Ethical Differences Between Christians and Atheists: They May Go Too Deep to Settle

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In my recent interactions with atheists, I’ve been hearing complaints about the use of guilt in Christianity. These were the main points:

  1. I haven’t done anything that requires forgiveness. Trying to make me or people like me feel guilty is wrong.
  2. God wanting to punish (as opposed to correct) sin is wrong/evil.
  3. Jesus’ atoning death for sin doesn’t make any sense.

These complaints are reasonable to a modern, secular person. Regarding 1, most secularists haven’t murdered or done anything worthy of a jail sentence; their only wrongs are the same sorts of things everyone does. Also, from the “Me generation” we got the “guilt is bad” mentality: guilt is a negative emotion that hinders us, steals our joy, and is used by people to manipulate us (especially parents/authority figures). It is more productive to move away from guilt/blame/shame and toward finding some sort of solution to problems.

Regarding 2, most people these days see punishment as a means of correcting/rehabilitating people, rather than “making them pay for their wrongs” — at least in the abstract.

Regarding 3, paying for someone else’s sins doesn’t make sense, because paying for sin in general doesn’t make sense. Christians speak of “sin debts” that need to be payed, by us, or by someone else — they speak as if sin is like some kind of monetary debt paid by suffering. But moralitiy is merely a social contract, according to a lot of secularists. They are rules we agree to so that life is better for everyone. Punishment should be seen as behavioral modification, not the payment of debt.

Christians cannot answer these difficulties on naturalist/atheist/secularist terms because their own ideas differ at a very basic level. These include the beliefs that:

  1. The universe and all that is in it is owned. Harm to it or anyone in it is harm to the owner.
  2. There is such a thing as a sin debt.
  3. Punishment isn’t merely behavioral modification, but a reckoning, a restoration of moral balance in the universe.
  4. Morality isn’t just about what we do, but about what’s in our hearts.

All of these ideas were rejected in the Enlightenment. But were they ever disproven? No. They merely went out of style.

Starting in the Renaissance, people’s attention transitioned; they cared more and more for building a world with the cooperation of other humans and less and less for serving a Creator. Morality thereafter was all about this cooperation between humans — hence the emphasis on rights. The Creator wasn’t proven not to exist, nor were the goals of serving Him shown to be bad goals. It was more that people were tired of that way of being and wanted freedom from it. Intuitions changed to fit the new goals — secular intuitions became more and more axiomatic.

Another point about Enlightenment morality: Christians agree with thinkers like Kant that the idea of human worth is universal. Kant was merely recognizing that with his Categorical Imperatives. But the emphasis on freedom and rights found in other Enlightenment thinkers (even if based on human worth, as it seems in Locke) seems artificial to me in the sense that it was aimed at making a system of human governance work: these extra ideas didn’t uncover a “universal truth” like the idea that people are valuable. It was borne out of the desire to oppose wicked kings like Louis IV; the idea that we should see right and wrong in terms of a social contract entered by free agents was supposed to prevent abuse from autocratic rulers. Christians (and I think Kant) think there is a deeper morality, the worth of a human being, and the authority and worth of God.

How do these ideas relate to the atheist complaints mentioned above? The first idea is the claim that harming another person also is a sin against God: seeking the forgiveness of the other person isn’t enough — one must seek it from God as well. One has to pay God for one’s sins. The second is just a clash of intuitions regarding sin debt, and with 3 makes sense of Jesus’ Atonement. The last idea answers the secularist’s intuition that she hasn’t actually done anything so bad that it really needs Jesus’ sacrifice — merely wanting to do it is enough. Corruption in the heart (ranging from pride/inflated ego, to lack of concern for those who are worse off, to hatred, to petty jealousies, to selfishness, to lust, to exploitation of others, and so on) is enough to generate sin debt.

A modern person would have a hard time with the last four beliefs. But Christian morality depends on them. Because there is this deeper disagreement about these last four ideas, it would be hard to come to an agreement on anything else that depends on them.

God’s Inherent Probability, Another Idea

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Richard Swinburne, in his The Existence of God, argued that God has a high inherent probability. Turning back to Bayes’s Theorem:

God’s existence is B, A is the evidence that B is serving as an explanation for. p(B) is God’s inherent or prior probability. Atheists presume very low p(B), thus demanding very high p(A|B)/p(A), that is, extremely powerful evidence for God — a body of evidence that could only be explained by God.

