Atheism and nihilism

Atheism and nihilism December 20, 2011

Why Not Atheism?

Recently I posted here under the title “Thank God for Atheists.” In spite of that title, and some positive things I said about atheists and their contribution to authentic Christianity, several atheists came here to attack me calling me names and making unsubstantiated assertions (no arguments, just ad hominem attacks) about Christians and theists in general. I didn’t approve those for viewing here. However, a couple of atheists asked, perhaps sincerely, why I think theism is more rational than atheism. (Here I am using “atheism” in its classical sense as denial of the existence of anything more absolute than nature and transcending nature.)

I wrote that, with Zinzendorf, if it were not for Jesus, I wouldn’t believe in God. Well, let me qualify that. If I did not believe in Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character, I would still believe in a “supreme being” in the sense of someone or something “out there” that is the metaphysical ground of everything finite—a creator, sustainer and moral governor of the universe. But I wouldn’t worship him or it. I wouldn’t “believe in” him or it in the sense of put my trust in him or it.

I do think, with the vast majority of philosophers throughout Western history up until the late 19th century and 20th century, that a god must exist to explain our experience of the world including especially moral experience (what C. S. Lewis called “the law of nature” in Mere Christianity). I believe it was G. K. Chesterton (correct me if I’m wrong) who quipped that when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in everything. I would amend that to “they believe in anything.” Either Chesterton or someone else commented also that if there is no God all is permitted. (I’m sure someone here will tell me who really said these things, but it isn’t important enough for me to go digging right now. I’ll let others do that for me!)

I personally believe that some of the classical arguments for the existence of God “work.” In How to Think about God Mortimer Adler proves the necessary existence of a first cause (not necessarily first chronologically or temporally but first in terms of metaphysical reality—something necessary, not caused by anything else). His is a version of the cosmological argument. (He admits at the end of How to that his “proof” does not reach to a particular deity with any specific character—e.g., the God of the Bible. Therefore it has no real religious or spiritual function.) In fact, I also happen to think the ontological argument for the existence of God “works.” That is, it is formally a valid argument—especially as revised by Norman Malcolm. (Don’t ask me about that, go read it for yourself. It’s all over the internet and in every recently published volume on the ontological argument.)

However, I find the most compelling argument for God’s existence (here I’m talking about the God of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is the moral argument. It has many forms, the most famous one being that of Immanuel Kant. However, I find its most persuasive expression in Hans Küng’s Does God Exist: An Answer for Today. The German Catholic theologian takes atheism very seriously and says it is a “rational choice.” (His book is extremely long and very detailed; he interacts with numerous theists and atheists alike including Nietzsche and Freud.) However, he argues that IF one opts for atheism one MUST embrace nihilism; there is no way out of it. (By “nihilism” Küng means belief that life has no ultimate meaning and therefore no absolute value.) He admits that atheists DO have values, but he argues they have no rational, metaphysical grounding and therefore are simply chosen (in the sense of borrowed or invented). Neither Küng nor I argue that atheists are bad people just for being atheists or that atheism ought in any way to be suppressed by the state or that atheists should be persecuted. What we believe is that most atheists are simply living off the “leftovers” from the West’s theistic cultural tradition and that IF an atheist decided to live solely for himself or herself at the expense of others there is nothing in his or her worldview that would forbid or even discourage it.

Here is Kung’s most salient paragraph in Does God Exist? in which he quotes German philosopher Max Horkheimer, a largely secularized Jewish Enlightenment thinker whose work on rationality is widely hailed as one of the most influential 20th century contributions to philosophy:

“…according to Horkheimer, everything connected with morality goes back in the last resort to theology; ‘From the standpoint of positivism [the view that non-empirically verifiable propositions are meaningless—one could substitute “atheism” for “positivism” here without altering Horkheimer’s argument], no conclusions can be drawn about morality in politics. Scientifically speaking, hatred is no worse than love, though its social function may be different. There is no logically conclusive argument to show that I should not hate, as long as I am not thereby placed at a disadvantage in my social life.’ Without an authority transcending man, it could in fact be said, in the spirit of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, that war is neither better nor worse than peace, freedom neither better nor worse than oppression: ‘For how can it be proved exactly that I should not hate if I feel like doing so. Positivism cannot find any authority transcending men, to distinguish between helpfulness and cupidity, kindness and cruelty, avarice and unselfishness. Logic too remains silent, it does not concede any precedence to moral sentiment. All attempts to justify morality by worldly prudence instead of looking to the hereafter—even Kant did not always resist this inclination—rest on harmonistic illusions’.”

I have never heard or read an argument that counters this view successfully. The fact that many atheists are wonderful people with strong values is not relevant to the argument. The argument is that IF an atheist decided to live a life of hatred, a life directed by “might makes right,” oppressing weaker persons for personal gain, no real reason can be given why he or she should not. You can argue with atheist (or agnostic) philosopher Kai Nielsen (author of Ethics without God) that there are universal cultural norms that forbid such or with certain sociobiologists that an altruistic gene inclines against it, but to think that these provide a logical argument against selfishness and oppression of others is simply a mistake of thought. “Is” cannot yield or support “ought.” “Ought” cannot be reduced to “Is.” At least insofar as “is” refers to nature alone. Only a theistic worldview, centered around belief in a transcendent being who is the standard of all goodness and belief that reality itself is grounded in and reflects in its “oughtness” that being’s character and will can provide sufficient ground and support for ethical absolutes such as “murdering people is always wrong” or (if we have to get this extreme to make the point) “torturing children is always wrong no matter what.”

Having written on this subject before (for my university’s newspaper—arguing that as a Christian university it should not financially support the campus atheists club) I know the inevitable—I will receive hate messages (mostly in the form of e-mails and comments to this blog) from atheists who completely misunderstand and distort what I am saying. Let me be clear, then: I do NOT hate atheists and I do NOT think atheists are automatically bad people. My problem is with atheism as a philosophy of life and NOT with atheists as people. I could say the same about many other philosophies of life I have studied and written about: “New Age” esotericism, radical feminism, Calvinism, etc. Just because I argue against these worldviews or philosophies of life (or in the case of Calvinism theology) does NOT mean I hate those who believe in them or even think they are bad people. Not at all. And anyone who tries to make that leap (viz., from my criticism of a belief system or worldview to the assumption that I must hate those who embrace them) is simply missing the point and thinking illogically. And lest anyone think that because I wrote a column in my university’s newspaper against financial support by the university of a campus atheists club—I did NOT argue that the club should be in any way punished or persecuted. If students at a Christian university that does not require Christian confession to enroll want to form an atheists club I have no objection. But they should not expect the university to support it financially or any other way. And the university’s decision not to support it (or suppress it) is not censorship or persecution or oppression. It’s a private, religious university founded by and run by Christians FOR THE PURPOSE of promoting Christian faith in an academic setting and academic excellence in a Christian context (“Pro ecclesia, pro Texana”—“For the church, for the world.” Yes, the university’s motto is now translated that way.)

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  • PSF

    “Either Chesterton or someone else commented also that if there is no God all is permitted.”

    Some atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre, believed this and “celebrated” it (Sartre kind of “celebrated” it, but thought it led to a sense of forlorness leading to personal responsibility [the latter debatable of course] . . . Foucault celebrated it more fully).

  • Coleman Glenn

    Back in August, atheist philosopher Joel Marks wrote an article entitled “Confessions of an Ex-Moralist” in the New York Times “Opinionator” blog describing his realization of this very thing – that if there is no God, then there is no right or wrong, only preference. I doubt he received a lot of hate mail for it, though. It seems that when an atheist says it, it’s an epiphany; if a theist says it, it’s short-sighted at best, hateful at worst.

    • I remember that piece. Leave it to David Bentley Hart to put Marks’s conversion to “amoralism” in perspective: “For myself, I am not entirely sure how to react to it. The more uncharitable side of my nature wants simply to remark that a conversion to the blindingly obvious does not really constitute one of the more momentous events in intellectual history (even if it does constitute an important psychological episode in the life of Joel Marks).”

      Hart’s point in context is that it’s “blindingly obvious” that atheism implies nihilism. Why did it take so long for an atheist like Marks to figure this out?

  • abb3w

    Perhaps lack of success of the arguments you have heard is due more to an unrealized double standard in your metric for success, rather than the flaws of the arguments. Would you care to explain how positing setting as the standard of “goodness” in a transcendent being differs from all other arbitrary axiomatic bridges between set of is-choices to defining a poset ought-ordering thereon, such that the basis is “sufficient ground”? (You might review Wikipedia’s overview of the Euthyphro Dilemma before responding; reviewing their Poset entry might also help, if you’re not familiar with the term.)

    I’d also note, “atheism” per se is not a philosophy; more accurately the term refers to a philosophical position, and thus by implication the class of philosophies including it, which are as disparate as Marxist-Leninist Communism and Randite Capitalism. However, I suspect you’re using the term to refer to the loose cluster of philosophical principles that tend to be shared by the secular/humanist/mathematical/scientific/progressive sort of atheist in the west, which equivocation is somewhat common even among those who anthropologically identify as atheists. Your issue in particular seems to be a discomfort with the philosophical character of their is-ought bridge(s).

    • rogereolson

      Not “discomfort” but amazement–that they think it really is a bridge.

      • abb3w

        So, I was pretty close. I would emphasize that it would seem clear that an arbitrary and even capricious bridge nonetheless is (by definition) a bridge, and the core of your discontent seems rather to be over sufficiency for the bridge’s basis.

        Presuming this seeming is accurate, I suggest in response there may be corresponding amazement from atheists in how you (and other theists) consider a transcendent being to constitute a basis of sufficient ground.

