The Self-Contradictory Nature of Godlessness

I recently read a blog post on Godless in Dixie regarding the supposed anti-human theology that is part of the Christian worldview.  The gentleman writing makes the argument that Christianity inspires self-loathing and that Jesus of Nazareth engaged in what amounts to psychological torture.  You can read the post for yourself.

http://godlessindixie.com/2014/04/25/anti-human-theology-and-cultivated-self-disgust/

First, I’m saddened by his story, because while the whole thing seems like a straw-man, I don’t think it is necessarily a straw-man of his own creation.  The word Christian is rarely used in the Bible.  We throw it around now in a way that means very little.  It is often seen only as some sort of cultural heritage.  As such, people calling themselves Christians, but failing to actually follow Christ in thought or action in any meaningful way can do great damage.  Still, one cannot look to the worst representatives of an enterprise to build a case against the values of that enterprise.  I fear people who have this perception that Christianity encourages self-hatred have had some very poor examples of people in their lives who call themselves Christians.

What does the Biblical narrative teach about people though?  Are we fundamentally garbage?  Should we regard ourselves with guilt and shame?  Do we invent special types of crimes for ourselves?  Can we do no good?  Well, the only way to know what the Bible teaches about such a thing, is to actually look at the Bible in context.

This fellow seems to base his objection to Christianity on a false understanding of who people are, and what they’re relationship is to God according to Biblical teaching.  He says, “Rather than affirming what is good within humanity, it begins with a condemnation of all that is bad”.  This is patently false though.  In the beginning, God created.  The creation included people, who were designed in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  He blessed them, and saw EVERYTHING that had been made, and it was VERY good (Genesis 1:31).  That is the fundamental teaching about people.  Everything that follows (ie the history of the universe) must be understood in this context.

God did not create robots though.  He created free moral agents.  This sort of freedom is fundamentally necessary for the expression of love.  It cannot be achieved through coercion.  We can choose good, or we can reject it and choose otherwise.  God has left this choice to us.  What is good, really, though?  Jesus said that only God is good (Mark 10:18).  What did he mean by that?  I think he meant a couple of things.

First, I think he meant to subtly suggest, as he did many other times, that he was, in fact, God.  He was being addressed as good, so he pointed out that only God embodies the foundation of goodness.

Second, he meant that God alone is the foundation of all that is good.  Without God, real good and evil simply just do not exist.  We can try to base our understanding of good in ourselves, but the fact of the matter is that this sort of relativism only leaves us with no foundation at all.  It leaves us with mere opinions and confusion.  In the video embedded in this post, the fellow there says, emphatically, that “you are not a sinner!”  He goes on to say though, that he hopes you make “good” decisions and you don’t have free license to be a jerk.  Well, why not? He seems to think that there is some standard of “good” that I ought to be following.  Who’s though?  His?  On one hand these confused ideas say there is nothing wrong with me, while on the other they seem to affirm there is a certain way the universe should be, and I shouldn’t violate that.  Sounds familiar!

Sin is, simply put, the violation of this ordained state of affairs.  It’s straying from Good.  While Biblical teaching says we’re fundamentally God’s creation, it also teaches we have a selfish streak that seems to want to go it alone.  If we deny God’s goodness, we end up following the desire to be our own god by defining “good” in any way we see fit.  Allowing such a thing is, again, a necessary feature of free-will.  God would prefer for us to return to the very good state of affairs in Genesis 1, but he doesn’t do it by asking us to despise ourselves.  I’m not even quite sure how somebody calling themselves a follower of Christ would come to this conclusion, and worse, how they would teach it.

The most cited part of the Bible seems to be John 3:16.  As important are John 3:17-18.  It’s quite clear that Jesus didn’t come to condemn, but to pardon.  It seems pretty clear to me (NIV):

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.

