Dialogue With an Atheist on the "Problem of Good" and the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism

(The Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity)

Part One
Go to:  Part Two

Dave Armstrong vs. Mike Hardie (hardie7@home.com)

I think the "problem of good" is a far more troublesome difficulty than the problem of evil (even granting that the latter is a very serious and substantive objection, one concerning which even most Christians often struggle in some sense or other: mostly due to lack of understanding, rather than a disproof of God's existence; and
especially when we ourselves go through some suffering :-).

I hope you will be more willing to pursue in depth the logical and moral
implications of your position (as I view them, anyway), than has been my
experience with atheists (and also moral relativists) in the past. Usually,
the opponent of Christianity is quite willing to critique what they feel to
be our glaring deficiencies, but quite unwilling (for some strange
reason) to examine what we regard as the shortcomings in theirs. People in all
worldviews seem to be much better at levying charges and poking holes, than
at scrutinizing their own beliefs, wouldn't you agree? Just human nature, I
would argue.

In an earlier paper which Mike cited, to start this discussion going, I stated that:

       The atheist:

    1) Can't really consistently define "evil" in the first place;
    2) Has no hope of eventual eschatological justice;
    3) Has no objective basis of condemning evil;
    4) Has no belief in a heaven of everlasting bliss;
    5) Has to believe in an ultimately absolutely hopeless and
       meaningless universe.

    This is arguably one of the most common kinds of popular replies to
    atheism, and I have never seen a really robust attempt to really
   explain it, much less justify it.

Good; nor have I seen a robust attempt by an atheist (at least those I have
come across), to grapple seriously with the objections. There are plenty of
Christian apologetic works which make a similar case vis-a-vis atheism. You
obviously haven't looked very hard. That's okay; I haven't looked very hard
at all that many atheist works, either. I would love to read all the books
in the world, but I have to be selective, unfortunately.

    To put my objections to it in a nutshell:

    (1) and (3) come down to "atheists cannot have objective morality",
    when there are a multitude of non-theistic ethical theories -- i.e.,
    theories which do not require God -- which seem to be at least as coherent as
    theistic ethics (i.e., Divine Command Theory or Natural Law Theory).
    What is it that rules out these non-theistic ethics in one fell swoop?  Let
    us be clear here: we are not talking about scientific materialism versus
    theistic ethics, but merely non-theistic versus theistic ethics.
    (Scientific materialism is often characterized as the view where
    nothing is meaningful unless it can be reduced to a purely empirical theory of
    some kind, and it seems pretty obvious to me that this view would have no
    relevant account of objective morality.  But obviously, not all
    atheists are scientific materialists in this sense.)

What I was implying (and I again thank you for the chance to flesh out
and clarify) was that according to the atheist's presuppositions, taken to
their ultimate logical (and above all, practical, in concrete, real-world,
human terms) consequences, cannot be carried through in a non-arbitrary
manner, and will always end up incoherent and morally objectionable. All
attempts that I have seen (admittedly I may very well have missed many)
have not adequately explained how to overcome this inherent moral relativism,
whereby some man (often, in real life, a dictator) "determines" what is
right and wrong, imposes it on a populace, group, or family, and people try
to live by it happily ever after.

Simply put (but I will defend this at the greatest length once we discuss
particular moral questions), atheist justifications for morality (i.e.,
logically carried through) will always be either completely arbitrary,
relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic
assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require. I think
it was Dostoevsky who said "if God doesn't exist, anything is permissible."
Sartre said something similar, which I don't recall at the moment (probably
someone here would know to what I am referring).

    Dostoyevsky did indeed say that, in Crime and Punishment.  Interestingly, though,
    I think he committed the same error that many apologists do on this point; he
    equated Godlessness with "the will to power" (embodied by the
    proto-Nietzschean Raskolnikov).

Arguably, it has been that, with regard to institutional Marxist/Communist atheism, no?

Indeed.  The question there is whether this is because they are atheistic, or whether atheism (or in this case, a particular political philosophy which includes atheism) creates this tendency.  Personally, I think things like the horrors of Stalinism are better explained by George Orwell than any appeal to belief systems per se.  In other words, I think Stalin would have been no less murderous if his professed beliefs had been, say, Hindu.

Yes. My main point in mentioning Stalin was to argue that if Christianity is to be blamed for every evil of the Middle Ages (and we have even seen Hitler absurdly called a Christian on this list), then by the same token Stalin and Mao must come under the category of atheist. Either we reject both scenarios as misrepresentations of our views, or it seems to me that we must accept them both as representative, however distant or objectionable the "inclusion" may be.

I think it's simply a matter that both scenarios have little or nothing to do with theism or atheism.

And I would contend that it could also (by logical extension)
be that in the mind of an immoral atheist who felt himself to be the
"measure of all things," as the humanists say. I'm very interested in what
the decent, moral atheist would say to these folks; how it would be
explained to them that atheism is incompatible with such reprehensible
behavior (and why and how the other person should be "bound" to the moral

And why is that? We say it is because God provides the over-arching
"absolute" and principle of right and wrong which allows for coherent
ethics and non-arbitrary determination of good and evil. We even believe that God
IS love. Love and goodness is personified and expressed and grounded in
His very Being. Furthermore, Christians believe that God put this inherent
sense in all human beings, so that they instinctively have a moral compass,
and therefore largely agree on right and wrong in the main (murder is
wrong, so is betrayal, rape, stealing, etc., in all cultures - it may be defined
in particulars somewhat differently, but the consensus is there).

Atheists have this sense, put there by God, just as believers do, whether
they acknowledge it or not (though it can, of course, be unlearned by
intellectual conditioning or surroundings). And their behavior proves it.
That's why (in our opinion) they are usually as moral and upright as a
group as any other group of people. But to the extent that they are moral and
good, I argue that this is inevitably in conflict with their ultimate
ground of ethics, however it is spelled-out, insofar as it excludes God. Without
God it will always be relative and arbitrary and usually unable to be
enforced except by brute force. Atheists act far better than their ethics
(in their ultimate reduction).

The Communists, though, acted fairly consistently with their atheistic
principles (as they laid them out - not that all atheists will or must act
this way, which is manifestly false). God was kicked out, and morality
became that which Marx (or Lenin) decreed. One can argue all day whether
Lenin and especially Stalin were true Communists, and so forth (I think
they were). "Orthodox" Marxism - that formulated by Marx - is inherently
atheistic, as I understand it.

The fact remains that the fruit in the real world of such materialistic
social experiments on the grand scale was mass murder, both in Stalinist
Russia and Maoist China (infinitely worse in numbers and in horrors and
evil than anything that ever occurred in the Crusades or Inquisition, which we
hear about endlessly, because it serves - in the vastly-distorted way in
which it is presented - as quite effective propaganda against Christianity;
particularly Catholicism).

The Nazis did the same thing, though they were a bit more into the occult,
as I understand it. In any event, they were not Christian in any way, shape
or form, which is why many thousands of Christians died in the camps as
well: people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Edith Stein, and St. Maximilian
Kolbe, along with thousands of nuns, priests, and Protestant clergymen, and
why a person like Oskar Schindler was lucky to escape with his life.

That's my first statement of my thesis (many others have stated it far more
eloquently). I can and will defend it at the greatest length, and - if all my past experience in such discussions is any measure - it will only be strengthened as we deal with particulars. I suspect it will be misunderstood a great deal more before we are through with this discussion, but that's why we have discussion in the first place,
isn't it?: to foster further understanding on both sides, and to examine
our own assumptions.

    (2) and (4) have no prima facie relevance that I can see.  Why are the
    lack of ultimate justice, or of an afterlife of eternal bliss, problematic
    for the notion of goodness?  This would seem to suggest that something
    cannot be meaningfully good or evil unless it is going to be judged to be
    such, and rewarded or punished accordingly.  But this seems false; if
    something is objectively right or wrong, it is right or wrong quite apart from
    any questions of what horrors will be inflicted on the wrongdoer or what
    gifts will be given to his opposite.

Please allow me to explain, if I may. The philosophical ground
of goodness in the Christian view is neither the presence nor absence of
justice, nor the existence of heaven and hell. It is grounded in God
Himself. God is good; we are His creatures, made in His image, so we are
good insofar as we are like Him, and united with Him in purpose and
outlook. It's as simple as that, but one can write volumes about it, too.

