Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Feb/09

8

Chuck Colson and science

Chuck Colson has weighed in on the “proper role of science,” in response to President Obama’s inaugural science plug.  Colson’s column is a perfect example of theological panic, the condition that besets a certain portion of the devout when they contemplate the fact that not everyone believes in God. 

Anticipating that President Obama will lift the ban on federally-subsidized  embryonic stem cell research, Colson posits  only two reasons why anyone would back such research: either he is “driven by greed” or he is “driven by a dangerous worldview called scientism.” 

Though Colson purports to distinguish scientism from science (and makes claims regarding the former that no one has ever advanced, such as: “Scientism assumes that science is the controlling reality about life, so anything that can be validated scientifically ought to be done”), ultimately, what seems to most upset him is a worldview lacking a divine creator, or what he calls “scientific naturalism, a philosophy that the natural world is all that exists.”  Scientific naturalism denies “the reality of those things central to our humanity: a sense of right and wrong, of purpose, of beauty, of God.”

Colson may be right about the last item on his list, but it is nothing more than hysterical ignorance to claim that without belief in God, humans can have no “sense of right and wrong, of purpose, or beauty.”   I have never met a non-believer who has no sense of the difference between right and wrong.  If someone is not killing his parents only because he believes that God prohibits it, but that it would otherwise be OK, his religiously-based moral compass does not have much to recommend it.  Parents teach children to treat other human beings with respect based on humans’ innate ethical intuitions (which a parent reinforces with a strong dose of brute, unappealable authority).  These intuitions can, but need not, be given an explicitly religious cast.  

As for a sense of purpose and beauty, to say that these come only from a belief in God seems to me to be nothing more than an admission of one’s own poverty of life force.  Is there not purpose enough in trying to do good work?  Or in maintaining an orderly household, caring for your family, or trying to figure out some small portion of how the world works and changes?   If Colson needs to consult his Bible before falling down on his knees in gratitude for the splendors and lethal beauties of the classical music repertoire—or the American songbook, the delicate, syncopated poise of Fred Astaire, Brazilian Samba, or any other glorious human expression—he is deaf and blind to human grandeur and pathos.  Science does not deny that beauty exists.  A religious worldview that sees God as the precondition for an appreciation of beauty puts beauty on a far more tenuous basis.  

Colson trots out a parade of horrible that he claims emanate from scientific naturalism: “moral horrors like the killing of humans at the earliest stage of life on the spurious grounds that doing so might cure other people’s diseases. Or cloning. Or medical experiments on humans, as the Nazis conducted.”  But the scientists who want to pursue embryonic stem cell research do not advocate killing human beings; they do not regard a 5-day-old embryo as a full human being.  They are motivated by precisely those values that Colson would undoubtedly rank as uniquely Christian: a desire to alleviate suffering and improve the human condition (as well as by the sheer love of discovery and knowledge).  Presumably, Colson would acknowledge those motivations in a researcher who is working on adult stem cell lines; but if a scientist works on embryonic stem cell lines, he is suddenly stripped of all such drives and becomes only a pawn of greed or “scientism.”  This is not to say that the use of embryonic stem cells is not morally complicated, but Colson refuses to acknowledge that any opposing point of view to his own contains any possible validity.

Nazi medical experiments grew out of an entire ideology of nationalist world domination, of which an unconventional pagan religiosity was only a small part.  The rest of the West’s medical ethics have evolved over time, as the revulsion felt towards the Tuskegee syphilis experimentation shows.  It was not an increase in Christian zeal that pushed our medical ethics beyond Tuskegee, but rather the constant expansion of the Enlightenment concept of rights.  Too many “moral horrors” have been conducted by God-believers, often with official sanction, such as the possession, trade, and brutal punishment of slaves, torture on the rack, burning at the stake, massacring of opposing sects and infidels, and abuse of children and animals, to hold that what distinguishes humane from inhumane behavior is a belief in God.  To be sure, the challenges of maintaining civil order should never be taken for granted.  But a simplistic invocation of religiosity as the solution to cruelty or selfishness is not persuasive.

