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A Summary of the Challenges That Face Atheists and Christians…

August 24, 2009

So, I’m reading an excellant book called, “The Twilight of Atheism: Dennett and McGrath in dialogue”. It’s an excellant book on debate between McGrath (a Christian) and Dennett (an atheist). Basically, they present the debate and allow writers, christians and atheists to comment on the debate. The topic was basically centered around whether atheism was dying or was finding a “new dawn”. I recommend it so far.

But, in the prologue, the moderator of the debate gives an excellant summary of the challenges that face Atheists and Christians in their dialogue with one another.

For the Christian:
1. Their unwillingness to understand evolution, science (especially when it comes to the word “theory”), and their general anti-intellectual attitude (especially in America).
2. The hypocrisy of the church and it’s failure to live up to what we confess
3. The hermeneutical challenge to understanding the Bible, explaning contradictions, God causing pain and suffering, etc. Or explaning why Gen. 1-2 must either be taken literally or not.
4. The Problem of Evil and the idea of a good God. (by the way, I agree this is a challenge, just not a strictly logical one. I will be writing more this in My Story)

For the Atheist
1. The inability to really explain where reason and rationality come from in the first place (before people get uptight on this one, he quotes specfic naturalists on this issue who aren’t Christians, such as Patricia Churchland)2. Explaning human conciousness if the material is all there is
3. Explaning human Free Will (Yes, this is a tension in the scientific community)
4. Explaning human morality in light of a materialistic point of view (Note, this isn’t to say Atheists ARENT Moral, just that they have a hard time explaning WHY)
5. Explain why Christianity and evolution is NESSECARILY contradictory.

I thought this was a decent summary on both sides. What say you?

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81 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Eis permalink
    August 24, 2009 2:25 pm

    Our problem with answering these questions from the atheist point of view is proving them. We have perfectly nice ideas of how it COULD be. It’s just hard to work out whether the ideas are what IS.

    Free will is overrated in my opinion.

  2. Ms. Crazy Pants permalink
    August 24, 2009 2:30 pm

    1) Animals have the ability to reason as well, we just don’t notice it. It’s nothing particular to humans. It’s merely a matter of associations and conclusions. My friend’s cat experienced pain while using the litter box. The cat didn’t have the knowledge to know what causes it, but it associated the pain with the litter box. Cat stopped using litter box. Granted, that’s faulty logic, but based on what cat was able to reason out, it made for perfectly sound logic.

    (can’t comment on 2 and 3 yet.)

    4) Again, this isn’t particular to humans, but when we observe it in animals, it’s not called morals. In animals that are hive animals, when one acts contrary to what the hive wants, the hive will kill it. They have “rules.”

    5) Despite being atheist, I don’t think a conflict is REQUIRED, but I think blind acceptance of “god did it” is a huge detriment to scientific discovery. Does any christian really think we should find out what was before the Big Bang, or do they say god just make the stuff necessary for the big bang to appear? I’m sure there have been religious reasons to go against every step forward mankind has ever made, such as going to the moon. I keep hearing the Tower of Babel story used every time humanity tries to take a step forward, as if progress means we’re “getting too big for our britches.”

  3. Chris permalink
    August 24, 2009 2:50 pm

    3. The free will is always a fun discussion. Last time i checked numerous scientist contest the existence of free will. Also what is free will is a difficult definition because a) there are a few people i can predict in a number of situations and b) i have (self-imposed) restrictions on what i do and i do not think i could choose differently (any number of examples is possible here, like taking a piss on my computer at work)

    4. Morals are actually quite easy to explain (in my opinion at least) though as Richard said we cannot prove it. Richard Dawkins had a very nice example with a wolf pack. Without rules (aka morals :-)) imagine one wolf in the pack who “decides” not to take part in the hunt but instead courts the bitches in the pack while still getting his shares from the hunt, in a short time all wolves would be egoistical and none would hunt. A pack that does not punish such behaviour would soon be extinct and evolution does not keep what does not work. (You can extend the example to one wolf killing all pupies not fathered by him, if the pack (aka society) does not abolish such things it will cease to exist.

  4. Andrew permalink
    August 24, 2009 3:04 pm

    Questions about consciousness and free will are interesting in that they expose the weaknesses of pure philosophy; on the one hand you have ~2500 years of “pure” (ungrounded in evidence) reasoning, and on the other hand you have a relatively new and very promising field of scientific research.

    It is inevitable that many of the concepts that so many philosophers have spent so long defining, arguing about, redefining, etc., will turn out, as more evidence accumulates, to be complete red herrings with no basis in fact. Cartesian dualism is merely an early casualty of this process, with significant implications for many religions; there will be more.

  5. August 24, 2009 3:12 pm

    I’m not an atheist (at least not quite) or a scientist, but I’ll give you what I believe are reasonable answers:

    1. I’m not sure why this is an issue to start with, honestly. It’s clear that animals have something along the lines of reason and rationality (ability to figure out puzzles, not getting caught up with fantasy, etc.), so if we accept that humans are part of the natural world and not something radically different, then there’s your connection. Certainly apes and chimps are inventive, and that seems a good marker right there.

    2. Again, I don’t get why this is a problem. Consciousness is clearly a function of the brain (brain damage changes personalities for instance, I’ve seen it first-hand), rather than something that comes out of nowhere. And again, a number of animals have a sense of “self”, so we’re not unique there (dolphins recognize their own reflection as themselves, for instance).