Now, the fact is that there does seem to need to be some steps taken to right our course, but does that necessitate self-hatred?  I’m not sure how you even come to that conclusion.  If it does, and Godless is suggesting that I need to right my course and come to his way of thinking, then he also must be suggesting that I ought to hate myself for my mistaken thinking because there is something wrong with me.  That’s a silly conclusion that does not follow.  People can be well-aware of things about themselves they’d like to change, without hating themselves.  People can even suggest things about other people that might need changing and have only the best of intentions.

You might be able to blame the teaching of your parents or your “Christian” community for your self-loathing, but if you want to build a case that the teaching by Jesus of Nazareth is to blame it will be quite flimsy, since he placed free grace on the table if you’d like it.  The alternative is to willing drift away from true Good.  It’s your choice.

Should we be moral relativists? (Part 2)

Protagoras

Protagoras

Since antiquity man has pondered the source of our morality. Indeed, early Greek philosopher Protagoras is credited with the controversial phrase, “man is the measure of all things.”  Is this true though?  Is the mind of man, either his personal or societal bent, the measure of moral quality, or are moral laws akin to the laws of physics or mathematics, being a described feature of the universe, rather than a personally or culturally defined development?  While the debate will inevitably carry on between camps that claim moral objectivism is true, and camps that claim relativism is true, one thing it seems we can say for certain is that neither view of morality allows us to say we “should” be moral relativists, as the question necessarily falls on its own sword.

Moral relativism seems to manifest itself either personally or culturally.  What’s deemed good for me and by me, is the “right” thing, or what’s deemed good by my culture is the “right” thing.  Assuming the question, “should we be moral relativists” is meant to apply to a universal “we”, it seems moral relativism itself disqualifies any meaningful answer to such a question.  The question implies an oughtness, as if there is a correct answer to the question about how we should behave.  It seems to presuppose that the answer “yes” may be less morally dubious than the answer “no”, or vice versa.  However, one would need an objective source of morality to affirm or deny the premise in any real sense.  If moral relativism is true, the question, and other questions whose answers imply a proper mode of right conduct by mankind, simply become meaningless.

If moral relativism is true, then to say we “should” behave any particular way becomes nonsensical.  We are permitted to say I “prefer” a certain action, or my culture “prefers” a certain action, but to carry moral relativism any further than preference to a particular action or outcome begins to reek of objectivism.  Further, what one person or culture prefers, cannot be a recipe for what I ought to do.  I am free to reject the preference of anybody else.  Consider a culture in which believing the sacrifice of children to a deity is considered “good”.  On moral relativism, we are impotent to condemn it as wrong.  My personal sensibilities, or the sensibilities of my culture, may find it distasteful, but in no way can that be applied across the personal or cultural boundaries inside which the ideology is promoted.

One might offer a rejoinder that appeals to some seemingly universal recognizable wrongdoing.  For instance, one might say it’s wrong to torture children for fun, and everybody seems to recognize that across cultures. Therefore, the relativist may say, there are just some things we can all agree on, and so we “should” do some things and “should not” do others.  However, on moral relativism we become free to reject any such notion as a fallacious appeal to popularity.  If one person decides killing babies for fun brings them joy, the moral relativist is impotent to condemn that action as intrinsically wrong.  The relativist may impose his current cultural standards upon the stray ideology by force of law, but this is simply a “might makes right” tactic, rather than an appeal to a true state of affairs in the universe where killing babies for fun is always wrong.  The worst any action can be is personally or culturally distasteful.  On this view of reality, an individual or societal quest for power by extermination of opposing people-groups and force, such as the ideology of the Third Reich, is no more or less valid than any other way of living.

In the end, moral relativism does not allow for any “should” or “should not”, as both would imply there are objective moral truth claims that can be applied to all people, places, and times in the history of the universe.  The moral relativist has removed from himself, all grounds for being able to say anybody else ought to be a moral relativist. In short, the question, “should we be moral relativists,” implies a state of affairs in the universe where there is a correct answer to the question.  However, moral relativism itself ensures that there can be no correct answer to questions about how we should behave.  Since the question itself makes an inquiry into how we ought to behave, its self-defeating nature allows it to be safely ignored as incoherent.

