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July 16, 2007

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Resident Atheist

This response is rated “R” due to adult situations, profanity, and me being politically incorrect and kind of a smug jerk.

I will start with your statement “…while many well-intentioned Christian have attempted to apply those principles throughout human history with varying degrees of acurracy [sic]…”. Thank you for ceding this point. Since this is the case, then it is impossible that the moral boundaries are ‘established’ from the viewpoint of man. Ultimately, it is up to man to either a) interpret the incredibly cryptic and ambiguous messages from a creator or b) define them himself. Either answer requires each society to come to a consensus on what it deems moral.

You ask several questions about how this is done and indicate they are only valid if God is removed from the equation. Because man is required to decode the Bible, these questions are equally valid even if God remains in the equation. We already have answers to these questions, but I will revisit, as you obviously weren’t paying attention in Government class senior year. (I was told this by the incredibly handsome kid sitting next to you, so I know.)

1) “How are we to decide what basic, universal principles should define the moral parameters of a particular culture…?” Answer: this is called your ‘system of government’. The moral parameters are called ‘laws’. Are they always right and just? No, but this is HOW societies decide what is or is not acceptable (to varying degrees of success).

2) “Who decides?” Answer: depends on the system of government. Could be a parliament, dictator, etc.

3) “And why them, and not someone else?” Answer: A particular system of government is in place because it has the means of enforcement

4) “Why can't we all just decide for ourselves what kind of moral behavior should define our lives?” Answer: We can (and do), but we are at the mercy of the laws enforced by our system of government.

5) “Moreover, if every person's moral perspective theoretically holds equal value,…, upon what moral plumb line do we base any true standard of justice?” Answer: The system of government chosen by society determines to what extent each person’s opinions are used in the development of laws.

Is this system flawless? Hardly. You can end up with ruthless dictators that mandate self-serving laws enforced by henchmen. Unfortunately, that is the accepted morality chosen by that society, because they choose not to revolt. I digress. The important point here is that the mechanisms for defining a common morality in a culture exist, and exist whether god is involved or not.

Finally, I will address your narrow interpretation of natural selection and the inability of atheists to be moral. You use the cute and cliché phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ to describe natural selection. You seem to interpret this phrase as ‘survival of the strongest’ where the only way one can survive is by taking from others. You seem to picture a world without god as some sort of ‘Mad Max’ world of anarchy.

The word ‘fit’ however can mean more than just physically fit. It can also mean intellectually fit, emotionally fit, socially fit, or a host of other traits that allow a being to survive. This means that I may be smart enough to realize that altruism may help me survive. Life is not always a zero-sum game. Isn’t it possible that by helping you, I might also help myself? By sharing my crops with you this year during the flood, you may share yours next year? Think of it as social risk mitigation.

Animals have figured this out. Bees work together for the greater good. Are bees more god-faring than the lion, who takes what he wants? I think we would both agree that more moral societies flourish. I like to flourish. Why wouldn’t I be moral?

Are you really saying that if I were to definitively prove that god does not exist tomorrow, you would go out and start shooting people for their sneakers and having abortions for fun? Is your morality really hanging by that tiny of a thread? I certainly hope not, because if so, I should stop now. I wouldn’t want to accidentally convince someone there’s no god and have them go rape an alpaca or something.

John

(Yikes, when I finished what I thought was going to be "just a few comments" I didn't realize I wrote a book.)

Resident Atheist, Thanks for your comments. As always, they are challenging and insightful. My initial point in this post was not so much that many Christians have mis-applied Christian principles, but rather, that their mis-application of the Christian ideals should not automatically discount those ideals. If hypocrisy were the standard for whether or not a particular theory/belief system were true, all would be disqualified, because hypocrisy is an equal-opportunity trait to which we each have succumbed at times. Therefore, with hypocrisy being a universal stumbling block, we must look past it to the theory/idea itself. Does that theory/idea hold true both within itself and when compared to the empirical evidence presented in the real world?

