Love and atheism

There’s an interesting discussion going on in the comments to this post from Tuesday, prompted by Annie‘s comment in which she said:

To me, it’s scary to think I live in the world with people who believe this way. To think only your belief in God is what keeps you from being a bad person? You have no human decency? You have no compassion? You only have your belief in a man in the sky to keep you from doing wrong?

That’s scary to the rest of us who live on secular humanism and empathy, based in something much stronger and much more sound.

This question got me thinking about the culture in which I grew up. I’ve mentioned before that we had a completely nonreligious household. My parents are not religious, particularly my father, who is (or at least was throughout my childhood) an atheist. He’s also one of the kindest, most deeply empathetic people I’ve ever met. I don’t recall ever hearing him say an unkind word to anyone, even people who wronged him. He has an acute sensitivity to the suffering of others and is always more than willing to help people in need.

My parents’ nonreligious friends were much the same way. They were all committed to doing the right thing, following the Golden Rule, and otherwise being good, moral people. I’d like to think that I was generally a good person as well.

In my late teens, I became curious about our moral code. I knew what we agreed upon as right and wrong, I just wasn’t sure about the why‘s behind it. I was challenged to better articulate it in college when I was exposed to some shocking ideas by self-proclaimed free thinkers. I heard some folks on campus saying that it would be more ethical to kill a newborn baby than to kill a pig since pigs are more intelligent and aware of their surroundings; or that it would be more acceptable to use the flesh of healthy deceased humans for food rather than eating animals; or that perhaps we shouldn’t give too much aid to certain groups of people since humanity would be better off without their genes in the gene pool.

Defending my stance against viewpoints like these made me take a hard look at my own understanding of what is right and what is wrong. I’d always assumed that the ultimate goal of any person’s life is to help the human species survive and thrive, and that our moral code is derived from that. But, upon closer inspection, that didn’t sit right for a lot of reasons, one of them being that it left too much room to justify those last two ideas I’d heard on campus.

At some point a friend and fellow atheist said that her moral code ultimately boiled down to: “be nice, seek happiness, don’t harm others.” This sounded good, but I didn’t see what that was founded on. With the species survival goal, at least I could see how we could derive that from the material world alone. But what in the material world would lead us to believe that any of these things are what humans are supposed to be doing?

Valuing other people’s lives, showing kindness and empathy to others, putting other people before yourself, seeking happiness — these things all sounded right, but I saw no evidence from looking at the evolution of our species or the way the chemistry of our brains worked that would clearly indicate that any of these things were objectively good. If someone were to argue that being completely selfish is fine, that killing other people is OK if they threaten to weaken the species, that the humans who have superior intelligence or skills are more valuable than those who don’t, that it’s a waste of precious time to empathize with others, I would have thought that they were seriously wrong…but it would have been hard to prove my case from looking at the natural world alone, and there was certainly no evidence I could offer that a person could not just as easily interpret another way. It started to seem to me that there was no such thing as an objectively true moral code, that rights and wrongs were all just a matter of opinion.

Yet something about that idea nagged at me. Some part of me, deep down inside, felt that there was something transcendent about concepts like “love” and “kindness” and “selflessness” and “empathy” and “charity, ” that they were good objectively, regardless of any person’s opinion, and they were extant and true regardless of anything that happened in the material world.

Little did I know, that realization was a brush with God.

At the time, when I heard religious people talk about their morals coming from God, it sounded not only preposterous but dangerous. I thought that they were basically saying, “we do the right thing because God tells us to, ” which begged the questions of why they couldn’t do the right thing without imagining they were receiving instructions from some unseen deity, and why so many nonbelievers were good people (often better people than the believers). Also, it seemed extremely dangerous to place too much stock in the opinions of some mysterious “Man in the Sky” that only some people seem to be able to see — it seemed obvious that that sort of situation would quickly lead to manipulation and abuse by those who were supposedly in the know with this deity.

What I didn’t know at the time was that that was not an accurate description of the believer’s understanding of God. Looking back, I don’t think that the believers and I were as far apart as it seemed.

What I discovered years later was that God is not some Man in the Sky who tells us to be good; he is all that is good. To quote the Cynical Christian, when we say that “God is good” we’re not describing what God is, we’re describing what good is. The reason we seek that which is good — the reason we yearn for a world of love, peace and harmony despite never having seen anything of the sort — is because our souls, which are not of this world, are aware that the closer we get to these things the closer we get to our true home. Some part of us is aware that the world around us, the only world our eyes have ever seen, is not where we belong. What I found is that the line between nonbelief and belief is thinner than it seemed, and that it is crossed when you take those yearnings for peace and harmony and love and all that is good and follow them to their source. It is there that you find God. And to dedicate your life to God is nothing more or less than to dedicate your life to the Source of all that is good.

I think of all the atheists I know who strive to be good, moral people. To use my father as an example, he is so dedicated to living a life of love, kindness and empathy that if it were scientifically proven tomorrow that these things were neither beneficial to the individual nor to society, my guess is that he would still live a life of love, kindness and empathy. If he explained his line of thinking he’d probably say that if these things are not good and true, then nothing is good and true; that, in some ways, they’re more real than reality. And in that sense, we both believe in God.

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Comments

  1. Paul, just this guy, you know? says

    …what humans are supposed to be doing?

    “Supposed” by whom?

  2. RTS says

    I know atheists who,in some ways, appear to be decent folk, but it will break down whenever sexual morality or abortion comes into the discussion.
    They,usually,can’t explain where their particular views on right or wrong come from.

  3. Heather says

    That is a very C.S. Lewis style argument, and incredibly well put. (I would recommend reading “Mere Christianity”–he talks a lot about this in that book.)

  4. SuburbanCorrespondent says

    Oooh, that last paragraph – did you ever see the Woody Allen movie Crimes and Misdemeanors? At one point, the atheistic, socialist, do-gooder sister challenges her brother’s religious beliefs, saying, “If you had to choose between God and the truth, which one would you choose?” and he said, “God, of course.”

    That’s paraphrasing, I can’t quite remember it. But the gist of the scene is that reality, in and of itself, isn’t enough. We are only human if we strive for good.

    C.S.Lewis (among others) addresses this question, saying that if we don’t base our concept of Good on something eternal and unchanging, then that concept may be manipulated to serve evil purposes (such as killing newborns).

  5. geekchic9 says

    Jennifer wrote:

    “Valuing other people’s lives, showing kindness and empathy to others, putting other people before yourself, seeking happiness — these things all sounded right, but I saw no evidence from looking at the evolution of our species or the way the chemistry of our brains worked that would clearly indicate that any of these things were objectively good. . . . It started to seem to me that there was no such thing as an objectively true moral code, that rights and wrongs were all just a matter of opinion.”

    Jennifer, your parents seem like they were good people, but it’s apparent they didn’t do a good job of why they thought the way they thought. They let you drift into Christianity because they didn’t teach you a firm basis of why they thought the way they did. If they had, you wouldn’t be posting such drivel.

    Here’s a great article where an atheist responds with philosophy and evolutionary data on why there are objective moral truths. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Plato showed long ago, in his dialogue Euthyphro, that we cannot depend upon the moral fiats of a deity. Plato asked if the commandments of a god were “good” simply because a god had commanded them or because the god recognized what was good and commanded the action accordingly. . . .

    On the other hand, if a god’s commandments are based on a knowledge of the inherent goodness of an act, we are faced with the realization that there is a standard of goodness independent of the god and we must admit that he cannot be the source of morality. In our quest for the good, we can bypass the god and go to his source!”

    I hope you find the article as interesting and as enlightening as I have.

  6. Dean says

    Once again,a powerful and thoughtful response to a common objetion to the faith. I think the final “leap of faith” from being a ” good” atheist to being a commited Catholic (Christian) will always remaind a mystery and a gift. So many “good” people never find a need or an interest in making that final connection that, thanks be to God, you made. Yet your response does about as much as can be done to tickle the imagination of the atheist. Again, MERE CHRISTIANITY seems to have provided sound footing for many of us to stand on as we respond to the culture of humanistic atheism. Well done!

    Dean in Wisconsin

  7. curious servant says

    If you don’t mind my commenting a bit…

    I think the goodness I see in non believers is an indication of the grace that God showers on the whole world. He gives us all the ability to sense right and wrong, and to take pleasure in being obedient to that sense, to Him.

    Still… there is so much more I feel because of my faith. It fills me up, covers me, reassures me.

    I have much evidence for His existence… but it is the sort of evidence that would not hold up to scientific testing.

    not all things are measurable or repeatable, and therefore, outside of experimentation.

    As for the bigger issues of why He would let us suffer as we do… it seems pretty obvious to me that He is doing all He can to alleviate the suffering we are causing due to the choices, the free will he has given us, we make.

    Sure… there are also natural disasters which cause suffering. hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease… but this is a living world, full of changing, dynamic forces which keeps the whole working.

    Besides… the whole gig is pretty short. Less than a hundred years.

    I know it is tough. Boy, I know it.

    But it is also indescribably beautiful.

    That is another proof of Him.

  8. annie says

    I think you hit on a key point, where you and other religious people believe that goodness and morality are God, whereas atheists believe it’s natural law/secular humanism/empathy. Really, I think it’s two answers to the same question. I may not believe your answer is correct, but I see why it is another approach.

    I had a few other thoughts, but I’m at work and trying to do too many things! I’ll stop by again later. Thanks for the interesting discussion.

  9. Clavem Abyssi says

    Ann’s comment has a number of problems:

    Firstly, if I did not believe in God, I could not be a bad person. All evil me is rejection of God in some way. Without God, I could not be bad anymore than a mosquito can.

    Secondly, if I did not believe in God, the concepts of good and bad would instantly be drained of all substantial meaning for me. They would be unanchored and loosed upon stormy seas. They would become subjective descriptors like “hot” and “cold”. The words “good” and “bad” would cease to be moral words and they would become merely aesthetic, like rating a film as good or bad.

    Thirdly, if I did not believe in God, I would continue to do good, to cultivate virtue, to seek after truth and righteousness, but this instinctual search for goodness would lead me to question my newfound disbelief in God, and I’d be back where I started.

  10. Jeff Miller says

    Certainly atheists can be good people, but when they are good it is not because of the atheism – but despite it.

    When I did good as an atheists it certainly was not that my atheist beliefs propelled me too it, but I too recognized a trancendental good even if I could not fit it in to my phylosophy. My own moral code was not Machivelian even though that would fit more into social Dawarnism. Why not do what society deems bad if you see it as a good and project that you will not face concequences for doing so? I accepted this premise, but did not want to live by it. Though I certainly often fell from my moral code.

    Now as a Catholic I still fall, but not as far and I can certainly see improvements and some things eliminated that I never thought I could overcome. As an atheist I tried to do good and in that I cooperated with God however unwittingly and received grace. Faith can certainly be transformative and the first fears of the Lord quickly turn to love.

  11. Myron says

    RTS: And I know religious folk who, in some ways, appear to be decent folk, but it can break down for them too. Atheists don’t have a monopoly on not thinking through their positions, and religion makes it easy by giving you the “right” answers up front and letting you figure out why they make sense later.

    On sexual morality and abortion, I’ve read Jen’s conversion to pro-life. There’s a lot of good in it, and I ended up arguing with a former/semi Catholic this afternoon that sex ought not to be recreation, and instead (the main point of the Catholic stand on the issue, which I’m glad to have learned) sex cannot ever be entirely separated from its reproductive function, that’s just a lie we tell ourselves so we can have sex for fun. In that sense the Catholic church’s stance makes a lot of sense, and it’s what I’ve practiced (with difficulty, because there are times I _really_ wanted to have sex, and nobody seemed to understand – I was actually told I sounded like a religious nut by one friend of mine) for my whole life (still a virgin, at 28). The former/semi Catholic (still willing to pray when she needs something – ha) vehemently disagreed. But another strongly atheist friend we were walking with followed the argument quicker than I could get it out, and was in full agreement, and kind of sad that the other girl didn’t seem to get what we were trying to say.

    I’m not saying you’re wrong about many atheists not thinking things through. But I think that’s true of many _people_, whether atheist or not.

  12. Marian says

    Referring to the whole “God is good” paragraph:
    That was excellent. And when you reach the Source, you cannot help but realize that you are a recipient and can be a vessel of good, but you are not the source. You may powerfully cooperate in the good, but you are not co-equal with the source. He is Above, and most worthy of that spot.

    Everybody, whether they are cognizant of it or not, worships something or someone. Everyone. No exceptions. You hold something as the ultimate source and guide. That is your God, be it your own human reason or the Source of all good.

  13. Eo Nomine says

    Right and wrong, who can tell
    Rules and laws, why the bother

    Break them, go to hell
    Even worse, upset father

    Both outdated notions
    Ancient as the oceans

    Should we disobey
    Let morality decay

    Source of Goodness, Source of Light
    This is my most valued insight
    I’m not kind, for fear from above
    I’m kind, because I am God’s love

    And if God’s love ever ceases
    To hell our society decreases

    And the father is upset
    because we left without regret

    Deep inside, I know it’s true
    In my heart, I thought it through
    No matter what, I should help you

  14. Bob Estes says

    I’m glad I discovered this blog. Atheism has become much more of a public movement lately, so it’s good to see it taken on with well-reasoned arguments from a calm and loving perspective. I too became convinced of God’s existence after many years of atheism and hostility to religion. I wrote about it from one aspect in a recent blog post called “On the Breaking of Bad Habits Acquired in One’s Youth: Smoking and Atheism,” which I invite anyone interested to read.

  15. Darwin says

    GeekChic,

    I’ll have to read the Zindler article that you link to, but his reference to Plato’s Euthyphro is ironic under the circumstances.

    Plato’s argument in Euthyphro is that there can only be one good. There are, however, lots of gods (in ancient Greek paganism) and they are reported to fight with each other frequently. Thus, if doing the will of a given god is “good” it must be because that god is conforming to that one notion of “the good” which stands above the gods.

    This was an argument which was then taken up and adopted by Christian apoogists in the ancient world, who identified the Christian God with Plato’s “the good”. By it’s nature, the argument of Euthyphro can’t be used to argue against a Judeo-Christian understanding of God, because those traditions hold God to be one rather than many, and hold that God is (in an ontological rather than behavioral sense) “the good”.

    However, Plato also provides a very good set of answers as to why there are common understandings of “the good” apart from any religious source — as Jen’s parents and friends exemplify. Plato argues that there are certain forms of knowledge that are inborn in humanity. He believed this was because prior to birth, the human soul was in the presence of “the good” and the other universal qualities, and thus had a half-remembered understanding of what these qualities were.

    Ancient Christians reading Plato, which they incorporated into Christian thought, talked about this native understanding of virtue as the “natural law” or “natural virtue” and asserted that these moral laws were “written upon mens souls” by God, and thus that even without Christian revelation people were capable of and expected (by God) to attain a certain level of humanistic virtue.

    Now I find Platonism an incredibly attractive life philosophy, and I have little trouble with someone who wants to be a contemporary Platonist rather than a Christian — except that I am myself convinced that I know rather more about the identity of “the good” than Plato did as the result of Christ’s revelation. However, I’m not sure how you can get to a principled Platonism via evolutionary directives. Not that I don’t see evolution as correct in its description of human ancestry — but that I do not see how the fact that certain behaviors are “good for” the human population in a certain sense (though even aligning evolutionary success with a moral good seems to be making some big philosophical jumps without much basis) makes them objectively good in a moral sense.

    And since, with Plato, it seems clear to me that moral goods are indeed one and objective in nature, I don’t see how we can claim to get our morals from some un-rigorously defined biological “benefit”.

  16. kevin says

    Dear Jen,
    The comment you got from your athiest friend about her moral code is pretty common. Platitudes like “be nice, seek happiness and don’t harm others” are what we often hear from people who acknowledge no faith but also lack your intellectual vigor. They get away with reducing their views to such greeting card banalities because they are not conscious of the fact that they live in a culture that is founded upon religious principles. I think most (unlike your classmates) would recoil at the notion that pigs can be viewed as more valuable than infants or that some people should be exterminated for the greater good. They understand intuitively that this is wrong, they just can’t articulate it in secular language. Their objection is really a reflex resort to a conscience that was formed in a culture built upon religious principles. They are just unaware that their conscience was so formed. In communist or fascist societies, these inhuman policies prevailed only when religious principles were removed from all public discouse and any objection was viewed against the utilitarian goal of “societal progress”. I often hear my agnostic friends concede that they don’t mind religion per se, just the ones with “rules and stuff”. They don’t recognize that it is the “rules and stuff” that cause them to recoil at the thought of a culture in which pigs are more highly valued than infants.

