by God. Christian apologist Glenn Miller, who runs the wonderful Christian Thinktank website, dealt with the topic of rape in the Bible at extreme length. He commented on this passage as follows:

Here is a clear case in which the rapist has (1) stolen the girl’s ability to guarantee paternity, and by doing so has greatly limited her future options; and (2) has limited her father’s options of arranging a good marriage for her. The rapist is now forced to become what he has cheated the girl out of—a ‘well off’ husband. The fifty shekels bride-price (see below on the Exodus 22.16 passage) is five years worth of average wages, and is the price  paid by the Pharaoh Amenophis III for the women of Gezer destined for his harem! The girl’s future is now assured—she has a guaranteed support source (he cannot divorce her)—and she has a ‘big’ bride-price on deposit. The law has protected someone who was attempting to help the community, by preserving her virginity.

How all that is somehow deemed as God having “no problem” with rape is, I confess, beyond my rational capabilities to comprehend. Of course, Bob, in his rush to mock God and Christianity, neglects (for some odd reason) to also include the passage immediately preceding:

Deuteronomy 22:25-27 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. [26] But to the young woman you shall do nothing; in the young woman there is no offense punishable by death, for this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor; [27] because he came upon her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.” (cf. 22:23-24)

Does that sound like God is all gung-ho about rape? The rapist is to be executed. Nothing is to be done to the woman because she has done nothing wrong, and the rape is analogous to someone being murdered. The difference in the earlier case was the woman not being betrothed (the cultural difference of which was explained by Glenn Miller above).

In the article, “What does the Bible say about sexual assault?”, Southern Baptist Katie McCoy writes:

The Bible is not silent about rape. The accounts of sexual assault against women are heartbreaking, even gruesome. But they are not brushed under a rug or hushed up. In fact, of the three accounts describing a woman who was sexually assaulted, each of them precipitated civil war. When Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, was violated by the son of a neighboring ruler, Shechem, her brothers murdered him, his father, and the all of the men of his city in revenge (Gen. 34). After the Unnamed Concubine was gang-raped and left for dead by men in the tribe of Benjamin, the other tribes went to war against them upon hearing of her injustice (Jgs. 19-21). And after Tamar was raped by her half-brother, Amnon, her brother Absalom killed him, and incited a rebellion against his father, King David (2 Sam. 13). Rape was neither covered up nor ignored. Instead, it was answered and avenged. It was such a cultural convulsion that it was answered with outrage and further violence. The cases of rape in Scripture tell us something about the cases of rape we are hearing today: These women must be heard and they must be protected.

Christian apologist Kyle Butt, takes on another unsavory atheist tactic regarding the Bible and rape, in his article, “God did not condone rape”:

Militant atheists of the 21st century delight in accusing God of condoning the most heinous immoralities. They insist that the God of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament, was a murderous villain guilty of far worse than His human subjects. Richard Dawkins accused God of being a “misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” (2006, p. 31 [The God Delusion] ).

One attempt that has been made to bolster these unfounded accusations is to suggest that in the Old Testament God condoned rape. Dan Barker commented: “If God told you to rape someone, would you do it? Some Christians, ignorant of biblical injunctions to rape, might answer, ‘God would never ask me to do that’” (Barker, 1992, p. 331, emp. added). If the honest truth seeker were to ask to see the “biblical injunctions to rape,” he would be struck by the fact that no such injunctions exist.

The passage that is most often used to “prove” that God condones rape is Numbers 31:25-40. In this passage, the young women who were taken captive after Moses destroyed the Midianites were divided between the Israelites and the priests. The priests were given responsibility for 32 of the women. Skeptics often suggest that these women were supplied so that the priests could abuse them sexually and rape them. But nothing could be further from the truth. The skeptic errs greatly in this regard either due to his ignorance of God’s instructions or willful dishonesty.

In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, Moses specifically stated what was to be done with female captives:

When you go out to war…and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife (emp. added).

It is important to understand that God has never condoned any type of sexual activity outside of a lawful marriage. The only way that an Israelite would be morally justified in having sexual intercourse with a female captive was if he made her his wife, granting to her the rights and privileges due to a wife. Notice that the Israelite male could not “go in to her” (a euphemism for sexual intercourse) until she had observed a period of mourning and cleansing, and he could only “go in to her” with the intent of being her husband.

When the skeptics’ allegations about God condoning rape are demolished by the very clear instructions in Deuteronomy 21, the attack is usually shifted, and God is accused of being unjust for allowing war prisoners or slavery of any kind, regardless of whether or not rape was permitted.  . . .

For the skeptic to imply that God condoned rape, using Numbers 31, without mentioning Moses’ instructions in Deuteronomy 21, is unconscionable. It is simply another instance of dishonest propaganda designed to discredit God and the Bible.


Photo credit: The Rape of Tamar (c. 1640), by Eustache Le Sueur (1616-1655) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


July 18, 2018

VicQRuiz is a friendly “agnostic/deist.” He was interested in making some comments on my 2001 exchange: The “Problem of Good”: Great Dialogue With an Atheist. I consider that old exchange the best dialogue I have ever been engaged in, out of what must be 900-1000 of ’em by now. His words (complete) will be in blue.


Hi Dave, thought I would drop in here with the comments I promised a couple of weeks ago. As I have already mentioned, I consider myself an agnostic-slash-deist rather than an atheist. You’ll get no argument from me when you question rigid materialism or scientism. But I remain unconvinced by any of mankind’s structured theisms, past or present.

Understood. Thanks for being clear in summary of your belief-system.

In response to your analogy of UFO sightings and miraculous apparitions:

Your comparison to UFO sightings makes sense. I would take it a step further. I don’t doubt everyone who sees something inexplicable in the sky. I do doubt very much those who claim to have been taken aboard alien spacecraft. I doubt those claims because it seems logical to me that a visiting alien intelligence would either keep its existence secret, or would reveal itself publicly to all. I don’t think such an intelligence would spend decades playing hide-and-seek mind games with humanity.

I agree, though I do highly suspect that if aliens truly exist and manifest themselves, there will be surprises and likely things about them that we can’t even comprehend, let alone predict.

And neither do I think that of God. My concept of a god who created the universe, and gave it the laws of gravity and thermodynamics which govern it, and gave us the mental power to observe and deduce those laws, does not allow for that same god to occasionally play with those laws in our sight, causing us to doubt our powers of observation and analysis. That would be the action of a trickster god, a god whom I would not desire to worship.

I think God, like our (partial) agreement on possible visiting aliens, wouldreveal [Him]self publicly to all” and I believe He did so with the Bible and several interactions with human beings throughout history. Why would God not do so? If He exists, and is benevolent, it seems to me self-evident that He would want to make Himself known, for the good of mankind. But deists deny exactly that, and think God is virtually hidden: some obscure “hermit” cosmic watchmaker. They deny Providence and miracles alike.

The Christian view is that God not only set the laws of science and actions of matter in motion, but that He continually sustains them as well (several Bible passages to that effect). It doesn’t follow that uniformitarianism and predictability of matter are denied. Science has advanced to a great degree precisely because those things are true. Occasionally, God intervenes with a supernatural miracle, which is outside the purview of the laws of science and matter.

Ironically, I find that it is the atheist who more often demands that God intervene in a miraculous manner, far more than He does. So, for example, when I am, debating about the problem of evil with atheists, they will (quite often) “demand” a universe in which God routinely suspends the usual laws of nature in order to prevent a tragedy (which means, innumerable tragedies, since if He prevents one, why not all?). If someone jumps off a building to kill himself, God (being good and all-powerful) is supposed to make the sidewalk jelly just before he lands, etc. I have argued that this would produce a chaotic universe, in which science wouldn’t even be possible.

If my understanding of historical Christianity is true, there is no shortage of cases in which God revealed himself, and communicated with his own creatures, without in any way violating the natural laws of the universe. In fact, these cases run into the millions if not the hundreds of millions. I’m not deprecating any of -those-.

I believe C. S. Lewis argued in his famous book, Miracles, that miracles are not “interruptions” of natural law. But I’d have to go look at it again to remember how he argued that. It sounds like you have something similar in mind, in this comment of yours.


From my read of your dialogue with Mike Hardie, a few thoughts:

You repeatedly make reference to the necessity that Hitler, Stalin, etc. be held responsible for their crimes. I don’t disagree. No decent person would want the likes of those murderers to escape justice. But there are two things which do concern me.

First, it’s hard to see Stalin’s starvation of the Ukrainians or Hitler’s gassing of the Jews as any more evil than God’s wiping the Earth clear of humanity with the exception of one family. But that rolls into the general realm of theodicy, for which see my final comment below.

The distinction we draw is that God has the right and prerogative to judge human beings (whom He created) in a way that we do not have with each other. Thus, I deny the analogy you attempt here. I’ve written about this many times:


Second, I think it borders on strawmanning to use world-class criminals as examples of those deserving divine justice.

After all, if the conventional Christian view is true, Mr. Weinberg behind the deli counter (a lifelong orthodox Jew) as well as Miss Allison the kindly librarian (a lifelong agnostic) will suffer the same eternal fate as Adolf and Uncle Joe. One rarely hears an apologist ask, “Doesn’t Miss Allison deserve punishment for her crimes”?

Oh, I totally agree. We Catholics, remember, believe that even one mortal (serious) sin, can potentially cause one to go to hell, if they do not repent. God will forgive anything, but He can’t forgive minus repentance. It’s a transaction. But we believe that the possibility of salvation is open to anyone who will accept God’s merciful free offer of grace and salvation.

I used Hitler and Stalin in order to highlight and make it clear (by using the worst-case scenarios) what atheism entails, in terms of “cosmic justice.” It’s a scenario which is both incomprehensible and outrageous to me, and I don’t believe that the universe is like that: whatever it turns out to be in the end. In any event, Christianity (whether true or not) at least offers final justice and ultimate meaning in a way that atheism never has, and never will.

You are an agnostic / deist. I understand that; so this is not necessarily your dilemma. But you’re responding to a dialogue I had with an atheist, so I am replying according to my thought processes in that dialogue. It will be a given throughout that I am not attributing to your view all the problems incipient in hard atheism.

I should clarify, too, that Catholics (and many other sorts of Christians) do not believe that Jews and atheists / agnostics (and any other non-Christians) automatically go to hell because they are not Christians / have not accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. It’s far more involved than that, and each individual is judged by what they truly know (see Romans 2). Degrees of culpability vary widely. See my papers:

Are Atheists “Evil”? Multiple Causes of Atheist Disbelief and the Possibility of Salvation [2-17-03]
New Testament on God-Rejecters vs. Open-Minded Agnostics [10-9-15]

What would make more sense to me would be something like the ancient Egyptian “weighing of the heart” where each individual is judged on his or her own character and deeds.

Exactly! That’s what I’m saying. That is, I note, in cases where people haven’t heard about Christianity at all, but have only heard about it in the most biased, distorted ways (as is the case, sadly, with many many Jews). Whoever has heard the Good News of Christianity, will be held accountable to act upon that knowledge. “To whom much is given, much is required . . .” In my studies of the last judgment, I found fifty biblical passages that always talked about good works, and never faith alone (the big Protestant thing). That’s not to deny in the slightest, grace alone or to assert a works-salvation (the heresy of Pelagianism), but it is very striking, and quite “unProtestant”. And it ties in with what you are saying above.

Candide is referenced in the discussion several times. With that in mind let me ask:

(1) Is it possible for God to have any unfulfilled desires?

Yes. For example, Jesus expressed it in this way:

Matthew 23:37 (RSV) O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 

The Bible says:

1 Timothy 2:3-4 This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 

But of course they do not all do so and are not all saved, and that’s because God permitted them the free will to reject Him and His grace, if that is their choice. Thus, in this way, even an omnipotent God can’t get everything He desires, because He has allowed “counter-desires” or a counter-will to make that (virtually, though not intrinsically) impossible. It started right with one of His angels, Lucifer, who rebelled against Him. 

(2) If the answer to (1) is “no”, then do we not live, as Pangloss might say, in the best of all possible universes?

It’s been argued that we do (from God’s perspective). I think it’s the best we have, given human free will. Obviously, we have failed miserably and made a mess of many things. God has provided us the way out and the way forward, if only we would heed His advice.

In another sense, it’s obvious that it is not the best of all possible universes. It would be much better if only we weren’t so attached to sin and ourselves and lack love for one another. But that failure rests squarely on our heads, not on God.


You and Mike both refer to morality being “grounded” in God. I believe the use of this term by apologists to be an unsuccessful attempt to sidestep the Euthypro dilemma.

Either morality exists independent of God, or it does not. If it does, then God’s actions may be judged by that morality just as human actions may.

I agree. I think He passes that test. Technically, our view is that “God is love.” He is the embodiment of it. It’s “grounded” in God from our limited perspective. Whatever is good, God is. Whatever God is, is good. God isn’t “subject” to morality. He simply is goodness itself.

If not, then to define “good” as whatever is done by God is fatal in my view to the concept of fixed, objective morality, since whatever hitherto-unseen action God shows us at any given point in the future must necessarily require an edit of what we up to that point had considered as moral.

The first option (with my disclaimer) is the best one of the two.


While I’m on the subject of objective morality, let me pose a thought experiment:

I love those!

In Universe A, there is a fixed standard of objective morality, originating with the creator of that universe. However, for some reason this standard of morality has been instilled in the universe’s inhabitants in an incomplete or inconsistent manner. The result is that many of those inhabitants may disagree over questions of right or wrong (“May one tell a lie to prevent an innocent person from harm?”) and a few are found to be outright sociopaths, capable of committing the foulest evils on a grand scale.

In Universe B, there is no creator, and no fixed, objective morality. Moral standards are the end product of millenia of social evolution. This is a hit and miss process, and of course those standards have varied across history and across cultures, although there has been some convergence. The inhabitants of this universe like to think that their moral standards have advanced over time, but it is clear that evolution has failed to extinguish sociopathic behavior in the same way it has extinguished failed species of plants and animals.

Now the thought experiment is this: Suppose an observer from Universe C were to arrive at one of these two universes. Would he be able to determine which one he was in?

He wouldn’t, unless he had other good reason to believe that God exists.

Mind you, I do not reject outright the concept of objective morality. I rather hope it does exist. I do question the Christian god (as well as all the rest of humanity’s gods) as the source of that morality, and I think that one can make a case for, or against, its existence based upon observing the conduct of humans in our particular universe.

But if humans have free will, and commit acts not in accord with God’s will, how is that God’s fault? My three sons and daughter have (in the final analysis) a different will than I do. We teach them right and wrong to the best of our abilities and (Catholic) lights. They may not always perfectly follow it (in fact I know they do not, because I don’t, either). But if I’ve done my best as a parent and moral teacher, it’s not my fault when they mess up.


You say “It is a sad and troubling thing, devastating thing if God does not exist, that a universe with no God is (when all is said and done) a lonely, tragic and meaningless place”

This is something I have read and heard from many apologists and evangelists. And once you have come to believe that God exists and has a personal interest in your welfare, it’s totally understandable.

It’s not just that. This is what we believe, by thinking about it, that a godless universe would be like.

But, and please don’t take offense here, this sounds to me like “I don’t desire to live in a universe in which I would be sad or devastated”.

But that’s a given for everyone, so I don’t see how it’s particularly relevant, let alone some defeater of our view. No one wants to be “sad or devastated” or to live in a universe where that was routinely the case. But that’s different from thinking about the universe as it actually is (as can be best ascertained): wholly apart from what we would prefer it to be.

In fact, I would contend that it is this inherent quest for meaning and happiness (which I believe is put into us by God), that causes atheists (who still have it within them too!) to deny that the universe is meaningless. I think their view that it is meaningful without God is an “unconscious” carryover from the Christian worldview. In my opinion, they have not fully grappled with the implications of a universe without God. For the Christian, such a universe would be like hell: the ultimate horror.

Whether or not a particular universe brings you joy or despair is not a marker for whether or not that universe truly exists.

Of course. No one stated otherwise.

I am sure you’ve been asked this before and answered it, please feel free to link rather than compose the same answer anew.

I did my best.


And last but not least my most recent take on dealing with the problem of evil:

I see three ways a Christian can address the various evils done or commanded by God as presented in the Bible. OT or NT, punishment before or after death.

You have assumed from the outset that God has committed evils (preserved in the Bible). I, of course, strenuously deny that premise.

First, the acceptance of divine command theory, as set forth by W. L. Craig and others. “God’s the boss, he creates us and therefore can do with us precisely as he wills, we have no grounds for objection.” This has the advantages of requiring no exercises in parsing the text nor attempts to do psycho-history on the ancient Israelites. (But I do respect those Christians who unhesitatingly grasp the OT as it is, nettles and all). The disadvantages are that the moral proof for God is rendered effectively invalid, and unbelievers who have actually read the Bible are not likely to become converts.

He can do what He wills (as far as logically possible, which is what omnipotence is), but He is also all-merciful and all-good. He is love. So what He does, is out of love. At the same time, He is the Just Judge, and those who reject Him will have to pay the consequences for their rebellion, just as in this world, those who commit crimes have a price to pay, in our worldly systems of legal justice.

Second are all the “apparent evil in the service of a greater good” theodicies. In my opinion, these require intellectual tap dancing at a level which would make Fred Astaire or Bill Robinson shake their heads in astonishment. If God loves us completely and individually, they just don’t satisfy, because real love must put the well-being of the beloved -as an individual- above any other consideration. And I doubt they have ever convinced many unbelievers. However, they do seem to work to some extent in convincing the Christian believer who is occasionally plagued by doubt.

I would have to consider this on a case-by-case basis. But I find that accusations against God (what I consider “bum raps”) usually come down to a misunderstanding regarding human free will, and irrationally blaming Him for that. Other things, like natural disasters, have to be explained in a different way (C. S. Lewis strictly — and most helpfully — differentiates the two in his Problem of Pain). I would approach those by saying that the laws of science are what they are, and they include natural disasters. If we don’t want God intervening in nature every two seconds, then we have to accept those, and — this being the case –, some people die or get hurt. It’s reality.

Sidewalks are hard. If we fall off a bike, we’ll skin our knees. I recently half-climbed a mountain in Maine (Katahdin, where the Appalachian Trail ends). Both my ankles became very sore. I accept that (assuming: “if you climb big rocky mountains and have ankles prone to soreness, you will likely have sore ankles”). I didn’t blame God for making the mountain rocky and steep and not changing the rocks to jelly when my ankles were being harmed by the rocks and the climb. I like mountains. I don’t want them to become jelly merely for my sake.

Third, (and I find this more common among Catholics and Orthodox, who are not hobbled by rigid biblicism) one can over time mentally excise all those Biblical caprices and downright evils from serious consideration as actual exemplars of God’s nature. Whether it’s God making a bet with Satan about his servant Job,

. . . which is almost certainly anthropopathism.

or commanding the slaughter of babies,

See my paper, “How Can God Order the Massacre of Innocents?” (Amalekites, etc.).

or hardening men’s hearts against him,

No problem at all. This has to do with Hebrew literary genre and ways of expressing things. See:

God “Hardening Hearts”: How Do We Interpret That?

we can gently set them aside by saying Jesus would never do such a thing.

No need, because they are all sufficiently explained (in my humble opinion) anyway. I don’t set the Old Testament against the New Testament. All Christians believe that both are equally inspired. So it is a matter of proper interpretation: and this is where atheists and other biblical skeptics massively get things wrong, as I have documented time and again. And it’s because they haven;t studied the Bible enough. I have for now 41 years, and have been engaging in apologetics for 37.

A few more adjustments (“reinterpreting” original sin, and the command to Abraham to kill his son, and the literal fires of hell) might enable us to arrive at a Christianity which is all sweet, without even a hint of sour. This may in fact work in nullifying the objections of many potential converts. But at that point could it still be called Christianity?

No. But all those things require discussions themselves. I can only constructively discuss one thing at a time (at least “one” in a broad sense).

As an agnostic, I do not have a problem in answering the problem of evil with “I really don’t understand it”.

Virtually all Christians will agree that many aspects of it (especially when suffering hits us personally) are hard to understand. But we also know that it’s not feasible to hold that we would understand everything about an omniscient God in the first place (the point of the last half of the book of Job). We can understand evil to a great extent, however, by understanding the tension between our free will and God’s perfect and all-knowing benevolent will.

There may well be a God out there moving us around like pawns on the chessboard, promoting some of us on the eighth rank and sacrificing others early in the opening, with motives that are completely incomprehensible.

The Bible doesn’t teach that this is the case, and so I don’t believe that it is. The life of Jesus in particular, shows me God’s character and nature.

Hey, you Christians have plenty of acknowledged “mysteries” of your own, can’t you allow one to me?

Sure. But I’ll put in my $00.02 cents’ worth if I’m asked about it! My job is to defend Christianity and Catholicism in particular, which is exactly what I’m doing here. I don’t claim to have all the answers, though. I’m doing the best that I can, by God’s grace.

Thanks for the excellent dialogue! I hope it will be the first of many. And I think we agree that such amiable, non-hostile (and to me, enjoyable and stimulating) dialogue is entirely possible. We did it here, ought to be able to do it again, and it should be possible among those of all beliefs. But alas, it’s a rare thing, for many reasons. Because of that rarity, I always highly appreciate the chance to engage in true dialogue, so I am heartily thankful to you for the opportunity.


Photo credit: [Max Pixel /  Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license]


April 13, 2018

This exchange with my friend Karl Keating: the father of the modern Catholic apologetics movement, occurred on my Facebook page, under my recent article, “Pope’s Chilean Abuse Apology Troubles Simcha Fisher.” Karl’s words will be in blue.


The only good thing (if there is any) is that the true colors of the pope bashers are being shown (more and more) very clearly: manifest for all to see and to decide where they want to stand.

