A comment about atheists’ comments here

A comment about atheists’ comments here December 21, 2011

I have posted many atheists’ critical responses to my two posts about atheism and nihilism. Many other comments have gone in the trash bin because they were rabid and not civil.

However, I am dismayed by the fact that few, if any, of my atheist interlocutors have really understood the argument. Most have read things into my posts that simply were not there.

Henceforth I will only post responses that reflect real reading and at least rudimentary grasp of what I wrote and do not rely on ideas READ INTO the post being responded to.

1) My argument (actually Kung’s) is not at all about whether atheists have moral values or behave morally or whether theists are “more moral” than atheists. The argument has to do with metaphysical grounding for belief in objective morality (and meaning).

2) I wrote nothing in my two posts (about atheism) defending the moral behavior of people in the Bible. That’s a red herring to distract attention away from the argument.

3) The issue of WHY people believe in certain moral systems or ethical norms is irrelevant to the argument. The argument is only about WHETHER people have logical warrants for believing in objective right and wrong BEYOND “might makes right.”

So, IF you choose to respond, be sure you are responding to what I actually said and not to things you read “between the lines.”

My challenge to atheists is simply this: Explain what grounds objective (universal, transcultural, unchanging) right and wrong. Explain what grounds absolute meaning (e.g., absolute dignity of human life including certain human rights) beyond culture (which changes) and its social contracts. In other words, to be perfectly blunt, OTHER THAN the fact that Hitler lost, what makes his projects (genocide, world domination at the expense of mass murder and enslavement) absolutely wrong? What if Hitler had won? On what objective basis (having nothing to do with preference or feelings) could you condemn his actions as absolutely wrong?

(This is my blog, so feel free not to come here if you don’t want to respond to the actual issues and questions civilly and in the spirit of dialogue. I will not post comments that are uncivil or misrepresent the actual argument or address other questions than these WITHOUT addressing these first.)

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Elliott Scott

    Have you read Speigal’s “The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief”?

    His thesis is right in the subtitle. Most atheists, like most believers, aren’t convinced of their position because of a rational argument, but rather because it undergirds the decisions they’ve made in life.

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t read it, but I tend to agree with the thesis. However, it’s not a rational argument (its intuitive) as such and therefore has no place in philosophical theology.

      • Elliott Scott

        No, it isn’t a rational argument. But it is an explanation for why your atheist conversation partners often struggle to achieve rationality.

        FYI, your argument about the implications of atheism on objective moral systems has been made recently by Peter Hitchens, the brother of famous atheist Christopher, in a debate between them. Peter says that Christopher seemed uable to grasp the basics of the argument. The article is here:


        If atheists spent more time reading good atheists, like Nietzsche, rather than mediocre ones like Dawkins and Hitchens, they would understand your question.

      • rogereolson says:
        December 22, 2011 at 1:47 pm
        “I haven’t read it, but I tend to agree with the thesis. However, it’s not a rational argument (its intuitive) as such and therefore has no place in philosophical theology.”

        Roger, thanks for allowing us to follow the discussion and for all you do in the world. I wonder if I could challenge your limitation of use of categories? While it may be beneficial to silo truth into categories called i.e., ” philosophical theology” to use as a particular tool, in order to mine it out, I think we should remember that truth, once divided, easily morphs into its own reality-and becomes “less true.” In part truth always becomes less truthful than while we see it in the whole. Intuitive truth, and other experiences, can also be used to convey wider truth, especially as it concerns a discussion with non-believers. Otherwise, we may simply be “Lilliputians looking at just one end of the egg.” Thanks.

    • Bill Lyons

      so you honestly believe that:

      1. The only reason that people become atheists is because they are immoral.

      2. All atheists are immoral.


  • David

    Dr. Olson,

    I apologize if I’m leaving this comment in the wrong blog but I couldn’t leave it elsewhere for some reason.

    First of all, a thousand times “thank you” for your latest book, Against Calvinism. I wish you knew how blessed I have been by it! My only complaint is that it’s too short. I am still reading it very slowly and carefully. Twice already I have been brought to tears while reading it. I am an arminian who loves Calvinists but often times feel ridiculed and hurt among my Calvinist friends. Your book makes me feel validated and several times has compelled me to worship God.

    In fact, two months ago I met R.C. Sproul and had a brief (polite) argument with him. He said during a Q&A that arminians are “barely saved”. I was offended by that and went up to him after the session. Of course he didn’t take his comment back and went on to tell me “You guys deny the sovereignty of God”. It was great to meet him and I still love him but I honestly was disappointed. He really wasn’t listening to anything I had to say.

    My question to you is this: What can I tell a Calvinist who denies that God absolutely ordains all things but maintains the doctrine of election and reprobation (as a Calvinist would teach it)? I have a friend who defended election and reprobation. Naturally, I explained that his view didn’t make sense in light of the fact that God ordained everything to happen (How could God condemn people whom He has rendered certain that they fall?). His response was a shift from what I usually hear from Calvinists; he said that Adam and Eve were the ones who had total freedom but they ruined it for all of us. Therefore, my friend maintains the Calvinist view but ONLY when it comes to election and reprobation.

    In essence the idea goes like this: God is not doing anything “wrong” when He chooses to pass over some because those He chooses to pass over are sinners by their own choice.

    Please help me. I know you’re busy so if you want you can also point me to certain pages in your book and I’ll reread it carefully.

    I love you, Roger!

