Atheism and Objective Morality

Golden Lady Justice, Bruges, Belgium

I’ve been having an interesting exchange with someone using the screen name Atheist Advocate about the nature of morality. The conversation began on Twitter, and AA wrote a reply on his blog, and I’m posting my response to his blog post here. I appreciate AA’s thoughtful engagement on these issues.

Although AA denies it, I still believe, as I said in my extended tweet, that he is conflating moral ontology with moral epistemology. He writes, “it seems pointless to call God ‘maximally good’ unless we know what good means outside of God. It seems like the only way that trait would make sense. . . . I think my analogy deals with the nature of humor, and asks if we can define humor simply in terms of a comedian’s jokes / nature etc, without having an independent idea of what humor is.” (For the full context of the analogy, see the extended Twitter post.)

We can note that he mentions the term nature (which concerns ontology), but conjoins this concept with questions about knowledge of “what good means outside of God,” the definition of humor (his analogy for goodness), and “an independent idea of what [good] is.”

But these are clearly two different things. What it is that grounds moral facts is different from our ideas of good and evil, and our definitions of them. We can acquire many ideas about morality, but this has no bearing on where the basis of morality resides.

If this were the 19th century and we were discussing the basis of the meter, the ground of the meter would be the official meter bar in France. If AA and I were in Europe at the time, our ideas of a meter might come from distances we had traveled, from signs we had seen, and the like, but the foundation and basis of that length just was that bar located in France. In the same way, God’s nature just is the basis and foundation for good. Given that God is the ground of all reality, it makes sense that this includes morality.

Interestingly, AA seems to hold that for goodness to make sense, it has to exist outside of human beings, and presumably any being. But if so, where does it reside? Presumably AA doesn’t believe in some type of Platonic realm where goodness exists “out there.” But if objective good does exist, it must have an ontological grounding—something that provides an ultimate explanation for its existence.

In this light, it appears to be a contradiction for AA to claim that, in effect, morality resides within human beings “in the physical firing of neurons in our brains.” To be consistent, AA would have to hold that goodness can’t be internal to human beings, but must exist “as something outside of” them—as humor only makes sense if it exists outside of the comedian.

But can human beliefs, based on firing neurons in the brain, provide a basis for morality? Since the firing of neurons are simply physical events determined by impersonal, deterministic laws of nature, the answer is clearly no. Firing neurons are no more value-determining than a rain shower, a cough, an avalanche, or the earth’s orbit around the sun. These events simply are, and one can’t derive an ought from an is (at least on atheism). The fact that zebras have four legs, for example, can’t tell us whether this is good, bad, or indifferent. It’s simply an existing state of affairs—like the firing of neurons.

AA links to an article on Desirism intended to address this problem, but note what the article states: “Desirism states that the reason this type of ‘ought’ [a truly moral ought] cannot be derived from ‘is’ rests on the fact that it does not exist. It is not real. It is a fictitious or mythical ‘ought’.”

And that is exactly the point I was making about morality on atheism—it’s an illusion, a set of assertions without justification. And this is because there is no ontological basis for it. Nothing “out there” on atheism makes it the case that some actions are really right, and some really wrong. To support this point, I quoted a number of atheist thinkers saying essentially the same thing. To reiterate, I’ll reproduce a few of them here.

• “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, No evil and no good; nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”
– Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.
• “The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, they are purely ephemeral.”
– Paul Kurtz, Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism, p. 65.
• “If there is no single moral authority we have to in some sense ‘create’ values for ourselves … [and] that means that moral claims are not true or false… you may disagree with me but you cannot say I have made a factual error.”
– Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, pp.41-51.

To these we could add Michael Ruse and E. O. Wilson: “In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is produced by evolution but is not justified by it because, like Macbeth’s dagger, it serves a powerful purpose without existing in substance. . . . Unlike Macbeth’s dagger, ethics is a shared illusion of the human race.” “The Evolution of Ethics,” in Philosophy of Biology, ed. Michael Ruse (New York: Macmillan, 1989), 316.