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41 comments

  • Argon · February 8, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Good link. I also referenced that last week during a dialog with Heather.
    http://secularright.org/wordpress/?p=1426#comment-5090

    For more fun, do a look-up on how many Evangelical blogs parrot Colson and his article.

  • Tim · February 8, 2009 at 9:19 am

    Thanks for this. I have resolved in old age not to get so agitated about religious belief — most of it is harmless, or beneficial — but I still get worked up at the absurd argument that without God values are impossible and life is meaningless. The disdain that that “argument” has for people like me still pushes my buttons.

  • Ivan Karamazov · February 8, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Are you sure you did your homework before dropping in the Tuskegee reference? It’s probably second only to the “3/5ths of a person” in the actual facts differing wildly from the common perception of it.

    Well, now that I think of it, perhaps the Immaculate Conception is even more commonly misunderstood that those two. But you get the point.

  • Ross · February 8, 2009 at 10:09 am

    The question of whether or not the federal government should fund certain stem-cell research is certainly a moral decision, at least in part, since science itself has nothing to say on the morality of the matter. This means that in a democracy people of many different persuasions will bring their moral views to bear on the issue, and some of those values will, naturally, be religious in origin and some of them won’t be. Democracy is messy–deal with it.

    I still don’t understand the purpose of this blog. You all deny that there are real rational disagreements–there are only the enlightened and the benighted. This does not make for interesting reading, even if there are many smart folks writing at the sight.

    Admit that there are real disagreements and then there is something to discuss. There are world-class philosophers (and philosophers of science) at Ivy League universities who are traditional religious believers. Are all these people morons? Hilary Putnam and Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jean-Luc Marion and Robert Adams and Alvin Plantinga and Charles Taylor and Anthony Flew–are they all intellectual weaklings?

  • Roger Hallman · February 8, 2009 at 10:36 am

    The stupid…it burns.

    Hey, I have a great idea for economic stimulus. We could build rocket ships to fly to the Sun and advertise them as “Transportation to Heaven”. Get Colson and few megachurch preachers to sign on and we’d sell out the seats faster than a Jimmy Buffett concert.

  • steveT · February 8, 2009 at 11:04 am

    Heather,

    I’ve you seen you make similar arguments before and I feel like you’re approaching Colson’s argument the wrong way. Colson’s argument seems to be that if life is an entirely natural phenomenon then we can’t define an objectively true morality. Your argument is that this is ridiculous because “I have never met a non-believer who has no sense of the difference between right and wrong.”

    I think this is the wrong reply for several reasons. First “I have never met” is hardly scientific. Second, Colson’s argument implies that since an objectively true morality can’t be defined, the belief in a completely natural world isn’t correct. Your reply is essentially “we all believe in an objective morality regardless” so a natural world can be true. By your reply you’re accepting the argument that any view of the world (whether natural or supernatural) must contain an objectively true morality.

    I think Colson’s argument is half right. I think it’s true that in a completely natural world we can’t define an objectively true morality. We all inherently feel a sense or right and wrong for a number of reasons – large societies couldn’t have developed without this, religion and tradition reinforces it, etc. However, in Colson’s world view someone who transgresses will ultimately be punished because they have done something objectively wrong. I think it’s entirely reasonable that a person somewhere could have a natural world view that allows him to ignore morality, commit a terrible crime and not be caught, and never face any metaphysical consequences for the crime.

    I think the correct reply to Colson should be “You’re right that an objectively true morality can’t be defined – but that doesn’t mean the idea of a natural world is wrong.” Colson falls into the fallacy of defining theories as “good” and “bad”. This is the same thing that happens when people criticize evolution by saying the Nazis used Darwin’s idea to promote the theory of a master race. Even though the Nazis misunderstood Darwin’s ideas – the response to this argument should still be “so what?” Just because Nazis believed in some form of Darwinism doesn’t mean Darwinism is incorrect. We have to stress that theories aren’t “good” or “bad” – they are “correct” or “incorrect.”