    3. Again, where’s the issue? In the details, like a lot of scientific disagreement? In general terms, I can see it being pretty straightforward that yes, the brain is a mechanical device of sorts, although quantum stuff gets in there to fuzzy things up a lot. But I don’t see why something that complex should necessarily follow a predetermined path, and make choices that are the same in all cases. Variation, experience, external influences, and having a variety of choices in behaviour means that although “materialistic”, the function of the brain and thus actions of the person don’t need to be “deterministic”.

    4. Morals I’ve talked about in other comments, basically put they seem to me a function of a social animal (and this is seen in similar social animals) with intelligence finding ways to get along with groups of it’s own kind, and the application of self-awareness in being empathetic for those who resemble us (even in vague ways, like kittens). Morals are how we get along in the societies were are naturally drawn to based on our history, and the more we do it the more developed those morals get. No supernatural force required.

    5. They aren’t contradictory. Evolution and a simplistic literal reading of the Bible (Genesis in particular) are contradictory, but a literal reading of Genesis is contradictory to a lot of fields, such as geology, history, anthropology, paleontology, physics, etc. And as Ms. Crazy Pants (those pants, they so craaaaaaazy!) said, if a version of Christianity assumes that some things are “God’s territory” and science can’t go there, then it does become a conflict when those things are testable.

    I’m also a bit curious about the idea of atheism “dying”, when more people than ever identify as atheist, or at least non-theist, and atheists of various sorts have now found ways to speak out on their own behalf, such as PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins have. That doesn’t strike me as “dying” so much as “growing”, and it puzzles me what these questions have to do with that assertion.

  6. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 3:53 pm

    Quick Reply:
    That was the source of the debate. And, while Myers and Dawkisn represent the outspoken aspect, it’s purely a Western phenom.

  7. Andrew permalink
    August 24, 2009 3:54 pm

    Some of Patricia Churchland’s articles available at the link given in the post, especially “A neurophilosophical slant on consciousness research” and “The Impact of Neuroscience on Philosophy” are highly relevant to questions 1 and 2, and “The Big Questions: Do we have free will?” to question 3.

    (three links; is there a link limit here?)

  8. Andrew permalink
    August 24, 2009 4:03 pm

    As for animals, one of the interesting tests that divides the animal kingdom is whether an individual is capable of recognizing that its mirror image is a representation of itself, rather than a distinct individual. All the great apes (including humans) pass this test, though in humans only above the age of about 18 months; in addition, dolphins and orcas pass, as do elephants, and, somewhat surprisingly, the European Magpie; but other animals (as far as tests have so far shown) do not.

  9. August 24, 2009 4:25 pm

    That is interesting, Andrew. And it leads me to notice a lot of the questions aimed at atheists are actually questions about non-guided evolution, regardless of whether there’s a God or not. And of course in dealing with those sorts of questions, one of the key parts is the question “is humanity unique, and thus separate from the rest of the natural world”. And the answer, it seems, again and again, is that no, we’re not. We’re just as much a part of nature as a beaver or an emu, and what really separates us is the simple, baseless conceit that we’re not.

  10. Chris permalink
    August 24, 2009 4:33 pm

    @Kelseigh so would you say ‘there is one thing that sets us appart from animals: Arrogance!’ 🙂

  11. August 24, 2009 4:34 pm

    @Chris: In rebuttal, I would say: CATS

  12. Chris permalink
    August 24, 2009 5:22 pm

    @Kelseigh: yeah, you might be onto something…

  13. August 24, 2009 5:36 pm

    Well, there is the theory that cats are aliens.

    The test, of course, is that if you tie a tube sock around a cat’s middle and it doesn’t fall over, that proves it’s an alien. On the other hand, if it does fall over that proves that they’ve caught on to the test and are trying to fool you.

  14. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 6:04 pm

    Kelseigh,
    Believe it or not, I’m in full agreement with you that humans are meant to be a part of the natural world. For some reason, Christians have interwoven Greek philsophical concepts into their belief about heaven, etc. We are made to be here. This is our home. So, in that, I agree that we are not unique in all of the above sense you mentioned. However, it becomes problomatic when we start projecting “morals” on animals, as they are not able to tell us what morals are for them.

    Once you start getting into meaning, morals, etc, you leave the realm of science. Or, at the very least, you are begging a number of different questions. As I haven’t posted my story and it’s relationship to science, I’ll put off commenting further until I do.

  15. Ms. Crazy Pants permalink
    August 24, 2009 6:05 pm

    I wanted to add to my answer for #5. I think the real issue is people wanting religion taught in science class. All these arguments one way or another keeps trickling down to what actually will be taught in the science classroom. If parents want to combine science and religion, they belong either sending their kids to a religious school or teaching it at home, not simultaneously forcing it onto other people’s children.

    So, people like the one we can’t mention tries a new argument to try and say literal creation is true, therefore, that is what should be taught in the classroom. It’s still the same ultimate thing he’s trying for….forcing in upon all the children in the country no matter what religion they may be.

    That is ultimately what I am very against, and if we lose on this one, do we really think it will stop there? I highly doubt it.

    [Just in case this comes up, I also agree that science teachers shouldn’t try to declare religion as false in the classroom either. If a teacher can’t teach science without saying anything for or against religion, then I’d say they aren’t focusing on science enough. Also, I’m strictly speaking for the group under that age of 18, because that is the group that doesn’t have much of any say about the classroom they are in. If I don’t like my professor at college though, I can drop the class and sign up under a different professor or take the class at a different school and transfer the credits back (I’ve dropped a class over a professor I didn’t like before and would do it again.) A kid just can’t get up and walk out of the classroom without some consequences.]

