Christians Do Not Have a Superior Foundation for Morality!

Christians claim that atheists have no foundation for morality, and that they do. Christians claim atheists have no motivation for being good people, and that they do. Christians claim they have moral superiority because of these two beliefs..

What can we make of this? It’s difficult to convince them otherwise, and I’ve tried here, and I’ve tried there. At the risk of beating my head against the wall, let me try one more time.

Statistics show that atheists make up the lowest number of people in prison per percentage of the population. Statistics also show that atheists have the lowest divorce rate per percentage of the population, especially when compared to conservative Christians. Moreover, it cannot be shown that Christians are more charitable than atheists when we look closely at the data.

Ddisregarding this data Christians think they live better lives because they alone have the Holy Spirit living in them. If this claim were true we should expect then to live better lives. But I believe Christians are deluded about this, since the evidence doesn’t show their claim to be true. It’s no different than the Christians who visit us here at DC who cannot bring themselves to believe we are former Christians. What gives? They reject ordinary evidence and personal testimonies to the contrary even though they turn around and accept extraordinary ancient personal testimonies of miracles in the Bible. They need to come to grips with the fact that these ancient Biblical testimonies are reported through the poor medium of history, which must cross over Lessing’s broad ugly ditch.

Christians always have an out. They claim that the above statistics do not represent true Christians. But when I ask them who the true Christians are, they are all divided into denominational groups which are intellectually supported by scholars who claim their particular group represents true Christianity. If you look at the above link on divorce rates it’s all broken down into denominations. Which one represents yours? None of them are significantly better than atheists with regard to divorce rates.

Conservative Christians will claim that it’s not denominational standing but whether or not someone believes the Bible. But I still find people who believe the Bible is inerrant who disagree with each other. Come on now!? Even Jehovah’s Witnesses claim the Bible is inerrant.

The truth is that it was Bible believing Christians who defended slavery in the South! This is a historical fact! The issue of slavery in the South was clearly the easiest moral question for the Christian God to condemn, if he exists and if he truly is the author of the Bible!

Furthermore, if Christians really believed the Bible they wouldn’t let women speak in their churches (I Cor, 14:34), for the man would be the domineering patriarchal head of the house in which a wife is to “obey” her husband just like Sarah obeyed Abraham (I Peter 3: 6), even to the point of lying to save his life by having sex with another man (Genesis 12: 10-16) and by letting him sleep with another woman so he could have a child (Genesis 16). [I am old enough to remember when women had to say the words “to love and to obey” at their weddings!]

Christians have just learned to interpret these kinds of things differently down through the ages, that’s all. According to Sam Harris they cherry-pick their morals from the Bible, and I think that’s true. They claim they wouldn’t do what previous generations of Christians did. Take for instance the great Angelic Doctor, Thomas Aquinas, who taught that heretics should be killed because they are a leavening influence in society. So Christians did that in the Spanish Inquisition and witch trials. Today's Christians think that past Christians got it wrong. Christians today claim they wouldn’t have done that. But this is what I call chronological snobbery. We are all children of our times, as Voltaire said…all of us. And our morals have all developed together over time with the advancement of a better understanding of who we are as human beings in a society.

Christians will retreat to the claim that the whole reason atheists and skeptics are not mass murderers is because they don't live consistently with their beliefs. Christians will claim that the morality of atheists is a borrowed one from the Christian society they were all raised in that taught them what is right and what is wrong. But this is the most ridiculous claim of all.

Michael Shermer asks the Christian one simple question: “What would you do if there were no God? Would you commit robbery, rape, and murder, or would you continue being a good and moral person? Either way the question is a debate stopper. If the answer is that you would soon turn to robbery, rape, or murder, then this is a moral indictment of your character, indicating you are not to be trusted because if, for any reason, you were to turn away from your belief in God, your true immoral nature would emerge…If the answer is that you would continue being good and moral, then apparently you can be good without God. QED.” [Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil, pp. 154-155].

Let me say that anyone who tries to show that no society can be a good society without Christianity needs a history lesson. Such a person needs to study some of the great societies of the past, like Greece during the golden ages, or the Roman Empire, or several of the dynasties in ancient China, or the Islamic Empire under Muhammad, or the historic Japanese culture. None of these societies were Christian ones, but they were great societies by all standards of history. It won't prove anything to argue that there was corruption in every one of these societies to some degree, for this is true of any ancient or modern society, even Biblical Judaism and Christian America.

If Christians want to maintain that a Christian society is a better society, then just let them volunteer to go back in time to medieval Christianity and see if they like it. Probably all Christians today would be branded as heretics and persecuted or burned to death. And if today’s Christians will say that medieval Christianity doesn’t represent true Christianity, which Christian society does truly represent true Christianity? Even in the first few years of the early church there was corruption. There was sin in the camp (Acts 5); grumbling about food (Acts 6); and a major dispute that threatened to split the church (Acts 10-11, 15; Galatians 2). Then there were the constant disputes among these Christians over a very wide assortment of issues (I & II Corinthians). I could go on and talk of Calvin’s Geneva, the Crusades, or any period in the history of America too, including black slavery, the Salem witchcraft trials, Manifest Destiny, and our treatment of women and minorities, to mention just a few.