  17. Samuel Skinner says

    Morality is not about ensuring the survival of the human species. That is known as “ensuring the survival of the human species”

    Morality is about doing what is right- eliminating suffering, making the world a better place, spreading happiness and the like. There is no reason to be moral- if there is a motivator than it is self interest, not morality.

    As for the pig vs the fetus argument… you don’t like it because… you don’t like it. Well, if you accept the idea that moral responsibility is based on the idea of suffering (aka what results do actions have in reality), than you would agree. After all, a cluster of cells cannot feel pain, can’t hope, cannot think. A pig can at least do the first.

    As for “sexual morality and abortion”… That is BS. Sex is unrelated to morality and abortion is ethical. Theists can’t even agree on it- remember that about half the population is prochoice, but less than 10% is atheist.

    This is what atheists fear-
    http://voxday.blogspot.com/2007/02/mailvox-sharpening-knives.html

    And who is that person? It is Vox Day, writter of “The Irrational Atheist” and an apologist.

    And, once again, this is completely unrelated to the existance of God. Theists fill the air with flak to disguise the fact there is nothing on the ground.

    And you completely ignore the whole complaint. You don’t say how such individuals who say they would be evil if they weren’t punished are wrong.

  18. Eo Nomine says

    Darwin,

    I agree with you 100%. The essay in question is seriously flawed. I’ve already skimmed through it a bit.

    I’ve also sent a copy off to John C. Wright, who’s a big fan of Plato.

  19. Puddintane! says

    the “non-believers” still have this moral standing because god has imprinted his rules on all mans hearts before they are born.. im sure that is not the exact quote 🙂 but close.. we are born with right and wrong..some chose to leave it behind.

    i love you blog and your writing and your faith. i wanted to pass to you a blog award. please visit my post to get it!

    http://thewhateverpage.wordpress.com/2008/07/21/blog-awardme-omgosh-grillante-weblog-premio/

  20. Bender says

    Now a believer — Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc. — recognizes that there are things greater than him- or herself.

    I guess the question I have for our atheist friends is this — is there anything greater than you? Is your source of morality something that is above and beyond you, whether that is some transcendent value or merely an implicit social agreement, or are you makers of your own morality? Is something right and good because it is inherently so, or because you say so?

    If it is the latter, if we are each makers of our own morality, if I have my “opinion” of right and wrong, and you have your idea of right and wrong, both of which must be respected (for some absolute “ethical” reason having to do with “justice”), does not morality simply sink into nothing more than the imposition of the powerful over the weaker? Indeed, does it not sink into the imposition of the “evil” over the just, since there are things that the transcendent moral absolutist will not do, while the amoralist is not similarly restrained.

  21. Eo Nomine says

    Samuel Skinner,

    …what are you getting at? I don’t mean to sound snarky, but I’m not sure what the primary point of your post is.

    You seem to disagree with the essay regarding the atheistic basis for morality. Fair enough. Anyone can see how evolution and survival of the species aren’t good platforms to build an ethical structure on.

    But after that, you lose me. I’m not sure where you’re coming from, or what belief system you hold. Please elaborate.

  22. Myron says

    Bender:

    I guess the question I have for our atheist friends is this — is there anything greater than you?

    YES. For further details, read my posts under “What is the meaning of life”. I’m puny and insignificant, and it’s fairly obvious that the world is a place of beauty that is important to preserve. Sure, some atheists would disagree, but I think that view works out awfully conveniently for them. It lets them do whatever it is they want to do, rather than considering if there might be something more important than self-interest. Many thoughtful atheists will see that as false and destructive. A common secular ethical principle is to consider which out of a set of potential actions would do the greatest good for the greatest number, and that is the “best” action to take. And guess what? By that principle, being selfish fails miserably most times (with the possible exception of market economics, which relates to how businesses act, rather than how individuals act).

    I think Jen’s parents are great examples of thoughtful and caring people who arrived at a basic way of living which is pretty much compatible with the religious viewpoint, without the belief in God. The way I see it, we’re all on basically the same side. I was listening to the BBC’s Reporting Religion a month or so ago, where a bishop from somewhere was talking about how religious people regardless of their faith community (Muslim, Christian, or whatever) needed to band together against a rising tide of secularism in the world. I’m glad to see people such as Jen voicing the opinion that we all have some common goals. I’ve already learned a lot about religious thought that I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t found this blog, and I hope people on the other side of the incredibly thin fence do the same.

    What saddens me is I wonder how a selfish secular person comes to be. One possibility is they just don’t think (thinking is work, after all) and just do whatever they feel like. But another is that they used to be religious, but one thing or another caused them to lose their strength of faith in god or religion as guides, and because their concept of goodness was that it came from God, when they threw out their concept of God, their certainty about goodness went with it.

    I can see how some of the religious people on this site can say that without God they would have no direction, no compass, no sure guide of what to do. That’s why Bender had to ask if atheists consider anything greater than themselves. For a religious person, it makes sense that it might be hard to see the idea of goodness as seperate from god. And if you believe in both, ok, go ahead. But if anyone out there is wavering in your faith in God, I would ask you to consider whether God and Good really are the same thing, so that you don’t lose your faith in Goodness too.

  23. BPS says

    I’d like to pose two questions to GeekChic9 and the other atheist who posted here.
    (1) Your morality seems to be based on what you like, find appealing, etc. So if someone finds something you consider immoral appealing, say for instance, killing baby seals, how do you tell them they’re wrong?
    (2) I’d like you to do what the writer Walker Percy called a thought experiment. Imagine you are a woman (perhaps you are, in which case this will be easy to imagine). You and one other passenger, a male whom you find physically and intellectually repulsive, survive a plane crash on an island in the Pacific. The island is rather large and has sufficient food, water etc so that you are phsically well off. You hear on shortwave radio, right after the crash that a nuclear war has broken out. You, a climatologist, figure from prevailing wind patterns that fallout will not effect where you are. So you and the repulsive male are like Adam and Eve. Only you find Adam repulsive. But Adam wants to mate with you. He makes his clumsy appeals but it only repulses you more. He says he will rape you so that the human race survives. Would that be moral?

  24. Marian says

    “A common secular ethical principle is to consider which out of a set of potential actions would do the greatest good for the greatest number, and that is the “best” action to take.”

    Myron, how does one determine what would do the greatest good? How do you define what “good” is, let alone determine which is “greatest”? How do you know in advance how an action will turn out, whether “good” or not, as it affects the thoughts, feelings and actions of every person who interacts with it and, in turn, every person who interacts with them and, in turn… That seems to require not only an objective standard of “good”, but also, well… omniscience. You’re God.

  25. Eo Nomine says

    Myron,

    First of all, your sentiments have a lot of thought crammed into them. I admire that.

    It seems that you do, in fact, believe in God. Definitely in the Platonic sense.

    Plato said that Goodness is the Supreme Reality, the thing greater than ourselves. With the advent of Christianity, many theologians identified God with the Goodness that Plato spoke of. And I feel that they did so with valid reasons.

    What makes something greater than yourself? Is it size? No, something bigger is not necessarily more important. What is Goodness, what is “the Good?” What makes it Good?

    These are the questions Plato asked, and he came to the conclusion that their is an intangible reality, higher than the gods his contemparies talked about in their myths, that is the essence of Goodness and the unifier of all things (Please note, the Greek gods were not believed to be real by most people back then. That’s a common misconception. They were widely regarded as symbols for forces in nature and man. Mythology was viewed as a search above all else. Its goal was to tell the truth using lies, which is the goal of art in general).

    You can read Plato’s argument in his “Euthyphro.” Google it, and there’s probably a copy online.

    Another book I highly recommend is Pope Benedict XVI’s “Introduction to Christianity.” It’s a tad dense in places, but worth the read. More than anything else, it provides a philosophical look at Christianity.

    http://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Christianity-Communio-Cardinal-Ratzinger/dp/1586170295

    Now, when many people talk about theism, they think of a Father in the Sky. This isn’t accurate. Most people, even many Christians, do not know what theism is, exactly. And this is a major problem.

    The more you research stuff like what the Logos meant in Greek thought, and what St. John was affirming by using the concept in reference to Christ, the clearer it will become that theism is much more sublime than commonly thought.

    For instance, our concept of the Word or Logos, is synonymous with the ancient Chinese concept of Tao. In fact, the Chinese version of the Bible reads “Christ the Tao,” rather than “Christ the Word.”

    Pax Christi

  26. P says

    To think only your belief in God is what keeps you from being a bad person? You have no human decency?

    Out of curiosity, what if the answer is no? Then where is all of your “secular humanism and empathy”?

    My brother majored in politics in college. They had an exercise in class where they broke up in small groups, and were to pretend that they were all trapped on a deserted island and had to come up with a “Social Contract” by which they were all to agree on a standard of behavior.

    My brother immediately declared himself to be High Priest of the Volcano God, and decreed that anyone who did not obey his every pronouncement would be murdered in their sleep and flung into molten lava. A few people just immediately dismissed it as nonsense, when one of the guys in the group suddenly said, “I’m in.”

    Long story short: Volcano God 1, Secular Humanism 0.

  27. Samuel Skinner says

    Puddentain

    Not true. Sociopaths are an obvious refutation.

    Bender

    Reality is greater than any person. Rationalists are aware of it- we can’t change the universe to fit our theories, and the same goes for morality.

    Yes, moral relativism is stupid. We know already.

    Eo

    I wrote a line by line refutation.

    As for evolution, it isn’t a justification, but an explanation.

    And I don’t disagree with the “atheistic” basis for morality. Atheism has no more morality than physics. You are asking for secular morality. All moral systems, at their heart are secular. Unless you are a divine command person you fall under Euthyphro dilemma and have to admit your morality is NOT based on God.

  28. Myron says

    Lovely. I like this kind of discussion, it doesn’t happen often enough, and bps, marian and eo have all posed excellent questions. Unfortunately I’m at work and don’t have time to respond in full right now, but so excited to get home and start typing 🙂

  29. Mark says

    On ethics and Christ, it is good to remember “Christ didn’t come to make bad men good, but dead men live.”

  30. geekchic9 says

    Claven Abyssi:

    You’re basically rehashing the old argument that all atheists must be relativists. And what is a relativist? Someone who doesn’t follow what a church says God thinks is right. Now, why do I add “a church says”? Because different churches say God says different things. Take the issue of abortion. Some churches say abortion is unacceptable for any reason. Others say abortion is only acceptable under a few circumstances. And others say, while abortion is unfortunate, it is morally acceptable. Here is a list of various religious (and secular) groups and their beliefs.

    Now, my questions are these: Why are there a variety of beliefs among Christian groups if it is presupposed that at least most of them follow the same Christian god? Why don’t they all preach the same message? More importantly, are there any objective standards that can determine who is right and why?

    My answer to that final question is “no”, of course. Each group will argue that they are right because . . . they just are. Or God told them so. Or something else that’s unprovable. It just leaves non-Christians like me scratching their heads and thinking, “Make up your minds, you supposed moral absolutists!”

  31. annie says

    Samuel Skinner et al have done a lovely job, and I intend to write something longer on my blog about this soon.

    I might point out to p that the only evil that came out of your one anecdotal example was a religious conclusion. Most who are incapable of complex or their own thoughts, or those who are attracted to power would be interested in such a proposal. And really, it just answers my original question to say that religious people do indeed lack morality and human decency. I doubt most religious people on this blog would agree with your assertion!

    As to morality, it is derived from empathy. I am no greater than any other person, nor is my experience unique. I have certain needs and desires. I want to live, eat, be healthy, be left to live my life peacefully. Therefore, other humans have these desires as well. Because a properly functioning human brain has an inherent sense of empathy, which is a biological phenomenon, I realize that I don’t have the right to violate or limit anyone else’s needs or desires.

  32. geekchic9 says

    I wrote: “And what is a relativist? Someone who doesn’t follow what a church says God thinks is right.”

    I’m going to modify that definition to say that a relativist is “Someone who doesn’t believe in and therefore doesn’t follow what a church says God thinks is right.”

    I recognize that’s not the official dictionary definition of a relativist. However, my definition is presumed, isn’t it? For example, look at what bps wrote:

    “Your morality seems to be based on what you like, find appealing, etc.”

    bps doesn’t know me from a hill of beans, but she presumes I’m a moral relativist, most likely because I’ve said I’m not a Christian and I am an atheist.

    I’m running out of time — I have to go to work — and I will respond later in fuller detail in what bps has to say, but I felt my definition needed some clarification.

  33. Lerin says

    Samuel Skinner:

    As for the pig vs the fetus argument… you don’t like it because… you don’t like it. Well, if you accept the idea that moral responsibility is based on the idea of suffering (aka what results do actions have in reality), than you would agree. After all, a cluster of cells cannot feel pain, can’t hope, cannot think. A pig can at least do the first.

    I don’t accept the argument… not because I don’t “like” it, but because I believe in the dignity of the human person. I don’t believe that the tiniest human is simply a “cluster of cells.” I believe, that from the moment of conception, a human being is a glorious creation with a soul.

    Jen, I love your blog. Thank you for such thought-provoking posts.

    Pax Christi,
    Lerin

  34. Anne Marie says

    I believe geekchick9 has clearly articulated the tragedy that is the fruit of any heresy, the most obvious in our day the Protestant reformation as well as the inherent beauty of the Catholic faith and the amazing gift we have in Magisterial teaching guided as it is by the Holy Spirit of God himself.

    Christianity has defined doctrine, foundational truths, someone calling him/her self a Christian and claiming to believe something other than the truth, does not negate the truth. Truth is absolute: assent or dissent from that truth does not sway the matter.

  35. I Rule You! says

    Following up on the point from P above re: the Volcano God story…

    You know, if you are truly an atheist and intellectually honest with yourself then you have two possible directions in life (i) a pallid, agreeable sort of existence where you make nice with your fellow man and try to play by his rules, or (ii) become the Volcano God or die trying. Let’s face it. Option (i) sounds like a pointless, large bowl of porridge and drivel, and (ii) sounds pretty exciting. I mean, you are going to die anyway. And there’s no afterlife. Why not make the most of this life? Why not become the Volcano God or die trying? For believers in God, the calculation and the entire view of life is entirely different. But for atheists, Volcano God is the way to go. And that’s why believers should not trust atheists. Sooner or later, an atheist is going to figure out that his worldview leads him to try for Volcano God status. And if that means he has to murder you in your sleep and throw you in the volcano, so be it. And if that means he has to ridicule you in public to increase his own status, or start rumors about you to undermine you at work, so be it. And if he wants to put the moves on your girlfriend, well why not? After all, he is the Volcano God.

  36. Darwin says

    GeekChic,

    Now, my questions are these: Why are there a variety of beliefs among Christian groups if it is presupposed that at least most of them follow the same Christian god? Why don’t they all preach the same message? More importantly, are there any objective standards that can determine who is right and why?

    That’s a very good question — and one that some basic historical investigation can answer. Christianity has been around for 2000 years, and in the course of that time there’s been plenty of opportunity for groups to split up along fault lines of interpretation and methodology.

    Why do Episcopalians and Baptists disagree on morality, theology and practice? Why to Catholics disagree with Unitarians? Because the divisions between those groups stem from differences in how they interpret the Christian scriptures, what they take those scriptures to be, how much weight they give to the longer term historical understandings of Christians before them, etc.

    It’s been only 200 years since the writing of the US Constitution, and yet Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Laurence Tribe disagree on what it means, and Anton Scalia disagrees yet further with both. Yet we’re hardly surprised that constitutional scholars disagree on the meaning of that fairly short document written in English a mere 220 years ago. Can we be shocked that there’s much more disagreement over the entire corpus of the scriptures and Christian thought over the course of 200 years?

    And yet I don’t think that any of us doubt that there is indeed a constitution, that it has meaning, and that there are objective standards for determining what that constitution means. We just disagree on what those objective standards are, and where one gets when applying them.

    If one actually reads serious moral theology, the situation is much the same. People don’t go around arguing “because God told me so”. Rather, arguments are generally made based on scripture, on the writings of great Christian scholars throughout history, and on human experience and “natural law”. Given that no one is claiming to have a directly hotline to God, and given that the above sources are ones on which there can be considerable divergence of opinion when it comes to assessment, it can hardly be surprising that there’s a lot of disagreement.

