I Read How To Be an Atheist, and Now I Believe In Moral Subjectivism

 

 

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.[1] 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.

 

 

[1] CV taken from http://www.mitchstokes.com/about.html

Science or Theology: Must We Choose?

 

Have you ever gone one Amazon.com to look at a book, looked at the reviews and saw a lot of one-star reviews, which when you read them you know the reviewer did not read the book? I hate that. If you are going to post a “review,” it should reflect the book and your interaction with it. Having said that, it is with all due respect that I comment here on a book I have never read. Actually, it is not about the book, but about the approach the author took, which I have seen before, and I think it is problematic.

Michael Guillen has published a book called Amazing Truths. As I stated above, I have not read it, but I heard Dr. Guillen discuss the book with Eric Metaxas on the Eric Metaxas Radio Show. Guillen seeks to show how the Bible and science are compatible. I have no quarrel with the idea that there is no conflict between the Bible (rightly understood) and science (rightly understood.) My concern is how authors like Guillen will display really poor theology and even philosophy in their arguments. In Guillen’s case, he argues that the idea that absolute truth exists is a point of compatibility between science and the Bible. Well, it is true that both scientists and theologians affirm absolute truth, neither science nor the Bible tell us this. The Bible and science both presuppose objective truth. You can’t do either without it. Granted, this is a nit picky point. However, of a more serious nature is Guillen’s attempt to explain how God who is “far away” can hear prayers immediately by appealing to quantum entanglements. It is not necessary to understand what quantum entanglements are. The idea is about instant communication over great distances. If you understand some basic theology, you would not even go there. If God is omnipresent, which he is and he has been understood to be for, oh I don’t know, the last 3000 YEARS, then he is never “far away.” Moreover, if he knows the end from the beginning, which he does, he does not need to wait until you pray to know what you will ask for or how he will act in response. In fact, you can find a wonderful story that illustrates this on pages 17-18 of Kingdom Triangle: Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit’s Power.[3]

I don’t mean to take away from what Guillen is trying to do. He is trying to show Christians and non-Christians alike that choosing Christianity does not entail rejecting science. However, if he is going to write as an expert, he needs to be sure he covers all his bases. What he does here is similar to other scientists who are Christians. Hugh Ross has also made similar errors in trying to use his scientific background to explain God’s capacities. In Ross’ case, he appeals to multiple time dimensions to explain prayer. This is unnecessary for the same reasons stated above.[4]

Scientists who wish to employ their expertise in the service of Christian apologetics would do well to become better informed theologically. At least they should consult with a theologian they trust to get feedback.

/rant

 

 

 

 

 

Is God a Good God? What Does That Even Mean?

This past Sunday, my pastor preached a message in which he encouraged people to remember, “God is a good God” when they experience suffering or difficulty. This is a wise counsel. However, what does it mean? I know it means God is good and not evil, but what does “good” mean? Is there some standard that stands above God, which he meets, and therefore is good? Or, is he good because there is more about him that we like than that which we don’t? How we answer this question is extremely important. In fact, I would argue that if God is not good, then good itself does not exist. If God is not good, then “good” can only really mean, “I like it.” If good is nothing more than “I like it,” then evil can be nothing more than “I don’t like it.”

Some have argued that good things are good because “God says so.” Then they say that God could have called what we think of as evil “good” if he wanted to. Therefore, these are arbitrary categories. On this view, good simply means, “God likes it” and evil means “God doesn’t like it.” There is nothing really good or evil in and of itself. These are mere statements of preference, either ours, or God’s. If you think about this, and you consider things you care deeply about, such as the wrongness of genocide, or the rightness of self-sacrifice, you will find neither of these explanations satisfying.

When you think of genocide, you not only think it is evil, you think everyone ought to agree. In fact, if someone disagrees, you think there is something wrong with that person. When you here stories of self-sacrifice, you want to celebrate, and encourage others to follow the example. How do we explain this? It is because God is good.

If you have been to an evangelical church in the last few decades, you have probably heard “God is good” so many times it might seem like a cliché. However, I want to encourage you to think of it a little differently. “God is good” can be understood more than one way. Typically, it is understood that “good” is an adjective that describes God, and it is. That is one way to take the statement. Here is another way, and I want you to wrap your mind around it. “God is good” also means that God is the very standard by which we call anything else good.

