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Steve Answers The Problem of Evil for Atheists.

February 25, 2010

So, Knockgoats questioned Steve on why he thought the problem of evil was a problem for atheists. Steve responds on his blog.  Go on over there and read the whole thing. Here are a few excerpts:

You only question how God could allow evil because you think you have a clear shot of what truly IS good and evil APART from God. But HOW have you got that idea of good and evil?  Are you sure this world is unjust/evil? If so, you’re assuming the reality of an external, “extra-natural” standard.

My secular/atheistic friends claim to believe in absolute truths, but its precisely at this point they become functional relativists. You believe in absolute truth, but where is it grounded when comes to morality, to love, to beauty, to other intangible things? Surely not science. By necessity, we hear talk of social contract theory, or even personal opinion.

And

Now let’s get down to brass tacks: What do you tell people on their deathbeds? The woman who just lost a baby? The man just diagnosed with terminal cancer? The lone survivor of a family buried under Haitian rubble? I dare you to give them “there is no after-life, there is no hope, there is no meaning–just make your own out of this.” Only the coldest heart would actually say that, because you know it’s cruel and inhumane.  And in these moments of truth, you act as if your beliefs aren’t really true. This is, at least, a clue that they are not.

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53 Comments leave one →
  1. Sean permalink
    February 25, 2010 5:27 pm

    You believe in absolute truth, but where is it grounded when comes to morality, to love, to beauty, to other intangible things? Surely not science.

    I think science absolutely has a say in some intangible topics, particularly morality. Thinking of moral memes in terms of evolution makes very intelligible sense of how the majority of societies in existence today view morality. A society that were to view rape, murder, or theft as “good” things is unstable, and is likely to collapse under its own weight with the multitudes raping, murdering, and pillaging. Likewise, a society which views rape, murder, and theft as generally “evil” things and which views individuals who engage in such activities as delinquents is far more stable and will propagate its civilization further.

    I think this idea applies to natural evils as much as it does to man-made evils: A society which views earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes and the like as “evil” will do their best to prevent such events and to alleviate the suffering caused from such events.

    What do you tell people on their deathbeds? The woman who just lost a baby? The man just diagnosed with terminal cancer? The lone survivor of a family buried under Haitian rubble? I dare you to give them “there is no after-life, there is no hope, there is no meaning–just make your own out of this.” Only the coldest heart would actually say that, because you know it’s cruel and inhumane.

    I disagree. The coldest heart would provide these individuals false hope.

    Do terrible things happen? Yes. Is there an after-life? (Let’s assume for the sake of argument) No. Does this mean there is no hope? Does this mean there is no meaning? I staunchly disagree. Does this mean that we must derive our own hope and meaning? Perhaps, but what is inherently wrong with that? How would not having an eternity to live for make this life less important?

  2. Johann permalink
    February 25, 2010 5:38 pm

    Pity; I expected something better than the regular appeals to emotion, ignorance and incredulity, and perhaps some actual familiarity with an atheist’s point of view, what with him co-hosting the Jubilee panel and all. Ah well.

  3. February 25, 2010 6:13 pm

    Well Johann–emotion and experience are necessarily part of this conversation. Unless you’re a robot. We’re talking about evil and suffering. But I’m a pastor, and I’ve sat with people at their deathbed or when they’ve lost a child, so that aspect of it is very real, and not immaterial, to me. I don’t know if it is for you.

    Even so, that was only one of the 4 problems I mentioned.

  4. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 25, 2010 7:06 pm

    Sean,
    Memes are still an unproven scientific concept, so appealing to them I find highly dubious.

  5. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 25, 2010 7:07 pm

    Johann,

    Not to be pedantic here, but would you mind explaining why you feel Steve’s arguments are all of the above?

    And, as far as I’m aware, there is no one atheist position on the morality question. So, which one do you want Steve to be familiar with?

  6. Johann permalink
    February 25, 2010 7:18 pm

    Well Johann–emotion and experience are necessarily part of this conversation.

    They are. But you’ve founded your arguments on emotion instead of using them to address it. Not the best of foundations, there.

    But I’m a pastor, and I’ve sat with people at their deathbed or when they’ve lost a child, so that aspect of it is very real, and not immaterial, to me. I don’t know if it is for you.

    Kindly fuck off with the pastorly condescension, Steve. :) I’ve had my share of suffering, and helped other people through death, disease and disaster. I’m willing to assume that you were just clarifying your own position and not casting aspersions on my (and [generic atheist’s] by proxy) ability to relate and feel compassion for other people’s suffering – the central point of this argument. But even that assumption does nothing for things like this:

    Now let’s get down to brass tacks: What do you tell people on their deathbeds? The woman who just lost a baby? The man just diagnosed with terminal cancer? The lone survivor of a family buried under Haitian rubble? I dare you to give them “there is no after-life, there is no hope, there is no meaning–just make your own out of this.” Only the coldest heart would actually say that, because you know it’s cruel and inhumane. And in these moments of truth, you act as if your beliefs aren’t really true. This is, at least, a clue that they are not.

    Those are not moments of truth, Steve. Those are moments of weakness – of utter, debilitating vulnerability that can forever change a life even without an outside influence. Only an utter asshole or a Christian missionary would take advantage of a moment like that to propound their worldview.

    And you’re challenging us to be those assholes, implying that it’s the honest thing to do. Why? A moment like that isn’t about what you believe; it’s no more appropriate to make a stand there than it is to lecture someone who just fell out of a tree and is bleeding to death about the dangers of climbing trees. At times like these, people need help, not philosophy, and that help has fuck all to do with your beliefs – whether they need comfort, clarity, or a ride to the hospital.

    Is it possible to give that help without going against your principles? Generally, yes. But you didn’t even get around to asking about that – you just ascribed an uncaring nihilism to all atheists and then claimed that we’re dishonest because our (expected) behavior in life-and-death situations doesn’t reflect that assumption of yours. Which isn’t all that unusual, I’ve come up against variations on that time and time again with other Christians – but, like I said, I expected better.

  7. Andrew permalink
    February 25, 2010 9:50 pm

    You don’t need to appeal to “memes” in order to see that science has something to say about ethics (and about aesthetics).

    We know that:

    1) People’s ethical decision-making is in general emotional, not rational; people will make ethical judgements consistently but have difficulty in explaining why.

    2) Ethical judgements are consistent in certain ways over a wide range of individuals and cultures, suggesting that the emotions driving them are largely innate.

    3) Accordingly, we expect that societies will tend to have an ethos which reflects those shared values to a greater or lesser extent, and we would expect that extent to correlate with stability.

    4) Because ethical judgement is primarily emotional, we can’t necessarily rely on it to produce an optimal balance between different emotional drives. So sometimes social changes happen which result in a society which we would consider morally worse overall (e.g. fascism in Germany and elsewhere).

    These are clearly all matters for scientific research.

  8. erp permalink
    February 25, 2010 10:59 pm

    A kind person is not going to contradict a dying person’s beliefs that give comfort whether that be belief in Jesus, Krishna, or that there is no afterlife. Then there are some who tell a dying person they have to convert right now to belief Y or they are damned.

  9. February 26, 2010 3:41 am

    I posted this on Steve’s blog, but I figured I would post this here too for the sake of discussion.

    I am personally not a fan of this argument at all. Here is my post:

    Steve,

    “…it is nevertheless true that in a God-less universe, we are left without a coherent and absolute moral framework.”

    How do you establish this? It seems to be the premise doing the most amount of work in your argument but it seems to be glossed over without there being any sort of support for it. There are plenty of ethical systems that seem to be coherent that the atheist can use. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that a kantian system presupposes God, but it seems to be a fine ethical system. There are plenty of others.

    Also I don’t see why it would be problematic for the atheist to take your advice:

    “If so, you’re assuming the reality of an external, “extra-natural” standard.”

    Why not accept moral facts as non-physical/natural entities parts of the world? Why not ground your moral facts in abstract entities like the platonist? Plenty of atheists accept the existence of: numbers, states of affairs, propositions, sets, etc. All of which seem to not be physical/natural entities. But this is still just assuming the physicalist/naturalist is incapable of grounding morality in physical/natural things, like pain and pleasure, or the satisfaction and dissatisfaction of desires, etc.

    I don’t see how one can rule out these other options. If they can’t it seems that one could easily be an atheist but not really be bothered by this alleged problem.

    So, how does the theist accomplish this task?

  10. Knockgoats permalink
    February 26, 2010 4:58 am

    This is the reply I posted on Steve’s blog (tidied up by removing a few typos).