    This is, incidentally, one of the primary claims that sets Catholicism apart from the other Christian traditions. Catholics believe that Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guard over the teaching authority of the Church and prevent its leaders from teaching error. Most of us see this unchangeability as a feature, but there are those (primarily those who want a change in morals on some particular activity) who consider it a bug.

    Annie

    As to morality, it is derived from empathy. I am no greater than any other person, nor is my experience unique. I have certain needs and desires. I want to live, eat, be healthy, be left to live my life peacefully. Therefore, other humans have these desires as well. Because a properly functioning human brain has an inherent sense of empathy, which is a biological phenomenon, I realize that I don’t have the right to violate or limit anyone else’s needs or desires.

    That all sounds very good and clean, but when actually applied to human situations (in which people frequently have mutually contradictory desires) it would seem that it breaks down pretty quickly.

    Say, for instance, we have a husband who feels that he has given it every try, but he just doesn’t love his wife any more. He’s changed, she hasn’t, she annoys him constantly, and he doesn’t believe that he can make her happy even by keeping up appearances. Plus, he’s met someone at work he thinks would be perfect for him. The wife, however, insists that their marriage can be happy, and she doesn’t want to be left. She claims that if he would only let her try, she could make him happy, and that she will be devastated and never find anyone else if he leaves.

    Add as much empathy as one wants, but there’s no way out of that situation without someone being hurt and believing the other one to be wrong.

    Now perhaps you’d say that there is no one moral answer to that problem, but if morality consists in doing the right thing for ourselves and others, it would seem that there ought to be some answer to that question. And yet we can’t find the answer simply by applying lots of empathy and trying to decide what’s best for everyone. To answer the question, we need an objective understanding of what marriage is, whether it is dissolvable or not, and if so, by whom and when.

  37. Sandy says

    I’m not sure this fits directly into this discussion, but for me, your post fit right in with something I read this morning, in Thomas Merton’s autobiography,The Seven Storey Moutain. Merton was an atheist and a communist and a student at Columbia University in the 1930s when he read a book titled “The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy” by Etienne Gilson.

    “And the one big concept which I got out of its pages was something that was to revolutionize my whole life…..the one word aseitas. In this one word, which can be applied to God alone, and which expresses His most characteristic attribute, I discovered an entirely new concept of God–a concept which showed me at once that the belief of Catholics was by no means the vague and rather superstitious hangover from an unscientific age that I had believed it to be…..aseitas simply means the power of a being to exist absolutely in virtue of itself, not as caused by itself, but as requiring no cause, no other justification for its existence except that it is its very nature to exist. There can only be one such Being: that is God….

    I think one cause of my profound satisfaction with what I now read was that God had been vindicated in my own mind…

    I know that many people are, or call themselves, “atheists” simply because they are repelled and offended by statements about God made in imaginery and metaphysical terms which they are not able to interpret and comprehend.”

  38. Bender says

    And what is a relativist? Someone who doesn’t follow what a church says God thinks is right. . . . Someone who doesn’t believe in and therefore doesn’t follow what a church says God thinks is right.

    geekchic9 — you’ve given us a good example as to why relativism is inherently unworkable in practice and, thus, cannot be the basis for any moral structure. When one relativizes the definition of relativism to mean whatever you think or want it to mean, rather than what it actually means — if everyone has their own definition of words and ideas, if we are all Humpty Dumpty — then everything breaks down.

    A relativist, pure and simple, is one who believes that there are no absolutes, especially moral absolutes. No need to drag “God” into the equation at this point. A relativist is one who believes that there is no such thing as moral truth or, if there is, then such “truth” is itself relative and changes depending upon the situation. What is moral today for me is immoral tomorrow for you. But if everyone’s idea of morality is so thusly subjective, then when one person’s idea of morality conflicts with another, then any dispute resolution necessarily depends upon the imposition of power, not truth or morality — whoever is stronger to impose their will on the other wins.

    If one person’s idea of morality is that she should not be forced to violate her conscience and participate in things that she knows to be evil, but another person’s idea of morality is that she has a duty to do such things and that her personal morality is irrelevant, who wins? Who “chooses” and who “decides”? Invariably, it is reduced to a power struggle.

    A common secular ethical principle is to consider which out of a set of potential actions would do the greatest good for the greatest number, and that is the “best” action to take. And guess what? By that principle, being selfish fails miserably most times (with the possible exception of market economics, which relates to how businesses act, rather than how individuals act).

    Myron — what you describe is not secular humanism, but utilitarianism, of which J.S. Mill was perhaps the most famous proponent. This, too, is inherently relativist, in that each individual is entitled to decide for him- or herself what is the “greatest good,” but which usually ends up being some species of “happiness,” as Samuel Skinner has suggested. In other words, the rightness of an action, or the value of a thing, is judged on its contribution to the general welfare, that is, whether it adds to human happiness or pleasure, or whether it adds to human pain. That is, whether something is “good” is determined by whether it minimizes suffering or promotes personal autonomy and quality of life. And since such utilitarians judge all actions by their ability to maximize good consequences, harm to any one individual can always be justified by a greater gain to other individuals. In other words, the ends justify the means.

    To say it another way, with respect to interpersonal relations, it invariably tosses the other individual into the equation, it ends up treating the other as a thing of use, rather than as a person — an object, rather than a subject. That is, since such an ethical construct is concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number, then the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, which thereby rejects the idea of the inherent dignity of individual human life and leads to the objectification of the human person, thus denying that individuals have inviolable moral rights. If a person is sick and weak, unable to contribute to society and is, instead, a burden on society, using up precious resources, like food and medicine, then the greatest good for the greatest number dictates that we quit feeding and giving medical treatment to such “useless eaters.”

  39. I Rule You! says

    Annie said:
    “As to morality, it is derived from empathy. I am no greater than any other person, nor is my experience unique. I have certain needs and desires. I want to live, eat, be healthy, be left to live my life peacefully. Therefore, other humans have these desires as well. Because a properly functioning human brain has an inherent sense of empathy, which is a biological phenomenon, I realize that I don’t have the right to violate or limit anyone else’s needs or desires.”

    Annie – Come on. Do you really believe that a society and a sytem of morality can be built on empathy? Doesn’t that assume that everyone’s brains are “properly functioning?” And who gets to determine what is “proper” function? My brain says I need to kill everyone who does not serve me and throw them in the volcano. If you disagree, then it is YOUR brain that is dysfunctional. I win because I kill you. That’s evolution. That’s life without morality. You can’t count on my empathy. And you have no basis on which to say I am wrong and you are right. In your worldview, you and I are just chemical reactions. And I happen to be the winning chemical reaction, after I kill you. Right? I mean, what am I missing here?

  40. Samuel Skinner says

    “but because I believe in the dignity of the human person”

    Lovely words, but what do they mean and how do they apply to a fetus?

    Presumably you are referring to human dignity. However, the idea of human dignity is entirely subjective- it is the declaration that merely by being human a person is worthy of certain rights. However, it is obvious that people can lose said rights.

    It is also worth noting that rights are an artificial construct- they do not exist in nature. In the case of rights, they are limits on the power of government, or guarantees the government has to its citizens.

    Why am I saying all this? Because it is a fiat statement. Declaring that because embryos are human they have human dignity and so can be killed is asserting you are right because you say you are right!

    Does an organ have rights? No- but it is human so the determiner has to be something other than just having the genetic code.

    As an aside, Germany has Human dignity as their first rule… above the right to life.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_dignity

    Interestingly enough this has lead to some rather stupid decisions- censorship of “undignified” material (violence or nudity) and, my personal favorite, refusal to condone “the needs of the many outweigh those of the few”. Specifically the German government won’t shoot down hijacked planes, even if they will hit population centers because of “human dignity.

    The basic problem with saying you base your belief on “human dignity” is that human dignity is just as much saying “it is wrong because I don’t like it”. Why should people be granted an inherent collection of rights just for having a genetic code? Does this mean aliens don’t have rights? Radiation victims who have a different genetic code don’t have rights? People with a large variance from the norm (pygmies, dwarfs, these people?
    http://www.cracked.com/article_16449_7-people-from-around-world-with-real-mutant-superpowers.html

    As for believing that fetuses have souls, that is ENTIRELY a faith based belief. There is no evidence that is true, that souls exist, etc.

    Even worse is the fact it is totally irrelevant. If souls don’t do anything except “exist”, which is what most people believe, than it doesn’t matter. If souls do do something than God is designing your personality!

    So human dignity is essentially personal preference of humans over everything else and ensoulment is just faith- an opinion held for no reason whatsoever!

    Anne Marie

    There were 4 major branches before the Reformation. There were countless minor branches in the churches early years, most you have never heard of.

    Here is an interesting one:
    http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/christian/blfaq_hist_pelagius.htm

    The fact is even the Catholic Church hasn’t been consistent. They banned slavery in the 8th century, readopted it in the 11th and banned it again in the 19th.

    I rule you
    Most of us realize that trying to become dictator is a bad idea- the paperwork alone can kill a lesser man.

    Darwin
    The reason people disagree on the constitution is parts were written intentionally vague AND people have been bringing their bias with them.

    Unfortunately the bible can’t wiggle out that way. After all, God is behind it and if he wanted people to behave in a certain way, he would have designed it to be so.

    In addition, most of the basics of the constitution people agree upon. Of course, most of our government is “extra” constitution- we left the founders model in the Civil War and never looked back. Other changes have been people blatantly making things up and hoping they become precedent. For example, the right to privacy. Technically you could pull that out of the 9th amendment, but still. My favorite? The bill of rights applies to the states. No where in the original it was added.

    As for the wife situation… when one partner believes a marriage is unsalvageable, it usually is and the other one has their head in the sand. I could be wrong, but I believe that is the case.

    Sandy
    Communists are crackpots. If you can be convinced by commie logic… well, believing that something can exist because you have defined that it does is just silly.

    Bender
    Nope. You can actually find out what works better in the real world to answer that question. The answer? unquestioning obedience is BAD.

    While you seem to believe the means justify the ends.

    As for treating people like objects… uh, we do that all the time. Heck, it is the basis of capitalism! And we all know how well capitalism did against the competition- it crushed them.

    Uh Bender, you do realize killing people leads directly to a loss of happiness for said person being killed? So that wouldn’t count. Not to mention long term results where people have to live in fear of their number being up.

    Most criticisms of utilitarianism are over it being applied in the short term. It doesn’t have the same problem for the long run- but it is much harder to see the long run.

    I rule you
    I empathize with your victims and place you in a microwave… or possibly one of those “my first ovens” sets.

    As for “proper function” generally it is considered people who aren’t committing crimes.

    You are exhibiting sociopath tendencies. As such people in the rest of society would shun you. If you continued they would take you away to the big house because you are a threat. Empathy doesn’t apply to mad dogs.

  41. Sandy says

    “Sandy
    Communists are crackpots. If you can be convinced by commie logic… well, believing that something can exist because you have defined that it does is just silly.”

    samuelskinner,

    Merton WAS a communist at the time he read the book that had such a dramatic impact on his beliefs. At the time he WROTE the passage I quoted, he had long since refuted his communist beliefs and was a Trappist monk so the logic in the passage was NOT commie logic….

    Regardless, rejecting logic on the basis of ad hominem attack is the oldest fallacy in the world.

  42. Eo Nomine says

    And thus, as Samuel Skinner adequately demonstrates, morality becomes a power struggle.

    Also, rights are artificial and can be taken away. So much for inalienable rights. Mr. Leviathan (the government) will be glad to hear this news!

    We’re all expendable! Let the glorious orgy of violence begin, and may the greatest empathizer (whatever the heck that means) win!

    Riddle me this, if empathy’s just a mindless product of purposeless evolution, why are we obligated to follow it for morality?

    A cursory glance at the twentieth century reveals that sociopaths win more often than you think.

    Besides, the slave morality you propose is one entirely dominated by fear, and nothing else. The only reason to stay in line is so that you don’t get cut down.

    …but what about the man who desires to get out of line, and figures out how to cut the other folks down instead?

    It’s a power struggle. Lions taking down their prey. A secular morality, without any conception of transcendence, can’t give us anything more than that.

  43. BPS says

    I have to reply to Samuel Skinner (LOL)!

    SS said-
    …”but because I believe in the (dignity of the human person)
    Lovely words, but what do they mean and how do they apply to a fetus?…it is a fiat statement. Declaring that because embryos are human they have human dignity and so can be killed (bps–I presume you really mean CANNOT be killed)… so the determiner has to be something other than just having the genetic code.
    I say-
    For the fetus(unborn baby really)yes, it’s the fact that shes not a part of someone else, like an organ but a separate human being, which directs her own ontogenesis and even decides for herself (if left alone) when she will be born.
    As for rights, yes in the natural law, they are determined by something else, really Someone else. As our Declaration of Independance says they are given by God. Whether the government recognizes them or not, whether they appear in a document or not, you and every other human being has them. This is the essential Judeo-Christian idea upon which our democratic government is founded. It comes from the idea that God created us all and loves us all as individuals, regardless of our abilities, age, position in life, infirmities, race, etc. It is further developed in St. Paul’s epistles.

    SS says-
    Germany has Human dignity… as their first rule…has lead to some rather stupid decisions- censorship of “undignified” material (violence or nudity) and, my personal favorite, refusal to condone “the needs of the many outweigh those of the few”.

    I say-
    Interesting you bring up Germany, since that’s how this conversation got started. If they are over reacting, then it’s because the need of the many (the ‘volk’) led to butchering of the few (Jews, gypsys,etc).

    SS said-
    The basic problem with saying you base your belief on “human dignity” is that human dignity is just as much saying “it is wrong because I don’t like it”.

    I say-
    SS you are absolutely wrong. What appeals to me about Catholic morality is that many times, I don’t like it. I’d love to be able to screw whoever I want, make money however I want, treat people however I want.

    In Boccacio’s Decameron, he tell the story about the bishop of Paris. He’s always been a very upright, holy man and lives an exemplary life. He has a friend who’s a wealthy Jewish merchant, and they’ve been friends from boyhood. The bishop has always tried to get his friend to convert to Catholicism, but he refuses. They remain friends. One day, the meet in the marketplace, and the merchant tells the bishop he must go to Rome on business. Now this is the early Renaissance, and the Rome of the Borgia Popes, some of the most evil men who’ve every lived. The bishop knows that if his friend sees the corruption in Rome, he’ll never convert, and begs him not to go. The merchant demures. In a couple of months, the merchant’s back in Paris and goes to see the bishops and tells him all he saw. At the end of his telling, he says, “I’m ready. When shall we begin your instruction to ready me for baptism and reception into the faith?” The bishop is nonplussed. He says “All my life I’ve tried to be a good example, but after seeing the corruption in Rome, you’re ready to convert?!” The merchant says “I’m a business man. No purely human effort would have existed 14 weeks, let alone 14 century run by such corrupt men. It must be protected by God”
    In spite of Borgia popes and pedophile priests, the church has never tried to change her moral code.

    SS said-
    Anne Marie

    There were 4 major branches before the Reformation. There were countless minor branches in the churches early years, most you have never heard of.

    I say-
    And where are they now? And until very recently, say around the turn of this century, the moral code was always the same.

    SS said-
    The fact is even the Catholic Church hasn’t been consistent. They banned slavery in the 8th century, readopted it in the 11th and banned it again in the 19th.

    I say-
    When has slavery ever been an article of Catholic faith or morals? Your website has it wrong.
    If you’d like to know some real history (I’m a historian) I’ll send you some stuff.

    SS wrote-
    Darwin
    The reason people disagree on the constitution is parts were written intentionally vague AND people have been bringing their bias with them.

    I say-
    Where on earth did you get your history, Howard Zinn?!-LOL!! Try reading the Federalist Papers, esp. those by Hamilton. Nothing vague there.

    SS said-
    Unfortunately the bible can’t wiggle out that way. After all, God is behind it and if he wanted people to behave in a certain way, he would have designed it to be so.

    I say-
    The Bible is a Catholic book, written by Catholics for Catholics. It presupposes the existance of the Church, and if you read it outside the context of the Catholic Church you will tend to get it’s meaning wrong.

    SS said-
    …(in the Constitution)…changes have been people blatantly making things up… my favorite? The bill of rights applies to the states. No where in the original it was added.

    I say-
    Ever hear of the 14th amendment?

