Tag Archives: atheism

Cantus Firmus at the Movies Ep. 7 – Crimes and Misdemeanors (w/ Bridget Nelson)

My special guest was Bridget Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax fame. The film we discussed was Woody Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film that asks difficult questions about morality and integrity in a godless universe.

Bridget can be found at www.rifftrax.com, on Twitter at @bridgetjnelson, and her podcast Instead of Tweeting can be found on iTunes.


“Octagon Pt 2” by Polyrhythmics. Licensed under CC BY 3.0

Can Life Have Meaning Without God?

An atheist going by the moniker “Counter Apologist” wrote an interesting post which goal was to undermine the Christian claim that man can have no meaning or purpose if he is not created by God. It can be read in its entirety here:

While I felt that much of this post read as fairly visceral, there was one point made that read like a true argument, and I thought it was worth thinking about and responding to:
“[If] only things that are designed can have a purpose, even if they’re sentient beings – then on Christianity clearly god has no purpose since he wasn’t designed.  If god can have a purpose for himself, then he would have to give it to himself.  Why then is god the only being that can give a purpose to himself?  And if god has no purpose, then why is having a purpose important in the first place?  The entire assumption [William Lane] Craig makes here relies on special pleading.”

Let’s syllogize this thing!

1. According to Christians, only things that are created can have a purpose.
2. God wasn’t created.
3. Therefore God doesn’t have a purpose.

If you look at this argument for a moment, you’ll notice that the word “purpose” in the conclusion seems to mean something different than the word “purpose” in the first premise. In other words, our atheist has committed the fallacy of equivocation– using the same word in two different ways. In the premise, a purpose means something like, a reason for existing. In the conclusion, it means something more like, a goal one has made for oneself. No Christian denies that an atheist may make a goal for himself, but he would question whether this goal can be meaningful transcendentally speaking if atheism is true. Also, no Christian would say that God can’t have goals, but they would claim that He doesn’t have a reason for existing, which is to say some cause or purpose that transcends Him and for which He was brought into existence.

To provide a parallel from human experience, when a creator makes a work of art, one might ask that creator what his art means. The creator gets to determine this– not the art itself or the audience. When someone mischaracterizes what an artist or speaker is saying, he is not creating a meaning equally valid to how the speaker understood his words– he is simply wrong. Unless Counter Apologist has been heavily influenced by post-structuralists like Derrida, I suspect that he would probably agree on this point.

So who gets to determine what the meaning of human life or the universe is? Well, clearly its creator. If there is no creator, there is no meaning. As Kevin Vanhoozer wrote, “there is meaning only where someone means, or meant, something” (Is There a Meaning in This Text? p. 233). We can, as Derrida does, engage in the “play” of inventing our own meanings if the creation, lacking a real author, doesn’t have any objective meaning, but we can’t claim that any one interpretation is true or valid. The will to power, the pleasure principle, glorifying God forever– all are equally valid purposes for one’s life (which is to say that they are all invalid objectively speaking). This line of reasoning can also be applied to purpose. If you want to know what the purpose of a vacuum cleaner is, you’ll have to read the manual that its creators provided.

So, does God have a purpose in the same sense that a created thing has a purpose? No. As A Creator, he has purposes, but no purpose or meaning that has been bestowed upon Him from the outside. This is simply to say that God is not created, which Christians were already happy to admit.

As humans, we may be creators as well as creatures. As creators, we can purpose to do something. As creatures, we have been made with a purpose. God, as only Creator and not creation, was not made with a purpose, though He does purpose to do things. These definitions must be kept distinct, or else we commit fallacies of equivocation that do not hold up to scrutiny, as the Counter Apologist has done.

Begging the Question – A Review of Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God

Consisting roughly of 50% good scholarship and 50% question begging, Ehrman’s book is a great popular level look at how liberal scholars deal with the history of the early church. I would recommend this book to orthodox Christians who are stable in their faith and willing to do their homework in responding to these arguments. One gets a sense of how liberal, non-Christian scholars handle Scripture, and also how their presuppositions determine their conclusions. It’s also useful for engaging with Muslim apologists, many of whom accept Ehrman’s conclusions on these topics uncritically. This book is helpful to that end since Ehrman disagrees with the Muslim view of the crucifixion (most Muslims believe that Jesus wasn’t actually crucified) and poo-poos popular Muslim reconstructions of the New Testament period. Finally, Ehrman gives us a great example of the fallacious reasoning characteristic of the emotional anti-Christian when he engages in speculation that the cause of Christian anti-semitism is the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus, whom they charged the Jewish race with killing.