  16. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 7:00 pm

    Im with Jonathan on the weaving of greek philosophical comments into Christian belief. I believe that this is in many ways responsible for the strange behavior and phenomena of Western militant christians.

  17. Richard Eis permalink
    August 24, 2009 7:21 pm

    One thing that does puzzle me. How can atheism die? Even if everyone suddenly gets god it will still be there. Waiting. Gods come and go. Atheism has always existed.

  18. AdamK permalink
    August 24, 2009 7:21 pm

    “Once you start getting into meaning, morals, etc, you leave the realm of science.”

    There are some questions of meaning and morals that are perfectly within the realm of science, especially the quickly-changing field of neuroscience. The gaps for squeezing god into are rapidly shrinking.

    Moreover, when you “leave the realm of science,” you don’t necessarily enter the “realm” of religion. Art, philosophy, history, the humanities and secular culture are “realms” too. I think they might have something to say about meaning and morals.

  19. August 24, 2009 7:46 pm

    I wonder if the animal behaviourists who have been studying morality and proto-morals in animal species agree that without being able to outright talk to a human, then it’s impossible to determine through science the presence of either. I’m not so sure that it’s so easy to dismiss the idea that such things can be studied.

  20. AdamK permalink
    August 24, 2009 8:27 pm

    “…this isn’t to say Atheists ARENT Moral, just that they have a hard time explaning WHY.”

    Multiple atheists have explained WHY, at some length, on this very blog. They have done so since time immemorial — since Euthyphro, Democritus, and Lao Tsu, at least, on up to Mill and the existentialists. There is an active humanist movement currently going on that articulates and debates non-theist ethics, including their bases.

    All of which christians in general, and you in particular, Jonathan, simply ignore. After it is answered, you ask the same old question. Closing your eyes, plugging your ears and going lalalalalala isn’t going to get you to a different answer.

    In return, I’d like an answer to my question, some day. What is christian morality? You say it’s based on god, but you haven’t shown this god to exist. You say it’s based on scripture, but your holy books articulate a bunch of different, mutually contradictory ethical system, most of which are primitive anti-human horrors that no modern civilized society would endorse. (You say it’s based on the sermon on the mount, but who preaches that? Who lives that way? Who sells all they have and gives the money to the poor, except for St. Francis and a few “extremists”? What minister turns rich people away from his flock until they do? But gay people are allowed in only if they repent and promise to be celebate, and never experience love. Love bad, money good. Hypocrites! But I digress.)

    I accuse christians of following a robotic, authoritarian quasi-ethics, where the finger-waggings of the loudest priest are all they have to go on, having had their organic human moral judgments drummed out of them in the chatechism.

    I submit that the hollow nothingness at the center of christian “morality” is what makes christians so cruel to their historic chain of victims, to muslims, to jews, to “witches”, to slaves, to women, to gay people, and on and on ad nauseum; and this will always be so until they give up the pretense and start basing their morality in human nature instead of those phoney thou-shalts they call “god.”

  21. Ms. Crazy Pants permalink
    August 24, 2009 8:59 pm

    “However, it becomes problomatic when we start projecting “morals” on animals, as they are not able to tell us what morals are for them.”

    —-You need to define what a moral is. A moral is just a rule that is assumed to be universal. You have a way of “right” way of acting and a “wrong” way of acting. In the animal realm, if you act incorrectly, you are punished. In how we use the terms, they are a little different, but ultimately, a moral is just a type of rule.

    If a moral was anything more, then why would there ever be any fighting over what is or isn’t moral? In particular, it’s been going on for ages over what rules everyone seems to think they’re going to stick on women. Bound feet, covered faces, sewing some parts shut, no choice in mates, and whatever other gazillion things people made up in their own heads over the centuries and some god or religion told them it was the thing to do. As far as I’m concerned, mankind as a whole has entirely botched the entire concept of morals to the point of showing that a moral to most is nothing more than an excuse for changing things to their own desires and whims.

  22. Edward Lark permalink
    August 24, 2009 9:06 pm

    In regard to number 4 and the question of the source of morality, I would have to reject the idea that atheists and theists get their morality from a different source. While Christian theists often claim that the Bible, or sometimes directly God, is the source of morality, I have not observed that in practice this is actually an accurate description of their worldview.

    A good way to illustrate this is to look at the story of Abraham. As a Christian, Johnathan, would you say that if God had not stayed Abraham’s hand at the last minute and allowed Abraham to sacrifice his son that this would have been a moral act?

    Almost all Christians will shy away from giving an unequivocal yes to the above question, because to do so means that morality is subjective – that is, they reject the idea that “morality” is whatever God says it is, therefore whatever God does or allows to happen is moral, by definition.

    But saying no is also problematic. If it would have been immoral for God to allow Abraham to sacrifice his son, then morality is something outside and independent of God. What one usually sees is an argument along the lines that God is a perfect expression of the moral good and it would be inconsistent with his nature to act outside of that nature, that is, inconsistent with the moral good. This is actually a non-answer, however, and still does not avoid the issue that morality is independent from God. Even if we accept the premise that God is a perfect expression of the moral good, then it still remains that there is in objective moral good that can be described without resort to reference to God.

    (The other dodge is to say that yes, it would have been moral for God to allow Abraham to carry through with the sacrifice, but only because, if God had allowed it, it would have been because it served some higher moral good that was no apparent to our non-God understanding.)