Christian inclusivist scholar, Charles Kimball, argues that certain tendencies within religions cause evil. “Religious structures and doctrines can be used almost like weapons.” (p. 32). Religion becomes evil, according to Kimball, whenever religion: 1) has absolute truth claims; 2) demands blind obedience; 3) tries to establish the ideal society; 4) utilizes the end justifies any means when defending their group identity; or 5) when they see themselves in a holy war. He says, “A strong case can be made that the history of Christianity contains considerably more violence and destruction than that of most other major religions.” (p. 27) [When Religion Becomes Evil (Harper, 2002)].

I just don’t see where a Christian society is a better one. And even if Christianity was the main motivator in starting most all early American universities, most all of our hospitals and many food kitchens, and the like, these things still would have been started anyway, if for no reason other than necessity. It just so happened to be that Christianity is the dominant religion in America for a couple of centuries, that’s all. Besides, these things were probably not started by Christian churches out of altruism, or any desire for a better society, but as a way for those churches to convert people. After all, who are most vulnerable to the Christian message? They are the sick (hospitals), the poor (food kitchens) and young people leaving home for the first time to enter universities, which were mostly started to train preachers.

Christians will retort that atheists have their Lenin's and Stalin's. Yes that's correct. But what point does that prove? It doesn't prove anything to me. Why? Because I don't believe it was their atheism which caused them to kill millions of people. Most dictators who fear for their lives will kill people in order to make their subjects fearful of them. Besides, there are power hungry people and killers out there no matter what a person believes. The history of the church proves this.

The real question is whether Christians have a superior foundation for morality and I've just briefly shown they don't. I mean, really now, what good does it do for Christians to claim they have a foundation for morality when they cannot tell us how we should behave and they cannot live better lives than the rest of us? What good does it mean to claim they have a superior foundation for morality when they don't actually follow the Bible as was originally intended by the writers of the Bible? It means nothing at all. Such a claim as theirs is completely empty.

Christians will finally retort that atheists cannot say anything is evil. They will claim that whatever happens is part of the evolutionary process of things where the fittest survive, and as such skeptics have no right to denounce any evil behavior. But this is a separate question from the one I've just dealt with. It's a red herring from this particular discussion. What does this have to do with whether Christians have a superior foundation for morality? If they don't have a superior morality, then they don't. And until they accept this fact we cannot go forward to discuss the next question about the nature of good and evil in our society and how we actually determine good and evil. I've already argued that today's Christians don't get their morality from the Bible. That's my major point here. Do they or don't they? That is the question. And the answer is that they do not. They gain their moral notions just like the rest of us do, except that they are hamstrung by having to fit that morality inside the pages of the Bible, and they have an ill-founded confidence in what they think is moral that can lead them to do great harm to others in the name of their God.

But if the answer is that Christians don't get their morality from the Bible and that their moral foundations are not superior ones, then the very next question is to understand where we actually get our moral notions from, and at that point I'd just recommend to them Michael Shermer's book. The short answer to this specific question is that since we are part of nature we have a right to say what kind of society we want live in, and it's a better society when people get along and treat one another with dignity and respect in a democratic form of government where eveyone has the right to speak their mind and to work toward goals that produce a better social environment for our familes and for our future children. It's better for us. It's better for our children. It's better for our nation. It's better financially. It's better socially. It's better for people as a whole. This is obvious! What other reasons are needed?

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

I’ll only say this about that, I can make a statement like, ( I am the president of the united states), I’m not, but I can say I am. That doesn’t make it true, but I can still make that statement. History interprets times being Christian and societies are interpreted as being Christian but that doesn’t make it so, the proof is those who follow the words of Jesus, THE WORDS OF JESUS. don’t be caught up with all the rest, Nazi Germany was considered Christian, but let me make a earth shaking statement; they were NOT!

Anonymous said...

What is true though is that I have a MASSIVE dong... and christ loves it... hardcore.

Check out my blog... seriously, it features individuals with down syndrome... and that makes it better than any form of organized religion.

Anonymous said...

thank you john don't want to be a part of this,God bless you, pv63

Frank Walton said...

The thing you guys can't figure out is because your worldview is atheism you have no basis for morality at all. Plus check out my list of the Most studidest atheists of 2006. Most of you guys are on it.
http://atheismsucks.blogspot.com/

Frank Walton said...

What's the difference between Joh Loftus and Brittney Spears?

Brittney doesn't wear panties!

http://atheismsucks.blogspot.com/

John W. Loftus said...

Frank, I usually just delete your flaming ad hominem ridiculously stupid comments. But I'm just going to leave these two up so people who don't already know who you are can see for themselves.

You live in very small confined spaces if you think I'm worth seven honorary mentions in the link above. And if you think Steve Hays is your favorite Christian writer and that Paul Manata is your favorite Christian apologist then you live in a cave.

Christians themselves think you are a joke, so why should we think any differently? This linked blog entry of yours is filled with ad hominems that are taken out of context in every case that I know of. You provoke us by repeatedly doing this so you can get an angry reaction from us, and when we give it back to you, you go on to claim we are stupid and hateful. That's your MO. The problem is that more thoughtful people who read what we write know differently.