Prior probabilities are also conditioned on background knowledge: additional knowledge that isn’t “explained” by B, but merely serves as a backdrop of information that may or may not be relevant. According to Swinburne, since the God hypothesis is all-encompassing, there would be no knowledge that wouldn’t be part of the evidence. Thus there is no knowledge that could affect God’s prior probability. Swinburne concludes from this that the only thing that could affect God’s prior probability is God’s simplicity: the simpler God is, the more likely God inherently is.

Swinburne argues that because God is infinite, God is simple. Complexity enters when there are limits to a thing: information is then needed to specify the limits. Since God has no limits, God is simple.

A limitless mind/intelligence with unlimited power. I can’t get my mind around it at all, neither can you. That’s to be expected. That doesn’t make it incoherent. But is the argument convincing? I’m not sure.

God’s Inherent Probability

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Atheists think God is inherently improbable, much like the Flying Teapot or Flying Spaghetti Monster. Theists don’t think God is anything like these objects (for one thing, God is immaterial — those things are physical objects with weird qualities or locations). David Hume/Richard Dawkins argued that God is improbable because God is complex. But as God is immaterial and lacks parts, it’s hard to imagine how this is possible, or even if it were, why it would affect God’s probability.

A better argument is this: the only minds we have clear experience of are tied to (some insist “identical to”) physical brains. Thus God, even as pure mind, is extraordinary. A mind without a body is statistically unlikely, given our evidence of mind/brain correlation.

I think this would be the strongest atheist reply to what I have been arguing for some time about the atheist assumption that God is inherently improbable. For theists do think God is a Mind, and it doesn’t make the obnoxious mistake of assuming God would have to be like a flying horse with a horn or some pile of omnipotent spaghetti.

Who Made God?

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Children often ask this. The quick answer: God wasn’t made, He was always there. Only things that weren’t always there have to be made.

Atheists often complain about God being used as an explanation because it stops inquiry. We should always look for some other explanation because of this. Saying “God did it” stops science. Sometimes they also insist that to use God as an explanation, we need to explain God first.

I think these complaints are based on a confusion between arguing that and explaining how. When theists use God as an explanation, they are arguing that. That is, they are trying to argue that it is true that God exists and did such and such. Theists have to admit, however, that this does not explain how. It doesn’t provide details about the processes of how the universe was made. Because “God did it” doesn’t explain how, atheists reject God as an explanation.

But we can use explanations for both of the above purposes. We can use an explanation to uncover a mechanism, or we can use an “inference to the best explanation” to argue that a certain event occurred. An example: I can explain why the sky is blue by pointing out different features of light and the absorptive properties of gasses in the atmosphere — that’s explaining how. Or I could argue that my friend was awake late last night because there is an email in my inbox from him with a timestamp of 2:20 am. In the latter case I am not trying to get into the details of how the universe works so much as show that my friend was awake at that time. Notice that I don’t need to have an explanation for why my friend was awake to make the point: what kept him up is a different question from whether he was up.

In the same way, when theists offer arguments for God’s existence involving God as an explanation, they aren’t trying to uncover mechanisms that can be used to further scientific inquiry. They are merely arguing that God exists; they are arguing that, not explaining how. And just like my friend’s email, arguing that God exists isn’t the same as showing how God exists.

I think atheists may disagree in that they do think theists need to show how God exists. My feeling is that they think there is a problem in the nature of God itself, that God is at best a very unlikely being, if not impossible. I have argued in numerous places that atheists haven’t shown this.

A Prayer

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I’m beginning to align myself with something like what reformed epistemologists believe: arguments for (or against) God’s existence are at best inconclusive. I’m not even sure where the burden of proof is, for I don’t know God’s inherent probability (God’s starting probability before any evidence is considered). But if God indeed exists and somehow brings someone to believe in Him, given that rational (warranted?) belief is belief formed in accordance with a person’s design (as given by God), that belief would be rational (if Plantinga is right; he does seem to be about this). That implies the contrapositive: a person being irrational for believing in God would imply that God doesn’t exist. The claim that it’s irrational to believe in God depends on God not existing, and to argue for the former implies that one must argue for the latter: there is no “You shan’t believe in God with no evidence, and I, the atheist, need not show any evidence for God’s non-existence .”

What about prayer? Asking God directly should do something. Maybe not immediately, but it should. I will pray.

