Saturday, August 24, 2013

When Atheists and Skeptics are Right

Not being an atheist or skeptic I’m often disheartened by critical messaging on social media and TV. Sometimes it is intentionally confrontational, sometimes it’s nothing more than a light-hearted poke, and often it is simply crass or just wrong. Sometimes it is articulated well, sometimes it is puerile and, usually, it is nothing more than just a tee shirt slogan. Always, I feel it. Perhaps I should just grow a thicker skin.

However ugly the full-grown expression might be, it often grows from a seed of truth. This post is all about one of those seeds. I want to say to you skeptics and atheists that, on this issue at least, you are right.

The criticism or ridicule that I have in mind may be broadly categorized as a reaction against the kinds of claims made by believers that they are somehow special, or better, or more privileged than the “others”. A previous generation might have used the phrase “holier than thou”. At its heart, it’s a visceral reaction against what I call Religious Exceptionalism.

Put simply, Religious Exceptionalism states that because I subscribe to such-and-such a religion, or go to so-and-so church/temple/mosque/synagogue, I am entitled to all manner of privileges in this world and the next. The key term here is “because”. It’s using God to escape the bell-curve of probability; to elevate myself above my neighbors; to consider myself separate from them.

These privileges might be identified within a religious belief, but they can also be identified in a secular sphere. They can range from special knowledge or revelations, to the right to occupy land or to persecute other people-groups. Like skin colour, or sexuality, they are a self-serving set of criteria that I can use to consider myself better than, or more deserving than. They make me one of the good guys, and because of that, the universe owes me special consideration. They make me the exception.

Leading popular critics, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Lawrence Kraus, have capitalized on this criticism. In the recent debate that I attended, the repugnance exuded by Kraus and his supporters against Religious Exceptionalism was almost palpable, even if he didn’t express it in those terms. What drove him was the sense that we believers considered ourselves better than him and his science because of our beliefs. (Incidentally, I think his repugnance is only partially justified, and a balanced reflection indicates that he and his colleagues are supplanting one kind of Religious Exceptionalism with another – a form of anti-Religious Exceptionalism if you like – even though he aspires to anti-Religious anti-Exceptionalism.)

One cartoon by Alan Krumin showed a Rabbi, an Imam and a Bishop approaching the Pearly Gates guarded by Thor, the Viking god. The caption was something like “What happens when you support the wrong team.” In the face of this, it would be hopeless for me to try to explain the differences between Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and why I am one and not another, and perhaps that’s the cartoonist’s point. But I also see a sense of repugnancy at the perceived exclusion of the “other” religions from heaven. Am I entitled to enter those Pearly Gates and, if I am, what makes me so? What gives me the warrant to believe that I am the exception?

In my reading of the Bible, I see both bad news and good news for Religious Exceptionalism.

The bad news is that there is nothing in myself that makes me qualify for heaven or, indeed any other worldly or other-worldly privilege. I am not the exception, not even if I go to the “right” church and say and do the right things. For instance, when God directs Israel to occupy the land, he says
It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land … for you are a stiff-necked people Deuteronomy 9:5-7
In other words, Israel could not justify its privilege on the basis of its own rightness or religious preferences.

This scenario, in my reading of it, sets the pattern for all privilege and exceptionalism. Indeed it forms the bedrock of New Testament theology. Paul frames it in terms of faith and works
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works Ephesians 2:8-10 
The Reformers distilled it further to Sola Fide– Justification by faith alone, as opposed to justification by works.

The point of Paul and the Reformers is that our claims to privilege are not based on “works”. I understand the term to mean both the things we do and the things done to us, particularly as they relate to religious observation.

The seminal NT example of a religious “work” that is done to you and by you (if you are a Jewish man) is circumcision. How many times does the NT reinforce the message that we cannot justify our privileges by being circumcised or by circumcising our sons, or even by the state of being circumcised? Paul puts it bluntly in 1 Corinthians 7:19 “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing”. We cannot use it to justify our claim to privilege.

Likewise, Christian theology kicks against all kinds of Religious Exceptionalism. We Christians are good at forgetting this. Though we aver from Exceptionalism by circumcision, we often allow it to creep back in, in different clothes.