        • rogereolson

          What’s interesting to me is that neither you nor any other atheist coming here have event attempted to answer my question about Hitler.

    • The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma in that it posits that the moral law is either above God, thus controlling him, or below God, thus applied by God arbitrarily. What Christians have been saying in the whole history of Christendom is that the moral law is an extension of God’s nature and character, as God is consistent in himself, therefore the moral law is transcendent, objective, and non-contradictory.

      Since the Euthryphro Dilemma also touches on theodicy, Christians also assert that evil and God can coexist (at least in the current world, in Revelation, evil gets done away with permanently) and that evil can actually prove the existence of God, for without the moral law, there would be no way to tell the difference between good and evil. Secondly, God may have good reasons for allowing certain types of evil, some of which include drawing us closer to himself, acceptance of the Gospel, improving our character (see the metaphors about the vinedresser’s pruning in the Bible), and his glorification.

  • Surely (I write here as a theist and a Christian) there is an atheist moral argument which needs to be considered, Dawkins’ “selfish gene” approach that the ultimate good is the survival and propagation of the species, and of one’s personal genes. From that principle one can derive something resembling traditional Judeo-Christian morality e.g. murder and homosexuality are bad, and so are adultery, false witness and theft because they disrupt the community structures required for successful nurture of the next generation. I’m not suggesting that this is a good basis for atheism, or the reason for today’s atheists having moral standards. But there is a potential argument which needs to be answered, and not just ignored or ridiculed.

    • rogereolson

      Where did I ridicule it? Or ignore it? I mentioned it and dismissed it (which is different from ridiculing) because it suffers from the naturalistic fallacy of trying to derive an “ought” from an “is.”

      • abb3w

        Technically, it’s merely using is-propositions to develop additional ought-propositions from an initial ought-proposition: that “the ultimate good is the survival and propagation of the species”. (Note that even from the stance of biology, the phrasing is sloppy.) This may be treated as an arbitrary axiom, which may be validly be taken in Refutation as well as Affirmation — although the former leads to an ordering of choices almost diametrically opposed to the usual sense, but internally consistent for all that.

        Alternatively, one may attempt to use the resulting derivation to show that traditional notions of morality tend to result as approximations from this principle, and thus take the semantic position that this definition “is” the root principle underlying the human sense of “ought”, merely recognizing the principle as a foundation for bridges in anthropological use, without necessarily taking the additional step of accepting the philosophical correctness of this principle as a bridge.

        However, people tend not to be careful in maintaining the distinction; and this principle is certainly not unique in having this property.

        • rogereolson

          I have no idea what that is anything other than sheer specie-ism unless there is a God (or something like God) that is the ground and source of all that has being (evil is the absence of being and goodness) that assigns to our species higher value.

    • icthusiast

      But Peter, on what basis does the judgement that the survival of the species is a “good” arise?

      I once read of a group calling themselves exterminationists. They thought the extermination of the human species (by not reproducing, I recall, rather than an active cull) would be a “good” thing. They placed their ultimate “good” elsewhere, arguing that the extermination of human beings would be good for the rest of the biosphere the greatest threat to which is human activity.

      Dawkins problem goes deeper than the ethics of murder and adultery etc. He simply asserts the the survival of the species is a good thing, without any foundation for doing so. In fact, on naturalistic assumptions – a universe that will ultimately cool and run down – the survival of the species is an impossibility in the long term. What’s the point in delaying the inevitable?

      Dawkins logic may be convincing if you accept his initial premise. But, within his system, I don’t see what grounds he has for his assertion that the survival of the species is a “good”.

      • rogereolson

        Right–insofar as “good” means more than “I like it.”

    • Peter, if such a gene exists (which I highly doubt), it simply exists. It exists through a blind and arbitrary mechanism (in Dawkins’s mind). That we’re influenced by this gene doesn’t imply that we ought to be influenced by it. After all, I’m sure Dawkins thinks we theists are influenced by some misbegotten God gene, right? In which case it’s a bug in our programming that needs to be fixed!

      Regardless, whenever I hear a scientifically minded atheists like Dawkins say something about what’s “good,” I always want to respond: “Oh, yeah? Prove it—scientifically, by your own stated principles.” It’s impossible without resorting to metaphysics.

  • Mike Anderson

    My gut reaction when I first encountered this argument in Lewis’ Mere Christianity (the argument that ethical absolutes cannot be explained apart from God) is that atheists wouldn’t acknowledge moral absolutes; rather they would observe a consensus of moral attitudes that they might explain with evolutionary psychology or game theory and defend as normative for the good of healthy individuals and society. I also realize (conceding much of your argument) that the concept of health is hard to pin down, and when we hear that health comes from finding harmony with nature or the universal mind I think of all the vicious, nasty bits of nature that those in power might point at to justify torture and genocide.

  • Swej

    Here’s the crux:
    You can “choose” to assume the existence of a universal lawgiver, but that does not make it true, does it? And therefore does not provide you with a universal foundation for your morals either.

    I am baffled that you dismiss good reasons for ethical behavior based on community and compassion (things which are as objectively “good” as we can get), yet claim that the God of the old testament is the foundation of morality. Have you read the book?!

    It seems plain to me that, as Christopher Hitchens put it so well, “With God, anything is possible”, including slavery, genocide, stoning, and rape, because these are all things that God at one time condoned. Believers in a “objective” lawgiver can too easily dismiss actual human ethics as “groundless” (as you do) in favor of an imagined supernatural law which is archaic and barbarous by most any standard.

    Sorry to come off as overly strong… but it really gets my goat when followers of a slaving and murdering deity (yes, he murdered children too) tell me that my rational ethics are “groundless” when it is obvious that the only groundless thing in the conversation is this imaginary God.

    • rogereolson

      “I am baffled that you dismiss good reasons for ethical behavior based on community and compassion (things which are as objectively “good” as we can get), yet claim that the God of the old testament is the foundation of morality. Have you read the book?!” Where did I say any of that? You are reading things into my two posts about atheism that are not there. Go back and re-read them and only respond to what I actually wrote and not what you read “between the lines.”

      • Swej

        No, I don’t think I misunderstood you. In this very post you dismiss worldly reasons for ethical behavior, yet defend God as the ultimate moral arbiter. Perhaps you need to re-read your own writing:

        1. [Quoting Kant] “All attempts to justify morality by worldly prudence instead of looking to the hereafter… rest on harmonistic illusions’.” You then say, “I have never heard or read an argument that counters this view successfully.”

        2. [In your own words] “Only a theistic worldview… can provide sufficient ground and support for ethical absolutes.”

        • rogereolson

          Wrong. I have never dismissed “worldly reasons” for ethical behavior. Yours is a perfect example of completely misunderstanding my (and Horkheimer’s and Kung’s) argument.

    • icthusiast

      Swej, you are absolutely right. There is much in the Bible that is morally reprehensible.

      I read much of it as part of the unfolding story of an ancient people struggling to free themselves from concepts of deity in their own background and in the cultures that surrounded them.

      The reality of God is revealed throughout the Bible, but the character of God is ultimately revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. Things attributed to God by human observers (writers) in the Old Testament that do not conform to the character of Jesus may be read as the inability of people to understand the nature of the God they were encountering.

      So, no, I don’t believe that God ever condoned, or condones, slavery, genocide, stoning or rape in the simple manner in which an unsophisticated reading of the Bible would seem to assert..

      Other Christians will interpret these things differently, but this is one way to understand the apparent contrast between various pictures of God in the Bible.

      • rogereolson

        Well said.

  • HenrykG

    Dear Roger,

    As a regular reader of your blog I would like, firstly to thank you for the clarity and general ‘good spirit’ in which you write. Secondly please accept that this post is focused very narrowly on the validity of an argument and says nothing about the desirability, or otherwise, of the conclusions we can draw.

    Paradoxically I am prompted to write because I feel that this entry is a classic example of ‘talking past each other’ in the argument between theists and non-theists.

    I fully endorse your view (and presumably Kung’s whom I’ve not read) that without a ‘god’ there can be no fundamental ‘right & wrong’. Where I part company is that this in no way *proves* the existence of a ‘god’. I think all we can say, and we do agree on I think, is that ‘no god’=’no absolute morality’, period.

    Sadly the converse viz ‘absolute morality’=’god exists’ is also valid but merely begs the question ie I do not think we can prove there is an absolute morality and so cannot prove the existence of ‘god’ from this particular argument.

    If I’ve misunderstood your post please forgive, and enlighten, me.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, but yes, you have misunderstood. I have not attempted (nor has Kung–something for which he has been harshly criticized by his more traditional Catholic critics) to prove a god’s existence. That’s not the point. The point is only to argue that IF one denies the existence of any god (a basic choice that is not in itself irrational) he or she must embrace nihilism–something few atheists are willing to do.

      • So your point is not that the moral argument makes theism more rational but make atheism less rational? (Just trying to clarify, because I think I also conflated the two conclusions into your discussion of the moral argument.)

        • rogereolson

          How are those not the same?

          • They seem essentially the same to me, but I guess I just misunderstood your comment. You are arguing for both conclusions; but you are not arguing for the existence of a God? Just saying that theism is more rational? Would you say that the moral argument is a good argument for the existence of God then, or just an argument for the rationality of theism?

          • rogereolson

            The argument is only to show that denial of God’s existence is irrational in the absence of nihilism, therefore, for someone who is not a nihilist it is more reasonable to believe in God than to deny God’s existence.

