Friday, 6 April 2012

A Guest Post From An Atheist On The Moral Argument

[Note: In the interests of promoting objective discussion and constructive criticism, we will be inviting the occasional guest post by a critic of Christianity. Our position is that, if Christianity is true, it should be able to withstand any criticism; if Christianity is not true, we don't want to believe it anyway. This piece, written by atheist philosophy graduate Malin Freeborn, concerns the moral argument for the existence of God. It is written as a response to this lecture presented by philosopher Stephen C. Meyer as part of the TrueU series. I invite reader participation in the comments thread and will be responding with a follow-up article in due course.]

Meyer’s Position

A god exists ⇔ objective moral standards exist

Meyer’s position is that we all live our lives as if we believed in real and objective ethical principles. He claims that the only way objective ethical principles could exist is if a god also exists. Meyer has a wishlist of things which a moral system requires, and claims that all of these require a god. So far so good - students of logic will note that the argument is valid as long as he claims that each of the items on the list require a god and all of them are required for morality. So, with this in mind let’s see the list:

The Wish List for an Ethical Framework
There must be transcendental standard/ an objective standard of values.
Humans must have free will.
We need a reason to see humans as valuable & ‘qualitatively different’ from other forms of life.

The first on the list was a little ambiguous, as Meyer first states that he wants ‘transcendent values’ and secondly that he wants an objective standard of values. The two will have to be treated separately. As to ‘transcendent values’, the word ‘transcendent’ is ambiguous in the extreme. One definition is ‘beyond experience’, another is that it refers to a non-normal or supernormal property. Wikipedia alone gives 14 different areas in which the word is used. After a degree in Philosophy, including a good deal of Metaphysics, I still do not know what this word refers to, but suspect that it is one of many filler words, an empty word which refers to nothing at all. However, if the reader wishes a more charitable reading, they are free to use one and perhaps say that morality cannot be experienced in the manner which sunlight and music are experienced. If this is the case, then I agree, but of course if this is the case then it will not take much to give an account of morality as including transcendent values, if it contains any values at all. Nobody has ever claimed that morality is given by a normal sense.

Another reason to be suspicious of this statement is that Meyer so often slips in prepositions to his Philosophy. In this case he once requests that we have a transcendental standard of values ‘above us’. The man in the clouds has been rationally rejected, but he remains yet in the flavour of the language. If the reader finds me unfair then I request a translation of ‘above’ in reference to ‘transcendental values’.

Meyer gives us a false dilemma, posing only 3 types of ethical systems when in fact many alternatives exist.

Leaving aside the difficulties of transcendental properties, we can work more easily with some ‘objective standard of values’. The argument Meyer gives is simple enough - there are two types of morality, the naturalist morality and theological morality (morality derived from a god). He claims that the naturalist’s morality is either relativistic or Darwinian. A relativistic moral framework does not function as a moral framework and neither does a Darwinian one, therefore the only thing left is a theological moral framework, which in turn requires a god - we could not be theological without a theos.

Here Meyer runs into his first problem - he has given us only three alternatives: morally relative naturalism, morally Darwinian naturalism and theological morality. However, not only are there many more types of naturalism, there are many more ethical systems. As to those others, Meyer fobs them off with an brief note that everyone else is either a nihilist or an existentialist and so believes that there is no objective moral code. What Mayer fails to mention is that most philosophers are not nihilists and many existentialist do in fact hold to an objective moral code. Existentialism is not even an ethical philosophy.

Meyer has left us with a picture of ethical nihilists (those with no moral code) and existentialists (Meyer seems to think that they are the same thing) and naturalists (who Meyer seems to think are ethical relativists). There are many other options for moral frameworks, and they are not, as Meyer suggests, small movements. They are the large ones which he has simply failed to grapple with and this is good cause for us to convict him of being disingenuous, perhaps even manipulative. As a Philosopher I have found these to be the popular options for morality:

Kantian Ethics.
Utilitarianism (a form of non-relative naturalism).
Virtue Ethics.
Theological ethics.