    • rogereolson

      Thanks for the love. I tried to address those questions in my book, but apparently I was not as successful as I hoped. It is possible for a person (e.g., a Calvinist) to deny total divine determinism while embracing divine determinism only in soteriology. At times in his writings Sproul seems to want to do this. He argues, for example, that Adam and Eve fell by their own free wills. But if you read his writings about providence, he does embrace total divine determinism (without calling it that because he redefines “determinism” as external compulsion with is not what determinism means). Still, sure, a person could restrict divine determinism to soteriology. Then the problem becomes WHY does God save only some (when election to salvation is unconditional and irresistible)? A truly good God would save everyone if he could (because saving them rescues them from eternal torment in hell). And on what basis does he choose the ones he does choose to save? It has to be arbitrary because Calvinists deny it has anything to do with anything God sees in us (including a free choice to receive God’s grace). A basic part of my argument (in Against Calvinism) is that a God who unconditionally elects only some people to salvation and regenerates them irresistibly is arbitrary and a moral monster.

      • David

        Thank you!

        I’m sure you explain this in the book. These arguments are new to me so I’m just trying to process and retain everything.

        I often times find myself stumped in debates because calvinists will begin to tell me the meanings they attribute to certain words in greek, and since I haven’t studied greek (as they have) I usually have no answer.

        Thank you so much, again.
        By the way, have you recorded any of your lectures on these matters? I’ll gladly pay for them.

        You rock!


  • Brian Westley

    However, I am dismayed by the fact that few, if any, of my atheist interlocutors have really understood the argument. Most have read things into my posts that simply were not there.

    Hmm, if I wrote something that everyone (or nearly everyone) misunderstood, I would suspect my writing wasn’t clear.

    Henceforth I will only post responses that reflect real reading and at least rudimentary grasp of what I wrote and do not rely on ideas READ INTO the post being responded to.

    Does this mean you won’t consider the possibility that your writing is part of the problem?

    My challenge to atheists is simply this: Explain what grounds objective (universal, transcultural, unchanging) right and wrong.

    I’d say there IS no objective right and wrong; there have been civilizations that have said slavery, human sacrifice, rape, and many other acts are moral.

    In other words, to be perfectly blunt, OTHER THAN the fact that Hitler lost, what makes his projects (genocide, world domination at the expense of mass murder and enslavement) absolutely wrong?

    Obviously Hitler and several other people involved thought what they were doing was right and moral.

    On what objective basis (having nothing to do with preference or feelings) could you condemn his actions as absolutely wrong?

    I don’t. I condemn Hitler (and some things in the bible, like slavery) on a subjective basis. I would also argue that people who claim to be objecting on an objective basis are really being subjective.

    Let’s turn the question around. Suppose a person says that god wants him to sacrifice his son, and that it would be objectively immoral to disobey. Do you object, and, if so, on what basis?

    • rogereolson

      Finally and fascinating! You wrote: “I’d say there IS no objective right and wrong; there have been civilizations that have said slavery, human sacrifice, rape, and many other acts are moral.” Thank you for making my point for me so clearly.

  • It appears you’re asking for not just an assertion of objective morality from atheists, but a warrant for that belief by asking for an explanation of the grounds.

    In my comment to your previous post, I pointed out that simply asserting there is an objective morality via a god is no different than any secular assertion of objective morality. Assertions alone aren’t warrants. You dismissed that comment, but I don’t see why other than to set up a one-side criticism of only atheist warrants.

    Don’t complain about unkind comments then if you’re setting up a merely one-side game.

    • rogereolson

      Why don’t you even attempt to answer my test case question about Hitler?

  • Sean

    I have yet to meet an atheist that understands the moral argument. I’m sure there must be some that do; I’ve just never encountered them. (It doesn’t help that an increasing number of Christians are employing the argument also without understanding it.)

    Something I read by Emil Brunner just the other day. It’s a little harsh but relevant: “There is one system, however, which I would like to maintain has been overcome for everyone who can think, and that is materialism, the world view of the dilettanti in the world of thought. All the more serious thinkers, at all times, have agreed to reject materialism as something that has not been thought out; it is lack of thought turned into a system.”

    • rogereolson

      Ah, Brunner! One of my favorite theologians. If you know Brunner well you might recognize that what I am doing in this discussion threat (about atheism and nihilism) is what he called “eristics.” I am not trying to prove the existence of God (something he rejected as treating God as an “it” rather than a “Thou” (that is as an object rather than a subject)) but enter into dialogical engagment with an alternative worldview or philosophy of life to point out Christianity’s strength (in accounting for common human experience) and the alternative view’s weakness in doing the same.

  • Yep. It’s the same argument. “You cannot have trees without a god to design them. They cannot have come into existence with a god.” This does not imply that atheists have no trees. Nor does it imply that atheists are being hypocritical when they build things out of wood. But they still need to have an account of where trees come from.

    But do I?

    I can identify a lot of problems with the thesis that morality comes to us from some sort of divine creature. The main problem is the set that different people have different beliefs about what this divine creature calls moral or immoral and there is no way to resolve differences in these beliefs. This means that people can accept whatever they want as being moral or immoral – they will always find a way to attribute those beliefs to a God. And nobody can say that they are wrong – because nobody can bring any actual evidence against them.

    Besides, how did this diety create morality? What is this thing called ‘morality’ and how do we know that it even exists – let alone that a diety created it?

    I am a moral realist. I hold that moral properties are properties between malleable desires and other desires. Moral properties came into existence when desires came into existence through the process of evolution.

    Now, Roger, you have criticized people for reading things into your articles that were not there. I would like to warn you against doing the same. I am not saying that “everything desired is good” or “people have a right to whatever it is they desire”. So criticisms of those positions would not apply to what I wrote.

    It doesn’t even matter whether this account actually works or not. It does illustrate the fact that you have done nothing to eliminate the possibility of a theory of the origin of morality grounded entirely on natural facts.