  • JOEJOEJOE

    I am atheist, I can do whatever I want and not worry about any eternal punishment, only consequences for my actions in this lifetime.
    I am a pacifist. Helping to minimize the suffering of my fellow humans makes me feel good. Hurting others makes me feel bad.
    Watching a mother and infant interact is natural biological ethical behaviour.
    Cute kittens and puppies make me want to cry.
    Watching another human suffer makes me want to cry.
    I feel bad if I take advantage of another human for personal gain.
    I have absolutely no desire to control or manipulate or to hurt another human being
    No god needed.. its really that simple, no big mystery.

    • rogereolson

      But what if your neighbor “feels good” taking advantage of another human for personal gain? What argument can you give him or her that it’s wrong? None. All you can say is “Oh, that behavior makes me feel bad.”

      • What you may miss is that many athiests don’t feel they NEED to offer an argument against this fictional neigbor you have created.

        One, people who want to bad things to people are generally not the kind of people who are going to listen to philosopical discustions anyway.

        More importiantly, however, his actions will cary real consequences in the world in which he lives. I.E. if he takes advantage of me I may start punching him.

        In other words, this kind of philosophy is not really needed in the real world where most of us live.

        • rogereolson

          I think you are very wrong. Some people do terrible things and totally get away with them. The argument I have offered here may not hinder such a person, but it very well may hinder others from thinking what such a person does is okay or morally neutral.

  • Yeah, Right

    “But they should not expect the university to support it financially or any other way.”

    Just as these *private* universities should not be supported financially or any other way by the tax payer. Fair is fair after all.

    • rogereolson

      They aren’t.

  • Enjoyed the post!
    I have never had an issue of thinking that the universe holds unexplained mysteries that humanity as of yet cannot fully appreciate from its current viewpoint. I do not have an issue either with people believing in a greater force. What concerns me is the extent to which people of faith claim and affirm the ‘truth’ without any humility and in particular then instil within their children this one narrow view construct.
    I wonder where our species will be in 1000 years from now, certainly our knowledge of the universe will continue to expand and with each new understanding I suspect that individual faiths will have a choice, either simplify their teachings or complicate them further to try to make them fit? I wonder whether the logical outcome will lead to many assuming the pantheist default position.

  • William Welch

    One of the best apologist blogs I’ve read in a long time. Thank you.

    I do not understand why you believe that your god, or any good, provides an objective morality. Here are my concerns:

    1) If there is an objective morality, then the god could not choose it. The god would be obliged to follow that objective morality (assuming the god is good). If the god can choose between moral systems (at least for his adherents), the morality is relative and thus no better, apparently, than the moral nihilism you fear underpins atheism. So either the god chose the ethical system and thus did not beget it or did not choose it and there for it is relative.

    2) The morality established by most religious texts is, to the modern ear, oddly immoral sounding. The bible, for example, is filled with concepts once considered deeply ethical and now considered immoral or even evil. For example, commands on how/when to sell slaves (including one’s own daughter) or prohibitions on women teaching men. Since these appear to be moral at one historical instance and not in another, that also suggests a “relative ethics.”

    Personally, I can’t think of many moral statements that aren’t relative to circumstances. Consider, for example, “Honor thy mother and father” Well, if they are raping your sister, one should not honor them.

    Anyway, that society evolves morality over time is indeed a sign that morality has no objective underpinnings. Frankly, it would be great if there were an objective and good morality. No one has found a good one. Certainly the many religions do not agree on what it might be. Ethicists also struggle with even the basic concepts. In the meantime, as we wait for religions and philosophers to discover that objective morality, our current means of evolving morality is working out pretty good. The world is getting better and we, humanity, are setting higher and higher standards for ourselves. Sexism, racism, homophobia, etc., are all waning even when aggressively advocated by religious authority.

    Until you offer a theistic morality that is superior to the modern secular ethical code (international law, etc.), we’ll have to assume no gods.

    As to all current morality being based in theist doctrine, I disagree. Most moral systems have developed to obviate or at least mitigate the religious morals of intolerance and persecution. I’d be happy to provide examples, if that doesn’t seem obvious.

    Thank you again for a thoughtful article.

    William

    • rogereolson

      You have not understood my argument (or Kung’s or Horkheimer’s). It has nothing to do with empirical moral codes or their development or change within them, etc. It has to do only with metaphysical grounding of objective moral norms. You and just about every other atheist who has come here to respond to my posts have radically misunderstood them.

  • Dyencer

    “when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in everything. I would amend that to “they believe in anything.”

    Not sure I follow your thinking on this. Just because I don’t believe in the existence of god, how do you make the leap to the conclusion that I’ll believe anything or everything?

    • rogereolson

      The point was that without God it is permissable to believe in any moral codes because none is transcendentally given or grounded.

  • Swej

    You should not enable comments on your blog if you’re just going to delete dissenting viewpoints. What’s the harm in a little discussion?

    • Swej

      My mistake; apparently comments do not show on some browsers.

    • rogereolson

      Huh? I regularly approve and post dissenting opinions. Just not ones that engage in ad hominem argumentation or that are uncivil or vulgar.

  • Ah, this article takes me back to earnest university discussion groups. So, in that spirit, a sticking point: namely, that theism and nihilism have much more in common than atheism and nihilism do. For the theist and nihilist both, the question of the metaphysics of Meaning is of supreme importance – the one in asserting the existence of a Meaning beyond life itself, the other in the absolute denial thereof, are both chained to it as the central issue of life. This is not the case with the atheist, who looks at such carryings-on, shrugs his shoulders, and goes on with the business of life. To commit one’s self dogmatically to an issue that language can’t properly resolve is decidedly not the business of the atheist, and so both nihilism and theism are equally foreign to him.

    You define atheism in a very theistic fashion, for the purposes of simplifying argumentation, but it is really a linguistic issue. And this is why the comments about the ethics of the atheist fall somewhat flat as well – is obedience without understanding really ethical behavior? The Bible is full of people doing supremely awful things because they were told to by a supposedly holy man – is the ethical sense of such a person really all that laudatory? The atheist has to choose to be ethical you say – but then so does the parishioner. It is supposedly easier for the latter because of the Wrath of God, but then, that also makes it easier for him to act unethically when a person in a position of religious power tells him to. This is the problem with dogmatic ethics – the point at which you are asked to Question No Further is the point where ethics fundamentally cease to exist. This is a problem for the theist, not the atheist.

    – Dolby von Luckner

    • rogereolson

      In real Christianity it isn’t the “wrath of God” that compels a believer to obey but the love of God (God’s love for us and our love for him). I don’t think you are yet understanding my argument. It has nothing to do with WHY someone behaves ethically; it has only to with justification for believing in ethical absolutes.

      • Unfortunately, the distinction between ethical action for Love of God versus Fear of Wrath is not as profoundly sharp as you appear to believe it, and as you need it to be to reclaim some sort of ethical agency in the theist. Both lead to the same problem of imposition from authority, which one is not allowed to critically investigate, which swings the door wide open for any evil act you could possibly wish to partake of. The Israelites heard clearly Thou Shalt Not Murder, which is about as unambiguous as it gets, and then a few priests told them to kill thousands of people, and they did, and took the orphans and made them slaves. They had given up their critical ethical agency early in the game to become theists, and became monsters as a result.

        I notice you say that you Still Have Not Heard why an atheist would not be prevented from leading a life of evil. I submit that you have, several times, and have shrugged it off with a claim of Not Being Understood. But to reiterate – neither is there anything in theism, boiled down to its essentials, which prevents one from living as evilly as one chooses. You can say such people aren’t really Christians, or really theists, but this is a matter of interpretation. And that is the rub – so long as a system of religion requires interpretation, there is no guarantee that it will prevent one from acting in an evil fashion. An individual can ALWAYS work within the portentous empty space of a system’s belief structure to either justify what they have done or find a temporary forgiveness for it. If a human wants to be evil, whether he is a theist, or an atheist, he either will or he won’t depending on his sense of empathy, his ability to imagine others as himself. An empathetic atheist will be incapable of acting evilly, just as a theist lacking a predisposition to empathy will not fail to lurch for the chance, and will worry about the dogmatic details later. I don’t think there’s really any denying that basic point about human nature – it is an issue of the chance level of empathy one has, not the number of gods you’ve accidentally happened to fallen into believing in. It’s really pretty simple. Those who attempt to make it more complex are usually those trying to make themselves look better by comparison, and vanity is far worse for our world than atheism, don’t you rather think?

        – Dolby von Luckner

        • rogereolson

          You wrote: “I notice you say that you Still Have Not Heard why an atheist would not be prevented from leading a life of evil.” No, that’s not my point at all. Your comment is a good example of the common misunderstanding of my argument. I am not arguing for or against any particular code of right and wrong or authority to impose one. I am asking what reason an atheist can give to a person who truly believes that he or she is not placed at any social or biological disadvantage by acting in an evil manner. In fact, I’m not sure what “evil” means to an atheist other than “socially or biologically disadvantageous.”

  • Rich Wilson

    My problem is with atheism as a philosophy of life

    You mean the nihilism part? I’m not sure how to address this without it coming off as an ad-hom. The fact that Kung, or you, think that atheists MUST logically embrace nihilism doesn’t make it so. I simply look beyond myself. Life isn’t for ME to enjoy, it’s for ALL LIFE to enjoy. So my philosophy of life is that which increases the well being of all life, and decreases the suffering of all life. I know that sounds kinda like Harris, and he did put it well, but it’s a pretty basic idea. And it has nothing to do with ‘theistic leftovers’.

    I was tempted to post on “Thank God for atheists” but you probably wouldn’t have approved it anyway. GIBO as they say.

    • Rich, suppose my philosophy is diametrically opposed to your philosophy, and I gather an army of like-minded people to start a war against you and your people. My soldiers rape, murder, and torture your people. Based on your own principles, you might say, “How unfortunate for me that you disagree with my philosophy. It makes me feel bad that you’re doing these things.” But you can’t, on any basis, say that what I’m doing is wrong or evil.