You are an example of what I just wrote about. You can justify your hatred and mistreatment of us from the Bible itself. Frank, why don't you actually argue against what I just wrote? Go ahead, let's see you engage in an argument for once.

Anyone who actually wants to read through what Frank does can read this, but I'll warn you in advance he's not worth your time.

Theresa Frasch said...

John I am glad you just left that comment...I was thinking to myself - I thought he was moderating the comments. I was debating whether to comment at all after those unintelligible remarks.

Anyway - good thoughtful post. This question of morality tends to irk me. Christians are so two-sided about it. They claim they are morally superior because they have God and his rules plus the Holy Spirit in them. And yet when confronted with "sinners" like Ted Haggard and the recent glut of pastors getting caught or admitting to sin and corruption, they say Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven. So where is their testimony? Does being a Christian really make a difference in their lives?

Among my devout Christian friends (yes, I still have them and yes they are devout, one is even a pastor) I could compile a list of immoralities (some truly against the law others only "in the eyes of God"):

one couple drinks on the road
one man smokes excessively - he can't quit (actually he quits twice a year - new years and on his birthday)
they all drink to excess regularly
two smoke pot
one has been pulled over dui
one has had an affair (or two)

Man - I hang out with some losers! Not really, they are just normal everyday people whose God doesn't make them any better than you or I.

Anonymous said...

Christians will retort that atheists have their Lenin's and Stalin's.

Yeah, but people don't really care about communism any more. Honestly, does anybody fear communist Fidel Castro these days as the Cuban dictator clutches his colostomy bag on his deathbed? Does anybody really worry about communists running China as he stuffs his home with Chinese-made goods?

question said...

Hi,

I hope I'm understanding your basic argument correctly. are you saying that since Christians don't live "good" or "better" lives than atheists, that they don't have a better morality?

If so, I agree and disagree. first of all, yes, it's wrong what historically people have done in the name of Christ. I am with you 100% percent. No cop outs. christians should just admit that they did, at least that those in the name of Christ did.

I disagree however, in the sense that it's not about having a more superior foundation of morality, but just having the idea of morality at all.

I am not talking about a lifestyle perspective, but from a logical one. If we there is indeed no higher being to mandate any way that we should live, what obligation do we have to do anything? ultimately, what is even good, and what is bad? isn't that subjective?

I am not accusing anyone has a corrupt sinful pagan, but I'm just asking what basis there is as sincerely as I can.

Any response would be appreciated, thank you in advance.

Tommy said...

Even though I am an atheist, I have a conception of what a god or creator would be like if one existed. I would posit that any entity so powerful as to be able to create an infinite universe filled with galaxies, stars, planets, other celestial phenomena, and life itself, would be above such petty human emotions as jealousy, cruelty and narcissism. A real god would judge us by our deeds, and whether we were good people, and not by whether or not we accepted as our lord and savior some man who may or may not have lived some two millennia ago and who purportedly was born from a virgin, peformed miracles, was crucified and rose from the dead.

It's funny that fundies always like to bring up Stalin and Mao as examples of atheist morality when the qualities of the God these fundies worship are those of an abolute tyrant who demands unquestioning obedience from us.

John W. Loftus said...

question, I'm arguing that the Christian claim to have a logical foundation for morality is completely vacuous without any content in it. It does absolutely no good to claim a logical foundation for morality if Christians get their morals in the same way I do. Think about it. Do you think women should obey their husbands in the same way as it was understood in Abraham's day? Do you think heretics should be killed? Do you think it's morally acceptable to have slaves? I'm arguing that Christians do not necessarily get their morality from the Bible. I'm arguing that we all gain our morality in the same way, throughout time.

Now you've asked me whether morality is subjective and whether we have a moral obligation to do anything at all. I've already offered the short answer to this question at the end of my blog entry, To see the long answer read Michael Shermer's book. However, before you and I talk about that next question do you first agree that you have no superior foundation for morality? Until you recognize this there is no point in us talking about the very next question, for until you recognize the problem you cannot understand the answer.

Jeremy said...

I do not agree with the following statements made by Loftus and I am a Christian. I think if the Loftus Atheists were in charge I’d have a death sentence on my head. Or at the very least these stereotypical attitudes would prevail in the “Atheist” society and I would most definitely be discriminated against. The fact that you lump all “Christians” in one pot is evidence of what? Is it just Loftus being angry and spouting stereotypical crap off? Or is it a more serious fundamental issue with his thinking? Since I can’t know exactly it is a little scary, isn’t it?

Loftus said:
“Christians claim that atheists have no foundation for morality, and that they do. Christians claim atheists have no motivation for being good people, and that they do. Christians claim they have moral superiority because of these two beliefs.”

“Christians will retreat to the claim that the whole reason atheists and skeptics are not mass murderers is because they don't live consistently with their beliefs. Christians will claim that the morality of atheists is a borrowed one from the Christian society they were all raised in that taught them what is right and what is wrong.”

Bill Arnold said...

John, I think the problem is that you're basing your argument on a fundamentalistic (and foundationalist) view of the Bible. I think one can argue that the writings (and deeds) of Christians provide a "superior" ethic overall. In my opinion, if you are merely arguing against some of the culturally biased views of the past (both biblical and non) then you are constructing a straw man.