My comment about eschatological justice was not intended as the basis of
morality, but about the ultimate futility and nihilism of an atheistic
morality - consistently carried-through -, however noble and
well-intentioned. In the atheist (purely logical and philosophical) world,
Hitler and Stalin and Mao and other evil people go to their graves and
that's it! They got away with their crimes. They could have theoretically
gone out of the world (as well as all through their lives) laughing and
mocking all their victims, because there literally was no justice where
they are personally concerned. Why this wouldn't give the greatest pause and
concern to the atheist moralist and ethicist is beyond me.

In the Christian worldview, though, the scales of justice operate in the
afterlife as well as (quite imperfectly) in human courts and in gargantuan
conflicts like World War II where the "good guys" (all in all) managed to win.
Hitler and Stalin do NOT "pull one over on God" (or on an abstract notion
of justice). They don't "get away with murder." They are punished, and
eternally at that, barring a last-minute repentance which is theoretically
possible, but not likely. All makes sense in the end, and there is every
reason and incentive to endure evil and suffering when there is ultimately
the highest purpose for it. Even Jesus embraced profound suffering;
therefore we can as well.

That doesn't make it a bed of roses for us, by any means, but  it is sure a
lot easier to endure than under atheist assumptions, where one
returns to the dust and ceases to exist, quite often having utterly failed
at life, or having been abused their entire life, with nothing significant
to ever look forward to. Where is the hope and purpose in that? You tell
me; I'm all ears. I truly want to understand how you deal with this ultimate
lack of hope or purpose or design, as I would see it.

This was not so much an argument, as it was pointing out that the logical
conclusion to atheist ethics is utter despair at what goes on in the world,
and the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. It is not arguing that (as in
your flawed perception):

All is meaningless in the end; therefore no morality (in practice) is
possible, and therefore all atheists are scoundrels."

     but rather:

The ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and the futility of seeing
tyrants like Stalin do their evil deeds and never come to justice in this
life or the next, ought to bring anyone who believes this to despair, and
constitutes a far greater ("existential") difficulty than the Problem of
Evil - which has a number of fairly adequate rejoinders - represents for
the Christian.

    (5) evidently requires some more detail.  It cannot be saying that
    atheists never find any hope or meaning in the universe; obviously they do, or
    we would all be suicidal and mad.  (We're obviously not suicidal... as
    for mad, well, it's an open question. ;)

Precisely my point: the atheist does not consistently think through the
"eschatological" implications of his position. Otherwise, I fail to see why
he wouldn't despair, go mad, or become an evil person (pure hedonism or
narcissism or sadist or other such excess. Why not?). The easiest way to
illustrate this is simply to ask you and other atheists on this list what
the purpose of life and the universe is, how you know that; what gives you
"hope" and so forth.

This goes beyond mere philosophy, to the very purpose of our existence and
being. Of course we can philosophize in speculating and thinking about these
things, yet the thing itself is not philosophy, but Reality and Purpose,
which has to be something, whether or not we ever figure it out. And when
you give me those purposes, as you see them, I think you will see - with
further dialogue - that they are based on very little other than faith and
presumptuous hopes, which in turn boil down to propositions no better
substantiated than the Christian ones of faith which are so frowned-upon
and considered silly and unworthy of belief and so on. In fact, I contend that
ours have far more objective basis than yours do.

    What exactly [are you] claiming here?  That atheists' hopes, or
    notions of what is meaningful, are invalid just because they do not
    center around God?  But that can hardly be it.

Insofar as God offers the only means of hope in terms of purpose, yes.
Meaning is put into all human beings by God. But more accurately, I am
simply acknowledging - with Sartre - that it is a sad and troubling,
devastating thing if God does not exist, that a universe with no God is
(when all is said and done) a lonely, tragic, and meaningless place. This
is presupposed by the very Argument from Evil that is used against us! So you
can scarcely deny it! Most lives on this earth are not all that happy or

And you would have us believe that after miserable, ragged lives lived all
through history (e.g., the millions who don't have enough to eat right now,
or the Christian victims of genocide and slavery in the Sudan), the persons
die and go in the ground, and that they ought to be happy during their
tortured lives? Why?  What sense does it all make? We can play that game in
prosperous North America and Europe because all our material needs are met
and we can occupy ourselves with various pleasures so that we don't have to
think about the sad realities of the world all that much (Maslow's hierarchy).

    What does this suggest?  That things are not ideal.
Beyond that: that the universe is fundamentally senseless and hopeless for many millions of persons.
   That we have a very good reason to make things better, rather than
    waiting for God to do it for us.
That's a non-issue. The issue is "what is the purpose of all that suffering
and futility, in the atheist worldview?"

Suppose there is no purpose.  Maybe it's just the case that humans suffer because the universe is not designed to accomodate us; that suffering is just a thing we should try to minimize, not something which has a particular value in itself.

Okay, I'm supposing it. Now how do you cope with that?

By trying to minimize suffering.

    I don't think everyone ought to be happy.  I think a lot of people
    aren't happy, and for very good reason.  And it's a dreadful thing.
    Again: sure, it'd be great if everyone were happy at some point.  Then again,
    it would be even better if everyone were happy all the time even before
    heaven, wouldn't it?  But this would be a pipe dream, yes?

In the sense of the probability of it happening, yes. But you are still not
really directly dealing with my question.

I'm trying to.  In the case above, I'm trying to do this by getting you to see things from the atheistic perspective.  We can all think of things that are untrue, yet would be great if true; yet we don't believe these things, and we make do nonetheless.  I'd personally grant that it would be great if all suffering culminated in endless bliss; but I don't believe it does, and I find meaning in the happiness that does exist.

So nothing in atheism troubles you, not even to the extent that the problem of evil bothers me as a Christian?

Atheism is nothing more than the denial of theism.  There are some
ramifications of theism that would be great if true -- who wouldn't want a
friend in high places? -- but nothing that seems so necessary that their
absence is troubling.  To reuse an example, wouldn't you agree that it
would be great if humans could fly?  But you presumably don't find the lack
of this ability "troubling", in the sense that you lose sleep over it.
This is sort of how I think about the nicer implications of theism.

Now, this isn't to say that there aren't difficult intellectual issues with
atheism.  Naturally there are!  For example, arguments for God (ontological
and cosmological, largely) are ultimately uncompelling, in my opinion, but not always
simply, straightforwardly, or uncontroversially so.

The question you seem to be asking me is, "but how can the happiness that you do find be enough?  How can that be enough for meaning, hope, etc.? How can it be enough when you know some people live really horrible lives?" The problem is, I don't know how this question might theoretically be answered, because this is simply asking how it could be enough for me. What can I say, except that it is enough?  I think the problem here is that you want something like an objective philosophical justification of an essentially subjective and emotional phenomenon (i.e., finding life meaningful, valuable, etc.).

Now, maybe you think this is just the point: that atheists (or this atheist, at any rate) downplay meaning and hope to a subjective phenomenon, whereas Christians try to make it into an objective one.

Yes, I think that becomes a huge problem, if followed through consistently, and I say that we see its negative fruits in the increasingly secular world today.

The thing is, the situation is the same for both parties.  Both Christians and atheists believe in a lot of different facts about the universe.  But no fact implies meaning or hope for us, or the ability to dispel existential despair, apart from our subjective view of it.

That's not true if revelation is true, because that gives us solid, objective facts. God exists; He has a certain benevolent nature; He cares about the world and His creatures, etc.

No, you missed the point here.  I am making a distinction between facts and
subjective values.  No fact about external reality has subjective value for
us intrinsically.  We have to subjectively find value in the fact.  God
having a benevolent nature is (on the theistic view) a fact, but it is an
irrelevant fact for our personal hopefulness, etc. unless we happen to
think God's benevolence is valuable.

If you find meaning in the idea that God has created you to do X, this is meaningful for you -- i.e., it solves your existential despair -- because you find it meaningful.  If you didn't care that God had created you to do X, it would not be any sort of "ultimate meaning or purpose" for you at all.