    What an amazing load of dingo’s kidneys.
    1) You are not even addressing the question you raised here. You are claiming that evil is a philosophical problem for atheists, yet you immediately start talking about how you (wrongly) think atheists view the problem of evil for theists. If you want to talk about that, fine (there’s a thread on that over at The Thomas Society right now), but in the current context, it’s a complete red herring.
    2) How do you know your moral standards, by which you’re judging God, are any more than social conventions or personal opinions? If that’s all they are, then you’re in no position to make ANY moral judgments, much less put God on trial, for breaking your relative standards. If I’m just a sophisticated animal, who just got here by chance, then moral categories are absurd. How can there be true rights or wrongs?
    Utter garbage: of course I am in such a position. What other judgement can any morally autonomous being judge by but their own? What you’re saying here is “If there is no objective morality, how can there be objective morality?” The fact (and it is unavoidable fact) that there is no objective morality does not mean that moral standards are arbitrary, which is the unspoken (because unjustified and unjustifiable) message you are trying to convey. What moral standards we adopt matter because they affect other people. If you need a justification from the command of your imaginary sky-daddy for caring about other people, you’re a psychopath – apparently, many Christians do, and are. Those (including Christians) who are more morally mature recognise that this “argument” is bilge: even if there were a God, it makes perfect sense to ask whether God is good – if you deny that, presumably you’d go around murdering women if you thought God told you to, like Peter Sutcliffe. Look up Euthyphro’s dilemma; your argument was disposed of some 2,300+ years ago.
    3) why do non-theists believe killing the Amalekites is wrong?
    Are you asking a causal or a justificatory question here? If the former, that’s a scientific question, on which considerable progress has been made – and as it happens, one I’ve published a long peer-reviewed paper on. If you want to discuss this, I’m happy to oblige. If the latter, and you really can’t see that the moral judgement that slaughtering thousands of people out of hand is wrong does not need a justification, you are indeed a psychopath. I can’t logically demonstrate from agreed premises to a psychopath that it is wrong – and nor can a theist. Oh, you can tell him your sky-daddy will be very cross and will punish him, but then you’re just appealing to his self-interest.
    4) Sure, I might tell people all sorts of comforting lies under the right circumstances. So what? This does not make then one whit more likely to be true, despite your idiotic claim to the contrary. Suppose someone is badly injured, and I tell them they are going to be OK, they are not going to die, even though I don’t believe it. Does that make the claim more likely to be true? Only an idiot would think so.

    Note: I’d missed that Steve did actually make the explicit claim that compassion and concern are “arbitrary”, which of course, they are not.

  11. Richard Eis permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:10 am

    I dare you to give them “there is no after-life, there is no hope, there is no meaning–just make your own out of this.” Only the coldest heart would actually say that, because you know it’s cruel and inhumane.

    Well yes, luckily we don’t actually do that right when they are dying. That would be tacky…

    It is the goddies that created the concept of the afterlife. Its their fault that we suddenly have to start answering questions on it.

    And in these moments of truth, you act as if your beliefs aren’t really true. This is, at least, a clue that they are not.

    Really, really, really wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. Lying to make people feel better doesn’t change reality.

  12. Johann permalink
    February 26, 2010 10:34 am

    And, as far as I’m aware, there is no one atheist position on the morality question. So, which one do you want Steve to be familiar with?

    Well, mine is the one I’m most intimately familiar with, so now that I have time for a more detailed response… *cracks knuckles*

    1. Logically:
    Here’s the implicit logic, usually unstated, at work in the minds of those who view evil as a serious objection to God:

    If God exists, everything he should make sense to me.
    Evil doesn’t make sense to me.
    Therefore God does not exist.

    Pastor, please. That strawman is so ham-handedly constructed it wouldn’t even scare a crow away. Again, I expected better than this – and you can peek over in the discussion the problem of evil we’ve been having here if you really can’t come up with a more articulate definition of an atheist’s potential position.

    If he’s the Creator and we are the creation, then by definition we will not be able to comprehend all of him.

    Which is why artificial intelligence does not exist as a field of study and I am not doing research on a topic in it right now. After all, our creations “by definition” cannot have any information about us available to them. Also, all those parts of the Bible that talk about your god’s feelings, motivations, actions and how we were “created in his image” in human terms that are easily related to our own experience? They don’t exist either. We also do not have courts and systems of law, because even if we have proven a suspect’s involvement in a crime beyond a shadow of a doubt we cannot pass judgment based on that because we do not “comprehend all of him”.

    That was your appeal to ignorance.

    And you’ve wasted it. After all, this does nothing whatsoever to advance your central claim – that the existence of evil poses a problem for an atheistic worldview. Here is your point (1) summarized in one sentence: “You’re not justified in rejecting an unintelligible god based on the existence of evil.” But the unintelligibility of your idea of a god is a problem for you, not for me.

    I’ve gone on long enough on this point already, so I won’t go into how I don’t think you believe your own argument here – I would bet quite a large sum that you believe and behave as though your god is benevolent in intelligible ways. I just want to note the inconsistency.

    2. Epistemologically:
    How does the secular non-theist know what “Good” and “Evil” is?

    By defining them based on personal and shared experience.

    Yeah, I don’t believe in the existence of moral absolutes, at least not the ones usually referred to in religious debates on the subject. Fire away. ;)

    But HOW have you got that idea of good and evil? Are you sure this world is unjust/evil? If so, you’re assuming the reality of an external, “extra-natural” standard.

    No, I’m not assuming that at all if I say that this world is unjust. My standards are my own; from experience, I know that they are also shared by many others, but that doesn’t make mine or theirs somehow supernatural. It makes them shared. Jumping from commonality to divinity does not an argument make.

    How do you know your moral standards, by which you’re judging God, are any more than social conventions or personal opinions? If that’s all they are, then you’re in no position to make ANY moral judgments, much less put God on trial, for breaking your relative standards.

    …or jumping from that to this kind of nonsense. Guess I’ll be the first to break it to you: We all make moral judgments based on our own individual understanding of morality, unique to us – all the time. That’s the way this thing called individuality works. I also happen to like vanilla ice cream, and I have no problems whatsoever choosing it out of twenty other flavors at an ice cream shop even though I’m fully aware that this preference is subjective.

    Would I condemn someone for liking a different flavor? No, their preference has no significant impact on my life (or anyone’s but theirs), and so is morally neutral as far as I can see. Would someone’s inclination to murder in a fit of anger influence my life in more significant ways, even if I’m not the victim? You bet. Even if you give me no credit for basic compassion and assume pure self-interest on my part, it would not be in my (or most anyone’s) interest to have a murderer with poor impulse control running loose.

    Do you see where I might have a basis for distinguishing between the two, or do I need to start drawing stick figures?

    (I hope not. I can’t even draw stick figures properly. :p )

    How can there be true rights or wrongs?

    Let me paraphrase that: “How can I get my god/the universe/[insert higher authority from which there is no appeal] to validate my personal sense of morality?” Answer: You can’t.

    I suppose this idea would be rather daunting if you can’t function without believing that your ideas and intuitions are validated on a universal level. And if you’re used to thinking of the world in terms of sin and virtue, of good and evil and black and white, I suppose it might be difficult to see the interplay of everyone’s personal understanding of morality – popes and pimps and doctors and soldiers, all with their own principles and temptations and actions, all contributing to the ebb and flow of social norms and conditions and being influenced by them in return.

    But that kind of existential insecurity and tunnel vision on your part also would not a problem for me, or for an atheistic worldview in general.

    That was your appeal to incredulity. You didn’t do so well with this one either.

    3. Ethically/Morally:

    Can you say anything is REALLY, intrinsically, truly evil?

    Sure I can. Licorice is REALLY, intrinsically, truly evil. There, I said it.

    What you meant to ask was whether I believe that something can be intrinsically evil. And my answer to that would be: probably not in the way you think of it. You’d have to get into messier concepts like intent, justification and pointless suffering – but in the bigger picture, I think that “good” and “evil” are subjective judgments we superimpose onto our experience of an objective reality. (That’s not to say that other atheists won’t believe in moral absolutes and wholeheartedly disagree with me, but as I said, I’m elaborating my own perspective here.)

    What you should have asked but didn’t because you were too busy assuming that we have no answer: How would you convince someone else that your moral judgment is correct?

    …it is nevertheless true that in a God-less universe, we are left without a coherent and absolute moral framework.

    *laughs* That’s a pretty cute bit of misdirection. Go on, show me a coherent and absolute moral framework in the Bible – I’ll even spot you the assumption that your god exists for free. :p And if you actually perform a miracle and manage to extract one, get all the Christians to agree with it. Remember what I said earlier about everyone’s individual understanding of morality? Good luck with that and with the 36000+ sects of Christianity.