In other words, I am a Christian, but I do not view the Bible as a collection of propositional statements leading to moral absolutes. I view it as an accurate account of people wrestling through a relationship with their creator. The narratives of the Bible help inform my ethics, but they don't determine them. Nor do the evil actions of Christians of the past.

John W. Loftus said...

Bill, I commend you for breaking free of Biblical literalism. You have taken the first step. What I do here is stated in the heading of this Blog. I am debating against fundamentalistic Christianity. You are already an admitted cherry picker with regard to the Bible. I would have to deal with cherry pickers like you with different questions:

What is the basis of your moral cherry picking? What would you have thought about killing heretics, the submission of women, and slavery, had you lived among Christians of the past? How do you account for your God not speaking clearly about these issues which have caused so much suffering? What kind of God do you believe in? A distant unrevealing God is not practically different from no God at all.

How do you determine what is cultural from what is trans-cultural in the Biblical moral code? Why do you even bother with the Bible at all? If you think the Bible contains an over-all superior ethic, it's probably because you are a Christian and have never seriously considered the Koran, because Muslims in America do their own cherry picking too, and they claim the same thing about their book.

Bill Arnold said...

I think that any theological reflection should be approached from what is called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The idea is that one holds scripture, reason, experience, and tradition in tension. I would say that truth found in non-Christian scripture would be included in this. I think this approach is a viable way of avoiding the pitfalls that come from relying too much on any one of those four things.

You wrote: "If you think the Bible contains an over-all superior ethic..."

Actually, what I said was "I think one can argue that the writings (and deeds) of Christians provide a 'superior' ethic overall."

I think being a Christian should be about following Christ, not about treating the Bible as a trans-cultural absolutist guide to morals. I wouldn't call what I do "cherry-picking," I would say I am taking a balanced approach to ethics that is informed by the Bible. To use a Quinean model for epistemology, the Bible is not the "foundation" for my ethics. Rather, it is an important part of my web of beliefs.

John W. Loftus said...

jeremy, I am not angry. I am simply arguing my case. You may do so here too. But whether this scares you or not isn't an argument. Many atheists are scared that if Christianity gained the same political power it had a few centuries ago science would be suppressed, heretics and atheists would once again be killed, and women would have to once again "obey" their husbands.

I don't think this will happen again because Christianity is now a splintered mess, and as such wouldn't allow for the wanton exercise of their power like before, especially since Christians in America are now accustomed to free expression of ideas and democracy. History has moved on and Christians have learned from their history, although I still want to be careful by continuing to argue my case so this doesn't happen again.

And atheists only share one common idea, that God doesn't exist. Beyond that they have a wide divergence of opinion on everything, so they would not have the political power to kill Christians just because of what they believe. Atheists know what it's like to be a minority so they just wouldn't do it even if they had the overwhelming majority of political support, which I don't think there could ever be.

John W. Loftus said...

Bill, in some ways I share your epistemological underpinnings when it comes to morality. I too believe the Bible, reason, experience, and tradition have informed me of my moral beliefs too. Now what? Maybe we share the same ethical notions, I don't know. But where does this get us? My argument is that Christians do not have a superior ethical foundation, and I think your Wesleyan Quadrilateral notion argues pretty much the same thing, except that I don't take the Bible in any way as authoritative. The Bible may very well have helped to shape my morality, since after all, I was a Christian and I still live in a Christian society. But I do not think the Bible alone informed me of my morals, and I certainly deny that it should.

Bill Arnold said...

That's a fair answer. I think the telos of Christianity may be an important factor here. Jesus said that we should love God and love our neighbors as ourselves and I think that should be the goal of a follower of Christ. What is the goal of your ethical system?

John W. Loftus said...

Bill, I understand what it means to love our neighbors, and I am kind to people. It's just part of who I am. But what could it mean for me to love God? On that we are at odds. Usually the Christian theistic view of loving God means that we should love our neighbors (I John 4:11). That's how Christians show God they love him. For you, it also means to pray, read the Bible, evangelize, attend church, to tithe, and to guard your thought life too! I don't have any of those ethical obligations, and I feel no guilt whatsoever for not doing those things as much as I believed I should. Only after I left the Christian faith did I realize what a guilt trip this was and how I could never pray enough, or evangelize enough, or tithe enough. For if God gave his all for me, I should give my all back to him (Romans 12-13; Ephesians 4-5).

As for the goals of my ethics goes, there are duty centered, or deontological goals, such as the duty we all share toward one another as human beings starting with our familes, moving outward to our friends, and to our society and the world at large. Augustine argued the same thing that the best way to help the world at large is to help those closest to us. And then there are happiness centered, or teleological goals, which I consider Aristotle's virtue centered ethics as interpreted by modern thinkers to be key, for happiness does not mean hedonism, or pure pleasure, but it includes intellectual, social, healthy, and financial happiness. Aristotle argued that happiness, as he meant by the word, is a means to no end. It is an end in and of itself. And I cannot be happy in this sense without those around me being happy, so I must try to make them happy in this sense too.

And I think those are twin goals, the only goals. They are obvious to everyone, and can be agreed upon by everyone, even if we may disagree with the particulars.

Shawn Wilkinson said...