    • rogereolson

      Whenever a person feels and expresses moral outrage he or she reveals belief in an objective morality (in the sense of the existence of right and wrong beyond personal or cultural preferences) UNLESS (I’m not shouting but underlining which is apparently almost impossible to do with this program) all that he or she means is “I don’t like that” or “My culture doesn’t like that.”

      • cowalker

        “Whenever a person feels and expresses moral outrage he or she reveals belief in an objective morality . . . UNLESS . . . all that he or she means is “I don’t like that” or “My culture doesn’t like that.”

        Yes, except I think “I hate that” would be a better description of moral outrage. When millions of people fought to the death in World War II to bring the Nazi regime down, they were telling Hitler “We really, really hate what you’re doing.” They weren’t saying, “You have violated the absolute morality grounded in God and that is why we are raining fire down on the citizens of Dresden.”

        What’s notable is that people weren’t all that excited about what Hitler was doing until he went beyond the borders of Germany to do it. That’s how human morality is generally experienced–somewhat sluggish and focused on the individual’s immediate circumstances. Above all it differs from time to time and culture to culture and family to family. Witness the conviction among some Muslims that honor killings are a manifestion of the absolute morality grounded in Allah. The latter situation makes the concept of absolute morality pointless to me. If there is an absolute morality, it is inaccesible through either reason or intuition. All we can do is struggle to reconcile our competing needs and wants.

        • rogereolson

          If what you say is true, then it seems there is no absolute reason why Hitler (or any Hitler-like dictator) would be wrong if he could win. And, as I have pointed out numerous times already, WHY people do things has nothing at all to do with whether or not there exists an objective standard of morality. Even if it is inaccessible, it may nevertheless exist and be useful in arguing against people just doing whatever they want to do.

    • Bob Kundrat

      You would need to give an explanation for how evolution, which is a material process, can account for objective moral values.

      If we are material beings only, then my desires are merely a product of my evolving. They are just random neurons firing in my brain. While yours may give you desires to love and help people mine may give me desires to cheat and harm people.

  • Scott Gay

    I could site many atheists(or positivists) who absolutely agree with Dr. Olson. Just some examples:
    Sarte…”The Existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligble heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that good exists, that one must be honest or not lie, since we are now on a plane where there are only men”.

    Heidigger….”If God as the suprasensory ground and goal of all reality is dead, if the suprasensory role of the Ideas has suffered the loss of its obligatory, and above it, its vitalizing and upbuilding power, then nothing more remains to which man can cling and by which he can orient himself”.

    Laurance Lampert( leading Nietzchean scholar)…”the death of God must be followed by a long twilight of piety and nihilism”.

    These things are true individually and in cultures.

  • Dan Reid

    If I were smart enough to be an atheist, I think I would understand what Roger is saying, would find his ground rules entirely reasonable, and would respond accordingly.

  • Blake

    I don’t expect you to post this.

    Blogs are not living-rooms. This sort of repeatly heavy-handed approach and insulting of your readers is too much for me to return. I have removed the subscription to your blog from my feed reader.

    You do yourself and your message a grave disservice with this attitude.

    • rogereolson

      Goodbye. If you don’t want to behave here according to the very basic and reasonable rules I have set forth (civil discussion, actually addressing the issues raised and not ones of your own imagining, etc.), then I won’t miss you and neither will anyone else. I doubt you’ll find many blogs that aren’t just free-for-alls where any other rules apply.

  • JshYo

    Dear Prof. Olson,

    My comment on your previous post was one of those which didn’t make your cut. I had offered that comment with the goal of helpfully contributing to your discussion a line of thinking which, although reasonably well represented in contemporary moral philosophy, seems to be neglected or unknown among theologians and Christian apologists who take up these issues.
    The resources I cited call into question your assumption that a metaphysical grounding of the sort your looking for is even needed. It is reasonable to believe that:

    (1) Objective morality (or objective values/reasons/norms) are simply a special class of objective reasons.

    (2) Although objective reason often can (and often should) be grounded in other objective reasons, it is a mistake to assume that objective reasons need any further kind of grounding. I.e., while we can often justify one objective reason in terms of other objective reasons (perhaps reasons that are more general, e.g.), it is a mistake to think that reasons generally require a grounding in something like God, etc. The upshot: it is a mistake to think that objective reasons require God.

    (3) Since we can have objective reasons without God, and objective moral standards/values can be constructed out of these objective reasons, objective moral standards/values do not require God.

    (1) is defended by translating talk about moral values, moral virtues, moral obligations, etc. into talk about objective reasons of a special sort. (2) is defended in two ways: First, by closely examining, and then undermining, the tendency to think that objective reasons ultimately require grounding an anything else (except other objective reasons); Second, by observing the implausibility of originating reasons entirely from sources which don’t themselves already presuppose reasons (including various suppositions about God).

    To get a sense of why this approach is so threatening to the arguments you’ve been defending, reflect on how difficult it would be meet these challenges (or, if you think it is not difficult, state how you would meet these challenges and I’ll be happy to respond):

    (a) Pick some mundane non-moral objective reason (e.g., that you usually have reason to avoid gratuitously stubbing your own toe; that you have reason to believe that 2+2=4; that you have reason to buy an airline ticket if you need to fly to NY). Then try to explain why such a reason requires, if it is to be objective, the special sort of grounding that you suppose objective moral standards/values would need (in particular, why it requires God).

    (b) Try to explain why objective moral reasons (e.g., your reason not to torture toddlers for entertainment) are relevantly different from the sort of objective reasons of other sorts (i.e., why only the former would require the special sort of grounding you insist upon).