    SS said (no-pun intended here)-
    As for the wife situation… when one partner believes a marriage is unsalvageable, it usually is and the other one has their head in the sand. I could be wrong, but I believe that is the case.

    I say-
    Why stop at the wife situation? When the majority in a polity decides a group, say Jews or people with red hair, aren’t really human, at least not in the way that the majority is, and decides, for the greatest good of the greatest number, to get rid of these subhumans, on what basis can YOU say they’re wrong? Might makes right, doesn’t it?

    SS said-
    Bender
    Nope. You can actually find out what works better in the real world to answer that question. The answer? unquestioning obedience is BAD.

    I say-
    Pontius Pilate asked the only real question worth asking, “what is the truth?” He failed to realize that the Way, the Truth, and the Life was standing in front of him. The Church talks about invincible ignorance, etc when it talks about non-Catholics/non-Christians being saved. I think it’s something else, and it’s not just being a nice person, a kind person, etc. I think whoever loves the truth, seeks to know it, and trys to live by it, no matter what, really loves, seeks, and wants to live by Jesus Christ, the Truth from which all other truths flow, and if they don’t find him in this life, they will in the next. Jen has written about lies we tell ourselves. Exactly! ’cause no matter how “nice” we are, there going to be something we want more than the truth. It may be political power, someones wife, or the good of the German volk, but we’ll tell ourselves this thing we want to do really isn’t so bad, and that good will come from it.

  44. Darwin says

    Sam Skinner,

    The basic problem with saying you base your belief on “human dignity” is that human dignity is just as much saying “it is wrong because I don’t like it”. Why should people be granted an inherent collection of rights just for having a genetic code?

    So human dignity is essentially personal preference of humans over everything else and ensoulment is just faith- an opinion held for no reason whatsoever!

    Yes, and? I don’t think anyone claimed that an understanding of innate human dignity solves every moral quandry. However, dropping it opens up a lot more.

    For instance, one of the major moral questions of the 16th-19th century was what degree of moral rights non-European “uncivilized” people had relative to Europeans. Did an Aborigine have the same rights as an Englishman when he looked different and dressed different and had a language and culture which made little sense to white settlers?

    One can argue that there’s no good a priori reason so assign dignity to all unique human organisms, but it does answer a range of moral questions ranging from colonialism to the holocaust. By comparison, people have a rather poor record, historically speaking, when it comes to discerning whether those unlike them are real people deserving of empathy and consideration, or “sub-humans” or “lumps of cells” or what have you.

    There were 4 major branches before the Reformation. There were countless minor branches in the churches early years, most you have never heard of.

    Here is an interesting one:
    http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/christian/blfaq

    I hate to break it to you, but the fact that there is incredible diversity among Christian believers throughout history is not news to any of us Catholics here. Indeed, one can read any number of scholarly books on the topic (in preference to the atheism section of about.com) and some of the very earliest Christian writings that we have (dating back to the first and second centuries) deal with theological disputes and ruptures between different Christian traditions.

    Honestly, you might want to banch out and read a bit more widely on these topics if you want to debate them. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that something is in an atheism FAQ, but generally speaking you get better info by going to experts. (And after all, I wouldn’t attempt to research Hinduism on a Jewish website.)

    The reason people disagree on the constitution is parts were written intentionally vague AND people have been bringing their bias with them.

    Unfortunately the bible can’t wiggle out that way. After all, God is behind it and if he wanted people to behave in a certain way, he would have designed it to be so.

    You might want to consult some actual Christian (and since this is a Catholic blog, Catholic) theologies of scripture before assuming that the Bible “can’t wiggle out that way”. Christians do not, except in rather fringy fundamentalist cases, believe that God “wrote” the Bible in the sense that I am writing this now. Christians refer to the Bible as being “inspired literature” meaning that God guided its writing, and they talk about it being free from error in those areas of faith and morals that it is seeking to teach. However, the books of the Bible were written by people of a particular time and place for people of a particular time and place and in particular literary genres. They were not written to unerringly answer any question that might possibly be thrown at them at any time by any person.

    Unless one entirely dispenses with free will (and, unlike serious materialists, Christians really do believe in free will) it’s not possible for scriptures to be impossible to interpret wrongly. And indeed, any look at literary, legal or historical analysis shows us that no matter how clearly anything is written, it is quite possible for people to argue about its meaning.

    As for the wife situation… when one partner believes a marriage is unsalvageable, it usually is and the other one has their head in the sand. I could be wrong, but I believe that is the case.

    I might generally agree with you, but that would mean that you and I were imposing our understanding of “the way things are” on other people contrary to their own (in this case the wife’s) beliefs.

    Which is all well and good — but once we get set to lay down objective norms of “the way things are” we might want to have some idea of where those norms come from lest we be reduced to “because I say so”.

    My friend Plato and I have a few ideas long those lines if you want to drop by some day.

  45. Myron says

    BPS said:
    (1) Your morality seems to be based on what you like, find appealing, etc. So if someone finds something you consider immoral appealing, say for instance, killing baby seals, how do you tell them they’re wrong?

    Excellent question. It’s tough to do. My morality isn’t based on what I “find appealing” exactly, it’s based on a careful consideration of various ethical principles, as well as my gut/moral compass/a does of common sense. It’s not a perfect system, I’ll admit that. I just try to make it better and better as I learn new things. I think the same issue arises sometimes for believers of different faiths, though, or believers within the same faith who just believe some different things? If someone of another faith says that they feel something to be right, or that GOd would say something is right, and their faith teaches them it is, but you feel it’s wrong, and your faith teaches you it’s wrong, how do you resolve that? (Honest question, I’d be interested to hear the response). I don’t know if I’m using “faith” in the right way here, but you get what I’m asking, hopefully.

    My approach is to first listen to why they think something is right, and tell the person why I think differently. If they’re not convinced, but we can agree that both of our viewpoints have a level of validity (“your view makes sense, if you assume x, my view makes sense, if I assume y”) then we can discuss the real difference between us, which is why we think x or y. Usually by digging deep enough, one or the other of us will eventually go “oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way/I didn’t know that” and we come to an agreement. It’s a whole other matter when we can’t come to an agreement, because one or the other gives up on the discussion. I think it relates to some other people’s posts where they suppose that under certain circuomstances any ethical framework not based on religion/the existence of God breaks down into might makes right. So I’ll address that in another comment, and move on to your second question.

    (2) I’d like you to do what the writer Walker Percy called a thought experiment. … … … He says he will rape you so that the human race survives. Would that be moral?

    I can see how someone might agrue that it would be, but I would disagree. I’m not a woman, but I’ve talked to some good friends who have been raped/sexually assaulted, so I can at least attempt to empathize.

    One issue is, would having sex with the woman actually succeed in continuing the human race? I’m not a biologist, but as I understand it incest doesn’t work out well for the children, and so if this woman were to have babies, they would then have to have an incestuous relationship, as would their children, and eventually the mutations and such would lead to the destruction of the human race, just delayed by a few generations. If that’s the case, it’s not worth doing.

    But I don’t think that was your point, and I’m not 100% sure on the science of incest (although I would want to be sure if I was the man in this situation before I did anything drastic). So let’s assume for the sake of the thought experiment that a single pair of humans can in fact continue the human race. We also have to ask the question of what makes the human race worth continuing, and whether that value is great enough to justify cruelty on the level of rape. You might believe in some form of innate human dignity, or in the idea that humans are somehow “better” than other forms of life, or more intrinsically valuable because they were given certain qualities by God (the soul being the prime candidate). I don’t agree that humanity has an intrinsic value that other life lacks, although valuing life based on its level of complexity, evolutionary longevity, and/or intelligence does make some sort of sense. I think I might need to think more on this to pin down exactly what my position on that one should be. But I really think we draw too much of a distinction between human and non-human life. I often wonder whether some species of chimp or great ape (or whale or dolphin or octopus or other spoecies of water born life which can communicate but doesn’t have fire or opposable thumbs and so lacks technology) might have far more intelligence than we assume. After all, we can teach great apes sign language, and I saw an article recently about a study which showed that a particular species of chimp was faster and more accurate at basic math than a college student, to the point where it was equal to a human with photographic memory.

    All of that is to say – why is it, exactly, that the human race deserves to survive? The dilemma here almost assumes that the human race deserves to survive at any cost, which I would disagree with. I think if we’ve nuked each other into oblivion, and the only way that our race can survive is by force and violence against each other, the strong taking what they want (because the experiemnt supposed the man does want this – I question whether he would be making the same “moral” argument if he found the woman repulsive.) -if that’s the foundation our second try at civilization will be based on, then let it die.

    I know this breaks the rules of the experiment, but it’s also instructive to see what I would do as that man. In that case, assuming again that it was biologically possible to continue the species, that I had been spurned, and that rape had occurred to me as a way to continue the species, my next question would be “but is there any other way?” If I hadn’t stopped to ask myself that question, if I had just gone ahead and done what I wanted to do, justifying it to myself however was convenient, then I would feel horribly guilty when I realized later that there was, in fact, another way. I’ve only thought about it a little at lunch, but I’ve got two.

    1. Masturbate into a container, and suggest that the woman impregnate herself. This is not an ideal solution, but it’s a whole heck of a lot better than rape. If she’s repulsed by me, but feels it’s important to continue the species, she might go along with it. But, to take the experiment just a little bit further, let’s say she doesn’t. Then we come to my ideal solution in this situation.
    2. I sit down with the woman and figure out what it is that repulses her. We’re the last two people on earth, and in this scenario we have some time. So eventually we’re going to talk to each other. And once I’ve figured out what it is that repulses her, assuming that continuing the human race by means other than force or violence is near the top of my priority list, then changing whatever it is that repulses her is now near the top of my priority list. Even if it takes years, if the survival of the human race on a moral footing is at stake, it’s an easy choice. So I do that. And eventually we procreate, and the childen get to live in an environment where they have parents who don’t hate each other, and are good examples of how they themselves should grow up to be. And if after many years I can’t change the woman’s mind, and we die childless, then, well, the human race dies. I would rather have the last act of the human race be one of kindness than continue the species through violence. For me that’s another fairly easy choice.

    Another underlying principle I might use in this case is: When faced with extreme dilemmas where you don’t know what to do, where your morals are conflicting, take the course that leaves your options open, and gives you time to consider the question more deeply. Once you commit rape, you can never take that back. But if you choose not to commit rape for now, you can always choose it later if you become sure it’s the right choice, and in the mean time you might come up with a better answer. Choose not to rape, you lose nothing, choose to rape, you lose a lot. End result: the man never rapes the woman, because he can never be sure it’s the right choice, or at least I can’t see a way you could ever be sure of it. It’s like murdering Hitler. Knowing what we know, sure, it makes sense for the greater good. But if you were in that time, without knowledge of the future, could you be sure it was the right thing to do? Maybe, eventually, but I would be very, very, very careful about reaching that conclusion.

    Summary: There are so many reasons the man would not be morally in the right to rape the woman. Interesting question, though.

  46. Samuel Skinner says

    I’m responding to Darwin.

    The problem with claiming huamn dignity isn’t that it is or isn’t a solution- it is that it is by fiat.

    Why does it exist? Because you say so.

    Actually they did perfectly well using your criteria- those individuals simply weren’t human.

    They believed in “human dignity”- just not everyone counts as human.

    You want to extend it to ALL those with the same genetic code- but why not animals as well? Your boundary is just as arbitrary as theirs- and just as flawed.

    I didn’t realize you were Catholic. Sorry.


    That is even dumber. The bible was supposed to be the guiding light for mankind and God OUTSOURCED it! To Asia no less! Such shoddy craftsmanship- in my days people took pride in the work they did and if tyou wanted something done right you did it yourself.

    I don’t belive in free will because the term cannot be defined without being incoherant. If we aren’t influenced by our nature or are nurture, what guides us? Our soul- great that is ALSO nature.

    You could say it is “supernatural”, except, by definition, if true, it would be counted as nature. It is the miracle of science- we would toss the natural laws if we had to- because laws are supposed to have no exceptions. Souls would throw out “two objects can’t occupy the same space similtaneously” and “objects need mass”.

    The way things are is known as… reality. If you refuse to recognize it you are, by definition, disconnected from reality.

    See? Definitions are fun!

    Plato gave me my greatest argument- Euthyphro dilemma. Incidently it is about morality and it rips apart atheist basis.

    As for rape, which someone brought up… I was under the impression is tantamount to torture. Except for fun. And harming others for your own gain is the DEFINITION of evil.

  47. Jennifer F. says

    Just wanted to highlight the post Samuel pointed out since you can’t see all of the link in his comment. Though I’m not sure what his thesis is since he starts out talking about what makes human life valuable and ends up talking about how religion isn’t rational, and though he misunderstands religious thought, I do think that this is a refreshing article. It’s good to see atheists being upfront about and owning these viewpoints as an inherent part of their worldview:

    Traditional religious views, however, are claiming that human life is in fact morally important by virtue of being human. Evolutionarily speaking, only the life form that is most able to survive in a given environment is important, human or not. […]

    The traditional religious view of the worth of human life is that all human life is equally important, but as F. Nietzsche has pointed out, typically it is those that are dependent, weaker, or simply unwilling to live independently that make such claims. […]

    At first glance, traditional religious viewpoints concerning the worth of human life are at the very least in part to blame for both overpopulation and the false view that all human life is equal in moral importance, which are in fact interconnected.

    Again, I commend his intellectual honesty. (Though let’s hope that none of this man’s loved-ones ever deal with mental illness or disability.)

    Another thing I found interesting was statements like this:

    Human life, if rationality is to be taken into consideration, is only important because of the decisions we make both as individuals and as individuals within a given society (an environment).

    …And then going on to make the case that religious people are not rational. I’d like to see him draw out that viewpoint a bit more.

  48. Myron says

    Boy, I’m getting behind on responding – this takes time!

    Hey Bender:

    Myron — what you describe is not secular humanism, but utilitarianism, of which J.S. Mill…

    You asked above whether atheists consider anything greater than themselves. I answered your question, providing one example of a secular (not secular humanist – I’ve just discovered Secular Humanism fairly recently, and don’t know a lot about it, so I wouldn’t begin to talk about what its principles are in detail) principle. Normally I wouldn’t criticize someone for mis-reading one word I wrote, but you tore into geekchic before me for defining relativist in a non-rigorous sense (but a way which many people would understand, even though it may not be technically correct). So I figure a little nitpicking in return is fair. Please read what I wrote before you criticize next time. You did raise some valid points, but assuming I didn’t know what I was talking about was not a good way to start.

    I assumed your question was a legitimate one, but it seems from your response that you already had the answer (yes, people who don’t believe in God sometimes regard certain principles as higher than their own self interest), and mainly wanted the opportunity to demonstrate that atheists hadn’t considered their positons as carefully as you have. I’m not sure that approach is constructive.
    I think that even if people haven’t considered all of their positions as carefully as I have, they might have something to teach me, and ought to be treated with respect.

    I also understand what utilitarianism is. I chose to say what it means rather than use the word utilitarianism because, as you have pointed out regarding geekchic’s post, certain words aren’t interpreted the same way by everyone who reads them, and some people might get confused or feel intimitated by people using words they don’t fully understand. I want what I write to be accessible to as many people as possible, because I’m genuinely interested in hearing what they think even if they don’t have the words to express it as compactly as someone who has read philosophy might do.

    I’ll respond to your points about utilitarianism later, but I think we can agree that when carried to extremes it is not sufficient by itself.

  49. Darwin says

    Sam Skinner,

    If you credit someone with giving someone your greatest argument, you should make sure that you understand the argument in the first place. Plato does not argue in Euthyphro that morality cannot stem from the divine, he argues that it cannot be the “will of the gods” given that the Greek gods were many and frequently disagreed.

    Rather, Plato held that “the Good” was one and perfect, and that all things stemmed from it — it was the ultimate “universal essence”. If this sounds disturbingly familiar, it may further clue you in to know that the neo-Platonist schools in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC developed into what we would understand as a flavor of deistic monotheism. Because, following Plato’s lead, they held that “the Good” was singular and was the pattern of all things.

    So I strongly enjoin you to sit down with Plato (I personally recommend the Cooper translations) and reread Euthyphro a couple times with a slightly more open mind to what argument is actually being presented. While you’re at it, go over Phaedo and Republic VII (the analogy of the cave).

