Next up in this series is one of our “friends across the pond,” Justin Brierley, with his weekly radio show/ podcast Unbelievable?. Unbelievable? Airs every Saturday in the U.K. and is then released as a podcast. Each week, Brierly brings together a Christian and a skeptic to have a dialogue on matters of faith. Sometimes the dialogue is among Christians discussing an area of disagreement in theology. What really stands out in these discussion is the level of civility that is (usually) maintained throughout the conversation. While Brierley makes no secret about where he stands, he is consistently recognized by listeners and guests as a very even-handed moderator of the discussions.
Byblacksheep (BBS from here out) said,
“…if we have morals from a perfect God (we know what is good because god said so) we would expect perfect morals from the beginning.”
As a Christian, I would affirm that we have morals from a perfect God. As I argued in part uno, God himself is the ground of goodness. However, I would not say “we know that is good because God said so.” What I mean here is that I know of no Christian theologian who would say God has revealed his moral will exhaustively. He has revealed some things, and from those we can infer other things. We obviously can be mistaken about those inferences, but we do not claim they have the same weight of authority as clear revelation. For example, Exodus 20:15 says, “Do not steal.” We can infer from this that there is such a thing as private property of some kind, and that certain rights follow from this. As such while I think what God has revealed of his moral will is perfect, it is not entirely spelled out, which brings me to the second half of the statement above. We would expect this IF we were claiming that the purpose of divine revelation is to give us an exhaustive book or rules by which we must live, and anything that was happening that was wrong was to be called out and condemned. However, that is not the purpose of Scripture. Its overarching narrative is where we came from, what our problem is, what the solution is, and how it will all be resolved.
BBS goes on to say,
“But our knowledge and our understanding grows…And because of that you would expect the moral codes of earlier civilizations would be just totally wrong and gradually change and be refined over time, which is what we see, globally we have moved in a direction that increases human dignity for all people. Can I definitively say we’ve moved in a direction that is “better?” No I can’t, I will leave that to the philosophers, but what i can do however is look back at the holocaust and say “they got it wrong” I can look back at slavery in the U.S., and slavery across the globe and say “they got it wrong.”
I can agree with BBS that “they got it wrong” but I do so from a worldview that can make sense of that claim. If all we are is molecules in motion, all we can mean when we say “they got it wrong” is that the “molecules in me feel icky about that.” To say they were wrong is to say that they had an obligation to not do that. That implies authority of some kind. Where does that come from? I would argue that the best explanation is a transcendent source in whose image we are made, which is why there is such widespread agreement on big issues like this such that large groups only achieve things like the holocaust by armed force. We have an intuitive sense that such things are wrong. We are also quite capable of ignoring that intuition and/or rationalizing violating it.
BBS also says,
“…consensus really isn’t how we decide what is moral or not moral. Sure it is how we collectively agree what codes, rules, and norms we are going to follow, but that isn’t necessarily WHY we follow them.”
Again, I would agree. In fact, the why is yet another question. Many people follow moral laws against murder and adultery for no reason other than fear of consequences. While that may make their behavior seem moral on the surface, Jesus doubled down on the commandments when he said,
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. (Matthew 5:21)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (verses 27-28)
I will end here for the sake of brevity. Keep an eye out for part drei coming up. (Yes I am using a different language for each sequel number just to be annoying.)
I was recently told that a militant atheist tweeted something to the effect of, “I believe humans are inherently good, and therefore do not need a God to save them.” It would be easy to get sucked into an argument about whether or not this assessment is accurate, but that would miss a greater irony. What does the atheist mean by “good?”
Let me tell you about myself. I am two legs tall, and weigh 100 water bottles. Does that tell you anything (other than that I have a strange way naming units of length and weight?) Can you tell exactly how tall I am or how much I weigh? One person would see me as five feet tall and another as five feet, eight inches. Which is right? One would see me as weighing 81 pounds, another as 211 pounds. Which is correct? Why is there disagreement? The one, who sees me as five feet tall, has a 30-inch leg. The one, who sees me as weighing 211 pounds, drinks from one-liter water bottles. You can see where I’m going with this. At this point you might ask, “Why don’t you just use standard measures like feet, inches, and pounds? Or, use meters and liters?” I suppose I could use these standard units, but why are they standard? Because a competent authority declared them to be so. If you are really dying to know some history of this, you can look here.
What does all this have to do with the tweet in question? The claim was that humans were “inherently good.” What does the atheist mean by “good?” As an atheist, he has rejected any competent authority who could give us a standard of goodness that is independent of our opinions. If God does not exist, then “good,” in the sense relevant to whether or not one needs a God to save them, does not exist. If “good” means “well suited for its intended purpose,” and there is no intended purpose for humans to exist, then good, in that sense, does not exist. If this is the case, good can only mean, “I like it,” or “We like it.” However, who says humans are inherently likeable? I think we all know some who are not. (If we are brutally honest, we can all think of times when we were not.) What if one person likes a group of people and another does not? Who’s to say who is right? On what basis? As Ravi Zacharias has said, “…in some cultures they love their neighbors; in others they eat them, both on the basis of feeling. Do you have any preference?”