Circular Reasoning

Most illuminating is Ehrman’s admission that he had in previous years used circular reasoning when looking at passages where Paul clearly referred to Jesus as divine and pre-existent. When interpreting these passages as a younger agnostic, he saw them through his presupposition that the early church’s beliefs about Jesus evolved from seeing him as a prophet exalted by God to God incarnate. Since, according to Ehrman, the earliest gospel (Mark) expresses the former view and the last (John) the latter, and Paul’s letters were written before either, it simply couldn’t be the case that Paul thought of Jesus as a divine person incarnate:
“…in some passages Paul seems to affirm a view of Christ that, until recently, I thought could not possibly exist as early as Paul’s letters, which are our first Christian writings to survive. How could Paul embrace ‘higher’ views of Christ than those found in later writings such as Matthew, Mark, and Luke? Didn’t Christology develop from a ‘low’ Christology to a ‘high’ Christology over time? And if so, shouldn’t the views of the Synoptic Gospels be “higher” than the views of Paul?” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

A key example of this reasoning is in Ehrman’s discussion of Romans 9:5, a passage which seems to explicitly call Jesus God but which more liberal translators have reworked to avoid this conclusion. Ehrman admits:
“My view for many years was that the second translation [the liberal one] was the right one and that the passage does not call Jesus God. My main reason for thinking so, though, was that I did not think that Paul ever called Jesus God anywhere else, so he probably wouldn’t do so here. But that, of course, is circular reasoning, and I think the first translation makes the best sense of the Greek, as other scholars have vigorously argued” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

Here Ehrman admits that he was reading his beliefs into the text instead of translating it accurately. Even so, it wasn’t until Ehrman found another way to understand Jesus being thought of by Paul as divine–that of not being absolutely divine but a divine-like angelic creation–that he was willing to consider the plain reading. As long as Paul doesn’t have a full-fledged orthodox Christology, Ehrman is willing to make some concessions on his extreme evolutionary view of Christological development. Ehrman’s admission of his own self-delusion is commendable, but it also demonstrates how bias can affect how one reads Scripture, and that it affects liberals just as much as it does conservatives. Unfortunately, Ehrman appears to still be under the sway of his faulty presuppositions. Also of note is Ehrman’s claim that one cannot do history if that one is willing to accept supernatural occurrences as possible. I would recommend Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend for a counterpoint to Ehrman’s naturalistic philosophy of history.

Ehrman and Islam

Apart from Ehrman’s strong belief that Jesus was crucified, he says other things that strongly counter the way many Muslim apologists argue in regard to early Christianity. Where many of these Muslim apologists (and, frankly, ignorant anti-Christians of all stripes) argue that the Council of Nicea was forced by Constantine to conclude that Jesus was God and that still it was a close vote, Ehrman argues quite the opposite:
“To Constantine, the issues seemed petty. What does it really matter whether there was a time before which Christ existed? Is that really the most important thing? Not for Constantine. As he says in his letter: ‘I considered the origin and occasion for these things . . . as extremely trivial and quite unworthy of so much controversy’ (Life 2.68)” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

“Sometimes you will hear that at Nicea it was ‘a close vote.’ It was not close. Only twenty of the 318 bishops disagreed with the creed when it was finally formulated. Constantine, who was actively involved with some of the proceedings, forced seventeen of those twenty to acquiesce. So only three did not eventually sign off on the creed: Arius himself and two bishops from his home country of Libya. These three were banished from Egypt. A couple of other bishops signed the creed but refused to agree to the anathemas at the end, which were directed specifically against Arius’s teachings. These bishops too were exiled” (Ehrman, How Jesus Became God).

Thus, while Constantine was happy to view the council’s decision as binding, he did not particularly care what they decided.