Of these, the most popular with Philosophers are perhaps the first four. All those who derive Ethics theologically are monotheists (and, in my experience, were raised monotheists), but not all monotheists subscribe to theological ethics.

The reader may wonder why, after two thousand years, Philosophers have not coalesced into a single group and decided upon a single ethical standard. The problems are many, not the least of which is the sceptical nature of Philosophy. For each position there are a number of objections. For each objection there are at least two counter arguments. These counter arguments in turn often have their own counter arguments, and so on, into a regress which - if not infinite - should dazzle the mind of anyone looking into the well of Philosophical debate, a well which runs as deep as the night sky. I do not mean to imply that we are not equipped to enter this argument, but a flippant mention of a couple of subsets of naturalism is simply not enough to say that one has proven once and for all (a) a system of ethics and (b) the existence of a god. Meyer’s arguments can gain some hold on people only because he is preaching not only to the converted but to the Philosophically uneducated.

Looking at Scripture

If Meyer wishes to tell us that it is only with a god that an objective standard of ethics can be found then he is not only telling us that no other ethical system can provide an objective standard, but also that the theological ethical system can give us a standard of ethics. It’s time to take a good look at this claim.
The complete picture of the theist is not that he brings to the table a set of morals commanded by a god. The complete claim that the theist must make is as follows:

1. The theist will look at all scriptures which are supposed to divinely inspired.
2. Out of all of the divinely inspired texts he will choose a common thread (in the case of Meyer, this common thread consists of certain Christian texts).
3. He will first take the texts of other divinities - Hindu texts, Muslim texts, Taoist texts, & c. All of these, he will find some fault with - all will be found to be lacking in a way which his own texts are not.
4. Now that the only thing left on the table are the Christian texts (a large mass of writing, starting with the Bible, heading off to Augustine of Hippo, and then through Thomas Aquinas and many others) he can begin to go through these and with each passage either accept or reject its divinity.
5. Once a passage has been accepted as correct we will need an explanation of what it means. This idea seems rather strange to me on first reading - Jesus’ parables have always seemed transparent, the other texts seem even more straightforward. Nevertheless it is often claimed by theists that a theist is required to understand what a passage means.

This is quite a list. The theist has quite a task ahead of him. Let’s take a more detailed look at what must be achieved in each stage in order to complete the task and thus show that a theological ethical system can give us objective moral standards.

Meyer must show why we should reject all other religious texts.

In the first stage, the stage is set with a great multitude of texts. I would say at least a thousand at a conservative estimate, and many will have multiple versions. Christians apologists so often look only at Judaism and Islam as alternatives, but Taoism, Hinduism, the Norse Religion, Sikhism and many more contain moral frameworks. Onto the third stage; how shall the texts be sorted? How shall we reject the other texts?

One way often used is appeal to ridiculousness. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Ridiculous! How about the Prose Edda, wherein the valorous deeds of Odin and Thór are portrayed? Nonsense and myth! Yet however strong these sentiments of ridicule are, it is not open to Christians to say that alternative religions are false simply because they seem ridiculous. Of course I’m quite happy to allow the move - when supernatural claims appear ridiculous I can happily agree that they are not true. However, no Christian wants this move to be allowed, because they know exactly what the muslim community would make of their religion. ‘A god begetting a son? Ridiculous!’.

Another way in which Christian apologists reject texts is to show immorality within the teachings of another religion. Most of the time, this move would be permitted, but in Meyer’s case it is strictly forbidden. He has claimed that we can derive an objective standard of morality from religion and we are currently searching for the correct one. He cannot appeal to an objective standard of morality to show that Islam is wicked while Christianity is virtuous if he is at the time engaged in searching for objective morality. He cannot say that Islam requires homosexuals to be put to death, and is therefore immoral, for this requires him to establish that killing people for homosexuality is immoral, and moral statements are what he was already in the process of founding. If he derives a moral rule from his intuition, then his morals are derived from intuition and not from scripture. If he derives a moral rule by saying that an action is immoral because it is inconsistent then we have found that we can derive much of morality by looking at consistency and not from looking at scripture. If Meyer looks to scripture to establish morality then his argument begins in a vicious circle.