Bill,

I am with Frank in admiring non-literalists, but I as well am bothered by several questions. However, you addressed his well enough such that further discussion would be off-topic.

However, what concerns me is your discussion of how a Christian can show a superior ethic. The Golden Rule espoused by Jesus was not unfamiliar to the ancient world; it is found in not only in the writings of his Jewish contemporaries but as well as in the ancient Eastern philosophy of Confuscious. The notion of performing actions which would either benefit or be neutral to others is s ingrained in the development of civilization it merely seems sensical. Though its roots are exactly untraceable (I can imagine such a notion developed prior to the development of writing mechanisms), it can easily be shown to be seperate from Christianity. Hence, it is difficult for me to see how Christians can lay claim to showing a superior ethic and lay claim to being the only ones whom possess such an ethic.

Perhaps I am putting words in your mouth, but the use of the word overall to end your statement is throwing me into the direction that you are claiming that Christians lay sole claim on a superior ethical system. If one claims that ethical systems which possess the Golden Rule are superior, that is that one ought to treat others according to how one wishes to be treated themselves, then this leaves me with a bothering question. How can such a criterion be shown to be the most superior? As well, it seems to exclude Christianity as possessing a claim of superiority overall since most humanistic philosophies utilize the Golden Rule as a basis; essentially this assessment reduces the claim to Christianity possessing a superior ethic and nothing else.

(Not to mention, what bothers me the most is how one establishes that the Golden Rule is superior outside of a priori argumentation, but that is deeper than I wish to travel at the moment)

Bill Arnold said...

I understand how people turn the concept of loving God into a guilt trip, but I don't think it has to be that way.

The things you listed sound like some kind of merit-based system. I don't think God needs our money or our church attendance for us to show our love. And I don't know that it's about "showing" our love as much as loving. Maybe that's just semantics, but I think love is about action, not about saying the right things or making the appropriate gestures (i.e. going to church or praying).

It seems to me that you and I are starting from different premises. You seem to be equating fundamentalism with Christianity in general. Am I wrong?

John W. Loftus said...

Yes, Bill, I think evangelical conservative Christianity has the best chance at being right about Christianity as a whole, and by rejecting it I reject Christianity.

Rich said...

I think what bothers me the most is that people will say to athiests that they are unable to have any morals because they are unbelievers. That's a really inaccurate statement and pretty unfair to those who just try to be good people. While you may have some morals that are different then mine that doesn't leave you with none. I think it's pretty well documented and pointed out that just your environment you grow up in influences you morals. I always thought that humility was part of being christian, not superiority.

Bill Arnold said...

John, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree because we don't agree on our basic definitions of what Christianity is. When I look at conservative evangelical theology I see something that has arisen late in history as a result of modernistic philosophy (mixed with the platonism that has always infected Christianity). That's an oversimplified assessment, but I hope it explains my basic view.

Shawn, when I said "overall" I meant the overall view of Christian thinkers. In other words, I was stressing that there will be plenty of Christian thinkers who I DO NOT think have a superior ethic. Does that make sense?

As far as the golden rule goes, I was actually referring to when Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love God and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. The "loving God" component is something that I would guess sets this ethic apart from many other ancient philosophies. I also wouldn't reduce Christian ethics to a simple principle like that.

Thanks for the discussion, by the way. I hope it doesn't seem like I'm dismissing your comments. It's just hard to know how to respond to something complicated like this in a simple and concise comment.

Bill Arnold said...

rich, i agree with you. I reject the ultra-calvinistic view of "utter depravity" which basically says that a non-Christian is incapable of doing something good. I think that all people are capable of making moral decisions.

I also don't like it when certain kinds of Christians (see above) get the idea that they can just defer to the Bible as a perfect book of morals. They deny the fact that making moral decisions is a difficult responsibility that all people have regardless of their religion (or non-religion).

Blue Devil Knight said...

I think there are some problems with the logic of Shermer's argument.

He seems to equivocate on the term 'foundations of morality'. In one sense, he is talking about the psychological basis for somoeone's moral behavior. The second sense refers to the epistemic foundation for one's moral views. You can take a theistic view of one without the other. For example, if you think that the only philosophically adequate justification for moral claims must refer to god, you might also say that, as a matter of empirical psychological fact, humans are designed (or evolved) to behave in alignment with all (or many) of those precepts. But even if we were psychologically built to not follow the theistically justifiable morals (e.g., we were built to think that it is your duty to kill people you aren't related to), we could still know that it is wrong, and resist this urge, via our Christian epistemology.

That Shermer equivocates is clear from his quote. If God didn't exist, what would you do? This is a psychological question. But the person may simply throw up their hands and say "I don't know the answer to that psychological question, but I do know that if God didn't exist I wouldn't have a rational basis for any of my moral claims."

Even if the person says "I would behave in ways I now consider immoral", you can say that it shows their character is flawed, that there is something about their psychology that is defective, but it still wouldn't settle the epistemic question or undermine their Christian moral epistemology. If they were consistent, they'd just have to say their moral beliefs wouldn't be rationally grounded.

Since most of your post addresses such moral psychology concerns, rather than moral epistemology, I think it is unconvincing (I know you've addressed some of the epistemological issues elsewhere, but taken alone, this post wasn't convincing).