    Your argument seems to be that a natural world view is both “good” and “correct”. But this is the wrong way to approach the issue. We should acknowledge that a natural world view may be be “bad”, but it is still “correct.” Likewise I think the reply to Colson should be – you may be right that objective morality can’t be defined – but so what, that doesn’t mean that believing in an entirely natural world is incorrect. I’m sure my dog is much less worried about the economy than I am, but that doesn’t mean he’s right.

  • Supposing Truth is Ugly -- What Then? - Damon Linker · February 8, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    […] debate between orthodox religion and atheism goes on and on and on. In observing the argument, what strikes me more and more is not the deep divide separating the […]

  • Mr. F. Le Mur · February 8, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    “Are all these people morons?”

    They’re more influenced by their emotions and the surrounding status-quo than by their intellects. I’ll coin a phrase: “clever morons.”

    “Hilary Putnam and Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jean-Luc Marion and Robert Adams and Alvin Plantinga and Charles Taylor and Anthony Flew–are they all intellectual weaklings?”

    In regard to religion or anything dealing with religion, such the the nature of mankind, yes, they must be. Their ideas are worthless, at best.

  • Brent Michael Krupp · February 8, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    What in the world is Ivan Karamazov talking about? The Tuskegee Experiment involved not offering penicillin to men with syphilis long after it was known to cure the disease — for the purposes of studying their untreated illness. I’m pretty sure that’s the common perception of the event.

  • Ivan Karamazov · February 8, 2009 at 3:55 pm

    @Brent Michael Krupp
    Many believe the men were purposely given the disease, just like many believe folks thought Blacks were only 3/5ths the worth of a White, and that the Immaculate Conception refers to the Virgin Birth.

    You have the correct version of Tuskegee, so it was obviously not the likes of you my comment was for. If you also know the other two, give yourself a gold star.

  • Tim Kowal · February 8, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    Heather,

    You are not coming toe-to-toe with Colson’s argument. Colson does not deny that scienceists and/or atheists do not recognize beauty or moral truths. Indeed, they do. The argument is that they do not possess a worldview that accounts for such things. Universal standards of beauty, morality, causation, and induction are simply not supported by an atheistic worldview. Instead, they are commonly accused of “borrowing” a theistic worldview. For the most part, theists are glad to have more people under their tent, people who agree that things like human dignity, equality, freedom, et al. are imperative to human flourishing. But without a cogent and systematic supporting framework, they are merely disembodied conclusions floating in the ether, and there is nothing barring one from manipulating them in the service of ghastly purposes.

    In other words, the call of Corson and other theistic epistemologists and ethicists is, scienceists should define their premises. This was not historically necessary since, until recently, scientists did not purport to supplant metaphysics. Now that they have cast metaphysics aside, there is quite a hole to be filled. They need to reverse their course or get to the philosophical heavy lifting.

  • It’s Orwellian « Buttle’s World · February 8, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    […] hardly alone there. At least I don’t have to live in what Heather MacDonald calls a “theological panic.“ Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Illusion of Free ChoiceWednesday, Aug 2 […]

  • Donna B. · February 9, 2009 at 2:09 am

    “Universal standards of beauty, morality, causation, and induction are simply not supported by an atheistic worldview.” — Tim Kowal

    Though I consider myself more agnostic than atheist (too much hate baggage with the atheist title these days) I can certainly think of standards of causation and induction in science, and don’t have much trouble coming up with beauty and morality standards.

  • Kevembuangga · February 9, 2009 at 4:22 am

    @Tim Kowal
    Let’s not be controversial about beauty and morality for reasons of muddy definitions, but HECK, causation and induction not supported by an atheistic worldview?
    Are you off your meds or what?
    Or may be, like in any good logic theory, once a contradiction creeps in the whole theology collapses into nonsense and vacuousness.

  • Grant Canyon · February 9, 2009 at 5:56 am

    Universal standards of… morality… are simply not supported by an atheistic worldview.

    At one time, in some society, it was (at least officially) held to be moral to kill: infidels, homosexuals, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, polytheists, idolaters, witches, Canaanites, disobedient children, heretics, etc., etc., etc. Tell me, where do you find this “universal” morality???

  • Caledonian · February 9, 2009 at 8:18 am

    I have resolved in old age not to get so agitated about religious belief — most of it is harmless, or beneficial

    Not at all. Most of it is extremely harmful. It’s just that you’re conditioned to view the consequences — and the society that results from them — as ‘normal’.