I was recently criticized for saying a prayer in church in which I described us as “dumb” in the context of God’s peerless wisdom. Do we think that we are entitled to being smart because we go to church? Would it be wrong to characterize our church as being full of idiots, of which I am the lead idiot? Where is the spirit that says that God often glorifies Himself through the foolish things of this world? Do we not realize that we, ourselves, could actually be those foolish things? Have we resorted to justifying ourselves based on our intellects and education? We need a new generation of Reformers to remind us that we are not the exceptions.

The good news is that God has made all the privileges of Christ available to us, through faith (for example, see Ephesians 1:3). There is access to heaven in this life and the next. However, these are not privileges that I am entitled to – I have no right to them. It is precisely because they are a gift that I can claim no exclusiveness to them – I do not own the franchise; not even partially.

In this context, I rightly see myself as the everyman that I am. I have privileges, but I am not entitled to them. I do not possess them by right. When God wishes to take them from me – the privilege of being alive, for instance – I have no reason to complain. There’s nothing in me that makes me the exception, and what privileges I have, I have by the grace of God. Surely that’s good news for us all because my neighbors, who are equally as unqualified as I, live under His grace too.

I feel sure that God wants me to enjoy and exploit whatever privileges he extends to me, including my life, my intellect and my education. By following in kind, He wants me to desire the “others” to enjoy and exploit their privileges too. In this economy of freely giving and receiving – the economy of Grace - there is no place for Religious Exceptionalism. In this respect, the atheists and skeptics are right, even if they are right for all the wrong reasons.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Atheism denies a reasonable basis for morality

The killing of Canaanite children, commanded by God in such passages as Deuteronomy 20:10-18, and other such acts, invokes moral outrage among atheists. My response is that Atheism denies a reasonable basis, or warrant, for morality; therefore, there is no reason to believe the atheists’ outrage. The moral outrage expressed by atheists as a recruiting drum for Atheism is one of the great propaganda triumphs of our time.


Last Wednesday, I attended the debate between Lawrence Krauss  and William Lane Craig. Although the subject was “Has Science Buried God?”, Krauss spent much of his time preaching the moral superiority of his position because, he believed, the killing of Canaanite children was a moral evil. It followed, then, that the Judaeo-Christian God was morally evil and ought to be killed and buried. Coincidentally, I had had a very similar conversation on-line the week previously with a couple of atheists.

My argument is that Atheism denies a reasonable basis, or warrant, for morality. Before we get to what the argument does say, we’ll have to deal with what it does not say.

What the argument does not say – 1 Atheists are immoral

The first misunderstanding to get past is that atheists are immoral. It may be because that is how most people on both sides hear the argument, but it’s wrong.

This is not about whether atheists have the right moral equipment, a “moral compass” if you like, nor if they are any better or worse at using it. In reality, atheists often make good moral decisions, but it is irrelevant to the argument. Even if it were true that every Theist consistently made better moral decisions than every Atheist, it would still be irrelevant. What the argument looks for is a reasonable warrant for these moral decisions.

What the argument does not say – 2 Atheism has no warrant for morality

The next misunderstanding is that atheism has no warrant for morality. In fact, it does, but it’s instinctive or acquired, and it still lacks a reasonable warrant.

The key word here is “reasonable”, meaning something that has a reason for its existence and something that can be used to reason with another person. It’s no surprise that Atheists use the killing of Canaanite children as an emotive argument that appeals to how we feel about it, rather than using it as a rational argument based on reason.

What the argument does not say – 3 Instinctive or acquired morality is bad

The next misunderstanding is that instinct or acquired knowledge provides no warrant for morality. It’s not what the argument proposes. It’s wrong because our instincts and acquired knowledge can, actually, provide a very good warrant for our moral decisions. To argue that they cannot will be to argue that none of our senses can convey to us a representation of the reality that we live in. Furthermore, it does not matter where our acquired knowledge comes from. What matters is that we have a perception of morality. Like all our senses, that perception is necessarily limited and often flawed, but it is there nonetheless. Further, we know we can be deceived by our instincts or acquired knowledge, and we look to reason to balance and correct us. In other words, instinctive or acquired knowledge can guide us to the moral good, but we still need to apply reason to them to prevent them from misdirecting us.