The Divine Jesus and Anti-Semitism

Another strange feature of this book is Ehrman’s assertion that belief in Jesus as God is the cause of Christian anti-semitism, since it was believed that “the Jews” killed not just a prophet, but God Himself. However, countless Christians who profess belief in Jesus’ divinity do not think Jews should be oppressed or blamed as a race for the death of Jesus, including the Jews who made up all of the earliest Christian church. Jews were oppressed by pagan empires long before Christianity arose, and have been oppressed by non-Christian states long after, including in the atheistic Soviet Union. While the charge of deicide may have been used as an excuse to oppress Jews from time to time, the root issue in Christian oppression is not one of whether Jesus is seen as God, but of the Christian faith’s relationship to the state and to violence. This misguided and perhaps even malicious conflation of the Church and the State’s violent prerogatives comes out of an ignorance of Jesus’ teaching on these matters.

Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape

The Moral Landscape is atheist polemicist Sam Harris’ attempt to explicate an objective moral framework that is consistent with atheism and grounded upon science. A summary of this framework could be stated as: (1) Some people experience greater degrees of well-being than others. (2) These experiences are related to states of their brains and states of the world around them. (3) Science can help us to ascertain how to raise levels of well-being in an objective fashion. (4) Maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is the only thing we could conceivably value, or call morality.

An Issue of Grounding

Points (1)-(3) seem to be quite true. It’s (4) that is the sticking point. Harris’ issue here is that his view of morality amounts to a “just-so” story. He claims that maximizing the well-being of conscious creatures is “the only thing we can reasonably value.” But why? Because he can’t give a good explanation why the well-being of conscious creatures is so important that it ought to be valued by all (other than that it tends to be valued by most), it is essentially a useful fiction. Harris begins with a presupposition that he can’t support (morality just is the well-being of conscious creatures), and then calls his position objective simply because there is a systematic way of going about reaching his presupposed goal.

In other words, when Harris calls his moral framework objective, he is committing a category error. The two categories he confounds are “how do we get to A?” and “are we obligated to value A?” When someone asks if morality is objective, they are really only concerned with the second category. Harris claims to have an objective moral framework, but he isn’t answering the question he’s purporting to answer. At times, he seems to acknowledge this, but he doesn’t seem to be very troubled by it. As Harris writes later in his book, “science cannot tell us why, scientifically, we should value health. But once we admit that health is the proper concern of medicine, we can then study and promote it through science” (p. 37). Sure. Of course. But you can’t simply assume that we should value health. Is it a transcendent truth that we are morally obligated to value health? Can we arrive at that position objectively if our starting presupposition is materialism? No. Neither science nor reason require it. But once we have reached such a position (that we ought to value health), both science and reason can be incredibly useful. Harris spends the majority of his book confusing these categories and arguing that if there is an objective way to get from A to B, that means we have an objective reason to go to B in the first place.

For a moral system to be called objective, it must provide “oughts.” These are not the oughts of practicality, but of obligation. If we are, as Harris believes, creatures which have as our primary biological objective survival and the passing on of our genes, why should the value of other humans matter? If we grant to Harris that no one could ever be more satisfied harming others than working with them, then his system has some practical merit. But why should we? Harris himself acknowledges that there are psychopaths and sociopaths who these kinds of concerns wouldn’t apply to. His solution is to, not surprisingly, point out that they don’t share his presuppositions, so they are doing evil. However, since he gives us no reason to accept his presuppositions, this isn’t a very persuasive argument. Furthermore, obligations, which are fundamental to morality, imply that one can make choices. Since Harris flatly denies free will, this further disqualifies his position.

An Inadequate Framework

While Harris’ view could provide some areas of moral agreement among atheists and all types of theists alike, there is one major place where Harris’ moral framework seriously self destructs. It is in fact Harris who stumbles onto this fact, though he seems to, like a moral Mr. Magoo, step right over this gargantuan evidence against his claim without ever noticing:
“Rather often, a belief in souls leaves people indifferent to the suffering of creatures thought not to possess them. There are many species of animals that can suffer in ways that three-day-old human embryos cannot… Concern over human embryos smaller than the period at the end of this sentence—when, for years they have constituted one of the most promising contexts for medical research—is one of the many delusional products of religion that has led to an ethical blind alley, and to terrible failures of compassion” (p. 171).