Sin has a way of doing that. It is never subtle for very long. It always becomes blatant and undeniable.

What are you saying here, Dave: “The true colors of the pope bashers are being shown . . . Sin has a way of doing that. It is never subtle for long”?

It looks as though you’re saying that people you label as “pope bashers” (a category that seems to include just about everyone who criticizes the pope, including Phil Lawler, Carl Olson, Ross Douthat, and others) have taken up their positions or have worked up their criticisms chiefly due to their own sins.

If this is what you mean, then your position is like that of the SJWs [“social justice warriors”] that Rod Dreher so often writes about: people who think that those who disagree with them not just are wrong but are wrong because they are bad people.

If this isn’t what you mean, then you need to be far more careful in how you express yourself.

I worry about the totalizing tone of more and more of your writing.

As usual, you have not been following my words and my distinctions very carefully. We go through this again and again. I am very clear as to my positions in my many writings.

None of this follows from what I have written. It’s your cynical interpretation. In particular, you seem to utterly misunderstand “prophetic”-type language: what it means, its nature, and what it intends to convey.

I don’t judge people’s hearts. I was very kind to Phil Lawler in the short time we interacted. I wrote:

Let me assure you, first of all, that none of this is personal. I have admired your work for a long time and often linked to your articles and others at Catholic Culture. And I know that you guys have always positively reviewed my website in your ratings of sites. I have another apologist friend who cares little for Pope Francis, yet we remain best of friends. For me, disagreements are no reason to end a friendship.

But know that it is precisely out of existing profound respect for folks like you and Karl, that I am all the more distressed to see the positions you have arrived at, which I deeply, sincerely believe are erroneous.

In my recent article about Carl Olson I complimented him several times as well. I already wrote in that paper, in reply to a commenter (if you actually read it, you would have seen this):

I didn’t “attack” Carl Olson. I disagreed with his position. There is a difference. In fact, I said “I like his writing a lot” and that “He’s written several great books” and that he was a “good and thoughtful writer” and a “good man and good Catholic.” That’s a lot of compliments in a critique!

All of those quotes were in my original paper, before the Addendum was added (with post-paper comments).

I say he is a good man who believes wrong things. I say the same about you and about Lawler and Douthat. Yet here you come and say that I think (or it looks more and more to you like I may think) “they are bad people.”

Now, how did Carl treat me in return (someone who is well familiar with me and my work: having glowingly reviewed my One-Minute Apologist back when Catholic apologists were all in one big happy camp)? He dismissed my critique of his article because of one (absolutely justified) sarcastic sentence (“An example of why it’s hard for me to take these sort of posts seriously”).

He had also defriended me on Facebook recently (not because of any direct encounter). Which approach is more charitable, would you say? Do you automatically take his side because he agrees with you about the pope? Can you not make these basic distinctions that you wrongly chide me for not making?

You say I need to be careful in expression. You need to be careful in interpretation, because once again you have totally misunderstood my position. I have been very careful indeed, to make these distinctions. My quote above is a plain example of that. You want to make reference to my critique of Carl Olson, yet you don’t bother to read what I wrote about him.

Just last night on Facebook, I made this crystal-clear again:

I will say in all fairness, that most of the non-reactionary folks who are now opposing (or even bashing) Pope Francis are doing so because they truly believe he is heterodox and a subversive. So their heart and intentions are in the right place, but their premises, facts, and reasoning are wrong.

I also referred to their “sincerity and good intentions.” I’m not saying they are “bad people” at all. I’m saying they are good people who believe in a thing that is wrong. That is one of the deep tragedies of this whole mess we are in now. There are all kinds of reasons besides sin that people come to believe in erroneous things.

Note that I was referring to “non-reactionary folks” who oppose the pope to one degree or another. That means that Lawler and Douthat and Olson and yourself were all included in that appraisal, since I have classified none of you as “reactionary.” I have only classified the extremist Henry Sire that way (and I explained exactly why, documenting his own views at length), and folks like Steve Skojec and Chris Ferrara and Louie Verrecchio (who also appears to be sedevacantist or nearly so).

In the same article, I precisely explained that I make distinctions among papal critics. I wrote: “Today we are blessed with both pope bashers (the usual suspect reactionaries and also non-reactionaries like Phil Lawler and Ross Douthat), and non-reactionary “papal nitpickers.” Carl is in the latter category.”

That is a distinction: the very one that you are calling for (I’d also say that you are in the nitpicker category). I went on in the article to distinguish the categories of nitpickers and bashers several times. No one could possibly miss my meaning or intent.

If I am asked whether [objective, not necessarily subjective] sin is playing a prominent role in the papal criticism going on today, I say yes, absolutely. It does not follow that I think every papal critic is a bad man. That’s a completely different proposition. I’m saying that sin is bad and will manifest itself. The main sin going on now with regard to Pope Francis is evil-speaking: a thing very often condemned in no uncertain terms in Holy Scripture. Simcha Fisher has done it again, even after the man apologized. And that made me rightfully angry.

Currently, Simcha is essentially calling the pope a liar and outwardly wondering whether he ignored what he knew for sure to be sexual abuse taking place. That’s serious sin. That’s what brought about my strong, “prophetic” language (from which you draw all sorts of unwarranted conclusions). You interpreted that incorrectly based on your existing biases. I have just shown how there is no objective basis for such an interpretation.

I write lots of actual words, which I think are fairly easily understood: which are then misinterpreted (by folks with some sort of prior bias: that we all possess in one way or another) and forced into meanings that I clearly do not intend.

The same thing is done to the pope. It’s wrong. He’s written tons of words that can be found in a search. I’ve written tons of things on this topic that can be easily searched (116 papers in defense of Pope Francis that I just compiled into a new collection yesterday). You don’t trouble yourself to do so, but instead hang on one sentence in order to dismiss my entire argument (precisely as Carl Olson did).

This whole mindset is dead wrong. We have to go by people’s 1) words, and by 2) their stated meaning and intent, clarified under fire, as presently. If we ignore those and continue the unseemly speculations and second-guessing, then no good can come of it.

Phil Lawler said that the pope is deliberately seeking to overthrow Catholic traditions and teachings. That’s the central thesis of his book, expressed in the Introduction. That is serious sin, too. But I have not said that he is an evil, wicked man. He is a sinner like all of us, who is in error.


I will agree with you on one point of language: “true colors” could indeed be plausibly misinterpreted to mean that I am saying these people are wicked through and through or whatever. Since I don’t believe that, I will change that wording to make it more precise.

It still doesn’t excuse you from so deeply misunderstanding my outlook, because I have repeatedly made it clear. I have all the more so now, in clarification, with detailed recourse to my own recent words.

I have now added a disclaimer and clarification underneath my original comment above:

NOTE: The above is a little unclear, and Karl Keating interpreted it to mean that I am saying that papal critics “have worked up their criticisms chiefly due to their own sins” and that I think folks who disagree with me about the pope “are wrong because they are bad people.”

I conceded to Karl that “true colors” could indeed be plausibly misinterpreted to mean that I am saying these people are wicked through and through or whatever. Since I don’t believe that, I will change that wording to make it more precise.

What I actually meant in writing “the true colors of the pope bashers are being shown” was something along the lines of “the besetting shortcomings and dubious methods of the pope bashers are being shown (more and more) very clearly.”

Included in my critique of their methods and shortcomings is, yes, a charge that they have committed sins against the Holy Father: serious and repeated ones. But the string that runs through all of it is lack of charity (towards the pope). That is what “true colors” is referring to.

It doesn’t follow that I am saying that they are worthless, wicked, utterly evil people. Quite the opposite. I explain at length in my reply to Karl in this same thread (see below).

Dave, your two replies (above) addressed to me total 1,213 words. My comment was 159 words. So you’ve written eight times as many words as I did–yet you didn’t answer my comment squarely. 

You went off on tangents. You wrote at length about how you have tried to distinguish particular writers’ good writings from their bad writings, their solid arguments from their weak arguments. You referred to multiple other posts you’ve written to establish your good faith. You brought up Simcha Fisher, on an unrelated topic. None of that is relevant to what I wrote.

I wrote about a single comment of yours, one in which you joined two thoughts: that “pope bashers” are showing their true colors and that sin (which is “never subtle for long”) is being revealed in the process. 

It doesn’t matter what you wrote elsewhere. What matters is what you wrote in this one comment of yours–and its implications. 

You defend yourself by saying, “If I am asked whether [objective, not necessarily subjective] sin is playing a prominent role in the papal criticism going on today, I say yes, absolutely. It does not follow that I think every papal critic is a bad man.”

Fine. But that still doesn’t address the actual words you used in the comment I referred to. Those words–taken at their natural value–certainly do suggest that “pope bashers” are moved chiefly by sin. (And, in your reply, you do say that you think “sin is playing a prominent role.”)

There may be a disjunction between what you think you’re saying and what you seem to be saying, but it does look to me as though you’re saying that the chief motivator for the “pope bashers” is sin.

. . . .

In your comment to Julian Barkin you make a snide comment about me: “Now we’ll see if Karl will respond and keep the dialogue going. At this point in our discussions, he usually decides not to do so.” 

I’m afraid I’ll have to give you more opportunity for snideness because I have to turn to today’s real work and don’t have time to continue this exchange.


I have to answer at length because you keep misrepresenting my opinions. It’s literally impossible to reply with the same amount of words when someone does that. Stop that and I will be a man of few words.

First you said (going back a few months) that I was calling everyone a “reactionary” (untrue), then, that I call everyone a “basher” (untrue). Now you are making out that I think all the critics of the pope are “bad men.” That is absolutely untrue. Before that you repeatedly claimed that I was writing a book review of a book I never read (false). You have claimed that I disallow all criticism of popes whatever (which has never been true; and I’ve had articles online for over twenty years that prove it).

You think context (and background thought even in the previous week) is irrelevant. You precisely verified what I said. As I often do with you, I made a concession. You say I “didn’t answer [your] comment squarely.” I did! I conceded in a separate reply that “‘true colors’ could indeed be plausibly misinterpreted to mean that I am saying these people are wicked through and through or whatever.”

You don’t even acknowledge my concession and act as if it wasn’t even made (instead it’s more important for you to count the number of words I write). Thus, even when I agree with you we still have problems. I thought that when someone made a concession, that lessened conflict and misunderstandings, because it means more agreement. Go figure . . .

You can’t possibly think I think Carl Olson is a “bad man” when just two days ago I explicitly stated that he is a “good man” and a “good Catholic.” All that proves is that you must not have read my paper, yet comment on my critique of Olson. But you have said all that is irrelevant anyway. It’s irrelevant that I said Carl Olson was a “good man” two days ago. You are capable of thinking I regard him as a bad man, anyway. That would make me a two-faced liar if so, and no less. I’d be lying through my teeth.

“You brought up Simcha Fisher, on an unrelated topic. None of that is relevant to what I wrote.”

What?! She is the topic. I made the remark you objected to under the article about her, above. My comboxes are always about the post and topic they are under. You are commenting in this thread about Simcha. Thus, she was the main person I had in mind. The thought was that she has advanced the pope-bashing to yet another ugly milestone: now even when the Holy Father apologizes he has to be further criticized, and it is insinuated that he is lying through his teeth.

That may not bother you (you appear more concerned about my alleged excesses in language and whether I classify someone as a pope-basher or papal nitpicker). But it bothers and deeply concerns many of us. If we’re at the place now in the Church where the pope can’t even say he’s wrong without continuing controversy and criticism, we’re in one terrific mess.

That’s what I had in mind in saying that “true colors” are coming out. The true colors — the common thread in virtually all of the pope-criticism — is lack of charity. I’m not saying it is that they are wicked, evil people. I’m saying that it is an alarming, scandalous lack of charity by otherwise good people.

And so the second part of my remark was: “Sin has a way of doing that. It is never subtle for very long. It always becomes blatant and undeniable.” In other words, this sin of uncharity that runs through the papal criticisms was made all the more manifest in that Simcha Fisher seriously took it to yet another level: questioning even a papal apology.

That’s how the sin involved (i.e., the lack of charity towards the Holy Father) went from being subtle to being blatant and undeniable: so much so that even her own commenters are calling her on it.


[further related comments and short exchanges]

I’m a SJW [“social justice warrior”] because all Catholics ought to accept the social teachings of the Church and fight for and defend them. I do both.

But I don’t demonize my opponents. Insofar as any SJWs do that (and some assuredly do), it’s wrong, and I have called them out for that myself. Demonization and caricaturing of opponents is a sin that occurs in all camps of whatever stripe, because it’s a common human failing. We all have to reprimand folks in our own “camp” when they are wrong.

Thus, I proudly wear the SJW banner, while condemning utterly any tendencies of demonization anywhere.

Karl knows me more than well enough (in 2011, he wanted to hire me at Catholic Answers, after all, and they have published a book of mine) to know better than to think I approve of demonization of folks who are different from myself. But in the current emotionally charged debate raging about the pope, people manage to believe all kinds of things. He thinks I am changing now.

I have remained exactly the same as I have always been. I defended the last two popes and I defend this one, as an apologist. The ones who have undergone a sea change (if anyone has) are Karl, Lawler, Douthat, Carl Olson, Raymond Arroyo, and some other apologists (whom I will not name, in charity): all of whom used to defend popes, and even this pope, and now have chosen to become critics instead.

Right or wrong, that is a big change. But I have undergone no such change, either in approach or in how I view my opponents (as charitably as I can, though of course, not perfectly).

I’ve never demonized “opponents” and never will. Good heavens, I’ve even defended Luther and Calvin against bum raps (the former, against charges that he thought Christ was an adulterer, and the latter against ridiculous charges of sodomy).

I’ve defended the most bitter personal anti-Catholic enemies (by their own word): like James White, who absolutely detests me and has expressed that times without number. But if I saw that he was wronged, I defended him, more than once.

So there is absolutely nothing to this charge. My record for 20 years online is consistent and clear. Even Karl knows this, so he has chosen to believe that I have somehow “changed.” After all, he wrote about me, just 20 days ago: “Dave has . . . always has been conscientious in his work, trying to dig a bit deeper than most other apologists. And he always has made an effort to be kind, even to those who might not seem to deserve much kindness.”

I appreciated that a lot, and now I would appreciate it if Karl would stop acting as if I am undergoing some tremendous transformation in my beliefs and behavior, simply because we disagree about Pope Francis and about several of his vocal critics.


I do have a very good explanation and I gave it. Now we’ll see if Karl will respond and keep the dialogue going. At this point in our discussions, he usually decides not to do so. I believe in talking things through, until unwarranted suspicions between friends (or misunderstandings where there is some blame on one or both sides) are gutted and disposed of.


Peter Francis Joseph DeFazioI generally agree with you regarding Simcha’s overstatements, and some of Phil Lawler’s implications. They presume ill-will on the part of Pope Francis. And this has not been established. It could be detraction, and that is sinful. Some authors are also uncharitable in their comments vis a vis Pope Francis—that too is sinful. But we should, in my opinion, avoid stifling honest discussion and criticism about the Pope’s actions, statements, and intentions. That’s my 2 cents worth.

I criticized him regarding the Scalfari interviews (rather strongly). I also mildly criticized him insofar as I recommended that he answer the dubia. I wrote (for National Catholic Register):

I think that the pope’s utter refusal to answer is troublesome. Many Catholics (including many bishops and priests) are clearly confused and virtually begging for guidance. Why would the shepherd of the sheep resolutely refuse to try to help them: even on a private basis, if he prefers that? It’s baffling to me.

Whether it is from irresponsible lack of knowledge, rebelliousness, or genuine sincere uncertainty, many are confused, so there is a need to correct the bishops who have been implementing the teaching wrongly, in contradiction to others who have correctly done so. I think there is confusion now just like there was chaos after Vatican II. People weren’t sure what the documents taught — even though the contents seem perfectly clear to me.

I disagreed with him on global warming when I wrote about Laudato si. I’ve also stated that he appears to be somewhat “imperious” in demeanor.

Whether stifling is occurring or not and how to properly criticize is a whole discussion in itself. I’m saying that the criticism I have seen involves a large amount of sinful uncharity. Not every jot and tittle of it is that, of course, but huge amounts of it, tarnishing such efforts as a whole.

There are relatively moderate, sensible, charitable critics like Edward Pentin and John Allen. And Karl Keating, too. Karl has arguably been harder on me than he has been against Pope Francis.


[Introduction to the cross-posting of this paper on my Facebook page]

I was massively misunderstood and clarified and explained myself at length (because it takes a lot of ink to clear up many misconceptions that keep on being sent one’s way). As I always say, “I’m the world’s greatest expert on my own opinions and what goes on in my own heart and head.” When a person explains his view, that ought to be sufficient for anyone wondering about it. The issue is settled.

The only alternative is to posit some sort of self-delusion, blindness, or deliberate deception (which basically entails “psychoanalyzing” someone rather than interacting with their arguments and their own self-report).

These are my views. I virtually never conclude that any person (not just pope-critics) is in bad faith or believes what they do because they are bad people, or that their opinion is insincere. It would take extraordinary evidence to convince me of that about anyone.

I think there are only, maybe, two or three people in 22 years online, concerning whom I was forced to reluctantly conclude (after absolutely massive and undeniable and repeated compelling evidence) that they are deliberate liars (i.e., about Catholicism). My default position is always believing the best of others (1 Corinthians 13). I am of the opinion that it is required of all Christians to do that.

I don’t demonize anyone. Anyone who has followed my writings at all (more than two weeks) surely knows that. And if someone thinks otherwise of me in this respect, then surely that person is quite unfamiliar with my voluminous writings and overall thinking and approach. They just don’t get it. And I am sick and tired of explaining it.

I do not think papal critics or pope bashers are bad people, who are doing what they do out of an evil, nefarious motive. Knowing human nature, it was inevitable that this charge would come up against me. It always does. It’s the thorn in the flesh for all apologists. If we oppose a view as false, the we get accused of hating the people who hold it.Yawn. ZZZzzzzzz . . .

Once again, then, I had to explain the elementary Christian principle: “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” I don’t hate anyone.


Photo credit: photograph by Nick Youngson [The Blue Diamond GalleryCC BY-SA 3.0 license]


September 9, 2017



Luke 11:17 (RSV) “. . . Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.”

* * * * *

Putting on my “sociological” hat for a moment . . .

1. Orthodox vs. Liberal For some 150 years or so now (after the infiltration of Protestant liberalism into the Church), we have had the divide between orthodox Catholics (who follow all that the Church teaches and requires) and theologically liberal / dissident / modernist Catholics, who outright deny required dogmas, or who arbitrarily pick and choose what they will accept (“cafeteria Catholics”). Many of these are also nominal Catholics, too, or “CINOs” (“Catholics in name only”). Liberals (who like to call themselves “progressives”), in turn, often derisively call orthodox Catholics “fundamentalists.”

2. Cradle Catholics vs. Catholic Converts This is the least of the divisions, but there is a definite strain of some cradle Catholics being opposed to (with a tendency to outright prejudice towards) convert Catholics, with charges that the converts are still “half-Protestant” and not real, true-blue Catholics. In my observation and experience, this tends to mostly come from the traditionalist and reactionary camps (see #3 and #4).

3. Traditionalist Orthodox vs. Non-Traditionalist Orthodox Another division became more common in the 90s (I was received in 1991) among orthodox Catholics. Some of these started calling themselves “traditionalists” and distinguished themselves from other orthodox Catholics (implying that the others were more liberal). The rhetoric thus created was often quite inflammatory and divisive.

4. Traditionalist vs. Radical Catholic Reactionary  Some of the traditionalists then split off into the far more divisive camp of radical Catholic reactionaries. I myself coined this latter term (to get rid of the problematic and offensive “radtrad”) in order to distinguish them from what I call “mainstream” traditionalists, who simply prefer the extraordinary form Mass and more traditional aspects of Catholicism, generally. The reactionaries are characterized by constant (and rather extreme) bashing of the ordinary form Mass, popes, Vatican II and ecumenism. They classify anyone who doesn’t toe their line as theological liberals.

5. Pro-Francis vs. Anti-Francis  Recently, we have seen a lot of division and “camps” forming as regards one’s view of Pope Francis. Claims are made that he is a liberal or a heretic or at the very least (a less vehement strain) highly confusing and perplexing.

6. Political Conservatives (incl. Trump Voters) vs. Political Third-Partiers and Liberals (incl. Never Trumpers) The devil thought there wasn’t enough division over Pope Francis, so he encouraged yet another divide, with charges from the more vocal and vitriolic anti-Trumpers that any Catholic who voted for Trump is a terrible Catholic: thoroughly inconsistent regarding Catholic moral and social teaching.

7. “New” Pro-Lifers vs. “Old” Pro-Lifers As if the Trump and Francis divides weren’t scandalous and effective enough; now the devil has brought about this absurd division, with the “new” pro-lifers often insultingly running down what they call the “old” pro-lifers as hopelessly compromised, not really pro-life (more charges of alleged inconsistency), and supposedly caring only about abortion and no other “life issues.”

8. Lay Catholic Apologists vs. Catholic Scholars This is another relatively minor division, but I’ve run across it many times, as an apologist meself. The idea here is that lay apologists have no authority to do what they do. In fact, the Catholic Church has enthusiastically endorsed lay apologetics (as I have documented), and has for a long time. Also, critics of the Church will often cite a theologically liberal Catholic scholar against an orthodox lay apologist, and pretend that this proves that the Church itself is liberal.


One can see how very clever the devil is. Rather than uniting to evangelize the world, and to oppose the world-system, the flesh, and the devil, instead, a great many Catholics spend time devouring each other (above all, online). Jesus predicted this, too. The Church is like a family, and our Lord said, “a man’s foes will be those of his own household” (Matthew 10:36).