Dear God,

I’ve been on the fence for a long time. I pray to You to reach out to me, and to anyone who prays along with me. We cannot reach You. We cannot “discover” You. You are utterly beyond us. But we have faith that You are good, and would respond to a prayer, asked in humility.

Many of us have suffered greatly in our lives, and have a hard time believing that You could exist and be good in spite of this. Sometimes it just seems that reality is an accident (even if orderly), and so are our fates: without any guidance by what is good. I don’t want to believe this, but I can’t help it.

We are helpless. Our epistemlogical reach is too limited to know what ultimate reality is. Our own logic destroys us. I can’t even prove with certainty that I’m in front of this computer right now!! Any such “proof” would have to ignore an infinite number of alternative possibilities. If I can’t even know that, how can I reach You with my own feeble mind?

So I pray that You, out of Your own Goodness, reach out to me and anyone else praying with me. If Jesus is all he said he was, reach out to us about him as well. We ask in all humility.


Path to Atheism, the Second Most Rebellious Worldview

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I think that a lot of atheists would insist that their path to atheism is one of discovering that it is unreasonable to believe in God, much like it is unreasonable to believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus. My hypothesis is different. It seems to me, the more I look at debates and such between theists and atheists, that atheists make a choice about how they view the world that prohibit belief in God a priori (that is, right at the start, before any evidence is examined). This choice seems so natural and obvious to atheists that they may not even see it as a choice. It’s the choice of epistemology (way of knowing, forming beliefs). I think that this choice is ultimately rooted in the desire for autonomy and a bit of rebelliousness.

The Surface Path

I’m not talking about the emotional side here, of course. People get pissed-off at religious people and become atheists because of this. Or they might be horribly disappointed at unanswered prayer, or something really bad happening to them or someone else, and reject God as a result. Intellectual steps are what I’m interested in. Here’s what I think they are. They aren’t always made explicit, but I think that atheists usually go through these.

1. Choose an epistemology that focuses on (perhaps exclusively) tangible, practical, “hands-on” values and goals either through usable knowledge, or theories that aid in the prediction/control of nature.

2. Point out that such an epistemology has no need of God.

3. Claim that the fact that such a godless epistemology is successful in meeting tangible goals is evidence against God.

4. Reject God.

I don’t think reflective atheists would deny that they have went through all of these at some point in their adoption of atheism. To them, these steps seem obviously right. Key to this path is the first step.

The choice in 1 goes back a long way, with roots in Francis Bacon, and later, explicit endorsement in John Dewey and his “bulldog” Sidney Hook. A current example of 1 is Sean Carroll’s rejection of God as a hypothesis because it doesn’t produce new information about how the world works. Atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss also seems to point to this, as does the atheist philosopher Alva Noe. Noe points out that belief in God will not help you fix your car. To be fair, Carroll (and the others as well, probably) also rejected God as a hypothesis because he didn’t think it was testable. However, the multiverse hypothesis isn’t really testable either, yet they are all willing to entertain it. I think that for them, as for most atheist scientists, it is 1 that is doing most, if not all of the work.

In general, natural explanations are the ones that have hope of allowing us to predict and control nature. These are, in turn, what are useful in developing new technology and solving social problems. In short, natural explanations are what best suit humanistic goals.

2 is insisted by every atheist. Just about anything you can think of could possibly have a natural explanation (How does one rule out all possible natural explanations?). So it’s a short logical step to God not being necessary for such an epistemology.

Regarding 3, that godless science is successful in meeting tangible goals, is obvious to everyone. Theists have to agree. But is this really evidence against God? Only if there’s reason to expect that natural science wouldn’t be successful if God exists. I honestly can’t see why it wouldn’t be successful: if anything, the success of natural science is something God wants, just as long as we don’t see it as the end of all knowledge. Natural science is certainly successful, but limited in its scope (Phillip Goff makes a similar point here about math, physics and subjective experience).

But maybe it’s more like this: God is not useful, for atheists have all that they want in science. I find it hard to argue with this; for given what atheists value (see 1 above), it makes perfect sense to ignore God in the way that they do.

The Deeper Path

tumblr_ndg58ybg4m1tr3d06o1_500What is it that atheists value, at bottom, anyway? I can’t speak for all of them, but I think that it’s expressed very well by atheist philosopher A.C. Greyling (I discussed it here); it’s autonomy. It’s doing what you want, choosing your own path.