But that's pure relativistic existentialism. The Christian finds the meaning precisely because he believes that God exists (on other grounds) and is the basis and foundation for our existence and purpose. One must determine whether there is a God, then move on to the next stage. We don't just believe because it gives us meaning, which is an entirely different thing; almost a pragmatic approach to theism, which is really no Christian theism at all.

But interestingly, this sort of pragmatic theism seems to be the basis for
your argument against atheism.  But if this is no real theism at all, then
it doesn't really contradict atheism, does it?  That is, you seem to be
saying that atheists cannot consistently be atheists on pragmatic
grounds... but based on what you say above, this doesn't mean that atheism
in the more legitimate sense is inconsistent.

Similarly, whatever it is that an atheist might find meaningful is meaningful for him or her just because he or she find it to be such.

In a subjective fashion, yes, but I thought we were discussing possible objective solutions? If we confine this discussion to subjectivism, then there can be no discussion in the first place, because one person's opinion would be irrelevant to the next person's - since they have no relation to each other epistemologically. It would be like discussing whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is intrinsically "superior."

Exactly!  This is the situation as I see it as regards meaning and hope.

    Personally, I like this particular quote very much:

    "Each of us visits this Earth involuntarily, and without an invitation.
    For me, it is enough to wonder at the secrets."

That's great, as far as it goes. Christians have more than enough "secrets"
to wonder about, too; even more, because of the extraordinary nature of

    One might find meaning in the search for truth, as in the above quote.

But that is not sufficient when you ponder that you will cease existing in
a very short period of time. And that injustice is all around us, with much
of it unpunished.

    Or in happiness, for oneself and for others.

That's all fine and dandy, and we would expect it, but it doesn't deal with
looking the black universe in the face and truly reflecting upon its
ultimate lack of purpose.

    And so forth.  Is it that atheists cannot do this?

Not at all; it is that they can't do it consistently with their philosophy
in the fullness of its implications, and that they must fall back on the
equivalent of Christian faith at some point in order to do so, and that
they live off the "capital" of the image of God which exists in them whether
they accept it or not.

    Or is it that these are insufficient for some reason?

They are that, too. If my biggest purpose in life were to sit here and be
entranced with ideas (much as I enormously enjoy doing so), I would be in
despair, because life consists of far more than intellectual titillation or
love of ideas, or some futile search for "happiness," considered apart from
ultimate purposes.

    All that aside, too, it's unclear how (5), even if it were true,
    would be a "problem of good" for atheists.

Because it is clearly far worse to have a Hitler and a Stalin do what they
did and go to their end unpunished, than it is to believe in an afterlife
where monster-morons like that are punished for what they did, and that
those who lived a far better moral life are rewarded  at long last (for
many, the only significant "happiness" they ever had). These are not
proofs; I am simply answering why this is even more so a difficulty (in the sense
of a "troublesome thought") for the atheist. The other part of this is to ask
"why be good?" The Christian answers, "because that is the reason I was
created; to be like God, and to be unified with Him, and in so doing, also
unified with my fellow man." The atheist says: ???

That's more than enough for now. This will be far more nailed down in the
course of dialogue. It is much stronger and persuasive in application to
particular moral situations and questions, I think.

    Do you see the points you made as more applicable to refuting the
    problem of evil, or to making it into a problem for atheists?  (The latter
    doesn't necessarily equal the former.)

The latter. That was my intent. It's turning the tables. But I still
consider the Problem of Evil the most formidable and understandable
objection to Christianity. Obviously I don't think it succeeds . . .

    I'm not widely read on the topic either.  (I have, for example, never
    read a single atheistic apologetic work.)  I have come across the problem in
    readings -- e.g., in CS Lewis, or Cornelius Van Til -- but have never
    seen it presented in a philosophically robust way.

    Anyhow, your point above actually sounds more or less exactly like what
    I was describing in my initial objection.  What you present above is
    simply Divine Command Theory -- or at least, the most popular variant of it,
    which states that moral standards are grounded in the nature of God.

It's always fun to learn of the technical term for one's position. :-)
This, then, would also be the Catholic Christian (particularly
Scholastic/Thomist) perspective on the matter.

    Why does the assertion of this theory prove that atheistic ethics are
    completely "arbitrary" or "relativistic to the point of absurdity"?

It doesn't "prove" it because it is a separate theory. It is simply a
superior ethical option (as a coherent, consistent system) to any atheist
brand, in my opinion. My argument is that atheist ethics will always end up being
self-defeating, and/or relativistic to the point of being utterly incapable
of practical application. Failing God, the standard then becomes a merely
human one, therefore ultimately and inevitably arbitrary and relativistic
and unable to be maintained for large groups of people except by brute
force and dictatorship (which is precisely what happened, if Stalinism or Maoism
are regarded as versions of consistent philosophical atheism to any degree,
or even corrupt versions of it).

    Obviously they would be such if DCT were assumed -- DCT being true
    would of course mean that atheistic ethics were false -- but no atheist is
    going to grant that from the get-go.  But maybe I've missed something here.

You have. That was not my argument, which was: "atheists have their own
'problem of evil,' even more troubling than the Christian one." I merely
referred to the Christian version of ethics insofar as it is able to
resolve certain problems which, it seems to me, the atheist cannot solve, or at least only with the greatest difficulty and arbitrariness.

Exactly which problems?

How to arrive at an objective criteria; how to enforce it across the board; how to make such a morality something other than the end result of a majority vote or the power of governmental coercion. Also, how do we solve thorny societal problems such as various sexual differences, and beginning and end of life issues such as abortion and euthanasia and cloning?

I don't see that these are particularly problematic for atheism.  There is dispute, of course, about what the best objective criteria are; but then, there is dispute within the ranks of theism, too.  (There are different conceptions of DCT, for example, plus Natural Law theory.  And there are even theists who hold to nontheistic ethics -- this is not a contradiction in terms, because these are nontheistic rather than atheistic per se).

As for enforcement, naturally the thing that concerns the atheist is enforcement in the mortal realm.  Here, again, all moral theories are on a more or less equal footing.  How, if one knew DCT were true, would one go about enforcing morality in the here and now?

By evangelizing people, helping them convert, and thus unifying the world population. :-) Short of that, at least convincing them of the need for universal norms and arguing the Christian positions on a case-by-case pragmatic/utilitarian basis (using arguments the non-Christian can relate to).

The solution to societal problems is more or less a consequence of the sort of theory we end up with.  For example, contractualism would simply say that the issue of euthanasia comes down to whether or not ending one's own life defied the social contract.

The Christian must believe that life is sacred and that decisions to end it (apart from justified war, self-defense, etc.) are best left in the hands of God. Of course, without God, then without any higher criterion than human, anything becomes possible in terms of the ending of life. So we see the fruits of that worldview all around us.

In other words, Christians have the universal and absolute standard: God. What do humanists have?  Most are ethical relativists, I believe. How, then, are worldwide ethics to be determined and lived out? Relativists have a certain obvious set of
problems. If there is an atheistic absolutism (as I suspect), then that
will have to be explained to me: how it is arrived at; why anyone should accept
it, etc. I've been trying to have this conversation for years. I almost
did with an agnostic scientist I debated, but he was never willing to truly
subject his own views to the scrutiny I was prepared to give them.

    All of this would seem to follow only if indeed the ultimate ground of
    ethics were (and had to be) God.  Have you got an argument
    demonstrating this much?

Briefly, and off the top of the head, my reasoning might run as follows:

1. There is a God (cosmological and teleological arguments, as well as many others).

2. There is such a thing as the natural law (as evidenced by the profound
similarities and broad consensus of ethics anthropologically, and the
impracticality and tragic results of all relativistic ethical systems).

3. It is plausible and sensible (granting #1) to ground natural law in God,
and His nature, because He is both First Cause, Creator, and Eternal.

4. God has revealed Himself as good (revelation, miracles, Jesus Christ).

5. God is the lawgiver and Creator, Who made man in His image, including
their moral sense.

6. Particulars of the moral law which is generally understood intuitively
(#2) are fleshed out in revelation (Ten Commandments, the Jewish Law, New Testament ethics).

A theistic or absolutistic ethics can be arrived at by #1-3. The fuller,
more worked-out Christian version incorporates the additional points.