In case anyone is wondering, here is my preferred view in each category and/or how I place myself (most of my regular readers would already know):

1. Orthodox, of course (it follows inexorably from the definition of observant Catholic).

2. I’m a convert, but the division is meaningless and completely unnecessary. The thing is to be a Catholic, either by background or decision and change of mind. One can’t determine the environment in which one is born.

3. I think either category is fine, and the Church allows this. I personally have a strong affinity to traditionalists in many ways.

4. Traditionalist is the far better choice of these two, since it is not inherently or intrinsically “oppositional” and/or “exclusivist” and/or “polemical”.

5. I have written a book defending Pope Francis and collected several hundred articles that do the same. I believe it would be good for him to decisively clarify regarding Amoris Laetitia, for those bishops who appear confused about its application. I also think it is wrong to publicly run him down (out of respect for the high office) or write about the division lines being drawn. It’s a matter for bishops and theologians and canon lawyers “behind closed doors” in my opinion, so as to show proper respect and avoid scandal.

6. I’m a political conservative (albeit one who is different in many ways: see my Facebook political description) and Trump voter. I don’t question the orthodoxy of Catholic political liberals (unless they give me theological reason to), though I am very critical of those who vote for a pro-abortion candidate when a pro-life candidate is on the ballot. My big problem with many anti-Trumpers is the way in which they judge the Catholicism of Trump voters (or excessive “Trump enthusiasts” as some put it now). The polemics have long since reached a fanatical and hysterical level in their ranks. That’s not to deny fanaticism among Trump supporters, too, but it’s clearly far more in evidence among the anti-Trumpers, who slavishly follow the media hysteria almost point-for-point.

7. Nor do I deny “new” pro-lifers are truly pro-life. I seriously disagree with them about strategy. We could all simply talk and share ideas as pro-lifers (and I sought to do so in a spirit of fellowship and respect with one who is considered a “co-founder” of the “new pro-life movement” until she cut me off last November), but in my opinion, the problem, again, is a pronounced judgmental streak within the “new” pro-lifers. They feel compelled to often run down the existing pro-life movement (that has made truly extraordinary gains): often questioning commitment and consistency, and they often put descriptions of them in derisive quotation marks; i.e., insinuating that they are not “really” good pro-lifers. This is despicable, and straight from the pit of hell. We can disagree on emphases and tactics, without questioning sincerity, commitment, credentials and bona fides and parroting pro-abort talking points.

8. I’m a (professional) lay Catholic apologist. I don’t have to run down Catholic scholars per se. Apples and oranges. Both / and. I love them. What I do criticize, occasionally, is the heterodoxy of some of those scholars, but that gets back to a divide (#1) that we have to reject, by being orthodox and accepting all that Holy Mother Church teaches. Thus, in so doing, I am rejecting heterodoxy, not scholarship; bad scholarship, not scholarship per se. And likewise, bad apologetics ought to be critiqued, but not apologetics itself, because it is a worthy and Church-approved endeavor.


In general, I think we can constructively talk about all these differences and find common ground (all of us being Catholics!). But it takes two parties to do so. The groups which are concentrating on attacking and condemning other groups with little or no cause, make this discussion — and this divinely and biblically commanded unity — very difficult to have.

I think these negative manifestations are most often (not exclusively!) observed among the reactionaries and anti-Trumpers (who ignore scriptural admonition to “honor rulers”): both strongly tending (in my humble opinion), to extreme views and a pronounced absence of irenicism and conciliatory attitudes.

St. Paul repeatedly condemns divisiveness and contentiousness and factionalism. To condemn those (as I am doing here) is not itself the error that it is rebuking. It’s simply following St. Paul’s model; imitating him (as he urges us to do). In extreme cases, he tells us to separate from divisive folks, but it’s always a last resort, after every possible effort is made to find common ground and maintain friendship and at least mutual tolerance and charity (if not always respect).

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August 29, 2017

(the Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity) + the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism

(vs. Mike Hardie)


Image by “geralt”. Uploaded on 6-6-15 [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]




See Part One


[Mike Hardie’s words will be in blue]


How about committing genocide or child molestation, or deliberately oppressing people through wealth or political power? What if those things gave a person “meaning,” since you have admitted that these things are relative to the person, and strictly subjective?

Then that would be an evil person. So? We are just talking about whether one can consistently live without sinking into existential despair.

And if that is true, no one else can tell the person who does these evils (which we all — oddly — seem to agree are “evil”) that they are wrong — it being a relative matter in the first place. This is now very close to the heart of my logical and moral problem with atheist morality (which, in my opinion, always reduces to relativism and hence to these horrendous scenarios).

Again, we are not talking about morality here. To be totally clear: I am a  realist as regards the objectivity of moral standards.

On what basis?

I am not a realist as regards the objectivity of where human beings may find the sort of hope and purpose that keeps them from sinking into existential despair. Now, it could be the case that there are some things which everyone does in fact find hope and purpose in, but there need not be. This does not imply moral relativism, anymore than differences in opinion about music does.

Here’s the way I look at it. Either life is meaningful, or it is not.

Now that’s the first completely undeniable thing you have said! LOL

(I don’t believe there is such a thing as a single, objectively true “meaning of life” in this sense; meaning in this sense is an individual matter. One person might find meaning in artistic endeavour, another in truth, etc.) If it is meaningful, it is meaningful no matter how much of it there is; if it is meaningless, it is as meaningless if it lasts an eternity as if it lasts a day.

I’m not talking about enjoyable pastimes, of which I have many, including art and music. I’m talking about the ultimate purpose and meaning of the life and the universe. Anyone can forget about ultimate questions (or immediate problems and hurts) by enjoying pleasures. But that has no relevance to serious philosophy or pondering of the deepest questions that all human beings must face.

Now, would it be great if there were an afterlife where whatever is meaningful to us is always present? Yes. But this does not make the joy we can find in a finite life less valuable; it makes it more valuable.

Yes, an afterlife makes this life more valuable. Do you mean to say this?????

No. What I’m saying can be analogized this way: suppose you have a small box of Junior Mints. Suppose you really like the things. Would it be great if you had the jumbo, movie-theater sized box? Sure! Does the fact that you don’t have the big box mean that your little box is worthless, or of less value? No; if anything, it makes what you have got more valuable, because you have less.

Fine, but you still have tremendous and troubling implications of your position to deal with, as I think I have shown. It took a while, but we have finally arrived at the essence of my critique and inquiry. I have stated it before, but there is nothing like following through the logic step-by-step and seeing where it in fact leads.

Unfortunately, your tremendous and troubling indications were based on a misunderstanding, as explained above.

Of course I don’t really think Christians in general advocate pie-in-the-sky.

Good for you.

But I think this is because Christians, like anyone else, see value in this life that is worth actively pursuing; this life isn’t only valuable as a kind of testing ground for seeing who gets to go to heaven.

But we have a very good reason to think that, within our paradigm. I argue that the atheist does not, and is simply living off the cultural (and internal spiritual) “capital” of Christianity, whether he realizes it or not.

I’ll play along: demonstrate that this claim is true. Show me that I do, or must, operate within your Christian paradigm. (Bear in mind, incidentally, that you are now arguing for presuppositionalism — which you previously claimed to abhor…!) Bear in mind that “well, show me how atheism is sufficient” is NOT an argument for what you say above. Asking me for a proof of X, and then deciding that you find the proof insufficient is not the same as a disproof of X (especially when, as I’ve mentioned previously, you seem to be asking for a proof of something that isn’t theoretically subject to proofs!).

Thanks for the interesting and cordial dialogue.

And it makes it all the more meaningful for us to pursue that value in this life, rather than waiting passively for a deity to just give it to us.

Again, we ought to do both. If heaven exists, that is ultimately our goal and “home” and we are pilgrims here (an old Christian theme); passing through, and trying to take as many to heaven with us as we can (out of love for them and for God). The existence of heaven does not mean, however (in any serious version of Christianity), that we are passive. No reading of the New Testament can sustain that view. That comes from human sin and hypocrisy. Pie-in-the-sky is an avoidance of Christian responsibility and a psychological crutch.

I don’t see the problem of evil as an existential problem for Christians — or at least, not as any greater just because they are Christian. The problem of evil is a philosophical problem. Hume’s statement (quoting Epicurus) is the classic one:

“Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” (Dialogues, Part X)

And I answer: He is able and willing, but human free will makes it necessary for even God to providentially construct reality so as to incorporate the suffering and evil brought on by rebellion and sin, into the whole plan, which will end up just and good.

I’ve never seen an atheist argue that evil makes Christian life futile, exactly, just that it constitutes an important problem for the coherency of the Christian worldview.

On the face of it, yes. But it is also extremely difficult to explain to an atheist or any non-Christian how evil fits into God’s Providence, due to free will. Don’t worry: very few Christians understand the place of suffering and evil within Christian theological presuppositions, either. It’s just a very difficult problem all around. I may think I understand it, then the next migraine I get or car accident I’m in, or debts piling up make me throw it out the window and cry “why?????!!!!!!” :-)

Again, I don’t think there’s one simple answer to this. If you’re asking where I personally find meaning… well, I couldn’t even give a simple answer to that. The simplest would be “in lots of things”. In philosophy. In music. In relationships. In finishing all the campaigns in Age of Empires II. Etc. Lots of things make me happy, and there’s lots of things I find meaningful enough to pursue.

We all have things we like to do, to pass the time. We all want to love and to be loved. No one needs to argue those things. My questions, though, are: “what is the ultimate meaning of life for the atheist?” “Is there a cosmic meaning to be ascertained?” “Does mortality present a problem for meaning?” “What sort of things do atheists agonize over, in this regard?” Etc.

I don’t think the answer here is going to be the same for every atheist, simply because — unlike Christianity — atheism is not an all-encompassing worldview. Atheism is only the denial of theism, not the affirmation of some other religion in its place.

Do I interpret this – bottom line – as “relativism”? If not, why not?

No. It’s simply the fact that atheism in itself is not a worldview, merely the denial of theism (and, by extension, Christianity and most other religious worldviews). This isn’t to say atheists don’t have worldviews, just that no particular one is implied by the mere fact that they are atheists. To see this, just take to heart the classic quote (from Michael Martin, I think): that we are all atheists, but we just happen to believe in one less God. You are an atheist with regard to the Gods of Hinduism, for example… but does this atheism, in itself, imply any worldview? No; you hold to that particular atheism, and then you hold to another worldview in addition to that. Moreover, you and I both share atheism in this sense — I don’t believe in the Gods of Hinduism either — and yet we have different worldviews… yet this hardly means that the denial of Hinduism implies relativism!

For the Christian, the answer is simple (now, mind you, this is not an argument — simply a statement):

My purpose is to love and serve the God Who created me, and to become one with Him. Likewise, I am to love all fellow human beings as God loved me (because He is love, and this is the ground of the whole thing); to desire the best for everyone, just as God does. And I am to share the way to know and serve this God with others so that they, too, can know and love Him and be with Him forever in eternal bliss.

Everything else comes under this “category.” For example, leisure is loving God insofar as it allows me to rest in order to prepare for more effectively doing the works that God wants me to do. If I hike in the mountains, it is loving God through the admiration of His creation. Loving wives and children becomes a parable for God’s love for us, with many lessons attained therein. Everything in life has the highest purpose.

Okay. But keep in mind — just to see things from the atheist’s perspective — that the loony Candide-like theist (who believes everything is totally great all the time) also has a pretty “simple” answer to give too. We can agree that his answer is both incorrect and unnecessary — i.e., it’s false, and nobody would have to believe it in order to avoid existential despair. This is pretty much the way atheists will regard the Christian answer, too.

So the atheist sees Christianity as the philosophical equivalent of the nut (a truly mentally ill person, out of reality, with a religious veneer) who has a frozen smile and goofy countenance, and who thinks everything is perfect at all times? Is this what you mean to say?

The atheist sees the Christian as someone who is wrong. He certainly needn’t be so uncharitable as to assume that he is also a drooling idiot.

You seem to recognize important, obvious distinctions of sociological category, yet you say that this is how the atheist would categorize the Christian view. Now granted, I see plenty of caricaturing (and sometimes downright anti-Christian bigotry) going on on this list, but I thought you were more sophisticated than that. :-)

What does sociological category have to do with anything? I am merely talking about differences in what may seem false and pie-in-the-sky-eyed. Candide-like theism seems that way to you; Christianity may seem the same way to atheists. This does not mean that atheists must be so unforgiving towards theists as you are towards poor Candide… one may be wrong, and believe in pie-in-the-sky, without being a gibbering simpleton.

If you mean, “does atheism in itself provide some equally full-fledged account of greatest meaning and purpose”, then the answer is no. Atheism is a statement of what one doesn’t believe, not what one does. If you mean, “do atheists ever have notions of meaning or purpose”, then the answer, of course, is yes; nobody is just an atheist. It’s difficult to give you a really general account of what form those notions will take, though, simply because there are any number of possibilities. Atheists might find meaning in humanity, in personal pursuits, etc. Some atheists are even “religious” in a sense, as in Unitarian Universalism…

But you maintain that enough meaning can be mustered up on an individual level to avoid existential despair and hopelessness?

The only kind of meaning that is relevant to avoiding existential despair and hopelessness is the kind the individual finds to be there. Otherwise, it wouldn’t give him any hope, would it? Now, you could suppose that some attributions of hopefulness are both internal and external — i.e., we find them to be hopeful, and they are also hopeful “out there” independent of us (whatever that would mean). But their external hopefulness is irrelevant, because all that matters to our personal avoidance of despair is their internal, or subjective hopefulness.

We may need to all have some purpose, but the important thing about purpose and meaning and hope is that it is meaningful for us, not that it is true or normative in any objective sense. Purpose doesn’t need to be something “built into” us; we may not all have the same built-in end (with all due respect to Aristotle).

Okay; I don’t have any immediate reply to this.

I never claimed that atheists’ subjective notions of meaning or purpose were more worthy than Christian ones. As for your having an “objective basis”, this all boils down to whether or not Christianity is true.

Of course it does.

I mean, one could potentially find a basis for all one’s hopes and meaning in the Great Pumpkin, but this doesn’t become nonsubjective just
because one believes it.

Heaven as perpetual autumn…that would be fun! Whatever one thinks of the Christian view and its truth or falsity, at least it does provide the greatest meaning and purpose to one’s life. I’m simply trying to better understand if there is any sort of equivalent in the atheist’s life, and if not, if that is seen as existentially troubling and disturbing. I think a lot of this thought I have comes from the existentialist treatments, many of which seem to be an expression of gloom and sadness that God doesn’t exist, yet a determination to make a heroic “go of it” anyway.

I have a friend who is a cartoonist, and we once did a comic strip about various philosophies. The “existentialist” was a painter with a determined look on his face, painting a picture of a sunny day, while sitting in the pouring rain. :-) I guess a “nihilist” would be sitting in total darkness, painting a jet-black portrait or something.

I always picture existentialists as being more concerned with black clothing, growing goatees, and clove cigarettes. Chalk it up to the university experience. :)

LOLOLOL Are they still around? :-)

Maybe not generally in as obvious a disguise as I let on, but yeah. :)

I don’t doubt that it is fundamentally senseless and hopeless for many. Nor do I doubt that Christianity is one way of coming to terms with the universe. What I don’t believe is that Christianity is either a perfect answer to existential despair or a necessary one.

What do you think would be examples of beliefs sufficient to cause one to be in despair or deep depression about life and existence? Would you connect any of these to the essence and nature of atheism?

A belief sufficient to cause despair or deep depression would simply be a belief that all the things one would consider valuable are absent, or a belief that nothing is in fact valuable. Neither of these connect directly to atheism, unless of course one happened to think that only the worldview implied by theism were valuable.

The standard argument from evil supposes only that there is evil, not that the universe is entirely bad or even mostly bad.


Is your existence less meaningful because it is just a pipe dream? If it isn’t, maybe you can see the atheist’s point.

Kinda sorta. I’m still struggling to make sense of it.

In a way, I think theism actually considerably downplays the enigmatic nature of the universe. Why? Because instead of trying to understand the universe as something completely unlike us, of which we are a mere part — a nonpurposive, nonpersonal thing — it tries to anthropomorphize; to reduce everything to basically human terms (mind, purpose, etc.).

I would say that since we have a mind, and since it is an unfathomably extraordinary, marvelous thing, then it stands to reason that the Universe as a whole, by analogy, might be construed either as, or designed by, and even greater Mind. That is not anthropomorphism; it is simply reasoning from existing, quite personal and experiential realities by analogy to the super-reality of the Universe. And of course, even a strict rationalist like Hume accepted this as a legitimate argument for God (as I showed in other posts).

Purpose is more difficult to reason through, but again, I would maintain that since we all seem to possess an inherent need for, or sense of it, that it is not implausible at all to posit that this was put into us by a Higher Being (or impersonal spirit or Mind) of some sort. So it is not necessarily imposing ourselves onto the Universe, but rather, I think it is much more so simply wondering how we get from the universe to us; what is entailed. This is nothing more than what Einstein himself wondered.

I think theists reduce what we don’t understand (the universe) to what we have an immanent understanding of (mind, person-ness) and then simply supposes that the mind in question is great beyond measure.

It is a quite plausible argument by analogy, in my opinion. Personhood and mind (and biological life) are quite the novelties in the universe, since we have yet to discover instances elsewhere. So the inquiring mind can’t help but wonder why that is: what our exception could possibly mean. We don’t say the exception is therefore meaningless because it is such a rare (in fact, unique) anomaly.

But, of course, to think of this exception as being somehow of greater value or significance is just the expression of our own human-centered view. (What’s more, we’re not really in a position at the moment to say just how rare or anomalous it is).

We’re certainly not in a position to say otherwise, since there is no scientific evidence suggesting it. I would venture to guess that 90 or 95 out of 100 atheists in 1940 (or even in 1970) would have said that surely we would find other life by 2000. But it didn’t work out that way, did it?

No. But given that we have yet to explore a single planet outside our own solar system, this is unsurprising. Alien life seems like a real possibility given the enormity of the universe, but we should hardly expect to see it in our own neighborhood, as it were.

Where do you get this 90-95% of atheists thing, though? I haven’t even noticed that belief in alien life was especially prevalent among atheists, much less that prevalent.

Nor do we have very good explanations for the origin of life.

Arguable, of course; those holding to the theory of abiogenesis would probably disagree.

So science thus far has told us nothing inconsistent with the notion that the universe is indeed man-centered, and that human beings are very special, being the only examples of their kind yet known to us in the universe.

No, science has not disproven this theory. But the point is, it has not been proven, either. Consider the analogy of planets to marbles; suppose we have a really gigantic bag of marbles. (Really really really gigantic.) Suppose we take out three marbles: 2 are black, only 1 is blue. Does this give us any reason to suppose that there is only one blue marble in the whole sack? I suppose some version of the anthropic principle might come into play here, but still…

Bear in mind that I’m not saying Christianity is somehow wrong because of this. I’m just trying to show you that the universe can be great and enigmatic without reducing it to the effects of mind.

But I deny your premise in the first place. We are simply observing it as it is, not projecting all our hopes and dreams onto it. The notion of heaven does not come by observing the universe. It is an internal, spiritual, mystical thing, not derived by empirical observation. But Jesus and His miracles and Resurrection are the sorts of things which lead us to believe that there is a life after this one.

I’m not sure what premise you’re denying here.

But the thing is, this is the issue as you’ve framed it. You’ve been asking why it is that atheists don’t despair, go mad, etc. That is simply asking why atheists don’t subjectively feel as though the universe were useless. The answer, of course, is that they subjectively feel that there is a sufficient amount of meaning, hope, etc. in the universe. Whether or not this is implanted in us by something, or shared by some deity, is a completely different question. Something doesn’t become less subjectively valuable because it is only subjective.

No, but it becomes less objectively valuable.

Right, but so what? Something becoming less objectively valuable doesn’t affect whether it is subjectively valuable.

I am talking about the ultimate logical implications of atheism, regardless of how one subjectively reacts to them. The very fact of objectivism and subjectivism (assuming one grants both as realities) allows the possibility that the atheist is not subjectively facing the objective logical implications of atheism (which I maintain are nihilism and despair).

How is the logical implication of the lack of objective meaning the lack of subjective meaning? This is like saying that the lack of a “one true flavour of ice cream that objectively tastes best” means that nobody can ultimately or consistently have a favourite flavour of ice cream.

People of all stripes do this all the time. We all are able to make it through life and be reasonably happy (at least on a surface, superficial level) because we are all masters at (the great majority of the time) not thinking about the truly important things in life. I do it; you do it, we all do. We all concentrate on this movie coming up, on that hot date, on the latest U2 or Van Morrison album (two of my favorites), on this new opportunity or hobby, etc. So the fact that most atheists are fairly happy, fulfilled people (like Christians or Buddhists or Zoroastrians or Druids) is of little relevance to my overall point in this discussion.

You seem to have in mind something like this:

1. Atheists may be subjectively happy, fulfilled, hopeful, etc.

2. But if atheism is true, then atheists’ lives are only subjectively happy, etc.

3. Therefore, atheists are objectively obligated to sink into existential despair.

To demonstrate the problem here with the ice cream analogy, ask yourself if this is valid:

1a. You may subjectively find cherry garcia to be good ice cream.

2a. But if it’s true that taste is merely subjective, then cherry  garcia only tastes good subjectively.

3a. Therefore, you are objectively obligated to not like cherry garcia.

See what I mean? 3a is clearly absurd, but this is exactly what 3 is doing, too.

What you seem to want is some account of how atheists can point to some fact and say, “here, this makes our lives meaningful in this sense regardless of our subjective notions of meaning”.

That would be a start, yes.

But again, I don’t think even theism has an account of this. You say that life is meaningful because God created you to be a certain way, or the universe to be a certain way; okay, suppose God really did do that. Does this make life hopeful or meaningful for you intrinsically? Of course not; it only serves to do that because you find this sort of value in your creator and his designs.