Should we be moral relativists? (Part 1)

I recently attended a conference geared towards those working in information technology in the  higher education sector.  One of the big changes technology is bringing to higher ed is what is known as the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).  The revolution in availability of information to otherwise unreachable parts of the world is making education in whatever one wants to learn not only accessible,  but often free.  In an effort to understand the MOOC better, I enrolled in a free “Intro to Philosophy” couse offered through the University of Edinburgh on Coursera, and found it to be well done, and enjoyable.

One thing that interested me with regards to an intro to philosophy course though, was the dodging, nearly complete avoidance of the conversation about God, or how the introduction of a deity into philosophy changes the conversation.  Longstanding debates, like the proper view of moral values and duties, become easily solvable.  Modern philosophy, at least at the University of Edinburgh, seems to consider the God debate settled though.  Or perhaps the topic is just too complex for an introductory course.

In any case, part of the course involved selecting from a list of questions,  and writing a 750 word essay in response.  If you’ve read any of my other ramblings, you’ll know morality is a topic that interests me, so I chose the question, “Should we be moral relativists?”

There are two major camps on the source of morality.   Essentially,  one camp that claims it is relative to us, either individuals or cultures. Morals are defined by people.  This is relativism.   The other camp claims morality is a feature of the universe,  like the laws of physics. Morals are unchaging, and can only be discovered or described by people, but people don’t give them their definition.  This is objectivism.

It is an interesting debate, who’s outcome I believe seriously affects the way we live.  Whether you’ve thought about it or not, you are either a realativist (of some stripe), or an objectivist.  Think about it.  Which are you and why?  If you consider yourself a relativist,  on what grounds do you condemn behavior you consider morally wrong? If you consider yourself an objectivist, what source do you cite for moral “laws”?  In both cases, you’re trying to determine what gives an action its moral properties,  if any.

In any case, after the MOOC wraps up, I’ll post my essay answering the question “Should we be moral relativists?” 

Shove it, Cosmos!

I love the cosmos.  I really do.  It’s quite an amazing place.  I love it so much that when the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, MT offered an evening of star gazing in Yellowstone National Park using a fleet of high powered telescopes, my family and I packed up the tent and braved the cold Wyoming air to get a close up view (relatively speaking) of planets and galaxies far, far away.

Prior to getting to peer into the heavens with the guidance and equipment of some amazing volunteers from the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society, a lecture was given by an astronomer positing that YNP could well be a good representation of what Mars may have previously looked like.  It was an interesting presentation, which ended by posing a question about the possibility of life on other Earth-like planets located elsewhere in the universe.   The observation was made that a lot of conditions would have to be met in order for another life-permitting planet to exist.  The Earth seems to be quite special in this regard, given the number of “just-so” conditions that it meets to make life possible.  It seemed at least somewhat unlikely to this man of science that another planet might exist which would permit life, especially intelligent life, and thus there is the distinct possibility that planet Earth is one of a kind.  It followed then, in this gentleman’s estimation, that we should, therefore, respect and take care of the Earth.

Why?  A naturalistic bent seemed implicit in this presentation, and in that context I see no objective reason why anybody should take care of the planet, or anything else for that matter.  If the universe is an accidental mess of meaningless matter, on what real grounds should I care about the Earth or any other random ball of rock? If the universe is without meaning, my life is without meaning, and all other lives are without meaning, then I fail to see why I should care about any particular planet’s uniqueness. There’s nothing on a naturalistic worldview that compels me to care about anything.

This seems absurd though. Most people seem to have an intrinsic sense of obligation to protect not only other people, but other special collections of matter, such as the Earth, as well. On a decidedly Christian worldview this makes sense. Biblically speaking, humanity has been gifted with Creation by God, and has been charged with being a good steward of that gift. In this instance, among others, the Christian worldview seems to have significanly more explanatory power to describe reality than does naturalism.