These atheist thinkers are exactly right—on atheism, there literally is no right and wrong; thus, any moral judgment is nothing more than a matter of opinion (whether one person’s or most of the world’s population). Yet, one of our deepest intuitions as human beings is that some things really are good and some evil. As humans, we truly apprehend an immaterial realm of moral truths. This is because we are made in God’s image, and have been created with the proper faculties to discern good and evil. Thus, objective morality fits well with a theistic worldview, but finds no place in an atheistic worldview. Christian theism explains our moral experience, but atheism can’t.

I welcome AA’s further thoughts and comments.

Book Review – Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture

Interest in the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains strong among evangelicals, and several recent books have explored his life, ministry, and theology. IVP Academic has made a notable contribution to these studies with their volume Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture. Each spring, IVP Academic co-sponsors the Wheaton Theology Conference at Wheaton College. This book originated from the conference held in 2012 under the same title. The focus of the conference was an examination of how Bonhoeffer’s theology, education, and life experiences influenced him to become a preacher and theologian whose faith in Christ directed him to the public square. Thus, this book helps us see how Bonhoeffer engaged with culture as a theologian of the cross. Abraham Kuyper famously wrote, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” Likewise, Bonhoeffer saw every aspect of culture and society to be a place where the resurrected Christ is to be exalted.

In this volume, ten evangelical scholars unfold the views, thoughts, and theology of Bonhoeffer in areas such as technology, politics, and the Christian academy, among others. Although all of the essays are insightful, some pique more interest than others. For example, in chapter 1, Philip G. Ziegler approaches Bonhoeffer as a “theologian of the Word of God” (p. 34). He argues that the core of Bonhoeffer’s theology stems from his theological conviction that God revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ who is the Word incarnate. Hence, “Christian dogmatics must . . . cleave to the confession that Jesus Christ is God and admit that ‘the is may not be interpreted any further’” (p. 35). Bonhoeffer understood that “the work of the present Word is always world-making” (pp. 35-36). To find the relevance of theology in worldly affairs, one must acknowledge how the Word continues to work among us in order to restore what was fallen due to the sin of the first Adam.

In chapter 3, Reggie L. Williams examines how Bonhoeffer’s encounter with the Harlem Renaissance influenced his views on race and argues that “Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the race divide in Harlem was a vital piece of his later politically inflected Christian witness in Germany” (p. 62). Williams contends, “Christ entering into the suffering of the outcasts and marginalized is a theme that resonates with Bonhoeffer’s Christology as he would develop it in the years ahead. Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer not only agreed with this christological theme as the mode of Christ’s existence in the world but also with the ethical imperative for real Christian discipleship” (p. 71). In my opinion, this chapter is the best in the book. In fact, Williams’s essay was received enthusiastically by the audience at the conference, and he received a standing ovation—a rare event at a theology conference!

In chapter 6, Joel D. Lawrence, in response to Bonhoeffer’s view of the church (“‘The church is church only when it is there for others’” [p. 113]), presents a question: “How does the church become the church for others?” (p. 114). Lawrence focuses on Bonhoeffer’s theology of confession in which Bonhoeffer argues for “the concrete discipline that is essential for the community who would move from the cor curvum in se [the heart turned in on itself] to being for others” (p. 121). In confession, there is life again because we die to sin through confession and, in this act, the church will conform to Christ. Lawrence concludes, “We must ask with Bonhoeffer: Is the lack of life in the church today connected to disregard for confession? Is there no life today because there is no death?” (p. 129). Lawrence thus calls for a true theology of confession in order for the church to exist in the form of Christ—to be there for others.

There is much to commend in this book. It serves not only those who are interested in Bonhoeffer, but also those who are interested in cultural engagement—how Christianity can bring human flourishing to society and culture. In this sense, the conference and book are an attempt to examine what we can learn from Bonhoeffer to make Christianity relevant to our contemporary society. As the church faces issues that arise within our society, Bonhoeffer’s life and writings inspire us to remain faithful to Christ, the Word incarnate, while we engage with culture in order to bring human flourishing to society.