Atheism is the second most rebellious worldview: it won’t bow down to or follow any mere person. One’s personal autonomy is limited by only one thing: empirical reality, “the facts.” It is surpassed in rebelliousness by one worldview only: postmodernism. Postmodernists refuse to bow down to anything, not even reality! *

Consider another passage from the atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel:

. . . I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself . . . It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism of our time. . .Darwin enabled modern secular culture to heave a great collective sigh of relief, by apparently providing a way to eliminate purpose, meaning, and design as fundamental features of the world. (From The Last Word, italics mine)

Compare atheism with Islam, the Arabic word for submission. Theism is all about bowing down to a person. The apostle Paul tells Christians to “present their bodies as living sacrifices.” Atheists devoted to personal autonomy could never accept this, even if they believed in God.

So, as a result of this basic preference, or choice, atheists choose an epistemology that is all about how they can know more, predict more, control more, do more. This epistemology finds no ultimate purpose in the universe, but this doesn’t bother atheists; for them, purpose is what they make it. All this epistemology can do is find out how to get from A to B. They decide whether B is worth getting to.

God, of course, could never be part of such an epistemology, for God will not be controlled, predicted, or used. Any epistemology that could learn of God would also have to be prepared to submit to God.

So, in essence, it’s really down to autonomy versus submission. I’m reminded of Milton’s famous line: Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.

Notice that none of this has to do with the truth about whether or not God exists. It’s more about whether a person could discover God, should He exist. Atheists make epistemological choices that forever make God unfindable. They claim to be open minded, but they really aren’t. Once one commits himself to this sort of pragmatic empiricisim, and only accepts explanations/hypothesis that “tell him how the world works,” he will never, ever, ever, find God. God will have no part of that. And even if God obliged and provided, say, an obvious miracle, the atheist’s methodological naturalism, empiricism, or whatever you want to call it would prevent him from accepting the miracle, and he would find some other possible way of explaining the miracle naturally, or, at worst, would simply say “We cannot know what really happened here.” Even God couldn’t get through to this person!

My feeling is that atheists would reply, “Well, there are no such obvious miracles, so your point is moot. Show me the obvious miracle, and then we can talk.” I think this misses the point, however. What I’m discussing are the logical implications of choices atheists make; it logically follows from the epistemology that atheists adopt that they can’t ever find God. It would be pointless for God to perform one for them, for it would have to fall on deaf ears, as long as they hold on to their epistemology. To be truly openminded they would have to let go of the epistemology.

A Complication

The complication in this is morality. Although some atheists deny that morality is real, in my experience the vast majority of them do hold to an objective morality that they feel everyone should submit to. This morality is, of course, not empirically knowable (Hume, G.E. Moore, and a host of others have made this point). They also, for the most part, try to follow it. So autonomy is limited further still — it’s limited by “the facts,” and it’s limited by what’s right and wrong. Just as we do not get to choose the facts, we also do not get to choose what is right or wrong. We merely decide whether we will obey. And, by in large, atheists do choose to obey. Atheists, in general, desire rebelliousness, not wickedness.

Given the above, the key difference between atheists and theists is, once again, personal. I remember having a very long but interesting discussion with an atheist colleague in grad school about the Euthyphro problem aimed at deriving morals from God. Putting the problem’s details aside, for him the worst thing about morality from God is that it is personally derived; this makes morality arbitrary. He could only give credence to moral theories that are based in an impersonal principle. Following a law is reasonable, but a lawgiver isn’t.

So, summing it up, atheists will bow down to the impersonal, not the personal. If morality is indeed impersonal, and somehow either reducible to empirical facts (Patricia Churchland and Sam Harris argue that it can: I’m not convinced), or to some set of objective, but immaterial, impersonal facts (like those of math, logic), then the atheist can be a consistent moral realist (someone who believes morality is objectively real). Otherwise, he will have an internal conflict in his worldview. He will have to either reject atheism, or objective morality.

The Atheist’s Wager

So what of it? Is the atheist unreasonable? In one sense, no. For he’s convinced that God’s existence, from the start, is extremely unlikely, and that there is some secular basis for morality. There is knowledge to be had, and being open to explanations that don’t provide usable knowledge about the world (i.e., “God did it”) could threaten at least some of this. So he puts his bet on natural science. He doesn’t fear the consequences. If he’s right about God’s inherent low probability, then this is a good bet.