No! Because that would be — if true — the ontological and metaphysical and spiritual reality; the way things truly are, and how they were meant to be. We’re talking about internal coherence and consistency here. That would be one aspect of Christianity. Not a proof of it (it already presupposes the truth of Christianity), but an outcome which flows from the truth of Christianity. This is what gives our lives meaning, because we believe it to be the ontological reality of the universe. So you are saying that the only thing remotely akin to this for the atheist is subjective loves of toys, hobbies, or certain flavors of ice cream (all solely subjective things?).

Try, then, to construct a logical argument for “my life has value” from premises which contain no value judgments — i.e., sheer metaphysical statements. What you will find, obviously, is that at some point you have to introduce a non sequitur. For example:

1. God created me to have a purpose.

2. God will reward me in the afterlife.

3. Therefore, my life is meaningful for me.

(3) is a non sequitur. Nothing connects it to 1 and 2. What you need is an extra premise, thus:

1a. God created me to have purpose.

2a. God will reward me in the afterlife.

3a. God having given me a purpose, and the promise of his reward, are meaningful for me.

4a. Therefore, my life is meaningful for me.

Now it is valid. But 3a brings in a subjective attribution of meaning. There is no avoiding this.

Put it this way: if you didn’t care that God had created you, would you be somehow objectively wrong or mistaken in not caring?


If so, how?

Because we maintain that all human beings have sufficient knowledge internally and from the external world to know that God exists, and that He is the Creator (whether He used evolution to create or not).

Suppose it’s true that we are rationally obligated to believe God exists. That does not imply that we are obligated to care about him or his purposes.

Where would the logical error be in “God created us to be one with Him, but I don’t personally find doing that particularly hopeful or useful”?

It’s not a logical error, but a moral error, and an abnormality, because God by nature is our Creator, and we are made to be in union with Him, just as a child is to a parent (but to an even greater degree).

And how would you deduce that it is a moral error?

Think about what you’re saying here. “That is not sufficiently meaningful for you.” How can you so confidently state that something may not be meaningful for another person?

I thought we were talking about universal felt needs and absolutes in some sense? If you want to now make the issue of meaning and purpose a strictly subjective one, then we can’t continue talking about it, because it would all be gibberish, like arguing why vanilla or chocolate ice cream is “better.”

The universe is all the greater and more enigmatic, in my opinion, if it doesn’t have purpose. Giving the universe a purpose is just a way of packaging it up into something we are readily familiar with. Far better, I think, to try to understand the universe as it is than to reduce it this way.

Why do you think the universe is greater with no purpose?

I think it’s greater in the sense of searching for truth, because it tries to deal with things as they are rather than things as we want them to be / can most easily make sense of them.

Back to that again. The argument from crutches / desire is also double-edged. You guys think we Christians are inventing a bunch of psychological crutches.

No, I said that I do not mean to argue any such thing.

We reply that if a desire exists, and is well-nigh universal, that it is quite plausible to assume that a fulfillment of it likely exists as well (compare hunger, sex drive, thirst, desire to be loved by other humans). Virtually everything else which almost everyone desires can be found in reality. We don’t deny the existence of the fulfillment and desired object because it is desired. That would be silly and foolish. Likewise, with the almost universal human religious sense and yearning.

I can state pretty confidently that everyone would desire a life that was absolutely, 100% terrific all the time, but you think the fulfillment of that is unspeakably absurd…! The truth is that our desires — whether universal or not — are sometimes fulfilled, and sometimes not. And they generally are fulfilled by our own efforts, not just landed in our laps. In other words, are desires are generally fulfilled because we take an active hand in things, not because reality in itself somehow feels obligated to provide them to us.

Of course, this presupposes that one finds value in the search for truth. (That isn’t meant in a snide way, by the way — I’m not implying that anyone who values truth must conclude there is no purpose to the universe. I’m just, again, trying to show you how things can look from an atheistic perspective).

Fair enough. You are very courteous and respectful of other views, and I always appreciate that. I hope I have been to your view, too. Just because I think it has bad logical implications, doesn’t mean that I think atheists are therefore “bad” people.

Thanks, and no, I didn’t think you thought that.

All atheistic philosophy implies is that there is no God. How can you say that, just because you find meaning in God and think anything “less” would be terrible, that nobody can? This is not an issue of “consistent implications”. This is a matter of trying to understand how you, or other apologists in this vein, can think only your worldview could be sufficient for anyone.

It’s no different than atheists thinking their worldview is the only sensible one, and others far inferior. I don’t see that there is any difference here. All you are complaining about is the self-evident observation that all people believe their own views and try to persuade others of them. Big wow. I guess to really get to the bottom of this, I will have to ask my respondents to not refer to Christianity at all. Pretend it is a lie, that it doesn’t exist.

Just defend and explain your own view, as to purpose and morality. Now you seem to want to bring it all back to Christianity again, which is the usual course in these discussions (what few of them I have managed to participate in). Forget Christianity; this is a critique of your view. We can “do” Christianity later, if you wish.

Maybe you have a psychological motive to believe in God, then. This hardly means everyone does.

I certainly do, because my soul (the root of “psychology” — Greek, psuche) was created to be in union with God. Of course the person who denies that has to explain from whence the need arises, and the “psychological crutch” explanation has a long and noble history. I didn’t think it would take too long for it to make its appearance here. :-)

“Why be good” is the issue with which metaethics is concerned. There is no one easy answer. A book I’d recommend here is the textbook from my metaethics course:

Moral Discourse & Practice: Some Philosophical Approaches, eds. Stephen Darwall, Allan Gibbard, and Peter Railton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.


Atheists in general don’t necessarily think this [that other views are much inferior]. I’m certainly not claiming that the Christian worldview is insensible or inferior in the sense of giving people hope and meaning. (Maybe I was insufficiently clear before: my talking about such-and-such being more enigmatic, or superior, was just a description of how I see it. It wasn’t a claim that others are somehow lacking in placing value elsewhere). I think Christianity can certainly serve as an account of meaning, and that it can give people hope.

And of course we both agree, I think, that any number of false views can do that, too.


Of course we all believe in our own views, and try to persuade others. The point I was trying to make is that I think you’re asking me for something that I can’t even theoretically provide. Maybe (as I speculate below) you do need an afterlife in order for life to be sufficiently meaningful and valuable. This isn’t a claim about psychological crutches, or anything; I’m just granting that maybe the necessity you see in the Christian worldview really is a description of something that you need. But imagine for a moment that I don’t need this. How would I go about demonstrating this to you?

By analyzing all the sad implications of the lack of same. If you can truly ponder all that and not be affected by it, then I would say that subjectively you don’t seem to need it.

I can certainly say that the lack of some implications of theism are sad. Here’s an arbitrary example: it would be great if there were an omniscient God, because then we could ask him if there was life on other planets. But just because it is unfortunate that we don’t have this doesn’t mean that we need to have it. Again, the whole flying-humans example… it’s sad indeed that we have to walk around like a bunch of chumps, but this is no reason to go crazy.

I continue to think that objectively all people have a need for personal existence to go on after this life, even if they have convinced themselves subjectively that this is not so. I conclude that not only as a result of Christian belief, but by the human experience itself, considered as a whole.

It’s your prerogative to think so, but it’s really not the sort of claim you could theoretically back up. (At least, not in any way that I can see).

But I agree that when all is said and done, the Christian believes there is a certain sort of God, and this affects everything else, and the atheist says there is no such God, and that affects everything in their view. If there is a God and He implanted certain aspirations, needs, wants, purposes, etc. in human beings, then that would apply to everyone, regardless of what they believe. If there isn’t a God, then all of this I refer to really is just a groundless wish and perhaps projection or a crutch (all the usual atheist charges).

If God doesn’t exist, then any wants which require theism are indeed groundless. But then, not every need, want, etc. which people have requires God.

All I can really do, ultimately, is describe what I believe about the universe factually, and then say that such and such facts have value for me. Of course this will seem insufficient for you… but what can I do about that? It is, as you say, like trying to argue about what flavours of ice cream are best.

That’s if you regard this as merely a subjective question. I do not (obviously).

Clearly not. It’s hard to make sense of “objective meaning”, though. I’m sure you don’t think meaning is objective in the sense that it exists as a property of objects, events, etc. So I guess you mean it in something similar to how morality is objective. But here, of course, it again comes down to the issue of the internal criterion.

The problem here is that atheism really implies only the denial of theism, so in trying to see whether atheism reduces to absurdity/hopelessness the natural way to proceed is to see whether it denies something that is necessary for non-absurdity/hopefulness. As for my own view, I hope I’ve described it enough for you to get a general idea; I’ve given an account of the sorts of things I find hopeful and meaningful, and how I can make sense of the universe as an interesting place without a deity.

Is there any positive aspect of atheism, beyond what it is not? Is that where humanism comes in? Is that considered a positive expression of a non-theistic worldview?

There is no positive aspect of atheism itself, no. Humanism is a worldview which includes atheism, not something implied by atheism.

I was not armchair-psychoanalyzing you and saying you only believe in God because you psychologically need to. The thing is, the issue here as you’ve framed it is an essentially psychological one: “how can atheists find things sufficiently hopeful, etc. without God?” This is an issue of psychological necessity. So, my point is just that maybe you wouldn’t find things sufficiently hopeful without God, but this alone doesn’t imply that nobody can.


For the record, I don’t approve of the tactic of reducing alternative worldviews to mere psychology. This isn’t because it is always necessarily untrue — there may well be lots of things we all believe for no good reason other than psychological motive — but because it’s not a verifiable or falsifiable sort of claim, and adds nothing of value to any issue.

I agree 100%. Glad to hear this. When I do that I am usually “turning the tables” after having it done to me. I do think the will, however, plays a major role in the beliefs of everyone (or in what they refuse to believe, for non-rational reasons). If that is “psychological analysis,” then I guess I am guilty of it, too.

The will certainly plays a part, I don’t think anyone denies that (though the extent of this is debated — for example, I think most philosophers hold that it is impossible to just will yourself to believe something).

What I was trying to get at was just the subjective component of normative ethics — i.e., the notion that they are normative for us. The point that I was trying to make was that this is a problem for all ethical theories, including DCT. From where does the internal normativity derive?

I agree that there are complexities and deep issues for all views. As I freely admitted when I joined this list, I am fully aware that I am not as philosophically trained as many of you are (with Ted [Drange] even being a professor of philosophy).

As for me, I’m merely in the last semester of a BA. In any case, don’t worry about lack of formal training in philosophy. I don’t think anyone here is a PhD in any scientific area, yet we all feel free to discuss science, for example.

Interestingly, your answer above gives a potential solution to this: it derives from the internal desire to avoid hell.

Well, that would be a purely negative criterion. Far better is the positive goal of being in union with God.

Fair enough!

But notice that this now becomes similar in form to, say, contractualism (as explained earlier in this post). Of course, I’m not sure how interested you are in discussing theory.

Only insofar as it is interesting. LOL

Atheism does not have a single, unified answer to give you here; rather, there are many potential answers, and lots of rousing discussion about which are best. (This is not to suggest that all metaethicists are atheists. But metaethics, at least in its contemporary form, is at any rate non theistic — it does not rely on or center around God.)

Interesting. Looks like partially what I am looking for.

Also, you should note that your account isn’t particularly compelling.

I didn’t make an argument for it. I simply stated it.

Why is “because it was the reason I was created” and “to be unified with God” internally normative for all humans?

It would only be if in fact it were true.

Suppose I believe both of those things, but don’t care.

Then that is what hell is all about. You wanna live apart from God? God says, “okay, here is your key to the darkness outside of Me. It is your choice.”

Thanks for the great dialogue. The more I read from you and others on this, the more I can understand about atheism. I appreciate the opportunity.

Yes, it’s quite interesting; I only hope I’m doing atheism justice. (I certainly am, if sheer verbosity is any indication! This post has attained mammoth proportions).

LOL I have enjoyed this very much. It seems like we both feel that we have made our best points. I hope, then, to make this into a dialogue for my site, which can be an educational tool and food for thought for those on both sides of the issue.

By all means, feel free to post it on your site.

I don’t personally feel I’m in much of a position to offer an Archimedean Point (Bernard Williams’ shorthand for “a point to convince nihilists they ought to be moral”) myself, simply because I’m still so divided as to the best way to construe objectively normative morality. If what you mean to ask is whether atheists could potentially offer such a point, I’d say the answer is yes — or, at any rate, that it is no more or less difficult for atheists to do this than theists.

Fair enough. I hope you can flesh that out as we proceed. Perhaps we will stimulate each other’s thinking.

It’s a little difficult to see what it is that apologists mean when they say “failing God, the standard becomes a merely human one”. Maybe I should explain in a little more detail.

The question of morality comes down, at basis, to what Williams calls Socrates’ Question: “how should I live?” That is, the question about whether there is objective morality is just the question about whether there is some way that I objectively ought to live/act; some sort of behavioural imperative that is really binding on me.


The most basic question to be answered here is, under what conditions would something objectively bind me? There are two general sorts of conditions: internal and external. Internal conditions are, essentially, personal subjective desires and sentiments (e.g., the desire to seek pleasure, or the sentiment of sympathy in Hume); external conditions are things like rationality and truth, which are thought to be binding on us despite subjective desires.

Now, both internal and external conditions seem, prima facie at least, to have a role to play. Internal conditions, in some sense, are necessary for morality, because the vital thing about morality is that it must be normative for us; external conditions, on the other hand, seem to supply the criteria by which morality becomes universal. To see this, suppose I were to say that (a la Kant) it were rationally necessary for all agents to form behavioural maxims based on the categorical imperative. This supplies an external condition. But the question the skeptic can now ask is, “well, why should I care about what is rationally necessary?”


This question is unanswerable if all we can say is that it is rationally necessary. We must also, it seems, provide some internal condition: some reason why everyone must care about morality. (Just to give due deference to Kant, he does address this question — e.g., in the last section of the Groundwork of Metaphysics of Morals.)

But he also ultimately grounds morality in God, doesn’t he? I know he made the moral argument for God.

As I recall, he mentions God near the end of the Groundwork (I don’t have a copy with me, though, so I can’t really give you any quotes). I believe he used God, and possibly immortality, as a way of satisfying the internal criterion… i.e., by saying that the existence of God would ensure that moral virtue would be associated with happiness (and thus morality would be internally desirable, as well as transcendentally necessary). This is just working from memory, however. What I can tell you for certain is this: if morality is ultimately grounded on any one thing in Kant, it is freedom — or rather, the feeling-as-though-one-were-free.

I don’t think Kant ever actually made a moral argument for God. This argument didn’t come into being, as far as I know, until the presuppositionalists formulated it as “the Transcendental Argument for God.”


In other words, objective morality must indeed be objective, but it must also meet a subjective criterion. It is not enough to say “X is simply the way you ought to act, because this is a fact of the universe… period”. We must also give some reason why this imperative has normative force for us.

Yes, all good so far.

The relevance of all the above is just this: there is always a “merely human” standard involved in morality. If a system of morality does not in some sense derive its normativity from something internal to subjects, then it has no normative force for subjects. Differently put, if all a system of morality does is offer external conditions which people may or may not care about, then this system cannot hope to offer an Archimedean Point.

Clearer than mud? :)

No, I think you have expressed this well. The Christian equivalent would, of course, be the conscience, which we feel is the inherent/intuitive moral sense put into us by God (in turn particularized by Christian teaching, itself based on revelation but also – logically prior to that – natural law). We have problems seeing how such an internal “urging” or consciousness can be objective or binding upon all equally without God to give it that objective basis and ontological reality. Why and how does it even exist at all (?), would be my question. I don’t see this in the animals . . .

It’s not clear what you mean when you say that God gives these sentiments “objective basis and ontological reality.”

They are true as moral absolutes, and there is a standard by which to judge differing human interpretations.

The issue of whether there is an internal imperative towards moral action is simply a matter of whether or not they exist in all agents qua agents; where they come from doesn’t affect their internal normativity.

But it has an effect on the relativism that would inevitably result in their absence. The more relativism there is, the more difficulty in achieving an ethics which applies to everyone equally.

Anyhow, the problem with the supposed superiority of theistic ethics comes with trying to understand its nature as an ethical system with all this in mind. Divine Command Theory is clearly something like an externalist theory of morality, in that it finds in the nature of God something external to human desires which gives a universal and objective ground for morality. But the point is that this cannot be the end of the story.

Suppose we were to grant that goodness is grounded in the nature of God. Where, then, does it become normative for agents? Where is the internal criterion?

Conscience and the internal sense most of us have for right and wrong.

Fair enough, I suppose, but there is of course a prima facie problem with this (as there is, in my opinion, for Hume’s sentimentalism if we construe it as a prescriptive rather than descriptive theory). That is: obviously people do not always obey this particular internal sense; it is not truly internal in the sense that people always desire it (since, if it were, nobody would ever violate it).

They feel certain things are wrong internally, but lack the power, resolve, or will to act rightly.

Why, then, should people obey their consciences? What if other desires are stronger?

The Christian answer is that the conscience is the internal, subjective agent of the external, objective natural law, grounded in God. But as to particulars, the Catholic says that the conscience must be formed with due regard for Church teaching. Consciences can be warped or corrupted.

The theist may say that we are all merely God’s creations, that God’s word simply goes because he is God, or what have you, but these are still merely external conditions.

They are external, but verified by our internal sense as well, whereas the virtual anthropological and cultural universality of these sentiments and feelings seems to me unaccountable under the atheist hypothesis. We’re not saying that bringing in God to explain the moral sense is another airtight “proof,” but rather, that positing God as the originator of these moral instincts is at least some sort of objective criteria and First Cause, if you will.

So, either DCT satisfies the internal criterion or it does not. Let’s suppose it doesn’t. In this case, DCT simply doesn’t provide objective morality at all. It provides no reason why morality is objectively normative for agents. The imperatives resulting from DCT have no necessary imperative force for agents, because they do not appeal to any imperative force in agents.

Well, I deny this.

On the other hand, let’s suppose it does. (Indeed, I think you’d agree that it does, because you seem to think that the moral sentiment is implanted in all humans — i.e., that in some sense, we all just do have an internal desire to be moral.) Then DCT, like the nontheistic ethics being criticized, appeals to an internal, subjective human standard. What, then, is the basis for criticism?

Simply that the internal sense cannot be (logically speaking) objective or universally applicable without God to “grant” it that status, as the originator of it. Otherwise, morality becomes a matter of majority vote.

Remember, all it means for morality to be objective is for it to be universally normative; it must be what everyone ought to do. If morality then derives from something in the nature of humans, it satisfies this standard. Where is the logical problem you allude to?

This “internal sense” will inevitably result in differing opinions, thus undercutting the “universally normative” status of the ethics. How do we resolve that?

Suppose it is the case that all humans qua humans possess desire/sentiment X.

But one cannot suppose this, because there are good and bad people (judging by their actions).

Further suppose that, as a matter of instrumental rationality (i.e., means-ends reasoning) the best way to achieve X is with a certain behavioural code. (This is the basic metaethical form of contractualism).

That will vary as well. One can’t reasonably suppose things which are virtually impossible in reality.

Granting those suppositions, what is lacking here?

But they can’t be granted, it seems to me. They are manifestly false. Because humans never come to agreement, a higher code is needed, to which all human beings are subject.

That is, what further is needed in order to say that all humans ought to follow that behavioural code? Why must we further suppose that X was implanted by God in order for this theory to work?

Because your premises are impossible to attain.

Now, all of the above may seem hopelessly theoretical. (It’s surely at least hopelessly pedantic — assuming for moment that I’ve actually managed to get it all right. :) But the general point is quite relevant, however practically you might want to construe the issue: morality must appeal to human standards.

We don’t oppose humanity or humanism to God. Quite the contrary; we say our very humanness is precisely because we are made in the image of God. In other words, “humanness” is a function of creation and the mind of God. So the human and subjective is every bit a part of Christianity as it is in humanism, but always construed as part and parcel of God’s image within us, which also gives us the non-negotiable idea of the sacredness, or sanctity of life.

If we were to suppose that that made morality arbitrary or relativistic, then we would be committed to nihilism; DCT itself would be impossible.

The whole point is that either there is an ontological reality of man being a creation of God and thus bearing the identifying marks of that origin, or there is not. So it isn’t a question of human vs. “pie-in-the-sky deity” but of created human vs. materialistically-evolved human (the latter posing a problem of both value and meaning, in my opinion). In the present discussion I am trying to discover the atheist equivalent (in terms of morality and ethics) of the fundamental role that God plays in Christian ethics. You have to come up with something, if you construe morality as “objective,” as you have said you do.

Maybe you mean, “what is the external criterion in nontheistic ethics”?


I.e., the thing that gives these theories their universality? Here the best answer is probably just rationality. If it is practically rational (i.e., instrumentally rational, prudent, etc.) to be moral, then this is why we objectively ought to be moral. We ought to be moral, in short, because this is the necessary consequence of what we desire. (Or, as in Kant, because it is the precondition of practical reason itself).

This is far too abstract. It doesn’t account for the evil person whose reflection amounts only to a ruthless, Machiavellian calculation as to how he can get ahead, irregardless of how many others suffer in the process. If your “standard” is rationality and a sort of abstract utilitarian outlook, then it breaks down when we get to the quintessential evil, selfish person.

It’s not that there is an “atheistic absolutism” per se, in the sense that there is one authoritative notion of morality for atheism (as there is for theism, in DCT). It’s rather that there are many moral theories which do not require a God, and these seem on the main to be at least as coherent as DCT.

Then how does one choose between them, and how is the chosen one applied to society at large?