    Anything, no matter how absurd and pernicious, can act as a baseline for a person who’s gotten used to it.

  • Warren Donley · February 9, 2009 at 9:30 am

    >> it is nothing more than hysterical ignorance to claim that without belief in God, humans can have no “sense of right and wrong, of purpose, or beauty.”

    Well, of course atheists have a sense of right and wrong. It’s just that they can’t offer an intellectually coherent account of why their sense of right and wrong is valid – even for themselves, let alone for society as a whole.

    A sense of purpose? A pure illusion and/or rationalization if atheism is true.

    A sense of beauty? If I find pictures of Dachau beautiful, prove to me that my sense of beauty is less valid than yours.

    My only problem with atheists is that most of them don’t have the courage of their convictions, or else haven’t thought their philosophy through to the bitter end. Therefore, like Nietzsche, I am contemptuous of atheists who are not thorough-going nihilists. They seem like such weak and silly little people. This site illustrates the point well.

    But then, I’m a hysterically ignorant religious savage, so what do you expect?

  • Gotchaye · February 9, 2009 at 10:00 am

    It’s easy and often amusing to take cheap shots at people like this, as when you point out that it almost sounds like he only refrains from going on a killing spree because he was told not to, but that doesn’t really engage with them without more explanation.

    I’m largely with steveT here. What the irreligious can and can’t say about morality is less important than the fact that the whole issue is irrelevant to whether or not religion is true. Unfortunately, people really, really want to have an objective morality, and no amount of argument is going to convince a lot of people that a worldview without an objective morality is truer than one with one.

    So the best tactic seems to me to be to turn this around on them. It’s not difficult to deny that the religious can claim the existence of an objective morality. The echoes of Euthyphro in the killing spree objection aside, theistic moral claims are exactly as meaningful (or empty) as atheistic moral claims. Even supposing that God has a set of knowable rules that He wants us to follow, we have no objective moral reason to follow those rules. After all, if morality comes from God, then all of the moral reasons for following God’s law are themselves contained in God’s law, and so all of the arguments for doing so are terribly circular. It really does come down to “I do what God tells me is good because God tells me it’s good to do what God tells me is good”, which is no more justifiable than “I’m a utilitarian because I feel like being one”. At some point, humans have to consult a standard that originates in their own minds in order to decide whether or not to subscribe to some (potentially external) code of morality, and that standard can’t be based on reason without circularity. It’s all some variant of “because I feel like it”, whether one dresses that up as faith or something else.

    But you’ve got to attack the notion that the religious can in principle have access to objective morality in order to really get them to pay attention.

  • Grant Canyon · February 9, 2009 at 11:58 am

    “It’s just that they can’t offer an intellectually coherent account of why their sense of right and wrong is valid – even for themselves, let alone for society as a whole.”

    LOL. Ignorance on your part does not mean that such an account doesn’t exist.

  • Warren Donley · February 9, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    “It’s all some variant of “because I feel like it”, whether one dresses that up as faith or something else.”

    Ah! A thorough-going nihilist. I can respect that. No matter how confused or incoherent your philosophy may be, at least you’re morally consistent – as long as you don’t turn around and spoil it by getting all self-righteous when someone murders your kids or steals all of your money… because, I mean, they just felt like it.

  • Warren Donley · February 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm

    “Ignorance on your part does not mean that such an account doesn’t exist.”

    Sweet. So let’s have it, then. I’ve been waiting a long time already.

    There is ignorance, and then there is ignorance of ignorance. Your comment illustrates the latter condition.

  • Grant Canyon · February 9, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Sweet. So let’s have it, then. I’ve been waiting a long time already.
    Only because you want other people to do your work for you. It isn’t as if people haven’t been exploring non-theistic morality for centuries. But don’t sit back and complain because you have to do your own research. (I’ve my doubts that even if you were to attempt to educate yourself that you would miss the point, anyway. After all, how can someone judge intellectual coherence, when his moral sense begins with, “First, pretend that there exists an all knowing, all powerful being…”)

    There is ignorance, and then there is ignorance of ignorance. Your comment illustrates the latter condition.
    Ahhh, but you demonstrate igornance of ignorance of ignorance. You’re on double secret probation.