Many apologists have also attempted to show scripture to be true by saying that the factual accounts of what happened are accurate. Sometimes they say that something happened, and when they think the event in question (say, Noah’s ark) was too far-fetched they either modify the statement (saying, for instance, that the flood was smaller than originally stated) or they say that the story is a metaphor (though what the story is meant to be a metaphor for is so often left to the reader’s imagination). The problem with this approach is that even if Mohammed existed, it does not show that his injunctions were true. Even if Jesus was resurrected, it is not enough to show that (a) he was the son of god and (b) by extension he was correct in all teachings.

However, if we are going to look at how veridical Christian scripture is, let us take a look at the competition:
Sathya Sai Baba has purportedly changed water into other substances, levitated, manifested objects such as ash and gold, bi-located and performed many other feats. There are literally thousands of eyewitnesses to some of these events.
Buddhism accepts miracles as common-place. The details are not important - if you can imagine it then the Buddhists believe that someone has managed it. Again, there have been many witnesses and written testimonials.
The oracle at Delphi in Greece has made many prophecies, and those who believe in Apollo also believe in the accuracy of her statements. This was commonplace in ancient Greece.
After the Graeco-Persian war many men reported divine intervention from the Greek deities. This was recorded by Herodotus in his Histories.

I could go on all day without problem. And not only are many of these account equal in weight to the accounts of Christianity, some are greater. As mentioned above; Sathya Sai Baba has performed miracles which were witnessed by thousand and recorded by many independent witnesses. It may be tempting to claim that he is an obvious fraud, that he has used illusion and trickery. However, he is not in a worse position than Yeshua ben Josef, and so it will not become us to require a higher standard of proof for our personal favourite divinity.

Meyer must show which parts of the Bible are to be accepted.

Leaving aside these further problems, we can move finally on to stages 4 and 5 of the plan - we must select which passages of Christian texts are taken to be accurate and how to interpret them. The scope of this essay (and perhaps the average reader’s attention span) will not allow me to move much into the Bible, let alone beyond it - but I shall at the very least make a start on the Bible.

The Bible contains a number of passages which seem like decent rules. ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ is something which people feel they can implement with minimum fuss, no matter what serious Philosophers may say on the subject#. Turning the other cheek seemed to work for Gandhi and is a good way to avoid escalating violence. These rules may not work all the time - it is famously not immoral to steal in all situations - yet they seem good general rules, assuming any general rule can be a good rule. On the other hand, rules which forbid one to cut one’s own beard in a certain shape, or forbidding ‘bastards’ from entering a church# seem obviously bad rules. There are two ways to deal with this problem - cut the rule or imagine that it says something other than what it actually says.

First, imagine cutting a rule from the Bible, just as the Catholics do. Imagine that we take anything we don’t like and simply throw it away. The first problem is obvious - what shall we cut? Most of Leviticus is just screaming to be banished to the place where the Gospel according to Thomas has been left. On the other hand, some people will want to keep the homophobic passages. Christians want to keep the part where the meek inherit the earth, but are not so sure if they like it when Yeshua said that he came to divide people and turn family members against each other. They can accept the resurrection, but are not so sure about the part where half of the saints of Jerusalem came back from the dead to talk with people#. Many people think that they can argue for the passages which they want to keep, but on what basis shall we keep passages? If the passage is factual, shall we keep what we think is realistic? Who shall decide what is ‘realistic’? Which if the passages concerning morality shall we keep? Who decides which ones really are moral? And once again, if we are to decide what is moral by our intuitions then we must admit that we can know what is moral by our intuitions, and so no scripture will be necessary.

Further, we must remember the issue of slavery. Meyer cites this in his video as a moral evil. However, we cannot draw this conclusion from the Bible. The Bible gives instructions on the proper use of slave, and they are not kind instructions. If other passages say not to keep slaves then the Bible is inconsistent and so cannot be used as a moral code, so it will not do for the Christian apologist to look for places in the Bible which say that slavery is wrong (though of course there is no such passage). Such passages give the Bible a lot to answer for.