      I’m guessing that you have very strongly held opinions of right and wrong, because, after all, you’re a decent human being. Good for you! But don’t imagine that, by your own standards, words like “good” or “bad” or “decent human being” have any meaning. But in your daily life I’m sure you’re constantly appealing to the good as if it does have meaning.

      That’s exactly what’s at stake in the argument that Dr. Olson is making. Atheists in this comment section who write as if we Christians are getting worked up over nothing aren’t living in the real world.

  • Argin Simonian

    ” I wrote that, with Zinzendorf, if it were not for Jesus, I wouldn’t believe in God. Well, let me qualify that. If I did not believe in Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character, I would still believe in a “supreme being” in the sense of someone or something “out there” that is the metaphysical ground of everything finite—a creator, sustainer and moral governor of the universe.”
    And
    “Only a theistic worldview, centered around belief in a transcendent being who is the standard of all goodness and belief that reality itself is grounded in and reflects in its “oughtness” that being’s character and will can provide sufficient ground and support for ethical absolutes such as “murdering people is always wrong” or (if we have to get this extreme to make the point) “torturing children is always wrong no matter what.””
    And
    Luke 19:27
    I do not need to explain Luke 19:27 since it is clear in what it says. If this is the kind of “theistic morality” that is “ought” to be in place then morality itself must be revised in dictionaries around the world.
    Murder of children is an evil thing and I do not see how the order by god and decision by Abraham to kill Isaac is a good moral value. My thought is not against Abrahamic religions only, it is about 2000 and over moral values that in your opinion are “ought” to be the norm of humans today.

    • rogereolson

      Really. C’mon. My point here has been strictly a philosophical one. I have never here or elsewhere defended every decision or action recorded in the Bible or made or done by a person who believes in God. You’re confusing totally separate issues.

      • abb3w

        There’s some relation. In order to argue that God is the only valid basis for an is-ought bridge, it requires showing that God is a valid basis for an is-ought bridge.

        • rogereolson

          No, the recognition of an is-ought bridge is inconsistent with denial of an is-ought bridge which can only be someone above and beyond nature.

  • Argin Simonian

    Correction:
    *… 2000 years old and over…*

  • Rob

    Why wouldn’t Kant be acceptable for atheists? Kant reasons from the moral law to God, not from God to the moral law. Couldn’t an atheist just stop at the moral law? Kant does not postulate God’s existence theoretically, but only practically as a necessary postulate for a hope in the reality of the greatest good, a kingdom of ends. I know plenty of atheist philosophers who are Kantians but who don’t feel the pull towards the practical postulate.

    • rogereolson

      As you know, there has been much debate about whether Kant really believed in the existence of God (or a god) or whether he only believed the idea of God (or a god) is necessary for objective morality. What I am challenging here is the belief that moral absolutes such as Kant’s categorical imperative can truly be absolute without some transcendent metaphysical grounding. What do you think?

      • Rob

        I am convinced Kant really was a theist and I interpret his entire philosophy as an apology for theism in response to Hume. Some of my atheist colleagues would cringe at that, but Kant wrote way too much about God to have not been some kind of theist.

        Kant offers an argument for rewards and punishments in the afterlife, immortality of the soul, and the existence of God. These are well known, but he also gives arguments for the non-existence of pure evil, the original sin of humanity coming from freedom, an explanation of the new birth and regeneration, etc. Of course he was not very orthodox, but I think he was trying to preserve what he could from the threat of Hume’s empiricism.

        Most atheist philosophers do not think that one needs God to know the moral law or act morally. I am inclined to agree that if Kant is right, that is correct. If Kant is right, knowledge of the moral law is imprinted on us in the form of practical reason. We cannot escape the imperatives of practical reason anymore than we can escape the laws of logic; practical reason just is the very same reason behind logic but directed at willings instead of beliefs.

        We cannot escape the moral law, we can only subordinate our observance of it to our own pleasure. This is what Kant thinks we all do and he calls it the peccatum originarium. At any rate, I think that Kantians, both atheists and Christians, could agree that the moral law has its origin in the very structure of valid inference. The atheist will deny that such reason needs any justification and the Christian will agree with Kant that our Practical Reason is a copy of the original Will and Reason of God; the moral law is divine command flowing from God’s perfect freedom and rationality.

        • rogereolson

          Okay, but my point is that I don’t see on what grounds a person who denies God as the basis and ground of the categorical imperative (for example) can argue that a person who chooses not to live by it (that is, to flagrantly violate it) is objectively wrong.

          • Rob

            Sorry this is late. I think they would say that the categorical imperative is just built into the logical structure of all reasoning about action.
            The response would be: Do we need God to ground the laws of logic? Practical reason just is logic applied to intentions and actions.
            I think it is a good response. I actually think that the laws of logic are based in God’s nature. But I think this because I understand God to be the origin of everything that is real. It is not because I see the laws of logic requiring some basis in God.

          • rogereolson

            But what if I don’t care about acting consistently with the logical structure of all reasoning about action? The all I’m doing is going against reason. Saying that Hitler was being irrational does not seem to me the same at all as saying his behavior was objectively wrong.

  • I just read your other post and all the comments I could find. I did not find any atheists attacking you.

    //Here I am using “atheism” in its classical sense as denial of the existence of anything more absolute than nature and transcending nature.//

    Atheism is simply lack of belief in god or gods. It is not necessarily rejection of the supernatural which is commonly called skepticism.

    I am an agnostic atheist and a skeptic. But it would be quite reasonable to find an atheist who still believes in supernatural claims, just not god.

    Your post seems to rely on atheism being a world-view all by itself. I would argue that the vast majority of atheists hold a wide range of other viewpoints which make up their world views whether it be Secular Humanism, Buddhism, Taoism, or another philosophical viewpoint.

    Positivism can only be replaced with atheism if you think of it as a world-view by itself which I don’t think it amounts to for any atheists. I think you are confusing atheism with a worldview which it is not.

    • rogereolson

      Well, you can’t see the comments I “trash,” so you have no idea….

      What I am arguing against is naturalism which is the worldview of the vast majority of Western atheists.

  • Let me start off by saying that colleges and universities are forced to abide by a plethora of outside standards. That could include various accreditation organizations’ standards, government standards for tax exemption, funding, grants, or the ability for students to use government educational grants and loans for tuition to a school. So I doubt it’s so cut and dry as saying a Christian school, with a goal to promote Christianity, has no obligation to fund a student organization that inherently is at odds with Christianity.

    Now as far as atheism leads to nihilism, the answer is yes and no. Does life have an inherent meaning? No. Can we assign meaning? Yes, and that’s exactly what we all do, atheist, theist, or what have you. There’s no difference between subscribing to the notion that there’s a god (or a pantheon) who infuses life with meaning and subscribing to the meaning assigned to life by another person (or a slew of people). We all choose to subscribe to some form of meaning. We all may believe what we subscribe to isn’t a choice, that it’s self evident, but it is a choice.

    Now for the issue of authority, Let’s assume for a moment there is “an authority transcending man”. What are the means to definitively say what that authority’s wishes are? You have three major world religions who claim to know what the god of Abraham’s wishes are, and amongst Christianity alone there are over 2,000 different sects each with their own interpretation. Therefore there is no definitive “ought” for the theist, either. That means every criticism one can make against a morality absent of “an authority transcending man” can be levied against one with “an authority transcending man” if it can’t be validated what that authority’s wishes are.

    • rogereolson

      You are confusing different issues–like most of the atheists who have come here to comment. I’ve already answered them and posted their comments and my responses here. Please read them.

    • abb3w

      You appear to be accepting as valid (at least for argument) the is-ought bridge that “you ought to do what authority wishes”; and neglecting the basis for designation of being “authority”.

      Both these seem anthropologically hazardous. I’d suggest you might want to look at the work of sociologist Joe Henrich on the distinction within authority of dominance versus prestige.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Very well said, Roger.

    If you confine your criticism to be against vegetables and minerals, I believe that your hate mail will be reduced some.

    Concerning your comments with Zinzendorf (3rd paragraph), you obviously disagree with observant Jews. But even if they reject Jesus in the belief that he was not the Messiah, what kind of respect would you give them for believing in the God of the OT? Maybe another way to get at what I’m searching for: What if you lived before the advent of or knowledge of Christ and His Church? What esteem would you give (generally) the great writers/thinkers of the Jews who were attempting to be faithful in thought and deed?

    • rogereolson

      I clarified by saying that without Jesus I would still believe in God (or at least a supreme being) but I would not worship him or it (including the God of the OT). As you say, they were attempting to be faithful in thought and deed, but, at the end of the day, I wouldn’t stand with them (without Jesus).

  • Superb, Roger. Thanks so much for both the thoughtful content and the links to Malcolm and Kung.

  • Mick

    Isn’t certainty that what you are doing is the ‘right thing’ a weakness of theistic moral systems? If we have the reason for doing something because it is the command of a devine being then we 1. remove and displace responsibility for our own actions onto another being; the ultimate justification of our actions is not within our own moral compass but merely the scrupulous following of dogma. 2. it circumvents real moral engagement on the part of a moral agent. If I know what I am doing is right, then

    • rogereolson

      I didn’t say anything about certainty.

  • Mick

    **** then I don’t have to think about this any further. I can act, with certainty that what I am doing is correct, and I do not have to turn over my actions or consider them from different perspectives.

    Certainty then, seems like something that actually weakens the integrity and purposefulness of our consistency as moral beings.

    As Bernard Williams said, if we do something (according to some maxim or other) because of the maxim, and not because it was the correct thing to do then we have had ‘one thought too many’. Doing something right because God tells us it is right is having one thought too many. Better to be nice to our neighbours because they are our neighbours than because God is the ultimate substance bearer of metaphysical moral reality.