    For extra credit, reconcile the supernatural moral values of Christianity with those of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Jainism, Confucianism, Shinto and the Greek and Norse pantheons – don’t forget to supply a list of the ones you would disregard and specific justifications for doing so. It would be an incomplete picture, of course, but then you could talk about “supernatural” morality with some authority instead of just pretending it exists and hoping we’ll play along. Otherwise, you’re just pushing your own individual understanding (hm, where have we seen that before?) of what a supernatural morality might be like, on the strength of nothing more than bare assertion and your claim of divine support.

    This is not only hazardous to humanity and our physical well-being. It’s also dangerous to our psyches, as we see in our 4th category.

    And here comes the appeal to emotion. Speak for yourself and the fragility of your own psyche, please – and if you want to challenge my humanity or question my physical well-being because of what I believe, have the courage to do so directly.

    I’ll pass on the continued appeal to emotion in (4), since I already touched on the central point above, except to note that this

    For these reasons, the problem of evil is a greater challenge for the non-theist, because it reveals the extent to which they borrow the absoluteness of their moral framework from theists (Christians in particular). Any moral authority they have is borrowed.

    is at best ignorance (which, again, I’m willing to assume here) and at worst a smug, self-inflating lie. Once again, I expected better – Jon’s not perfect, but he at least noticeably makes an effort to understand an atheist’s perspective before he opens his mouth.

    Over to you, Steve.

  13. Knockgoats permalink
    February 26, 2010 5:23 pm

    Well said Johann. On a quick scan, didn’t see anything I disagree with there. I think I see Steve’s problem: someone’s stuck his head on backwards. Can’t see any other way he could manage to get things so consistently wrong!

  14. Andrew permalink
    February 26, 2010 6:33 pm

    If he’s the Creator and we are the creation, then by definition we will not be able to comprehend all of him.

    It just struck me that this sounds very like a variation on the ‘conservation of complexity’ fallacy – people naturally assume that complex effects must have complex causes, therefore a creator must be in some sense of a higher order than the creation. But we know now that this is false and misleading; complexity is not conserved, and it’s just as possible for the creator not to be able to comprehend the creation than the reverse.

  15. Johann permalink
    February 26, 2010 9:03 pm

    …and, for the sake of continuity, crossposting my comment here.

    What if, in fear and uncertainty, they’re begging for you to give them something to hold on to? What would you say then?

    Why do you ask this question as though there’s a one-fits-all formula for comfort? Some people need to be held. Some need to break things. Some people will find comfort in having their beliefs reinforced, and some will accept nothing but the most naked honesty you can muster. If you’re looking for an atheist translation of “Jesus loves you”, you’re not getting the point.

    I’ve noticed everyone is jumping to the proselytizing question, which is something of a red herring here. I’m asking how you console and comfort people. While I realize that’s not a “proof,” I think it raises the dissonance you must feel–that there’s a bankruptcy to your worldview, when it counts most.

    On the contrary, this is one of those things where it’s demonstrably superior to yours. In my moments of weakness, I’ll take empathy and someone who seeks to understand and fill my needs over exploitive proselytizing any day.

    …if you believe someone’s going to get hit by a bus, how much do you have to hate them to not push them out of the way?

    The bus is a bad analogy, because only the most tin-headed fundamentalist would insist that their god is as obviously and demonstrably real to a non-believer as a bus. Here’s a more representative scenario: you’re insisting that they’ll be eaten by an invisible dragon that only you know about if they don’t do as you say.

    If you like analogies, consider the parallels between your behavior and that of a jackal that wounds his prey and waits for it to be near death and weak from blood loss before coming to finish it off. It’s imperfect as analogies go – your hypothetical behavior here is more that of a scavenger than a predator – but I trust you get my point.

    Wouldn’t you think me a monster if I did NOT talk about Jesus in that moment?

    No. I would think you’re a decent human being who respects another’s right to make decisions about their life despite disagreeing with their evaluation of the consequences.

    If you did start pushing Jesus at the deathbed of someone who didn’t want it, I would feel fully justified in throwing you out of the room – through the window if necessary.

  16. Johann permalink
    February 27, 2010 2:32 am

    Hmm. Looks like Steve decided not to let my comment out of his moderation queue, so the link above doesn’t actually lead anywhere. Guess this’ll be the only copy of it.

    Care to address it here, Steve – or am I not being civil enough in responding to your smears? =)

  17. Andrew permalink
    February 27, 2010 5:49 am

    In fairness to Steve, it looks like he’s manually moderating the first comment, and if sleep or real life is keeping him away from his moderation queue it’s a bit soon to conclude that he’s decided not to approve it.

  18. Johann permalink
    February 27, 2010 6:53 am

    Ah – my mistake. I’m not really familiar with the range of settings for WordPress and assumed that Steve was moderating all comments, and from seeing my comment stuck in the queue while another reply to the same comment was posted it was just a short hop to unwarranted conclusions. ^_^

    I’ll be waiting, then. =)

  19. Johann permalink
    February 27, 2010 6:55 am

    ^ That, once it gets approved, was me forgetting which addresss I use to authenticate here. Bedtime now. ;)

  20. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 27, 2010 8:59 am

    It’s up. I only edit newcomer comments, just to make sure they aren’t spam. So, when you commented under a different email, it didn’t like you. :)

  21. David permalink
    February 27, 2010 10:50 am

    Jonathan- here is a partial response to Steve, as I’ve only read the parts you posted.

    “Are you sure this world is unjust/evil?”
    No, actually I’m not sure this world is unjust/evil, although some actions in it are.

    “If so, you’re assuming the reality of an external, “extra-natural” standard.”
    No. You are merely making the assumption that something about injustice or evil is necessarily supernatural, external or extra-natural, whatever you mean by that last. That appears to be wild conjecture. And without that assumption you seem to have no grounds for saying that atheists have a similar problem with a perception of evil (for that is what you argued, not that evil itself was a problem, despite your wording in the title) that Christians have with the existence of evil things, under a supposed god with characteristics that would, if he were real, contradict the existence of evil.

    “You believe in absolute truth, but where is it grounded when comes to morality, to love, to beauty, to other intangible things?”
    Believing that some things are a matter of objective truth doesn’t mean everything is. Morality is grounded in biology, and love is as well. As to truth relating to beauty, I’m not sure what you mean. If you are about to go on about if truth is beauty, is beauty truth, the answer is no. Truth is beautiful in a utilitarian way. It is useful. Beauty is not necessarily true. I have little sisters and have been exposed to plenty of toy unicorns, I’m pretty damn sure that the fact that they were designed to be pretty doesn’t mean unicorns are real.

    “What do you tell…”
    For these hypotheticals, since you didn’t make it clear, I will simply assume I am talking to my loved ones- friends and family.

    “people on their deathbeds?”
    I love you, and I’ll miss you when you’re gone. Do you remember when… (And then I’d remind them of some funny story, or fun time, or sweet moment)

    “The woman who just lost a baby?”
    I’m terribly sorry for your loss, if you need to talk, I will listen; if you need to cry, here’s my shoulder, if you need to be alone, I understand, let me know what I can do.

    “The man just diagnosed with terminal cancer?”
    That’s terrible. Tell me what kind, I will do research and see if there are treatments that might help beyond the established ones. Trials are started all the time…
    I don’t want to lose you, my friend. And I will struggle to keep from losing you.

    “The lone survivor of a family buried under Haitian rubble?”
    (Since I don’t know anyone who might fall into this group, this is as to a stranger)
    I’m sorry for your loss. I can’t say I understand, because I’ve only lost people one at a time. But I do know this: there is an entire country of people who are sharing this loss, and an entire world of people, including me, who are mourning with you. You are not alone.

    “I dare you to give them “there is no after-life, there is no hope, there is no meaning–just make your own out of this.” Only the coldest heart would actually say that, because you know it’s cruel and inhumane.”
    You dare us to say something to people in extremity that you believe to be cruel and inhuman, just to make some sort of point. How Christian of you- reminds me of god talking to Abraham writ small.
    As to what you dare us to say, it’s a strawman: I disagree outright with 2/3s of it. The second and third part I simply don’t believe. Hope and meaning abound. There are billions of people who can inspire hope in you and billions of people who make meaning in their lives. As to people who are dying, the hope and meaning that is important then is the hope and meaning they brought to the world. Point it out, thank them for it. Tell them how they made your life better and how they made the lives of others you know better. That is a human comfort which can not be replaced by wish thinking and mumbo jumbo.
    As to the first part, you cheapen moments of loss by saying “these aren’t moments of loss, not really. We will meet again.” You don’t say all the human things that need saying at such times. Letting people know that the world is better for having had them on it is a true comfort, unlike the false comfort of an afterlife you have no proof of. And if you don’t think the dying person made the world a better place, then there are probably other people around better suited to having that deathbed conversation.