    (c) Try to explain why talk of objective moral standards/values is not translatable into talk of objective reasons of various sorts.

    • rogereolson

      You are trying to turn the tables on me, but this is my blog and you didn’t answer the question I posed. I won’t even attempt to answer yours until and unless you answer mine (about Hitler).

  • Corvo

    The problem with what Hitler did is that it showcases a tendency that does not naturally occur in nature. There is no other species that will go out and kill each other for no “real” resaon. We, as human beings do have the ability to think our actions through. This is in some cases good and some cases very bad. Obviously the latter is true in Hitler’s case.
    The bright side of a situation like that, if you can even remotely call it a bright side, is that it actually showcases the power of what one person is capable of. Hitler was very charismatic and got a lot of people to listen to him and do what he said for no scientific or even natural reason.
    I am sorry that this is the first of your posts that I have read, so I do not really know what point you are trying to prove. My reason for being a very outspoken Atheist is to try to get people to open up to the walls that religion immediately throws up between people, and to ask what if those walls did not exsist. What if someone like Hitler used his power and personality for the good of ALL humanity rather than using it to eliminate a particular religious group.
    We are an exceptionally intelligent species, and we also have the power to create such a great world, but we use it to destroy ourselves. My issue is that a lot of the destruction has been and still is based on religious views. I am not just attacking Catholics or Muslims here either. There is NOTHING beyond what we are, but what we are is exceptionally powerful. I just want people to see that and stop thanking god, or gods or whatever and say “I did this, let’s see what else I can do.”

    • rogereolson

      Well, you are jumping into the middle of the discusssion here, so let me pose my question one more time. You wrote “I just want people to see that and stop thanking god, or gods or whatever and say “I did this, let’s see what else I can do.”” What if Hitler said that to you after WW2 and the holocaust. What argument could you give to him or a bystander that he was objectively WRONG to do it? Appealing to the fact that no species does that (except humans) goes nowhere toward saying it is objectively wrong. Humans are capable of all kinds of things no other species is capable of and does all kinds of things no other species is capable of. So why is that particular uniquely human behavior–genocide–objectively wrong? You didn’t answer that which is my question.

  • Bob Kundrat

    I appreciate this blog post and I wish I could answer the question as to why so many have missed your argument. When it comes to others who have also written on this same issue on other sites I’d noticed that the same thing happens. It seems to be more than a talking past each other but I’m wondering if it’s just a fear that the Atheist has in embracing nihilism. I don’t mean that as a barb either. I just wonder if rather than live with the prospect of nihilism and the inability to explain what seems deeper than mere preference when it comes to mass murder, rape, etc that the Atheist chooses to talk past the actual argument.

    If you or anyone else has come across a concrete reason other than the babble I’ve given I’d love to hear it.

    • rogereolson

      I think there are two reasons so many miss the real argument and attempt to address a different one (that I’m not making). First, the argument I use is subtle; it requires thinking “behind” the empirical to the transcendental (in the sense Kant meant it–what must be the case if such-and-such is the case). Not everyone can go there easily. Second, as you point out, to actually address the argument I am using a person would have to admit that nihilism is the only logical alternative to belief in God or something like God (a transcendent, eternal, personal source of meaning and value).

  • Bill Lyons

    I’ll take a stab at this.

    Right and wrong don’t objectively exist, morals don’t objectively exist. What does exist is behavior. As humans have evolved, behaviors that help them survive individually and as societies have emerged and become more prevalent because individuals and societies without them don’t survive.

    This doesn’t require that all humans display these behaviors, or that they display them all the time. It works because enough people display these altruistic or cooperative behaviors enough to impact survival, just as populations (both animal and human) that engage in homosexual sex are still able to increase.

    Killing someone “feels” wrong because if it felt “right” or “normal” we would do it without hesitation. An individual who kills other individuals within his society is unlikely to survive and create offspring. A society that kills frequently will either destroy itself or incur constant war, which is probably a maladaptive trait. So people and societies that with a population that refrains from murder (above a certain threshold) will exist for longer and produce more offspring.

    I think this is why certain actions “feel” wrong. I am certain this is not new to you, but it’s presently my best guess on the matter.

    • rogereolson

      But my question wasn’t why murder (for example) “feels” wrong; my question was, if nature is all there is and a person is strong enough to murder and get away with it and perverse enough to enjoy it, what makes it objectively wrong? What argument can a naturalist give that such a person ought not to murder even if they have the power to get away with it and enjoy it–beyond that they are violating community norms or even evolutionary ones?

      • Bill Lyons

        I don’t believe that there is an objective “right and wrong”, only adaptive and maladaptive behaviors. So I suppose I prove your point. I cannot answer your question without accepting the unacceptable premise of an objective right or wrong.

        In my view, there can be no other source for morality (which is a form of behavior) than evolution. If behavior is maladaptive, then it is “wrong”. Things that are maladaptive feel “wrong” to us, so we created the idea of morality.

        I do have one question though: why is “morality” created by evolution an unacceptable answer to your question?

        Evolution has no “intent” or bias, it is simply an inevitable result of natural selection, which is an inevitable result of the variability created by mutation. So in a sense, isn’t the morality that humans create (as a result of evolutionary influence) objective?

        Despite a degree of variability, the vast majority of human cultures do agree on what is moral, correct? Murder and stealing are almost universally considered wrong, because of the objective nature of natural selection which influences human behavior and in turn influences conceptions of morality?

        • Bill Lyons

          Approaching your question more directly, per my view: Hitler’s actions are wrong because they decrease the likelihood of his genes (and those of his countrymen) surviving.