    My point to this is that atheists, who describe their source of moral authority without reference to God are actually doing the same thing as theists who describe their source of moral authority, but with the idea of God as a intermediary or exemplar of that authority – both are referencing their own moral intuitions. Atheists are simply doing it with one less philosophical step in the chain of reasoning.

  23. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 9:11 pm

    Actually, Adam, I don’t ignore them, I just don’t find them very convincing. Plus, I can’t get to every post or reply. I’m trying because I think the point is important.

    But, if you want to guest blog about atheist morality, let me know and I’ll set you up. As this is a challenge to your side, it’s up to you to present the case, and not rely on me to make it for you. This blog is meant to be a free flowing forum for people to examine all questions and all points of view are welcome.

    I’m not sure how to answer your assertions, as there a number of “When did you stop beating your wife?” questions. However, I will admit and have admitted in quite a few places on this blog, that Christians don’t live up to what we confess. Did you read my post on “The Church is a Whore?” So, I’m not sure what else you want me to admit or confess. I have not and will not ever avoid this question and you will see why when I get to part four of my story.

    Any Christian who wags the finger, etc and so on, assumes that Christianity is about being goood. Well, it isn’t. And when they make it about that, you get the horrors that you mentioned. It’s that we can’t be good and that we are all Christian and non-Christian, are hypocrites to what we confess. There is nothing unique about Christian morality that you can’t find in other worldviews. I think there is a reason they are similiar, but that’s another question entirely.

    And, you can submit the proposition of hollowness, but then you have to really make the argument, not just assert it. Those things happen in Christianity in contrary to what we confess, not because of it.

    Doubtfully,
    J-

  24. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 9:17 pm

    Adam K.-
    I have to say, that was a pretty vehement attack. Certainly, belief in God is a prerequisite for ethics for most theists. But I think that you miss the point when it comes to the Christian ethical system, the mistake that many Christians have made is that we claim to somehow be “better”, more moral, etc… I would label this damn near a heresy, we as Christians, are not better than say you, secularists, Jews, etc. That has never been, nor will it be the point of Christianity, we come to the cross with the full admission of failure and hypocrisy. You accuse us of hypocrisy! Yes absolutely, I plead guilty, I believe that as humans in bondage to evil and sin that no matter what we do will be hypocritical and for the most part a miserable reflection of the God who created us.
    Second, I don’t believe in a God of the gaps, I know many of my brothers and sisters in Christ do in someway, and I am not here to condemn them nor attack them, but I think that God is wholly transcedent and other as Niebuhr and Tillich have said in a philosophical manner and to fit God into any gap is a mistake.
    Third, I am quite offended, and must say that your last statement was entirely uninformed and doesn’t refelct acknowledging the fact that ALL humans have done these things, Christian or not, come on now. Whether it be Muslims during their crusades, Christians across the word, Militant Hindu’s in India, the Jews in Palestine, Mao Tse-Tsung, Pol-Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler in the name of atheism, secularism, or some combination of all of the above religions, worldviews, etc… I, for one, will not be depending on human nature for a system of morals when it is obvious human nature, which I as a Christian would say is bound to sin and evil, is doomed to failure. Also, I would argue on a different day, that the Christianity that you argue has done many evils is not based in the ethics of Jesus, but in the ethics of other worldviews and philosophies that were under the banner of Christendom. (see imperialism with Constantine, the Spanish, the Portugese).

    -Eric

  25. Nick permalink
    August 24, 2009 9:35 pm

    I think you have the title of this book wrong, which might make moot the question of whether atheism is dying.

    McGrath was the sole author of a book several years ago entitled _The twilight of atheism_. The book that has the debate between Dennett and McGrath is called _The future of atheism. It is based upon a debate the two had a couple of years ago, and then has several essays by other thinkers.

    Just stated so anyone who might want to buy it, or get it at the library, will not pick-up the wrong book. The debate might be on YouTube: sounds familiar.

    AdamK – I very much liked your post of 8:27 pm. The last paragraph for some reason made me recall George Carlin’s routine where he slices the 10 Commandments down to the two that have any real relevance: 1) Be Honest 2) Don’t Kill. If Abrahamic religions would just emphasize these, rather than putting so much importance on the silly and/or redundant commandants, the hypocrisy level of religions would plummet. Of course, these are the two that xians are least likely to abide by.

  26. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 9:37 pm

    Nick,
    You are quite right. I did get the title wrong. Sorry everyone. The Title is actually “The Future of Atheism.” My mistake. You all can give me an Attie if you wish.

    Thanks Nick!

    J-

  27. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 9:38 pm

    come on now, we can we avoid generalizing Christians please.

    -Eric

  28. Edward Lark permalink
    August 24, 2009 9:40 pm

    I, for one, will not be depending on human nature for a system of morals when it is obvious human nature, which I as a Christian would say is bound to sin and evil, is doomed to failure.

    I don’t think that human nature is doomed to failure at all. I do think there is a race between our technological advancement and our moral advancement, of which one could certainly make the argument that technology has been in a distinctive lead.

    However, I think that when you survey the history of humanity, you see a steady – albeit, not always even, and not without setbacks – advancement of our moral sense. We are progressing and we are improving. Things that our ancestors would not have blinked an eye at, or even found to be a fine afternoon’s entertainment – e.g., lynchings in the American South, or cat burnings in pre-modern France – would repulse all but the most pathological in our modern midst.