But he might not be. For as I’ve argued in several places, atheists don’t have good reason to think God is inherently improbable. Dawkins’s Ultimate Boeing 747 Gambit, for example, is a poster child for bad atheist arguments (I argue for that here). Atheist mockery is more telling — from that their intuition that God is inherently improbable comes from false comparisons with beings that really are inherently improbable, such as fairies, Thor, The Flying Spaghetti Monster. But the God of theism isn’t really like these beings (I argue for that here). About that God, all the atheist can say is that he doesn’t know what the inherent probability of God’s existence is. And we can’t forget that saying that God’s probability is unknown is not the same as saying it is low.

Also, there is something that’s sacrificed in this wager: value, ultimate purpose ,and meaning. Going back to morality, atheists will indeed submit to it. Consider the intuition that right and wrong is somehow based on value. For empiricists, value is personal, subjective. It comes from what some person wants, desires. But atheists also put their desires aside to do what’s right. This would be clearly irrational for an atheist to do, if value is merely the desires of some person (somebody else, in this case) and there is no God. The only way a value-based morality could be anything close to objective is if based on the values of God (or some being with universal authority). I would have to admit it wouldn’t be completely objective, as it would be coming from a person, but it would be as universal as the other things God made, including the physical universe.

Also, purpose and meaning themselves seem to be worth something. Even the ardent atheist Daniel Dennett claimed that the secret to happiness is finding something greater than you are, and committing yourself to it. It’s part of human thriving to be part of something larger, to, well, bow down to something greater than we are. Theism wins this one in spades.

But, at bottom, whether or not a wager is reasonable depends on the probabilities and the payoffs. Here we don’t know what the probabilities are, but we have some idea of the payoffs. Theists can retain much of what atheists want: there is no reason a theist can’t enjoy pretty much all of what science delivers, or contribute to the discoveries science makes. But theists also gain the possibility of true, ultimate purpose, and a more satisfying view of what is right and wrong, and why it makes sense to submit to it. They also gain the riches of experiencing a reality that transcends the material, and the comfort of belief in an afterlife.

One final note. I just saw my father-in-law pass away. When I comfort my wife, imagine the shock she would receive if I told her that her father no longer exists; what existence he has is reduced to the corpse we viewed! The only comforting thing to hear is that he’s in a better place, a place where he is no longer crippled. Theists can take this comfort. Atheists cannot. Given that atheists are, well, betting on unknown probabilities, it’s hard for me to see what the advantage of that is. But that’s just me.

* This one of Richard Rorty’s (well-known pragmatist/postmodernist) complaints about atheist realists (those that believe in reality): they reject the Cross, but they still bow down to the god of science. Rorty bowed to no god.

Another Bad but Common Atheist Argument

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Here it is (often offered by Richard Dawkins):

(1) Christianity is implausible.

(2) Islam is implausible.

(3) Judaism is implausible.

(4) Zoroastrianism is implausible.

(5) Akenatenism is implausible.

(6) Voodoo is implausible.

(7) – (n-1) . . . is implausible.

(n) Therefore, God, in general, is implausible.

The premises are supported by finding fault with the religions. For example, Christianity gets attacked via Bible problems (Should we really stone gay men like the Old Testament says? Do you really believe in the Flood? . . .).

Why is the argument bad? Consider a lottery of 1,000,000. A parallel argument would be:

(1) Ticket 1’s winning is implausible.

(2) Ticket 2’s winning is implausible.

. . .

(n) Therefore, any ticket’s winning is implausible.

Clearly the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises.

Still, an atheist might reply that there is a disanalogy: we already know one of the tickets will win: we don’t already know God exists. That is true, but what the counterexample shows can be seen by considering this:

Statement E = (A1 or A2 or A3 or . . . An)

Each of A1, A2, . . . being implausible doesn’t imply that E is implausible: for E is a disjunction of all the A’s, that is, all E is claiming is that one A or other is true, not that any specific A is true. The probability of any one of the As being true, given that the As are mutually exclusive* is given by:

P(A1 or A2, . . .) = P(A1) + P(A2)  . . . + P(An). Thus the probability of E could be much higher than the probability of any of the As. So just because any one of the As is implausible, that doesn’t mean that E is implausible.

God exists = (Christianity or Islam or Judiaism or . . . all the other possible ways God might exist).  If I’m right, even if each of the religions are implausible, that some God or other exists is not thereby rendered implausible: that is, the argument above has no weight at all.

* This seems true regarding religions: they tend to be incompatible with each other: Christianity and Islam, for example, cannot both be completely true.