Set aside the debate over the efficacy of embryonic vs. adult stem cells in medical research for the moment. What is Harris’ criteria for determining what has value? Its ability to experience suffering or happiness, of course! As a result, he very consistently notes that a three day old embryo cannot be of much value, particularly when contrasted with grown animals. This is precisely the argument of ethicist and animal rights advocate Peter Singer, but he applies it far more consistently: It is not just the three day old embryo that lacks “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness” (Singer’s criteria for what makes a human being valuable, which is similar to Harris’ criteria– i.e. “the experience of conscious beings”). It is also the three day old newborn.

The newborn human baby can only be deserving of (at least) equal protection to adults or even full-grown non-human animals if human beings are, in and of themselves, valuable. Because Harris places value not on what someone is inherently, but only on how they are able to value their experiences, he cannot defend the value of the most defenseless of human beings.

Because Harris’ moral theory, though quite often helpful and practical, is not on a solid foundation, there are reverberations of this which demonstrate its inadequacy.

What is the origin of objective morality?

I recently engaged with an atheist friend about the question of objective morality. He has claimed that morality is objective, though it is not based upon God and that in fact God does not exist. My claim is also that it is objective, but that it can ONLY be grounded in the existence of God. I wanted to write out my argument carefully, and he has been invited to respond to it. Should he do so, I will gladly post his replies on this post.

When we being discussing the origin of morality, we have to be clear about what we mean. So, for instance, the question of how humans come to their understanding of morality (from parents, culture, intuitions, etc.) would not have the same answer to the question of the origin of morality proper, supposing morality is in fact not simply a product of human minds and human culture. Morality in the first sense (how we form our moral opinions) has a large degree of subjectivity attached to it. But for morality to be objective, it must be independent of our opinions of it, and we must be obligated to follow it.
There are at least three necessary components required for
1. objective morality to exist, and 2. for human beings to be obligated to obey said objective moral standard. They are:
(1) There must be a transcendent mind who is in a position to obligate us. When we say that a man “should not” do x or “should” do y, we are asserting that he is held to a standard outside of himself– his tastes, desires, and even his genetically contributed proclivities. He can thus be condemned for failing to live up to a standard of human behavior that he *ought* to live in accordance with.
(2) Human beings must be able to exercise free choices to obey or disobey the objective standard.If a human being has no freedom of the will, she cannot be told that she “should” do anything. She will simply do what she is programmed to do in any given scenario. This means that her conclusions (whether moral or intellectual) are not reasoned to because the conclusion follows from right premises, but because the atoms in her brain are so arranged that she will reach that conclusion, whether or not her premises are valid. So even if there is an objective standard, without free will humans cannot be obligated to follow it.
(3) Human beings must be able to access this standard. One cannot be held accountable to do something that she has no idea exists.
Christian theism meets all of these qualifications (it could be argued that some forms of Calvinism don’t meet the second qualification, but I’m not arguing for that type of Christian theism).
Atheistic materialism (from here on out referred to as AM), the worldview of most atheists today, meets none of them. The closest it comes is to the third point, since proponents of AM will often claim that the human being (whether his mind or his genetics) IS the source of morality. Some go further in an attempt to make this morality objective and claim that it, though originating FROM the subject, is somehow objective TO the subject.
However, for (3) to really be met as a qualification for objective morality, it must hang on the condition that (1) and (2) are also true. If the atheist attempts to satisfy (3) without (1) and (2), he is left in a position where a human being behaves the way she does because she is compelled by her nature– the atheist is simply trying to squeeze an “ought” out of an “is.” But the problems this poses are too heavy a load for AM to bear. If a man commits rape or murder because he desires to, or because his genetics compel him to, this must now be called objective morality, because it is valuable and desirable to him. In other words, according to a consistent AM which bases objective morality on the individual, the actions of any human being, from Mohandas Gandhi to Mao Ze Dong, are by definition equally moral. To borrow an apothegm from a contemporary cultural influence, if AM wants to place objective morality on genetic propensity, they must concede that since the sociopath or pedophile is “born this way,” he’s on “the right track.” Broadening the scope from the individual to the society or the state does not alleviate this problem, because the group is simply made up of individuals.
A proponent of AM might try to refocus their claim that genetics determines morality by pointing out that genetic propensities, according to naturalistic evolutionary theory, exist for the purpose of keeping ourselves alive and passing on our seed (something like this is found in formulations of Dawkins’ selfish gene model or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism). Thus, behavior which doesn’t accomplish this goal may be said to be dysfunctional or immoral– we have no inherent obligations to others, only obligations to ourselves that sometimes require, for rational self-interest, that we defer to others. As a result, according to our genes, other beings exist only to prop up our existence and propagation. It may be necessary to treat them favorably to get something from them (the so-called social contract), but what we call morality is essentially selfish at root. When treating others how we’d like to be treated is at odds with our self-interest, our moral obligation is to act in our self-interest. In other words, loving behavior without self-interest must be a malfunction on AM+SG. This not only still fails to be objective, but doesn’t correspond to even the most basic of universal moral intuitions.
In contrast, the Christian worldview posits that there are objective moral standards which humans are obligated to follow. Because God has created the universe and made human beings in His image, He can obligate us to follow His guidance, and these principles will be consistent with living a harmonious existence in the universe which He has created. It doesn’t matter if we glean these principles from Scripture or if we access them through our God-given mental and spiritual faculties (that is a question of epistemology– how we know things; not ontology– the way reality actually is)– if objective morality is to exist at all, it must find its origin in a transcendent Creator, and not in the opinions of human beings.
That is not to say that God determines this moral code on a whim. Christianity posits that the two greatest commandments are built upon love (love for God, love for neighbor). This in turn is built on the premise that God is love. This can only logically be true of the Christian God, because the Christian God is three persons in one God, existing in love and full communion. Without love, God could not exist. Love is God’s most essential quality. As a result, the moral values which flow from His nature into His creation will be based on love. This is not an arbitrary divine fiat (as it might be on Judaism or Islam), but the world reflecting the nature of its Creator.
It is only on Christian theism that morality can be objective and meaningful. On any other view it becomes subjective and arbitrary.

“Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” Blog Debate Listing

I recently engaged in a blog debate with an atheist friend, Ben Doublett, on the question, “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?” I posted my portions of the debate on my blog Argue With a Christian, and he posted his on his blog– Fool of Psalms. I thought it might be helpful for those who are interested in the debate to see all of the posts listed in one place.

Nietzsche, God, and the Rise of the godmen

Nietzsche tells this story of the madman (edited for length)–

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!”—As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated?—Thus they yelled and laughedThe madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?

“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

Here the madman fell silent and looked again at his listeners; and they, too, were silent and stared at him in astonishment. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, and it broke into pieces and went out. “I have come too early,” he said then; “my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way, still wandering; it has not yet reached the ears of men. Lightning and thunder require time; the light of the stars requires time; deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard. This deed is still more distant from them than most distant stars—and yet they have done it themselves.

Nietzsche, himself not a fan of God, relates this parable of modern man “killing God,” removing God from their view of the world. God, who gave the world meaning and kept it centered. We have killed Him and thus have unchained ourselves from our source of light.

Nietzsche knew that if man removes God, he must attempt to take His place. Since from God comes meaning, morality, and truth, and He has been killed by a world who feels they have no more need for Him, we must invent this ourselves. We must light puny lanterns during the day to give us light to see since the source of all light has been diminished by us.

“Dead are all the gods: now do we desire the overman to live.”
—Nietzsche, trans. Thomas Common, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, Section XXII,3

When men take the place of God, what are the consequences?

Throughout history, even in Christian circles, when men take the authority of God onto themselves, we have met with disaster. How much more when the Christian God is wiped out from the social conscience? The Christian God who says that all men and women, of every color, are made in His image and deserve life and love. The Christian God who tells us what is wrong and how we should behave toward one another. What are the consequences of His “death,” as powerful men ascend the ladder to take his place?

Instead of sharing my thoughts, I’d rather submit this for you to think about. Anyone who would like to leave their thoughts as a comment is welcome.