What the argument does not say – 4 Christianity is Superior to Atheism

William Lane Craig did it, and I did it in my exchanges on-line, but it is not necessary to the argument. We both got sidetracked into arguing the case that Christianity is superior to Atheism. It’s the natural response to someone’s enquiry into what else there might be, but my argument does not rest or fall on the truth of Christianity.

Technically, this is the fallacy of alternatives, which says that A cannot be true because an alternative, B, is true, or that A is true because B is untrue. My argument does not need an alternative as it stands or falls on its own truthfulness.

On this basis, my argument is not an argument for Christianity. It is actually no more than an argument against the kind of moral outrage expressed by atheists against God.

What the argument does not say – 5 Proof of God

In his book Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig admits that the Moral Argument for God is a weak argument. In fact, all you need to do to get rid of God is to get rid of morality, and this is where many thinking atheists knowingly go, and where many unthinking atheists unknowingly go.

Possibly, this is the source of the myth that atheists are immoral. However, it is probably more accurate to say that they are amoral. Immoral suggest something that is against morality, whereas amoral suggests something that is without morality. When a shark bites a diver in half, it is acting amorally, but if one diver were to do the same to another (say, with an underwater chainsaw) he or she might well be acting immorally.

Immoral and amoral

The difference between immoral and amoral is one way to properly approach the argument.

In the example above, the shark is acting amorally because it is simply doing what it is programmed to do by its evolutionary inheritance. Most people believe that human beings are different; hence the equivalent act by a human being is qualitatively different. The difference is understood as morality, and so the human diver equivalent of a shark biting a man in half is immoral, or morally evil.

However, according to Atheism, there is no qualitative difference between the human diver and the shark. Human beings and sharks are both products of the same undirected evolutionary processes that we learn about at school and on all the nature channels on TV.

We might think we are morally superior because we have better brains, and hence can think or model the outcomes of our actions (more on this later) – what we understand to be intelligence. We can also make decisions – what we understand to be free-will or agency (more on this later, too). Whereas I can confidently say that I would prefer to have a higher functioning brain than not, there is no empirical, unfalsifiable, experimental evidence to say that having a brain is morally better than the alternative. More to the point, in the Atheistic cosmos, the purposes that serve me and my brain are not intrinsically more moral than the purposes that serve a creature without a similarly developed brain, like a shark or an HIV virus. We just think we are cool because we have one, and the shark or virus doesn’t.

Reasonable and Unreasonable

Unfortunately, the immoral/amoral differentiation does not translate well to reason. When we say that someone is unreasonable, we say that he or she acts against, or opposed to, reason. We don’t have a good equivalent to say that he or she acts without reason – a kind of areasonableness, if you like.

(An older generation would have equated with “without” reason to “against” reason because of the common belief that everything had a reason or a purpose and thus unreasonableness was a denial of the reason for things and hence objectionable – a belief that is now not as widespread as it once was.)

The death of reasonable morality

Faced with the impending death of reasonable morality, the Atheist attempts to put it on life-support by appealing to those valued human characteristics of intelligence and agency. I find the various drips applied to be inadequate, as follows.

Drip 1 – Atheistic Philosophy

From a philosophical point of view, the only avenues open to the atheist are Utilitarianism or Consequentialism, both of which are hotly debated by philosophers of all stripes.

Utilitarianism justifies its actions by doing the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Whereas I agree with the outcome, I find the warrant areasonable because it is founded on the assertion that doing good to people is a moral good. For instance, we could take the view that we have multiplied well beyond the point at which our planet can sustain us. So, from a certain planetary conservationist point of view, the moral good could actually be the extermination of as many people as possible.

Consequentialism justifies its actions by the predicted consequences. Krauss touched on this on Wednesday night, saying that we make decisions based on our understanding of where they will take us, and that the best decisions are the result of rational thought. Yet again, I agree with the outcome, but the warrant is areasonable. It presumes that there is a “there” to go to, but if Atheism were true, and the cosmos is actually an undirected, random phenomenum, then there is no “there”. The best that we can hope for is that we make whatever decision we make in order to get us what we want. The singular flaw here is that this is not morality – it is simply our strategising to get the best outcomes for ourselves.