Meyer must show how to interpret those pieces he chooses to accept.

A far more common tactic is to re-interpret scripture. When it is pointed out that Adam and Eve could not have repopulated the earth we can imagine them to be a metaphor. Others have requested that we imagine they have a different genetic structure, so that if their children repopulated the earth they could have been incestuous without genetic problems. We could also say that since the Bible never said that Yahweh stopped creating people then he could indeed have made more people after Adam and Eve, allowing for genetic diversity (after all, where exactly did everyone after that period get their wives?).

The is an underlying thread of thought in all of these examples. The Christian apologists have tried these readings and many more readings. In each of the readings the idea is not to give a correct account, and in many cases not even an intuitively plausible one. The point is to give a consistent account. An account which is not a direct contradiction in terms. The problem with this is that it is easy, it’s ten a penny. People have given consistent account of the existence of vampires and werewolves, of aliens and auras and karma. These accounts, like interpretations of the Bible fit with much research, and, given enough time, an apologist for any idea can give an account which squares with every known fact about the universe. However, at this stage we are still back at square one - we would have a near infinite number of entirely consistent accounts of supernatural creatures and we would not be able to choose which accounts to believe in.

Some readers may think that the werewolves and vampires and auras are going too far, that they seem ridiculous, that the accounts of their existences are not really so fleshed out, that the stories that can be told of why we do not see werewolves are actually pale stories for children, without the serious academic research which has gone into the projects of Christian apologetics. They are quite, quite wrong. The accounts of aliens and werewolves are extremely well fleshed out and researched, and given enough time they could become consistent with any known fact. The descriptions of karma go well beyond the depth of anything I have ever encountered in Christianity. It may not have any supporting evidence, but the story can at least be made consistent.

Another issue to be found with reinterpretation is that some passages simply do not admit of a plausible reinterpretation. Yeshua gave the story of a king, and the king looks like a metaphor for Yeshua himself, yet at the end of the story the new king states:

‘But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them--bring them here and kill them in front of me’

This is a striking passage, but with a little reinterpretation and some peppered excuses and vague notes about contexts it can be pushed slowly away. However, there are other passages which simply do not have the same ambiguity.

1. Leviticus 19:27 - Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.
2. Exodus 21:15 - Kill anyone who curses their parents.
3. Exodus 31:15 - Kill anyone who works on the Sabbath.
4. Hosea 13:16 - God commands all the children of a city murdered and all the pregnant women to have their stomachs ripped open.

The list of terrible ideas in the Bible goes on. And on. Christian apologists’ reactions to the passages are staggeringly blasé, given how horrific many are. Common excuses include the following:

The passage is out of context.
This injunction was appropriate for the time in which it was given, but not appropriate for the modern world.
Anyone who is innocent and killed goes to heaven, so it is no crime to kill the innocent.

It should be obvious that there are no excuses for the above passages, but I shall nevertheless run through these replies briefly. Firstly, the context of the passages does not excuse them nor change the meaning of them. The rules presented above (1-3 are rules) were given next to a list of rules. This context does not mean that they should not be taken as they stand. Also - certain things cannot be excused through context. If you hear that a man has robbed from someone, he may say that the accusation is out of context, and you could ask him what excuses the robbery. If a man organises the death of all the children of a city, both young and preborn children, and he tells you that the accusation is out of context, this changes nothing because there is no context in which it is ethical to murder a city full of children (by the by, the context was that the city abandoned god, and began to worship false idols such as calves made of silver).

These injunctions are not appropriate for the times in which they were given, it has never been inappropriate to cut the corners of one’s beard, merely unfashionable. However, if it were inappropriate for the modern setting, we would have to ask how the apologist knows what is now appropriate and what is not. How does the apologist know that the law forbidding murder is still appropriate? Or the laws forbidding homosexual sex? The apologist is not in a position to make moral statements if he is at the time engaged in attempting to found morality. The argument would once again become circular.