    • rogereolson

      As I just said, I didn’t say anything about certainty.

  • Chris Fisher

    The counter to this argument is rather mundane, and shows how nihilism doesn’t apply. We people leave progeny and legacies.

    Like any sort of thing that leaves any kind of progeny it behooves us, to create the best possible, fair environment, for our descendants (if we do indeed go about things in logical manners) to succeed on their own merits. If we throw out logic, then by all means the charlatans and nihilists will, of course, fill their self ego parties quite readily. Being good is being selfish.

    • rogereolson

      I have no idea….

    • Jeremy

      “We people leave progeny and legacies.”

      But eventually the universe will most likely end in heat death as all stars exhaust and then nothing anyone ever did will matter since all life will have ceased.

      “Like any sort of thing that leaves any kind of progeny it behooves us, to create the best possible, fair environment, for our descendants (if we do indeed go about things in logical manners) to succeed on their own merits.”

      What makes something fair? What makes fair better than unfair? Why is leaving something for our descendants a good thing?

      The point is, from a purely naturalistic point of view, all value statements are simply made up, and nothing you can do will have any kind of lasting impact in the distant future. Even if you could leave a legacy that lasted 500,000 years there’s no way to say that that is better than not leaving a legacy.

  • A. Rose

    Dear Roger,

    Thanks for another interesting post. I agree with you that atheism can’t provide any substantial grounds for morality. However, it seems that you’re using this argument as a support for theism. I suspect that an atheist might agree that his belief system provides no absolute grounds for morality, but question why this should lead to theism. If one wants to maintain that there are absolute moral standards, then theism is required, but one can also simply accept that there are no such standards.

    In other words, the moral argument works as a negative argument against certain atheist claims regarding morality, but I’m unsure how it then works as a positive argument in favour of theism.

    • rogereolson

      I have personally never met an atheist who really didn’t believe in objective, absolute right and wrong. Some have denied it, but their reactions to certain events belies their denials.

      • A. Rose

        Still, all that shows is that their position is internally inconsistent; it is still a leap to get to theism (purely through the moral argument).

        • rogereolson

          The moral argument functions as an indirect proof of some kind of theism insofar as a person wishes to avoid nihilism. To a person who embraces nihilism there can be no proof of anything transcendent. There can be “signals of transcendence” (a kind of natural theology) but no proof.

  • drwayman

    Dr. Olson – Atheism, leading to nihilism certainly seems true. One of our atheists friends yesterday said that:

    Karlton G. Kemerait says:
    December 19, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    “Most rational individuals of sound mind, would not argue for living in a world consumed by fear and hatred, where people were denied basic needs such as food or health care, where individuals were stripped of their dignity and treated as chattel.”

    To be fair, Mr. Kemerait’s responses yesterday were much more comprehensive than this one statement that I pulled out. So, this quote needs to be understood in the greater context of what he said. Nevertheless, if atheism leads to nihilism, then his statement is proof of such.

    • rogereolson

      Or, alternatively, I would turn his statement around and argue that such people really must believe in God or at least some metaphysically transcendent ground of moral right and wrong else they have no logical reason to defend the idea that such a world would be absolutely wrong. I realize that is your point.

      • cowalker

        Mr. Kemerait didn’t say that such a world would be absolutely wrong. He said that rational individuals of sound mind would not want to live in it. Which comes down to preferences, as you correctly pointed out above. Just ask people if they’d rather live in North Korea or someplace else. If they weren’t prevented from leaving, millions of North Koreans would vote with their feet, and I doubt that a rational argument based on objective morality would be what convinced them to flee.

        A person who chooses not to cooperate with other humans, but to exploit them instead, takes the chance of being exiled or destroyed by the community. Such a person may, or may not get away with it. Such people, as a minority, might even provide some benefits to the community as an unintended side effect.

        • rogereolson

          The question is (again!) if nature is all there is why is the powerful dictator of North Korea who enslaves his people who want to escape objectively wrong to do it if he can get by with it and be happy about it?

          • Perhaps we are speaking past each other to some extent. I suspect that when you use the word “wrong” you mean something rather different than most athiests mean when they use the word.

            When I use the word I tend to mean something is (objectivly speaking) harmful to humans. Now, if someone truely believes that it is nothing to them if they harm other humans or cause other humans to suffer then you are correct that I cannot object to their position on phiosophical grounds. However, I suspect you would find many of the despots in this world (even the ones who believe in god) rather unreceptive to your arguments as well.

            I don’t need to convicne them they are wrong, I simply need to stop them.
            I am not a violoent person by nature but if I saw a woman being raped I would not stop and try to convince the rapist of the catagorical imperitive, I would stop and beat the crap out of him (at least so far as a small nerdy white guy is capable of that). I suspect that you would choose a similar course of action, so in real world application there is no difference, and as far as I am concerend a philosophical arguement that has no practical effect on anyones behavior is a waste of time.

            To be honest I do not frankly care if I have a philosphicaly sound reason to stand up agaisnt despots and tyrants. I realize my actions here today will matter not at all in a billion years, hell they probably won’t matter in 100 years, but they matter to me right now, and that is enough for me.

            The thing I do find slightly offensive about your argument is that you seek to define atheists in terms of your world view. Your world view may say that the only choice is between belief in god or some morose nihilism, but that is your afair and not mine. I do not share your world view and I am sorry that it bothers you so much that we atheists are not living our lives in a manner consistent with your view of reality, but I am afraid you will have to get used to it.

          • rogereolson

            Well, at least you’re honest and forthright. And you understand my argument (something many atheists who have commented here do not). The problem is this. Supposed I can’t have any affect on the tyrant with my argument, but my argument will sway many people to get on board a project to oppose him? Then it has some usefulness. As for getting used to atheists–I have. That’s not the problem. 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.

  • rogereolson

    Like so many others, you seem to have missed my point. It has nothing to do with whether or not theism is necessary for “morality.” The issue is whether there can be objective morality, including ethical absolutes, without a transcendent grounding.

    • I take the question of objective morality very seriously. I recently wrote an article about the problems that Sam Harris and others run into if the make the claim that their values are objective, while that of the religious are not. Such claims depend on the axiomatic belief in the welfare of humans. In this article I examine the conflict between humanism and rationalism.

      In other words, to address the first part of your question – “The issue is whether there can be objective morality” – the answer is no. There is no fact or evidence that can determine morality in the absence of some axiomatic value statement that is in itself lacking evidence. It is true that one can reason from a single axiom to many conclusions, but they all rest on the axiom.

      The second part of your question however “without a transcendent grounding” assumes that there is a divine source of morality. Such a claim is intellectually less justified that the humanist claim. To begin with it is essentially morality by command; you are given a list of arbitrary laws with no basis in reason or evidence. Some, like not killing people, may be helpful. Others, like not eating shellfish or pork are pure superstition. More to the point you cannot reason to them; there is no central axiom from which you can logically determine the laws.

      Today we have a system of laws that hardly resembles the ten commandments. Christians pick and choose which laws they wish to obey, and even then there is a get out of jail free card in the form of forgiveness by God through his son. If you are a Christian no sin is bad enough for punishment, if you are not no sin is trivial enough not to deserve infinite punishment. And I have not even begun to talk about the translation and copying errors that have occurred down the ages.

      In other words the bedrock of humanism is a simple and easily understood axiom from which we can reason from. It assumes only that we wish to live happy fulfilling lives. It does not talk about “good of the species” – in that while evolution does influence us, it no longer defines us.

      • rogereolson

        You completely miss my point about God as the transcendent source and ground of morality. I have never thought (nor do most theists I know) that God gives a list of arbitrary laws with no basis in reason or evidence. And Kung’s (and Horkheimer’s) argument in itself has nothing whatever to do with the ten commandments or any specific list of laws or rules.

  • Have you encountered the transcendental argument, as advanced by theologians such as Van Til and Greg Bahnsen? Any thoughts on its usefulness or logic?

    • rogereolson

      I have never read Van Til or Bahnsen. “The transcendental argument” is usually associated with Kant and his contemporary theistic interpreters such as Rahner (who was, of course, much more than just an interpreter of Kant).

  • mike

    A lot of heat generated over a fairly simple “if there are no absolutes, then there are no ethical absolutes” argument. As you’ve repeated, this isn’t an apologetics argument, this isn’t even an answer to “can there be ethics or morals without a god?” You seem to be saying (I think) that an objective [i.e., universal, absolute] morality requires an objective, universal, absolute moral framework, which is not to be found in either the physical bits and pieces of the universe nor in the thoughts and feelings of conscious individuals (which, may or may not be mere epiphenomena of the physical bits and pieces, but that’s a different discussion). Not in the former, because the physical bits and pieces in themselves are not ethical, and not in the latter, because they are relative to the individual, subjective rather than objective (even if there are genetic tendencies, the interpretation and reflection upon the impulses the genes create are subjectively experienced). To get objective ethical absolutes, one needs something objective and absolute: i.e., some frame of reference that transcends our relativism, but is itself objective, like, for example, a god.

    This doesn’t mean a naturalistic system of ethics isn’t possible. Having evolved reason (for whatever initial survival purpose), one could build a system of ethics bottom-up using common experience and logic, while still admitting “common” experience may not be “universal” and thus, the system, while logically persuasive and enticing to many, is neither objective nor absolute.

    Whether such a system is “better” than one that is grounded in a transcendent moral absolute is also a different discussion. Again, as I read it, you were merely making the case that no transcendent foundation means no ethical absolutes. Nothing more than that. What am I missing?

    • rogereolson

      You are missing nothing. You have it right. Sad that so many others don’t get it at all.