    By the end of this you may have decided that you’re no Platonist, but at least you’ll have a good appreciation for what Plato really has to say. And refuting monotheism is not it.

    I don’t belive in free will because the term cannot be defined without being incoherant. If we aren’t influenced by our nature or are nurture, what guides us? Our soul- great that is ALSO nature.

    In that case, I’m not entirely clear why you’re engaged in dialectic with others. Clearly, not only are your thoughts merely the result of your genetic makeup and conditioning, but so are ours. Since you can hardly change our genes and can do little to change our conditioning — what’s the point?

  50. geekchic9 says

    Samuel Skinner wrote:

    “This is what atheists fear-
    http://voxday.blogspot.com/2007/02/mailvox-sharpening-knives.html

    And who is that person? It is Vox Day, writter of “The Irrational Atheist” and an apologist.”

    There have been a few atheist responses to Vox Day, but basically a lot of atheists I’ve read say that Vox Day’s book is a waste of time, his arguments are unsound, and he’s basically preaching to the choir, and he is simply confirming their own anti-atheist bias. I see that you’ve fallen for it, too.

    If you notice carefully, Vox Day — a lame pun for Vox Dei if I never saw one — would kill children under the age of 2 if his god commanded it. Then he argues that atheists would, too, based on some silly strawman argument that “why Jefferson, an atheist, should object to one set of meaningless atomic arrangements being randomly sorted into different arrangements. A reason, that is, besides the one that he has previously provided, which is that he would not like it.” That’s basically saying that hundreds of years of secular philosophical debates boil down to whether one likes a moral choice or not, ignoring arguments based on experience, logic, and reason. He then finishes with saying that “If you are going to debate the legitimacy of a belief system based on the potential danger it presents, secular scientists are vastly more vulnerable than Christians,” thus preaching to the choir that atheists are more vulnerable to immoral actions because they have no god to guide them and fanning anti-atheist bias further.

    I suppose you’re right that it’s frightening to atheists that how someone so irrational and immoral could be respected as a Christian apologist. People like Vox Day are the reason that various religious wars have occurred — because someone claiming to the be the voice of a particular god says so.

    A bit of advice: Just like someone said they wouldn’t get Hindu arguments from a Jewish web site, I wouldn’t get atheist arguments from a Christian apologist web site, especially since Vox Dei’s refutes to atheist arguments aren’t really well-thought out at all.

  51. Samuel Skinner says

    Uh, Jennifer, it is widely accepted that not all human life is equally valuable. Even “pro lifers” agree. For the most part, this category is filled with those whose actions have lowered their standing- criminals.

    Not just those who break the law, but those who commit heinous crimes. Most people wouldn’t hesitate to butcher a serial killer.

    As it is, he points out why we DON’T use evolution for morality. Ironically enough, it doesn’t require the strong killing the weak- only monopolizing mating opportunities.

    As it is morality is a choice. If you can give a reason for a person to be moral, they aren’t being moral. It has to be from ones self!

    Otherwise it is just self interest and posturing for the crowd.

    Is there an argument against utilitarianism? If morality is to achieve happiness and the like, isn’t achieving the most the best method? Or is someone using an alternate definition than I am?

  52. Clavem Abyssi says

    Samuel:
    “Uh, Jennifer, it is widely accepted that not all human life is equally valuable. Even “pro lifers” agree. For the most part, this category is filled with those whose actions have lowered their standing- criminals.”

    You are missing a nuance in the Cathology theology of human worth. I direct you to JP2’s Evangelium Vitae for reference.

    In short, our worth derives from God. God is unchanging. Therefore our worth is unchanging. This is called the atomistic view of human worth – atomistic, because it cannot grow or shrink.

    Back to your example, the worth of a killer is not less, because his worth comes from God, rather than the consensus of men. This doesn’t change the fact that punishment is justified, but it is not because of a killer’s lesser value.

  53. Myron says

    Marian, in response to your comment (sorry it took 2 days to reply)

    Myron, how does one determine what would do the greatest good? … How do you know in advance how an action will turn out … That seems to require not only an objective standard of “good”, but also, well… omniscience. You’re God.

    If I had to know for sure what action would do the greatest good before I could act, then yes, I would have to either be omniscient or do nothing. The thing is, doing nothing is an action. So whether I act or attempt not to act, I’m doing something. My inaction has effects just as my action would have.

    As a result, even though you don’t know everything, even though if consider it you really know, and are capable of knowing, very little, you still have to do your best. So you muddle through, and figure it out as best you can. You hope you don’t hurt anyone, and you apologize when you do. And you spend a lot of time thinking about things, so the choices you make make sense. You try to learn as much as you can about everything, because that way you become less likely to hurt others. You challenge your beliefs daily, because you’ve noticed that the more certain you are that you’re right, the more likely you are to do something wrong (relates to the benefit of humility as a virtue). So you come on forums like this filled with people who mostly disagree with you, and hope that their disagreement means they have something constructive to add to what you know, something you haven’t thought of. And you hope also that you can help them to come to a better understanding of things, so that they can reach the same conclusions you did with less time and effort than you had to spend.

    I have no obligation to be perfect, or to know everything, but I do have an obligation to be as good as I can. Overall, I think that works out pretty well. Also, it does away with the need for a perfect definition of “good”. I have a definition of what “good” means, I think it makes sense, but if someone can demonstrate to me that their definition makes more sense than mine, I’ll switch. The same is true of any of my beliefs. But since they’ve come to be over many years of careful thought, it is probably going to be harder to convince me that I’ve got it completely wrong than you might expect.

  54. Thomas Jefferson, et al. says

    Uh, Jennifer, it is widely accepted that not all human life is equally valuable.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.

  55. Marian says

    Sorry to pepper you so, Myron. Just trying to understand.

    Regarding this whole statement:
    “…I do have an obligation to be as good as I can.”

    Why? From where? To whom?

  56. Myron says

    eo_nomine:

    It seems that you do, in fact, believe in God. Definitely in the Platonic sense.

    Oh boy, this is going to be the longest post ever, because I’m going to have to explain what I believe. Challenge to anyone on this forum: Once you’ve read it over, tell me whose beliefs mine are copying, and fit me into a neat category. I haven’t read philosophy (although I did read the Republic and the allegory of the cave, and I’ve picked up bits here and there). I was actually happy to find that someone else besides me thought that God has to be outside of time (C. S. Lewis, found out on Sunday). But I haven’t read a lot of philosophy, so maybe there’s a category for me that I’m missing. Anyway…

    I’ll read the books you recommend, although I don’t know how long it will be before I’ll get time (I also have many other things on my reading list).

    Now, when many people talk about theism, they think of a Father in the Sky. This isn’t accurate. Most people, even many Christians, do not know what theism is, exactly. And this is a major problem.

    Well, as you’ve just said, for many people the father in the sky idea is accurate, in that it’s actually what they believe religion is about. And it’s one of those things that just doesn’t make sense about religion that made me say I’ve got to figure things out for myself. Glad to see not everyone who’s religious believes every silly story they’re told (kidding with you, but I wish it was funnier…).

    For instance, our concept of the Word or Logos, is synonymous with the ancient Chinese concept of Tao.

    Right then. I don’t know ancient Chinese philosophy either. I’m not a philosopher in the “trained in philosophy” sense, just a guy who thinks about things rather carefully. Care to clarify the concept of Tao?

    Ok, back to whether I’m a Platonist, or an atheist, or an agnostic, or a Catholic (I’d be really surprised if it was that last one). Here’s what I think.

    First off, I think it’s fairly obvious the universe isn’t random. There’s an order to it, laws of physics and whatnot. Does that mean it’s created, that it can’t possibly have arisen spontaneously? Hm. Probably, and so I’m going to go with “Yes”, but if anyone disagrees with me I’ll go “you could be right”.

    Secondly, related to the consistency of the laws of physics, it doesn’t seem to me that if there is a God, he’s busy mucking about with things here on Earth. Direct, obvious divine intervention in our lives that defies the laws of physics in response to prayer, worship, virgin sacrifice, placing your furniture correctly, or whatever, appears to me to be out.

    So what about “God has to hide his work, because if he didn’t… ” followed by some explanation? Maybe, but I think probably not. Not that I’m a god, but if I was, and I had the power to create the entire universe, and the genius required to make it actually a relatively workable system, I think I could figure a way to reward people for believing in me, and prove my existence to those who didn’t believe at first. As I understand it that’s what’s written in the bible – if those stories are even approximately true, then God’s presence was fairly obvious to people back then, because he started fires, parted oceans, etc. So, divine intervention, hidden or otherwise: out. Stories in the bible being true: out for the old testament, open to serious questioning in the new testament. Prayer/attending church because it’s looked on favorably by God: not helpful (more on this later). Transcendental moral truths being told through stories in the bible? Sure, that could happen, and in fact probably has happened.

    So, the stories of religion appear to be less than credible, but the universe has some order, and was probably created by someone, something, or perhaps a community of beings or elemental forces. So what might the creator(s) look like? “Way, way, way beyond anything you can imagine”? … well, yeah, possibly. But let’s do a thought experiment and see what we might be able to say about the matter. In the following discussion, please substitute God with God/The Gods/Some Elemental Forces we don’t fully understand but appear to have some kind of intelligence/order/”sense of style” (in the words of the Cynical Christian), and He with He/She/It/They. That’s just too much typing for me, this is going to be ridiculously long as it is.

    First off, as mentioned near the beginning of this post, God has to be outside of time. Why? Because He made it, along with the rest of the universe. We’ve proven that space and time are linked (Thank you, Einstein plus supersonic jets taking atomic clocks around the world a few times to see that time slowed down at high velocities) and are really one thing, rather than two separate things. And God made space-time, so it didn’t exist before Him, so he’s outside of it. C. S. Lewis drew the analogy of how an author can create a book, yet be outside of it, and that works but over simplifies things so that his audience’s heads wouldn’t hurt. Follow me now, and try not to get a headache.

    What would someone who exists outside of our four dimensions (length, width, height and time) see the universe as? Well, we can easily see and understand three dimensions, so let’s use the difference between a two dimensional view of the world and a three dimensional view of the world as an analogue to the difference between seeing the world in three dimensions plus a moment-to-moment view of time, as we do, and seeing the world in four dimensions as God must do.

    Let’s take a simple three dimensional object as our example. Picture an ice cream cone without the ice cream, lying on its side on your kitchen counter. Now, your two dimensional view of that cone would be a cross-section. Picture a laser beam slicing through the cone, and the infinitely small width of that laser beam is what you get to see from moment to moment. The movement of the laser beam is like our movement through time. If we were two-dimensional beings seeing this, we would see a circle that grows or shrinks from moment to moment, not a cone. For more complicated three-dimensional shapes, we would see more complicated two-dimensional patterns. And if you’d seen a cone before, you could go “hey, I know what’s going to happen next, the circle’s going to get bigger/smaller.” That’s sort of like cause and effect. But the difference between seeing a bunch of moving patterns and a cone whose shape doesn’t change at all, is kind of like the difference between our view of the universe where we move and do stuff and there’s a past and a future, and what I think God’s view of the universe might be like. Instead of seeing a bunch of moments in a timeline, he just sees a four dimensional object. No confusing three dimensional events which seem to make some kind of patterns sometimes, just a cone sitting on the counter. We move through time and try to figure things out, but God can just see the big picture. From the first moment in time, through to the last moment in time, across all of the billions of light years of space, the millions of galaxies that are out there, it’s all there for Him to look at at his leisure, like C. S. Lewis’s God-novel. And to someone or something with an intellect capable of creating a universe, maybe it really is as simple as an ice cream cone.

    Right now, some of you are probably thinking something containing the words “free will”. In a static four-dimensional universe, does it exist? My answer: From our limited perspective, for all intents and purposes, it does. We get to choose what we do. But from God’s perspective, he knows what we will choose, he can have a look and see. “Will choose”, from his perspective, has no meaning, because there is no difference between “I will choose” and “I have chosen”, they’re both just what happened at a slightly different point in space-time. And to Marian, who asked me about omniscience: that’s what omniscience looks like. That’s how God could be everywhere at once, if he wanted, listen to or look at or know the universe from every angle at every moment of its existence. Because “moment” is a concept he’s just a little bit beyond.

    Now I ask you, do you find it likely that a being like that would find it worthwhile to stick his finger into the universe and change something to answer your prayers? I say no, for two reasons. First, we are so, so, so, so small on a universal scale. I find it almost funny that religion preaches humility, while at the same time telling you that the human race is the reason creation was created. That we have dominion over all things here, that we were made in God’s image, and that he cares about each of his little ones individually and will listen whenever they have a problem… I know people really like that idea, but it doesn’t seem to be true. Which leads me to my second reason why he doesn’t interfere mid-way through the universe’s development: he doesn’t have to. Let’s not forget, God chose the laws of physics. Instead of giving you what you prayed for, he could just tweak the laws of physics slightly so that either you don’t want it, or you get what you want. So the idea of “God made that car stop at just the right moment”… well, true maybe in a sense, but not in the sense most people see it.

    “Sure it is”, you say “You just said God makes sure our prayers are answered!” Not exactly. Not in the sense of “I ask for something and God gives it to me, but if I didn’t pray I wouldn’t have got it.” Your mind is stuck in time, which makes this hard to grasp. God’s is not. But it still might seem as if he does answer prayers, from your perspective.

    Consider this: if God could tweak the laws of physics however he wanted, to get whatever he wanted, if he could see exactly what any changes he made to physics would mean for everything in the universe, from beginning to end, and the concept of a limited amount of time didn’t exist for him, what would he make the universe be like?

    “I have no idea / I can’t say for sure I’m not God” comes to mind. And it’s true, this is all speculation. But it seems, to me at least, that the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is one element of his style. So assuming that’s true, wouldn’t he set up the laws of physics so that good things happened to as many people as possible? So some of your prayers get answered, sometimes in ways you don’t expect, and my not praying still gets me what I want about as often as you get what you want, so atheists go “Prayers don’t work, look at the stats”, and theists go “but look at this amazing coincidence, it can’t really be coincidence, this proves God exists!” And the truck driver in Jen’s story about the truck driver gets what he wants too (liked that story). But that doesn’t mean your prayers affected the outcome, it just means God wants people to be happy as much as possible, and has the power to make it so, by fiddling with physics. Away goes the “Why is God hiding?” argument. And the answer to “why does God let people suffer so, in that case?” might be “Maybe that’s the best that could be”. And my answer to the idea that God has a plan is “Well, if you think it involves everyone getting into heaven unless we use our free will to deviate from the plan because the Devil convinced us of an evil lie, I’d have to say that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But in the sense of God knowing what’s going to happen to you and making it as good as he could figure out how to do, which might make things happen that you wouldn’t quite expect, you might just be right. On the other hand, a plan implies a desired future state, so that idea doesn’t quite ‘get it'”.

    And if you’re a cynical atheist going “You’re an idiot, the universe is f#@4@#ed up!”, well, there’s no reason to say God created the best of all possible worlds this time around. If he can make one universe, he can probably make more than one. Or maybe this is a work in progress, an intermediary state, and he’ll tweak physics a bit and make a better one. Unfortunately we wouldn’t be around to see it, because we arose under a given set of physical laws, and if they change we no longer exist. But I happen to think the universe we live in is pretty neat, even though there’s an awful lot of pain and suffering in it too. And regardless of the possible relativity of the goodness of this universe, we can still understand that there’s something called “good” that makes sense to pretty much all of us, so I vote we go with that concept. Anyone vote Evil?

    And the answer to anyone who doesn’t like any of my answers is “I can’t say they’re true for sure, they might not be, but they fit what I’ve seen of the world better than any other story I’ve heard, particularly a biblical one. Tell me a story that’s Occams-razor simple and fits the facts better than mine and you win. Go! :)”

    And there’s one more big question, which just boils down to “But why?” If God could do basically anything, why bother to create the universe in the first place? What does it all mean? Is it meaningless? In this story we’re just physics-driven groups of molecules, there’s no heaven to go to and God doesn’t really care much more about me than He does about the rest or the universe. But it doesn’t feel meaningless, so… What’s the point of it all?

    Think again of the ice cream cone, as an analogy for our universe. Except now it’s something more complex. A sculpture, or a building, or a painting. We create things all the time, just because we like making things of beauty. An artist doesn’t ask why he should create a sculpture, he just does it because he gets some intrinsic satisfaction from doing so, and then maybe goes “see, isn’t this neat?” If we can take drives we feel ourselves as any guide to God’s “style”, then maybe an intrinsic motivation to create beauty is why God created the universe. If there is more than one god, maybe the one(s) that made this universe made it to show to others and go “see, isn’t this neat?”