If you talk me into a naturalistic worldview, you simultaneously talk me into an objectively meaningless existence. In that case, the cosmos can shove it! Seeing how this sort of meaningless existence doesn’t seem to comport with reality though, I think I’ll continue to appreciate the stars, refrain from littering, and thank God for the beauty of places like Yellowstone National Park.

The Almighty Big Box Store

Wal-MartFor those of you who know me, you know my life has been in flux as of late.  A job change, along with a move from Washington state to Montana, selling a house, trying to find a new place to live, and splitting up from the rest of my family for a few weeks seem to have put a lot of pressure on my sense of security.  For the past week I’ve felt somewhat jobless and homeless, though never in need of income or shelter.  It’s funny where, even as Christians, we derive our sense of security though.  I’ve been in a foreign town in a foreign state for all of 36 hours now.  I find it a little scary and lonely without my wife and kids by my side.  I know, intellectually speaking, that I ought to derive my sense of security from the creator of the universe who can both give and take away.  However, in practice, it seems that I fail miserably at this.

First, it is probably no surprise that my wife is my crutch.  Not crush mind you (although she is that too), but the one I lean on for all manner of support.  From friendship, to financial planning, to fashion advice, if you take her away from me I become somewhat paralyzed.  I can overcome these things, but I feel lost without her.  Now, in my defense I could make a biblical case that this sort of leaning on each other in a marriage is a good thing.  Hopefully there are some things where I am a crutch for her as well.  We rely on each other, but answer to God first.

However, I discovered today, that it turns out that big box stores offer some odd measure of security for me as well.  I walked into a Walmart this morning and immediately noticed I felt somewhat relieved.  Things were suddenly familiar again.  That sense of nothing making any sense seemed to fade a little bit.  It felt somewhat like home.  The reason, I suppose, is that no matter where I go, places like Walmart and Costco look pretty much the same.  I literally thought to myself something like, “This Walmart is oddly comforting.”  They say home is where the heart is, and apparently the heart is at Walmart ($19.99 in the Shoes and Accessories department I think).

After deriving some sense of comfort in troubled times from the almighty Walmart, I came to the sudden realization that I could easily be compared to those foolish people in Exodus 32.  My wife (Moses) was back in Washington (up on the mountain) and in my panic and insecurity I appealed to Sam Walton (Aaron) to build me a Walmart (golden calf) to which I might appeal in my time of uncertainty.  Luckily I realized it before I got to the part where I was burning sacrifices before Walmart.

Once I realized it, I was able to somewhat refocus my sense of security back on God where it belonged.  Fortunately, through Christ I have a path to forgiveness for such corruptness, and can even chuckle about it.  Some people say “God is a crutch” as a means of defaming theists as being weak minded.  However, with the exception of the malice with which the comment is generally intended, I agree with those people.  God is a crutch.   We all have our crutches; those things that provide peace and security in our lives.  For some it is things like successful careers, big houses, fine automobiles, stacks of money, the dream of power, lust, or popularity.  For the follower of Jesus of Nazareth the pinnacle of security, upon which all other securities rest, should be the triune God, but is it?

When life gets complicated and uncertain, what is your crutch?

Secular Morality: Barfing Up A Moral Landscape

Yes, I’m still here.  I bet you thought that you’d gotten rid of me.  In my last post I referred you to an article on secular morality that a friend of mine had passed on to me after a discussion about the basis for moral judgments.  I began by dispatching the false dichotomy the article leads with in an attempt to establish that morality based in God is no less arbitrary than that based in a secular worldview.  Please read my previous post to understand why this is not the case.