My critique of atheism presently, however, is independent of the validity
or soundness of my own Christian view, because it is aimed at internal
inconsistency, incoherence, and (I contend) impossibility of concrete
application (as well as a few historical examples which I take to be - in
some measure - substantiating evidence of my argument).

    I have never agreed with the "Crusades and Inquisitions" objections
    either (at least with regard to the notion of Christian morality in general).

Great. You are a rare bird!

    But all you're doing here is making the same objection against
    atheism.  It doesn't work any better this way.

The Stalinist and Maoist examples are not central to the argument (in fact,
completely dispensable). They were merely thrown in for consideration. I
know all this wasn't explained, but that's why more discussion is always

    The problem is that it conflates two different issues:

    a) Can, and have, atheists been immoral?

Yes, but so what? So have many Christians (in fact, all of them: we
believe in original sin LOL).

    b) Does immorality derive from atheism?

No; it derives from giving into the baser elements of our natures (again,
Christians explain the strange moral duality of man by original sin and a
corruption of the initial created purity). Atheism, at best, might be used
to justify intellectually, or to rationalize, various individual sins and
evil acts.

Exactly right (sans the original sin stuff, of course).  Just about any belief system can be used to rationalize misdeeds.  Consider the Pope of the time, for example, in justifying the Crusades... he explained that when the Bible commanded people not to kill, it really meant "don't kill other Christians." :)

No, this is absurdly simplistic. The biblical command "Thou shalt not kill" is better translated "Thou shalt not muder," because that was the meaning of it. Some forms of killing were permissible; indeed Jewish Law had the death penalty for a number of offenses. The Christian Just War theory (developed by Augustine and others) worked out the instances where war was ethically justified. Unless one is a strict pacifist, this is necessary for everyone to determine (the times to ethically use force).

Well, of course, a strict pacifist might very well argue that this "Just War theory" is an excellent example of such rationalization...!  Who was it, again, who commanded people to turn the other cheek? :)

He also said that His disciples ought to purchase a sword (Luke 22:35-36) and did not rebuke a Roman centurion for being a military man; in fact He highly praised his faith (Matthew 8:5-13). This is not rationalization at all. It is a real-world ethical system, very poorly-understood by many critics of Christianity, and even by pacifists within Christianity.

At any rate, that was just an off-the-cuff example.  I think we agree on the basic idea (i.e., that rationalization can be used to pervert any belief system).


    Of course (a) is true.  It is true of atheists, theists, and everyone
    in between.  The fact is, anyone who is a human being is capable of being

Exactly. Why that is, is a whole 'nother discussion, of course. But no one
would dream of disputing the fact of it.

    But this is no connection at all with (b).

I agree.

    How does simply presenting the Christian view of morality show that
    absurdity is the end result of atheistic thinking?

It doesn't; that wasn't central to my argument. I was simply stating that
Christians solve the "problem" in a certain fashion, and wondering out loud
how atheists solve it. Two roads to the same destination; that sort of thing.

    "Nihilism" is inapplicable here.  Nihilism is the view that there is no
    such thing as moral value at all;

It remains to be seen (in my opinion) how relativistic and/or atheistic ethics can
avoid a logical reduction to nihilism. I'd be delighted to see this
demonstrated, but I am skeptical so far.

    and lack of ultimate punishment/reward in no way suggests that.

I agree. I didn't say it did. Yet lacking the latter might arguably become
an incentive for immoral and dominating behavior.

This is certainly arguable, at any rate.  This is the same sort of argument that is advanced in favour of capital punishment, for example, yet the retort is that capital punishment has never been shown to have deterrent value.  I don't even know how we would go about showing that belief in ultimate justice has deterrent value; maybe by assessing crime rates among Christians versus atheists.  I'm not sure, though, that the results would unequivocally suggest anything.  (For example, it's apparently a fact that Christians are statistically overrepresented in prisons... but I don't think that's particularly suggestive of anything).

Probably only that atheists come from the more educated classes, which tend to be more financially well-off, hence less prone to crime. :-)

Could be.  Or it could even just be the fact that more prisoners are likely to report being Christian when they know perfectly well that professed religiosity helps their chances of parole.

:-) Great insight! We've just seen this process in a President, so it rings true with me.

    As for futility, there are several points to be made here.
    The first is that not all ethicists see justice as retributive.  Some
    also take a correctional view, for example, to which ultimate
    punishment/reward in the sense you give would be quite irrelevant.  On this view,
    the point of punishment and reward is consequentialist: to correct the error of
    the wrongdoer and reinforce the behaviour of the good.  Is there something
    inherently futile about this view?

No, not as far as it goes. But the Christian sees justice as "cosmic." Evil
is a blot on the "normality" of the universe, and it offends God. It is an
offense against the ontological nature of things, as God intended it.
Obviously, these things are no factor in atheist ethics. They are

Quite right.  But the question is, is this a problem for atheistic ethics?

Incidentally, the view of justice as "cosmic", or of evil as an abnormality/offense, do not themselves suggest a retributive view of justice.  The basic difference between retributive and correctional views is just this: retributive views put the premium on "eye for an eye", or punishing harm with harm; and correctional views put the premium on simply doing whatever best stops people from committing harm.  Why, I wonder, wouldn't God take the correctional view?

He does! But he is also Divine Judge, as analogous (if rather dimly) to earthly judges.

This analogy doesn't really answer anything, since whether or not earthly judges do, or should, dispense correctional or retributive justice is hotly debated.


You seem to have God faithfully practicing two conflicting kinds of justice at the same time, which doesn't make sense. Correctional justice takes the end, or purpose, of justice to be consequentialist.  That is, if one is to judge in this sense, then one is looking at producing whatever judgment will produce the best state of affairs.  So: if God is consequentialist, God simply dispenses justice in whatever way will lead to the most people being saved and fulfilled.  God would not be out to harm those who do wrong, or are evil; he would be out to correct their errors, and make them into good people.

God can judge the sins but also at the same time cause people to come to grips with what they need to do in order to be ultimately saved. But there is mercy and forgiveness, which in turn depends on human will and the willingness to repent.

Alternatively, retributive justice takes the end of justice to be vengeance.  If one is to judge in this sense, then one is attempting to visit some harm those who have acted wrongly or are deficient in character.

Well, if God has, in fact, given everyone ample opportunity to repent and they choose not to, there has to be some point at which His mercy comes to an end and Judgment enters in. To live with God forever, one has to be perfect; cleansed of evil. To do that one must repent, receive God's graces and strive to live above sin and evil. But people - having free will - can refuse that. If they make a habit out of it, they become comfortable living without God; they become "hardened."

So, then, if they die, they will be judged by whether or not they received God's free gift of grace, what they know (many will be saved by the loophole of ignorance), and what they did and didn't do with what they knew about God and good and evil. If they are not "fit" for heaven, not having been redeemed by Christ's death for them, then they must live eternally separate from God, and that is what we call hell. Why eternal hellfire is a "cosmic necessity," I cannot explain, I freely confess. But I have every reason to believe that God is both fair and just in both His judgments and distribution of His graces.

The problem is that either view requires a different kind of judgment in certain cases.  Let's suppose that, after his death, Hitler is forced to stand before the almighty.  In this moment -- following the Jack Chick school of theology :) -- Hitler realizes how evil his acts on the earthly realm were, and falls down in atonement.  God, being able to see into hearts and all, can see he is sincere.  What does God do?

If God is dispensing correctional justice, God lets Hitler into heaven. The past misdeeds were terrible, but God can see that Hitler now realizes this fact; there is no reason, now that he has realized his past error, for Hitler to be punished for anything.

Hitler had to do this before he died (which is extremely unlikely, knowing human evil and corruption and what it does to a soul, as we do, but still remotely possible); that is the only catch. There has to be an end-point for the mercy which God extends. God is not required to be merciful at all, in exercising His prerogative as Judge. So it is not "evil" of God to simply set a time at which the mercy comes to an end. And that time is every individual's death.

It's like a Governor extending the offer of a pardon 47 times to a prisoner on death row, and being refused 47 times. Is he then "unjust" or "cruel" to conclude "enough is enough" and to cease offering pardons? Of course not. And who do we blame if the prisoner then gets executed? The Governor, right???!!! :-)

If God is dispensing retributive justice, God sends Hitler to be nibbled on by demons for eternity.  Sure, he's sorry now, and sure, he's changed; but he has to pay for the pain he has inflicted with pain of his own.