          Addressing the possibility of an immoral action that turns out to be beneficial to an individual or population:

          The behavioral inhibitions (morality) that we have developed through evolution respond to the selection forces that have the most influence on their reproduction (through genes). So, because most humans have an innate discomfort with committing unprovoked murder, I infer that murder prevents the reproduction of genes often enough to be maladaptive in most situations.

          However, there are situations in which murder does not prevent the spread of genes. Even though the action may have created a benefit to this particular individual or population, it is considered “wrong” in this interpretation of morality in which actions that are predominantly (but not always) maladaptive are wrong.

          Does that make sense?

          • rogereolson

            Sure, but it falls far short of saying that an individual who, by murdering someone, is neither placed at a social disadvantage (because he is absolutely guaranteed to get away with it) nor will thereby hinder the reproduction and survival of his own genes is absolutely wrong to do it.

        • rogereolson

          Thanks for your honesty. In contrast to most of the atheists’ comments, yours is honest and reasonable–except that, in my opinion, it does not reach to what I think we must have–something transcending nature (evolution) as source and ground for morality. Part of evolution is also survival of the fittest. (I know Darwin didn’t coin that phrase, but it is implied in his theory of the origin and survival of individuals and species.) The question I am asking you and other atheists is this: IF I am certain, and can demonstrate it to be true and certain to you, that I (capital “I”), as opposed to perhaps most people, will not in any way be disadvantaged in an exclusively this-worldly sense by murdering someone, why shouldn’t I? By “shouldn’t” here I mean why would such a person’s action be absolutely, objectively wrong IF it places him at no risk. In other words, without a transcendent ground and source of morality beyond nature alone, to what can you appeal to argue against such an action beyond self-interest? What if the person has no interest in others but only in himself?

          • Bill Lyons

            Well I suppose the best I can come up with is that actions are “wrong” or immoral if they conflict with the behavioral imperatives that promote genetic survival for the individual or population.

            Most animals have an aversion to fire that likely originates from the fact that those that don’t fear fire don’t tend to survive and reproduce. However, there may be times when the aversion to fire may actually cost them their lives. But not fearing fire is “wrong” because fire is deadly in enough instances to make not fearing it a maladaptive behavior. The same idea applies to murder: the individual is in fact risking his ability to reproduce in most cases , so in this evolutionary-derived version of morality he is doing something “wrong”, even if he benefits from wrong behavior in certain situations.

            I am certain that you are right in that I cannot arrive at a transcendental or non-naturally created set of morals in this way, but that doesn’t bother me because I’ve already admitted that I don’t believe such a thing exists. That said, I’m not sure how you would expect anyone to arrive at a supernatural explanation of morality through examination of nature. I suppose you don’t, and I suppose it does prove your hypothesis.

            I think that the morality that most people share today comes from a combination of evolutionary influence on behavior combined with the human ability to think, which has taken morality from a set of right or wrong things to do for survival to a set of standards that permit us to live more harmoniously, peacefully, and less painfully.

            Just as our ability to think allowed us to modify our evolutionary-behavior response to fire (we still fear it, but now we use water to extinguish it), we have amended this set of behaviors (designed to increase survivability) and turned them into rules that still benefit survivability but also promote happiness and cooperation even between genetic competitors.

            Since I don’t believe that morals were given to us by God, the very fact that they exist within human society today validates (for me) that no supernatural origins are necessary.

            I’d like to emphasize that I don’t consider this origin for morality a “weaker” basis than something derived from a deity, and I’m not unhappy or uncomfortable with the idea that there are no objective moral standards that apply to the entire universe. The fact that they arose from behaviors ingrained in us by natural forces only serves to demonstrate that complexity can be born from simplicity, and I think it is a very beautiful thing. I am not eager for a world that conforms to my wants or desires, I am eager for truth.

            I’d like to thank you for a productive discussion (sadly, a rarity on the web these days). Putting these ideas into words required some effort and it has helped me to see my own beliefs more clearly and succinctly. Thank you!

  • Tony Pounders

    Dr. Olson,

    Thank you for holding us all accountable in these discussions. This same type of uncivil debate and distraction occurs in my denomination (UMC) concerning homosexuality. It is difficult in the extreme to find anyone on the other side of the issue who will debate the actual issue in a civil manner. There is a huge amount of emotive response and distraction that moves us away from objectively debating the issue. For example, the classic argument we hear every year on the floor of our Annual Conference goes something like this: “I was against homosexuality like many of you until my child, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, etc. revealed their homosexuality and their partner. When I saw how loving they were to each other, I could no longer believe that something this loving and joyful could be wrong. So, I urge you to break down the barriers and accept this new thing God is doing.” That is only a brief description of the type of distracting, emotion filled argument that is used repeatedly to divert attention from the real issue.

    Anyway, thanks for encouraging us to address the real issue and not allowing us to digress into swapping ignorance or being uncivil.

    • cowalker

      Actually I think your description highlights the fact that emotion IS the issue. As more and more people who are already loved and accepted reveal their same-sex orientation, it changes the feelings of the majority of people in the institution about the morality of same-sex sexual relationships. Now that they want the morality to be different, they reinterpret the old texts to fit changed circumstances. In Western culture we’ve experienced changes in the majority of people’s feelings about lending money for the payment of interest, abusing animals for entertainment, the physical punishment of wives by their husbands, the use of harsh methods for disciplining children, allowing people to publicly proclaim different religious beliefs, depriving some races of human rights given to other races, and allowing married couples to divorce easily. Morality was adjusted accordingly. No matter what logical arguments are advanced on same-sex sexual relationships, general sentiment will be the deciding factor.