In sum, when they say they have a superior basis for morality, they are talking in the epistemic, not psychological domain. Or if they have a brain they are! If not, they should read your post.

John W. Loftus said...

I understand this distinction blue devil. Let's say a Christian believes he or she has a moral foundation for behavior found in God or the Bible. That would be an epistemological claim, and because the Christian will go on to argue that skeptics do not have such a foundation, theirs is a superior one.

I've argued that a Christian can claim this if he wants to. But I also argued that such a claim is completely empty of any content. What is it that a Christian is supposed to do? It does no good to make such a claim and not be able to tell me what it is that God or the Bible wants them to do. Now a Christian will further go on to claim that they know what God or the Bible wants them to do. Then they will provide some specifics, like to love and forgive, and so on. But I've countered that these virtues can be learned apart from God or the Bible, and that Christians have gotten it wrong on so many historical issues that they themselves cannot claim with a straight face how these virtues are to be properly applied to heretics, women, and people of different color. Adding to these questions I could ask a host of others that they themselves disagree with.

My claim is epistemological. I'm claiming that they do not have any superior moral epistemological foundation than the rest of us. We are all in the same boat. The only difference is that they claim they have one. But such a claim is vacuous.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Then they will provide some specifics, like to love and forgive, and so on. But I've countered that these virtues can be learned apart from God or the Bible

Another psychological claim. The key is whether such virtues can be rationally justified apart from God.

Christians have gotten it wrong on so many historical issues that they themselves cannot claim with a straight face how these virtues are to be properly applied

I think this is a good problem for those who want to say that the explicit laws and codes in the Bible (interpreted literally) is the foundation for their morality. Fish in a barrel.

But then there are the theists who have graduated from kindergarten theology and want to make the more general claim that only god allusions can ground moral justifications, but that it is often a struggle to see God's will in a particular situation. This isn't even particular to Christianity, but is a much more general epistemic claim. Addressing the title of your post, theists have an epistemic foundation for morality, so by hypothetical syllogism, so do Christians.

John W. Loftus said...

Blue devil said Addressing the title of your post, theists have an epistemic foundation for morality, so by hypothetical syllogism, so do Christians.

Then tell me what it is, and how it's to be applied. And tell me how their foundation is different from Jews or Muslims, or polytheists who believed in Zeus. And tell me how they can rationally justify such a foundation and what that morality tells them to do.

Okay, let's say that Allah exists as specified in the Koran and that he provides a foundation for morality. How would this affect the Christian claim to have one in their specific God, even without the Bible? Let's even grant that there is a foundation for morality in the philosopher's God. Where does this get anyone, even if true, with regard to knowing what to do? Nowhere, as I've argued. We must have a way to know what to do, and as I've argued theists do not. And if they don't, then they are in the same boat with the rest of us, with or without a foundation for morality.

But there's more, when it comes to having a superior foundation for morality, Christians can only have this if their faith is also rationally superior. I argued elsewhere that they don't have a rationally superior faith either.

And there's still more. The euthyphro dilemna indicts any God as a foundation for morality with the exact same questions the theist may ask of us to justify our morality. After reading this link, answer me this, "Is God good?" And "do Christians have a rational basis for their claim?"

Blue Devil Knight said...

And there's still more. The euthyphro dilemna indicts any God as a foundation for morality with the exact same questions the theist may ask of us to justify our morality. After reading this link, answer me this, "Is God good?" And "do Christians have a rational basis for their claim?"

This is the crux. Since Euthyphro killed divine command theory, we are left with divine nature theory (DNC).

First, assume (for discussion) that God is Good, and that he only wishes good things, and those wishes are transparent to us. In this case the theist wins: there is a rational foundation for moral behavior. Whether we want to behave morally is a psychological question.

You are rightly attacking the first assumption (though the assumption that God's wishes could be transparent to us is very weak too). Assume there is a supernatural being. How do we know it is Good, i.e., that moral behavior would involve following its wishes?

One answer I can think of: we have the ability to recognize goodness just as we can recognize female faces or animal gaits. Based on this ability to discriminate good from not-good, I recognize that God is good based on what he has done. That is, the evidence points to his goodness. It offers the best explanation for (insert good things here like, I don't know, cute puppies). While you might say "Ah, now you say your morality is founded in this recognition machinery, so you don't need god, but psychological facts that we all share!" But here I'd appeal to the above distinction between psychology of morality and justification. I use my moral psychology to attribute properties to things (male, female, goodness), but epistemically, I justify the moral claims in terms of God, a God I recognize to be good.

JD Walters is a cocksure chap. He must have an answer to this.

Blue Devil Knight said...

Here's the problem with my original solution. E.g., we have the cognitive machinery to recognize goodness, and we use it to recognize God's goodness.

Afterthought on my previous post.

If what I said is right, the question becomes one of the origin of this cognitive skill, of this 'faculty' we have for recognizing good things.

If the faculty is instilled in us by God, then we end up with the Euthyphro dillemma all over again. Of course we recognize him to be good: he designed us that way (that was the point of the 'brain chip' thought experiment). In this horn of the dilemma it just comes down to faith in God, and the theist's cocky pronouncements about morality come down to posturing.