It is not unjust if a person spurns God's grace and chooses to become increasingly more evil. That person must be judged (and damned) in the end. The alternative (Hitler and you and I or Mother Teresa all having exactly the same end) is infinitely more troubling to me. I don't know how anyone could think otherwise, except by habit of thinking poorly of God (or of the unaccepted concept) and not understanding His dual role as both loving, merciful Father and Holy Judge.

Do you see what I mean?  The ultimate end of justice for God cannot both be retribution and correction, because those views themselves have conflicting ends.

Not at all, as I hope I have adequately explained.

Indeed, if the only purpose of justice is to put the cosmic house in order, as it were, why would God stress retribution?  To use that analogy: if your house is in disarray, does it make more sense to destroy everything that's out of place -- e.g., burn all your clothes because they're not properly tucked away in the closet -- or to put everything back as it should be...?

That's the distinction between redemption and final judgment. God is both Savior and Judge, because He is the Creator. He made us; He desires us to be saved and fulfilled, which entails union with Him and with His will, but at the same time He allows us the freedom to disobey Him, and that will eventually involve separation from God and eternal punishment for those who choose that course and spurn God's free gift of grace, by the very nature of things.

    The second is that many atheists, myself included, would not agree that
    ultimate "justice" in the classical Christian sense really is just at
    all. That is: justice in this sense involves infinite punishment, but
    humans are only capable of finite crimes.  If justice involves matching the
    punishment to the crime -- as it must, lest we start executing
    jaywalkers  -- then any infinite punishment would be de facto unjust.  This point
    would not, of course, apply to universalists.

Hell is a completely different discussion, so I can't indulge it here.
Suffice it to say that human beings are immortal. They have a free choice
to choose to obey God and be in union with Him, or to reject Him. We make
these choices in this life, and the choices have eternal consequences. God honors
that freedom. He can't force love anymore than human beings can (well, He
could have done so, but He chose not to). It is simply the nature of
things that souls are immortal, and that they can either be with God or
separate from Him, eternally.

Hell is the individual's choice. It is like a lifer in prison turning down
the Governor's free pardon. Is that the Governor's fault? C.S. Lewis said
that the doors of hell were locked on the inside. So I don't see this as
any sort of blot on God's character at all. It (hell) is the tragic result of
man's rebellion, selfishness, pride, self-delusion, and stupidity.

Hell is indeed a different topic.  I brought it up just to make the point that, apart from the issue of whether it is necessary for morality, there is some serious question as to whether the classically Christian view is even sufficient.

Not for orthodox Christians. :-) We may not like the idea (emotionally, and at a gut level) much more than you do, but we don't accept things in theology based on our likes and dislikes. In this case, we have a teaching repeatedly referred to by Jesus, and thus not optional for a Christian.

I won't go off on too much of a rant, but I will say for the record that the view you describe above -- of hell as the individual's choice -- smacks to me horribly of rationalization.  Imagine a mugger: "give me all your money or you're dead."  The person refuses, and gets killed.  Could the mugger then say, "well, it was his free choice to die; is it my fault he chose that?"  Hardly!  The person who refused did not choose to be killed; he merely refused to do what the mugger wanted him to do, and the mugger decided that the consequence would be death.  As you say, though, this issue deserves a thread in itself.

This is a completely false analogy because it involves coercion and no fault on the part of the person judged, whereas with us and God, God lets us freely choose good or evil, and we are at fault if we choose wrongly, or - to follow up on my earlier point - we have chosen to separate ourselves from God and He says "okay, have your way." Otherwise, He would have to force us to love Him and desire to be with Him, and that is no love at all, anymore than a love slave really loves their master.

The analogy wasn't to do with the justice or morality of the demand, but
just on the fact that God is making a demand and enforcing obedience as
opposed to just sitting back and saying "well, it's your choice whether you
go to heaven or hell".  We do not choose heaven or hell; we choose
obedience or disobedience, and it is God who decides the consequences.
(Unless, of course, going to heaven or hell is just some sort of natural
process that God has no part in.  But I'd be really surprised if any
Christian said that).

This seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.To be disobedient is to separate oneself from God, which in turn is ultimately the state of hell, or outer darkness. Again, that's like the proverbial death row inmate, who (in my previous example) refused a Governor's Pardon 47 times. He chose to be "disobedient" to the Governor, or - put another way - to separate himself from the non-prison, free world, with the Governor and those in his "kingdom," so to speak. Now, is it the Governor who decided those "consequences" or the inmate?

The Governor decided the consequences.  This, again, is not itself meant as
any judgment that doing so is necessarily unjust; but it is nevertheless a
fact that the prisoner did not choose to be such.  Choosing to go to
prison, construed meaningfully, would mean actually willing this end
and no criminal actually wills the end of going to prison.

I think willing the end is necessary to be able to say we choose it,
because otherwise choice becomes too inclusive.  For example, suppose that
your car has, without your knowledge, been rigged to explode when started.
You choose to turn the key in the ignition, and the car blows up... did you
choose to die?  Clearly, not in any significant sense.  The end you willed
was simply to make your car start.  Similarly, if we disobey God -- by
being atheists, say -- we do not thereby will ourselves to go to hell.
Indeed, if we are atheists, we don't even believe in hell -- it is as
unforseen a consequence for us as the explosion of the car would be for you.

It's true that God decides, or judges, but we have already made our choice, reinforced through many years of practice (what the Christian would characterize as resistance and rebellion) in most cases. He is merely definitively proclaiming what is already a reality (separation from God), and granting the resister his will in full. The outcome of that is hell; that is what it means to be completely separated from God, and since souls cannot die, by their very nature, therefore hell must be an eternal state as well. "Ya lives yer life and ya makes yer choice."

This seems equivocal.  Are you saying that it is impossible for God to do
other than send sinners to hell...?

But as to the justice of the matter, one simple point settles it for me:
justice always proportions the punishment to the crime.  Hell is an
infinite punishment; but there is no way that a finite human being can
commit an infinite crime.

    The third point is that you are speaking above as though morality were
    only meaningful if it may be absolutely enforced.

Not so much meaningless per se, as impracticable, arbitrary, and
philosophically unjustifiable.

The problem is that it's still unclear where these are coming from.  Why is such a view of morality impracticable?

Because people will always disagree on this or that (abortion is a prime example today). Therefore, the only way to enforce standards across the board would have to be by force, majority vote, or both. But if one believes in objective morality, that is insufficient. The Christian solution provides a standard for one and all, because it is a code grounded in natural law, revelation (itself supported in numerous ways), and in God's very character. Utilitarian ethics eventually break down.

All objective morality provides a standard for one and all, and I'm not
sure how it is that DCT would be more enforcable than other kinds of
morality in the here and now.  So, I'm not sure what you could be arguing

Obviously, atheists do practice it, so you must mean that it ought to be impracticable... but why?  What makes it arbitrary?  (What is meant by arbitrary?)  Why is it philosophically unjustifiable?  It isn't enough that the Christian view includes it, and you take this to be somehow superior; these are ambitious, positive claims about atheism.

I think I have explained myself previously . . .

    But why should the atheist agree?

He doesn't have to; he needs to justify his own ethics, based on his own

Obviously, anyone who pretends to have a full-fledged theory of ethics needs to do this.  But this is quite irrelevant to your claim that atheistic morality is impracticable, arbitrary, and unjustifiable.  If you make this claim, then you must know something about atheism which reduces to this moral impracticability, arbitrariness, etc.

Simply because there can be no conclusive standard for all people to be held to unless it is "above" humanity. Otherwise, morality invariably becomes relative, self-centered, or subject to governmental coercion and/or majority vote. The Germans voted in the Nazis, and they made certain laws, and the laws were, in turn, regarded as "good" and "right." There is no higher Being to be subject to, which was assumed by, e.g., the Declaration of Independence, and throughout early American jurisprudence; now being more and more whitewashed of its natural law elements.

Your argument, then, is this:

1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures,
governments, or individuals).
2. Without a higher being, all behavioural imperatives are relativistic.
3. Therefore, there can be no objective morality without a higher being.