The last excuse is the thinnest of all - that it is morally permissible to kill the innocent because they go to heaven. Not only does it require some proof of an afterlife, it also removes any problems with murdering innocent people. If a man were to stand in court after murdering a school yard full of children, then say that he was ordered by his god to kill the children and that they are now in heaven, would anyone fail to condemn him? And yet, are his actions not entirely like that of Moses, or Joshua, who murdered so many in the name of their god? To say that killing someone, provided they are innocent of all crime, is a good is a most dangerous idea. Like Richard Dawkins, I don’t think I would like to engage any further with anyone who thinks that murder is ethical so long as only the innocent die. It seems ultimately that the Bible does not provide us with the proper way for humans to flourish.

Mistakes and Misrepresentations

Free will does not require a god.

Meyer demands that an objective ethical system allows for free will and states that a god is the only thing which we can suppose which allows us to be free willed. He also seems to ‘presuppose’ throughout his lecture that all naturalism, indeed all alternative ethical systems, claim that there is no free will. The simple fact of the matter is that many ethical theories include free will, and most ethical systems do not commit one way or another. If one is a utilitarian one need not believe in free will, but one can if one wishes. Again - if one is a virtue ethicist one may and may not believe in free will.

Of course, the options on the table consist of more than those who believe in free will and those who do not - there are alternative moves. However, it seems beyond the scope of Meyer’s presuppositional theism to even begin to examine the alternatives. Again, Meyer does not mention the alternatives to believing or not believing in free will.

Does god call it good because it is good, or is it good because god calls it good?

A further issue for anyone attempting to found ethics on theology is an old chestnut first given by Socrates. We must know why something is good. Is it good simply because a god says so, or does the god say it is good because it already is good?

If something is good because god says it is so, then goodness is arbitrary. The god could make anything good - he could adjust his views and say that theft is good. He could decide that eating peanut butter is immoral. The Bible reads rather like this, in that it forbids wearing clothing made of two types of fabric and forbids eunuchs from entering churches. However, it does not seem an attractive choice. We want to say that child murder is bad and would be bad no matter what anyone’s opinion on the matter happened to be, even if certain gods disagree from time to time.

Meyer states that god’s ‘character’ is moral and this gives us morality. If the good is good because the god decides this is the case then the idea that god has a moral character is simply a tautology. Therefore it seems that if we are being charitable to Meyer we ought to read him as saying that something is good and Yahweh simply states that it is good.

However, if something is good regardless of what any god wishes to be good then (a) we do not need a god to tell us what is good - for we can find out for ourselves and (b) the thing would be good with or without a god. This option is clearly not what Meyer is rooting for, so we must switch back to imagining that god makes something moral - that he gives it morality and without the god nothing would be moral or immoral. However, this brings us back to arbitrariness - the god can make anything good or bad. It seems that according to this view the god could do nothing wrong because the very fact that he endorses something is enough to make it good.

‘Religious morality is the most successful in changing behaviour’ - citation needed.

Meyer presents some video footage claiming that religious morality is the most successful in changing behaviour. Whether this is in terms of percentages or numbers is unclear, but either way the statement is uncited. We could just as easily say that people ought to follow the law of their culture, as laws are the most successful things which changes behaviour. Alternatively, we could cite conformity as the most successful thing in changing behaviour, and posit it as a moral code of sorts.

However, none of this is terribly relevant as the fact that something changes behaviour has no bearing on whether or not the underlying Philosophy is true. The simplest ideas are often the best at changing behaviour, as are wide spread ideas. However, if an idea is simple and widely spread, this is no guarantee that it is true. Further, any and all religions could claim that they change behaviour - and the claim that they are true would count for all of them equally. We cannot say ‘religion is true’ as religions contradict each other. Therefore, we cannot say that all ideas (or even all religions) which change behaviour are true.

Peter Singer does not say that ‘pigs have more utility than babies’.

I would also like to briefly note that Peter Singer has been monstrously misrepresented. It’s not the first time, but I still find such dishonesty shocking in a supposed academic. Peter Singer does not believe that pigs are more valuable than babies because they are more useful. He also does not believe that pigs are generally more valuable than babies, merely that they can be, in certain circumstances.