One chooses between them much in the same way that one chooses among any set of philosophical positions: by seeing which appears to be the most internally coherent and justifiable. Mode of application usually isn’t directly relevant to discussions at the theoretical level, except insofar as some theories may be completely impracticable — for example, a theory which required everyone to commit huge acts of self-sacrifice might be deemed far too stringent to really apply to human life. Mode of application tends to be an implication of whatever theory is in question, and also depends on other questions (e.g., whether this theory would be consistent with a distinction between morality and law).

So if people differ on what is “most internally coherent and justifiable” we are back to square one again. There is no way out of this.

Now, I can’t give you a knockdown proof for any one such theory — or at least not a sincere one, since I’m very much divided on the matter myself. Instead, I’ll lay out one theory as a “what if”. Your response to it may, at any rate, serve to clarify the nature of your criticism.

Yes; thanks. This is good dialogue. I appreciate your honesty and self-reflection.

Suppose it is true that no human being wants to live in a state of nature; such a life would be nasty, brutish, and short, and no human being ever did or would desire that for him or herself. Suppose further that the only, or at least vastly better, way to avoid this state is to form societies, where people pool their efforts to stave off nasty old nature. Morality for the individual, then, consists in obeying a figurative contract between himself and society: the individual will do nothing to harm society (and thus not hurt others, steal, cheat, etc.) in return for which society will keep the state of nature at bay (thus satisfying the individual’s desires).

Given those two factual suppositions, how is this moral theory arbitrary, relativistic, etc.? It would be objectively normative, in the sense that all humans would be practically irrational in disobeying it. It is not, then, a subjectivist theory. So why is it necessarily inferior to DCT?

Because utilitarian ethics eventually break down.

My example above actually isn’t utilitarianism, but rather a loose example of contractualism (sometimes also called Social Contract Theory). So, the Geisler quotes below aren’t relevant.

Classically, contractualism is associated with Hobbes and Rousseau, and utilitarianism with Bentham and Mill. The basic difference is that utilitarianism (i.e., classical, or “act”-utilitarianism) is concerned with increasing the overall level of happiness for all sentient beings. Contractualism, on the other hand, is more egoistic: here the appeal is to one’s own desire to avoid the state of nature (i.e., a state of “every man for himself”). There is no duty in contractualism to maximize happiness for others; rather, it is taken as rational to uphold the interests of others as a way of securing one’s own interests.

Well, then that is immediately suspect as an unworthy theory; basically undercutting the promotion and practice of love as many people undserstand that term (especially in the self-sacrificial Christian sense).

Having said that, I’ll do my best to reply to Geisler below; he does raise some of the classical difficulties of the theory, but I don’t think he’s giving utilitarianism due credit.

Protestant apologist Norman Geisler explains [his words are indented henceforth]:

Our duty [in utilitarianism] is to maximize good for the most people over the long run. Of course, the actions that may produce this result for most people at the moment will not necessarily be best for all persons nor for all times. In this sense utilitarianism is relativistic. Some utilitarians frankly admit that there may come a time when it would no longer be best to preserve life. That is, conditions may be such for some (or all) that it would be better not to live. In this case the greatest good would be to promote death.

This is a possible consequence, all right; but Geisler is incorrect in saying that utilitarianism is “relativistic”. Rather, it is consequentialist: the moral value of actions is a function of their real-world consequences for maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering. The moral value of any action is therefore objective — i.e., if an action increases suffering and decreases happiness, then it is wrong (on this theory) regardless of what anyone thinks.

Then abortion would clearly be wrong, but of course most of this view will disagree. They merely deny the suffering or deny humanity to the preborn human child.

The first problem with strict utilitarian relativism is that even it takes some things as universally true; for example, one should always act as to maximize good.

I’m not sure why Geisler phrases it this way. The whole point of utilitarianism is that one should always act to maximize good (i.e., happiness). The way he says it, it sounds like this is some sort of grudging concession…! The problem here is probably just that he has mischaracterized it as “relativism”, hence his surprise at discovering it isn’t relativistic. :)

Second, utilitarian relativism implies that the end can justify any means. What if a supposed good end, say, genetically purifying the race, demanded that we sterilize (or even kill) all ‘impure’ genetic stock? Would this end justify the means of mercy-killing or forced sterilization? Surely not.

This is the classic response to utilitarianism, and the utilitarian has at least three possible ways of replying to it. The first is to simply deny that things like eugenics really do maximize happiness — it’s theoretically possible that things like this could do so, but they simply don’t in the real world.

But the way that the ethics of human life has gone in the 20th century, that hasn’t happened, has it? There were or are large-scale social experiments in which the “human gods” decide who lives or dies based on some external criterion of worth or social progress.

The second is to say, more or less, “so what?” That is, if eugenics really did maximize happiness, then it would be good in the utilitarian theory;

As in the abortion mentality these days . . .

simply saying “but eugenics is not good” begs the question as a refutation. On what basis does Geisler justify “surely not”?

Well, that gets back to natural law, and the general internal sense human beings have that certain things are right and wrong. It is an axiom, granted.

Consider a parallel argument: “DCT requires that, if God commanded us to kill our own children, killing our own children would be justified. Is it justified to kill children? Surely not!”

One must recognize their own inevitable axioms on both sides, to be sure.

The third possibility comes with a modern reworking of the theory, known as rule-utilitarianism. The idea of this theory is to remove the focus from consequences of actions, and instead place moral value on types of actions which generally tend to produce happiness and minimize suffering. On this view, eugenics would be wrong, because this is not the sort of action which generally tends to do that.

Good, but still we need to know on what basis this judgment is made in the first place.

Finally, results alone – even desired results – do not make something good. Sometimes what we desire is wrong. When the results are in, they must still be measured by some standard beyond them in order to know whether or not they are good. (Options in Contemporary Christian Ethics, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1981, 15-16)

This is pretty flagrantly question-begging. Saying that “results alone . . . do not make something good” is nothing less than a sweeping denial of consequentialism. As for the bit about “desires”, the utilitarian will of course agree that some desires are wrong (i.e., to carry them out would be wrong). The desire to commit mass-murder would be wrong, for example, because this serves to increase the overall balance of suffering over happiness.

Elsewhere he writes:

There is a distinct difference between a general norm, which, for practical reasons one ought always to obey, and a truly universal norm which is always intrinsically right to follow . . . There are always unspecifiable exceptions or else cases which are not covered by the rule . . . the rule itself is nor essentially unbreakable.

As far as objective morality is concerned, this seems to be a distinction without a difference. The only point of objective morality is that it be objectively normative — i.e., objective for all. Moreover, it’s not clear what is meant here by a “universal” norm; what would it mean for something to be “intrinsically” right to follow, quite apart from practical reason? That is, why should anyone obey such a norm, if not on the basis of its being practically rational?

That’s where God comes in, of course. Ultimately, in the Christian view, right and wrong is not based on “practical considerations” (even though what I call a “reverse pragmatic argument” can be constructed). Things are right and wrong regardless of consequences, and regardless of how few people believe them to be otherwise.

. . . The best a generalist can offer is a set of general norms which neither cover all cases nor are non-conflicting and for which, in order for them to be effective, one must have some other means of applying them in specific and often crucial cases . . .

I don’t know what Geisler is trying to say here about utilitarianism specifically. It sounds like he’s criticizing the notion of “general norms” of behaviour… but that would be a criticism of objective morality in general.

The attempt to save a life, e.g., is not an intrinsically valuable act. It has value only if the person is actually saved or if some other good comes from the futile attempt . . .Thus the utilitarian position reduces the ethical value of acts to the fates and fortunes of life. All is well that ends well. And what ends well is good. This would mean that the intentions of one’s actions have no essential connection with the good of those actions. (Ethics: Alternatives and Issues, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1971, 58-59)

This is true, as far as it goes. It is a consequence of classical utilitarianism that value is placed on real-world consequences, not good intentions. Suppose I throw a drowning man a life preserver, but accidentally aim a little too well, and instead knock him unconscious with it… whereupon he sinks like a stone. The action was objectively wrong, though my intention was to do good.

This is not such a terrible consequence, however, since a utilitarian may consistently say that a person is not morally culpable for unintentional wrongs. The actions are still wrong, of course, but this doesn’t imply (because of lack of intent) that the person himself is of defective character.

The latter would be consistent with Christian ethics.

Inconsistency points are great; but I should note for the record that I see little use in “historical examples”.

Duly noted. But aren’t all ethical systems “proven” by how they operate in history, just as our individual character is demonstrated by our actions?

Atheism isn’t an ethical system, however. Atheism is consistent with subjectivism and nihilism (as is theism, for that matter).

Okay, fair enough.

My point above was just with reference to the lack of ultimate justice (apparently we agree on this much).

But as to your more general point: I don’t really see the prima facie reduction of atheism to nihilism that needs to be avoided.

We’ll see, I guess. This is turning out to be a dialogue of epic proportions. :-)

If all this life were was a horrible pit of existential despair, to be redeemed only by God’s justice in the afterlife, then this life wouldn’t be infinitely valuable, and pie-in-the-sky would be justified, wouldn’t it?

Yes, if atheism were in fact true, and people made wishes for things that can never happen. Then the question would be, why do they do that? From whence comes the sense that the world ought to be much better than it is?

I’m not sure what you’re saying here. My point is that you seem to be simultaneously holding that this life would be unlivable without the
afterlife, and that this life is quite valuable without being “pie-in-the-sky-eyed”. These points seem to contradict one another. Either this life is valuable in itself, and thus pie-in-the-sky is unjustified; or it is not, and thus pie-in-the-sky would be justified.

There is no contradiction because these are entirely different propositions, which can both be asserted (and are, by the Christian):

1. Life without an afterlife (i.e., life under atheist assumptions) would be deprived of much of its meaning, purpose and fulfillment, as the prospect of eventual annihilation lends itself to a certain futility and hopelessness, if truly thought through and pondered, in all its implications.

Okay, so “life would be worthless but for the afterlife”.

2. Under Christian assumptions, this present life is full of meaning and value, because everyone’s existence will continue forever (and because ultimate justice is able to be achieved, thus making sense of much suffering). What we “build” here is continued in heaven – provided we fulfill the requirements to get there. It does not follow, however (either logically or theologically), that this earthly life is worthless because it pales in comparison with the heavenly afterlife. “Pie-in-the-sky” is as fundamentally a non-Christian position as is atheist annihilationism.

Here, “life is worthwhile because of the afterlife”.

“Pie-in-the-sky” (as I understand its common usage) is not simply the Christian view of heaven, but rather, the silly notion that because there is a heaven, that this life is a worthless “prelude” to that, for which we alone exist. So my comparison does not contradict because it is comparing:

1. Only heaven is worthwhile to live for.


2. There is no heaven at all.

The Christian denies both propositions, of course, and there is no logical conflict between them.

Right, this is basically how I’m using it too. But this seems to me to be exactly what is implied by the above. If life has worth because of the afterlife and life would have no worth without the afterlife, then life itself — on its own terms, not in terms of the afterlife — is indeed a merely worthless prelude. That is, it would be meaningful to “build” here only because an afterlife is hoped for which these efforts will affect; it would be meaningful to act a certain way here only because we hope to get into the afterlife’s plusher accommodations; etc .Pie in the sky: The good time or good things promise which never come; that which will never be realized. (Brewer’s Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable)

Naturally, the question of whether heaven will “never come” is arguable. But you can see how, for the atheist, the Christian position as you’ve described it is pie-in-the-sky. All things in this life are deemed valuable only because of the afterlife one hopes for.

Alternatively, if this life is valuable in itself, such that it’s value doesn’t merely coming in hoping for another, then this life has value even if there isn’t another…

Ah, but we say it is valuable precisely because there is a God who creates the worth and value and meaning, and “makes all things right in the end,” and gives us our hopes, dreams, and aspirations, because we are made in His image. What gives life so much value and meaning, according to the atheist?

We give life value and meaning — or, rather, we find it in life. How can we do this? Well, simply because all it means for life to be valuable or meaningful is for it to be worthwhile for us.

This is precisely the relativism and radical subjectivism which appears to me to contradict your claim of objective atheist morality, because what we consider valuable and meaningful will intersect with your morality. Hitler’s genocide was meaningful and moral for him, etc.

Hitler’s genocide may have been meaningful for him, but it was not moral for him — because morality, unlike meaning, is an objective matter. It is possible that committing genocide was so fulfilling for Hitler that it got him out of bed in the morning, prevented existential despair, etc. This in no way implies that this particular desire, or its achievement, was moral! Subjectivism regarding personal fulfillment and meaning does not imply moral subjectivism — unless, of course, we hold that there are no personal goals that are common to all people. But I certainly wasn’t claiming the latter.

Most atheists don’t apply this great inherent “meaning and worth” to the preborn child, do they? They are willing to deprive it of the only life it will ever have, almost before it even begins. That’s why I say abortion is the morally absurd outcome of humanism.

This has nothing to do with the issue of whether life is meaningful or worth living for the individual. As an argument, it’s also a non sequitur.

You might be interested, though, in a thread I started some months back: I argued in that thread that free will is not a sufficient condition for the existence of evil, and consequently that free will alone does not account for the existence of evil/rebellion/sin. We can get into that some other time, if you like.

Yes, sounds quite interesting.

The general idea I get from free-will theodicists is that free will is simply necessary in order for human action to be meaningful, since otherwise all human action would be is God himself acting… God can’t meaningful punish or reward what are, ultimately, his own actions. It is just an unfortunate byproduct of this free will that some humans choose to be evil. Is that more or less your position, too?

Yes. I am a Molinist, if you are familiar with the (Catholic) theological categories with regard to predestination and free will (its basically similar to Arminian).

A need for purpose is probably indeed a vital part of any human. But again, the thing to note here is that the vital aspect of it is that it be a purpose for the individual human. I don’t see any valid way of reasoning from this to the idea that reality itself has a purpose for us.

That gets back to the moral quandaries I posed, about (the ubiquitous) Hitler, McVeigh et al. That’s where I think the big problem comes in, because purpose, like morality, can be used to justify the most horrific ends and goals.

Yet again, we have to keep the issues of hope/meaning and morality separate. If McVeigh found hope and meaning in blowing up a building, then that indeed served as something that allowed him to get out of bed in the morning. This is not at all to say that it was moral! His action was objectively wrong, but nevertheless was (we can suppose) subjectively meaningful for him.

I’m not equipped to deal point-by-point with all the intricacies and scenarios of various philosophical ethical systems, and wouldn’t pretend to be. You can have the last word next time if you wish . . .

Unfortunately, the claim you make about atheist morality can’t really be taken seriously unless you’re willing to deal with moral philosophy in an intricate way. Please don’t take this as any kind of philosophical snobbery — it’s just a matter that the sort of claim your original article stated so confidently (that atheistic morality reduces to arbitrariness, etc.) is complex by its very nature. It’s impossible to get at the meat of this claim — assuming there is any, of course — without getting into the intricacies of metaethics.

Anyhow, this thread as I see it has essentially revolved around two theses from your original article:

– That atheistic morality is necessarily arbitrary, relativistic, and absurd.
– That atheists cannot consistently live as though life were worthwhile — hopeful, meaningful, etc.

Let’s get to each in turn.

The best sense I can make of your argument for the absurdity, etc. of atheistic morality is this:

1. Morality is not truly binding on us, or universally binding, unless it results from something higher than man.

2. In atheism, morality does not result from anything higher than man.
3. Therefore, in atheism, morality is not binding on us or non-relativistic.

Now, the major problem here is with (1). You have stated it — indeed, every apologist concerned with the argument from morality states it — as something like an obvious truth. However, once one looks at the basic nature of objective morality, it is unclear what it even means.

Holding to objective morality, as we will remember, is nothing more than holding the view that there are some behavioural imperatives which everyone ought to obey. But what does “ought” mean? Well, it means that something is practically rational; it is the sort of action that it is rational to perform. Why does it mean this? Simply because otherwise there is no sense in which we can say people commit an error by acting immorally. Practical reason is essentially means-ends reasoning; it is the sort of reasoning that guides our attempts to achieve our goals. (Actually, that is the definition of a subset of practical reason called instrumental reason; there is also, e.g., the principle of prudence. But we needn’t get into that here).

Now: what this implies about objective morality is that, ultimately, it must reduce to some goal which we want to achieve. Not a goal we should achieve, or a goal we should want to achieve; that puts the cart before the horse. Now, furthermore, it will presumably be some goal which all humans qua humans share. Obvious candidates here would be the goal of seeking pleasure, the goal of avoiding pain, the goal of avoiding death, or other goals related to basic, instinctive human sentiments. It has to be something all humans share, because otherwise the imperative which ultimately results from it will only apply to some humans, and therefore not be objective.

So, what does this have to do with (1)? A better way to put it is, what does (1) have to do with this? That is, where does something higher than man come into the equation here? Ultimately, objective morality is binding on us because of our own natures; and it derives its universality from that which is universal in us. If it doesn’t do this — if it instead derives its authority entirely from something else — then it has no normative force for us.

The only way to really make sense of (1), then, is as claiming that “it is impossible for there to be some universal human desire/sentiment X such that the achievement of X makes moral behaviour practically rational, unless there is a God”. This is a claim of substance, but it bears no resemblance to any apologetic argument for morality made so far. It is certainly not, moreover, a claim which is obvious or even mildly intuitive. I have no idea how someone would go about justifying it. I hope you do; otherwise, I don’t see that the argument can really hold water.

What I think is that the theistic argument from morality is actually based around a naive view of moral realism. On this view, objective moral values are like objective facts: they are true in a way that has nothing at all to do with humans… so, “murder is wrong” is true in the same way that “the earth orbits the sun” is. On this reasoning, (1) makes a certain kind of sense: if morality is truly objective, it must (like objective facts) exist outside of humans.

The naive view itself doesn’t make much sense. It’s not at all clear what it would mean to say that morality is true in this way, since this would ultimately mean saying that moral values exist. But how do they exist? What would it mean for a value to exist? Even more to the point, even if these values did exist, where would they acquire their normativity? If a value exists somewhere, or in some sense, why does this mean that we commit some sort of practical irrationality in failing to obey it?

Further, it’s not clear how God is necessary even on the naive view. If we hold that moral values can simply exist, why is a God required to make them? (An atheist need not deny the existence of externally-existing moral values, only the existence of God — so in this context premise 2 would not be true.) An argument here establishing God’s necessity would ultimately amount to “only God can make values”, but this would reduce to circularity.

That is, the only way it would make sense is if we say that God is, in some sense, the only being moral enough to make moral values; but since God himself would here be the origin of the values themselves, they cannot be meaningfully applied to him at all. This, of course, is simply the Euthyphro dilemma. It can be differently stated this way: even assuming (1) is true, how can God be described as “higher” than man in a non-circular way? “Higher” is must be at least in part a moral evaluation, but this has the cart before the horse again.

Hopefully that has been enough to cover all bases. If not — if there’s something significant from your posts that I missed here — then please let me know.

Now, on to the claim that atheism implies existential despair.

Your argument here has seemed to rest on two claims:

1. Life only has hope, meaning, etc. if it has that hope, meaning, etc. apart from our individual subjective hopes and desires.
2. Life would not be worth living even subjectively unless God were around to reward the good with heaven or punish the evil with hell.

I think the reasoning behind (1) has been essentially based around a failure to distinguish between objective moral value and assessments of value like “what is meaningful/hopeful” — at any rate, you seem to equate the two at several points. (For example, when I described the latter as examples of subjective value, you replied that I was therefore a moral subjectivist…!) The two, however, are not the same. Morality has to do with behavioural imperatives; meaning and hope have to do with whether or not we find our own lives worthwhile. (The two issues do intersect at some points, of course — for example, whether or not we find our lives worthwhile might have a bearing on whether or not suicide is moral.)

What does it mean for life to be meaningful, in the sense that we can avoid existential despair? It means, simply, that we find meaning in life. Now, it could be the case that meaning is objective, if there are some things that everyone simply does find meaningful — i.e., if some things are meaningful for us as a simple result of human nature. Whether or not that is the case, the standard here is located purely within humans. If we find something to be meaningful, then we don’t find our lives to be worthless, and therefore can and will continue living without going barking mad, growing goatees, or smoking clove cigarettes. Whether or not something other than ourselves has assigned meaning to life — whatever that itself would mean! — is entirely moot.

(2) is more relevant. This is basically stating that, if we don’t believe in God, we are in fact unable to find our lives worthwhile. Your argument here seems to be, basically, that the lack of an afterlife and the lack of ultimate retribution against evildoers must make anyone who thinks it through sink into existential despair.

The problem is that there is no way to go about proving or disproving this claim. I can tell you that there are things I find meaningful, and that these are enough for me; I can surmise that other atheists find sufficient meaning, too. But your claim is not that I currently am in a state of existential despair, but rather that I would be if I really thought things through sufficiently… and what can I do, except tell you that I’ve thought about these things a lot? Of course this answer doesn’t satisfy you… but what answer would? That is, assume it is true that I find enough meaning and hope in a universe without God… how, in theory, would I go about proving this to you?

The point of the whole Candide-theist example was simply to put you in my place as regards this sort of question. (It is not, as you have surmised, an attempt to switch the focus to Christianity; it is merely an example to help you understand why your claim about atheism doesn’t work.) The Candide-theist has a worldview we would both agree is wrong, and an example of naive pie-in-the-sky. Yet you cannot deny that this view, IF regarded as true, would solve a lot of existential problems; there would, for example, be no problem of evil, since there would be no evil. So what would you answer, if the Candide-theist said that your worldview, thought through consistently, would lead to existential despair? Wouldn’t you just have to say that you find enough meaning and hope in the world without having to believe that everything is terrific all the time? Wouldn’t you have to conclude that what seems psychologically necessary for the Candide-theist is quite unnecessary for you?