      • Swej

        Thanks for the clarification. I think the reason for all the misunderstanding surrounding this post is that it needed to better distinguish transcendent Morality (big M) from worldly morality (little m), and also to distinguish transcendent from objective, which are different things.

        If this argument is purely about transcendent Morality, then what’s there to argue about?? PURELY BY DEFINITION a transcendent Anything would need a transcendent grounding. But this is just semantics. The real question is whether transcendent Morality actually exists in the first place! I don’t think we have any evidence that it does.

        However, not all is lost! I would argue that worldly morality is no less objective than anything else we call “objective”, and that “objective” morality does not originate from a transcendent place. Ultimate objectivity is an illusion, a mirage we can never reach or come to perfect consensus on, but which we use as a conceptual guide to frame our discussions and language.

        So to say that atheism necessarily leads to nihilism is like saying that not believing in a Transcendent Celestial Dictionary leads to a life where words have no meaning.

        • rogereolson

          Again, you are confusing the order of being with the order of knowing. “Objective” in the order of being is something other than “objective” in the order of being.

  • “However, he argues that IF one opts for atheism one MUST embrace nihilism; there is no way out of it. (By “nihilism” Küng means belief that life has no ultimate meaning and therefore no absolute value.) He admits that atheists DO have values, but he argues they have no rational, metaphysical grounding and therefore are simply chosen (in the sense of borrowed or invented).”

    I doubt many folks will read this comment but for what it’s worth, it seems to me that there is a lot of cognitive dissonance going on as evidenced by the comments here. Please permit me the liberty to share a somewhat lengthy excerpt from a letter to a friend in the context of how my atheistic nihilism worked out in practice and my astonishment at finding unaccountable values.

    I started calling myself an agnostic because in our culture one is told that atheist means someone who hates God. I didn’t hate God, I just doubted that there was one. Much later, when I learned the word meant “without theism”, I adopted that label for myself. I use the term nihilism to mean, one who hasn’t found that there is any pattern or reason behind things. I lived out that philosophy more than anyone I know. You see I spent most of my time in despair over the significance of life and had to actually decide each day if I was going to find some reason to carry on or end it all. I thought most people were lucky because they didn’t have the problem of seeing only meaninglessness. Eventually, I found Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, to be the closest thing to truth in that realm although it was clear that she hadn’t really addressed transcendent values like beauty and love.

    Let me interrupt this flow give you one example of how this worked out in practice. I had never seen a truly happy marriage because my father was a wife abusing alcoholic, so I didn’t believe in marriage. When my girlfriend and I wanted to move to another city and live together, she had to be married since she came from a strict Pentecostal family. So, we were married by a minister however for me it was just a matter of convenience. Later, when my (ex-)wife became pregnant with our first child, I, knowing that I didn’t have life worked out nor would I be a good father, wanted her to terminate the pregnancy. I now thank God she didn’t, but at the time it was a real conflict for me. When she insisted on having the baby I resigned myself to it and committed myself to being a good father, unlike my own. It also became an opportunity to give her what I hadn’t had, a really good education. I figured that you don’t teach people, but rather they learn from what they are exposed to. So, my plan was to expose her to everything the world offered and let nature take it’s course. It immediately became clear to me that there were many, many things I didn’t want to expose her to. For example, horror movies or prejudice and especially not the vulgar, seedy and evil parts of the world. But that left me with a huge question. Where did these values I was exhibiting about what she should and shouldn’t be exposed to come from?! Where do you think your own values come from?

    I believe that, outside a supernatural revelation, nihilism is the ultimate end of philosophy and I also maintain that anyone who seriously tries to live that way long enough will go insane as surely as Nietzsche did. Thank God that our conscience is supernatural.

    P.S. — This excellent article tempts this Calvinist to see what you have to say in defense of Arminianism. 😉

    Your eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye (your conscience) is sound and fulfilling its office, your whole body is full of light; but when it is not sound and is not fulfilling its office, your body is full of darkness. ~ Luke 11:34 (AMP)

    • Uh, just as a point of correction, Nietzsche may have gone insane because of syphilis, not nihilism.

      In any cause, mental illness is almost always caused by physical problems and not the particular philosophy one subscribes too.

      Suggesting that athiests are more likly to devolpe mental illness bereft of any factual evidence of such might contribute to why we athiests get irrtated with theists from time to time.

      • Yes, I know about the speculations of Nietzsche’s unfortunate end and I understand your clarification. It was unfair of me to make the implication and it was indeed deliberate. Also, having worn the mantle for a long time myself, I am very aware of the stigma of Atheism.

        But please allow me to clarify, I did not say that the Atheist would go insane. Rather, what I said was that anyone sincerely living by the philosophy Nihilism for a long enough of period of time will.

        As a proponent of naturalism, as I presume you are, why would you be surprised at any correlations between neurological disorders and particular philosophies?

        At any rate my friend, I respect your viewpoint and I wish you good health, mental and otherwise.

  • Craig Wright

    Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
    “The existentialist … finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven … Dostoevsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted …

    The problem is that Dostoevsky never said that. Evidently, Sartre is responsible for attributing that statement to Dostoevsky.

  • ARL

    If people are “missing your point” you have two options:
    1) Be clearer about your point
    2) Get a new point

    • rogereolson

      No, as a college professor for almost 30 years I know very well that people simply miss a correct and well-expressed point all the time.

  • A. Rose

    Roger,

    This is going slightly off topic, but a couple of comments have mentioned the Euthyphro dilemma, and I’d be really interested to read your thoughts on it at some point. From your post a few weeks back about not worshipping the calvinist God, I presume that you’d lean towards the first horn (that God does good things because they are good), but I may well be wrong.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, I have discussed this a lot here over the past months. I am a realist, not a nominalist. I find nominalism absolutely frightening. For the first millennium of Christian history nominalism was unheard of. It’s introduction into Western philosophy and theology by (at first) Abelard and (later) Ockham may be the greatest error in church history (insofar as it influenced people like Luther and then filtered down to the masses).

  • DRT

    Thanks for this Roger. As the parent of two atheists this has helped me. Incidentally, they are atheistic primarily because of the bad things done in the name of religion and therefore I really appreciate your honesty in the lack of worship you would have outside of Jesus. My oldest son has used the “I don’t need god to teach me about morality” argument with me before and I frankly did not have a good answer for it but do now.

  • DRT

    In debating this with my 16 year old, it came down to this.

    You said “as long as I am not thereby placed at a disadvantage in my social life.” For her, that is the key. Yes there is no reason to not pursue a life of hate, but it will, on average, have an impact on your life since the collective will of society will squash that out in the end. The might, in the case of humanity, has indeed determined that gross hatred is not right, and, in her view, has gone to great lengths to make that well known (e.g. making up a religion about this guy Jesus who taught that hatred is bad).

    • rogereolson

      You still haven’t offered a reason why a person who is not disadvantaged thereby should not pursue a life of hate.

  • DRT

    roger, I have argued this all day with my son. He is now to the point that he wants to take exception to your *too* provocative statement that not having a basis for judging whether hate is bad or not = nihilism. I have not made progress in a couple hours so thoughts would be appreciated.

    Fundamentally he agrees that theistic moral realism (which is how we have reduced this) does make it that you really can’t have a basis for objective moral judgment. But the leap from that to calling it nihilistic is unnecessarily incendiary to him.

    Thanks for this topic.

    • rogereolson

      Hans Kung’s use of “nihilism” is not incendiary or even insulting. Kung (and I) means by “nihilism” the belief that life has no objective meaning per se but only penultimate meanings (which are temporal and culturally conditioned). Nihilism in this sense is simply the idea that life is itself absurd and therefore we must invest it with meaning by taking on a project (a la Sartre).

  • NYSeeker

    Thank you so much for this excellent post.

    I am new to religion and Christianity, having been an atheist for all of my 46 years until events caused me to intensely examine all of my beliefs.

    There isn’t much I feel confident about yet but one thing I am fairly certain of is believing in nothing but the material world we see around us does indeed lead to nihilism. I have read a lot about this and reflected on it for an extended period of time and I just don’t see any way around it, as much as some atheists find it upsetting and wish to deny it. And I think the way you articulated it in your post is excellent. You got the point exactly, and clearly see the irrelevance of how anyone is in reality to the question of is there universal morality in the absence of something outside this material world, presumably a god. Thank you for articulating it so well.

    Truthfully, though, you probably didn’t go far enough. It is not just is there a universal morality in the absence of God, the question really is do the concepts of good and evil themselves have any meaning in a purely material universe? I don’t see how they can.

    Finally let me just say that while I can’t claim to know much about all of this one additional thing I have observed about people, both atheists and theists, is that very few people actually believe what they claim they believe.

    While this is true of theists, it is really, really true in the case of atheists. We know from science that if there is not god, the material universe is essentially purposeless and pointless. We humans, both as individuals and as a species, are completely accidental and we have no permanence, eventually we and everything we may have done will be gone.

    Therefore, nothing that we do matters or has any significance, in the absence of God.

    Good luck trying to find an atheist who thinks that way. They, of all people, tend to think the universe is full of purpose and that what they do matters tremendously – be it trying to stop global warming, save polar bears, reduce poverty, or simply help their next door neighbor. I know what I am talking about regarding this as neither I, most of my friends, or my family have ever been religious – yet they are some of the most moralizing people you will ever meet.

    How can that be? Simple. They just have never thought through exactly what they believe, why they believe it, and if it is logically consistent. Hence, the complete incongruance of their beliefs has simply never dawned on them.