    And when you think about it, it is neat. And that’s a point that I think religion misses, sort of. Religion is so focused on us as human beings. In the religious story, we’re the center of God’s attention, and the center of his creation, and we’re more intrinsically valuable than every other kind of life, and God gave his only son so we could get into heaven, and we’re “in this world but not of this world”, this world is not really where we belong, there’s something better waiting. People cling to that story to the point where they say schools should teach that Evolution and Creationism are equally scientifically valid. Isn’t it possible, they say, that the earth was created by God substantially as it is now, instead of having to go through billions of years of lifeless darkness? Couldn’t God do that, too? And doesn’t the complexity of the life we see around us rule out the possibility that it wasn’t designed? Well, technically speaking, if God has a sense of timing, I suppose he could have created it yesterday, and I just think last week happened because he decided that’s what I should think. But I don’t think that’s it. Besides which, again, if I and C. S. Lewis are right and God is outside of time, the universe didn’t come into existence at a particular moment, it came into existence all at once, as it is, evolution and multi-billion-year-period-of-lifeless-darkness and all.

    I’m a computer programmer. I build things too, that require thought, and planning. And they’re complicated enough that wrapping your head around how a program works is often tricky. And when I see a program that does a lot of work in a few lines of code, that takes something simple and builds it into something complex (like, say, a fractal, which we see often in nature) I look at that and think it’s elegant. In a way, the logic demonstrated by a really well written program is almost beautiful. And when I look at the simple programs that I try to write, and I think about the universe by comparison, it just seems beyond words. The fact, the mere idea that you could take a few elemental laws (clearly very, very carefully chosen), and a single point of pre-molecular energy, and let it run for a few billion years, and you get stars and planets and self-reproducing life, and you let it run for a few billion more and you get us, who can appreciate beauty… that idea is so mind-bogglingly elegant, so totally beyond my ability to comprehend how it was done, that it seems to me like an idea a God could come up with. It fits. It makes sense. Compared to that idea, the religious stories I’ve heard seem like trying to fit the meaning of the universe into a little metaphorical box, which in turn will fit neatly into as many people’s minds as possible. It seems to me that the more we find out about the universe, the more amazing and elegant it will become. And telling ourselves we have most or all of the answers, and they’re mostly or completely on our scale, as religion attempts to do, just seems wrong, and not humble at all. Thinking we have the answers stops us from asking questions which would lead to a greater appreciation of the universe’s order and beauty (I think Galileo would agree with me on this one, by the way). It forces us to suggest that all there is is to live for a while on a small dot created to give us a chance to learn to be good people, and then go somewhere better if we succeed with the goodness bit, gold star and eternal life for us. That idea just seems so… small. From the first single-celled life on earth to here is 4.5 billion years or so. Consider that the universe could have many billions of years yet to run. Our sun is only about half way through its life, so even if we don’t find a way to leave this solar system, we’ve still got billions of years to grow. Just imagine, assuming we don’t destroy ourselves, what the result of that could be like. I can’t, really. But by contrast, I can imagine heaven, which tells me it’s not on god-scale, which means it’s probably not true. I think the future that lies in store for life in this universe will be amazing beyond anything we can understand, and that is a far more compelling vision than anything proposed by any religion I’ve ever heard of. Why should you try to be good? Just to have your small part in that amazing beauty. Paul (not the saint, just this guy, you know?) said:

    “…what humans are supposed to be doing?”

    “Supposed” by whom?

    No one responded directly, and I don’t know. I don’t believe in God as anyone else I’ve ever heard of sees Him. But supposed by someone, or something, it seems to me. And I don’t fault religion for telling stories that don’t make sense, because until very recently we didn’t know what we know now about how the world works. But in that light, I think we need some new stories. And as our knowledge grows, I think we need to be willing to change those stories again, without shame.

    So what category am I? I say Atheist is closest, but maybe just me is the most accurate.

  57. geekchic9 says

    BPS wrote:

    “(1) Your morality seems to be based on what you like, find appealing, etc. So if someone finds something you consider immoral appealing, say for instance, killing baby seals, how do you tell them they’re wrong?”

    You’re basically presenting a false dichotomy: Either 1) Our morals come from God — which is basically Divine Command Theory, and that theory is problematic in itself or 2) Our values are determined by our feelings, what we like and find appealing, etc. There is another option: “A moral judgment is true if it is backed up by better reasons than the alternatives.” That’s quoted from James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, fourth edition, p. 41.

    BPS also wrote:

    “(2) I’d like you to do what the writer Walker Percy called a thought experiment. Imagine you are a woman (perhaps you are, in which case this will be easy to imagine). You and one other passenger, a male whom you find physically and intellectually repulsive, survive a plane crash on an island in the Pacific. The island is rather large and has sufficient food, water etc so that you are phsically well off. You hear on shortwave radio, right after the crash that a nuclear war has broken out. You, a climatologist, figure from prevailing wind patterns that fallout will not effect where you are. So you and the repulsive male are like Adam and Eve. Only you find Adam repulsive. But Adam wants to mate with you. He makes his clumsy appeals but it only repulses you more. He says he will rape you so that the human race survives. Would that be moral?”

    The answer to this question from a utilitarian position is basically this: We don’t know, because we can’t predict the future of the human race over thousands of years from our own limited standpoint. In the short run it would be not in our best enlightened self-interest to be raped by the repulsive man for reasons that myron listed in detail. In the long run, we can’t predict the future the human race because we aren’t fortune-tellers. So, in this situation, utilitarianism isn’t the best theory to use.

    But that’s kind of your point, isn’t it? Secular theories aren’t perfect, so we must use the religious theories instead. The issue is that religious theories, such as the Divine Command Theory and the Theory of Natural Law, are also flawed. If you want an explanation, I can explain why in another post.

    In a discussion with someone who knows more about philosophy than I do, I was told that Kant’s categorical imperative would be more useful, because with the imperative, I can unequivocally state that rape is wrong no matter what the circumstances. However, I need to do more research into that to see if that is actually the case.

    You presented an interesting post, though, so thanks. I’m learning a lot about philosophy that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

  58. geekchic9 says

    Bender wrote:

    “I guess the question I have for our atheist friends is this — is there anything greater than you? Is your source of morality something that is above and beyond you, whether that is some transcendent value or merely an implicit social agreement, or are you makers of your own morality? Is something right and good because it is inherently so, or because you say so?”

    Truth, logic, and reason are things that I consider “above” me, in a sense. So no, morality “because I say so” is a form of moral subjectivism, and that doesn’t work because, among other things, it separates reason from feeling. That is, if you are a moral subjectivist and you say, “It’s wrong because I feel it’s wrong,” you can’t logically say “These are the reasons I feel it’s wrong” because, by definition, moral subjectivism is 100% based on feelings and 0% based on reason. At least, that’s my understanding of it. I’m currently researching it further.

    Bender also wrote:

    “If it is the latter, if we are each makers of our own morality, if I have my “opinion” of right and wrong, and you have your idea of right and wrong, both of which must be respected (for some absolute “ethical” reason having to do with “justice”), does not morality simply sink into nothing more than the imposition of the powerful over the weaker? Indeed, does it not sink into the imposition of the “evil” over the just, since there are things that the transcendent moral absolutist will not do, while the amoralist is not similarly restrained.”

    While atheism is indeed amoral, since it is simply no belief in a god or gods, it doesn’t follow that atheists are amoral. They simply get their morals from other sources or philosophies. So, your question that equivocates amoralists with atheists is not really valid.

  59. geekchic9 says

    “If one actually reads serious moral theology, the situation is much the same. People don’t go around arguing “because God told me so”. Rather, arguments are generally made based on scripture, on the writings of great Christian scholars throughout history, and on human experience and “natural law”. Given that no one is claiming to have a directly hotline to God, and given that the above sources are ones on which there can be considerable divergence of opinion when it comes to assessment, it can hardly be surprising that there’s a lot of disagreement.”

    Let me phrase my question another way: Why are the scriptures so open to wide degrees of interpretation? If the Christian god is so great, so all-knowing, etc. why wouldn’t he create — or inspire people to create — something that is internally consistent and not so open to interpretation?

    Another thing: I haven’t met many theologians, so I don’t really know how they think. However, I have met a lot of “regular” Christians, and too many of them claim that they or someone they know has some sort of direct hot line to God. “I prayed to God and He told me so” or “My pastor/priest/other religious authority told me so, and s/he can’t be wrong” are two common refrains that I hear frequently. So, if no one has a direct hot line to the Christian god, could you do me a big favor and inform them? That would end a lot of trouble, assuming they believe you — and I think people would be more open minded to differing opinions if this were the case.

    “This is, incidentally, one of the primary claims that sets Catholicism apart from the other Christian traditions. Catholics believe that Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would guard over the teaching authority of the Church and prevent its leaders from teaching error. Most of us see this unchangeability as a feature, but there are those (primarily those who want a change in morals on some particular activity) who consider it a bug.”

    Occam’s Razor basically simplifies that to “God is protecting us from teaching incorrectly; thus, we can’t be teaching incorrectly because God is protecting us from teaching incorrectly” despite evidence to the contrary. It’s also a very circular argument. That’s how it looks to me, at least. Note: I am a former Catholic/Catholic apostate, however you want to look at it. I know a lot of what Catholicism teaches, since I was raised in it and educated myself in it.

  60. JackieD says

    I don't think you're as far from Christianity as you might think. Your views of God as standing outside of time, sculpting the universe like some gigantic 4-dimensional masterpiece remind me strongly of both Lewis and Tolkien.

    But just because He can view the Universe as a single object throughout all time does not necessarily mean that the object is unchanging and that humans have no impact on it whatsoever.

    With that topic in mind, I'd recommend Lewis's Space Trilogy, particularly Perelandra, and the first two books of the Silmarillion, the Ainulindalë and the Valaquenta. I realize you've already picked up a hefty reading list from this conversation, but A & V are fairly short, and the Space Trilogy is religion pretending to be scifi, so it's a pretty easy read.

  61. amy says

    I’m afraid I don’t have much to add to this conversation, but I’m enjoying seeing it unfold.

    myron,

    I like your view of God. It makes perfect sense to me. Which is perhaps why I have so much trouble with religion. And yet I want faith… why?

    “Why?” is that question I keep asking that never gets answered.

  62. Myron says

    jackied:

    But just because He can view the Universe as a single object throughout all time does not necessarily mean that the object is unchanging and that humans have no impact on it whatsoever.

    I think you’re suggesting that human beings, by their choice of actions, can change the future? I just want to confirm that’s what you’re saying, because I have a long and somewhat dense line of argument which suggests that probably not.

    If I’ve got your position correctly, here’s one quick point against: We know we can’t change the past. It seems to me that since the present is a point in time rather than a span of time over which you might make a decsision or choose an action, we can’t change the present either. So if we can’t change the past, and we can’t change the present, how exactly are you suggesting free will operates? Perhaps, if we take the present to be a point in time, some of the physical laws (which usually assume a span of time) don’t apply? What are your thoughts, exactly?

  63. Darwin says

    myron,

    The idea of God being outside of time which you liked in C. S. Lewis is pretty much taken directly from St. Augustine (City of God, if I recall correctly) who used that as his explanation of how God could be both all-knowing and yet not restrict free will. I’ve always liked it, and it strikes me as a wonderfully science fictional argument for something that was written in the 4th century AD.

    GeekChic,

    Let me phrase my question another way: Why are the scriptures so open to wide degrees of interpretation? If the Christian god is so great, so all-knowing, etc. why wouldn’t he create — or inspire people to create — something that is internally consistent and not so open to interpretation?

    Well, if “the Bible” was created as a single literary work by God with the purpose of communicating His message in the clearest, most unquestionable way possible to people, I suppose one could argue that. (Though frankly, I fail to see how anything written in any langauge could fail to be open to interpetation.) But that’s not really what the Bible is — outside the minds of a few fundamentalists who are convinced the Jesus wrote the King James Version. What we have in the bible is a collection of individual works written by many people at many times and place for many different reasons — none of them consciously written with the intent of “this will explain to everyone in every time and place exactly and without question what God meant” — and selected by the Church in the 3rd and 4th centuries as being those books which recorded accurately the interactiong of God and humanity throughout salvation history.

    I think when we ask it to be something other than that, we’re imposing in inappropriate framework on it.

    Another thing: I haven’t met many theologians, so I don’t really know how they think. However, I have met a lot of “regular” Christians, and too many of them claim that they or someone they know has some sort of direct hot line to God. “I prayed to God and He told me so” or “My pastor/priest/other religious authority told me so, and s/he can’t be wrong” are two common refrains that I hear frequently. So, if no one has a direct hot line to the Christian god, could you do me a big favor and inform them? That would end a lot of trouble, assuming they believe you — and I think people would be more open minded to differing opinions if this were the case.

    I do whenever I get the chance. Believe it or not, I find it rather annoying when people tell me those sorts of things as well.

    Occam’s Razor basically simplifies that to “God is protecting us from teaching incorrectly; thus, we can’t be teaching incorrectly because God is protecting us from teaching incorrectly” despite evidence to the contrary. It’s also a very circular argument. That’s how it looks to me, at least.

    Well, I hadn’t intended it to be an argument — I’d just said that’s what Catholics believe, not attempted to make an argument as to why. (That’s a whole other discussion.)

    I’d say that one of the basic distinctions between a Catholic and a Protestant way of looking at Christianity is that Protestants tend to say, “God gave us the Bible, and that’s how we know what God wants us to believe” whereas the Catholic position would be more along the lines of, “God gave us the Church (and before that, gave us Israel) and the Church both preserves the scriptures and the teachings of Christ that are contained in them.”

    So from a Catholic point of view, it’s not at all surprising if the scriptures are not self evidentially obvious on every point one might question.

  64. Myron says

    Perhaps, if we take the present to be a point in time, some of the physical laws (which usually assume a span of time) don’t apply?

    Aw, crap… I honestly didn’t think of the “point in time/span in time” thing until as I was writing, before that I was just thinking “we can’t change the past, we can’t change the present, so…” I wanted to more carefully define what I meant by the present, and now look where I am, my head hurts from trying to picture a gods-eye-view of a free-will universe!

    Let me think about that one for a while. It makes my god’s eye view rather more complicated if humans can screw with the structure of the universe in ways a God can’t predict (or maybe He can, haven’t sorted that one out yet). Meantime, if anyone has a convincing refutation to that idea, please step forward so I don’t have to relearn calculus to figure out what we know about handling infinitely-small-but-non-zero numbers (such as the amount of time in “the present”). I was always really bad at calculus…

    Unless somebody else has a convincing counter-agrument, then I’m willing to concede that point for now, and genuine free will becomes a possibility, along with the pseudo-free-will universe described above. But I’ll have to think about it for a while to determine which one I like better and why, or whether I’m missing something. jackied, if you figure free will operates through some other mechanism, two possibilities makes a more convincing pro-free-will case than one.

    And what should I watch out for in the Silmarillion? I think I have a copy around somewhere, but last time I read it was almost 15 years ago, and I didn’t get the religious references (although I wasn’t looking for them, I was 13 ish.)

    Amy:

    Thanks! So for you, does it help in the search for something faith-like that makes sense? For me, it’s enough, but I’d like to hear from anyone who feels it’s incomplete, provided they can tell me what about it seems inomplete. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but I think it’s something that would get people thinking, and might move some people away from “there’s a man in the sky” philosophy, anyway.

    Oh and Bender:

    This whole discussion is getting to the point where I’m confused what everyone has said and not really willing to re-read it all in detail to figure out if someone has responded to your thoughts on utilitarianism the way I would have done, so I apologize if this repeats something that’s already been said. My thoughts on how to reconcile the idea of treating other poeple like useless eaters with the idea of utilitarianism as a principle you should follow are based on the fact that I spent about 5-10 years considering very carefully whether I might be a useless eater myself, and thus morally obligated to remove myself. As an amputee, and someone doctors thought would never learn to read or write or live independently due to some relatively minor congenital defects (they were completely wrong, by the way, I’m doing quite well) I know first hand what it’s like to be told you’re essentially worthless. I wouldn’t presume to say the same about anyone else, even though helping to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number is something I think is very important. Utility maximization by itself can be insufficient, but if you add in a little empathy, alomst all of the problems with it go away.