    As an aside, my Abraham question above, would probably not have presented a moral problem for early Judeo-Christian thinkers, they would have taken the first choice – morality is what God says it is – and looked at you funny if you raised the possibility that this might be a morally questionable stance.

    I don’t think that the outcome of this race is at all assured. We may bring about our own doom, to be sure. But we also might triumph. And we will certainly only triumph is we set aside the idea that morality is something imposed on us from the outside or above, and embrace the fact that morality flows from are own humanity and therefore improvements in that moral landscape require improvements to our own social, institutional and individual moral frameworks and inclinations.

  29. Edward Lark permalink
    August 24, 2009 9:46 pm

    “And we will certainly only triumph if we set aside the idea that morality is something imposed on us from the outside or above, and embrace the fact that morality flows from our own humanity . . . ”

    #$@#$! typos – Johnathan, since we all acknowledge that as humans we are fallible and prone to error, how about a preview/editing function? 😉

  30. Andrew permalink
    August 24, 2009 9:51 pm

    Just as a small administrative note, can I make a plea for you to set up separate accounts for the various bloggers? It’s confusing seeing you all commenting under the same username.

  31. Nick permalink
    August 24, 2009 9:57 pm

    Eric at 9:17 pm posting as “Thomas2026″ – this is confusing… do several of you post as”Thomas2026” Also, what is with the bizarre times that appear to be somewhere out in the Atlantic (off by an hour for GMT).

    Did you REALLY say, “…Mao Tse-Tsung, Pol-Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler in the name of atheism, secularism, or some combination of all of the above religions, worldviews, etc.”?

    I thought this was supposed to be a site where reasonable people could discuss differences reasonably. As soon as you say that fascists and cult-of-personality leaders performed their atrocities “in the name of atheism”, you are no better than people like T. Estes and Steve Anderson.

    If that is the case then this site loses any reason for atheists and agnostics to add to the conversation.

  32. August 24, 2009 10:13 pm

    I was just thinking the same thing, Andrew.

    Eric, do you have a wordpress account? If not, go ahead and make one, then I’ll add you as a contributor by your email address.

  33. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 24, 2009 10:54 pm

    oh that would be cool, I will go ahead and do that. I wasn’t trying to put Stalin, Hitler, etc… in the name of atheism, I was trying to say they were a strang amagulation of a bunch of worldviews.

  34. August 24, 2009 10:55 pm

    and on that same point, I fail to see the moral progression of our species. This last 100 years has been the most deadly and probably immoral in regard to the sanctity of life in our species history, how can we call that progress?

  35. August 24, 2009 10:56 pm

    but with that, I would appreciate that you don’t put those of us who are Christians in the same box as let’s say Constantine, any of the Spanish empires and crusades, or anything else.

  36. August 24, 2009 10:58 pm

    because as far as I know, and I can’t speak for Jonathan, Julia, or Cruz but I am pretty sure none of the three of us would condone the behavior of some of our brothers and sisters from previous centuries or even today for that matter.

  37. August 24, 2009 11:03 pm

    “I submit that the hollow nothingness at the center of christian “morality” is what makes christians so cruel to their historic chain of victims, to muslims, to jews, to “witches”, to slaves, to women, to gay people, and on and on ad nauseum; and this will always be so until they give up the pretense and start basing their morality in human nature instead of those phoney thou-shalts they call “god.””

    This to me is the same as T.Estes or anyone else trying to say that Atheists are the same as Hitler or Stalin, as a Christian, I don’t associate to these things that were the result of a.)Christianity linked to Imperialism b.)Christianity used to justify racism or c.) Christianity used to justify oppression. Much like I am sure many of you don’t associate to the atheism which was attached to Fascism or Communism which is not the point I was trying to make, just all worldviews are guilty of slaughter at some level.

  38. August 25, 2009 12:31 am

    First this: I fail to see the moral progression of our species.

    Then this in why modern Christians should not be lumped in with the less savory elements of the faith in past history: I can’t speak for Jonathan, Julia, or Cruz but I am pretty sure none of the three of us would condone the behavior of some of our brothers and sisters from previous centuries or even today for that matter.

    Why is it that you would not condone the actions of those you listed? Or, more broadly, what is it about modern Christians that leads you to reject crusades, pogroms, witch burning, inquisitions, forced conversions, slavery, and et al. done in the name of God and Jesus? I have often heard Christians say that it is unfair to compare their faith and practice with the faith and practice that gave rise to that list – I agree – but not not for the reason most modern Christian give (i.e., those who committed those atrocities were not “true Christians”). Of course they were! – as was measured by the practice and moral understanding of their day.

    If they are not considered True Christians now it is not because they were not devout in their faith, it is because the meaning of being devout has changed and evolved as our moral and intellectual understanding has progressed. The moral understanding of the modern Christian (as a group) – even of the likes of “Pastor” Tom and his ilk – are far advanced from the moral understanding of the Christians (as a group) who committed or acquiesced in the religious-fueled atrocities of the past.

    Where I really break ship with some Christians is when the claim is made that such moral advancement has come about because of religious practice and belief. This, in virtually every instance, is 180 degrees false. Religious practice and belief is always a stumbling block to moral advancement, which always arises out of the secular. While there are a few shining examples to the contrary, for the vast part, churches and believers are always dragged into the newer understandings, kicking and screaming the entire way.

  39. August 25, 2009 12:34 am

    Also, I will just say that your comment about the last 100 years proves my point about our technology out-pacing our morality, it does not cut against it. The atrocities of the 20th/21st century have been made possible because our capacity to inflict harm has grown exponentially, while our moral capacity has still only made its slow, ragged pace.