— Reviewed by Naomi Noguchi Reese, PhD candidate, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Was Jesus Interested in the Old Testament?

I was astounded to learn that the Jesus Seminar claims that “Scripture was of interest to early Christians but not to Jesus” (Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels [IVP: 2008], 38 [Kindle]).  “Therefore, when we encounter passages in the Gospels where Jesus quotes or alludes to Scripture, the Seminar thinks it is the early church that is speaking, not Jesus.”

But wherever they get that idea, it’s not from the text.  Evans points out some fascinating facts.

  • According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes or alludes to twenty-three of the thirty-six books of the Hebrew Bible (counting the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles as three books, not six).
  • Jesus alludes to or quotes all five books of Moses, the three major prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel), eight of the twelve minor prophets, and five of the “writings.” In other words, Jesus quotes or alludes to all of the books of the Law, most of the Prophets and some of the Writings.
  • According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus quotes or alludes to Deuteronomy fifteen or sixteen times, Isaiah about forty times and the Psalms some thirteen times. These appear to be his favorite books, though Daniel and Zechariah seem to have been favorites also.
  • Superficially, then, the “canon” of Jesus is pretty much what it was for most religiously observant Jews of his time, including–and especially–the producers of the scrolls at Qumran.

 

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7 Things We Know about Jesus and His Followers from Non-Biblical Sources

These 7 points are nicely summarized by Paul Barnett in his volume Is the New Testament Reliable? (IVP Academic, 2003 [second ed.], p. 34).  Notably, each fact corroborates the record of the New Testament.

1. Jesus Christ was executed (by crucifixion?) in Judea during the period when Tiberius was emperor (A.D. 14-37) and Pontius Pilate was governor (A.D. 26-36).  Tacitus [Annals 15.44.2-5]

2. The movement spread from Judea to Rome. Tacitus [Ibid.]

3. His followers worshipped him as (a) god. Pliny [Letters from Bithynia, c. A.D. 110]

4. He was called “the Christ.” Josephus [Antiquities 20.197-203—an undisputed passage]

5. His followers were called “Christians.” Tacitus, Pliny [see above]

6. They were numerous in Bithynia and Rome. Tacitus, Pliny [see above]

7. His brother was James. Josephus [see above]

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The Purpose of the Bible

Nicely summarized by Dr. Robert Plummer of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible (Kregel Academic, 2010)

The Bible itself is evidence of one of its main claims—that is, that the God who made the heavens, earth, and sea, and everything in them is a communicator who delights to reveal himself to wayward humans.  We read in Hebrews 1:1-2, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.”

These verses in Hebrews point to the culmination of biblical revelation in the eternal Son of God.  This Son became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, forever uniting God and man in one person—100 percent God and 100 percent man (John 1:14).  The prophecies, promises, longings, and anticipations under the old covenant find their fulfillment, meaning, and culmination in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:20, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.”

The purpose of the Bible, then, is “to make [a person] wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15).  The Bible is not an end in itself.  As Jesus said to the religious experts in his day, “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (John 5:39).  So, under divine superintendence, the goal of the Bible is to bring its readers to receive the forgiveness of God in Christ and thus to possession of eternal life in relationship with the triune God (John 17:3).

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New Books in Philosophy, Theology, and Apologetics – May 2013

God, Freedom & Human Dignity: Embracing a God-Centered Identity in a Me-Centered CultureRon Highfield (IVP Academic, February 2013) *