  • Chris · February 9, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    @Warren Donley: If your god told you to kill your son, would you obey? If so, explain why. If not, why are his commands that agree with your feelings any more trustworthy?

    Religious people have no more grounds for moral non-nihilism than irreligious people – they just usually don’t realize it.

    Or maybe you are religious *and* a moral nihilist and believe that you are not obligated to obey a god or gods even if they give you commands? It’s a consistent position but a very rare one.

    Most religious people, in fact, believe that their god(s) ordered exactly what they themselves would have ordered if it had been up to them. Don’t you find that a bit suspicious? When you combine it with the existence of innate (but ill-grounded) senses of morality, doesn’t it suggest that the arrow of causality is running the wrong way and the gods are being made in man’s image?

  • Warren Donley · February 9, 2009 at 1:51 pm

    “Most religious people, in fact, believe that their god(s) ordered exactly what they themselves would have ordered if it had been up to them.”

    ROTFL! Thanks, man – best laugh I’ve had all week!

  • Gotchaye · February 9, 2009 at 2:13 pm

    Ah! A thorough-going nihilist. I can respect that. No matter how confused or incoherent your philosophy may be, at least you’re morally consistent – as long as you don’t turn around and spoil it by getting all self-righteous when someone murders your kids or steals all of your money… because, I mean, they just felt like it.
    I can understand disagreeing with my position, but I don’t see anything in my post even hinting that I think that it doesn’t make sense to have a moral code and to argue for it. I realized that there was some possibility that a careless reader might be confused, so I added that line about some people being utilitarian (a way of making moral judgements, and one that tends towards self-righteousness) because they feel like it.

    That our moral intuitions are subjective is hardly a reason to throw up our hands and give up on evaluating actions as right and wrong.

  • Andrew M · February 9, 2009 at 2:29 pm

    Reading through the comments, I think both sides are missing a key point about the opposition. As a religious person who has had numerous discussions with atheist/agnostic friends, I would like to make a couple interjections.

    First, from a Christian standpoint, one’s morality derives from one’s faith. If one accepts that there is a God (Christian), then following His laws/morality flows from it. Call Him an imaginary friend in the sky or whatever, but assuming the premise of an omniscient and all-powerful God means that you follow His rules. Is that intellectual laziness? It can be, if you never examine the premise, but accepting the premise without the consequences is even worse.

    From the atheistic standpoint, I can see how a morality could develop, though it starts with a baseline “good.” If one takes a selfish standpoint to only do what is good for one’s self, then the resultant morality will be based on how he envisions the future. Assuming staying within one community, it makes sense to be a “good person” (in a Judeo-Christian sense) most of the time, as that will maximize the future returns from the relationships. If one likes to move, gets excitement from hurting people, or engages in some other actions that minimize (or blatantly disregard) long-term consequences, then the impetus for being “good” is essentially nil.

    Obviously, with a different baseline for what is “good,” the behavior of an atheist may change, just as how a “good” Christian may behave differently from a “good” Muslim or a “good” Hindu.

    Just my two cents, take it for what it is worth.

  • kurt9 · February 9, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Here’s my rundown on this stuff.

    1) Morality – To me, this is just a form of contract law between autonomous parties. A contractual concept of morality is certainly empirically derivable from nature (e.g. does not require recourse to religion). Also, a contractual concept of morality does effectively preclude transgressive and anti-social acts. However, a contractual standard of morality is not acceptable to people like Colson because they want to regulate human behavior in more ways than just to prevent anti-social behavior.

    2) Beauty: Are you kidding? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some guys like slender, model type women. Other guys like the bootylicious type. Likewise, some women like men who look like Pearce Brosman (when he was younger). Other women like bodybuilders. The idea that there must be a universal standard of beauty is just plain silly.

    3) Purpose: Again, this is just plain silly. Who needs a universal standard of this? I create my own purpose in life. Why do I need to have to have a externally-defined purpose if I can create my own instead?