    “And in these moments of truth, you act as if your beliefs aren’t really true. This is, at least, a clue that they are not.”
    You obviously know nothing of how we act in these moments of extremity, and little of how we act otherwise. The way we should relate to people in moments of dire need is as people, not as religious zealots. As individuals sharing personal feelings and memories, not as suppliers of the drug of faith. If you need to talk faith to avoid having those deep human moments of connection, of celebrating the life of a loved one, of pain and loss, if you need to anesthetize yourself, that’s what you need to do. But don’t say it’s better, because it’s not. I hope someday you can relate to people in deep human distress as a human rather than as a believer.

  22. Alex permalink
    February 27, 2010 6:05 pm

    I came to this thread late in the game, so I’ll just put in my two cents that all my issues with Steve’s post have been covered, but I don’t really think that anyone posted an emotional response to what is, in effect, an emotional “argument,” so here goes.

    Steve, I think you’re wrong, and petty, and ill-informed about this issue. I think you should at least consider what you say about other people’s morality or immorality a little more carefully before posting an article such as your most recent one. Nothing is more offensive, or less within the scope of an allegedly “holy” man, than to condemn other people’s ethics and morality with prima facie condemnations and implications of moral superiority.

    I’m usually pretty respectful of religious arguments, but this one pisses me off too much.

    This is why I can’t stand reading your theological arguments anymore – they are rarely theological, and they are rarely arguments. Rather, they are typically just a case of a religious nutter projecting his neuroses onto good people who don’t need this bullshit. Jonathan is occasionally guilty of this little tactic, but with this last foray into absurdity, you positively take the cake on non-sequitur agent-based arguments to social ills. I just can’t even read you anymore it hurts my brain so much.

    There is no quicker way to prove that almost any theologist is a completely self-absorbed douche-bag completely detached from reality than to give him the chance to espouse on the problem of evil.

    After claiming to have a view on the “problem of evil” for atheists, you merely imply (heavy-handedly) that the problem for us heathens is that we’re godless and we know we’re missing out on your vaguely homo-erotic relationship with a fictional God-Child. Bob forbid we not rape each other out of respect for other human beings (that would be godless and immoral.) I don’t need you to lord your status as shepherd to the bereft and dying. I have spent time in the presence of the terminally ill and dying, as well as their families. The difference between you and me, Steve, is that I was busy CARING for them in their time of pain and passing, whereas you were busy LYING for the sake of, well… nothing. False hope isn’t hope, and self-serving love isn’t love, it’s intellectual masturbation. The shear gall of implying to someone that that human suffering and loss is immaterial to them… well, I’d click my tongue if you were here to hear it. You’re a bastard, hiding behind the frock and claiming that makes you righteous.

    The problem with religion isn’t that it’s stupid (it is) or even that it’s wrong (IT IS!) The problem with religion is that it utterly separates people from their intelligence, compassion, and humanity while at the same time convincing them they are somehow more intelligent, more compassionate, and more humane than their fellow man.

    The problem with religion is that it allows people to come up with an excuse for the fact that they couldn’t find their own moral direction without being brainwashed by a supportive community of pseudo-ethical douche-bags who share their douche-bag proclivities.

    Religion takes evil out of the hands of people and makes us mere pawns in a cosmic game of Ethical Chess. And that’s the greatest evil of all.

    Try harder next time.

  23. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 27, 2010 8:50 pm

    Alex,
    Is there an argument somewhere in this tirade? I mean, you accuse Steve a lot of things here, but I don’t really see you making any arguments of any substance. Instead you use the ole chestnut, “Here is another minister who I think is an arrogant douchebag. Arrogant douchebags are always wrong. Therefore, his argument must be wrong.” This is an arguement which I find extremely tiresome and really only amounts to ad hominem fallacy. Please see David’s response for a well argued rebuttal of Steve’s post that doesn’t really on the ad hom fallacy to make his point of view. This isn’t whining about fair treatment, this is use an argument that doesn’t rely on name calling, a basic rule in logical debate.

    All of that said, you don’t have to agree with Steve’s assertions. Fine. State why and show where he is wrong instead of acting all pissy about it. For someone who accuses Steve of being self righteous, you are doing an awfully good job of it yourself. I find it extremely interesting you keep appealing to a standard of good and evil that I have yet to see be established by the atheists on this board. I hear the same tired arguments, but it all amounts to a level of special pleading. That is, we are moral because it’s just good stuff to do among human beings. If someone asks, well why is it that the case? The reply is, “Well, it just is.”

    I have to give it to Johann, for admitting he doesn’t hold to moral absolutes. FINALLY, we are getting somewhere. If everyone is willing to admit this from the atheist camp, then I would simply argue you should stop using moral language when you are talking about God, how Christians act or anything else. In other words, figure out new terms to use in regards to your position. Right. Wrong. Anger at wrong doing. All of these are out for you. Figure out ways to describe why someone should be moral according to this system.

    Note, I’m not saying you can’t make the argument, I just haven’t heard anything very convincing. All I have heard is how arrogant Christians are for making moral claims, how evil they actually are and not the atheists when it comes to moral questions or it’s all grounded in biology. Everyone knows on this board that I have argued that atheists are moral people. I have made the arguments to my fellow Christians who deny this fact. So, I’m a bit stunned to see atheists turn around and do to the exact same shit to Christians. That is, telling Steve he has no morals because he believes in God. Don’t you see this is atheist self righteousness is just as bad as the shit Christians pull in regards to atheists? And it’s BAD for both sides to do it because it’s, one more time, an AD HOM fallacy.

    I’m sorry, but you can’t ground it in simple, scientific biology. The most you can say with this argument is that certain behaviors helped us survive, so, you could, if you wanted, call it moral. However, it’s purely arbitrary. That’s it. I find the biology argument the most highly unconvincing of them all. It’s interesting that theists are accused of being circular in regards to the argument of morality. An assertion I’m williing to grant with some certain clarfications, because, in the end, reason is often stuck in an infinite regress if you really push the point on all wordviews.

    And then, there is this, “You’re a bastard, hiding behind the frock and claiming that makes you righteous.”

    Alex, you have been around here long enough to know how I deal with things. Name calling towards me is tolerated. Name calling towards others, not so much. Consider this an official warning.

  24. Johann permalink
    February 27, 2010 10:52 pm

    If everyone is willing to admit this from the atheist camp, then I would simply argue you should stop using moral language when you are talking about God, how Christians act or anything else. In other words, figure out new terms to use in regards to your position. Right. Wrong. Anger at wrong doing. All of these are out for you. Figure out ways to describe why someone should be moral according to this system.

    …I’m not even sure where to start with this. Jon – for the sake of my sanity, could you explain the thought process that leads you from “Johann doesn’t believe in moral absolutes” to “Johann shouldn’t talk about morality”?

    Do you really think that it’s impossible to evaluate something as “right” or “wrong”, as “good” or “bad” unless you have a supernatural peg to hang those judgments on?

  25. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 27, 2010 11:00 pm

    Allow me to correct. I didn’t say you couldn’t talk about morality. I’m just asking to explain why you think you can.

    I’m not even asking you to hang it on a supernatural peg. I’m just asking you to hang it on something that makes sense to me. If your argument is that morality is an illusion that we have forced on reality to help us survive, I’m actually perfectly fine with that explanation. I disagree with it, but it makes sense to me. However, I’m asking then, if that’s your position, doesn’t that change the way we use moral language? Doesn’t this mean new terms are needed?

  26. Andrew permalink
    February 27, 2010 11:32 pm

    I have to give it to Johann, for admitting he doesn’t hold to moral absolutes. FINALLY, we are getting somewhere. If everyone is willing to admit this from the atheist camp,

    What specifically do you mean here by “moral absolutes”?

    If you mean “a useful system of normative ethics that is neither arbitrary nor dependent on human values and goals”, then no such thing exists.

    If you mean (as most religious leaders do) moral statements of the form “X is wrong” which are claimed to be true regardless of context, circumstances, etc. (such as the Catholic church’s “abortion is wrong, even if the child is ancephalic or the mother is physically incapable of carrying the child to viability without risking almost certain death”, or the more widespread Christian “homosexuality is wrong”), then most useful systems of ethics admit only a small number of such statements, corresponding to situations never found in practice, generally only because justification would be impossible.