  40. August 25, 2009 2:36 am

    ok I gotcha ya on the technology thing. I wasn’t trying to say that they are not “true” Christians, I would never say that about anyone. I think I would probably agree with you on some level that they were doing what was the norm for their day, but I would probably also argue that this is always been a problem for Christianity, including today, is that we move to the whims of societal norms. Not all of us to be sure, there were many prolific Christians who spoke out against Constantine and the Crusades in their day.
    Also, I would disagree that my brothers and sisters that committed those atrocities were less moral than we are today, it was just a different time, I would argue that we are just as immoral now for allowing people to be killed in mass numbers, standing by idly and letting people starve across the planet, etc.
    Finally, I am not sure where your argument that moral practice arises out of the secular is going. Certainly there are instances of both.

  41. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 3:00 am

    Andrew,
    Got it. I’m working on it.

    J-

  42. Richard Eis permalink
    August 25, 2009 8:04 am

    -This last 100 years has been the most deadly and probably immoral in regard to the sanctity of life in our species history, how can we call that progress?-

    Actually, i thought we have been getting better. It’s just the wars have been getting bigger. Life is certainly much less barbaric in my opinion.

  43. Paul Bell permalink
    August 25, 2009 8:17 am

    Death through war is decreasing inexorably.

    This is a pet subject of a very good science writer John Horgan, who some of you may best know from science saturday at bloggingheadstv – http://bloggingheads.tv/science/

    This article by him sums up his position , with statistical back up for what may seem intuitively wrong . http://www.slate.com/id/2224275/ . He is actually writing a book on the end of war.

    Sorry if this is a bit of a ‘commercial’ for him , but I am a big fan.

  44. Paul Bell permalink
    August 25, 2009 8:24 am

    Slightly OT –
    the ‘percontations’ series at bloggingheads (funded by the Templeton Foundation’ which says it all ), has a weekly video blog loosely linked with how science and religion can overlap and are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    http://bloggingheads.tv/percontations/

  45. Paul Bell permalink
    August 25, 2009 8:40 am

    Death through war is decreasing inexorably.

    This is a pet subject of a very good science writer John Horgan, who some of you may best know from science saturday at bloggingheadstv – http://bloggingheads.tv/science/

    This article by him sums up his position , with statistical back up for what may seem intuitively wrong . http://www.slate.com/id/2224275/ . He is actually writing a book on the end of war.

    Sorry if this is a bit of a ‘commercial’ for him , but I am a big fan.

  46. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 9:21 am

    Also, I would disagree that my brothers and sisters that committed those atrocities were less moral than we are today, it was just a different time,

    Moral relativism?

    The people who committed those atrocities were satisfied that it was the moral thing to do; that’s not a position you see quite as much support for these days, so in that sense maybe our understanding of morality has improved.

    (You’ll have to be specific about what you’re referring to with “allowing people to be killed in mass numbers”. War is not always immoral, and intervening to stop somebody else’s war is a very dangerous game and therefore not necessarily moral.)

  47. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:08 pm

    I am not a moral philosopher. My objection is to the repeated idea that atheists have a problem: “4. Explaning human morality in light of a materialistic point of view (Note, this isn’t to say Atheists ARENT Moral, just that they have a hard time explaning WHY)”

    This is not a problem for atheists. This is a problem for human beings. The last I looked, christians were human beings as well, just smug ones, sitting there with their arms crossed saying, “I don’t have to explain morals. My invisible friend here has already done it for me.”

    And I take notice that this accusation — this pretend contrast — that atheists don’t have a basis for morality but christians do — is always accompanied by the caveat that “I’m not saying that atheists are less moral!”

    But I, an atheist, am making the counter accusation. I say that christians do not have a basis for their morality. As evidence, I submit the horrors that christians have justified in the name of christian morality, not just in the past, but in the present.

    Moreover, I say this without the caveat. I say that christians are less moral because of it: because they base their morality on nothing, and cover the nothingness over with authoritarianism, short-circuiting the moral reasoning that would derive compassion and nuance from the human conscience. I would make the claim that “christian morality” is an oxymoron.

    On another point: Eric says, “This to me is the same as T.Estes or anyone else trying to say that Atheists are the same as Hitler or Stalin, as a Christian, I don’t associate to these things that were the result of a.)Christianity linked to Imperialism b.)Christianity used to justify racism or c.) Christianity used to justify oppression. Much like I am sure many of you don’t associate to the atheism which was attached to Fascism or Communism which is not the point I was trying to make, just all worldviews are guilty of slaughter at some level.”

    But christianity and atheism are not equivalent in this way. Atheism is not a developed, historical system of doctrine and dogma. It is not a religion. It is not a filled-out philosophy that claims to be plugged in to all that is good and right. It does not claim to be a Church Universal. In short, it is not an authoritarian system. To compare the two in this way is to draw a false equivalence.

  48. August 25, 2009 1:32 pm

    I am not sure where your argument that moral practice arises out of the secular is going. Certainly there are instances of both.

    I apologize, I should have been more succinct and less hyperbolic. I would anchor the advancement of our moral understanding to an increased awareness of those who are unlike us (knowledge) and an increased willingness to identify with those who are unlike us (empathy). In secular parlance, this is the rise of civil society; in a religious context this is ecumenicalism.

    While the ancient Geeks philosophers are generally credited with the invention of the idea of civil society (and the ancient Romans with a level of its practice), the idea of a truly secular, civil society is really a modern invention. When I look at history and our advancement of our moral understanding, the relatively rapid advance that has occurred in recent centuries is seen to coincide with the rise of secular, civil society ideals and practice.