    Again, thanks for the excellent post and good discussion in the comments section. I am very glad I rand across your blog.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks. I agree completely. Without God or something like God (if nature is all there is) life is, indeed, absurd in the strictest philosophical sense of the word. And “good” and “evil” as absolute concepts are meaningless. All the atheist/naturalist arguments here (and elsewhere) have not changed my mind at all.

  • Serge

    Life has the same value to atheists like a house to theists. Both will be destroyed, yet just like theists invest into their house, atheists invest into life. Just like almost all theists have a place to live and value it, almost all atheists value life.

    We, humans, are builders, and our society grows on that. If we stop building and valuing life our society will die off and something else will take its place. Something that is striving to exist.

    • rogereolson

      The question is–why should an atheist invest into the lives of others if a) he doesn’t want to, and b) he is not disadvantaged by not doing so?

      • Serge

        Every individual in a society is contributing a tiny little bit to the society by merely doing some minor actions. A janitor who never speaks to anybody and keeps a restroom clean is helping other people avoid deceases. The society is responsible to produce individuals that are interested in the building process. Given two societies the one that produces individuals that are more engaged will “win” or dominate in the long run. It’s actually possible that theists are better society builders than atheists, so theists will dominate. It is also possible that a society of atheists will dominate but then it will wither away at some point of time.

  • Jephrei

    Morality is grounded in the well-being of conscious creatures.

    If you’re talking about absolutes in the sense of “nobody could possibly disagree with the basis of this,” then absolutes don’t exist. They don’t exist in science or ethics or theology or any knowledge enterprise.

    You can play the skeptical game of “but what if someone disagreed with you” with anything, including theistic morality (because how do you know what God wants from you?). A scientist can point to reason and evidence and the evident usefulness and efficiency of a scientific theory or explanation. But what if someone didn’t care about those things? What if someone were to reject reason and evidence as a path to truth? What then?

    Does this make science “subjective?”

    Think of it in terms of medical health. What if someone were to say that vomiting every five minutes is their definition of health? Does that make the enterprise of scientific medicine arbitrary, groundless, and meaningless, just because some hypothetical person might disagree?

    What constitutes “health” is hard to define except in terms of having nothing wrong with you medically. We might consider a person who lived to 110 with very little ill effects to be very healthy. But in ninety years, dying at the age of 110 might be dying too soon. How we define health, positively, is elastic and changing.

    Similarly, well-being can be difficult to pin down. Generally I would think it refers to human flourishing and happiness, which takes many forms. Well-being, by definition, is what everyone strives for. But we know what well-being isn’t. It isn’t rape and murder. How do we know this? Because rape and murder reduces the well-being of the people being raped and murdered. It effectively removes the potential for well-being. It causes suffering and ruins lives. And no one but a psychopath would enjoy inflicting that sort of pain on someone else. People simply aren’t wired that way for the most part.

    Of course, you’re going to want to retort with “but what if someone actually enjoyed those things? How can we ever say that such a thing is absolutely bad?” And the answer is that you can’t. But that’s an impossible standard to meet for any form of knowledge, at least while remaining intellectually honest (i.e. not inventing an entity and then saying “if this entity existed than that would solve everything!”). Yet that mere fact has never stopped a scientist from doing his work, nor should it. The rest of us are simply not obliged to listen to someone’s hypothetical disagreement.

    I hope that helps you see, as an atheist who has wrestled with these issues, where I’m coming from. I doubt you’ll find it some slam dunk refutation of your argument, but then, neither is your argument. ( By the way, most of what I’ve written is paraphrased from a book called “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris, which I think you would find of interest. )

    • rogereolson

      We are talking apples and oranges. You are talking about epistemology–what we can know. I am talking about metaphysics, ontology–what is actually the case in reality. I have responded to this confusion to many other atheists who have posted here and, in my opinion, it is the almost universal confusion. The issue isn’t “what can I know absolutely?” The issue is “Are there absolute norms of right and wrong that exist independently of what anyone knows or thinks?” Only if the latter is the case–that such absolute norms of right and wrong exist independently of knowledge–can we rightly seek for and hope to find (however tentatively and imperfectly) objective morality. Without believing in such norms the most anyone can say to a perpetrator is “I don’t like what you did” or “What you did is counterproductive to you [or most people],” etc. On that account of morality what one cannot say to a perpetrator (meaningfully) is “What you did is absolutely wrong regardless of its consequences or how it makes you feel or what most people think about it.” This is what Martin Luther King, Jr., meant in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” about the “higher law” that stands above social beliefs and attitudes. Every prophet (whether religious or secular) assumes something like that. One does not have to think there is absolute knowledge of it (complete or beyond doubt). The issue is whether it is believed to exist independently of people’s preferences or feelings or well-being, etc. IF I could prove that the well-being of the majority of humanity would be enhanced by committing genocide against a minority group, what could you say on your account of morality? You could say you disagree. But all you means is that you disagree about the consequence of the action, not about its absolute rightness or wrongness regardless of consequences.

      • Jephrei

        First of all, thanks for responding. You seem to get a lot of comments here.

        I don’t think we’re talking about different things at all. The epistemology of morality and its “metaphysical” basing (or lack thereof) are one and the same. They ask the same question: how do we know what’s right and wrong? How we know what we know and what’s true in reality is the same question.

        In a universe full of rocks, is there such a thing as objective morality? Of course not. Morality only exists because people and the potential for suffering exist. Which means that there is no supra-human, metaphysical, “absolute” grounding for morality. But that’s true of everything. Reason and logic would seem to be excellent methods for discerning truth, even in a universe full of rocks. But without humans there to have reason and logic, they don’t exist either. Reason and logic are methods which humanity employs that seem to work very well and seem to correspond to reality. But without conscious creatures, they’re useless. It’s the same for morality.

        You asked: “IF I could prove that the well-being of the majority of humanity would be enhanced by committing genocide against a minority group, what could you say on your account of morality?” But of course you could not prove that. In what possible way would that actually increase well-being for anyone? All you are saying is, “If the world were different, than it would be different.” What if two plus two did not equal four, but instead equaled five? Well, mathematics would have to be revised. But of course two plus two does equal four. Truth does not have to account for every potential, hypothetical difference.

        The “is/ought” distinction is illusory. Every ought is based on an is. Astronomy is nothing more than “if you define astronomy as the study of space, and if you think reason and evidence and observation etc. are valid truth-discovering methods (which would seem difficult to deny for any non-solipsist, and yet it’s a necessary axiom all the same), then here you go.” Morality is the same. “If you value whatever causes humans to flourish, then this is what you should do.”

        Norms (or values) are based on what can happen in reality. They can be based on nothing else. This is not the issue you seem to think it is; or rather, it’s an issue for every knowledge endeavor, as much as morality. All that’s needed is the positive step of: “What is “good” is what’s best for everyone, the best possible world that can exist in our universe. If the word “good” means anything, it means just that. What else could it mean?” This seems like the easiest philosophical step in the world to take.

        Of course, there are issues as to what well-being is, specifically, which I dealt with in my last comment. And you might have the classic quandaries of utilitarianism, such as “What’s better, one person’s death or a million headaches?” No one’s saying morality is easy. A better understanding of neuroscience (perhaps the next great frontier of the life sciences in the 21st century) and human happiness will hopefully help illuminate those questions. But we have to admit that those questions could, in theory, be answered, before we do anything else.

        To summarize, morality is based on humanity’s existence. It has no absolute grounding in the way you define the word. But that’s true of everything. If that makes morality subjective and arbitrary, then all of science and philosophy is also subjective and arbitrary. Yet it’s also not something that just changes on a whim, because the human brain, and the capacity for suffering that comes with it, does not change on a whim. What society defines as good and bad changes over time. But this is no different than science changing over time. Science changes because it comes closer to discovering truth. Morality changes and will change as we get closer to discovering what causes humans to flourish (which is not to say that there won’t be setbacks, or that history is a straight line always progressing upward in the moral sense. But again: true of everything).

        Thanks for reading.

        • rogereolson

          You haven’t convinced me. The issue is: What do I mean when I say to a villain “What you are doing is absolutely wrong; you ought not to do that?” Am I saying either “I don’t like what you are doing” or “What you are doing goes counter to biological instinct” or “The consequences of what you are doing are harmful” or “The vast majority of people oppose what you are doing?” Those would seem to exhaust the possibilities on the basis of naturalism. I am arguing that most people, perhaps even all normal people, mean more than any of those or all of those together when they say to someone in moral outrage and righteous indignation “What you are doing is morally wrong!” What such a declaration implies is that there is something built into the fabric of the universe that dictates that behavior is wrong regardless of what most people think or its consequences or anything like you have proposed. If morality is tied to what we can know, then it is indeed relative. But all the great prophets of history (including Martin Luther King, Jr.) believed or acted as if there is a “higher law” that transcends nature and humanity that makes certain behaviors absolutely morally wrong regardless of what anyone thinks about it or what makes anyone happy or any such subjective factors.

  • kiwichap

    Firstly, a question about the validity of the ontological argument: Right now, I’m thinking about the perfect unicorn. Now, one of the characteristics of a perfect unicorn is, of course, that it does actually exist so I guess that, somewhere, there is an extant unicorn! Isn’t there? If not, why not given that the ontological argument works when imagining the characteristics of other notional beings?

    Secondly, I’m keen to understand why my abiding suspicion that, indeed, “life has no ultimate meaning and therefore no absolute value” is problematic given that my life clearly DOES have relative meaning and relative value. Isn’t relativity (of myself to other people whom, through my evolved capacity for empathy, I can imagine being in some way damaged if I behave badly towards them) enough of a moral basis to instruct me about how I “ought” to behave towards my fellow humans?