The problem is premise (2).  Why should anyone believe it?  You have given
no argument for it as yet.  What you have done is asked me to show you how
an objective theory of morality works without God (and I've done so) -- but
this is in no way an argument for (2), only a request for potential
disproofs of it.

Your characterization of my argument is incorrect, for numbers 2 and 3 (but that's okay, as I set forth lots of things, and no doubt not as coherently or clearly as I could have done). Here is how I would state them (I do contend that my argument is considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than you seem to realize):

Okay, fair enough; I'll address your argument as given.

1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures, governments, or individuals). [good enough]

2. Without a higher being, all behavioural imperatives logically and in practice reduce to (ultimately arbitrary) relativism, in the sense that no single standard will be able to be enforced for, or applied to one and all (which is what "objective morality" - #1 - requires); and that because no substantive or unquestionable criterion is given for the grounds for such a standard, as an alternate to the Christian axiomatic basis of God, in Whose Nature morality resides and is defined.

I'm not sure what this means.  All objective ethical theories offer a
standard which is applied to all.  Enforcement is a difficult matter, but
it's hard to see why this makes nontheistic morality impracticable or
arbitrary; objective ethics supply the standard for behaviour, and thus
inform our attempts to enforce morality... an objective ethical theory just
means that we ought to enforce some standard, not that it is or can be
fully enforced.  Moreover, any objective ethical theory being true implies
that the immoral actor is committing an error whether he gets caught at it
or not.  I just don't see the relativism you allude to.

As for the purely practical side, it's not clear that people will feel free
to disregard morality simply because there is no ultimate enforcement.
This would be ultimately a psychological claim, but it's not one that has
been generally substantiated.  (I previously mentioned, for example, the
fact that capital punishment -- which is a pretty ultimate enforcement --
has never been shown to have deterrent value.)

3. Therefore, there cannot logically be a self-consistent objective morality (one able to be consistently practiced by one and all in the real world) without a higher being; all merely human-based efforts will end in arbitrariness (and often, tyranny), due to the inability to arrive at a necessary, non-relative starting point and systematic moral axiom.

One problem here is that it's not clear to me when exactly you're talking
about ethical theory and when you're talking about applied ethics.  Your
first sentence suggests the latter, but terms like "necessary,
non-relative" suggest the former.  The two cannot be used interchangeably;
things like logic, coherency, and relativism/objectivism apply at the
theoretical level, and things like possible practicability or
enforceability at the applied level.

To clarify, then: is your point that atheistic ethics are flawed in theory
or in practice?  Or is it both?

To me, what I called the "heart" of my critique was the point at which you admitted that each individual's moral choices were his own, or relative, to some extent (I don't recall your exact phrase, offhand).

"The internal criterion."  By the way, there's a really good essay that
explains all this metaethical terminology: "The Normativity of Instrumental
Reason" by Christine Korsgaard (a prominent neo-Kantian).  While it's not
directly on topic here -- she is dealing with the question of how, exactly,
practical reason is binding on us -- I personally found it immensely
clarifying.  I couldn't find an online version, but Korsgaard's own webpage
can be found at: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~korsgaar/

Another good source is David Velleman, who writes on the same sort of
topics.  He's not quite as clear as Korsgaard, in my opinion, but I think some of his
stuff is available online at his page:

How is that not relativism? How is it not inconsistent with your claimed objective system? And how can others condemn individual's behavior given such inherent relativism and subjectivism? This is all part of my moral argument, not the argument for meaning.

Simply because the objectivity of morality refers the universality of its
normativity, yet this requires, of course, that it is in fact normative for
us -- there has to be some sense in which we commit an error of practical
reason by being immoral.  As practical reason is just the sort of reason
that guides our attempts to realize our ends, this means that ultimately
objective morality comes down to "it is practically irrational for all
people to be immoral, as this compromises their own interests".

The difference here from subjectivism or relativism is that these positions
do not hold that it is always practically irrational to obey a set of moral
norms.  A subjectivist would hold, for example, that if one person's
inclination is to commit murder and another's inclination is to abhor
murder, then neither commits any error at all -- anymore than they would
commit an error by disagreeing over favourite ice cream flavours.  The
objectivist, on the other hand, says that one of these people is definitely
committing an error, and thus that one is really rationally (and thus
objectively) wrong.  Both views share a basis in the desires of people; the
difference is that the objectivist introduces an external criterion
(practical reason) and says that this applies to all people regardless of
their peculiar idiosyncracies.

Differently put: the objectivist derives morality from desires, sentiments,
or needs common to all human beings -- those which are in us simply because
we are human.  The subjectivist either says that such desires, etc. do not
exist, or denies that their fulfillment always makes any particular sort of
behaviour practically irrational.

If it's just that you don't currently understand how atheistic ethics are justified, then your claim is far too strong.

Well, of course that is what I am seeking to learn by engaging in this thread with three different correspondents. I went off on the sub-topic of abortion, but thus far, I have not seen it justified by anyone here. Personally, I consider that to be the "morally absurd outcome" of atheist or secular ethics (which is why I mention it so much; also because I think it is self-evidently wrong; at least in the later stages). That is where secularist ethics leads, when followed through consistently: to the "culture of death." But the value and goodness of life, is, I think, a fundamental assumption of any ethical system, is it not? So I see a conflict, and absurdity there.

Many, if not most, secular people hold that abortion is permissible, but
this is not the same as holding that this view is a necessary consequence
of secular ethics.  You need to argue the latter.  Also, you present
abortion as a reductio ad absurdum, but you are simply assuming that this
is an absurd consequence.  This is hardly compelling, since naturally there
is much controversy over whether abortion is wrong -- you'd need to resolve
that controversy before your argument even gets off the ground.

Again, the Christian system resolves this problem: life is sacred, because human beings are made in the image of God, and possess an eternal soul. Abortion is wrong on this basis: it is ultimately an affront against God, the Creator of all (as all murder is). There is no question here such as that which comes up in war or police actions, where force becomes necessary to protect the innocent; even whole societies and cultures, as it were. It is simply an innocent child trying to make it to the world outside its mother's womb without being torn limb from limb.

The issue of abortion is not settled by any ethical theory on the market,
including yours.  It is a tenet of many Christian organizations that
abortion is wrong, but this does not derive logically from DCT itself.

The reason for this is that the most basic ethical tenet relevant to
abortion is "it is wrong to murder an innocent person".  This is not a
tenet unique to DCT; it is a consequence of virtually every ethical theory
around -- and, on the more practical level, nobody disputes it.  The
question is simply whether or not a fetus is a person, and, if so, when
they move from non-personhood to personhood.  (At conception?  After brain
activity is measurable?  At the second trimester?)  This, in turn, is not
an issue for ethical philosophy, but rather for metaphysics.  Specifically,
it is the issue of personal identity, which is the philosophical attempt
to define the nature of persons and how personhood is contiguous over time.

Suppose you and I are considering a locked bank vault. This conversation follows:

M: I say that this vault cannot contain any Spanish doubloons.
D: What?  How can you justify that?
M: Well, give me a justification of why there should be any Spanish
doubloons in there.
D: Well... I suppose there might be any number of possible reasons.  I can't think of any I consider most plausible, though.
M: Aha!  Therefore, since you have no account, my point remains: the vault cannot contain any Spanish doubloons.

Has "M"'s logic here been sound?  No.  The failure to demonstrate that there are Spanish doubloons in the vault does not demonstrate that there cannot be; it just demonstrates that there's no reason to think there are any.  M's fallacy is called, in formal terms, argumentum ad ignorantiam.

Similarly, what I often see apologists doing is the same thing with morality.  "I say atheistic morality is absurd.  You disagree?  Well, then justify morality.  You have no answer that satisfies me?  Aha!  Atheistic morality is absurd... QED."  This is precisely the same fallacy.

Not yet (if at all), because we have just begun to see what would justify atheist morality and how it can stand up to logical scrutiny, not simply name-calling. I need to see your replies to, e.g., the critiques of utilitarianism by Geisler [below]. We've just begun, as far as I am concerned.

Now, I'm not convinced that you mean to commit this fallacy here.  But what is needed from you to justify your strong claim is your account of what, in atheism, reduces morality necessarily to absurdity.