That leaves us with the only reasonable option: the faculty evolved or developed independently of God.

This option, though, will be unpalatable to many Christians. The picture is this: we have a faculty for detecting moral and immoral things. It emerged naturally: God didn't direct its formation because he wanted to escape the DNT's Euthyprho analog. However, the operation of this faculty doesn't give us rational epistemic foundations for our morality. That can only come from god, who this faculty tells is good. God does help out by serving us judgments every now and then, helping us override this faculty. It's like the way we can be corrected when we think we saw a female face, but in fact our face recognition machinery made a mistake and it's a male. Your a man, baby!

All this would suggest that psychologically, we only need a little bit of God to be moral. Epistemically, in philosophy departments, we need God to ground things out.

But then the question is, why do we trust this faculty in the first place? Maybe evolution developed a moral sense that gets things wrong, and what Christians are worshipping is the Devil.

All in all, I think as in epistemology, so in morality: there are no foundations. We operate in midship and struggle along trying to make sense of the world and paint it a better place, where the moral hues are painted by our brain, not by God.

I argued about this in depth here. There I said, and I agree:
Just like we can apply concepts of flourishing and health to plants and ecosystems, so we can do the same for individual humans and cultures. A child confined to a dark room for the first six years of life would not flourish the way a child loved by two parents would flourish. You could then ask me to justify the claim that human life should flourish, or justify the claim that maximizing human flourishing is a good thing. Ultimately, I think the universe doesn't care if humans suffer or flourish, any more than it cares if flowers flourish. However, there are objective differences between flourishing and nonflourishing flowers, and the same goes for people.

[...]

Starting with the minimalist liberal moral kernel, that flourishing life is better than nonflourishing life, gets us a lot of mileage. It has produced the best governments in history.

Bill Arnold said...

John,

I have responded to your accusation about cherry picking on my blog by quoting some great thoughts from a site called Leaving Fundamentalism. If I'm to be labeled a cherry picker, so be it...but that doesn't make me a non-Christian!

Blue Devil Knight said...

It's unfortunate that the literalists have so much sway that they can actually set the terms for theological debate in this country. Their version of Christianity, in the long run, is not stable. If someone (incorrectly) thinks that is the only Christianity, they will leave the fold when they start to think intelligently about what their philosophy entails. It seems, for the survival of anything but a kindergarten backwater theology, Christian nonfundamentalists need to speak loudly. In my religion courses I never met a real literalist. It must be weird to actually take classes from one.

John W. Loftus said...

Blue Devil, I became a Christian non-fundamentalist around the years 1993-4, and I tried to maintain that unstable faith for as long as I could. But this period in my life was short-lived precisely because it is more unstable as a faith, in my opinion.

Blue Devil Knight said...

John: I meant intellectually unstable. Literalist fundamentalism is just patently absurd at almost every level (except maybe psychologically, where it acts as a great anchor). It's just indefensible from an intellectual point of view, unlike nonfundy theology.

On the other hand, there is a new set of (lesser) problems for the nonfundamentalist. E.g., the cherry picking problem. I don't think this is as bad as you say, though. It is better to have this problem than the problem of believing patently crazy shit like the literalists must. The "cherry picking" problem is really the problem of hermeneutics, of leaving your intellect in the "on" position while approaching a text, leaving your knowledge of history, science, and the like "on" while thinking about the Bible. Ultimately, the nonfundy types tend to rely on faith when it comes to the ultimates: they don't dogmatically claim to have the one true foundation, the only basis for X. They tend to have more uncertainty, more tolerance, more understanding, more love toward others. That is, they are better Christians than their Fundy nutball counterparts.

Bill Arnold said...

One could add that the naturalist can be seen as having a certain fundamentalistic faith in science.

Daniel said...

BDK,

Divine Nature Theory (DNT) that you've invoked has no saving features from Divine Command Theory (DCT).

Atheist: Please define "good" for me.

Theist: Anything God does.

Atheist: And so how do you know when God acts, or that it is God doing something, rather than a devil, or just us humans?

Theist: God's nature is clearly different than human nature, and that of the devil.

Atheist: How do you know God's nature?

Theist: From Scripture and revelation.

Atheist: And how do you know that something IS Scripture [holy writings] or revelation?

Theist: Okay, you have a good point. We both get caught in vicious infinite regresses, or in circularity, if we do this all day. By fiat, I'll define God's nature as "perfectly good" and say that everything God does follows from God's own nature. I'll also presuppose that God is revealed in the Bible and that I can know God's nature from that.

Atheist: By fiat, I will define/presuppose "causing senseless and extensive suffering, when one need not cause it," as evil.

Theist: Well, what is your "basis" for such? Isn't that arbitrary?

Atheist: Isn't it circular and arbitrary to pick the Bible as your source of revelation, to claim that God is revealed therein, to claim this God has a perfectly good nature, and to justify it in a circular manner?

Theist: Well my starting point is to say I have found the ultimate goodness and ultimate authority -- this lends normativity to me.

Atheist: I don't see that you can "create" such a starting point, any more than I can avoid needing one by simply declaring the proposition itself authoritative and without need of some "person" behind it.