Does God’s all-encompassing will restrict our freedom? Does God’s ownership and mastery over us diminish our dignity? The fear that God is a threat to our freedom and dignity goes far back in Western thought. Such suspicion remains with us today in our so-called secular society. In such a context any talk of God tends to provoke responses that range from defiance to subservience to indifference. How did Western culture come to this place? What impact does this social and intellectual environment have on those who claim to believe in God or more specifically in the Christian God of the Bible? Professor of religion Ron Highfield traces out the development of Western thought that has led us our current frame of mind from Plato, Augustine and Descartes through Locke, Kant, Blake Bentham, Hegel, Nietzsche–all the way down to Charles Taylor’s landmark work Sources of the Self. At the heart of the issue is the modern notion of the autonomous self and the inevitable crisis it provokes for a view of human identity, freedom and dignity found in God. Can the modern self really secure its own freedom, dignity and happiness? What alternative do we have? Highfield makes pertinent use of trinitarian theology to show how genuine Christian faith responds to this challenge by directing us to a God who is not in competition with his human creations, but rather who provides us with what we seek but could never give ourselves. God, Freedom and Human Dignity is essential reading for Christian students who are interested in the debates around secularism, modernity and identity formation.

God or Godless?  One Atheist.  One Christian. Twenty Controversial QuestionsJohn W. Loftus and Randal Rauser (Baker, April 2013)

Perhaps the most persistent question in human history is whether or not there is a God. Intelligent people on both sides of the issue have argued, sometimes with deep rancor and bitterness, for generations. The issue can’t be decided by another apologetics book, but the conversation can continue and help each side understand the perspectives of the other.
In this unique book, atheist John Loftus and theist Randal Rauser engage in twenty short debates that consider Christianity, the existence of God, and unbelief from a variety of angles. Each concise debate centers on a proposition to be resolved, with either John or Randal arguing in the affirmative and the opponent the negative, and can be read in short bits or big bites. This is the perfect book for Christians and their atheist or agnostic friends to read together, and encourages honest, open, and candid debate on the most important issues of life and faith.

Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character DevelopmentPhilip E. Dow (IVP Academic, April 2013)

Templeton Foundation Character Project’s Character Essay and Book Prize Competition award winner! What does it mean to love God with all of our minds? Our culture today is in a state of crisis where intellectual virtue is concerned. Dishonesty, cheating, arrogance, laziness, cowardice–such vices are rampant in society, even among the world’s most prominent leaders. We find ourselves in an ethical vacuum, as the daily headlines of our newspapers confirm again and again. Central to the problem is the state of education. We live in a technological world that has ever greater access to new information and yet no idea what to do with it all. In this wise and winsome book, Philip Dow presents a case for the recovery of intellectual character. He explores seven key virtues–courage, carefulness, tenacity, fair-mindedness, curiosity, honesty and humility–and discusses their many benefits. The recovery of virtue, Dow argues, is not about doing the right things, but about becoming the right kind of person. The formation of intellectual character produces a way of life that demonstrates love for both God and neighbor. Dow has written an eminently practical guide to a life of intellectual virtue designed especially for parents and educators. The book concludes with seven principles for a true education, a discussion guide for university and church groups, and nine appendices that provide examples from Dow’s experience as a teacher and administrator. Virtuous Minds is a timely and thoughtful work for parents and pastors, teachers and students–anyone who thinks education is more about the quality of character than about the quantity of facts.

Holy War in the Bible: Christian Morality and an Old Testament Problem – Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evan, & Paul Copan, eds. (IVP Academic, April 2013).

The challenge of a seemingly genocidal God who commands ruthless warfare has bewildered Bible readers for generations. The theme of divine war is not limited to the Old Testament historical books, however. It is also prevalent in the prophets and wisdom literature as well. Still it doesn’t stop. The New Testament book of Revelation, too, is full of such imagery. Our questions multiply.

  • Why does God apparently tell Joshua to wipe out whole cities, tribes or nations?
  • Is this yet another example of dogmatic religious conviction breeding violence?
  • Did these texts help inspire or justify the Crusades?
  • What impact do they have on Christian morality and just war theories today?
  • How does divine warfare fit with Christ’s call to “turn the other cheek”?
  • Why does Paul employ warfare imagery in his letters?
  • Do these texts warrant questioning the overall trustworthiness of the Bible?