This is simply what atheists will conclude regarding your claim — at least, those that do in fact find life to be meaningful. Maybe it is psychologically necessary for you to believe in ultimate salvation/condemnation in order to avoid existential despair, but this is not the case for everyone. No atheist can prove this to you — there is no way to prove a psychological fact so subtle as “what is sufficient to give us hope” — but then, you couldn’t prove it to the Candide-theist, either. So, ultimately, (2) is a non-starter.

Clearly, this thread is far, far too broad and ambitious (which is my own fault, of course, because I started it). I can’t possibly keep this dialogue going, precisely because you raise so many (i.e., too many) worthwhile points. I think your insights are valuable, very much so, and I’ve learned a lot from reading your stuff. I agree with you that my critique necessarily raises many complex issues which must be dealt with in detail, involving various meta-ethical theories and so forth. But I don’t have the energy to do all that at the moment. It will be a task that will take some time and a great deal more learning on my part.

So I’ll let you have the last word. I would ask that we begin (as opportunity or motivation or inspiration arises) a new thread with the subject matter much more narrowed-down, where perhaps much more clarity of our two positions might be able to be achieved.

Sounds good. Let me know what issues you decide to focus on.

I want to express my heartfelt appreciation and respect for what you have done. This is true dialogue; I enjoyed it immensely and I have been enriched by it, and I think readers of my website will be, too, when I put it up. You answer everything comprehensively, with great substance, cogency, relevance, a refreshing economy of expression, understanding of opposing positions (avoiding straw men, which is a great blessing indeed :-), and with unfailing amiability. Thanks so much, and I look forward to much more dialogue with you (if you found this also worth your while, to throw some ideas back and forth with me).

You’d better quit praising me. I become quite insufferable when my self-esteem gets too high. :) Seriously, thanks.


August 28, 2017

(the Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity) + the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism

(vs. Mike Hardie)


Image by “geralt”. Uploaded on 6-6-15 [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]




New introduction (9-11-15):

I consider this the best dialogue I have ever been involved in (out of 700 or more), with anyone, ever. My opponent did an excellent job and really gave me a run for my money. I offered him gushing, grateful praise at the end:

I want to express my heartfelt appreciation and respect for what you have done. This is true dialogue; I enjoyed it immensely and I have been enriched by it, and I think readers of my website will be, too, when I put it up. You answer everything comprehensively, with great substance, cogency, relevance, a refreshing economy of expression, understanding of opposing positions (avoiding straw men, which is a great blessing indeed :-), and with unfailing amiability. Thanks so much, and I look forward to much more dialogue with you (if you found this also worth your while, to throw some ideas back and forth with me).

This puts the lie to the myths (from the hostile, demeaning sorts of atheists) that I supposedly 1) don’t dialogue with atheists, or 2) always have unpleasant relations with them. This dialogue was the very model (the quintessence) of what I have always sought to achieve ever since, and will continue to seek, in any dialogue I get involved in. On occasion I can get close to it, but it has never been matched (over more than 13 years) as a genuine, mutually respectful (hence very constructive) dialogue: all the more remarkable because it was between a Catholic and an atheist.

don’t know what became of Mike Hardie. I found a brief (archived) biography on The Secular Web ( and an “About Me” with photo from an old website (1998), along with a list of several of his philosophical papers: including one on “The Problem of Evil”. He is a philosophy major and was 24 years old at the time of our dialogue (obviously an extremely bright student). I lost contact with him shortly after this dialogue and have never heard from him since. I can find nothing about him beyond the late 90s time period. He seems to have fallen off the face of the earth (Internet-wise, anyway). How many good dialogues we might have been able to have! The search continues for someone of his very high intellectual (and civil) calibre.



[Mike Hardie’s words will be in blue]

I think the “problem of good” is a far more troublesome difficulty than the problem of evil (even granting that the latter is a very serious and substantive objection, one concerning which even most Christians often struggle in some sense or other: mostly due to lack of understanding, rather than a disproof of God’s existence; and especially when we ourselves go through some suffering :-).

I hope you will be more willing to pursue in depth the logical and moral implications of your position (as I view them, anyway), than has been my experience with atheists (and also moral relativists) in the past. Usually, the opponent of Christianity is quite willing to critique what they feel to be our glaring deficiencies, but quite unwilling (for some strange reason) to examine what we regard as the shortcomings in theirs. People in all worldviews seem to be much better at levying charges and poking holes, than at scrutinizing their own beliefs, wouldn’t you agree? Just human nature, I would argue.

In an earlier paper which Mike cited, to start this discussion going, I stated that:

The atheist:

1) Can’t really consistently define “evil” in the first place;

2) Has no hope of eventual eschatological justice;

3) Has no objective basis of condemning evil;

4) Has no belief in a heaven of everlasting bliss;

5) Has to believe in an ultimately absolutely hopeless and meaningless universe.

This is arguably one of the most common kinds of popular replies to atheism, and I have never seen a really robust attempt to really explain it, much less justify it.

Good; nor have I seen a robust attempt by an atheist (at least those I have come across), to grapple seriously with the objections. There are plenty of Christian apologetic works which make a similar case vis-a-vis atheism. You obviously haven’t looked very hard. That’s okay; I haven’t looked very hard at all that many atheist works, either. I would love to read all the books in the world, but I have to be selective, unfortunately.

To put my objections to it in a nutshell:

(1) and (3) come down to “atheists cannot have objective morality”, when there are a multitude of non-theistic ethical theories — i.e., theories which do not require God — which seem to be at least as coherent as theistic ethics (i.e., Divine Command Theory or Natural Law Theory).

What is it that rules out these non-theistic ethics in one fell swoop? Let us be clear here: we are not talking about scientific materialism versus theistic ethics, but merely non-theistic versus theistic ethics. (Scientific materialism is often characterized as the view where nothing is meaningful unless it can be reduced to a purely empirical theory of some kind, and it seems pretty obvious to me that this view would have no relevant account of objective morality. But obviously, not all atheists are scientific materialists in this sense.)

What I was implying (and I again thank you for the chance to flesh out and clarify) was that according to the atheist’s presuppositions, taken to their ultimate logical (and above all, practical, in concrete, real-world, human terms) consequences, cannot be carried through in a non-arbitrary manner, and will always end up incoherent and morally objectionable. All attempts that I have seen (admittedly I may very well have missed many) have not adequately explained how to overcome this inherent moral relativism, whereby some man (often, in real life, a dictator) “determines” what is right and wrong, imposes it on a populace, group, or family, and people try to live by it happily ever after.

Simply put (but I will defend this at the greatest length once we discuss particular moral questions), atheist justifications for morality (i.e., logically carried through) will always be either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require. I think it was Dostoevsky who said “if God doesn’t exist, anything is permissible.” Sartre said something similar, which I don’t recall at the moment (probably someone here would know to what I am referring).

Dostoyevsky did indeed say that, in Crime and Punishment. Interestingly, though, I think he committed the same error that many apologists do on this point; he equated Godlessness with “the will to power” (embodied by the proto-Nietzschean Raskolnikov).

Arguably, it has been that, with regard to institutional Marxist/Communist atheism, no?

Indeed. The question there is whether this is because they are atheistic, or whether atheism (or in this case, a particular political philosophy which includes atheism) creates this tendency. Personally, I think things like the horrors of Stalinism are better explained by George Orwell than any appeal to belief systems per se. In other words, I think Stalin would have been no less murderous if his professed beliefs had been, say, Hindu.

Yes. My main point in mentioning Stalin was to argue that if Christianity is to be blamed for every evil of the Middle Ages (and we have even seen Hitler absurdly called a Christian on this list), then by the same token Stalin and Mao must come under the category of atheist. Either we reject both scenarios as misrepresentations of our views, or it seems to me that we must accept them both as representative, however distant or objectionable the “inclusion” may be.

I think it’s simply a matter that both scenarios have little or nothing to do with theism or atheism.

And I would contend that it could also (by logical extension) be that in the mind of an immoral atheist who felt himself to be the “measure of all things,” as the humanists say. I’m very interested in what the decent, moral atheist would say to these folks; how it would be explained to them that atheism is incompatible with such reprehensible behavior (and why and how the other person should be “bound” to the moral observations).

And why is that? We say it is because God provides the over-arching “absolute” and principle of right and wrong which allows for coherent ethics and non-arbitrary determination of good and evil. We even believe that God is love. Love and goodness is personified and expressed and grounded in His very Being. Furthermore, Christians believe that God put this inherent sense in all human beings, so that they instinctively have a moral compass, and therefore largely agree on right and wrong in the main (murder is wrong, so is betrayal, rape, stealing, etc., in all cultures — it may be defined in particulars somewhat differently, but the consensus is there).

Atheists have this sense, put there by God, just as believers do, whether they acknowledge it or not (though it can, of course, be unlearned by intellectual conditioning or surroundings). And their behavior proves it. That’s why (in our opinion) they are usually as moral and upright as a group as any other group of people. But to the extent that they are moral and good, I argue that this is inevitably in conflict with their ultimate ground of ethics, however it is spelled-out, insofar as it excludes God. Without God it will always be relative and arbitrary and usually unable to be enforced except by brute force. Atheists act far better than their ethics (in their ultimate reduction).

The Communists, though, acted fairly consistently with their atheistic principles (as they laid them out — not that all atheists will or must act this way, which is manifestly false). God was kicked out, and morality became that which Marx (or Lenin) decreed. One can argue all day whether Lenin and especially Stalin were true Communists, and so forth (I think they were). “Orthodox” Marxism — that formulated by Marx — is inherently atheistic, as I understand it.

The fact remains that the fruit in the real world of such materialistic social experiments on the grand scale was mass murder, both in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China (infinitely worse in numbers and in horrors and evil than anything that ever occurred in the Crusades or Inquisition, which we hear about endlessly, because it serves – in the vastly-distorted way in which it is presented- – as quite effective propaganda against Christianity; particularly Catholicism).

The Nazis did the same thing, though they were a bit more into the occult, as I understand it. In any event, they were not Christian in any way, shape or form, which is why many thousands of Christians died in the camps as well: people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Edith Stein, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, along with thousands of nuns, priests, and Protestant clergymen, and why a person like Oskar Schindler was lucky to escape with his life.

That’s my first statement of my thesis (many others have stated it far more eloquently). I can and will defend it at the greatest length, and – if all my past experience in such discussions is any measure – it will only be strengthened as we deal with particulars. I suspect it will be misunderstood a great deal more before we are through with this discussion, but that’s why we have discussion in the first place, isn’t it?: to foster further understanding on both sides, and to examine our own assumptions.

(2) and (4) have no prima facie relevance that I can see. Why are the lack of ultimate justice, or of an afterlife of eternal bliss, problematic for the notion of goodness? This would seem to suggest that something cannot be meaningfully good or evil unless it is going to be judged to be such, and rewarded or punished accordingly. But this seems false; if something is objectively right or wrong, it is right or wrong quite apart from any questions of what horrors will be inflicted on the wrongdoer or what gifts will be given to his opposite.

Please allow me to explain, if I may. The philosophical ground of goodness in the Christian view is neither the presence nor absence of justice, nor the existence of heaven and hell. It is grounded in God Himself. God is good; we are His creatures, made in His image, so we are good insofar as we are like Him, and united with Him in purpose and outlook. It’s as simple as that, but one can write volumes about it, too.

My comment about eschatological justice was not intended as the basis of morality, but about the ultimate futility and nihilism of an atheistic morality — consistently carried-through –, however noble and well-intentioned. In the atheist (purely logical and philosophical) world, Hitler and Stalin and Mao and other evil people go to their graves and that’s it! They got away with their crimes. They could have theoretically gone out of the world (as well as all through their lives) laughing and mocking all their victims, because there literally was no justice where they are personally concerned. Why this wouldn’t give the greatest pause and concern to the atheist moralist and ethicist is beyond me.

In the Christian worldview, though, the scales of justice operate in the afterlife as well as (quite imperfectly) in human courts and in gargantuan conflicts like World War II where the “good guys” (all in all) managed to win. Hitler and Stalin do not “pull one over on God” (or on an abstract notion of justice). They don’t “get away with murder.” They are punished, and eternally at that, barring a last-minute repentance which is theoretically possible, but not likely. All makes sense in the end, and there is every reason and incentive to endure evil and suffering when there is ultimately the highest purpose for it. Even Jesus embraced profound suffering; therefore we can as well.

That doesn’t make it a bed of roses for us, by any means, but it is sure a lot easier to endure than under atheist assumptions, where one returns to the dust and ceases to exist, quite often having utterly failed at life, or having been abused their entire life, with nothing significant to ever look forward to. Where is the hope and purpose in that? You tell me; I’m all ears. I truly want to understand how you deal with this ultimate lack of hope or purpose or design, as I would see it.

This was not so much an argument, as it was pointing out that the logical conclusion to atheist ethics is utter despair at what goes on in the world, and the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. It is not arguing that (as in your flawed perception):

1) All is meaningless in the end; therefore no morality (in practice) is possible, and therefore all atheists are scoundrels.”

but rather:

2) The ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and the futility of seeing tyrants like Stalin do their evil deeds and never come to justice in this life or the next, ought to bring anyone who believes this to despair, and constitutes a far greater (“existential”) difficulty than the Problem of Evil — which has a number of fairly adequate rejoinders — represents for the Christian.

(5) evidently requires some more detail. It cannot be saying that atheists never find any hope or meaning in the universe; obviously they do, or we would all be suicidal and mad. (We’re obviously not suicidal… as for mad, well, it’s an open question. ;)

Precisely my point: the atheist does not consistently think through the “eschatological” implications of his position. Otherwise, I fail to see why he wouldn’t despair, go mad, or become an evil person (pure hedonism or narcissism or sadist or other such excess. Why not?). The easiest way to illustrate this is simply to ask you and other atheists on this list what the purpose of life and the universe is, how you know that; what gives you “hope” and so forth.

This goes beyond mere philosophy, to the very purpose of our existence and being. Of course we can philosophize in speculating and thinking about these things, yet the thing itself is not philosophy, but Reality and Purpose, which has to be something, whether or not we ever figure it out. And when you give me those purposes, as you see them, I think you will see — with further dialogue — that they are based on very little other than faith and presumptuous hopes, which in turn boil down to propositions no better substantiated than the Christian ones of faith which are so frowned-upon and considered silly and unworthy of belief and so on. In fact, I contend that ours have far more objective basis than yours do.

What exactly [are you] claiming here? That atheists’ hopes, or notions of what is meaningful, are invalid just because they do not center around God? But that can hardly be it.

Insofar as God offers the only means of hope in terms of purpose, yes. Meaning is put into all human beings by God. But more accurately, I am simply acknowledging — with Sartre — that it is a sad and troubling, devastating thing if God does not exist, that a universe with no God is (when all is said and done) a lonely, tragic, and meaningless place. This is presupposed by the very Argument from Evil that is used against us! So you can scarcely deny it! Most lives on this earth are not all that happy or fulfilled.

And you would have us believe that after miserable, ragged lives lived all through history (e.g., the millions who don’t have enough to eat right now, or the Christian victims of genocide and slavery in the Sudan), the persons die and go in the ground, and that they ought to be happy during their tortured lives? Why? What sense does it all make? We can play that game in prosperous North America and Europe because all our material needs are met and we can occupy ourselves with various pleasures so that we don’t have to think about the sad realities of the world all that much (Maslow’s hierarchy).

What does this suggest? That things are not ideal.

Beyond that: that the universe is fundamentally senseless and hopeless for many millions of persons.

That we have a very good reason to make things better, rather than waiting for God to do it for us.

That’s a non-issue. The issue is “what is the purpose of all that suffering and futility, in the atheist worldview?”

Suppose there is no purpose. Maybe it’s just the case that humans suffer because the universe is not designed to accommodate us; that suffering is just a thing we should try to minimize, not something which has a particular value in itself.

Okay, I’m supposing it. Now how do you cope with that?

By trying to minimize suffering.

I don’t think everyone ought to be happy. I think a lot of people aren’t happy, and for very good reason. And it’s a dreadful thing. Again: sure, it’d be great if everyone were happy at some point. Then again, it would be even better if everyone were happy all the time even before heaven, wouldn’t it? But this would be a pipe dream, yes?

In the sense of the probability of it happening, yes. But you are still not really directly dealing with my question.

I’m trying to. In the case above, I’m trying to do this by getting you to see things from the atheistic perspective. We can all think of things that are untrue, yet would be great if true; yet we don’t believe these things, and we make do nonetheless. I’d personally grant that it would be great if all suffering culminated in endless bliss; but I don’t believe it does, and I find meaning in the happiness that does exist.

So nothing in atheism troubles you, not even to the extent that the problem of evil bothers me as a Christian?

Atheism is nothing more than the denial of theism. There are some ramifications of theism that would be great if true — who wouldn’t want a friend in high places? — but nothing that seems so necessary that their absence is troubling. To reuse an example, wouldn’t you agree that it would be great if humans could fly? But you presumably don’t find the lack of this ability “troubling”, in the sense that you lose sleep over it. This is sort of how I think about the nicer implications of theism.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t difficult intellectual issues with atheism. Naturally there are! For example, arguments for God (ontological and cosmological, largely) are ultimately uncompelling, in my opinion, but not always simply, straightforwardly, or uncontroversially so.

The question you seem to be asking me is, “but how can the happiness that you do find be enough? How can that be enough for meaning, hope, etc.? How can it be enough when you know some people live really horrible lives?” The problem is, I don’t know how this question might theoretically be answered, because this is simply asking how it could be enough for me. What can I say, except that it is enough? I think the problem here is that you want something like an objective philosophical justification of an essentially subjective and emotional phenomenon (i.e., finding life meaningful, valuable, etc.).

Now, maybe you think this is just the point: that atheists (or this atheist, at any rate) downplay meaning and hope to a subjective phenomenon, whereas Christians try to make it into an objective one.

Yes, I think that becomes a huge problem, if followed through consistently, and I say that we see its negative fruits in the increasingly secular world today.

The thing is, the situation is the same for both parties. Both Christians and atheists believe in a lot of different facts about the universe. But no fact implies meaning or hope for us, or the ability to dispel existential despair, apart from our subjective view of it.

That’s not true if revelation is true, because that gives us solid, objective facts. God exists; He has a certain benevolent nature; He cares about the world and His creatures, etc.

No, you missed the point here. I am making a distinction between facts and subjective values. No fact about external reality has subjective value for us intrinsically. We have to subjectively find value in the fact. God having a benevolent nature is (on the theistic view) a fact, but it is an irrelevant fact for our personal hopefulness, etc. unless we happen to think God’s benevolence is valuable.

If you find meaning in the idea that God has created you to do X, this is meaningful for you — i.e., it solves your existential despair — because you find it meaningful. If you didn’t care that God had created you to do X, it would not be any sort of “ultimate meaning or purpose” for you at all.

But that’s pure relativistic existentialism. The Christian finds the meaning precisely because he believes that God exists (on other grounds) and is the basis and foundation for our existence and purpose. One must determine whether there is a God, then move on to the next stage. We don’t just believe because it gives us meaning, which is an entirely different thing; almost a pragmatic approach to theism, which is really no Christian theism at all.

But interestingly, this sort of pragmatic theism seems to be the basis for your argument against atheism. But if this is no real theism at all, then it doesn’t really contradict atheism, does it? That is, you seem to be saying that atheists cannot consistently be atheists on pragmatic grounds… but based on what you say above, this doesn’t mean that atheism in the more legitimate sense is inconsistent.

Similarly, whatever it is that an atheist might find meaningful is meaningful for him or her just because he or she find it to be such.

In a subjective fashion, yes, but I thought we were discussing possible objective solutions? If we confine this discussion to subjectivism, then there can be no discussion in the first place, because one person’s opinion would be irrelevant to the next person’s – since they have no relation to each other epistemologically. It would be like discussing whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is intrinsically “superior.”

Exactly! This is the situation as I see it as regards meaning and hope.

Personally, I like this particular quote very much:

“Each of us visits this Earth involuntarily, and without an invitation. For me, it is enough to wonder at the secrets.” -Einstein

That’s great, as far as it goes. Christians have more than enough “secrets” to wonder about, too; even more, because of the extraordinary nature of God.

One might find meaning in the search for truth, as in the above quote.

But that is not sufficient when you ponder that you will cease existing in a very short period of time. And that injustice is all around us, with much of it unpunished.

Or in happiness, for oneself and for others.

That’s all fine and dandy, and we would expect it, but it doesn’t deal with looking the black universe in the face and truly reflecting upon its ultimate lack of purpose.

And so forth. Is it that atheists cannot do this?

Not at all; it is that they can’t do it consistently with their philosophy in the fullness of its implications, and that they must fall back on the equivalent of Christian faith at some point in order to do so, and that they live off the “capital” of the image of God which exists in them whether they accept it or not.

Or is it that these are insufficient for some reason?

They are that, too. If my biggest purpose in life were to sit here and be entranced with ideas (much as I enormously enjoy doing so), I would be in despair, because life consists of far more than intellectual titillation or love of ideas, or some futile search for “happiness,” considered apart from ultimate purposes.

All that aside, too, it’s unclear how (5), even if it were true, would be a “problem of good” for atheists.

Because it is clearly far worse to have a Hitler and a Stalin do what they did and go to their end unpunished, than it is to believe in an afterlife where monster-morons like that are punished for what they did, and that those who lived a far better moral life are rewarded at long last (for many, the only significant “happiness” they ever had). These are not proofs; I am simply answering why this is even more so a difficulty (in the sense of a “troublesome thought”) for the atheist. The other part of this is to ask “why be good?” The Christian answers, “because that is the reason I was created; to be like God, and to be unified with Him, and in so doing, also unified with my fellow man.” The atheist says: ???

That’s more than enough for now. This will be far more nailed down in the course of dialogue. It is much stronger and persuasive in application to particular moral situations and questions, I think.