    Either way, the rejection of moral absolutes does NOT mean that we have no basis on which to make moral statements (whether about a postulated god or not). In the first case, we can accept that any ethical system has to conform to our values in order to be useful. In the second case, we can reject as false any claimed “absolute” statement which, when taken in context, results in obviously immoral outcomes.

  27. Alex permalink
    February 28, 2010 12:56 am

    Jonathan,

    As I said at the top of my last post, I wasn’t trying to make an argument against any points Steve made, because I think that posters before me did an excellent job of refuting most of Steve’s “argument.” You can disagree with my “tirade,” and I don’t particularly care. Tirade 2 follows. Ban me and delete it, I believe what I believe.

    I very explicitly stated that I was posting an emotional response to a position which, in my opinion, was laden with subtext and heavy-handedness against non-Christians as somehow being detached from morality and ethics. If you doubt my assertion there, you can see it very clearly in Steve’s comment to Johann – “I’m a pastor, and I’ve sat with people at their deathbed or when they’ve lost a child, so that aspect of it is very real, and not immaterial, to me. I don’t know if it is for you.” Steve’s statement should offend you.

    Could I have controlled my tongue a little better? Yes. Do I apologize for my language? If you, as the facilitator of this conversation demand it, sure. But do I think for a moment that a person hiding behind religion to cover the fact that he is incapable of believing in the humanity of other people is anything but a mountebank and a charlatan? I do not.

    From his underhanded digs as to non-clergy’s inability to have compassion for human suffering to his vague undertones of superiority, all I did in my response post was convert Steve’s Christian concept of Sin As Evil to a secular version we can call, for the sake of argument, Christian Moral Certitude As Evil. If it tastes sour to you, maybe you can understand that that’s how Steve’s argument, as well as similar arguments made by others elsewhere, must feel to a non-believer like me.

    Steve’s argument is flawed at a very basic level, because it is based on a false assumption that non-spiritual individuals have to “answer” the problem of evil. I don’t have a problem of evil, I have a problem WITH evil. Historically, religion does not. And as Steve tells people in his comments on the original post, he has a moral obligation to force Jesus on the desperate and dying (my phrasing, not his, I’ll admit.) He says it would make him a monster not to do it. I say doing it makes people monsters. Again, Steve’s statement should offend you.

    I have read every post on this blog, ever posted. I’ve been here since almost the beginning, and have mostly remained silent. Notes of congratulations and well wishes, jokes, occasional points and notes to fellow commenters, but mostly, I keep to myself. But now, I find Steve Lutz’ position more offensive than any position held by any of the most vocal members of Westbourough Baptist Church – they have the excuse of sheer stupidity for their behavior. Lutz is an educated man, and has no excuse for his presumption. Any educated man who claims that the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing in Rwanda are not objectively evil, and then claims to have any foothold on morality offends me. Steve’s comment should offend you, too. I try to have faith in you, Jonathan, as a fellow human being and “internet friend,” and so I find myself disappointed that you don’t find Steve’s arguments offensive right alongside me.

    Despite your warning to me, I’ve never seen you call out religious people for baiting or insulting other people’s faith or lack thereof, an act many people would find more offensive than any vulgarity. And it certainly happens here. In my last post, I was guilty of both insulting others’ faith, and (Oh No) personal attacks. Your vigilance, however, only cares about one of those transgressions, the one that you and your clerical brethren don’t perpetrate as often, and that makes it hard for me to respect it. I recognize that this is your website, and I have no freedom of speech here. That’s fine. But I wouldn’t mind even-handed standards. If you think my response to Steve was not proportionate to his offense against me, that is only because you are not reading his statements from the view of a person being told that they are inherently more evil and less moral than the writer. To repeat myself ad nauseam, you should be offended. It truly upsets me that you aren’t.

    I think you know by now that I’m a nice guy for the most part. Before this post, the most offensive thing I ever said on this website is that I want people to disagree, because I want some of us to be right, and some of us to be wrong. I want the argument to continue. You feel the argument can’t continue if we don’t respect certain boundaries. Fine. So, I’ll tone down the swearing and the personal attacks, so long as you can understand that there’s a reason that I said I was pissed in the first place. I meant what I said at the end of my last post. The great evil is religion taking morality away from society and making people think they aren’t responsible for forming and understanding it, so long as they follow the rules of nomads from two thousand years ago.

    You should be offended. Right next to me. You don’t need God to know Steve is wrong, just a heart, and maybe a place in the human experience. Morality is obvious to even a child, and yet a grown man like Steve Lutz still can’t figure it out. There is no God, and yet evil exists. That is, in the end, all you really need to know to go out and combat it.

    -Alex

  28. Alex permalink
    February 28, 2010 1:34 am

    Sorry for the double post, but I just remembered you’re Anglican Presby (I always confuse you with my Methodist friends), and so subscribe to the doctrine of Total Depravity. I now realize why you aren’t offended by Steve’s comments. Of course, I still am, and I’m still disappointed, but I forgot that your faith indoctrinates its clergy in the very idea that even man’s good works are by nature motivationally wrong and hollow in execution – efficacious grace even points out that you are elect to God’s salvation and thus superior to non-theists in even your ability to achieve grace through good deeds. So I guess knock out my paragraph about why you wouldn’t chastise people for insulting non-theists, I forgot your doctrine essentially believes that atheistic morality is inherently false and evil.

    Of course, this begs the question of why any atheist would even bother to discuss ethics with an Anglican Presbyterian. Calvinist Elitism sure is convenient when it’s time to be holier than thou. It’s like Jehovah’s Witnesses Lite.

    -Alex

  29. erp permalink
    February 28, 2010 2:42 am

    I believe Jonathan is an Evangelical Presbyterian not an “Anglican Presbyterian” (the latter phrase is an interesting cacophony of church structures).

    However I do think this conversation brings up a few big divisions on how we perceive the world some of which might be best discussed in person so we get immediate feedback and can remove misperceptions quickly.

    Do we humans create morality as a means of living together and do we slowly improve it (e.g., slavery was not considered intrinsically wrong until relatively recently)? It is usually outsiders who bring new ideas about morality (e.g., Quakers and Unitarians in regards to slavery and only later the mainstream religions [sometimes much later]). “Holy Scriptures” in any religion freezes a snapshot of a current morality (sometime multiple snapshots) hence can often be quoted later by the conservatives to uphold (or return) to some ‘ideal morality’ (e.g., women being silent in church). There may be an absolute morality in the sense of the best way of us humans living together on this world and in this universe, but, we don’t know it yet and may never know it.

  30. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 7:11 am

    I have to give it to Johann, for admitting he doesn’t hold to moral absolutes. FINALLY, we are getting somewhere. If everyone is willing to admit this from the atheist camp, then I would simply argue you should stop using moral language when you are talking about God, how Christians act or anything else. In other words, figure out new terms to use in regards to your position. Right. Wrong. Anger at wrong doing. All of these are out for you. Figure out ways to describe why someone should be moral according to this system. – Jon

    Jon, you and your fellow theists don’t own the language of morality, however much you might like to think so. Nor is talk of Johann “admitting” that he doesn’t hold to moral absolutes justified, as if this were some sort of crime. This is exactly the kind of arrogance Alex was complaining of.

    All people, with the possible exception of genuine 24-carat psychopaths, make moral judgements, and take moral decisions. That is the place any moral philosophy needs to start from. To ask “why someone should be moral” is an absurdity, if that “should” is a moral should (i.e., if you are not asking “why is it in one’s self-interest to be moral”, which, of course, it often isn’t): being moral is, by definition, doing what you should, morally, do.

    Now, from that starting point, that people do in fact make moral judgements and take moral decisions, we can, philosophically, take two possible courses (I’m not saying this is the only way we could divide up the possible ways to proceed): we can try to find some solid foundation for morality, from which we can at least in principle deduce what anyone ought to do in any circumstances. For theists, this is generally, what “God” says we should do (the further questions then arises, how do we know what “God” says, given the extent to which theists disagree, and why should we obey God anyway, other than from self-interest, but I’ll leave those aside for now, since we’re focused here on the atheist’s position). Some atheists, too, follow the foundationalist strategy, for example using Kant’s categorical imperative (it doesn’t matter whether Kant was an atheist, the point is that this does not refer to God), or trying to establish that some variant of utilitarianism is “self-evident”. Others, such as Johann and me (I’m not assuming he would agree with the rest of what I say), regard this as a mistake – in my case, I see it as a hangover from theism. I see morality (like art, like science, like philosophy – although of course each of these has considerable differences from morality) as a work in progress, something which we human beings, as the only moral agents (i.e. makers of moral judgements and decisions) known to exist, have constructed and are constructing, just as we have constructed and are constructing artistic works and traditions, cities, sciences, technologies, economies, polities, societies. The conventional moral absolutist response (if they can even be brought to consider this approach) is that it makes morality “arbitrary”. This is nonsense. Just as architecture is not arbitrary, because if you get it wrong, the building will collapse, leak, or be unsuited to its function; so the choice between moral systems and judgments is not arbitrary, because those choices have important effects on individuals – both human and non-human, living and yet to be born. Foundationless moral systems can be rationally criticised, both as internally inconsistent, and as having undesireable consequences (people may be brought to see that their moral judgments do indeed have consequences they themselves judge undesireable, and hence to change those judgments). They do not pretend to be final or complete – in reality, new kinds of moral dilemma are forever arising in a society where rapid technical and social change are occurring. I can’t recall where the metaphor originated, but someone has described our collective moral situation as one of travelling on a raft, which we must constantly repair and improve as we go, without either trying to replace so much at once that we sink, or believing that what we have now is the best we can do – let alone, trying to maintain the illusion that we are actually on solid ground.