    I think this is illustrative of a deeper principle, which is that it’s a mistake to search for the “one highest principle” to live your life by. I think some atheists fall into this trap, and certainly some people on this blog are arguing as if for them one principle overrides all of the others, although I’m not sure if that’s truly the case. Non-religious people sometimes do this because they want the clarity of purpose that religious people have. “Utilitarianism” or “God’s will” is a lot easier to say in response to “what principle guides your life/what gives your life meaning?” than “a little of this, a little of that”. But practically, what you do is take all of your ethical principles, and if they’re all saying “this action is a go”, you go ahead. But if one of them says “now hold on a second”, you stop and think. And that way you avoid mistakes. Simple.

    And personally, I think the idea of thinking of myself as a potential useless eater was entirely valid. I don’t think I have an inherent value that makes me worthy of life, I think I have to earn it. That lead me to consider what life means, why (and whether) we all deserve to be here, and how I could contribute. Turns out, bringing a little empathy into the world was a big part of my contributive potential, so I understand the people who base their lives around empathy.

    At the same time as I think people have to contribute to deserve to live, I wouldn’t presume to decide that someone else is not able to contribute. As marian has correctly pointed out, I’m not omniscient, so how can I tell what the future will hold? When there’s a little uncertainty but the downside is small, that’s OK. But when there’s a little uncertainty and the downside is someone dies, you err on the side of caution. If you become sure later the person should die, you can always kill them then. But when it comes to murder, even for the greater good, it’s a very rare case when you should be sure. And to those of you for whom utility maximization is your singular principle – go talk to some useless eaters, and see if it still is tomorrow.

  65. JackieD says

    Myron,

    At some point, my mind gives up on the whole 4th dimension, but maybe this quote from The Great Divorce will help:

    “Because all answers deceive. If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it. But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears. Time is the very lens through which ye see-small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope-something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope. It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn't is itself Freedom. They are a lens. The picture is a symbol: but it's truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic's vision) that claims to go behind it. For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two.” (The Great Divorce)

    Or maybe it will just confuse the issue further >_< When I first read the book, this explained to me how it was possible for omniscience and free will to coexist, but re-reading the quote now, it's more confusing than I remember.

    The part I was referring to in the Silmarillion was the creation myth (the first chapter or so); Tolkien may have tried to avoid allegory, but he was a Catholic, and I think it would have been very hard for him to write a creation myth that didn't reflect his own beliefs in some way. I think it's a beautiful bit of allegory, and gives a few new ways to think about the creation of the universe.

  66. Myron says

    Hey Jackied:

    I’m going to take some time over the weekend and really think this through. But I have a question for you, no fourth dimension involved 🙂 : if the universe I’ve described is accurate, and you have the ability to choose for all intents and purposes, why is it important that the future be changeable, rather than just unknown to you? If you knew the future would be good, that your actions were in some sense a part of a plan, and your striving towards good was part of why it would turn out the way it will (so your effort does matter) then why is the ability to change the future important?

  67. amy says

    myron,

    Thanks! So for you, does it help in the search for something faith-like that makes sense?

    Unfortunately (and strangely), for me, seeing God the way you described isn’t necessarily helpful (and from what you wrote I wouldn’t consider you atheist–perhaps “just you” is right). What you wrote re: your way of seeing God articulates some of my own thoughts of God, and because it makes sense to me, it causes me difficulty with regards to religion, Christianity specifically. That wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that I want to believe. I feel the need to connect with God through a tangible, methodical, corporate practice. Whether it is by chance, or accident of birth, or whatever, Christianity is the dominant vehicle for relating to God where and when I am in this world. So I make attempts to practice Christianity, in the midst of my doubts. But I don’t like to lie, and pretend I believe when I don’t, and so I have trouble.

    I’m glad your way of looking at God is enough for you. For whatever reason, it isn’t enough for me.

    General comment to everyone:

    I think it speaks to the caliber of people who read Jen’s blog (both religious and non religious) that discussions like this can occur without all of the vitriol that seems to come up in other places on the internet.

  68. JackieD says

    Myron,

    The question you’re asking is ‘why is free will important’, right? That’s a doozy :-p Hopefully someone better versed in theology than I can answer for sure, but here’s my guess.

    There’s been a few comments on this post about how crazy it is for humans to assume that they are special, how we’re just more intelligent animals and there’s only a few brain cell’s difference between us and dolphins or gorillas. I would say that no, we are fundamentally different, and that difference is free will.

    Science has already determined that both genetics and conditioning are largely responsible for our behavior, so let’s imagine that there’s a master formula: for a given situation or choice between x and y, genetics + experience = x. Animals, no matter how intelligent, will always follow x, the given answer to the formula. Humans, on the other hand, have an choice–if genetics and experience give x, they can choose to do y instead.

    One Sunday our priest outlined the difference between animal and man by pointing out that if a dog is hungry and you give him food, he will eat. He cannot choose not to eat, if that’s the answer to the formula. A starving man, on the other hand, can turn down food if he so chooses.

    Okay, now that I’ve bored you with my explaination of free will, why is it important?

    I’d say it’s important because it allows humans to take part in the shaping of the universe. Without free will, the 4-dimensional universe would indeed be static, with no will guiding it but God’s. All the animals, all completely natural things would perfectly follow the rules of the universe. But because he made us in his image, capable of free will ourselves, it is not ‘static’ (in whatever sense that word applies in the 4th dimension).

    Why is this non-static state important? Possibly it makes the world more interesting, possibly it is the Universe’s entire point and purpose, like the difference between creating a painting and creating a baby.

    (Btw, this does not necessarily imply that Earth and humans are the center of the universe–I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that there are many other sentient species elsewhere in the universe who also posess free will.)

  69. Myron says

    JackieD:

    possibly it is the Universe’s entire point and purpose, like the difference between creating a painting and creating a baby.

    I like that, it nicely encapsulates the difference between creating something that’s passively beautiful and something where part of its beauty lies in its action and active intelligence.

    Ok, so we have a “why would God create free will?” “Because he wanted to create a baby, not a painting”. But (I’m asking because you’ve obviously thought about this for longer than I have, as I started yesterday) have you seen any evidence that free will actually operates?

    Thing is, in order to reject my pseudo-free-will idea in favour of genuine free will, it has to have better predictive validity, simplify something that in my idea is more complex, eliminate one of my assumptions, or in some way be “better”. You’ve gotten me to the point where I’m going “it’s a possibility”, but the problem is that with my pseudo-free-will universe the observation by atheists that prayer doesn’t work and theists that it does can be reconciled, and the “why is God hiding” question is answered. I think under free will the absolute and unerring symmetry of the universe with the plan God has for it is broken, so those surprising coincidence moments have to be dismissed as imagination (or divine intervention comes back and brings “why is God hiding?” with it), or the atheists have to be told to go check their statistics again. So adopting free will as my preferred framework requires something to counterbalance that downside. Open question to anyone who believes in free will: What convinces you it’s true? “I feel it’s true” is valid, but I feel my model is true too, so we need something more to decide.

    Also, the passage you posted is a little dense, and took me a few minutes to parse through, but I know what it’s trying to say. I’m going to post a translation/rephrasing shortly, and you can tell me if you think I’ve missed the mark.

    Also also, to me it seems that even true free will doesn’t preclude the possibility that there is no fundamental difference between us and animals. Perhaps free will is something that arises naturally, by degrees, like intelligence. Animals do seem to have varying levels of intelligence, and if you look at the behaviour of many animals, you begin to question how unlike us they really are. And if the idea that evolution is part of how we get to be better “fits” in a free will universe where God was making some kind of baby, in the same way it “fits” in my model, then maybe continuing to evolve is part of the way we become closer to God, possibly eventually gaining the ability/understanding required to move beyond this universe, not in death “raised up” by the hand of God (still don’t believe in heaven for us – we’re just not that significant that we can be buddies with God), but maybe as active consciousnesses born within the universe, and then able to take that step beyond. Just a thought, and complete speculation.

    Back to animals vs. humans for a second: Is it really true that a dog can never refuse food if it’s hungry, or is that just an assumption we make along with “we’re superior beings”? I read an article recently about great apes who are removed from their families, and if they see their parents killed in front of them by poachers, they appear to exhibit behaviours consistent with emotional trauma, up to the point where they will stop eating and just die. Not to say we’re identical to apes, but maybe they’re a lot more like us than we think. So I see no reason to believe we’re fundamentally different from other animals, just because they can’t communicate as well with us as we can with each other. That seems like baseless prejudice to me unless someone can demonstrate that it has more base than I’ve seen. Maybe the “divine spark” if there is one is the spark that separates living from non-living matter. We’re trying to understand that transition, and we may have that one solved within our lifetime at the rate we’re going, but we’re not quite there yet, and if it really is divine maybe we’re still a long way off.

    And guess what? I’ve got a way to visualize a free will universe where there are an infinite number of moments in a second, and an infinite number of possible universes, each created by a possible choice we could make at each moment. If 4 dimensions was too much, you may want to give this a pass, but…

    Think of a decision tree starting at the beginning of the universe (or any subsequent point you like) graphed on a piece of paper. You can choose something one way or another, and two lines go down in an inverted V, and at the end of the line is the universe that would result from your choice. Then you make another choice, and another, and with an infinite number of choices you get something that looks vaguely like the animation on this page, with a universe at each of the three points of each triangle. But visualizing that doesn’t bear on our current discussion, so don’t worry if you quite can’t get it.

  70. Myron says

    jackied, regarding your passage from The Great Divorce:

    Bottom line, if I’m reading it right, C. S. Lewis is describing a static universe where the future is predetermined, but one where the illusion of free will is a more important truth for us to understand than the “reality” that God sees, because we are mortals and not Gods so a God’s eye view can lead us astray philosophically while still being true. I might be biased, but here’s what I think he’s saying, and if so I agree 100%.

    If ye put the question from within Time and are asking about possibilities, the answer is certain. The choice of ways is before you. Neither is closed. Any man may choose eternal death. Those who choose it will have it.

    Translation: If you put the question from within time, from our perspective as humans, free will certainly exists.

    But if ye are trying to leap on into eternity, if ye are trying to see the final state of all things as it will be (for so ye must speak) when there are no more possibilities left but only the Real, then ye ask what cannot be answered to mortal ears.

    Translation: But if you are asking what God sees, as mortals it is hard or impossible to understand correctly. There is a final state for all things, a single objective reality without multiple possibilities, but saying “What will be” doesn’t “get it”.

    Time is the very lens through which ye see-small and clear, as men see through the wrong end of a telescope-something that would otherwise be too big for ye to see at all. That thing is Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves parts of eternal reality. But ye can see it only through the lens of Time, in a little clear picture, through the inverted telescope.

    Translation: The view you see, from within time, is flawed or incomplete. Although your impulse to choose and your understanding of what choice is and freedom means comes from your maker and is true, your understanding of free will and freedom is shaped by the fact that you are seeing things from a time-constrained perspective, which means you can’t see the “big picture” like God can.

    It is a picture of moments following one another and yourself in each moment making some choice that might have been otherwise. Neither the temporal succession nor the phantom of what ye might have chosen and didn’t is itself Freedom. They are a lens.

    Translation: The picture you see involves viewing time moment-to-moment, in a succession of choices you could have made. But neither these moments nor their choices represent the truth of how things work. How you see things is not the literal truth, just how you as a mortal must view things to see clearly at all.

    The picture is a symbol: but it’s truer than any philosophical theorem (or, perhaps, than any mystic’s vision) that claims to go behind it.

    Translation: But although your understanding that you have freedom may not be literally true, it’s true in that it’s what you should act on. Any philosopher or mystic that claims to see what God sees and derive a greater truth than free will from that is mistaken.

    For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two.

    Translation: Every attempt to understand how God sees everything at once from outside of time leads you to the conclusion that you are not truly free to choose your future. Look at the idea of predestination, which shows (truly enough) that all of eternity is not waiting for you to come along and experience it before it will become real. But this idea eliminates freedom, which is the greater truth of the two.

    I think he makes a very important point. I hope even if you don’t “get” the 4 dimensions thing, and the seeing things from God’s perspective thing all sounds very wise, but goes over your head, so you just pick up the bits you can understand from what I’ve said about time and go with those… well, that is dangerous. If you think anything I’ve said means free will isn’t real enough for you to live by, you’re missing the point I was trying to make, and moving in the direction of moral relativism, by the following argument:

    Person 1: So you’re saying that the future is already decided?
    Person 2: Yes.
    Person 1: So why should I bother to do good?
    Person 2: Because it’s clearly what God wants.
    Person 1: But… you’re saying everything we see in the world today is part of what God wants, right?
    Person 2: Yes, it is.
    Person 1: And I see evil in the world today.
    Person 2: That’s true.
    Person 1: And you’re saying that no matter what I do, it will still be part of God’s plan, right?
    Person 2: Yes, it will.
    Person 1: So even if I do something that isn’t good, that’s somehow part of God’s plan. In the end, in your view, it will all work out for the best.
    Person 2: That’s all true.
    Person 1: So why, again, should I try to be good? In your view, it seems that evil always turns out to be for the best anyway, so instead of donating my coffee a day to charity, I’m having my freakin’ coffee!

    So what’s wrong with this idea?

    Remember, we’re not gods. Just because (some of) you can understand what God might see (I’m basing my ideas on a lot of speculation and assumptions) doesn’t mean you should say “my understanding is greater than that person’s over there, I understand that free will doesn’t mean what he thinks it means, so I can choose whatever I want and it doesn’t matter.” You do that and you abandon the truth of what God wants for the universe, which is a greater truth to try to understand than merely the one about how God sees the universe. If I had to explain what I think to people who I knew wouldn’t understand, and they asked me if free will exists, I would just say “yes” to keep it simple. What I’ve done on this forum is say “It’s way more complicated when you think about it, but fundamentally, for all intents and purposes, for us as human beings, yes it does.”

    Hope that clears things up.

  71. M3 says

    This is a good discussion. One of the posters on my blog referred to it recently in his post. I posted my thoughts on the issue over there.

    But basically it all boils down to the idea that “morals” have been favorably selected in our evolution because it helps us survive.

    There is a good book that touches on the issue called “Nonzero.” But basically what has happened is that humans, as they evolved, who were better at working together, survived longer. Most survival things like hunting whales for food and such, require groups of people to work together. So if my team was lucky and got a whale today, I share it with my neighbors because next week, if I’m not so lucky and they are, they’ll share with me. Thus begat the “Golden Rule.”

    Of course there are contradictions to this rule but in general I think you will find that it is true.

    One way you can see the golden rule is so universal is because it or some variation of it is part of most major religions today. For example, both Buddhism and Judeo-Christian religions, two totally different schools of thought, use the principal.

    So we can only assume that the concept transcends religion and is part of our nature. Add to this how favorable it has been to our evolution… But I don’t believe that God, however you want to describe that, has anything to do with it. (Unless of course you call the mysterious life force that drives evolution “God”)

  72. Myron says

    Hey Amy:

    I’ve been thinking about your situation too. I tried Christianity very briefly, because I saw a lot of good in some of the basic ideas, and as I’ve said before I think everyone who’s trying to do good things with their lives is basically on the same side. And I found that church was a gathering of such people, which you don’t often find outside of a church setting. But on the other hand, some of the core beliefs just sound like nonsense to me (Christ, the afterlife, and prayer come to mind). If only both I and the church didn’t agree quite so strongly that lying is wrong, I might have been able to manage to stay in. Ah well, it was a good month or six-ish in my mid teens…

    Anyway, all that’s to say, I understand where you’re coming from. All of this abstract theory doesn’t quite have the satisfaction of going to a place where people believe like you do, and doing things together to express those beliefs. Which I think is another way of saying I feel the need to connect with God through a tangible, methodical, corporate practice.? So by itself, this theory isn't going to cut it for a lot of people.

    I really do wish there was something like a "church of me". It sounds conceited, but all I mean is a gathering-place for people who believe something close to what I believe (no, people, Christianity doesn't count – no Christ-significance, no heaven, possibly more than one God? It just wouldn't work). I even thought of starting a group of some sort someday, but… well, the problem is I'd make a really poor cult leader, and also my idea isn't simple like the man in the sky, so people wouldn't get it easily, even if I try to explain it as simply as I can. It would get corrupted by people trying to reduce it to something simpler for mass appeal. Which you can't really do. I didn't want to do the longest post ever, but when I thought about letting it out concept-by-concept, in a kind of Q&A format, letting people challenge me point by point and responding, I figured that wouldn't work because there would be too many Q's and the A's would get all muddled in people's heads, and volcano-god-guy would throw them into everlasting fire.