    People like Chuck Colson crack me up.

  • Grant Canyon · February 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    @Andrew M

    “From the atheistic standpoint, I can see how a morality could develop, though it starts with a baseline ‘good.’ If one takes a selfish standpoint to only do what is good for one’s self, then the resultant morality will be based on how he envisions the future. Assuming staying within one community, it makes sense to be a “good person” (in a Judeo-Christian sense) most of the time, as that will maximize the future returns from the relationships. If one likes to move, gets excitement from hurting people, or engages in some other actions that minimize (or blatantly disregard) long-term consequences, then the impetus for being “good” is essentially nil.”

    That assumes, though, that “selfish is good” is foundation of the proper moral paradigm. I don’t believe that is true, nor do I believe that most atheist do, either (although a LOT of religious believe this about atheists. Projection, perhaps?) Basic respect for the humanity of others and a version of the so-called golden rule seems to be more the actual foundation for non-theistic morality.

  • kurt9 · February 9, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    The so-called “golden rule” is essentially the contractual standard of morality. Of course, the right-wing christians will tell you that the “golden rule” is not a sufficient as a standard of morality.

  • Andrew M · February 9, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    @Grant Canyon

    I did not mean to imply that “selfish as good” is a foundation of the proper moral paradigm; to be honest, I used that example to show that even with what many people assume to be a completely improper moral basis, it could logically result in “good” behavior.

    As far as the basic respect for humanity and the golden rule as a basis, I can see that being a good starting point, though basic respect for humanity is thin ice to be using, as there are many instances where people have lost respect for humanity as a result of some people’s actions. I don’t mean to say that it is wrong on that, I am just pointing out potential problems with it.

    I did acknowledge that using a different concept of the basic “good” would result in different behaviors in my penultimate sentence, and those two that you mentioned fall under that, as does “society” or the like.

  • Gotchaye · February 9, 2009 at 4:35 pm

    I see what you’re saying Andrew, but I’m confused about this: “assuming the premise of an omniscient and all-powerful God means that you follow His rules
    Why’s that? I can imagine an omniscient and all-powerful evil being. I guess it might make sense to follow such a being’s rules because it could do terrible things to you if you disobey, but that doesn’t make its rules a reasonable basis of a moral system. Sure, if your notion of God includes omnibenevolence, His rules are good (though it’s not obvious that you’d have a duty to follow them), but then you’ve got to explain what it means for God to be omnibenevolent.

  • Warren Donley · February 9, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    “Why’s that?”

    Because if such a God exists, your very existence, moment by moment, including all your reasoning power and your sense of morality, comes solely from Him. In such a situation, it is literally impossible that you could be right about something while God is wrong. This has nothing to do with faith, it’s simple logic. Otherwise, you’re making the absurd claim that a stream can rise higher than its source. If you don’t see this, then I would suggest that you haven’t grasped what the Judeo-Christian tradition means by “God”.

    This is why the Euthyphro dilemma cuts against atheism at least as much as it does against theism. It is a true dilemma when you’re dealing with the demi-gods of ancient Greece (as Socrates was). These are not true Gods at all, rather just a different race of humanoid beings who have somewhat greater powers than we do. But try to pose this same argument against the Judeo-Christian God, and the whole nature of the dilemma changes. Because, as I said, if such a God exists and you know Him to exist (which the argument presupposes), then the atheist is the one who has to explain how he could possibly be justified in not obeying Him – which, given the premise, would be a literally insane act.

  • Gotchaye · February 9, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    First, I’m not sure that most (or even many) Christians would agree with your characterization of how we depend on God – what you’re describing sounds very much like Malebranche’s occasionalism to me. Second, no one’s saying that humans can be right while God, assuming His existence, is wrong. I was pointing out that you absolutely need omnibenevolence (perfect goodness) in your concept of God in order to make the claim that God’s rules are good. An evil (or just less than perfectly good) God could easily have perfect knowledge of good and evil, but such a God’s rules would likely not be good. There’s no necessary connection between what God knows and what God tells us.