    Now, can you (and Steve, and Cruz) at least bring yourselves to acknowledge that it is not obvious that the only choices are a foundationalist approach, or “anything goes” moral nihilism?

  31. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 8:16 am

    Alex,

    I’ll get all of your statements in the next couple of days. I completely understand why you were pissed. You can be pissed here. Completely fine. Name calling is not. Other than that, you can slam away on Steve’s argument all you want. Notice, I didn’t call out Johann. It’s specific, word directed verbal assault that I won’t tolerate. Does that make sense? I don’t call people out for insulting atheist/faith. I call people out for insulting people directly, which is what the word bastard accomplished.

  32. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 9:20 am

    And, Alex, you are completley wrong. I have chastised theists for calling nontheists names, so that whole argument is a nonstarter.

  33. Alex permalink
    February 28, 2010 11:57 am

    Jonathan,

    I very specifically said that you do chastise people, atheist or theist, for namecalling. And that’s good, and you have every right to tell me my first post went to far. I said I was willing to apologize for the namecalling. I admit I got overheated. But I overheated for a reason.

    I didn’t call you out for not chastising theistic namecalling. I said that my problem is that you don’t think that telling someone that they are inherently evil, or they have no morality, or they just hate god, or that they are destined for hell, or that it’s okay to not marry those filthy, filthy gays because it’s a personal choice on the part of the clergy is exactly as offensive as calling someone a bastard.

    If you can explain how the statement “You’re a bastard/douche/asshole/liar,” is worse than the statement “You deserve to burn for all eternity in torment and suffering in my fictional hell for disagreeing with me,” I’ll eat my own hat. Both are attacks. One is an idea, and the other is a threat. Your religion is okay with the threat, even embraces it. That blows my mind.

    The problem is, no matter how nice a spiritual person is, or thinks they are, their very faith itself makes them hateful, bigoted, and exclusionist. I think more than anything, that’s the point Steve’s entire argument really drove home for me.

    The problem is that you’ll never understand how what you and Steve Lutz say as clergy, every day, in every spiritual thing you do, is exactly as cruel and evil and mean as my original post. A belief in a personal god, and specifically clergy’s belief that they are a go-between for God, is arrogant, and often makes people say arrogant, hateful things.

    Or maybe I’m crazy. Maybe Jesus is real and he just wants me to love him, and he shows it by killing hundreds of thousands in earthquakes and hurricanes and tsunamis. Like a big, light-up billboard made of corpses that says “Love Me. – Jesus” That’s just grotesque enough to fit within the Christ mythos, anyways.

  34. AdamK permalink
    February 28, 2010 1:28 pm

    Alex, you have it exactly right.

  35. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 3:12 pm

    Alex,
    I must have missed that. Fair enough.

    I will tell you that your anticlerical rant doesn’t really move me that much. You act as if clergy have more power in this country than we actually do. As much as you and others want to believe that people follow us in unthinking and sheeplike ways, they really, really don’t. Oh sure, there are a few politically minded weirdos who claim they have more power than they actually do. This is not being a minister. This is something else.

    You have no idea what it’s like to be an actual pastor. Everyone listens to you until they disagree with something you have said. Then, all hell breaks lose and you could be out of a job pretty quickly. The idea that pastors are power mongers who reign over their churches in terror is completely laughable from my point of view. Does it happen? Sure, it does. But no more than I have seen in atheist groups I have observed. There is always that power mad person in any group. It happens. To say it’s exclusive to ministers and the church is dubious at best.

    I have known guys and girls to be gainfully employed on friday and shown the door on a Monday because of something they have said in their sermon.

    Believe it or not, we don’t spend our time condemning people to hell. Most ministers, televangelists aside, get shit on, beat up emotionally, stabbed in the back by supposed friends, drive clunky cars, die of heartattacks because they actually try to love God and love peope. Do they do so perfectly? Not at all. Do they mistakes? Yes and sometimes very bad ones. I have done it myself. But, they really do love people and try to love them as best they can.

    I’m not trying to be self righteous, but I can’t stand when someone talks out of their ass when it comes to being a minister. If you wanted to piss me off, congrats, you just did it. I apologize for being so heated, but I’m really getting tired of this argument, which is really not an argument at all. It’s another excuse to tee of on Christian morality and avoid the question of atheist morality. It’s the “When did you stop beating your wife lately?” way of avoiding the question.

    Now, as for taking a position on God, morality, hell and the like. If it’s arrogant or hateful to take a position on these issues, then I guess, I’m all of those. In fact, I would argue that everyone on this board takes a position on these issues. Does that make us all arrogant? Probably, because we are on Internet chat board pretending people care about what we have to say. That fact aside, I find it a little odd that you are accusing us of being arrogant for taking a position. You may not like the position, and that’s great. But to say it’s arrogant for taking a position in the first place? This smacks of postmodern bull, something I’m pretty sure most of us on this board don’t like.

    We take a position. We think it’s the right one. We defend it. If you consider that “attacking”, then I’m not sure why you debate on Internet boards. You have basically called me a liar, a homophobe, and that I hate people. Have I done or been all of those in my life? No question about it. Before you get all self righteous and hot about it, I would ask you, have you done any of those things? If not, then I will conceed you are the better person. If you have, spare me the self righteous rant of how you are better than most preachers you know. Guess what? They would probably all agree with you. However, it’s still not an argument.

    Plus, the last time I checked, no one here says you are going to hell because you disagree with me and Steve. Just wanted to point that out. In fact, no one has ever said that in the history of these boards. If they had, I would call them out, guranteed.

    I am a clergyperson and I’m proud of it. My life is dedicated to serving God and to serving people the best way I can. You may disagree with my positions and that is what we are about on this board. Believe it or not, I don’t go around trying to emotionally manipulate people. I try to be as honest as I can. Am I always? No, I’m not. I confess that I hate to be shown where I have made a bad argument or flat wrong or to be made to look like a fool. Still, I hope that I have shown on these boards that I’m willing to admit that I’m wrong or conceed I need to rethink a position. If that’s not enough for you, can’t really help you there.

    Steve and I don’t spend a lot of time telling people they are going to hell. Who goes to hell has not been revealed to us, so we generally avoid telling specific people they are going to hell.

  36. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 5:14 pm

    You have no idea what it’s like to be an actual pastor. Everyone listens to you until they disagree with something you have said. Then, all hell breaks lose and you could be out of a job pretty damn quickly. – Jon

    Quick! Someone call a whaaaaambulance!

    It’s another excuse to tee of on Christian morality and avoid the question of atheist morality.

    Oh yeah? Alex said explicitly:
    “I said at the top of my last post, I wasn’t trying to make an argument against any points Steve made, because I think that posters before me did an excellent job of refuting most of Steve’s “argument.””
    The points I and others (including Cruz) made have not been adequately answered, either here or at Steve’s blog. Who’s trying to avoid the argument?

    If it’s arrogant or hateful to take a position on these issues, then I guess, I’m all of those.
    Well, yes, the position you take is both hateful and arrogant. It is hateful to say that human beings are hopeless, fundamentally immoral creatures who can do nothing for themselves without your god. It is arrogant to say that you are in possession of the universal solution to human problems. You worship a hateful and arrogant (and fortunately imaginary, in my opinion) God, so naturally you show his characteristics.

  37. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 5:25 pm

    As for Steve’s points, I disagree with him on a few issues in his original post. However, refuation is not the issue or what even Steve asked for. He asked for a consistent, thought out moral system for atheists. Refutation of Steve’s points is not the same thing.

  38. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 5:54 pm

    He asked for a consistent, thought out moral system for atheists.