      • rogereolson

        I will dare to speak for Tony here. I think he would agree with you that “general sentiment” is usually the deciding factor but should not be. Deciding factors should be as rational and objective as possible. That is why I, for one, am opposed to prosecutors showing photos of murder victims (after the murder) to juries. The jury’s decision should be based solely on the facts and not be influenced by gut-level revulsion at seeing blood and gore which will, for many people, incline them to convict even if the preponderance of evidence points away from the defendant’s guilt.

        • cowalker

          You make an interesting point about influencing juries. But the entire U.S. system of jury trials is based on advocacy by opposing sides which seeks to persuade the jury. Gory photos are only one aspect of the emotional manipulation that is practiced. Perhaps we would be better served if a judge dispassionately presented all the facts to a jury.

          BTW, I am sorry you waited so late in the atheism/nihilism discussion to identify your real problem with atheists.

          “The problem is many of them influence my childrens’ education by trying to convince them that morality has no objectivity (as I mean it) and therefore (the children conclude) so long as they can get away with it why not do whatever seems good to them? In my experience, atheists who write textbooks and serve on school boards and are school administrators and teachers have completely failed to communicate to their pupils any sense of absolute, objective right and wrong. And all the appeals to intuition or self-interest or ‘compassion’ have fallen largely on deaf ears as they should. They simply don’t work.”

          This would be an excellent topic unto itself. How should this problem be handled in public schools?

          • rogereolson

            You’re right. That would make a very interesting discussion here. We sent our daughter to a Catholic high school because of the total chaos she encountered in a secular middle school where the principle and teachers could only appeal to self-interest to try to get students to behave. (And they were not allowed to touch students, so corporal punishment or even physical restraint was not permitted. In her homeroom class a bully took over the class and sat at the teacher’s desk and basically ran the class with impunity. The teacher was afraid of him and could do nothing about it.) When I was in public school we were told there are absolutes of right and wrong and we had better behave or else. There was appeal to something higher than self interest. In Tillich’s terms, there was a theonomous culture without anyone specifically appealing to “God.” We all knew and agreed that God is the source of absolute right and wrong and neither we nor our parents nor our school administrators were merely making them up as they went along. Today students have largely discarded any such belief in absolute right and wrong and I attribute that to society’s secularization of public schools. I do not think any specific religion or denomination or type of spirituality should be taught or favored in public schools. But I do think belief in absolutes of right and wrong should be taught and I think if a student asks why certain things are absolutely wrong teachers should be permitted and even encouraged to say “because right and wrong are part of the creation and reflect the character of the Creator.” Without that, the most a teacher can do is try to appeal to self-interest (when the students says he or she doesn’t care a fig about community values or evolutionary adaptation).

  • BusterFixxitt

    I don’t think that objective right & wrong is necessarily unchanging, and I question the very concept of any absolute meaning. These both seem to be very short-sighted ideas to me. Which might work for young-earth creationists (not an accusation), but it doesn’t for anyone who accepts evolution.

    The short answer to your question is: biology. Humans are social animals, and all social animals necessarily have a code of conduct that is evolutionarily selected for. We don’t tolerate thieves or murderers within our groups. We tend to shun those we help that don’t express gratitude. Any animal who engages in activities that are detrimental to the survival of the group tends to get left behind. Those genes don’t get passed on.

    It’s important to note that this behavior is specifically WITHIN the group. Those outside the group are ‘other’ and you have no obligations towards them – Us vs Them rules apply.

    However, once you recognize that others have the same (or a similar) capacity of experiencing happiness and suffering as you do, you immediately recognize your own moral obligation towards them. This is a necessary trait for any social animal group to survive.

    Any immoral act, possibly EVERY immoral act ever committed was committed by someone from the Us group against Them. In order to act contrary to your evolved morality, you MUST convince yourself that your victim is in someway ‘other’. You must dehumanise them.

    Our morality towards our own group is hard-wired, indelibly engraved in our genes after millions of years of natural and social selection processes. Our job today is to break down the many fictitious, meaningless, and nonsensical divisions we still hold as humans. Humanity is a unique animal, and we ALL need to recognize that no human is Them – every single human is Us.

    Does that answer your question?

    • rogereolson

      No, not at all. My question is: What rational argument could you give to someone who enjoys murdering people and has the ability to do it with impunity that his or her actions are absolutely wrong? WHY is it objectively better to behave the way you describe in your last paragraph? Just because (if it is even so) evolution has led us there hardly means that a person who stands out from the crowd to behave differently than genes incline is objectively morally wrong.

      • cowalker

        We don’t have to convince the anti-social person by rational argument that his or her actions are absolutely wrong. Why would we even bother to try since it would do no good? If instinctive empathy and socialization have not resulted in a person who assumes it is best to cooperate with others, that person will not be impressed with logical arguments for the metaphysical grounding of the behavior you endorse. Why would they care?

        We must resort to social rejection, rehabilitation, restraint and punishment when people behave anti-socially.

        Now if you attached an emotional component, such as the conversion experience, to your metaphysical arguments, you might change this person’s emotional perception of their actions. Religion claims to have divine guidance in identifying “good” behavior, but more importantly religion can provide community and mentoring (more socialization) and usually promises reward for “good” actions and threatens punishment for “bad” actions. But of course the utility of a social institution does not prove its beliefs are objectively true.

        • rogereolson

          You may not get anywhere with an absolutely anti-social person by arguing with him or her, but a good argument may very well help others reject that person’s behavior as absolutely, objectively bad even if it seems socially advantageous.

      • BusterFixxitt

        You are correct, Roger. In this instance, this person seems to see everyone outside of themselves as Other. Therefor, for themselves, they see nothing wrong in what they are doing. This person is insane or at the very least their psychology is abnormal enough that we would institutionalize them. However, there IS benefit to acting as I’ve described because of the many benefits of living in a society versus being dead or incarcerated.