Now, on to the task at hand, which is an attempt to understand how morality can be objective in the context of secular naturalism. The article tries to get going by asking the questions, “How should unbelievers behave? Where does our understanding of morality ultimately come from? How do we know that our standards are correct in a meaningful and universal sense?” These are great questions! How then, do we began to answer these questions? The article continues, “…if we approach the question from a humanistic, scientific stand point, atheists ought to agree that there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.”

Say what now?

I seem to be being told, that in order to conclude where “oughts” (statements about morality) come from, that we ought to agree there should be rational standards. This is absurd though. I see no reason why atheists ought to agree, unless there is some transcendent atheist herdsman that sets the moral standard for all people. The statement that atheists (or anybody else) “ought” to do anything is the very thing that is in question, and so at the outset this article commits the logical fallacy known as “begging the question“. This circular form of argument gets stuck in an infinite loop that usually goes something like this:

Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.
Me: Doesn’t whether or not there are objective moral conclusions impact whether we “ought” to do anything, like agree on rational standards?
Atheist: No. We can know some things are right and some things are wrong?
Me: How?
Atheist: We ought to agree there should be rational standards for arriving at moral conclusions.

Unfortunately, a claim cannot use its own conclusion to justify itself, and so this article falls on its sword before it ever gets underway, by appealing to a sense of “ought” prior to establishing that such a thing can exist, or where it comes from. The fact of the matter is that either moral principles are universal laws that we discover, like the laws of mathematics or physics, or they’re merely social conventions that we’ve created for ourselves. In the event they are social conventions, there is no “ought” involved. There remains only the opinion based product of myself or my society. In this case, I have no grounds to judge the actions of other people or other societies. If another society believes nirvana is achieved by using babies for skeet shooting, that is their prerogative. I can object on the subjective grounds that I don’t like it because it is mean, but I have no objective standard on which to base my assessment.

In Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, he lays out a much more thorough case for an objective morality without God. Harris defines his so-called “moral landscape” as, “…real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” Again, from the outset, the case for secular morality lies within the human condition. Though eloquent, Harris’s definition of morality holds water no better than the aforementioned article. The Moral Landscape makes its case using moral language with words like “well-being”, “should”, “right”, and “good”. All of these words are meaningless though, unless something gives them meaning. Harris dodges the problem of question begging by instead relying on the equivocation of these words so that they are synonymous with the promotion of human life. This secular humanism is arbitrary speciesism though. On naturalism I see no objective reason to think protecting human animals is any more right than protecting aardvarks or cockroaches. Surely you can assign subjective rightness to the flourishing of human life, simply on the grounds that you are one of them, but why stop there? Why not use you’re nationalism to promote an ideal society of whatever sub-class of humans you think is superior to others (WWHD)?

Theism presents the solution to this problem though, by recognizing a transcendent moral law giver outside of creation that provides a universal moral law. People seem to nearly universally recognize and affirm that human life is important, but unlike a secular humanist’s worldview, Christianity in particular has objective reasons for elevating humans over aardvarks or cockroaches. God, as the creator of all things, gives mankind special position in the creation. Without a transcendent moral law, all morality is reduced to individual and societal opinions. Sam Harris can use science to tell me that certain brain states equate to unhappiness. However, science is powerless to say in any meaningful sense why I ought not put you in these unhappy brain states.  It is not his science (as he would have you believe), but his philosophy that makes the claim we ought to look out for the well-being of people. This is his opinion…and we simply ought to agree with his moral conclusions.

Just to be clear, I am NOT saying that the atheist cannot be moral, I’m simply saying that on atheism there is no objective grounds on which to base the concept of morality.  In a secular worldview it seems it must be admitted that “oughts” and “ought nots” are no more meaningful than in any other part of the animal kingdom. If we really think that an objective morality exists though, and that things like “human rights” are real things, then we must look outside ourselves to find the source, for it is only something beyond mankind that can apply universally to mankind. Once we identify the source of moral laws and duties outside ourselves, only then can we say with confidence that we ought not eat our babies like guppies do, and this is more than just mere personal opinion or cultural convention!