Peter Singer is one of the few moral Philosophers who finds no qualitative difference between humans and animals. His arguments are simple yet formidable, and Meyer has not addressed either the possibility of Peter Singer being right or the fact that if Peter Singer is wrong, there are many alternative ethical systems.

Meyer makes an invalid argument against naturalism.

Meyer makes the following deductions concerning animal rights and naturalism:

‘Naturalism Take 1
P1) There is no qualitative difference between humans and animals.
P2) Humans have rights.
C) Therefore animals have rights.

‘Naturalism Take 2
P1) There is no qualitative difference between humans and animals.
P2) We kill animals when it suits are purposes.
C) Therefore it is permissible to kill humans when it suits our purposes.’

The first statement is valid, but not sound according to all naturalists. Many naturalists feel that there is a qualitative difference between humans and animals. Other naturalists feel that there is a relevant difference between humans and animals, but not a qualitative one. Still others are not naturalists but feel that there is a relevant difference (of some type) between humans and animals, in respect to ethics.

In ‘Naturalism Take 2’ we see a grave error - an invalid argument. This is particularly egregious as the premises were laid out in the manner of a formal argument. In this argument Meyer moves from an is to an ought statement, a move which he has already ruled against in his video. Notice the change in premise 2 and how we go from what humans do to some animals to what people ought to do with humans. Once again I am not sure if Meyer has made an honest, yet serious, error or if he is intentionally deceiving his audience. I must also underline that this error is not a matter of what people feel or whether or not they think the argument may be valid. This is logic, this is mathematics, this is wrong and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

Further Problems

As one final note in this section, I would like to point out that Meyer tells us that Darwinian ethics cannot account for altruism, and that if we were entirely driven to reproduce then we would act in entirely selfish ways. I leave it to the reader to read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins who disproves this in subtle and ingenious ways which I do not care to summarise.

I would also urge any reader who felt that they were convinced by Meyer’s presentation, or any presentation which talked along similar lines, to get a book on Metaethics. One particularly good book on the subject is The Moral Problem by Michael Smith.

In summary, Meyer has given us an unworkable position with problems which run into its very core, such as the analysis of scripture, which seems to create problems much larger than the ones it claimed to solve. In addition he has stripped all mention of other moral options except for two which he repeatedly misrepresents. He goes on to misunderstand what evolution can inform us about morality and to make unfair and uncited claims about Peter Singer. Finally, and perhaps worst of all, he makes errors in validity which could be noticed by the average first year student of Philosophy.

As a final note I would also like to say that I am disgusted to have watched an hour of Meyer telling me that atheists do not believe in ethical standards and making illegitimate comparisons to the Nazis.

[Update: A response to this essay is now available -- Go here to read it!]


  1. Thank you, Malin, for this post.

    1. You're most welcome. I hope it's not too long for everyone, but I had to address the basic points in order to make a proper response.

  2. Malin disregards much of religion with broad, sweeping strokes, yet ignores Biblical miracles with the same strokes. For Malin to say "Even if Jesus was resurrected, it is not enough to show that (a) he was the son of god and (b) by extension he was correct in all teachings." Stop right there! Even if Jesus was resurrected?!

    Follow the implications, Malin. All the proper and warranted answers are provided in Scripture precisely because He *was* resurrected. Malin would better spend time camping on that, than with rhetoric.

    Seems to me atheists get hooked on the wrong track - side issues, bunny trails, non-essentials, etc. Either Christ was raised by Himself (actually by God the Father) or He wasn't. Spend time hashing that out historically.

    1. I addressed what I wanted to address, and that includes miracles in section 2: Looking at Scripture.
      And yes, if Jesus did indeed come back from the dead then this does not guarantee that he is a wizard, or the son of a god, or a hero from a Greek epic, or a god, or a lich, or a fairy, or any of the other entities which apparently come back from the dead.
      And given that Meyer was arguing that morality must be founded on a god, and that god is Jesus, it's hardly a side issue to discuss the miracles and historicity of the Bible.


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