    It is perhaps difficult to definitively state whether secular society is the driver of moral advancement, or whether it is a response to an ever-shrinking modern world. But, what is clear is that – with very few exceptions – religious groups have not been on the side of advance, but rather on the side advocating for “tradition” and against moral progress. I acknowledge that some individuals and a few groups have found a basis for moral advocacy in their faith, but that does not change the fact that religious faith and practice, in general, has been a stumbling block to advancing our moral understandings. Even the idea of ecumenicalism is an outgrowth of the pressure put on religious groups to get along and play nice by the broader, civil society.

    (BTW – The posts above from EdL are mine. Was posting from a different computer last night.)

  49. August 25, 2009 1:43 pm

    I would agree that the idea of civil secular society is a modern invention, I am unsure though whether you can equate it with cause and effect to advancement, or if it is just a casual relationship.
    On the second though, Ecumenical relations did not give rise out of the civil secular society, and predate it in fact. While the Reformation was a major schism, it represented only the first one in Western Christianity, as in fact there had been many schisms before. Ecumenical relations were something that happened well before civil, secular society, including the cooperation between Eastern and Western orthodox churches, the cooperation of the Alexandrian churches with the broader church catholic. Certainly, ecumenicism has increased over the last 100 years, but I think that is less due to civil, secular society, than it is to Globalization, the decline of Christendom, and the increasing need for unification among those that our in leadership, including myself, despite our sometimes minor, sometimes major theological differences, but to tie that to secular society, I think, is a mistake.

  50. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:53 pm

    (An analogy just occurred to me — “christian morality” is kinda like a whitewashed tomb: pretty enough on the outside, but really stinky on the inside. The simile is not original with me.)

  51. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 1:59 pm

    This is not a problem for atheists. This is a problem for human beings

    I would agree with that. But, I don’t think Christians have the cornered market on “Smug”, do you? Once again, I would assert that any Christian who is smug about their morality does not understand Christianity very well.

    But I, an atheist, am making the counter accusation. I say that christians do not have a basis for their morality. As evidence, I submit the horrors that christians have justified in the name of christian morality, not just in the past, but in the present.

    As I said before, you certainly can make the counter accusation. You just have to make the argument. This is not an argument. It’s an assertion that begs the question. All of this points out is that CHristians are hypocritical to their standard, not that they don’t have one.

    Atheism is not a developed, historical system of doctrine and dogma. It is not a religion. It is not a filled-out philosophy that claims to be plugged in to all that is good and right. It does not claim to be a Church Universal. In short, it is not an authoritarian system. To compare the two in this way is to draw a false equivalence.

    There is some truth to this, but only some. To say that atheism doesn’t have a developed sense of history and dogma is being completly dishonest about the history of atheism or human thought system. Every human thought system has a history, a series of traditions and discussion that it builds on. Atheists always think this is a bad thing, but it’s not. Science itself is built on tradition and the ideas of the past. If you don’t believe me, go read Michael Shermer’s book, Why People Believe Weird things. He makes the point very nicely.

  52. Johann permalink
    August 25, 2009 2:26 pm

    Jonathan? 😉

    Every human thought system has a history, a series of traditions and discussion that it builds on. Atheists always think this is a bad thing…

    This is not an argument. It’s an assertion that begs the question.

  53. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 2:37 pm

    “This is not an argument. It’s an assertion that begs the question.”

    I agree entirely. Neither is it an argument when directed at atheists, by christians.

  54. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 2:40 pm

    “Every human thought system has a history, a series of traditions and discussion that it builds on. Atheists always think this is a bad thing, but it’s not.”

    I’m an atheist, and I obviously don’t think that. What a ridiculous and insulting straw man.

  55. August 25, 2009 2:46 pm

    I would just like to comment that having a history does not mean the same as sticking dogmatically to tradition. The whole concept of science is that things that work stay, but things that don’t work are dumped, and that applies to history as well. It’s why Darwin is interesting and respected, but no longer relied upon for modern theories.

  56. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 3:04 pm

    Johann,
    Touche! But, I’m not sure why it begs the question. You have to tell me.

  57. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 3:06 pm

    Adam K,

    Ok, I shouldn’t have used that overly general statement about atheists. My mistake. I would say, many of the atheists I have come across don’t like the idea of atheism having a history and tradition. My mistake. So, forgive me.

    Actually, you are wrong when it’s directed at atheists, as many atheists writers have struggled to answer the question. So, if they are struggling with question, they obviously realize there is an issue.

  58. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 3:07 pm

    Kelseigh,
    And I would asser that theology works in the very same way. For example, everyone in the church respects Anselm, but hardly anyone I know of would use the ontological proof for God’s existence anymore.

  59. August 25, 2009 11:18 am

    Well, I was thinking more in terms that generally speaking, science is progressive in nature, the whole “striving forward” thing, while religion tends to have more of a conservative, braking effect. Reliance on tradition and dogma act in opposition to unfettered progression, which can have its uses in moderation.

    I don’t know enough about ontology to comment on that, so I’ll have to let it slide. But one question, assuming you are correct that nobody much uses an ontological proof for God, was it abandoned by internal discoveries within the church, or in reaction to things that were going on outside the religious sphere?

  60. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:19 am

    And I would asser that theology works in the very same way. For example, everyone in the church respects Anselm, but hardly anyone I know of would use the ontological proof for God’s existence anymore.