    And I don’t think you quite understand the Euthyphro dilemma. As it applies to the Christian God, it has nothing to do with whether or not one ought to obey God’s rules (I don’t think it had anything to do with this even when relating to the Greek gods; I’m not sure where you’re getting this from). Whichever horn of the Euthyphro dilemma you choose, God’s commands are moral duties. The dilemma is about what causes God’s commands to be identical with moral duties – about whether God’s rules are good by virtue of the fact that He made them or whether there’s some standard of goodness that God, being perfectly good, perfectly complies with when issuing commands.

  • Andrew M · February 9, 2009 at 10:59 pm

    The Judeo-Christian God is defined as being perfect and all-loving, so I’m not seeing how an evil/less-than-perfect god is material to the current discussion.

    I don’t believe I understand the Euthyphro dilemma. Accepting the premise of a Judeo-Christian God makes His rules the standard to which you are to live your life. God is perfectly good, and so His commands are perfectly good. If you don’t believe in a god, then it makes no sense to obey his commands because people claim their god made them. Granted, there are many “divine” commands that nearly everyone accepts: Don’t murder, don’t rape, don’t steal. These are universal, as they just make sense. The fact that God/god(s) proscribes these is just icing on the cake for believers.

  • steveT · February 10, 2009 at 5:11 am

    I can’t understand why so many Atheists/Agnostics reject the idea that you can’t objectively define morality. I also have an Atheist/Agnostic world view, but I basically agree w/ Andrew M. It seems to me that an objective morality that all people will accept can’t be defined in a natural world. The Atheist view always seems to be – well, I can define a morality. I have no doubt that any one Atheist can define a morality, but I don’t think there is an absolute morality that can be defined that all Atheists must agree with. There are a number of possible moralities that could be defined within the Atheist world view. I think this is what religious people mean when they criticize the morality of the Atheist world view.

    Just to give one example. In an Atheist world view any two people could enter into an agreement to perform some act that will affect only them – and there will be no consequences. Within the Atheist world view it is difficult/impossible to condemn the people in this case. On the other hand, in a religious world there are pre-defined, absolute standards of morality that are in effect regardless of the attitudes of any person or people. Not only that, religious people believe that there will be an ultimate judgement/punishment for any act.

    As I mentioned in my post above – this in no way invalidates the Atheist view. I consider my view of the world natural, as opposed to a religious view which is supernatural. I hold a natural world view because this at least agrees with everything we can actually observe about the world. I reject the supernatural world view because it doesn’t agree with anything we can observe. The natural world view is right or wrong, independent of the morality that can be defined.

  • Grant Canyon · February 10, 2009 at 6:59 am

    “I can’t understand why so many Atheists/Agnostics reject the idea that you can’t objectively define morality.”

    This assumes the truth of the anti-antheist position, namely that there is or can be such a thing as as objectively defined morality. Given the nature of morality, itself, such a concept is dubious, to be generous. Morality is, at essence, an idea about the right way to act. It is therefore subjective. However, given the effect of evolution on our minds, under the constraints of living in social systems, that subjectively isn’t perfectly subjective, it is biased, or skewed, (by evolution, I believe) to favor a certain core set of generally agreed upon principles. The sociopath does have a different morality than most people, because he doesn’t share the biased/subjective morality most of us share.

    “Just to give one example. In an Atheist world view any two people could enter into an agreement to perform some act that will affect only them – and there will be no consequences. Within the Atheist world view it is difficult/impossible to condemn the people in this case. On the other hand, in a religious world there are pre-defined, absolute standards of morality that are in effect regardless of the attitudes of any person or people. Not only that, religious people believe that there will be an ultimate judgement/punishment for any act.”

    But these are basicallly the same, with one crucial difference. The atheists agree between themselves what the morality is and implicitly or explicitly agree that their shared morality extends no further than themselves. The religious agree among themselves what the morality is, but insist that it will extend beyond themselves and will be applied even to those who don’t subscribe to it.

    They mistakenly label it “objective” when they really mean “universal”. However, that universality is the theists’ subjective choice to apply it even to those who don’t subscribe to it.