To address a couple of your points, given the naturalistic presupposition about human life, government as the best mechanism for defining common morality makes perfect sense. However, my intent in asking the questions of morality and justice was to step even farther back before the established systems of government we see today. Yes, government certainly has established the law that, for example, “premeditated murder is wrong.” But, why? What is the philosophical underpinning for making such a law? We might say, because we know that not murdering others is in our best interests, or that we don’t want to see others in pain. Okay, that certainly is a valid rationale. But who originally decided that that should be the way it is, particularly within a Darwinian framework? In truth, the argument could be made that causing pain might be in one’s best interest (on a small level, giving a baby a small pox vaccination, on a larger level, putting a soldier through Navy S.E.A.L. training), or even that murdering others could very well be in our best interests. After all, who decides the definition of “best interests”? Hitler carried out this rationale in a decidedly different way than most of us would. But was he wrong? We say he was (and rightfully so), but within a Darwinian philosophy, on what grounds do we condemn his particular interpretation of “best interests”? In fact, many have suggested that Nazi Germany was the logical extension of Darwinian philosophy. And many more have argued over this: Was Hitler's Germany the logical extension of Darwinianism lived out, or did he deviate from the Darwinian path somewhere along the way?

Also, the suggestion that governments serve as purveyors of morality is understandable within a naturalistic perspective. What other viable means do we have? However, when we consider the various forms of government available to us (Communism, Socialism, Islamic fundamentalism, Democracy, anarchism, etc…), and the fact that of these, a democratic Republic like ours is the arguably the best one of the bunch, it is a bit disheartening to think that in the entire evolution of man, this is the best we can come up with. (Of course, this also presupposes we can legislate morality, a question upon which the jury is still out, as demonstrated by the many who fervently resist Christian attempts to do "legislate morality" in areas like homosexuality, abortion and the like in favor of their own moral standards. Which again brings us back to “Whose morality?” If it’s the morality of the majority, could we say that a majority of Americans favor homosexual marriage as the law of the land, for example? Is it the morality of the majority, or is it the morality of those who have the most funding and most determination to see their moral perspective legalized? It’s a tough call.)

This whole subject also raises the age-old “Chicken or the egg?” question. The naturalistic position readily assumes that without God one would naturally come to the same conclusions about morality that are, coincidently, outlined in Scripture (which certainly would have to be the case, since God is eliminated from the equation). Unfortunately, that will forever be a theoretical assertion, because Christianity and Scripture do exist. And not just as a sliver of thought which has had merit at some point in our history but has since been passed over. Christianity continues to have widespread influence. So, either Christian thought has come out of the mind of men—and extremely brilliant men at that to have put forth a set of ideas that has had such wide-spread acclaim and adherence—which would have to be the case from a naturalistic perspective. (And if that’s true, then the naturalistic position could consistently promote the idea that man created morality.) Or, the mind of the men has been influenced by Christian thought, and adopted its basic moral standards accordingly. Because we cannot trace the ancestry of an idea, it is difficult to determine its true origin. It could also be argued, therefore, that Christian thought has become so widespread and so enculturated (another of my Craneisms) that we don’t even realize its impact. The fact of the matter is, there are obvious disagreements about that contention, but either way, the possibility of Christian influence on secular thinking cannot be discounted.

You make the argument that man can be altruistic and still follow the “survival of the fittest” principle. I’ve heard a number of my skeptic friends propose that same perspective. But, I still struggle with the suggestion that “by helping you, I might also help myself” is altruistic. Social risk mitigation is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just not altruism, because in the end, it is ultimately selfishly motivated (whether we acknowledge it as such or not). Conversely, altruism in the true sense is “unselfish devotion to the welfare of others.” It seems to me, therefore, that true altruism runs counters to a fundamental Darwinian principle that is essentially built on self-interest.

How, for example, is it beneficial for the young soldier to jump on a hand grenade and sacrifice his life for his buddy? What positive gain did he receive for that completely selfless action? We might say that his actions set an example of courage and heroism as ideals to which we should aspire as a culture. Fair enough. But, he certainly lost out (and did not survive, even though he embodied the qualities of the "fittest" among us). Furthermore, even if we followed that reasoning to the nth degree, what is gained? Do we all sacrifice our lives for others in order to further the survival of our species?