These controversial yet theologically vital issues call for thorough interpretation, especially given a long history of misinterpretation and misappropriaton of these texts. This book does more, however. A range of expert contributors engage in a multidisciplinary approach that considers the issue from a variety of perspectives: biblical, ethical, philosophical and theological. While the writers recognize that such a difficult and delicate topic cannot be resolved in a simplistic manner, the different threads of this book weave together a satisfying tapestry. Ultimately we find in the overarching biblical narrative a picture of divine redemption that shows the place of divine war in the salvific movement of God.

The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?John Leslie & Robert Lawrence Kuhn, eds. (Wiley-Blackwell, April 2013)

This compelling study of the origins of all that exists, including explanations of the entire material world, traces the responses of philosophers and scientists to the most elemental and haunting question of all: why is anything here—or anything anywhere? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why not nothing? It includes the thoughts of dozens of luminaries from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Leibniz to modern thinkers such as physicists Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg, philosophers Robert Nozick and Derek Parfit, philosophers of religion Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne, and the Dalai Lama.

  • The first accessible volume to cover a wide range of possible reasons for the existence of all reality, from over 50 renowned thinkers, including Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, Hume, Bertrand Russell, Stephen Hawking, Steven Weinberg, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, Paul Davies, and the Dalai Lama
  • Features insights by scientists, philosophers, and theologians
  • Includes informative and helpful editorial introductions to each section
  • Provides a wealth of suggestions for further reading and research
  • Presents material that is both comprehensive and comprehensible

Mind, Brain, and Free WillRichard Swinburne (Oxford University Press, May 2013)

Mind, Brain, and Free Will presents a powerful new case for substance dualism (the idea that humans consist of two parts–body and soul) and for libertarian free will (that humans have some freedom to choose between alternatives, independently of the causes which influence them). Richard Swinburne argues that answers to questions about mind, body, and free will depend crucially on the answers to more general philosophical questions. He begins by analyzing the criteria for one event being the same as another, one substance being the same as another, and a state of affairs being metaphysically possible; and then goes on to analyze the criteria for a belief about these issues being justified. Pure mental events (including conscious events) are distinct from physical events and interact with them. Swinburne claims that no result from neuroscience or any other science could show that interaction does not take place; and illustrates this claim by showing that recent scientific work (such as Libet’s experiments) has no tendency whatever to show that our intentions do not cause brain events. He goes on to argue for agent causation, and claims that–to speak precisely–it is we, and not our intentions, that cause our brain events. It is metaphysically possible that each of us could acquire a new brain or continue to exist without a brain; and so we are essentially souls. Brain events and conscious events are so different from each other that it would not be possible to establish a scientific theory which would predict what each of us would do in situations of moral conflict. Hence given a crucial epistemological principle (the Principle of Credulity) we should believe that things are as they seem to be: that we make choices independently of the causes which influence us. According to Swinburne’s lucid and ambitious account, it follows that we are morally responsible for our actions.

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* Descriptions provided by respective publishers

The Missing Links – February 10, 2013

  • A self-described lesbian leftist professor describes her conversion at Christianity Today.  “I continued reading the Bible, all the while fighting the idea that it was inspired. But the Bible got to be bigger inside me than I. It overflowed into my world. I fought against it with all my might. Then, one Sunday morning, I rose from the bed of my lesbian lover, and an hour later sat in a pew at the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church.”
  • a Liberal-Democrat Member of Parliament and former minister, explaining why she voted against the redefinition of marriage in the British Parliament on February 5.   “My concern, however, is that by moving to a definition of marriage that no longer requires sexual difference, we will, over time, ultimately decouple the definition of marriage from family life altogether. I doubt that this change will be immediate. It will be gradual, as perceptions of what marriage is and is for shift. But we can already see the foundations for this shift in the debate about same-sex marriage. Those who argue for a change in the law do so by saying that surely marriage is just about love between two people and so is of nobody else’s business. Once the concept of marriage has become established in social consciousness as an entirely private matter about love and commitment alone, without any link to family, I fear that it will accelerate changes already occurring that makes family life more unstable.”
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