Some, like Sam Harris, argue that morals and values refer to “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Again, however, I must ask, “Says who?” Why should the well-being of conscious creatures outweigh the well-being of creatures that have no consciousness? What about when the well-being of one (or one group of) conscious creature(s) is in conflict with that of another? Who decides?
Let’s go back to the claim. If we use Harris’ definitions, it would seem the claim is that humans inherently tend to consider the well-being of other conscious creatures. However, look around you. Look at the headlines on any given day. Racial tensions, terrorism, oppression all lead the 24-hour news cycle. Even by the atheist’s own definition (assuming he accepts the one above) it is clear that humans are anything but inherently good, and therefore without the need for a savior. However, for the atheist to claim anything is good in an objective way (independent of his own opinion) is a category error. It would be like me saying music does not exist because I have never tasted it.
Mitch Stokes would agree with many atheists in that “all value— and moral value in particular— is subjective in that all value depends on a valuer, a valuing subject. All morality is ultimately personal.” However, if the “valuer” is merely a human being, we are right back to the original problem. However, if God exists, and he created humans for his purposes, we are valuable because he values us. Good, then, is grounded in what God values because he is the very embodiment of good. God is the competent authority from whom we can get a standard unit of goodness.
If theism is true, we can evaluate humanity in a meaningful way. What we see tells us human beings are deeply flawed and in need of help. Christian theism in particular makes sense of this, showing us that we are made in the image of God (which is why we are often capable of good behavior) but are deeply broken. Christianity offers the only remedy for this in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who made a way for us to be reconciled to God.
If the atheist’s tweet is true, atheism is false. If the tweet is false, atheism is still false, since both require a non-human valuer. If atheism is true, the tweet is meaningless.
Mitch Stokes is a Senior Fellow of Philosophy at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Notre Dame under the direction of Alvin Plantinga and Peter van Inwagen. At Yale, he earned an M.A. in religion under the direction of Nicholas Wolterstorff. In fact, being trained by Plantinga, van Inwagen and Wolterstorff made J.P. Moreland positively gush at Stokes’ credentials. That is high praise indeed. Stokes is the author of A Shot of Faith (to the Head): Be a Confident Believer in an Age of Cranky Atheists, and the current book under review, How to Be an Atheist: Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough.
Many militant atheists pride themselves on their reliance on reason and science to tell them the truth about the world. They are especially confident of their views of science and what it can tell us about morality. Stokes argues that if they were to put their skepticism where their mouths are, they would be a little more hesitant to assert that science has proven that naturalism is true (and therefore theism false) and that morality is real.
How to Be an Atheist is a short book of just over 200 pages, broken into three parts. In part one Stokes shows the problem of relying on reason and science as articulated by one of the “heroes” of the Enlightenment, David Hume. In part two, science is examined to see the limits of what it can tell us, especially with respect to what is unobservable. This section includes a helpful explanation of how theories, which are neither easily dismissed claims nor iron-clad laws, are inferences that try to make sense of what has been observed. (Stokes also holds advanced degrees in engineering, so there is no anti-science bias here.) Also noted is the fact that many of the areas of physics most often cited as evidence for naturalism are instrumental rather than realistic, which is to say, the theories involving quantum mechanics and such are models used to make sense of what can be observed, but do not even claim to accurately describe what cannot be observed. In the third section, Stokes argues that if naturalism is true, then morality, actual good, bad, right and wrong, does not exist. They are merely expressions of human likes and dislikes.
It is this third section that prompted the title of this review. Stokes argues that all values are personal. The thing that makes something good (in a moral sense) is a value holder. Likewise, a duty or obligation is only held between persons. Many atheists would affirm this. However, this is not to say that morality is ultimately grounded in human persons. After all, if all morality is mere human preference, which human? Why this one and not that one? Why yours and not mine? It is not hard to see why this can lead right back to a kind of moral anarchy. As Stokes notes, Christianity has held to what is called “Divine Command” theory of ethics which is the idea that which is good, and that which we are obliged to do and prohibited from doing, is good, obligatory, or prohibited because God has commanded it. He further notes that the common “Euthyphro objection” is resolved when we understand that God commands what he does because his nature is good.
All this is not to say that morality is relative. Moral standards are person centered (or on Stokes’ view, Person centered.) Whatever the standard, whether a behavior measures up is an objective reality. However, it is not the behaviors themselves that are intrinsically good or bad, but these values are derived from the Value Holder, God himself.
Stokes’ book is highly accessible, well reasoned, and fun to read. Stokes has a flare for mixing humor into a technical subject. He is generous in his treatment of those with whom he disagrees, and sets quite the example in this. I highly recommend this book.