Theist: Fine, I'll agree with your definition of evil, so long as you'll exclude God from being that "one". Grant me that God can never be evil. You see, God always acts out of God's own nature, which is perfectly good.

Atheist: So you mean the act itself does not have a moral status, nor its consequences? Murder is not de facto wrong? All that we can pass valid moral judgment upon is who acted it out?

Theist: That is correct. If human beings decide to follow their nature [evil] and kill babies, it is evil. However, if God follows God's own nature and orders the slaughter of babies [1 Sam 15:3, etc], it is good.

Atheist: Let's see -- if God causes extensive suffering which God could have otherwise avoided, then "God's nature" is evil in my definition. If anyone else causes it, I would say the same about their own nature. You sound like a relativist. How do you avoid the charge of relativism?

Theist: But when God commands the slaughter of innocents in the OT, or allows children to rot of cancer, or does not limit the freedom of a child rapist, God has followed a perfectly good nature.

Atheist: But I thought we're trying to figure out whether something is good ipso facto by its origin [who did it] versus what it is. It doesn't seem to me to be very valid to say you can define God as good, and thus whatever God does as good, if you aren't actually defining morality by judging actions, or using consequentialism to some degree, objectively. Instead of being able to say, "X is evil," you have to qualify everything as contingent upon whether or not God is involved. This seems to remove any moral significance from God's supposed "goodness". It seems all you're doing is begging questions and committing circularity.

Theist: Well...how do you defend your use of logic? My God made it, and you can't use it without my God.

Atheist: *rolls eyes and walks away*

Eric said...

Whatever Shermer left out (he left out very little), one can add to.

I've said in another comment that Atheism is a philosophical position that forces one to find a new basis for morality, which is easier to do and perhaps healthier for the quality of life of human beings. Does living in such conditions as Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini qualify as "good" in God's eyes? If Pat Robertson became President in 1988 would the subsequent dystopian qualities of American society be "good" in God's eyes even though they would be unquestioningly detrimental to humankind living in that society?

Did the Crusades, Inquisition, Salem Witch Trials, Holocaust, Iran/Iraq war (it is often argued that Islam, Judaism, and Christianity worship the same god) look good in God's eyes?

Does anyone else see the very significant problem the above line of thinking this poses for humanity?

Atheists have a very wide variety of moral philosophies to explore, some better than others, that is true, but none tyrannical or totalitarian. One can start by reading Shermer's The Science of Good & Evil, where he argues against absolutism/dualistic (good/evil; black/white) morality. Another source I recommend is Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness.

Anonymous said...

I think it is a great blog and plenty of food for thought - for the literalist or the what you have termed 'cherry pickers' or the middle of the road Christians - who don't believe the whole bible.

But the dialogue is way too long and your approaching too many things in too much room - it's just too much for any of those Christians to respond to - in my opinion. I would like to dialogue some of the points but this is way too much juice for the cup to hold - even if it is cherries.

Still I enjoy the blog and the responses are quite good also - thanks for some food for thought.

Cameron said...

The suggestion that Xians even have morality is kinda' funny to me. They preach and point their bony little fingers, but when it comes down to it these are the people who support the death penalty, and war, and every other thing that completely devalues human life.

But an unborn child they will KILL to protect. If hypocrisy is morality then Xians have it in spades.

It must be borne in mind that Xianity is a fairly recent invention in human history. As another poster pointed out, the ancient Greeks excelled without it. The Romans nearly conquered the world without it. The Buddhists lived and formed thriving societies for two thousand years without it. Everywhere Xiantiy has gone, war, strife, turmoil, and death has followed.

The numbers would suggest that Xians merely claim to be superior to all the rest of us pagans, but it ain't so.

The Judeo-Xian Bible is nothing but a means of scaring people into conformity. It is an attempt at governance that places the "haves" at the top and the "have-nots" at the bottom. It is written in vague and archaic language that people wildly misinterpret and then claim that they have the one true interpretation. Remember, the English version was sponsored by the tyrant King James, who most scholars agree significantly "had his way" with the interpretations of the origingal language to further his own agenda. You guys don't even know what that book *really* says.

Every living being knows the difference between right and wrong, it is ridiculous to suggest that without their hateful black book there would be chaos. Our entire society (USA) was formed based on Xian principles, and we are seen as the most immoral country on the face of the planet. Where is the stabilizing influence you guys preach about? It hasn't helped us yet, in fact it has created more enemies for itself than allies.

Only someone deluded by Xian lies would even consider that those jokers have a clue about morality.

In my blog, thedailyatheocrat.org, I submit that a society wherein the public practice and display of religion should be outlawed. We outlaw public nudity, mostly, we don't let people have sex in public, and we even abridge free speech. Religion should be no different.

Xians more moral? Right. And the Pope is a woman.

coy said...

Look ....I dont claim to be moraly superior to anyone.
Nor do I claim to be a model christian either.
What I do claim to be is a good person that believes in God and our savior Jesus Christ.
I also believe in peoples right to not believe.
People should not be ridiculed for their belief.
None of us can be completely sure we are right.What we decide to have faith in is up to us individualy and people should not be swayed either way.
Peace.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I polished and presented my above argument about Euthyphro at Reppert's blog here.

John W. Loftus said...

I didn't know we went back this far BDK, thanks.