    But that isn’t objectively defined morality. That is no different than the agreem

  • Chris · February 10, 2009 at 1:04 pm

    Because, as I said, if such a God exists and you know Him to exist (which the argument presupposes), then the atheist is the one who has to explain how he could possibly be justified in not obeying Him – which, given the premise, would be a literally insane act.

    Knowing that the god *exists* is insufficient to support your desired conclusions – you also have to know that he’s perfect. But you, as an imperfect being, can never really know that another being is perfect, even if he *is* perfect.

    Impressive as the ability to create universes is, there’s a long way between that and perfection; and for the garden variety universe creator, there’s no reason the creation couldn’t surpass its creator just as easily as a child can surpass its parents or a student his/her teachers – living beings rise higher than their sources all the time.

    But when you test the Judeo-Christian god for perfection, he fails miserably (in ways not easily ascribable to the imperfection of the tester, although I suppose that can’t be *absolutely* ruled out). I notice you ducked my question about being in Abraham’s shoes. But how can the same god who jerked Abraham’s chain and betrayed Job and created a hell to throw people into be a perfect omnibenevolent being? (And if hurricanes and tsunamis aren’t natural processes, they’re weapons of mass destruction, falling on the just and on the unjust, which the appropriate god(s) have to morally account for their use of, as well.) If you were constructing a new religion from scratch with a perfect god, that would be difficult enough to reconcile with the observable universe, but ascribing moral perfection to the bloody-handed tyrant of the Bible is beyond ludicrous. It’s not only possible to be morally superior to *that* god (if he existed), it’s not even hard.

  • Bad · February 12, 2009 at 10:06 am

    “steveT: I can’t understand why so many Atheists/Agnostics reject the idea that you can’t objectively define morality.”

    Call me agnostic on this one: I certainly feel that it’s flat out wrong to rape, and that morality couldn’t really BE a morality if it said it was ok to do so.

    But I’ve also never entirely been sure what it even means to say that a morality is “objective.” The very idea of morality seems to assume some judgment about something BASED on a pre-existing value. I.e. you value human life or you don’t, but if you don’t, I don’t see how any purely logical argument could convince you that doing so is worth doing (heck, “worth” in this sentence is another example of a word that we use as if it could stand on its own, when really it’s sort of an incomplete thought: worth it to whom? And why?).

  • kurt9 · February 12, 2009 at 10:14 am

    Maybe I’m just dense. But can anyone explain to me why religious belief in necessary to understand that it is wrong to go over and invade your neighbor’s home, rape his daughter or wife, and steal his money?

  • Bad · February 12, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Warren Donley, your argument against Euthyphro is basically a dodge. The whole point of the argument is to discover if it makes sense to speak of a God “creating” morality or being subject to it.

    Your response is basically to say that a) the argument is wrong de facto simply by your concept of god, so you don’t have to actually show WHY we’re wrong (a huge cop-out) and b) that if we don’t stop thinking about this issue, then your God will beat us all mercilessly.

    As for a) you’re simply wasting people’s time. Yes, theoretically a being could exist that’s always correct. But that being isn’t here making the argument, you are. And theoretically a being could exist that is, in fact, perfectly and self-admittedly cruel and evil. So what? What does that do to actually explain the nature of what morality is and what it has to do with God?

    As for b) that’s not any sort of response to the argument: indeed, that’s basically just one horn of the dilemma: that a God can be infinitely powerful, and we’d better do what it says or else He will have to thrash you! Threats may well keep people in line: but they do not make amoral or immoral behavior moral. Commands do not become just no matter how powerful they are.

    It might well be insane, from the view of pure self-interest, to disobey your God when it commands soldiers to dash infants to death on on rocks. But that still doesn’t magically make it moral to do so.

  • Bad · February 12, 2009 at 10:23 am

    “But can anyone explain to me why religious belief in necessary to understand that it is wrong to go over and invade your neighbor’s home, rape his daughter or wife, and steal his money?”

    Wrong? Who said it was wrong? That’s basically a foreshortened version of some of the God-endorsed glories of the Old Testament! And as Warren Donley reminds us, even though a lot of that behavior seems evil to us now, we can’t possibly be correct! It’s INESCAPABLE LOGIC!

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