Drip 2 – Evolutionary Inheritance

From an evolutionary biological point of view, those supposed values of intelligence and agency are far less certain than we thought about a century ago. We know that other animals display a remarkable degree of intelligence – the capacity to model the future and hence make decisions based on a range of potential outcomes. In the Southern US, dolphins team together to drive fish onto the muddy banks of the rivers, where they snap them up. Their intelligence may be quantitavely less than ours, but it is not qualitatively different. Importantly, like them, our intelligence serves us in getting us the best possible outcomes, but there is no scientific means to tell us whether these outcomes are morally better or worse than the team of dolphins snapping up fish on a river bank. If the fish had a point of view, they would definitely challenge the dolphins' actions, regardless of the intelligence and mutual teamwork the dolphins display in carrying them out.

Even agency now appears less certain than it ever did. B F Skinner, his pigeons and his science of radical behaviouralism set out to scientifically dispell the myth of agency. I’ll defer the assessment of how successful he was to those more qualified than I, but at its heart is the notion that our sense of agency is a delusion; we are controlled by our environment far more than we like to admit. This is no ethereal proposition – the entire advertising industry is founded on it. On the morality of human freedom, Skinner said, "It is a mistake to suppose that the whole issue is how to free man. The issue is to improve the way in which he is controlled".

Further, Sir Doctor Jonathan Miller, an Atheist, described human consciousness as an oil slick on the ocean of the subconscious. If the ocean moves the oil slick, what moves the ocean if not our environment? I don't object to this analysis, but what it says is that we, including the atheists, are far more sensitive to the cues around us than we thought.

Contrary to Skinner and Miller, I believe we have the capacity for agency despite the influence of our environments and the instability of our subconsious minds. My reasons are entirely experiential – to borrow from Rene Descartes, I decide, therefore I am. Those decisions might be less independent than I thought, but I don't think I am entirely captive to my environment.

My point here is that the foundation of instinctive or received morality is crumbling. How can we even know the moral good, when our thoughts and feelings are shaped so profoundly by our environments and our instinctive subconscious is so unstable? It seems untenable to believe that rational thought will unfailingly guide us to the moral good. Indeed the very notion of rational thought could be no more than myth and delusion.

Drip 3 – Animalistic Morality

Krauss tried his hand at naturalistic morality, and failed dismally. He said that homosexuality was normal because it is found all throughout the mamallian kingdom. I have no wish to comment on the morality of homosexuality here, nor even its prevalance in species other than humans, but the underlying premise of Krauss’ argument was plainly silly – it was areasonable.

For example, infanticide is prevalent throughout the mamallian kingdom. When a male lion takes over a pride of females, he kills all the cubs he can find. This serves the utility function of ensuring that his DNA, and not a rival’s, is propagated. According to Krauss’ argument, then, we can justify the killing of step-children by their step-fathers. Of course, we recoil from such a possibility because we consider ourselves to be somewhat above the animals. But, if we rise above the animals in infanticide, how can we then descend to them in our sexuality?

The gods of atheism 

The Atheist’s position is thus exposed. His sense of moral outrage is nothing more than his evolutionary heritage generating within him the kind of fight or flight response needed to protect his selfish genes. That this genetic protectionism is projected onto a group such as the Canaanites is purely coincidental. The choice of which side to support is wholly arbitrary – if his genetic coding predispositioned him toward the invading Israelites, he would be cheering.

However, that is not good enough for the likes of Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris. They have judged the God of Deuteronomy and found him wanting. I believe that the basis for this judgement cannot be reason, because that is impossible in an Atheistic cosmos, despite the application of various kinds of life support that I described above. What they really mean to say is that they don’t like this God. Maybe it’s because their evolutionary heritage does not allow them to. Their problem is that such a statement lacks the same kind of rhetorical punch, it sells less books and there is nothing in it to compel people to Atheism.

If they like something, and I don’t, who is to say that they or I are morally superior? Effectively, then, they destroy morality, and with it the foundation on which they base their criticism of Christianity.

At least Friedrich Nietzsche knew the consequences of declaring that God is dead. With the death of God comes the death of reasonable morality.

A tip of the hat to Anselm

In my exchanges with atheists on line, I tried to convey to them the idea of what God is by using Anselm’s Ontological Argument.

Simply stated, Anselm says that God is the greatest conceivable being. And, as what is in reality is always greater than what can be conceived, God exists.