        I have a muslim friend who uses this argument as well. If there are no consequences why wouldn’t someone murder and rape, etc? When I agree that WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES there is no reason, he feels he’s won a point. I feel like this is the same argument you’re using, “Without fear of any consequences, whether those consequences are an internal guilt supplied by an evolved empathy and moral code, instilled fear of eternal damnation, social backlash or mental/abuse, why would someone refrain from doing anything they wanted to?”

        The answer is: they wouldn’t.

        I just don’t understand how this is any kind of argument.

        • rogereolson

          You are reading too much into my argument. Like many other atheists (or defenders of atheism) who have come here, you are reading “between the lines.” Where or when did I say anything about consequences of punishment? I believe that even if there were no hell, and, as one philosopher said of God and forgiveness “Ah, to forgive, that is God’s business!,” there would still be objective morality because it is grounded in God’s character and God is the ground of all reality. You should note that even Voltaire rejected atheism on the ground that “If God did not exist we would have to imagine him” [for the sake of moral absolutes]. And certainly Voltaire did not believe in hell. Hell is not necessary for moral absolutes to exist, but God (or something like God) is. You should also note that many atheists who have come here to debate with me have argued for objective morality and absolutes on the ground that evil behavior will always have bad consequences.

  • Ken S

    Somewhere between Arminianism and Calvinism, the truth lies.

    • rogereolson

      Where? What is it?

  • GordonHide

    I couldn’t say whether there are objective reasons to prefer one moral system over another but, in the long run, history decides. In my view morality exists in the world to oil the wheels of societal co-operation. Those systems that serve this function best contribute to the survival of the societies they serve. So such societies are more likely to survive.

    I realize this is of little help in deciding if there are objective values but there you are. However, one consequence of such a view is that it is reasonable for different societies, faced with different challenges, to have different moral systems.

    • rogereolson

      So what if a particular society chose to commit genocide against an ethnic group within it and survived by doing it? What would make that objectively wrong?

      • cowalker

        Ahem, that sure sounds like the U.S.A. achieving its Manifest Destiny, which it was still doing a little more than a hundred years ago. We can afford to disapprove of that now, so we do.

      • Derp

        We don’t need objective moral standards. Moral standards are only useful if they’re grounded in subjective human experience. You could make a very compelling argument that genocide is wrong strictly by appealing to the subjective. But, you won’t have to because, “… society chose to commit genocide against an ethnic group within it and survived by doing it …” doesn’t happen.

        • rogereolson

          It certainly has happened throughout history. “Genocide” does not necessarily mean that every member of a group is killed off; it only means that an entire ethnic group is targeted for obliteration and that is largely accomplished. That is why we now use the term “ethnic cleansing” more than genocide–to avoid the confusion that it necessarily means an ethnic group ceases to exist entirely.

  • Charles Yu

    Dr. Olson,
    To clarify. I am a theist.

    However, I question the argument that atheism entails the absence of moral grounding. Materialism entails the absence of moral grounding, but an atheist, one who rejects the existence of a personal supreme being, can believe in the existence of “good” as a ideal form (Platonic atheist?). If so, then it is possible for an atheist to believe in objective morality even though I think he or she would have a hard time defining such a thing.

    • rogereolson

      You might be right which is why I often qualify my argument with “or something like God” and by referring to a “transcendent source of morality.” It could be Plato’s “form of the good,” but I have a hard time understanding how an impersonal being can be the source and norm of morality.

  • drwayman

    Dr. Olson – I think you hit a nerve, a place where atheists live. For example, our friend Blake above says, “Blogs are not living-rooms.” I disagree, I think that is what blogs are, you set up the boundaries and rules with which someone can enter your living-room. You will find boundaries on almost any blog that is out there.

    You responded with, “Goodbye. If you don’t want to behave here according to the very basic and reasonable rules I have set forth (civil discussion, actually addressing the issues raised and not ones of your own imagining, etc.), then I won’t miss you and neither will anyone else. I doubt you’ll find many blogs that aren’t just free-for-alls where any other rules apply.”

    I wonder if that is one of the reasons a person would embrace atheism, the fact that they don’t like boundaries on their behavior from an unwavering source. You set up standards for comments here, God has set standards in His “living-room” and some people just can’t seem to accept it. So, the response is, “I’ll just take my ball and go home, you’re such a meanie.”

  • Dr. Olson (and all),

    The discussion going on here is strikingly similar to a recent debate between William Lane Craig and Sam Harris held at Notre Dame. You might find their exchange interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8wUOUmM1OA

    • rogereolson

      I have nothing personally against William Lane Craig, but his approach to such debates would probably not be mine.

      • You may be right in general, but this particular debate was specifically on the question of whether objective morality necessitates theism, and his line of argumentation was, as I mentioned, quite similar to the arguments offered here.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    If God does not exist, why do atheists spend so much time and effort to fight against the possibility that he does exist? Also, I couldn’t help but notice that it’s very difficult for atheists to fault Hitler for the slaughter of six million innocent Jews inasmuch as they insist that every cruel act of humankind is irrelevant to any perceived standard of morality. To an atheist, morality is in the eye of the beholder; strictly subjective and selective. I find this amusing, given the fact that an atheist is among the first to cry “personal foul” when someone else points out their circular thinking.

