One of the topics I find fascinating, and about which I’ll probably do a little writing now and in the future, is Christian apologetics – the various strategies Christians use to argue a) that their beliefs are true; and b) that the beliefs and worldviews of others are false. I’m intrigued by apologetics because I was born into a very committed conservative Christian community; but I was also born with a highly inquisitive mind that always had a new question for every answer I was given. All the “How do we know?”s and “But what about?”s in my head drove me down as many apologetical roads as I could find as I sought a way to reconcile the dogmatism with which our faith was handed down to the skepticism of my probing curiosity.
I recently had a conversation with someone arguing for the Christian worldview and against the coherence of any sort of atheistic worldview by appealing to the concept of moral absolutes [in the comments following this post]. I’m especially interested in this vein of reasoning because it’s an argument I myself would have used in the past; but looking at it from another angle, now that I’m not determined to have the conclusions set in stone before the arguments are evaluated (that is, not treating the truth of Christianity or any other supposition as a sacrosanct necessity), it doesn’t really seem compelling.
Here’s the argument, in a nutshell: atheists express moral outrage and more or less absolute moral opinions on some matters; but their worldview, which indicates that we’re here because of evolution by natural selection, doesn’t allow for moral absolutes. If someone is a murderer or a child molester, it’s just the influence of a random genetic mutation and it makes no sense to call it a moral issue – there can be no morality in a world that’s only material, just the consequences of physics. Besides, most atheists, by self-confession, are moral relativists; so by definition, anyone’s perspective is as valid as anyone else’s. It’s nothing but hypocrisy for an atheist to express indignation at a rapist’s opinion of morality because all perspectives are equal. In an atheistic world that’s purely material, it isn’t even valid to speak of moral evil at all; there is no morality, only a writhing tangle of atoms blindly obeying nature’s laws. But Christianity, on the other hand, both accounts for the human sense of moral outrage and provides a comprehensive and infallible guide for weighing out moral rights and wrongs. I think that’s a fair summation of the argument, but I’m willing to add any clarifications if anyone thinks they should be added.
So here are a few thoughts I have on some of those arguments.
First Question: Does the naturalistic, materialistic worldview of atheists mean that it’s logically impossible for them to speak of moral good or evil at all?
My Thoughts: The refusal of some Christian apologists to allow atheists to try to define moral evil, while arrogating to themselves that authority on the basis of their own preferred ancient doctrine, seems at best an uneven playing field. How can atheists even speak of moral evil, without being inconsistent? Well, this is how human languages work, including terms such as “moral evil”: like all other human words, that term has evolved in such a way that it means what it means largely by a consensus of language speakers. I think a good contention can be made that a fairly consensual meaning of the English phrase “moral evil” is pretty much something done intentionally, knowledgeably, and willfully that harms or causes subjective suffering or objective loss to another conscious being. I’m not really a philosopher, that’s not my point, so I’m sure there could be tons of quibbles and alterations you could make. But regardless of specificities, the basic field of meanings in common human parlance over the term moral evil is generally sort of restricted to the broad universe of actions done intentionally to hurt others. So that’s what the term means, then. Not out of any sense of necessity, just because a consensus of human language speakers have assigned to it that meaning. So when atheists see intentional harm being done and feel the human outrage that they’ve evolved to feel, and then use the term “moral evil” to describe the object of their outrage, they’re doing nothing different than when you feel the desire for nourishment and use the word “hunger” to describe it. Who’s to say your definition of “evil” or “hunger” or anything else is better than an atheist’s, granted he’s using the term in a way that’s consistent with a preponderance of language speakers? It’s a term used to describe the innate human sense of justice just like “hair” is a term used to describe the natural human head covering.
Second Question: Does the self-confessed moral relativism of many atheists mean that it’s hypocritical for them to express moral outrage or admiration over certain acts and attitudes?