On the contrary, the essential message of Christianity is built around the counterintuitive ideal of self-sacrifice. God Himself came down as Jesus Christ to offer His life for us. And we are called to make the same sacrifices for others (to even die if necessary). For the earnest Christian this is not because of some self-interest on our part, but rather, because of the example Christ set for us. And because of that example, we too have a moral obligation (if we are to live like Christ) to put others ahead of self, “to lay down our lives for our brothers,” as it were (Phil. 2:3-8; 1 John 3:16).

Do all Christians do this? Certainly not. Even the best Christians don’t live as consistently as they should. That is an ongoing effort. If we did, the world would be a much different (and even better) place than it is now. But as I stated at the outset, our failure to consistently apply such ideals does not automatically negate those ideals. Which raises in my mind the fundamental question, “To which should we aspire, those principles which are motivated by selfish gain or those which seek to put the welfare of others ahead of our own, regardless of what, if any, benefit may come of it?”

So, would our society disintegrate without God? My short answer is that yes it would, but it certainly wouldn’t happen overnight. In reality, however, it is a theoretical question at best because the influence of God (or even the notion of God, if it is really nothing more than a man-made idea) is so enculturated within our society that His removal is virtually impossible. (That was my intent with the Richard Dawkins post: http://thedailydetour.typepad.com/tdd/2007/05/has_richard_daw.html. Namely, that our culture has been so influenced by Judeo-Christian thought that we don’t even realize its extent, even those of us who would use Christian references as a means to end Christian influence.) Because the Christian perspective on morality is based in the very character of God, it is supported by much more than the thinnest of threads. In fact, the Christian worldview would suggest that it is because of the divine origin of moral behavior, and that human beings are made in the image of God, that the attainment of morality is even possible—a topic I’ll be getting into later in this series.

(All for now. My brain hurts and I think I’m getting arthritis in my hands. Thanks again for your insightful comments. Keep ‘em coming.)

Resident Atheist

As I'm sure at this point that we are the only people reading this thread, I will try to be brief.

My point wasn't that the ideals were not valid. I will concede most are. My point was that they are not 'established'. If you acknowledge that they have been applied wrong, then it must be said that there is disagreement about what they are...and are therefore not established (or ever will be).

Thanks for referencing Hitler. By the First Collary of Godwin's law (see Wikipedia), I declare victory over this discussion. Atheists can be moral. By the way, there is one simple reason why Hitler's Germany wasn't in anyone's best interest and isn't the final extention of Darwinism; he didn't win.

The idea that the Christian god was the sole inventor of the idea that pre-meditated murder is wrong is quite arrogant. Practically every religion has this as a tenant. This basically is a collary of the golden rule (which is silly to credit anyone with either). My one-year-old has learned this already, as she has been blasted by her brother when she hits him. Animals act in this way. The idea that no one would have come up with this incredibly simple idea if god hadn't told us is laughable. While I agree that Judeo-Christian religion has been infused in our culture, that does not mean that the principles it preaches are soley its own or even of its origin.

You disagree with my example of atruism. I would suggest that atruism, as you define it, does not exist. No one decides what is going to make them the most happy and then does the opposite. They weigh the options before them and choose what is most in their interest. They may decide that jumping on a grenade and saving their friends is more important to them (i.e. will make them more happy) than letting it blow them up. In other words, they may not value survival that much. So, while in my example I showed a slightly more selfish reason for helping others, I could just as easily have said that they may feed the hungry because it is in their interest to not see people starve. By the way, your 'moral obligation' is also in your self-interest.

You seem to have the misconception that if one acknowledges that evolution occurs, one must act accordingly. That suddenly every decision must be made in order to improve my chance of survival, and this must trump every other concern. Evolution simply says that 'things that survive better have a better chance of existing right now'. Well, duh. There is nothing that states that beings must always act in self interest. A sea cucumber exists. Does it exist because it CHOSE to take from others? No. It isn't self aware. The loves, hates, emotions, etc. of a specific being aren't affected by evolution.

Sorry this is so 'stream of consciousness'. Doing it on my work lunch break.

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