  • When it comes down to it, an atheist’s understanding of morality is plainly subjective. There’s nothing that binds an atheist to any absolutes outside of mathematics. That being said, there’s a few things to note: society breeds morality by it’s sheer definition. There’s been enough ethological study to show that a society (human or otherwise) survives from one generation to the next via reciprocal altruism, which, for all intents and purposes, is the backbone of human morality. Humans, save for a small percentage of isolated hermits, are social animals. It stands to reason that we all exist today as a society because our ancestors (biologically or by choice) worked together for the sake of their offspring’s fitness. Hitler did not lose simply because he was strategically and politically inferior. He lost because he was upsetting a natural need to unify against outside threats. He threatened the entire force of society and society (almost) always wins.

    • rogereolson

      You still haven’t explained why it is objectively wrong to do what Hitler did so long as (as Horkheimer put it) one is not thereby put at a social disadvantage. I think Horkheimer would say you are engaging in “harmonistic illusions” by thinking that we all work together for the sake of our offsprings’ fitness and that even if we did that would make it objectively right and its opposite objectively wrong.

  • My attempt:

    Morality is a social technology which enables safer and more comfortable group living. In addition to homo sapiens, many social animal species demonstrate moral behaviour. I doubt very much whether they habour any theistic beliefs. I am a Chinese. The Chinese culture is pre-Christian, yet it teaches morality for thousands of years, most notably by Confuscius, around the same time as, if not earlier than, Hebrews.

    Animals love safe and comfortable group living. If there is anything absolute or universal or objective about morality, this desire is it.

    So we teach our children the moral code and hope that the next generation can enjoy a safer and more comfortable group living. There is no absolute nor objective ground for morality. There is no need for absolute nor objective ground for morality. There is just the desire for safety and comfort. And we try to satisfy that desire by a social devise called morality.

    A proverb is seating deep in our Chinese culture:
    “Don’t do upon others what you don’t want to be done upon you.”
    A social devise. Not an objective truth.

    To answer the Hilter question: Hilter is not wrong; he is dangerous.

    • rogereolson

      He was both.

      • //My challenge to atheists is simply this: Explain what grounds objective (universal, transcultural, unchanging) right and wrong. Explain what grounds absolute meaning (e.g., absolute dignity of human life including certain human rights) beyond culture (which changes) and its social contracts. In other words, to be perfectly blunt, OTHER THAN the fact that Hitler lost, what makes his projects (genocide, world domination at the expense of mass murder and enslavement) absolutely wrong? What if Hitler had won? On what objective basis (having nothing to do with preference or feelings) could you condemn his actions as absolutely wrong?//

        My answer is that there is no objective right and wrong.

        Atheists don’t need objective right and wrong.

        All we need is safety and comfort.

        In naturalism, morality is a social devise evolved by social animals to enable, by reduction of violence, a safer and more comfortable social life.

        Atheists/naturalists don’t need to say Hitler is wrong, they just need to say Hitler is dangerous, renderinbg the world unsafe.

        Has this answered your challenge?

        • rogereolson

          Yes, quite. But it doesn’t answer ground moral outrage. Most normal people, I suspect, feel moral outrage at things like genocide. Why? Why not just feel the same as you would toward a rabid dog? Nobody feels or expresses moral outrage or indignation toward a rabid dog. Almost everyone feels and expresses moral outrage and indignation toward a Hitler. But is that just a mistake?

          • //Yes, quite.//

            Thank you!

            Moral outrage is a manifestation of the evolved social safety devise of morality. Morality operates by a set of rules which need to be understood and conformed. Understanding requires a certain level of sophistication of brain cognitive function. Any individual lacking it simply falls outside the devise (morality). So we don’t have moral outrage toward a falling stone, machines, a rabid god, or a mentally incapable person.

  • typo (sorry): “…a rabid god…” shall be “…a rabid dog…”

  • A good argument is as follows:

    If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
    God does exist.
    Therefore, objective moral values and duties do exist.

    The existence of objective moral values and duties in this argument is grounded in the very being of God himself, and thus they find their frame of reference in a personal creator, who creates with purpose and design. And since purpose and design is foundational to even begin to talk about good and evil (since evil is a violation of purpose), then to even posit the concept of objective evil and objective good is to posit objective purpose, which implies an objective ontological reality, which in turn requires an ontic-referent (i.e. God) to rationally explain it.

  • Robert

    Following up on the “Making of an Atheist” book. I’m a Christian and have been for about halt 16 years. Only in the last year and a half have I at times struggled with some temptation toward atheism. It hit me entirely out of the blue. I won’t go into the specifics. I also know many people who are agnostic or atheist.

    I have not read the Making of an Atheist book, but the subtitle and blog seem to suggest the core thesis that people choose to be atheists so that they can go about their sinful lives, because they do not want there to be a God because they don’t want to submit to him. I think that may be true in some cases, but ultimately, I think this is a ham-handed and overly simplistic argument. We all know the stories of devout Christians who have “fallen” in one way or another, and we hopefully know all too well our own moral failings. I’ve also had the opportunity to know at least one agnostic who has been a tremendous influence to me personally–bottom line, in terms of fruit of the spirit, he puts me to shame.

    Whether it’s evolutionary theory, the problem of evil, historical criticism, etc., there are genuine intellectual challenges to theism in general and Christianity in particular. I am ultimately persuaded that theism is meaningful, that Christ is the risen son of God, and that Scripture is a divinely elected bearer of God’s word, but I also understand how others find this unconvincing at least partially due to some legitimate intellectual stumbling blocks.

    Although I reject much of his thinking, I concur with Paul Tillich that faith is a centered act of the total person–the mind, the emotions, and the will. No worldview or ideological commitment (atheism, Christianity, Marxism, libertarianism) is made on the basis of pure reason. Indeed, very little of our disciplined or un-disciplined mental life is purely rational.