My Thoughts: To me, painting atheistic expressions of moral opinion as hypocritical or inconsistent seems rather absurd. For very good reason, human brains have evolved a strong sense of what you might call moral outrage or indignation. It’s really a vital thing for us to have in order to facilitate interpersonal interactions on the scale of a whole society, without descending into anarchy. Furthermore, what a society expresses such outrage over directly affects every individual within it. So I think it’s only fair and reasonable that everyone should have a voice on what is or isn’t morally or ethically evil. Even atheists. Even those who don’t think their own opinions are absolute. I think it’s an unfair characterization to suggest that most atheists really believe that all views are equal — I’m sure most of them think some views are better than others, and that sussing out those better views is a goal worthy of the effort of conversation.
Let me use an analogy to further express what this argument feels like to me. Say there’s a convocation of literature professors, and they’re all discussing their favorite novelists. One says Dostoyevsky is clearly superior, another talks up Faulkner, a third despises Faulkner, and then here comes a fourth, who says, “Moby Dick is the divinely inspired, inerrant example of a perfect novel. It’s the absolute standard of novel perfection. You’re being inconsistent even having an opinion or saying Faulkner is better than Dostoyevsky because, by your own admission, you’re literary relativists. But my opinion is absolute, because I have the only perfect standard of comparison, which is obvious to anyone who can see the divine beauty in that novel.” I’m sure one of the other professors would say, “Hmmm, that’s weird….[turning to another prof] so what do you think of Turgenev?” Point being, just because someone doesn’t accept someone’s preferred source of infallible wisdom doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an equal right to engage in the important human function of debating moral questions. Nor, in my opinion, does it mean that his moral opinions may or may not be better and more reasonable than those of the most conservative bible scholars.
Third Question: Do Christians have the absolute standard of morality that atheists so sorely lack?
My Thoughts: I’m not assuming right now that any one way of looking at the world has to be accepted as the best or final without demonstrating why. It seems to me a conveniently ungrounded assumption that the Bible or Christian dogma must be the only absolute standard of morality. Why does it have to be the Bible? Why not the Koran? Why not an evolved morality, shaped by natural selection? How do apologists demonstrate that this one option of many (conservative Christianity) is better than any other option? I’m not here arguing for any one in particular, but many Christians do, so they should demonstrate why their assumed position is the best instead of, say, that of Confucius.
But to me, the problem with using the Bible seems greater than that it’s simply assumed without evidence. In fact, I think the assumption that everything the God of the Protestant canon does cannot be morally evil makes it impossible to think of the term “moral evil” in a consistent way. It makes it impossible to have moral absolutes. Is genocide always wrong? Must not be, because God commands it at several points in the OT, to Samuel, Saul, Moses, etc. Is infanticide always wrong? Must not be, God commanded it. Is directly and intentionally causing the death of a fetus, by killing a pregnant woman, always wrong? But God commanded it. [I’ve compiled a few references here] So why do conservative christians act as if abortion is an absolute moral wrong? It’s all relative. It was right for the Israelites when God commanded them to do it.
Again, who’s to say that this morality based on the biblical God is any better than Hammurabi’s law code, for instance, based to some degree on Babylonian gods? Remember, Hammurabi came before Moses, so apparently it was possible to have a divinely-patterned human morality before the Bible. How can you say Moses’ is better than Hammurabi’s? Or how can you say either Moses’ or Hammurabi’s is better than a “feel-outrage-at-something-bad-for-the-common-good” kind of morality that evolved by natural selection and which is the common referent human language speakers often have when using the term “moral evil”? After all, it’s a term that evolved for the very purpose of having an easy way of referring to that nearly universal impulse of the human mind. The Muslim would say there’s no morality except based on what his God says. How can you demonstrate that the Christian claim is better than his?
The Bible is a remarkable and beautiful book in many ways; but I find it very hard to use it to come up with a consistent morality. In Numbers 31, God commands the Israelites through Moses, “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him keep alive for yourselves.” But in the First epistle of John, you read, “God is love”. I can’t conceive of how that horrifying first command could be reconciled with that beautiful ideal of First John. And I could literally add a thousand verses to each category without looking too hard, every one of which seems contradictory to me. So when someone says that the bible alone gives a standard for morality, I think, “No, atheists and others have opinions too, many of which seem more reasonable, not less.” At any rate, it seems only fair that atheistic morality be given an equal shake with Christian and other faith-based moralities.