    Um, Plantinga?

    (Though he does admit that it has little persuasive power, which is rather understating the case.)

  61. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 11:21 am

    I don’t know that Plantinga would use it as his basis of thought. Rather, that I think he would take the same position as Eric Reitman, that when people critique it, they are not giving it a full understanding and therefore demolish a strawmane version of it.

  62. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:24 am

    Personally, I’m curious to see what happens when theologians start getting to grips with the full implications of the death of Cartesian dualism.

  63. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 11:26 am

    Kelseigh,
    Hmmm, well, I don’t think you can draw hard and fast lines about reaction to things inside and outside the church. So, both?

    I think you have hit on a key point. Tradition and dogma can have a breaking effect that is entirely positive. Sure, it can be negative, but it doesn’t have to be.

  64. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:26 am

    “… many atheists writers have struggled to answer the question.”

    Perhaps the struggle is to get though to the willfully deaf and thick-headed. 🙂

  65. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:35 am

    through

    (Sometimes, I can spell.)

  66. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 11:40 am

    ha! Fair enough.

  67. Johann permalink
    August 25, 2009 11:47 am

    …when people critique it, they are not giving it a full understanding…

    This isn’t so much a response to this as something your wording reminded me of. The Courtier’s Reply. I do confess I think it’s eminently applicable to the ontological argument, and to much of theological philosophy in general. =)

  68. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 12:02 pm

    I would prefer not to “think” what Plantinga says about his argument, I’d prefer to read what he says about it. But so far, while I’ve found references to the argument itself, I’ve not found much from Plantinga discussing it.

  69. August 25, 2009 12:02 pm

    The braking effect doesn’t have to be negative, no. But all too often it is, especially when people/organizations come to see braking as an end in and of itself, and are willing to sacrifice all forward motion for it. That approach gets you, in a word, nowhere.

    Yes, the power to make us stop and think, or even slow down a little, isn’t a bad thing, but there’s all too much in religion that tries to prevent progress from happening at all, since it would take away from those long-held traditions and dogmas. The battle between Creationists and science is one side of that, the resistance of, say, the Catholic church to birth control is another.

  70. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:17 pm

    Wow; while looking up stuff on Plantinga, I came across his (unintentionally) hilarious defense of Cartesian dualism. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.

  71. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 1:30 pm

    Link, please.

  72. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:42 pm

    Against Materialism

  73. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 2:05 pm

    Hmm, I wonder if the link-only post got moderated.

    While we wait for that, here’s a brief summary:

    1) Plantinga claims that materialism is impossible because of an existence argument: it is (conceivably) possible for “I” to exist even if no part of my body exists (or if every part is replaced); this mere conception, he argues, renders it impossible to draw an identity between “I” and “my body”.

    As I see it this is a strawman argument; the most promising theories of consciousness regard it as a process operating within the (material) brain (rather than as something that has an identity relationship with the brain). This negates all of Plantinga’s arguments in this section at a stroke; there is no identity relation between the process and the mechanism, the process can exist while all parts of the mechanism are replaced, the identity relationship between processes behaves as you would expect, and so on.

    2) Plantinga argues that it is impossible for a material process or event to be “about” something, and that therefore it is impossible for states in a material brain to encode a belief, since beliefs are beliefs “about” things.

    This is defeated by his own paper; the PDF file in which I read his arguments is encoded in my computer in a physical form as a pattern of magnetic states on disk, and as electrical states in RAM, neither of which require any appeal to non-physical properties; but it’s still “about” Plantinga’s beliefs.

    Just as the state of a purely material construct can communicate information from one person to another, the state of a material construct in the brain can communicate information from earlier temporal states of consciousness to later temporal states, thus allowing a “belief” to persist over time (and external alterations to the physical state will change the belief, and this can actually be demonstrated within certain practical limits).

  74. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 2:14 pm

    Gah. I’d intended to add the link again to that last comment, but hit submit too soon. So let’s see if this comment shows up; the article I was referring to is Against Materialism on Plantinga’s own site.

  75. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 2:24 pm

    For some reason, the system kicked your reply over into spam. I fixed it.

  76. August 25, 2009 2:28 pm

    For some reason, the system kicked your reply over into spam.

    I cannot restrain myself from making the obvious joke, that perhaps the system was not that far wrong in its assessment of Platinga.

  77. thomas2026 permalink*
    August 25, 2009 2:45 pm

    ha, maybe.

    But in seriousness, is there anyone out there who can label what they find objectionable about Plantinga? I keep asking this question but no has given me any straight answers. I appreciate Matt’s review of Plantinga as he actually deal with Plantinga’s arguments. So, anyone want to take a stab? I’m even willing to post it.

  78. Andrew permalink
    August 25, 2009 2:51 pm

    I personally don’t find him “objectionable” so much as “mistaken”. (Or possibly “textbook example of ‘motivated reasoning'”.)

    I did in an earlier comment give some specific suggestions as to why some people might find him more objectionable than other philosophers, such as his involvement with the “intelligent design” movement, etc.

  79. AdamK permalink
    August 25, 2009 4:06 pm

    I think John Loftus et. al. might have once voiced a few quibbles with Plantinga:
    http://debunkingchristianity.blogspot.com/

  80. August 29, 2009 6:02 pm

    Allow me to play to my imputed stereotype and state that these aren’t problems, though I’ll admit that some of the answers aren’t intuitive.

    By the same token, some of those 5 leveled at Christians are similarly chestnuts.

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