I've stated much already, and will continue to, as we consider specific ethical questions. I have tried to make abortion a test case, but as I said, it hasn't worked so far. One person even implied that my inquiries on that topic weren't even sincere. So what can I do? You are welcome to pick a topic of your own which you think makes Christianity absurd (such as hell), but then we are back to Christianity, and I am trying to avoid that so we can stay on-topic.

Abortion is a pretty poor "test case" for a number of reasons.  First, it
is not ultimately an ethical issue, but rather a metaphysical one -- i.e.,
it is not an issue that can be resolved by ethical philosophy alone, and
the quintessentially ethical components of the controversy aren't really
disagreed upon by either side.  Second, there is no necessary position on
abortion implied by nontheistic ethics in general.  Different theories, on
this issue and any other, will yield different conclusions.  Third, I
suspect that this issue is so inherently loaded that it is virtually
impossible to discuss it dispassionately.  It lends itself to too much
rhetoric and invective.

Nor is there really such a thing as an alternative test case, because
different nontheistic ethical theories imply different positions on issues.
For example, Kantianism implies that lying is always wrong, whereas
utilitarianism would imply that it is sometimes justified.

Perhaps a relevant dialogue I engaged in with an agnostic scientist would be helpful to explain my point of view further, so I don't have to spend a great deal more time explaining it. In my opinion, we merely got to the point that this thread is at now (near the beginning of the inquiry), so that - unfortunately - I never got to discuss the heart of my objection:

Dialogue With an Agnostic on Abortion (Is it a Morally Absurd Outcome of Humanism?) (Dave Armstrong vs. Dr. Jan Schreurs)
  Also of related interest:

     How to Argue Against Abortion in a Secular, Post-Christian Society

     Philosophical Dialogue With a Former Christian Agnostic on Child-Killing (aka
     "abortion" or "choice")

     Abortion and a "Progressive and Humane Nation" (Al Kresta)

    If something is wrong, it is wrong, regardless of whether anyone
    has the power to back up their judgment with force.

Well, that is an absolutistic system, and I need to know you arrive at
that, and I will have a ton of questions for you, all along the way. :-)

That's simply the nature of objective morality.  Unless of course objective morality were nothing more than "whatever is backed up by force is right"... but I don't think either of us subscribe to that view.  Hope not, anyhow.

Of course not, but you have given no "explanation." You have simply stated that "what's wrong is wrong," which gets us nowhere and resolves nothing. I assume you know this is no argument, so I won't accuse you of circular reasoning. :-) I wanna know why you think this, and you are not helping me much to understand, so far.

This particular paragraph wasn't meant as an argument, it was simply
stating that the scenario you described obtains if objective morality is true.

    Right and wrong serve as ways of judging others, but this is not the main
    point of morality; the main point is to give us the ability to exercise
    correct judgment with regard to our own behaviour.

This means little by itself, so I'll let it pass.

    If we conceive of justice in a retributive sense, then Hitler's crimes
    going unpunished would indeed be a horrible thing.  But how does even
    this make morality futile?  It doesn't render moral value meaningless
    (indeed, it assumes that moral value is meaningful).

Actually, it has more to do directly with existential purpose, and a
feeling of futility of life and the universe, that such things can occur, and that
there is no felt "justice" to make them right. So we licked the Nazis' and put an end to it. Great (thank God), but how does that bring justice to the 6 million Jews and many thousands of others who perished in the camps and in battle?

It doesn't give them justice at all, supposing that by justice we mean revenge/retribution.  Would this suck?  Yes!  Does it mean that life is completely futile and useless?  Only if there is nothing in life that is worthwhile enough to justify it for individuals.  But I say there is enough in life; there's enough for me, and evidently there's enough for all the other people in the world who don't believe in God.  Moreover, I say that things can be better than they are.

So you admit that there is no justice for the 6 million Jews and others who perished in the camps and the war. In the Christian view there certainly is, because there is the Judgment and the sentence of damnation for evil persons. And I know this is not an argument (which is on other grounds). I'm simply explaining how we view the world in terms of ultimate justice and meaning, and seeking your alternative system of making sense of such monstrous evils as Naziism and Stalinism.

I admitted that there is no ultimate retribution for them, yes.  Of course,
there was some degree of retribution, since Hitler was defeated.

    It doesn't mean there is no reason to be moral, because if morality is
    truly objective, then morality already is normative for us.  All it
    would imply is that the universe is not a perfect place.

The epistemological basis of this "objective" morality you refer to, under
atheist premises, is what I am very interested in.

Hopefully I've given some information on this above. Again, the basis of nontheistic theories of objective morality is essentially practical reason and human nature.

And my point is precisely that these theories are impracticable, if carried through consistently. To the extent that they are able to be carried out with a fair degree of happiness and harmony, I contend that Christian notions and/or the Natural Law have been smuggled in, unbeknownst to the practitioners.

Wouldn't this imply, if true, that no non-Christian or non-theistic society
could ever have happiness and harmony?  But that's not true, is it?

E.g., in the American legal system, which seems to have worked pretty well, natural law and a Creator was assumed from the outset. Christian morality was casually assumed to form the backdrop of jurisprudence (though differences in particulars existed, of course).

The actual extent to which American law is influenced by Christianity is
always hotly debated.  I myself am no expert (nor need I be, I suppose,
since I'm Canadian).  There seem to be good arguments both ways.  On the
one hand, the USA is clearly predominately Christian, and always has been.
On the other hand, many of the founding fathers were of a deistic bent.
Who knows.  All Americans are slightly nuts anyhow, if you ask me.  But
that's okay, since we Canadians are all drunks. ;)

The idea is that objective moral imperatives derive their normativity from some kind of basic, natural human drive or sentiment, and their universality from reason.  Lots of
detail has been given on this previously... where would you like more detail, exactly?

    "If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in
    despairing of life as in hoping for another life; and in eluding the
    implacable grandeur of this one." -Albert Camus

A false dichotomy, of course, and therefore philosophically silly and
insubstantial. Pie in the sky is irresponsible and dumb, but then I would
contend that "this life only" is arguably equally unbalanced  and
shortsighted. The proper view is that this life is infinitely valuable, and
to be lived responsibly to the fullest, and that we also have the next life
to look forward to, where the justice of God will be fully confronted. So
the "super-pious," head-in-the-sand buffoon has a similar problem to the
atheist, whereas the thoughtful, biblical Christian has a "normal" view.
:-) I don't mean to sound insulting; I'm just making an argument. I don't think
this has ever occurred to me before.

    The most general answer is that atheists find hope and meaning in what
    is good about their existence.

One must define that good and determine the ultimate rationale for doing

What is good about an individual's existence, in this sense of "good", is just whatever the individual finds to be good.  Here we're no longer talking about objective moral value, but subjective value simpliciter.

Exactly, and now you're getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it. You just admitted (as far as I can tell) that "good" is relative to the individual. How, then, can there be an objective standard of "good" applied to all?

You are mixing up two issues.  I agree that there is an objective standard
of moral goodness, but "good" in the sense of "making life worth living" is
another issue altogether.  What is morally good is whatever we are
obligated to do; what is good in the latter sense is just whatever moves us
to keep on living rather than going mad and committing suicide.

By what standard do we decide what is good for everyone to do (what obligates them)?

It depends on the moral theory.  A moral theory which derives from the
desire of all people to avoid suffering, for example, would say that this
obligates us (via practical reason) to a certain kind of conduct.  (This is
what contractualism, and probably utilitarianism, do... although in vastly
different ways, of course).

And of course a host of troublesome examples now leap to the fore. Hitler thought the Holocaust was good. Stalin thought the starvation of the Ukrainians was good. Corrupt Crusaders in the Middle Ages thought slaughtering women and children was good. Timothy McVeigh thought blowing up a building and killing 168 people was good. Terrorists think blowing up cars in crowded market places is good. The American government (and most of its people) thought annihilating civilians in two entire Japanese cities by nuclear bombs was good. America thought slavery was good (and later institutional racism and discrimination). Pedophiles think molesting children is good. Etc.