    So I'm stuck, kind of. But I still do wish there was something simpler and freer from rituals than a church, that non-religious people who believed in doing good for an actual reason could get together in. Volunteer organizations fill part of that space, but "hey, we all agree cancer and/or poverty is bad" is just not quite the same as "hey, we all agree the universe is good".

    So mass and such is OK, I understand where the need comes from. But I sort of think like this: if my conception of what God wants is for me to do good things, and prayer seems pretty pointless, well then maybe doing good things is my “tangible, methodical, corporate practice.” When I feel like I ought to show some appreciation for the world, I try to find someone I can do something good for. I do wish I could find people to do it with me on a regular basis, though. But, such is life. Overall, I’ve enjoyed this little chat, and I hope it’s helped some people – Thanks to Jen F for providing a space for it and approving my many, many blog-space-monopolizing posts – it’s made this a pretty good week 🙂

    And yeah, if you’ve got good evidence of free will, that conversation is still on, but other than that I think I’m about done for now. Someone else say something 🙂

  73. JaaJoe says

    I would highly suggest for you, and any one else interested to read the book ““The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions.” by self-professed secular Jew and mathematics/philosophies teacher David Berlinski.
    This tells the story of a Jew who was forced to dig his own grave prior to being shot by a German soldier. Prior to being shot, the old Jewish man advised the German that “God is watching what you are doing.” The Jewish gentleman pointed what i think is the real problem with atheism. “If you have the time please check the book out

  74. Myron says

    Hey all.

    Over the past couple of days, I’ve thrown a copy of the idea I posted up here onto a forum that’s very, very pro-atheist, calld “Why won’t God heal Amputees?”. Like here, there really wasn’t any negative reaction, no “you’ve completely missed this point” or anything like that.

    I think this means the idea has at least some merit, and I’ve started a blog where I’m going to put it up for further discussion. I’ve called it Working towards something that makes sense

  75. Akranabar T'verrick Ilarsadin says

    I’m coming to this very late.

    Samuel Skinner said:
    That is even dumber. The bible was supposed to be the guiding light for mankind and God OUTSOURCED it! To Asia no less! Such shoddy craftsmanship- in my days people took pride in the work they did and if tyou wanted something done right you did it yourself.

    Nope, sorry. The Catholic Church is the guiding light for mankind. Hence the logical necessity of infallibility. The Bible is just one of her tools. And since we are part of God’s creation, He intended to entrust its composition to certain of us in the first place, the ones He made right for just that job.

    and:
    I don’t belive in free will because the term cannot be defined without being incoherant.

    Try this: Free will is having the ability to choose other than what or how we are motivated to. I figured that one out from St. Augustine’s reconciliation of predestination and free will.

    and:
    As it is morality is a choice. If you can give a reason for a person to be moral, they aren’t being moral. It has to be from ones self!

    One chooses whether or not to behave morally; in that, morality is a choice. The rest of this seems to suggest that morality cannot be taught or transmitted, a position I find to be without merit.

    Myron said:
    I have no obligation to be perfect, or to know everything, but I do have an obligation to be as good as I can.

    That’s straight-up Catholicism there. Just add the realization that “as good as I can” is a moving target, and the requirement to repent of your imperfections. My goal is not to label you as a Catholic, but to affirm what you have in common with us.

    and:
    So what about “God has to hide his work, because if he didn’t… ” followed by some explanation? Maybe, but I think probably not. Not that I’m a god, but if I was, and I had the power to create the entire universe, and the genius required to make it actually a relatively workable system, I think I could figure a way to reward people for believing in me, and prove my existence to those who didn’t believe at first.

    The rewards are things like hope, peace, joy, and love — I know I have more of these as I seek greater closeness to God. As for proof, I think it is contrary to love to saddle you with a proof you are absolutely incapable of disbelieving.

    and:
    Now I ask you, do you find it likely that a being like that would find it worthwhile to stick his finger into the universe and change something to answer your prayers? I say no…

    Unless, of course, He wants to because He loves us. It is certainly no strain upon His resources. And there’s evidence of Him doing so — all the miracles documented by the Church and particularly, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

    Humility, by the way, is not some sort of self-denigration, but rather an honest and true assessment of our abilities and worth — seeing ourselves exactly as God sees us, no more and no LESS.

    The point of prayer is not to change God, but to change US. By conversing with those in heaven, we get closer to them and thus to God.

    and:
    I can imagine heaven, which tells me it’s not on god-scale, which means it’s probably not true.

    What that tells me is that you don’t understand heaven, which is unity with God. Can you imagine unity with the being you earlier described?

  76. Myron says

    Hi Akranabar:

    Try this: Free will is having the ability to choose other than what or how we are motivated to.

    If not by your motivations, then what is your reason for choosing the way you do? As I understand it, intent is important when considering moral questions, and your intended result = the result you want, or are motivated to attain. Also, your motivations are by definition the reasons why you do things. Add a non-motivational reason for doing things (what you are suggesting free will is) and any action you take by your free will is essentially random, with no reason or intent behind it. So, while I accept it is possible that this type of free will exists, it does seem to be fundamentally contradictory to attach any moral dimension to its use in decision making. A will that is both free and leads to culpability appears to be a contradiction in terms.

    Myron said:
    I have no obligation to be perfect, or to know everything, but I do have an obligation to be as good as I can.

    That’s straight-up Catholicism there. Just add the realization that “as good as I can” is a moving target, and the requirement to repent of your imperfections. My goal is not to label you as a Catholic, but to affirm what you have in common with us.

    I suspect that many, if not all religions take the position that you don’t have to know everything, but you do have to try to be good. And I do treat “my best” as a moving target. It seems like common sense. I’ve found it’s served me well, though, and I’m glad to see that Catholicism recognizes the value of sensible practices :).

    On the other hand, it would be problematic for me to accept the idea that I should repent of my sins unless and until I was reasonably sure that there was a God there who would listen. Unfortunately, our common-sense common ground extends only so far. I do recognize the value of considering the things I have done wrong in life, attempting to correct my behaviour, and making amends to as many people as I can who I may have harmed. These are practices which again seem like common sense to me, and I think would have many of the benefits of the type of repentance you are suggesting.

    As for proof, I think it is contrary to love to saddle you with a proof you are absolutely incapable of disbelieving.

    I wouldn’t ask for a proof like that. Of course, as a human being I can believe just about anything I want, and equally, I can deny belief in just about anything I want, no matter how obvious it may be to others that I’m wrong in either my belief or my denial. Also, I’ve spent considerable time since I first posted my ideas on this blog discussing what I think with people of different religious and non-religious backgrounds. What I’ve learned from that is that you can only be certain you have “absolute proof” of anything if you’re fooling yourself. Considering the arguments made by Descartes, it is impossible to be certain of any proof you think you may have. But what I have also found is that many people have a set of assumptions they treat as certain and unquestionable. Religious people often do this with a belief in God, strongly atheist people do it with a belief that the laws of physics cannot be broken (no miracles happen, ever). Materialists do it with the non-existence of free will and the soul. Etc. The thing is, many people, whatever their viewpoint, think that theirs is the only logically consistent set of assumptions (because they treat them as facts, not assumptions) when in actuality, it’s possible to logically construct or adopt a set of beliefs with either God or materialist atheism as its basis, and the beliefs hang together logically, and you can go about your life fairly successfully.

    The point of saying this is that I now know that any measure of “proof” I have is only as good as the assumptions I start out with, which I can’t prove, and have to be taken on something like faith (even if it’s faith that physics can’t be broken) if I want to feel certain of the truth.

    I think it’s better to be uncertain, continually look at the world through both materialist atheist and more spiritual eyes, and just accept that I don’t have the answer as to which one is right. That way my eyes are open, and I don’t do anything particularly stupid under either viewpoint, like joining a cult or denying the possibility that God might exist. All of this is to say, I’m not looking for certainty, I realize that’s unrealistic. What I would like in the way of proof is reasonability, the same as I look for for any other “proof” in life, and unfortunately God has not even deigned to give me that much. So I consider it reasonable to believe many, many things (although on any of them I could be convinced I’m wrong) but not in the type of God Christianity supposes. On the other hand, the sort of God outlined in my post, who doesn’t need to intervene because it’s already got control of everything through physics, seems entirely reasonable to me. That gives me a feeling of hope, peace, joy, and even, when I take a moment to appreciate the world around me, a feeling of closeness to God. I don’t think you’ve understood this from my post, but non-interventionist doesn’t mean uncaring or callous, or unconcerned with the world. Your religion teaches people to both pray and leave things in God’s hands. I prefer to act as best I can, and do the second thing with anything I can’t do anything about. Assuming God exists, he’ll take care of anything I can’t, and if he doesn’t, he won’t, but neither will I, because I can’t, so I’d have to accept what I cannot change.

    By conversing with those in heaven, we get closer to them and thus to God.

    I have tried conversing with God, and people who I used to know who, if the Christian religion is correct, are now (hopefully) in heaven. Unfortunately a conversation needs to be two-way, and I didn’t get the sense that anyone was responding.

    What that tells me is that you don’t understand heaven, which is unity with God. Can you imagine unity with the being you earlier described.

    No. Can you explain why I as a reasonable person should think that such unity will occur? The belief in a God does not require the belief in a soul, or any form of afterlife. I can get to the point where a belief in God is reasonable through considering the seeming intelligence behind physics, and considering the possibility of a first cause (although that argument leads to a paradox, it has intuitive appeal since every other answer to “how did the universe happen” also leads to logical problems). But that’s as far as I get. As for miracles, I’ve heard people claim all sorts of them, many of which I’ve had better explanations for than “God did it”. So the credibility of miracles is damaged in that way, and also it strikes me as odd that God will do good things for a small, small, small minority, but leave so much suffering in the world. Christians can blame this on sin, but the fact is that small children dying of starvation and malaria have not committed sins sufficient to warrant their suffering, and I have not done sufficient good to warrant my privileged position in the world. So if God intervenes, He doesn’t appear to be doing so very frequently or very fairly. A deist God who provides purpose to the suffering of the world makes more sense to me than a God who cures a few people of a few things but leaves the vast majority of the world to suffer and die.

    I don’t mean to offend anyone with this, I’m just stating my beliefs as they are, and so opening them up to challenge.

  77. Anonymous says

    When I began reading this post I was unsure but as I finished I was convinced. Your thinking is so far from mine I couldn’t reach down to you with a 1000 foot pole. I simply can not wrap my head around the idea of god. For thousands of reasons for example what about other religions that bring people the same inner peace?

  78. Ryan Anderson says

    I appreciate your article and to be honest, this is the one thing that "nags" at me. I can buy the idea of a "first mover", but not so much a "law giver", not one that has any stake or interest in humanity anyway. So I'm still fairly certain that all morals are derived from society and we are a product of society.

    But either way, your sentiment is nice, but it's not the reality. We do agree that killing other people is OK if they threaten to weaken the species. It's not as simple as you made it, but if, for example, a dictator supposedly has weapons that could harm us, we don't bat an eye when tens of thousands of innocent civilians are killed. You and I may personally not approve of this, but it's still "endorsed" by society and many people think it's "good", society (this one anyway) says thinks it's good.

  79. Alexander says

    I am a lifelong atheist. Like your parents (and you before your conversion), I strive to be a "good" person who does the "right" thing. And it is certainly not out of line to ask, "where do our ideas of right and wrong come from? How do we know what is good and what is not?"

    I say, very simply, that our ideas of right and wrong came from us – human beings – who decided somewhere along the line that as social beings, it is simply to our collective advantage to be good rather than be otherwise.

    Yes, I believe that a person can "sin" without any eternal consequences. I do not believe in or acknowledge a heaven or a hell. So why don't I steal? Or kill? Or commit adultery?

    I don't do these things because, A) I have no compelling reason to do so. Honestly, I have never felt any reason to do so. Have I been attracted to women other than my wife? Yes. So why didn't I just go have sex with them? Well, I didn't because I don't want to hurt my wife and because I don't feel that the short term pleasure of a sexual encounter are worth the potential consequences of being caught. I work in retail and I handle large quantities of money every single day. Yet I never feel even the slightest temptation to take so much as a penny. Why not? First of all, because it's not my money. It doesn't even seem like real money to me. It's more like Monopoly money. And, again, the potential earthly consequences of getting caught stealing don't seem worth the risk.

    B) I also don't steal, kill or cheat on my wife because I recognize that if everyone did so, there would be chaos. I don't want to live in a world where everybody steals, so I do my part (as a member of society) by not stealing myself.

    Ultimately, I firmly believe (yes, the B word) that all such behavior began with just this kind of thinking, albeit at an unconscious level. Primitive humans saw that there was utility in having such rules, but they didn't understand where these ideas came from. As we know, people believed for a long time that all ideas were the product of divine inspiration (the Greeks began their Epics with an invocation to the Muse). Not understanding how they arrived at the conclusion that "moral" actions were preferable to "immoral" actions, they attributed these ideas to a deity.

    God is not necessary to ethical behavior or to happiness.

    I am glad that you have found your own path to happiness, Jen. But don't make the mistake of thinking that just because YOU need God that anyone else does, or that he is real.

  80. Ray Ingles says

    I can certainly understand wanting to understand where "Valuing other people's lives, showing kindness and empathy to others, putting other people before yourself," come from, and how they could be objectively justified. But I think it can be done without God(s).

    Consider chess. There are certain fundamental 'rules of the game' that define it. An 8×8 board, 8 pawns per side that move in certain ways, two rooks per side that move in other ways, castling, the initial configuration of the pieces, etc. Now, there is no rule that you can't sacrifice your queen in the first few moves of the game. It's illegal to move your king to a threatened square, but it's perfectly acceptable by the rules to stick your queen in front of a pawn at the start of the game.

    However, if you want to win the game, you shouldn't do that. There are almost no situations (at least, assuming evenly-matched opponents) where giving up your queen at the start will lead to your victory. Similarly, it's rarely a good idea to move your king out to the center of the board. It's usually a bad move.

    Note words like "shouldn't" and "bad". They are value judgements. They prescribe 'oughts'. But they are not part of the 'rules' of chess. From where do they come? From the combinations of two things – first, the rules and structure of chess, and second, from the player's desire to win the game. They are strategic rules.

    We have physical laws, and we have human desires. "Oughts" – strategic rules – morals – arise from those two things. Some basic game theory, and voila – cooperation, etc. I contend that I am ethical and moral, that people in general are ethical and moral, because the alternative is running naked in the woods fighting over scraps of food.

    I'd say that "love" and "kindness" and "selflessness" and "empathy" and "charity" and "compassion" are just as objectively real as "don't sacrifice your queen early". And for the same reason, though on a vastly more complicated – and more humanly important – scale.

  81. Trajk Logik says

    If something is good, then there MUST be something that isn’t good to even make the claim that something is good. For instance, being healthy is good because being sick is bad. Being nice to people is good because being rude is bad. So, good and bad are just opposite sides of the SAME COIN. Healthy and sick are opposites sides to the condition of your body. Kindness and rudeness are the opposite sides of behavior. So, if God is good, then god must also be bad, and you’re only striving for one half of God, if you only strive for good.
    Now, I’m not saying that you should also strive to be bad. I’m just trying to make a point about your argument makes no sense.
    Our morality IS derived from one objective source – nature. And no, nature is not chaotic. Natural Selection is a lawful process of filtering random genetic mutations. So it’s a combination of lawfulness and randomness. This leads to the evolving of new features and/or behaviors, over immense periods of time, that are more beneficial to the species in their current environment.

Trackbacks

  1. […] A skeptic seeks faith by admin on September 16, 2010 · 0 Comments “The reason we seek that which is good — the reason we yearn for a world of love, peace, and harmony despite never having seen anything of the sort — is because our souls, which are not of this world, are aware that the world around us, the only world our eyes have ever seen, is not where we belong. What I found is that the line between non-belief and belief is thinner than it seemed, and that it is crossed when you take those yearnings for peace and harmony and love and all that is good and follow them to their source. It is there that you find God. And to dedicate your life to God is nothing more or less than to dedicate your life to the source of all that is good.” — Jennifer Fulwiler at Conversiondiary.com […]