    Lastly, I’m interested in whether or not you think that having a theistically-based moral system has any practical advantage over one derived without starting from a theistic assumption. You’ve, quite generously, made the point that being a non-theist is not a reliable indicator of immoral behaviour and it’s also demonstrably true that being a theist is no guarantor of moral behaviour. Isn’t how people actually behave towards one another what’s of practical importance?

    • rogereolson

      You have obviously not studied the ontological argument in any depth. It works only in the case of “the being greater than which none can be conceived” which does not apply to unicorns.

      • kiwichap

        I dunno, the unicorn I’m thinking about is pretty cool! Anyway, your answer (to only one of my questions, I note) really skirts around the problem with the ontological argument. To wit: whatever the characteristics of the “the being greater than which none can be conceived” are, the only place that I can be sure that it (and its characteristics) exist is in my imagination – the word “conceived” is a dead give-away on this. Sure, I can imagine anything I like about this being – multiple sets of arms, blue skin, actually existence – but how my imagining these things in any sense proves that the being actually exists I simply cannot see.

        • rogereolson

          You have still not understood the ontological argument, but I don’t have time to go into that here. I recommend you obtain and read philosopher Norman Malcolm’s excellent version and defense of it against objections such as yours which are specious.

          • kiwichap

            OK, so I’ll just accept that axiomatic statements such as “It works only in the case of the being greater than which none can be conceived” constitute a well-reasoned argument. Touche! (Although I can’t help holding a niggling suspicion that “I don’t have time to go into that” is code for “I can’t answer that objection.”

          • rogereolson

            Think whatever you want to. Have you taught philosophy of religion including the proofs of the existence of God including the various versions of the ontological argument and objections to it? Your snarky attitude in my personal space is unbecoming and I don’t have to tolerate it. Fortunately, however, it doesn’t really bother me because people who know me know that I can discuss things like the ontological argument perfectly well. But, again, if you’re really interested in learning how it works, read Norman Malcolm’s explanations of it.

  • kiwichap

    Hmm, so “axiomatic” is a snarky term, I guess, but “specious” isn’t. Fair enough – I apologise and withdraw. Malcolm’s argument, sophisticated as it is, fails in the same fashion that all versions of the ontological argument fail – it requires a human to conceive a set of characteristics which include the necessary (in terms of what is being conceived) characteristic of actual existence and then conflates ‘conceived actual existence’ with ‘actual actual existence.’ Which are two fundamentally different things. We humans just plain can’t think things into existence except for, well, thoughts.

    Also, it assumes axiomatically (whoops, there’s that work again) that ‘actual existence’ must be characteristic of “the being greater than which none can be conceived.” I’m not so sure about this. A perfect being that actually exists has the opportunity to perform deeds or make utterances that will compromise its perfection. A perfect being that DOESN’T exist will never have this opportunity so can be assured of remaining perfect in perpetuity; non-existence, then, not existence, is a characteristic that a perfect being must have. (At the very least, we can say that it’s merely a human judgement that actual existence is a characteristic that a perfect being should have. But who are we to make pronouncements about what constitutes perfection? Our imperfect humanness renders us unreliable in such matters!)

    Incidentally, I’m still interested in reading your thoughts on the other (non-ontological) questions in my original post:

    Secondly, I’m keen to understand why my abiding suspicion that, indeed, “life has no ultimate meaning and therefore no absolute value” is problematic given that my life clearly DOES have relative meaning and relative value. Isn’t relativity (of myself to other people whom, through my evolved capacity for empathy, I can imagine being in some way damaged if I behave badly towards them) enough of a moral basis to instruct me about how I “ought” to behave towards my fellow humans?

    Lastly, I’m interested in whether or not you think that having a theistically-based moral system has any practical advantage over one derived without starting from a theistic assumption. You’ve, quite generously, made the point that being a non-theist is not a reliable indicator of immoral behaviour and it’s also demonstrably true that being a theist is no guarantor of moral behaviour. Isn’t how people actually behave towards one another what’s of practical importance?

    • rogereolson

      No, because a group of people can be living off the left overs of an earlier belief system. Over time, a society (large or small) that abandons morality rooted in transcendence will tend to fall back on self-interest as the only moral norm.

  • kiwichap

    And your evidence in support of this more than ordinarily swingeing statement would be? Also, the corollary of what you write is that societies with moralities rooted in transcendence should, reliably, be moral paragons. Surely we don’t need to re-litigate the abysmal history of human suffering that transcendent morality has produced (and continues to produce in present-day theocracies)? I return to the question: isn’t the way that society actually treats its members the important thing to concentrate on?

    And what’s wrong with self-interest anyway? Given that humans are a social and inter-dependent species, our individual interests and our collective interests are very closely aligned. It makes sense for me to treat other humans well because doing so foments and reinforces a societal tendency for my fellow humans to treat me well – society’s morality is improved by my behaviour being driven by my self-interest.

    • rogereolson

      If self-interest is the highest ethical norm, then we should not be surprised if society becomes just a bunch of competing individuals with little or no real interest in the common good, to say nothing of the good of another person if it isn’t linked to their own good.

  • kiwichap

    For the reasons I’ve summarised in my previous post, I’d be extremely surprised. I just don’t buy the argument that (inevitable) competition between individuals in society is necessarily deleterious to the common good. This is because I’m just a common bloke and I’ve noticed that the best way to advance my interests is through protecting and enhancing the common good. Most people are common folk ergo common good is vital to individual self-interest.

    I know enough history (and current affairs) to know that transcendent morality can, has, and does lead to egregious behaviours that are not good for real people, at both the individual scale (e.g. witch-burnings) and group level (e.g. slavery). What frightens me is that these things, in their time, were justifiable – or even compulsory – on the basis of transcendent morality and I can see no reason to believe that such reprehensible outcomes could not recur if transcendent morality were to regain ascendency. In the past few hundred years, the emergence of secular values has managed to rein in the power of moralists with a religious warrant and, with an eye to history, I can’t see this as anything other than a good thing.

    In the course of human history, transcendent morality has had a good long trial as a source of ethics and it has been demonstrated to deliver woeful ethical outcomes. Given this demonstrable failure of what you’re espousing as the best source of moral foundation, I can’t see how you can maintain your position with a straight face.

    • rogereolson

      And yet, Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have had his impact on civil rights without appeal to a “higher law” than man’s laws. The point is not that people who believe in transcendent morality always live up to it; the point is that without it you have nothing to point to above self-interest. Then you have nothing to say to a person who is absolutely convinced that his or her self-interest is best enhanced by using power to dominate and oppress other people. All you can say is “I don’t like what you’re doing” because if you say “That’s not consistent with the common good” the person will just look at your and say “So what?”

  • kiwichap

    I think you might be on somewhat shaky ground invoking MLK’s success in the arena of civil rights as being an example of transcendent morality providing an un-trumpable moral argument.

    Firstly, I have to doubt the transcendence of a given moral system when the people who subscribe to it show such wild ethical variation. To take the civil rights struggle as a case in point, whose ethical position was correctly aligned with your transcendent morality? MLK’s? Or Senator Pat Robertson’s as related in the following anecdote reported by Christopher Hitchens:

    “ The late Senator Eugene McCarthy told me that he had once urged Senator Pat Robertson – father of the present television prophet – to support some mild civil rights legislation. ‘I’d sure like to help the colored,’ came the response, ‘but the Bible says I can’t.’ “

    Surely, if a moral system is transcendent it should lead all its subscribers to the same ethical conclusions. If it doesn’t, then what exactly is it transcending?

    Secondly, there’s no need to “point to anything higher than self-interest” as long as that includes the other fellow’s self interest as well as one’s own. The very simple advice to stick to is “treat other people as you would have them treat you” – you don’t need anything else. Now, this is an adage that I arrive at as my moral guide through the confluence of two mechanisms:
    1) I have the capacity for empathy – I can imagine how aggrieved I’d be if I were on the receiving end of some ill-treatment I’m contemplating dispensing to a fellow human. (I wouldn’t like to be enslaved; it seems sensible to assume that other humans wouldn’t like it either.)
    2) I have forward-looking self interest – my experience tells me that the best way to assure that I get treated fairly and reasonably by the rest of society is to reinforce the fair and reasonable treatment of all members of society, by all members of society, through behaving fairly and reasonably in my dealings with my fellow humans. (Refusing to take up any opportunities to enslave other humans, thus reinforcing society’s collective repudiation of slavery, is the best way for me to ensure that my enslavement at some time in the future is extremely unlikely.)

    I’m a pretty ordinary human so it seems reasonable for me to guess that lots of other ordinary humans would arrive at “treat other people …” as a guide to how they ‘ought’ to behave through these two mechanisms. All you need is to be in circumstances that involve inter-dependent interaction with society (true for most humans) plus the ability to imagine the future (capacity for empathy being a sub-set of imagination).

    It strikes me that we may be edging toward some common ground here. I understand that Jesus is reported as having espoused a version of the ‘Golden Rule’ mentioned above so perhaps you consider this as a transcendent moral directive? I hope so because then at least we’ll be able to agree that it is a morally sound basis for informing how we ‘ought’ to behave. Where we’ll continue to differ is that, unlike you, I don’t require any sort of transcendent imprimatur to decide that it is morally good – my simple humanity does that automatically.

    • rogereolson

      Good for you, but I doubt everyone thinks it does. In fact, I know that’s not the case. As for “Christians” not living according to Christian ethics, you seem to assume that everyone who claims to be “Christian” is. Well, they aren’t. And the only reason I can say that is because there is a higher standard of belief and behavior than what people who call themselves Christian think and do.

  • John Paul

    Chesteron wrote: “The danger when men cease to believe in God is not that they will believe in nothing but that they will believe anything.” I have it in my collection of his works and will set about trying to locate it — no small effort considering his body of work.