How do we resolve this inherent relativism? The Aztecs thought human sacrifice was good; the Catholic Spaniards thought it was a hideous evil. How do we resolve such conflicts? Was Aztec sacrifice good or evil (or neither)? And if the latter, how do we convince someone of a different culture that what they are doing is evil? Of course it had a religious basis, so we also have to convince the people that this religion has gone awry somewhere along the line and may perhaps be a false religion. As it was, mass conversions in Mexico (perhaps the most remarkable Christian revival in the history of the world) solved that problem demographically.

    Maybe the easiest way to make the point is like this.  Suppose someone
    says, "I believe that the world, as it is, is completely and utterly
    perfect and joyful.  I also believe that everyone attains everlasting
    happiness after death.  Now, Christians believe that the world as it is
    is at least often horrible, and that many people will be in pain for
    eternity. This is unendurable."  How would you reply to this?

I would say that only a nutcase could ever say that about the world. That
would be sufficient to dismiss the view.

But as you're well aware, a lot of people conclude as much about Christianity.

I'm still awaiting a vision superior to Christianity, both in terms of truth and existential meaning.

You're missing the point.  The point is, for you, the Candide-like theist
is a nutcase, and his supposed justification for existential meaning is a
pipe dream.  You seem to think this is enough to dismiss that view out of
hand.  Why, then, cannot the atheist -- who thinks Christianity is in
error, and its notions of existential meaning are pipe dreams -- do the
same with your view?

    Obviously, if one truly believed that everything that happened in this
    world were pure bliss, then there would be no need for punishment, and
    (presuming one truly believed this) one would always be happy.

Yes, this is the view of the insane asylum (at least of the drugged-up

    Obviously, the answer for you would be that this view is false.

Hopefully, it is for you too. LOL

But if that is a sufficient reply, then the atheist already has a sufficient one for you, too: he believes Christianity is false.

But that is another discussion, isn't it? Again, I am trying to understand your rationale for the most important, fundamental issues that all human beings face: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong? What is justice? How does one end injustice? What is love? What is truth? Etc.

You keep saying you want to understand where atheists are coming from, and
I'm trying to do that with an illustration.  The illustration is sketched
around Christianity simply because that is your view, and therefore it
will hopefully be easier for you to see the point.

    And it doesn't become less false simply because it proposes things that
    would be nice if they were true; and more to the point, your own life
    doesn't become unendurable just because such a view exists.  I mean, it
    would be great if human beings could all fly, but this is no reason to
    believe that they can.

    This is the atheist's reply to the Christian as well.  Assuming a
    retributive view of justice, would it be great if there were an
    ultimate judge to back it up?  Sure (although I personally wouldn't see God, as
    often characterized, as any kind of perfect judge).  Would it be great
    if, after a life of mixed suffering and joy, there were eternal joy waiting
    for us?  Sure!  But this doesn't mean that life is unlivable without such

But again, that is not my argument. I'm not saying, "believe our version of
reality because it makes more sense and will make you happier and have more
purpose!" I'm saying, "assume that all this afterlife and God business is
false and untrue; now tell me how purpose, hope, and meaning is constructed
in such an atheistic worldview."

But imagine that our "loony theist" described above levelled the same argument against you.  How would you convince him?

That's another discussion. If we keep switching over to Christianity, this will go nowhere. And I will have to conclude that you can offer me no answers to my questions. If you have no answers, simply admit it. I will respect that. I don't have ultimate or comprehensive, totally explanatory answers to the problem of evil, either, and I consider it the most troubling objection to Christianity. But then again, I don't believe I can figure everything out in the first place, whether there is a God or not, so I don't lose sleep over it.

The point is that I don't see what sort of answer can theoretically satisfy
you.  You want me to tell you how it is that the meaning we can
subjectively find in life can be enough to keep us from going mad, assuming
there is no God.  But how is it possible to give an account of that that
will be meaningful for you, when you clearly cannot understand how anything
other than Christianity could suffice?

So, what I'm asking you to do is exercise your imagination, and imagine
that someone is asking YOU for an account of how your worldview can
possibly give you enough hope, meaning, etc.  How would you go about
answering them?  If you can tell me that, then maybe I can see what kind of
answer will satisfy you.

Alternatively, if all you want is a list of what I personally consider
meaningful and valuable, okay; I don't see that this will be of any help,
but okay.  I find value in intellectual pursuits.  In recreation.  In art
and music -- I love classic blues, among other things, and play blues
guitar (badly!).  In my family.  In my friends.  In my girlfriend.  In
travel.  In the Sopranos (damn, I love that show).  Etc., etc., etc.  These
things, and others, are both enjoyable and meaningful for me.

At some point, you'd just have to say that the world you do believe in is meaningful and hopeful enough for you.

Why (for the atheist)? Is your view simply existentialism, where one believes whatever they want, so as to achieve "meaningfulness"? That would be no better than the pie-in-the-sky which atheists so despise, of course. It simply substitutes pie-in-the-head (no pun intended).

No; I'm not sure where you got that from.  I was simply saying that there
is a limit to how much one can justify purely subjective matters.

For example, I can't understand why on earth anyone would buy plain vanilla
ice cream when other flavours are available.  Yet people do.  Suppose I
were to demand of them some justification for this: "how is plain old
vanilla good enough for you?"  How could they answer me?  Ultimately,
they'd have to say that it just is good enough for them.

I'm not sure how atheists in general would reply, but I'd say that there just is no ultimate purpose of life and the universe.

That's honest; thanks. But do you think this dire conclusion has negative implications for objective morality, as I do?

It would have negative implications for a teleological theory of morality
-- i.e., one formulated around the notion of purpose -- but that's about
it.  Remember, morality is about ways we are obligated to behave.  Meaning,
hopefulness, etc. are about what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Life, or the universe, having a purpose would seem to imply that it was created with a purpose; and, obviously, I don't believe in a creator (much less a purposive one).


But this does seem to me to be besides the point.  Suppose there was such an ultimate purpose.  Whose purpose would this be?

I'm asking you, according to your view.

Well, the creator's, of course; not necessarily our own.

The Christian outlook is fairly well-known.

(Of course, it could always be that we are somehow programmed to share the creator's purposes...

Yes, of course.

but this would seem to contradict the usual theistic notion of free will).

No; it is simply how we are "wired," as to ultimate questions and "orientation," so to speak. We still have free will to act upon the divinely-caused noble impulses or to rebel and go by our own evil impulses. Human beings are very curious mixtures of both great evil and great capacity for good and love. This is another thing that the Christian view explains far better than any other I have seen.

Atheists always have to chalk evil up to environment, because they don't look at it in metaphysical, ontological, or spiritual terms. So McVeigh had a Bircher for a father; Hitler was done in by his anti-Semitism; Stalin by his lust for power, the killers at Columbine High School by the availability of guns and right-wing fanaticism, etc., and what-not. Christians say that all people are capable of great evil or great good, depending on the courses of action they take, and how they respond to God's graces. Environment is a factor, but not the sole or overwhelmingly primary factor. But then, I digress as well. :-)

No, you're getting morality and meaning mixed up again.  We were talking
about purpose, in the sense of "my life has some purpose for me to work
towards".  Now, suppose that God has some sort of purpose for us.  This,
in itself, is not a purpose we hold, just one God holds.  It could be
the case that we all naturally share God's purposes -- say, redemption with
God himself -- but this would be the same as saying that nobody ever has
other, stronger impulses.  This is both untrue, and, if true, would
contradict free will (since we would be unable to do anything except what
God's purposes suggest).

As regards the issue of being able to consistently maintain one's sanity, avoid complete existential despair, etc., the only thing that matters is that we find sufficient meaning in the universe ourselves.

How does an atheist do that?

By finding the things that give him or her hope, happiness, purpose, etc.
You find it in religion; atheists find it elsewhere.  (Or most do, at any
rate. I keep forgetting that there are even atheist-friendly religions,
like Unitarian Universalism and some forms of Buddhism or even Taoism).

It doesn't matter, as far as this goes, whether or not it also happens to be the purpose and meaning of any creator.  If playing guitar were alone sufficient to give my life meaning, for example, then it would be a valid "meaning of life" for me in this context.

Go to:  Part Two

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Uploaded on 5 June 2001 by Dave Armstrong from public list discussions, with the express permission of Mike Hardie.