    He hasn’t answered the points made by Cruz (who argued on his blog that atheists could make use of systems such as Kant’s); nor those made by rustophilus, Johann, myself and others either here or on his own blog arguing that his presuppositions, hence the kind of “thought out moral system” he wants, are themselves mistaken. Neither he nor you get to say without challenge: “this [a theist approach, with something else stuck in the place you give to God] is what a moral system must look like, now produce one or admit you are nihilists!”. Atheists are not obliged to accept your terms of reference; that you think we are is another symptom of your arrogance.

  39. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:04 pm

    I will point out that I’m not responsible for what Steve choses to do on his blog. It’s up to him to answer for himself. I just pointed out that I didn’t see an answer to the question of an atheist moral system, whatever you, knockgoats, presuppose that ot mean.

    As for me, I’m not asking you to give a system based on my boundaries. I’m just asking you to give one. Anyone will do. I happen to agree with Cruz in that respect. And, since all of you gave different answers, I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to argue with. I’m not convinced challeging Steve’s presuppositions answers the questions. It just tells me what you don’t believe. I already know this, oddly enough. What I, me, myself, and I want to know is how Knockgoats, Johann, and others make moral decisions. Johann gave the closest thing resembling a moral system that answers the questions of morality or the imagination there of. I accept his view as morality being largely social constructs that we make up as being the atheist view. Rather, it’s the most logically consistent with your worldview of naturalism. It’s the one that makes the most philosophical sense to me. If that’s your position, great, now I see where you are coming from.

  40. AdamK permalink
    February 28, 2010 6:09 pm

    Jon, this is the second time in my recollection you’ve whined defensively about how hard your job is. I’m surprised that you’re surprised that atheists don’t respect the labor of “the clergy.” Many of us don’t believe it’s an honest profession. It amounts to presenting fiction as truth — a con game.

    It’s fine that you disagree, of course. That’s to be expected. But you wax all hurt and defensive when it’s brought up. It looks like you need a thicker skin if you’re going to be a chaplain to pirates. We’re not a bunch of rose petals, and a lot of your christian crap is offensive as hell, as Alex articulated so well. He who has ears, let him hear.

  41. Alex permalink
    February 28, 2010 6:11 pm

    “You act as if clergy have more power in this country than we actually do. ” – Jonathan

    I don’t think you have power over the country. You’re not Pat Robertson. You have power over people, and that’s much much more dangerous.

    And as much as I really honestly do like and respect you, specifically, as a person, I agree with Knockgoats (for once) on the Whaaa-mbulance statement.

    “You have no idea what it’s like to be an actual pastor.” – Jonathan

    You’re right, I don’t know what it’s like to be a pastor, because I’m not a con man, and I can’t take from people for a living. It makes me feel physically ill. Not because it’s hard, or because you experience suffering. I’ve dealt with that, too.

    In my life, I’ve worked on a factory floor making salad dressing, I worked in a kitchen over a hot grill, and I worked in a hospice caring for the sick and dying. I have never put myself in a position to take something from anyone. The church is a business, and you are a collections agent. You take your ten percent, and you do it happily.

    Perhaps you have no idea what it’s like to stuff garlic into a hopper to make vinaigrettes, but you can still criticize the quality of my product. And your product sucks.

    You can take from people without a sickness in the pit of your stomach, and that’s your business. Admit that, and that it’s an offensive way to make a living, and we can meet on some common ground to continue this conversation.

    You know full well I’m not even vaguely anti-clergy, and I don’t appreciate the disingenuous cheap shot. You know my sister – she’s making her way into your field, and she’s a wonderful, compassionate, non-judgmental woman. Knowing my sister, as you do, I’m guessing that you also know our father is a Medical Missionary in the third world, and our stepmother is a Christian counselor. I have the utmost love and respect for all of them and the work they do. They do it because they love universally, and they, too, never put themselves in a position to take from others.

    My problem is clergy who think a collar makes them something more than other people. Do it for the sticker on your car, I guess. But doing it to prove you’re closer to God seems dangerously self-righteous to me.

    “That fact aside, I find it a little odd that you are accusing us of being arrogant for taking a position.” – Jonathan

    You’re not arrogant for taking a position, you’re arrogant for condemning people for their humanity. And if you’d like to claim, as you have before, that you don’t do that as much as we atheists all think… well, you should probably start preaching from a different Good Book, because your current one sucks at backing up your argument.

    But you certainly can’t tell me the problem is we haven’t come up with an argument against Steve, when everyone and their mother posted said arguments, and they were ignored. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. I’m no teleologue, I don’t need to create an origin for evil. I don’t even need to create a coherent moral system. The church does need to create an origin for evil, and a moral system, because it has to excuse the very evils that happen within its doors.

    “You have basically called me a liar, a homophobe, and that I hate people. … I would ask you, have you done any of those things?” – Jonathan

    I have done some of those things. I have certainly never been a homophobe. But I was responsible for my failures, and they haunt me. I didn’t pass the buck onto the forgiveness of my invisible friends. And you haven’t “done” some of those things. You’re doing those things now. The latest bout of homophobia was about a month ago. These aren’t demons you’re trying to beat, they’re an integral part of your spiritual identity.

    “He asked for a consistent, thought out moral system for atheists” – Jonathan

    Atheists as a group don’t have a moral system, any more than humans as a whole do. We’re not a movement. We don’t have a manifesto. Stop foisting your need for doctrine on us. You all made the claim of a moral origin, you come up with the evidence. EVIDENCE. I’ve had it with the Philosophy 101, Latin-phrases-for-fallacies, epsitemological bullshit that keeps rearing its ugly head in religious discussion. You’re standing behind a man who said that the Holocaust is not objectively a bad thing, and you’re doing it under the guise of philosophy.

    Offensive.

    I’m absolutely done with you for a few days. This whole Lutz thing has left a terrible taste in my mouth. On a scale of 1 to 10, my view of you dropped about 3 points in the last 24 hours, and I just can’t keep dealing with it. I stayed up half the night talking with my girlfriend about how much Steve’s position upset me. You just don’t get that. I know you think that atheists are detached from a realistic moral system, but it hurts me deeply to realize how cruel and mean-spirited Christianity can be. My only response is to fight back or run off, and I’m tired of fighting with you, and your ilk.

    -Alex

  42. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:25 pm

    Adam,

    I don’t think defending my job is whining, do you? Someone made a false statement about what I do. I took issue. Pure and simple.

    I fully grasp many of you don’t think being clergy is not a respectable profession. Believe me, I get it. I’m not asking you to respect me a clergyman. I’m asking to you to respect me as your fellow human being who believes otherwise. That’s it.

    I

  43. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 6:37 pm

    Jon,

    I will point out that I’m not responsible for what Steve choses to do on his blog.

    No, but you chose to repost his post here.

    And, since all of you gave different answers, I’m not sure which one I’m supposed to argue with.

    Well, if you were naive enough to think that all atheists agree on anything other than the non-existence of gods, presumably you aren’t any more. That’s something achieved.

    What I, me, myself, and I want to know is how Knockgoats, Johann, and others make moral decisions.

    This has been mainly a discussion about meta-ethics, not about ethics, and I’ve given my answer as far as the former is concerned earlier in this thread. As far as the question above is concerned, I’ll start by copy-pasting part of a reply to Steve on his blog:

    ” If I’m faced with a moral dilemma, I think about the likely consequences of possible courses of action, and in some cases of the likely consequences of adopting certain general rules of conduct, in order to decide what I ought to do (there is no general algorithm that can give me – or anyone – the answer in all cases). I don’t need to pretend that there is some fundamental feature of reality – divine or otherwise – that justifies my decision; instead, I take responsibility for it myself.”

    To expand that, the consequences I think about are mostly but not exclusively those that affect the interests or preferences of other sentient beings – primarily but not exclusively people, and primarily but not exclusively those alive today, rather than those who are still to be born. In doing so, I do favour those for whose welfare I have particular responsibility (family, friends, colleagues); otherwise I try to give preference to those who are “at the bottom of the heap” – the poor, the oppressed, the weak – because they are most in need of help. Of course, what possible consequences I think about depends on the kind of decision being made – how to interact with my wife, son, siblings, other relatives, friends, neighbours, dog, etc., how to vote, whether to give money to a beggar, to which charities to make regular or one-off donations, how to spend the time I devote to political campaigning, how to prioritise at work among the many responsibilities and commitments I have. I don’t pretend to myself that I am entirely or even mainly unselfish in the choices I make, nor do I continually reproach myself over this, but I try to be aware when I am acting selfishly – not to fool myself into believing I’m being altruistic when I’m not – and to work on those aspects of my behaviour that I judge most need improvement. I try to speak up when I see injustice being done, to think for myself, to be rational, and to admit it when I have been at fault. I often fall short of the standards I would like to meet.