As a proof of God, Philosophers, such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig agree that Anselm is undefeatable. Critics say that it is a semantic trap. Again, I’ll leave the assessment to those more qualified than I, but I like the trajectory of Anselm in bringing us to an understanding of what God is. I think Anselm is particularly useful in dispelling ideas of God that have him sitting on a remote cloud in a bathrobe and long beard, or that he lurks around corners and meddles with our affairs according to his own caprice.

In my discussion on morality, I suggested to my Atheist antagonists that they had conceived of a greater being than God. This greater being was no less than the Higher Moral Standard to which they imagined that God was answerable to. According to Anselm, then, if the Higher Moral Standard was greater than the Yahweh of Deuteronomy, then Yahweh was not God, the Higher Moral Standard was. In other words, there was still a God; it just was not Yahweh.

The response of one of the atheists was quite remarkable. To his great credit, he understood the trajectory of Anselm, but his Atheism pulled him back. He concluded that he had found a greater being than God, and that being was himself. I responded that I would hesitate to offer him worship, and he quipped that he would be satisfied with cash donations. We concluded the conversation there, on what I hoped was a cordial note.

I cannot go the same way as my atheist interlocutor. It would be deluded of me to think that I am that Higher Morality, not least because I presume to know better than my neighbour, and his neighbour and so on.

On Wednesday, Krauss ridiculed believers in saying that there had been about a thousand “gods” in history, so we are probably deluded in believing that ours is the “right” one. If he had followed Anselm, he would have realized that instead of the thousand or so “gods” proposed by the various Theisms, Atheism presents us with several billion – the entire human population of the cosmos, to be precise, multiplied by the number of times we change our minds from day to day.

The argument that Yahweh performed a moral evil in Deuteronomy is therefore an argument for, not against, God. If true, the damage it does to the Judeao Christian religion is that it demotes Yahweh down the order, but it does so by proposing a greater being than Yahweh and hence relocates God on a level higher than Yahweh. It’s a shuffling of the pack, but it’s not a denial that the pack exists, or even that Yahweh is present as a player in the pack.

Of course, Christians recoil from the notion that Yahweh could perform a moral evil, and so they turn their attention to whether the killing of Canaanite children was actually a moral evil. Craig put forward a plausible scenario, that drew much ridicule from Krauss. More commonly, Christians would say that we do not know all the reasons why God would do such a thing, but we must believe that he did not do a moral evil. Hence, we come to the possible source of the myth that Christians say that we must simply accept it by faith.

It is reasonable to argue that the Christian model of God is inaccurate? For instance, that it was wrong to credit the killing of the Canaanites to the Divine Will? To do this, one must first acknowledge that there is a Divine Will, and that it willed something other than the killing of the Canaanites. The dilemma the atheist faces is that he cannot go there without contravening his own Atheism. He is forced to state that it was an act of greed and xenophobia, but if that greed and xenophobia was nothing more than the outworking of the Israelites' evolutionary heritage, how can he say it was morally evil?

The final score, Craig v Krauss

I found Craig’s response to Krauss’ objection reasonable, though time did not allow him to develop it fully. In my assessment, Craig did not develop this argument against Krauss well enough, but instead proposed an alternative based on the Judaeo-Christian tradition. I respect that Judaeo-Christian tradition, and understand that Craig was proposing a plausible scenario, whereas Krauss did not, but it was not necessary to defeat Krauss. Krauss, like many atheists dismissed the alternative, not because it was implausible, but because he did not like it.

If we dismiss everything because we don’t like it, where would we be? We would certainly not be thinking rationally, which is ironic, as Krauss has crossed land and sea to try to persuade us that rational thinking is the morally right thing to do.


I have yet to see a way to defeat the argument that Atheism denies a reasonable warrant to morality. This being the case, the atheist has no reasonable warrant to object to the killing of Canaanite children, or any other act, for that matter. It is his perogative to like it or not, but that is not morality. The morality of these acts can only be addressed in the context of Theism. Atheism is defeated in this case.

It seems to me that there are only two possibilities; that there is a God and we live in a moral universe, or that there is no God and we live in an amoral universe. The Atheist's outrage at the killing of Canaanite children has meaning in only one of these universes, and it's not the one with no God.