Do you see the points you made as more applicable to refuting the problem of evil, or to making it into a problem for atheists? (The latter doesn’t necessarily equal the former.)

The latter. That was my intent. It’s turning the tables. But I still consider the Problem of Evil the most formidable and understandable objection to Christianity. Obviously I don’t think it succeeds . . .

I’m not widely read on the topic either. (I have, for example, never read a single atheistic apologetic work.) I have come across the problem in readings — e.g., in CS Lewis, or Cornelius Van Til — but have never seen it presented in a philosophically robust way.

Anyhow, your point above actually sounds more or less exactly like what I was describing in my initial objection. What you present above is simply Divine Command Theory — or at least, the most popular variant of it, which states that moral standards are grounded in the nature of God.

It’s always fun to learn of the technical term for one’s position. :-) This, then, would also be the Catholic Christian (particularly Scholastic/Thomist) perspective on the matter.

Why does the assertion of this theory prove that atheistic ethics are completely “arbitrary” or “relativistic to the point of absurdity”?

It doesn’t “prove” it because it is a separate theory. It is simply a superior ethical option (as a coherent, consistent system) to any atheist brand, in my opinion. My argument is that atheist ethics will always end up being self-defeating, and/or relativistic to the point of being utterly incapable of practical application. Failing God, the standard then becomes a merely human one, therefore ultimately and inevitably arbitrary and relativistic and unable to be maintained for large groups of people except by brute force and dictatorship (which is precisely what happened, if Stalinism or Maoism are regarded as versions of consistent philosophical atheism to any degree, or even corrupt versions of it).

Obviously they would be such if DCT were assumed — DCT being true would of course mean that atheistic ethics were false — but no atheist is going to grant that from the get-go. But maybe I’ve missed something here.

You have. That was not my argument, which was: “atheists have their own ‘problem of evil,’ even more troubling than the Christian one.” I merely referred to the Christian version of ethics insofar as it is able to resolve certain problems which, it seems to me, the atheist cannot solve, or at least only with the greatest difficulty and arbitrariness.

Exactly which problems?

How to arrive at an objective criteria; how to enforce it across the board; how to make such a morality something other than the end result of a majority vote or the power of governmental coercion. Also, how do we solve thorny societal problems such as various sexual differences, and beginning and end of life issues such as abortion and euthanasia and cloning?

I don’t see that these are particularly problematic for atheism. There is dispute, of course, about what the best objective criteria are; but then, there is dispute within the ranks of theism, too. (There are different conceptions of DCT, for example, plus Natural Law theory. And there are even theists who hold to nontheistic ethics — this is not a contradiction in terms, because these are nontheistic rather than atheistic per se).

As for enforcement, naturally the thing that concerns the atheist is enforcement in the mortal realm. Here, again, all moral theories are on a more or less equal footing. How, if one knew DCT were true, would one go about enforcing morality in the here and now?

By evangelizing people, helping them convert, and thus unifying the world population. :-) Short of that, at least convincing them of the need for universal norms and arguing the Christian positions on a case-by-case pragmatic/utilitarian basis (using arguments the non-Christian can relate to).

The solution to societal problems is more or less a consequence of the sort of theory we end up with. For example, contractualism would simply say that the issue of euthanasia comes down to whether or not ending one’s own life defied the social contract.

The Christian must believe that life is sacred and that decisions to end it (apart from justified war, self-defense, etc.) are best left in the hands of God. Of course, without God, then without any higher criterion than human, anything becomes possible in terms of the ending of life. So we see the fruits of that worldview all around us.

In other words, Christians have the universal and absolute standard: God. What do humanists have? Most are ethical relativists, I believe. How, then, are worldwide ethics to be determined and lived out? Relativists have a certain obvious set of problems. If there is an atheistic absolutism (as I suspect), then that will have to be explained to me: how it is arrived at; why anyone should accept it, etc. I’ve been trying to have this conversation for years. I almost did with an agnostic scientist I debated, but he was never willing to truly subject his own views to the scrutiny I was prepared to give them.

All of this would seem to follow only if indeed the ultimate ground of ethics were (and had to be) God. Have you got an argument demonstrating this much?

Briefly, and off the top of the head, my reasoning might run as follows:

1. There is a God (cosmological and teleological arguments, as well as many others).

2. There is such a thing as the natural law (as evidenced by the profound similarities and broad consensus of ethics anthropologically, and the impracticality and tragic results of all relativistic ethical systems).

3. It is plausible and sensible (granting #1) to ground natural law in God, and His nature, because He is both First Cause, Creator, and Eternal.

4. God has revealed Himself as good (revelation, miracles, Jesus Christ).

5. God is the lawgiver and Creator, Who made man in His image, including their moral sense.

6. Particulars of the moral law which is generally understood intuitively (#2) are fleshed out in revelation (Ten Commandments, the Jewish Law, New Testament ethics).

A theistic or absolutistic ethics can be arrived at by #1-3. The fuller, more worked-out Christian version incorporates the additional points.

My critique of atheism presently, however, is independent of the validity or soundness of my own Christian view, because it is aimed at internal inconsistency, incoherence, and (I contend) impossibility of concrete application (as well as a few historical examples which I take to be — in some measure — substantiating evidence of my argument).

I have never agreed with the “Crusades and Inquisitions” objections either (at least with regard to the notion of Christian morality in general).

Great. You are a rare bird!

But all you’re doing here is making the same objection against atheism. It doesn’t work any better this way.

The Stalinist and Maoist examples are not central to the argument (in fact, completely dispensable). They were merely thrown in for consideration. I know all this wasn’t explained, but that’s why more discussion is always helpful.

The problem is that it conflates two different issues:

a) Can, and have, atheists been immoral?

Yes, but so what? So have many Christians (in fact, all of them: we believe in original sin LOL).

b) Does immorality derive from atheism?

No; it derives from giving into the baser elements of our natures (again, Christians explain the strange moral duality of man by original sin and a corruption of the initial created purity). Atheism, at best, might be used to justify intellectually, or to rationalize, various individual sins and evil acts.

Exactly right (sans the original sin stuff, of course). Just about any belief system can be used to rationalize misdeeds. Consider the Pope of the time, for example, in justifying the Crusades… he explained that when the Bible commanded people not to kill, it really meant “don’t kill other Christians.” :)

No, this is absurdly simplistic. The biblical command “Thou shalt not kill” is better translated “Thou shalt not murder,” because that was the meaning of it. Some forms of killing were permissible; indeed Jewish Law had the death penalty for a number of offenses. The Christian Just War theory (developed by Augustine and others) worked out the instances where war was ethically justified. Unless one is a strict pacifist, this is necessary for everyone to determine (the times to ethically use force).

Well, of course, a strict pacifist might very well argue that this “Just War theory” is an excellent example of such rationalization…! Who was it, again, who commanded people to turn the other cheek? :)

He also said that His disciples ought to purchase a sword (Luke 22:35-36) and did not rebuke a Roman centurion for being a military man; in fact He highly praised his faith (Matthew 8:5-13). This is not rationalization at all. It is a real-world ethical system, very poorly-understood by many critics of Christianity, and even by pacifists within Christianity.

At any rate, that was just an off-the-cuff example. I think we agree on the basic idea (i.e., that rationalization can be used to pervert any belief system).


Of course (a) is true. It is true of atheists, theists, and everyone in between. The fact is, anyone who is a human being is capable of being

Exactly. Why that is, is a whole ‘nother discussion, of course. But no one would dream of disputing the fact of it.

But this is no connection at all with (b).

I agree.

How does simply presenting the Christian view of morality show that absurdity is the end result of atheistic thinking?

It doesn’t; that wasn’t central to my argument. I was simply stating that Christians solve the “problem” in a certain fashion, and wondering out loud how atheists solve it. Two roads to the same destination; that sort of thing.

“Nihilism” is inapplicable here. Nihilism is the view that there is no such thing as moral value at all;

It remains to be seen (in my opinion) how relativistic and/or atheistic ethics can avoid a logical reduction to nihilism. I’d be delighted to see this demonstrated, but I am skeptical so far.

and lack of ultimate punishment/reward in no way suggests that.

I agree. I didn’t say it did. Yet lacking the latter might arguably become an incentive for immoral and dominating behavior.

This is certainly arguable, at any rate. This is the same sort of argument that is advanced in favour of capital punishment, for example, yet the retort is that capital punishment has never been shown to have deterrent value. I don’t even know how we would go about showing that belief in ultimate justice has deterrent value; maybe by assessing crime rates among Christians versus atheists. I’m not sure, though, that the results would unequivocally suggest anything. (For example, it’s apparently a fact that Christians are statistically overrepresented in prisons… but I don’t think that’s particularly suggestive of anything).

Probably only that atheists come from the more educated classes, which tend to be more financially well-off, hence less prone to crime. :-)

Could be. Or it could even just be the fact that more prisoners are likely to report being Christian when they know perfectly well that professed religiosity helps their chances of parole.

:-) Great insight! We’ve just seen this process in a President, so it rings true with me.

As for futility, there are several points to be made here. The first is that not all ethicists see justice as retributive. Some also take a correctional view, for example, to which ultimate punishment/reward in the sense you give would be quite irrelevant. On this view, the point of punishment and reward is consequentialist: to correct the error of the wrongdoer and reinforce the behaviour of the good. Is there something inherently futile about this view?

No, not as far as it goes. But the Christian sees justice as “cosmic.” Evil is a blot on the “normality” of the universe, and it offends God. It is an offense against the ontological nature of things, as God intended it. Obviously, these things are no factor in atheist ethics. They are


Quite right. But the question is, is this a problem for atheistic ethics?

Incidentally, the view of justice as “cosmic”, or of evil as an abnormality/offense, do not themselves suggest a retributive view of justice. The basic difference between retributive and correctional views is just this: retributive views put the premium on “eye for an eye”, or punishing harm with harm; and correctional views put the premium on simply doing whatever best stops people from committing harm. Why, I wonder, wouldn’t God take the correctional view?

He does! But he is also Divine Judge, as analogous (if rather dimly) to earthly judges.

This analogy doesn’t really answer anything, since whether or not earthly judges do, or should, dispense correctional or retributive justice is hotly debated.


You seem to have God faithfully practicing two conflicting kinds of justice at the same time, which doesn’t make sense. Correctional justice takes the end, or purpose, of justice to be consequentialist. That is, if one is to judge in this sense, then one is looking at producing whatever judgment will produce the best state of affairs. So: if God is consequentialist, God simply dispenses justice in whatever way will lead to the most people being saved and fulfilled. God would not be out to harm those who do wrong, or are evil; he would be out to correct their errors, and make them into good people.

God can judge the sins but also at the same time cause people to come to grips with what they need to do in order to be ultimately saved. But there is mercy and forgiveness, which in turn depends on human will and the willingness to repent.

Alternatively, retributive justice takes the end of justice to be vengeance. If one is to judge in this sense, then one is attempting to visit some harm those who have acted wrongly or are deficient in character.

Well, if God has, in fact, given everyone ample opportunity to repent and they choose not to, there has to be some point at which His mercy comes to an end and Judgment enters in. To live with God forever, one has to be perfect; cleansed of evil. To do that one must repent, receive God’s graces and strive to live above sin and evil. But people — having free will — can refuse that. If they make a habit out of it, they become comfortable living without God; they become “hardened.”

So, then, if they die, they will be judged by whether or not they received God’s free gift of grace, what they know (many will be saved by the loophole of ignorance), and what they did and didn’t do with what they knew about God and good and evil. If they are not “fit” for heaven, not having been redeemed by Christ’s death for them, then they must live eternally separate from God, and that is what we call hell. Why eternal hellfire is a “cosmic necessity,” I cannot explain, I freely confess. But I have every reason to believe that God is both fair and just in both His judgments and distribution of His graces.

The problem is that either view requires a different kind of judgment in certain cases. Let’s suppose that, after his death, Hitler is forced to stand before the almighty. In this moment — following the Jack Chick school of theology :) — Hitler realizes how evil his acts on the earthly realm were, and falls down in atonement. God, being able to see into hearts and all, can see he is sincere. What does God do?

If God is dispensing correctional justice, God lets Hitler into heaven. The past misdeeds were terrible, but God can see that Hitler now realizes this fact; there is no reason, now that he has realized his past error, for Hitler to be punished for anything.

Hitler had to do this before he died (which is extremely unlikely, knowing human evil and corruption and what it does to a soul, as we do, but still remotely possible); that is the only catch. There has to be an end-point for the mercy which God extends. God is not required to be merciful at all, in exercising His prerogative as Judge. So it is not “evil” of God to simply set a time at which the mercy comes to an end. And that time is every individual’s death.

It’s like a Governor extending the offer of a pardon 47 times to a prisoner on death row, and being refused 47 times. Is he then “unjust” or “cruel” to conclude “enough is enough” and to cease offering pardons? Of course not. And who do we blame if the prisoner then gets executed? The Governor, right???!!! :-)

If God is dispensing retributive justice, God sends Hitler to be nibbled on by demons for eternity. Sure, he’s sorry now, and sure, he’s changed; but he has to pay for the pain he has inflicted with pain of his own.

It is not unjust if a person spurns God’s grace and chooses to become increasingly more evil. That person must be judged (and damned) in the end. The alternative (Hitler and you and I or Mother Teresa all having exactly the same end) is infinitely more troubling to me. I don’t know how anyone could think otherwise, except by habit of thinking poorly of God (or of the unaccepted concept) and not understanding His dual role as both loving, merciful Father and Holy Judge.

Do you see what I mean? The ultimate end of justice for God cannot both be retribution and correction, because those views themselves have conflicting ends.

Not at all, as I hope I have adequately explained.

Indeed, if the only purpose of justice is to put the cosmic house in order, as it were, why would God stress retribution? To use that analogy: if your house is in disarray, does it make more sense to destroy everything that’s out of place — e.g., burn all your clothes because they’re not properly tucked away in the closet — or to put everything back as it should be…?

That’s the distinction between redemption and final judgment. God is both Savior and Judge, because He is the Creator. He made us; He desires us to be saved and fulfilled, which entails union with Him and with His will, but at the same time He allows us the freedom to disobey Him, and that will eventually involve separation from God and eternal punishment for those who choose that course and spurn God’s free gift of grace, by the very nature of things.

The second is that many atheists, myself included, would not agree that ultimate “justice” in the classical Christian sense really is just at all. That is: justice in this sense involves infinite punishment, but humans are only capable of finite crimes. If justice involves matching the punishment to the crime — as it must, lest we start executing jaywalkers — then any infinite punishment would be de facto unjust. This point would not, of course, apply to universalists.

Hell is a completely different discussion, so I can’t indulge it here. Suffice it to say that human beings are immortal. They have a free choice to choose to obey God and be in union with Him, or to reject Him. We make these choices in this life, and the choices have eternal consequences. God honors that freedom. He can’t force love anymore than human beings can (well, He could have done so, but He chose not to). It is simply the nature of things that souls are immortal, and that they can either be with God or separate from Him, eternally.

Hell is the individual’s choice. It is like a lifer in prison turning down the Governor’s free pardon. Is that the Governor’s fault? C. S. Lewis said that the doors of hell were locked on the inside. So I don’t see this as any sort of blot on God’s character at all. It (hell) is the tragic result of man’s rebellion, selfishness, pride, self-delusion, and stupidity.

Hell is indeed a different topic. I brought it up just to make the point that, apart from the issue of whether it is necessary for morality, there is some serious question as to whether the classically Christian view is even sufficient.

Not for orthodox Christians. :-) We may not like the idea (emotionally, and at a gut level) much more than you do, but we don’t accept things in theology based on our likes and dislikes. In this case, we have a teaching repeatedly referred to by Jesus, and thus not optional for a Christian.

I won’t go off on too much of a rant, but I will say for the record that the view you describe above — of hell as the individual’s choice — smacks to me horribly of rationalization. Imagine a mugger: “give me all your money or you’re dead.” The person refuses, and gets killed. Could the mugger then say, “well, it was his free choice to die; is it my fault he chose that?” Hardly! The person who refused did not choose to be killed; he merely refused to do what the mugger wanted him to do, and the mugger decided that the consequence would be death. As you say, though, this issue deserves a thread in itself.

This is a completely false analogy because it involves coercion and no fault on the part of the person judged, whereas with us and God, God lets us freely choose good or evil, and we are at fault if we choose wrongly, or — to follow up on my earlier point — we have chosen to separate ourselves from God and He says “okay, have your way.” Otherwise, He would have to force us to love Him and desire to be with Him, and that is no love at all, anymore than a love slave really loves their master.

The analogy wasn’t to do with the justice or morality of the demand, but just on the fact that God is making a demand and enforcing obedience as opposed to just sitting back and saying “well, it’s your choice whether you go to heaven or hell”. We do not choose heaven or hell; we choose obedience or disobedience, and it is God who decides the consequences. (Unless, of course, going to heaven or hell is just some sort of natural process that God has no part in. But I’d be really surprised if any Christian said that).

This seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.To be disobedient is to separate oneself from God, which in turn is ultimately the state of hell, or outer darkness. Again, that’s like the proverbial death row inmate, who (in my previous example) refused a Governor’s Pardon 47 times. He chose to be “disobedient” to the Governor, or – put another way – to separate himself from the non-prison, free world, with the Governor and those in his “kingdom,” so to speak. Now, is it the Governor who decided those “consequences” or the inmate?

The Governor decided the consequences. This, again, is not itself meant as any judgment that doing so is necessarily unjust; but it is nevertheless a fact that the prisoner did not choose to be such. Choosing to go to prison, construed meaningfully, would mean actually willing this end and no criminal actually wills the end of going to prison.

I think willing the end is necessary to be able to say we choose it, because otherwise choice becomes too inclusive. For example, suppose that your car has, without your knowledge, been rigged to explode when started. You choose to turn the key in the ignition, and the car blows up… did you choose to die? Clearly, not in any significant sense. The end you willed was simply to make your car start. Similarly, if we disobey God — by being atheists, say — we do not thereby will ourselves to go to hell. Indeed, if we are atheists, we don’t even believe in hell — it is as unforeseen a consequence for us as the explosion of the car would be for you.

It’s true that God decides, or judges, but we have already made our choice, reinforced through many years of practice (what the Christian would characterize as resistance and rebellion) in most cases. He is merely definitively proclaiming what is already a reality (separation from God), and granting the resister his will in full. The outcome of that is hell; that is what it means to be completely separated from God, and since souls cannot die, by their very nature, therefore hell must be an eternal state as well. “Ya lives yer life and ya makes yer choice.”

This seems equivocal. Are you saying that it is impossible for God to do other than send sinners to hell…?

But as to the justice of the matter, one simple point settles it for me: justice always proportions the punishment to the crime. Hell is an infinite punishment; but there is no way that a finite human being can commit an infinite crime.

The third point is that you are speaking above as though morality were only meaningful if it may be absolutely enforced.

Not so much meaningless per se, as impracticable, arbitrary, and philosophically unjustifiable.

The problem is that it’s still unclear where these are coming from. Why is such a view of morality impracticable?

Because people will always disagree on this or that (abortion is a prime example today). Therefore, the only way to enforce standards across the board would have to be by force, majority vote, or both. But if one believes in objective morality, that is insufficient. The Christian solution provides a standard for one and all, because it is a code grounded in natural law, revelation (itself supported in numerous ways), and in God’s very character. Utilitarian ethics eventually break down.

All objective morality provides a standard for one and all, and I’m not sure how it is that DCT would be more enforceable than other kinds of morality in the here and now. So, I’m not sure what you could be arguing here.

Obviously, atheists do practice it, so you must mean that it ought to be impracticable… but why? What makes it arbitrary? (What is meant by arbitrary?) Why is it philosophically unjustifiable? It isn’t enough that the Christian view includes it, and you take this to be somehow superior; these are ambitious, positive claims about atheism.

I think I have explained myself previously . . .

But why should the atheist agree?

He doesn’t have to; he needs to justify his own ethics, based on his own premises.

Obviously, anyone who pretends to have a full-fledged theory of ethics needs to do this. But this is quite irrelevant to your claim that atheistic morality is impracticable, arbitrary, and unjustifiable. If you make this claim, then you must know something about atheism which reduces to this moral impracticability, arbitrariness, etc.

Simply because there can be no conclusive standard for all people to be held to unless it is “above” humanity. Otherwise, morality invariably becomes relative, self-centered, or subject to governmental coercion and/or majority vote. The Germans voted in the Nazis, and they made certain laws, and the laws were, in turn, regarded as “good” and “right.” There is no higher Being to be subject to, which was assumed by, e.g., the Declaration of Independence, and throughout early American jurisprudence; now being more and more whitewashed of its natural law elements.

Your argument, then, is this:

1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures,governments, or individuals).

2. Without a higher being, all behavioural imperatives are relativistic.

3. Therefore, there can be no objective morality without a higher being.

The problem is premise (2). Why should anyone believe it? You have given no argument for it as yet. What you have done is asked me to show you how an objective theory of morality works without God (and I’ve done so) — but this is in no way an argument for (2), only a request for potential disproofs of it.

Your characterization of my argument is incorrect, for numbers 2 and 3 (but that’s okay, as I set forth lots of things, and no doubt not as coherently or clearly as I could have done). Here is how I would state them (I do contend that my argument is considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than you seem to realize):

Okay, fair enough; I’ll address your argument as given.

1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures, governments, or individuals). [good enough]

2. Without a higher being, all behavioral imperatives logically and in practice reduce to (ultimately arbitrary) relativism, in the sense that no single standard will be able to be enforced for, or applied to one and all (which is what “objective morality” — #1 — requires); and that because no substantive or unquestionable criterion is given for the grounds for such a standard, as an alternate to the Christian axiomatic basis of God, in Whose Nature morality resides and is defined.