    That’s all off the top of my head, and there’s probably a lot I’ve left out. Mostly, when I’m thinking morally at all, it’s about some specific issue either in my personal or professional life, or in the wider world, where I have a specific decision to make, not about high-level ethical principles, let alone meta-ethics. I often find myself working for specific goals (preventing the war in Iraq, opposing an airport expansion, changing a voting system) who have entirely different moral systems from me, and often including Christians and other theists.

  44. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:39 pm

    Alex,

    I’ll admit to you I spoke out of my anger and for which, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize I knew your sister until I looked at your email address. And no, I didn’t know that much about your family. We didn’t talk much about it. If you look, she is a fellow of this blog and she is more than welcome to post anything she wants here. She and I disagree about performing gay marriages. If she ever wanted to post something about her position, she is more than welcome to do so.

    In my mind, this whole discussion has nothing to do with doctrine and answering one of the basic questions of philosophy. There are three of them: What is? How do we know what is? How do we act because of it? It’s this third question that has created the brewhahaha. I have stated that I don’t agree with everything that Steve said. Rather, I wanted an answer to what I thought I saw to be the central question, how do atheists act and how do they justify it? You say you don’t need to justify, and I disagree with you. I think you do according the rules of logic and philosophy. This has, once again, NOTHING to do with my system of doctrine. If you look, I haven’t brought any of that into this discussion. I’m appealing to rules of philsophy here, not theology. You have conflated the two and you are the one who chose to take the cheap shots first. That doesn’t excuse me for doing it and I apologize for doing it. I was pissed. Pure and simple.

    But, I’ll say it again and again, and again. This is not about making you agree with my theology. It’s about asking basic philosphical questions.

    Further, no one, including you, has bothered to ask my position on morality. You might be suprised to learn I would agree with many of the points you all have made. I would agree morality comes from our common humanity. The question is, of course, where that idea comes from, but I leave that one for now. You have assumed that I agree with everything Steve said without actually asking me.

    I’m going to ignore the rest of your statements about clergy as I probably provoked them in the first place.

  45. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:44 pm

    Knockgoats,

    Thank you. I appreciate the reponse. Seriously.

    I posted Steve’s response because it had to do with Jubilee and I hoped it would further the discussion. If you recall, you asked for Steve’s response. So, I posted the link. Posting the link doesn’t mean agreement.

  46. Alex permalink
    February 28, 2010 6:48 pm

    I wish you wouldn’t have posted my sister’s name, Jonathan. There was a reason I didn’t. I would humbly ask that you bleep that for my convenience.

  47. thomas2026 permalink*
    February 28, 2010 6:50 pm

    Done. Sorry, reflex.

  48. Andrew permalink
    February 28, 2010 7:47 pm

    Rather, I wanted an answer to what I thought I saw to be the central question, how do atheists act and how do they justify it? You say you don’t need to justify, and I disagree with you. I think you do according the rules of logic and philosophy.

    You’re falling into the trap of thinking that philosophical systems of ethics (meta-ethics) have anything to do with how people actually act.

    If you pose certain types of ethical problems to a bunch of different people, you will find that they usually agree on the answers, that other people will agree that those answers are morally correct, and that almost nobody will be able to give a consistent answer as to why those specific answers are the morally correct ones. Furthermore, there is substantial agreement regardless of social and cultural background.

    Now, if a philosopher constructs a system of ethics and it turns out not to agree with what people actually regard in practice as being morally correct actions, then regardless of how soundly based the philosopher (or even other philosophers in general) thinks his system is, it’s clearly not going to be used by anyone, therefore it is in some sense “false”. A similar situation can exist with religious ethics, manifesting in several different forms: either the members quietly ignore the offending ethical injunctions (cf. Catholic rank-and-file ignoring church teaching on contraception); or later theologians argue that the earlier conclusions were wrong, and thus modify the religion’s teaching (cf. Aquinas vs. Augustine on whether killing in self-defense is a sin); or outright schism can happen (as may well happen in the Anglican church over women and homosexual bishops); and so on.

    So, it’s not a requirement that some person conform to some specific philosophical system of ethics (or even to conform to any such system) in order to be a moral person. Most atheists almost certainly do not; but that’s because most people (even religious ones) do not. (Most members of religious groups follow their own ethical judgement except on issues which have a high enough profile, such as, say, abortion, that the issue gets made an article of faith and preached about.)

  49. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 8:21 pm

    Jon,

    If you recall, you asked for Steve’s response. So, I posted the link. Posting the link doesn’t mean agreement.

    That’s true, but posting without comment can often be so interpreted. Incidentally, at the top of this post you said correctly:

    Knockgoats questioned Steve on why he thought the problem of evil was a problem for atheists. Steve responds on his blog.

    Steve posted four “arguments”, which were attacks on the moral integrity of atheists, not questions: he did not ask for a “consistent, thought out moral system for atheists” – he asserted that there could be no such thing, and in his fourth point, challenged us to proselytise for atheism to those in various desperate situations. I and others responded, several of us questioning his assumption that if there is no “extra-natural source” of morality, we cannot call anything good or evil, and noting in various ways that such proselytising, whether for atheism or Christianity, is morally repugnant. To those points, he has made no coherent response. I would hazard a guess that he has none, because he has never thought beyond his certainty that he is right, and that those who disagree with him are on the road to Hell. Let him prove me wrong.

  50. Knockgoats permalink
    February 28, 2010 8:31 pm

    I would agree morality comes from our common humanity. The question is, of course, where that idea comes from – Jon

    Our common humanity is not, or at least not primarily, an idea, but a fact. Moreover, it’s a highly contingent fact. If a population of (say) Homo erectus or Homo floresiensis had survived somewhere, with some but not all of the psychological characteristics that distinguish us from our nearest evolutionary relatives, we would be faced with some very difficult moral questions which in fact, we do not have to face.

  51. Richard Eis permalink
    March 1, 2010 10:07 am

    Rather, I wanted an answer to what I thought I saw to be the central question, how do atheists act and how do they justify it? You say you don’t need to justify, and I disagree with you. I think you do according the rules of logic and philosophy.

    We act like humans. I’m not sure why we would need to justify that. It would be rather like having to justify why i would presume to have two arms and ten fingers.

  52. Knockgoats permalink
    March 1, 2010 5:18 pm

    I’d agree with Andrew that meta-ethics has little (I wouldn’t say nothing) to do with how people act. Whether it should do so, is another matter. Believing that your own ethical stances somehow follow from the very nature of the universe, and that everyone who disagrees with you on any important ethical judgement is straightforwardly wrong, as wrong as if they thought that 2+2=5, is surely inclined to lead to arrogance and intolerance. On the other hand, the kind of relativism which says that all morality is arbitrary can lead to weakness in the face of intolerance, extreme selfishness, and so forth. I’m claiming (see an earlier comment on this thread) there is an alternative to both these meta-ethical approaches, which gives proper recognition both to the fact that morality is our common concern as human beings, and to the importance of individual moral autonomy.

  53. Andrew permalink
    March 3, 2010 7:12 pm

    Something I just posted on Steve’s blog led me to consider this question:

    Does the mythical nature of the OT stories make their morality harder to defend, or easier?

    Atheists generally view the god of the OT as being (if you take the stories at face value) an immoral monster, whereas Christians may appeal to the unknowable nature of god’s morality or to the fact that the Hebrews were the “chosen people”.

    But given that we know from archaeological evidence that many of the stories (my usual example is the book of Joshua) are false throughout, not just wrong in detail but without any foundation at all in reality, the atheist position simply becomes that they are cultural origin myths which depict an immoral and monstrous god, whereas the Christian now has to explain why it should be the case that a culture which, by all physical evidence, arose in-situ without excessive strife should have and preserve an origin myth that depicts a foreign origin and a bloody conquest.

    What is the purpose of such a tale? If it were true, it could be justified as being history; but as it stands, all it can do is preserve a false account of the Hebrews’ origin, and to what end? Reinforcement of the “chosen people” concept by means of a false history? (How is this moral?) Promotion or preservation of an “us versus them” attitude towards other cultures of the region by portraying them as defeated ancestral enemies? (How is this moral?) What other explanations exist?

    (Obviously some, possibly many, Christians essentially write off the bloodier bits of the OT as being nothing whatsoever to do with the God that they believe in, and therefore not in any way “inspired” and therefore not needing justification; this position is understandable, but it does rather raise the question of why these things are in the bible in the first place.)

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