I’m not sure what this means. All objective ethical theories offer a standard which is applied to all. Enforcement is a difficult matter, but it’s hard to see why this makes nontheistic morality impracticable or arbitrary; objective ethics supply the standard for behaviour, and thus inform our attempts to enforce morality… an objective ethical theory just means that we ought to enforce some standard, not that it is or can be fully enforced. Moreover, any objective ethical theory being true implies that the immoral actor is committing an error whether he gets caught at it or not. I just don’t see the relativism you allude to.

As for the purely practical side, it’s not clear that people will feel free to disregard morality simply because there is no ultimate enforcement. This would be ultimately a psychological claim, but it’s not one that has been generally substantiated. (I previously mentioned, for example, the fact that capital punishment — which is a pretty ultimate enforcement — has never been shown to have deterrent value.)

3. Therefore, there cannot logically be a self-consistent objective morality (one able to be consistently practiced by one and all in the real world) without a higher being; all merely human-based efforts will end in arbitrariness (and often, tyranny), due to the inability to arrive at a necessary, non-relative starting point and systematic moral axiom.

One problem here is that it’s not clear to me when exactly you’re talking about ethical theory and when you’re talking about applied ethics. Your first sentence suggests the latter, but terms like “necessary, non-relative” suggest the former. The two cannot be used interchangeably; things like logic, coherency, and relativism/objectivism apply at the theoretical level, and things like possible practicability or enforceability at the applied level.

To clarify, then: is your point that atheistic ethics are flawed in theory or in practice? Or is it both?

To me, what I called the “heart” of my critique was the point at which you admitted that each individual’s moral choices were his own, or relative, to some extent (I don’t recall your exact phrase, offhand).

“The internal criterion.” By the way, there’s a really good essay that explains all this metaethical terminology: “The Normativity of Instrumental Reason” by Christine Korsgaard (a prominent neo-Kantian). While it’s not directly on topic here — she is dealing with the question of how, exactly, practical reason is binding on us — I personally found it immensely clarifying. I couldn’t find an online version, but Korsgaard’s own webpage can be found at:

Another good source is David Velleman, who writes on the same sort of topics. He’s not quite as clear as Korsgaard, in my opinion, but I think some of his stuff is available online at his page:

How is that not relativism? How is it not inconsistent with your claimed objective system? And how can others condemn individual’s behavior given such inherent relativism and subjectivism? This is all part of my moral argument, not the argument for meaning.

Simply because the objectivity of morality refers the universality of its normativity, yet this requires, of course, that it is in fact normative for us — there has to be some sense in which we commit an error of practical reason by being immoral. As practical reason is just the sort of reason that guides our attempts to realize our ends, this means that ultimately objective morality comes down to “it is practically irrational for all people to be immoral, as this compromises their own interests”.

The difference here from subjectivism or relativism is that these positions do not hold that it is always practically irrational to obey a set of  moral norms. A subjectivist would hold, for example, that if one person’s inclination is to commit murder and another’s inclination is to abhor murder, then neither commits any error at all — anymore than they would commit an error by disagreeing over favourite ice cream flavours. The objectivist, on the other hand, says that one of these people is definitely committing an error, and thus that one is really rationally (and thus objectively) wrong. Both views share a basis in the desires of people; the difference is that the objectivist introduces an external criterion (practical reason) and says that this applies to all people regardless of their peculiar idiosyncracies.

Differently put: the objectivist derives morality from desires, sentiments, or needs common to all human beings — those which are in us simply because we are human. The subjectivist either says that such desires, etc. do not exist, or denies that their fulfillment always makes any particular sort of behaviour practically irrational.

If it’s just that you don’t currently understand how atheistic ethics are justified, then your claim is far too strong.

Well, of course that is what I am seeking to learn by engaging in this thread with three different correspondents. I went off on the sub-topic of abortion, but thus far, I have not seen it justified by anyone here. Personally, I consider that to be the “morally absurd outcome” of atheist or secular ethics (which is why I mention it so much; also because I think it is self-evidently wrong; at least in the later stages). That is where secularist ethics leads, when followed through consistently: to the “culture of death.” But the value and goodness of life, is, I think, a fundamental assumption of any ethical system, is it not? So I see a conflict, and absurdity there.

Many, if not most, secular people hold that abortion is permissible, but this is not the same as holding that this view is a necessary consequence of secular ethics. You need to argue the latter. Also, you present abortion as a reductio ad absurdum, but you are simply assuming that this is an absurd consequence. This is hardly compelling, since naturally there is much controversy over whether abortion is wrong — you’d need to resolve that controversy before your argument even gets off the ground.

Again, the Christian system resolves this problem: life is sacred, because human beings are made in the image of God, and possess an eternal soul. Abortion is wrong on this basis: it is ultimately an affront against God, the Creator of all (as all murder is). There is no question here such as that which comes up in war or police actions, where force becomes necessary to protect the innocent; even whole societies and cultures, as it were. It is simply an innocent child trying to make it to the world outside its mother’s womb without being torn limb from limb.

The issue of abortion is not settled by any ethical theory on the market, including yours. It is a tenet of many Christian organizations that abortion is wrong, but this does not derive logically from DCT itself.

The reason for this is that the most basic ethical tenet relevant to abortion is “it is wrong to murder an innocent person”. This is not a tenet unique to DCT; it is a consequence of virtually every ethical theory around — and, on the more practical level, nobody disputes it. The question is simply whether or not a fetus is a person, and, if so, when they move from non-personhood to personhood. (At conception? After brain activity is measurable? At the second trimester?) This, in turn, is not an issue for ethical philosophy, but rather for metaphysics. Specifically, it is the issue of personal identity, which is the philosophical attempt to define the nature of persons and how personhood is contiguous over time.

Suppose you and I are considering a locked bank vault. This conversation follows:

M: I say that this vault cannot contain any Spanish doubloons.

D: What? How can you justify that?

M: Well, give me a justification of why there should be any Spanish doubloons in there.

D: Well… I suppose there might be any number of possible reasons. I can’t think of any I consider most plausible, though.

M: Aha! Therefore, since you have no account, my point remains: the vault cannot contain any Spanish doubloons.

Has “M”‘s logic here been sound? No. The failure to demonstrate that there are Spanish doubloons in the vault does not demonstrate that there cannot be; it just demonstrates that there’s no reason to think there are any. M’s fallacy is called, in formal terms, argumentum ad ignorantiam.

Similarly, what I often see apologists doing is the same thing with morality. “I say atheistic morality is absurd. You disagree? Well, then justify morality. You have no answer that satisfies me? Aha! Atheistic morality is absurd… QED.” This is precisely the same fallacy.

Not yet (if at all), because we have just begun to see what would justify atheist morality and how it can stand up to logical scrutiny, not simply name-calling. I need to see your replies to, e.g., the critiques of utilitarianism by Geisler [below]. We’ve just begun, as far as I am concerned.

Now, I’m not convinced that you mean to commit this fallacy here. But what is needed from you to justify your strong claim is your account of what, in atheism, reduces morality necessarily to absurdity.

I’ve stated much already, and will continue to, as we consider specific ethical questions. I have tried to make abortion a test case, but as I said, it hasn’t worked so far. One person even implied that my inquiries on that topic weren’t even sincere. So what can I do? You are welcome to pick a topic of your own which you think makes Christianity absurd (such as hell), but then we are back to Christianity, and I am trying to avoid that so we can stay on-topic.

Abortion is a pretty poor “test case” for a number of reasons. First, it is not ultimately an ethical issue, but rather a metaphysical one — i.e., it is not an issue that can be resolved by ethical philosophy alone, and the quintessentially ethical components of the controversy aren’t really disagreed upon by either side. Second, there is no necessary position on abortion implied by nontheistic ethics in general. Different theories, on this issue and any other, will yield different conclusions. Third, I suspect that this issue is so inherently loaded that it is virtually impossible to discuss it dispassionately. It lends itself to too much rhetoric and invective.

Nor is there really such a thing as an alternative test case, because different nontheistic ethical theories imply different positions on issues. For example, Kantianism implies that lying is always wrong, whereas utilitarianism would imply that it is sometimes justified.

If something is wrong, it is wrong, regardless of whether anyone has the power to back up their judgment with force.

Well, that is an absolutistic system, and I need to know you arrive at that, and I will have a ton of questions for you, all along the way. :-)

That’s simply the nature of objective morality. Unless of course objective morality were nothing more than “whatever is backed up by force is right”… but I don’t think either of us subscribe to that view. Hope not, anyhow.

Of course not, but you have given no “explanation.” You have simply stated that “what’s wrong is wrong,” which gets us nowhere and resolves nothing. I assume you know this is no argument, so I won’t accuse you of circular reasoning. :-) I wanna know why you think this, and you are not helping me much to understand, so far.

This particular paragraph wasn’t meant as an argument, it was simply stating that the scenario you described obtains if objective morality is true.

Right and wrong serve as ways of judging others, but this is not the main point of morality; the main point is to give us the ability to exercise correct judgment with regard to our own behaviour.

This means little by itself, so I’ll let it pass.

If we conceive of justice in a retributive sense, then Hitler’s crimes going unpunished would indeed be a horrible thing. But how does even this make morality futile? It doesn’t render moral value meaningless (indeed, it assumes that moral value is meaningful).

Actually, it has more to do directly with existential purpose, and a feeling of futility of life and the universe, that such things can occur, and that there is no felt “justice” to make them right. So we licked the Nazis’ and put an end to it. Great (thank God), but how does that bring justice to the 6 million Jews and many thousands of others who perished in the camps and in battle?

It doesn’t give them justice at all, supposing that by justice we mean revenge/retribution. Would this suck? Yes! Does it mean that life is completely futile and useless? Only if there is nothing in life that is worthwhile enough to justify it for individuals. But I say there is enough in life; there’s enough for me, and evidently there’s enough for all the other people in the world who don’t believe in God. Moreover, I say that things can be better than they are.

So you admit that there is no justice for the 6 million Jews and others who perished in the camps and the war. In the Christian view there certainly is, because there is the Judgment and the sentence of damnation for evil persons. And I know this is not an argument (which is on other grounds). I’m simply explaining how we view the world in terms of ultimate justice and meaning, and seeking your alternative system of making sense of such monstrous evils as Naziism and Stalinism.

I admitted that there is no ultimate retribution for them, yes. Of course, there was some degree of retribution, since Hitler was defeated.

It doesn’t mean there is no reason to be moral, because if morality is truly objective, then morality already is normative for us. All it would imply is that the universe is not a perfect place.

The epistemological basis of this “objective” morality you refer to, under atheist premises, is what I am very interested in.

Hopefully I’ve given some information on this above. Again, the basis of nontheistic theories of objective morality is essentially practical reason and human nature.

And my point is precisely that these theories are impracticable, if carried through consistently. To the extent that they are able to be carried out with a fair degree of happiness and harmony, I contend that Christian notions and/or the Natural Law have been smuggled in, unbeknownst to the practitioners.

Wouldn’t this imply, if true, that no non-Christian or non-theistic society could ever have happiness and harmony? But that’s not true, is it?

E.g., in the American legal system, which seems to have worked pretty well, natural law and a Creator was assumed from the outset. Christian morality was casually assumed to form the backdrop of jurisprudence (though differences in particulars existed, of course).

The actual extent to which American law is influenced by Christianity is always hotly debated. I myself am no expert (nor need I be, I suppose, since I’m Canadian). There seem to be good arguments both ways. On the one hand, the USA is clearly predominately Christian, and always has been. On the other hand, many of the founding fathers were of a deistic bent. Who knows. All Americans are slightly nuts anyhow, if you ask me. But that’s okay, since we Canadians are all drunks. ;)

The idea is that objective moral imperatives derive their normativity from some kind of basic, natural human drive or sentiment, and their universality from reason. Lots of detail has been given on this previously… where would you like more detail, exactly?

“If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life; and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this one.” -Albert Camus

A false dichotomy, of course, and therefore philosophically silly and insubstantial. Pie in the sky is irresponsible and dumb, but then I would contend that “this life only” is arguably equally unbalanced and shortsighted. The proper view is that this life is infinitely valuable, and to be lived responsibly to the fullest, and that we also have the next life to look forward to, where the justice of God will be fully confronted. So the “super-pious,” head-in-the-sand buffoon has a similar problem to the atheist, whereas the thoughtful, biblical Christian has a “normal” view. :-) I don’t mean to sound insulting; I’m just making an argument. I don’t think this has ever occurred to me before.

The most general answer is that atheists find hope and meaning in what is good about their existence.

One must define that good and determine the ultimate rationale for doing

What is good about an individual’s existence, in this sense of “good”, is just whatever the individual finds to be good. Here we’re no longer talking about objective moral value, but subjective value simpliciter.

Exactly, and now you’re getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it. You just admitted (as far as I can tell) that “good” is relative to the individual. How, then, can there be an objective standard of “good” applied to all?

You are mixing up two issues. I agree that there is an objective standard of moral goodness, but “good” in the sense of “making life worth living” is another issue altogether. What is morally good is whatever we are obligated to do; what is good in the latter sense is just whatever moves us to keep on living rather than going mad and committing suicide.

By what standard do we decide what is good for everyone to do (what obligates them)?

It depends on the moral theory. A moral theory which derives from the desire of all people to avoid suffering, for example, would say that this obligates us (via practical reason) to a certain kind of conduct. (This is what contractualism, and probably utilitarianism, do… although in vastly different ways, of course).

And of course a host of troublesome examples now leap to the fore. Hitler thought the Holocaust was good. Stalin thought the starvation of the Ukrainians was good. Corrupt Crusaders in the Middle Ages thought slaughtering women and children was good. Timothy McVeigh thought blowing up a building and killing 168 people was good. Terrorists think blowing up cars in crowded market places is good. The American government (and most of its people) thought annihilating civilians in two entire Japanese cities by nuclear bombs was good. America thought slavery was good (and later institutional racism and discrimination). Pedophiles think molesting children is good. Etc.

How do we resolve this inherent relativism? The Aztecs thought human sacrifice was good; the Catholic Spaniards thought it was a hideous evil. How do we resolve such conflicts? Was Aztec sacrifice good or evil (or neither)? And if the latter, how do we convince someone of a different culture that what they are doing is evil? Of course it had a religious basis, so we also have to convince the people that this religion has gone awry somewhere along the line and may perhaps be a false religion. As it was, mass conversions in Mexico (perhaps the most remarkable Christian revival in the history of the world) solved that problem demographically.

Maybe the easiest way to make the point is like this. Suppose someone says, “I believe that the world, as it is, is completely and utterly perfect and joyful. I also believe that everyone attains everlasting happiness after death. Now, Christians believe that the world as it is is at least often horrible, and that many people will be in pain for eternity. This is unendurable.” How would you reply to this?

I would say that only a nutcase could ever say that about the world. That would be sufficient to dismiss the view.

But as you’re well aware, a lot of people conclude as much about Christianity.

I’m still awaiting a vision superior to Christianity, both in terms of truth and existential meaning.

You’re missing the point. The point is, for you, the Candide-like theist is a nutcase, and his supposed justification for existential meaning is a pipe dream. You seem to think this is enough to dismiss that view out of hand. Why, then, cannot the atheist — who thinks Christianity is in error, and its notions of existential meaning are pipe dreams — do the same with your view?

Obviously, if one truly believed that everything that happened in this world were pure bliss, then there would be no need for punishment, and (presuming one truly believed this) one would always be happy.

Yes, this is the view of the insane asylum (at least of the drugged-up ones).

Obviously, the answer for you would be that this view is false.

Hopefully, it is for you too. LOL

But if that is a sufficient reply, then the atheist already has a sufficient one for you, too: he believes Christianity is false.

But that is another discussion, isn’t it? Again, I am trying to understand your rationale for the most important, fundamental issues that all human beings face: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong? What is justice? How does one end injustice? What is love? What is truth? Etc.

You keep saying you want to understand where atheists are coming from, and I’m trying to do that with an illustration. The illustration is sketched around Christianity simply because that is your view, and therefore it will hopefully be easier for you to see the point.

And it doesn’t become less false simply because it proposes things that would be nice if they were true; and more to the point, your own life doesn’t become unendurable just because such a view exists. I mean, it would be great if human beings could all fly, but this is no reason to believe that they can.

This is the atheist’s reply to the Christian as well. Assuming a retributive view of justice, would it be great if there were an ultimate judge to back it up? Sure (although I personally wouldn’t see God, as often characterized, as any kind of perfect judge). Would it be great if, after a life of mixed suffering and joy, there were eternal joy waiting for us? Sure! But this doesn’t mean that life is unlivable without such beliefs.

But again, that is not my argument. I’m not saying, “believe our version of reality because it makes more sense and will make you happier and have more purpose!” I’m saying, “assume that all this afterlife and God business is false and untrue; now tell me how purpose, hope, and meaning is constructed in such an atheistic worldview.”

But imagine that our “loony theist” described above levelled the same argument against you. How would you convince him?

That’s another discussion. If we keep switching over to Christianity, this will go nowhere. And I will have to conclude that you can offer me no answers to my questions. If you have no answers, simply admit it. I will respect that. I don’t have ultimate or comprehensive, totally explanatory answers to the problem of evil, either, and I consider it the most troubling objection to Christianity. But then again, I don’t believe I can figure everything out in the first place, whether there is a God or not, so I don’t lose sleep over it.

The point is that I don’t see what sort of answer can theoretically satisfy you. You want me to tell you how it is that the meaning we can subjectively find in life can be enough to keep us from going mad, assuming there is no God. But how is it possible to give an account of that that will be meaningful for you, when you clearly cannot understand how anything other than Christianity could suffice?

So, what I’m asking you to do is exercise your imagination, and imagine that someone is asking YOU for an account of how your worldview can possibly give you enough hope, meaning, etc. How would you go about answering them? If you can tell me that, then maybe I can see what kind of answer will satisfy you.

Alternatively, if all you want is a list of what I personally consider meaningful and valuable, okay; I don’t see that this will be of any help, but okay. I find value in intellectual pursuits. In recreation. In art and music — I love classic blues, among other things, and play blues guitar (badly!). In my family. In my friends. In my girlfriend. In travel. In the Sopranos (damn, I love that show). Etc., etc., etc. These things, and others, are both enjoyable and meaningful for me.

At some point, you’d just have to say that the world you do believe in is meaningful and hopeful enough for you.

Why (for the atheist)? Is your view simply existentialism, where one believes whatever they want, so as to achieve “meaningfulness”? That would be no better than the pie-in-the-sky which atheists so despise, of course. It simply substitutes pie-in-the-head (no pun intended).

No; I’m not sure where you got that from. I was simply saying that there is a limit to how much one can justify purely subjective matters.

For example, I can’t understand why on earth anyone would buy plain vanilla ice cream when other flavours are available. Yet people do. Suppose I were to demand of them some justification for this: “how is plain old vanilla good enough for you?” How could they answer me? Ultimately, they’d have to say that it just is good enough for them.

I’m not sure how atheists in general would reply, but I’d say that there just is no ultimate purpose of life and the universe.

That’s honest; thanks. But do you think this dire conclusion has negative implications for objective morality, as I do?

It would have negative implications for a teleological theory of morality — i.e., one formulated around the notion of purpose — but that’s about it. Remember, morality is about ways we are obligated to behave. Meaning, hopefulness, etc. are about what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Life, or the universe, having a purpose would seem to imply that it was created with a purpose; and, obviously, I don’t believe in a creator (much less a purposive one).


But this does seem to me to be besides the point. Suppose there was such an ultimate purpose. Whose purpose would this be?

I’m asking you, according to your view.

Well, the creator’s, of course; not necessarily our own.

The Christian outlook is fairly well-known.

(Of course, it could always be that we are somehow programmed to share the creator’s purposes…

Yes, of course.

but this would seem to contradict the usual theistic notion of free will).

No; it is simply how we are “wired,” as to ultimate questions and “orientation,” so to speak. We still have free will to act upon the divinely-caused noble impulses or to rebel and go by our own evil impulses. Human beings are very curious mixtures of both great evil and great capacity for good and love. This is another thing that the Christian view explains far better than any other I have seen.

Atheists always have to chalk evil up to environment, because they don’t look at it in metaphysical, ontological, or spiritual terms. So McVeigh had a Bircher for a father; Hitler was done in by his anti-Semitism; Stalin by his lust for power, the killers at Columbine High School by the availability of guns and right-wing fanaticism, etc., and what-not. Christians say that all people are capable of great evil or great good, depending on the courses of action they take, and how they respond to God’s graces. Environment is a factor, but not the sole or overwhelmingly primary factor. But then, I digress as well. :-)

No, you’re getting morality and meaning mixed up again. We were talking about purpose, in the sense of “my life has some purpose for me to work towards”. Now, suppose that God has some sort of purpose for us. This, in itself, is not a purpose we hold, just one God holds. It could be the case that we all naturally share God’s purposes — say, redemption with God himself — but this would be the same as saying that nobody ever has other, stronger impulses. This is both untrue, and, if true, would contradict free will (since we would be unable to do anything except what God’s purposes suggest).

As regards the issue of being able to consistently maintain one’s sanity, avoid complete existential despair, etc., the only thing that matters is that we find sufficient meaning in the universe ourselves.

How does an atheist do that?

By finding the things that give him or her hope, happiness, purpose, etc. You find it in religion; atheists find it elsewhere. (Or most do, at any rate. I keep forgetting that there are even atheist-friendly religions, like Unitarian Universalism and some forms of Buddhism or even Taoism).

It doesn’t matter, as far as this goes, whether or not it also happens to be the purpose and meaning of any creator. If playing guitar were alone sufficient to give my life meaning, for example, then it would be a valid “meaning of life” for me in this context.

Continue on to Part Two 

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