Before I unpack that, let me clarify what I mean by good. There is another way “good” is commonly used. It is used to mean, “Well suited for its intended purpose.” However, you could easily see how something can be good in this sense, but not good in a moral sense. For example, a hollow-point bullet is well suited for doing maximum damage to a living organism into which it is fired. It is a good bullet, in this sense. However, no one in his or her right mind would think such a bullet striking an innocent person would be a good thing.

The definition above, however is not far off the mark (no pun intended.) I would argue that when God declared his creation “good” in Genesis 1, he meant that it was well suited to the purpose for which he created it. The important difference is that God’s purposes are always good, because he is good. Here I mean he is good in that he is the embodiment of good. Good in this sense that which reflects God’s character. God is good by nature. As such, whatever he commands is good because his commands express his nature. Therefore, whatever he commands us to do, it is good to do it. Whatever he forbids us from doing, it is evil to do those things.

It may be helpful at this point to say something about evil. Evil is not a thing or a force in and of itself, just as cold or darkness is not a thing. Just as darkness is a lack of light, and cold is a lack of heat, evil is a lack of good.

God is good. This is the standard by which we rightly call anything else good. The difficult thing to realize is that if God allows us to suffer, in the end, it is good. God promises “all things work together for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28) This does not always mean we will see that good any time soon after some painful thing happens. It may not be until you stand before God and look at your entire life that you see how that thing is used for your good. However, since our lives here on earth are SO short compared to our life in eternity, we will see how these truly are what Paul calls “light and momentary afflictions.” (See 2 Corinthians 4:17)

God is good. If you deny this because of bad things happening to you or those you love, you are denying the very meaning of the word. All you are left with is “I don’t like this…” Is that really a preferable alternative?

 

Philosophy In Seven Sentences By Douglas Groothuis: A Review

The author

Douglas Groothuis is professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. He earned his PhD at the University of Oregon and he specializes in Philosophy of Religion, the History of Philosophy and other areas. Dr. Groothuis is the author or editor of 13 books including

Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism, and In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment in addition to the title under review here. Groothuis is passionate about careful thinking as an element of worship.

 

Thesis

In Philosophy In Seven Sentences, Groothuis seeks to make philosophy a little less intimidating and esoteric to the uninitiated, while demonstrating the need to think well in order to live a good life. He does this by introducing the work of seven philosophers with quotes that embody their work. Each chapter fleshes out the ideas behind the sentences, as well as some background information on the philosophers to whom they are attributed.

 

Synopsis

In chapter 1, Protagoras’ claim “Man is the measure of all things: of the things which are, that they are, and of things which are not that are not” is examined. Groothuis notes how this idea has some merit, but pressed to its logical conclusion, it leads to the inability to know anything.

In chapter 2, we hear from Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Groothuis notes that this is a hyperbolic statement, urging the hearers to seek truth by which to live, which requires comparing one’s life to that truth.

In chapter 3, Aristotle tells us, “All men by nature desire to know.” In service of this belief, Aristotle formulated the laws of logic, especially the Law of Noncontradiction. Groothuis points out that knowledge is impossible if we cannot escape contradiction.

In chapter 4, Augustine’s quote, “You have made us for yourself, and restless is our heart until it comes to rest in you” is examined. Augustine came to this realization, which he wrote in Confessions, as he reflected on his life and the process through which he became a Christian. He argues that humans feel a real guilt, stemming from an awareness of objective morality, and since the only remedy for this guilt is in God’s provision, rest can only be found in him.

In chapter 5, Groothuis analyzed Descartes’ quote “I think, therefore I am.” Descartes was searching for something he could know with certainty, and he found one such item in the realization that thinking requires a thinker. Descartes also devised an argument for God from the fact that the idea of God is innate and therefore implanted by God. Groothuis also notes Descartes’ contribution to the mind-body problem.

In chapter 6, Pascal’s quote “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing” is unpacked. Like many references to “the heart” in older (and even ancient) literature, this one is often misunderstood. Rather than pitting emotion against intellect, Pascal was pointing to basic beliefs, and first principles on which all other beliefs depend.

In chapter 7, Kierkegaard warns us, “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all.” Groothuis points out that for Kierkegaard, an adequate self-awareness leads to despair, and one must come to terms with that despair such that they throw themselves on God’s mercy.

 

Analysis

 

Philosophy In Seven Sentences serves as an excellent primer on philosophical thought. In fact, it ought to be required reading before any undergraduate takes and introduction to Philosophy course. Far too many take these courses and hear and read the opinions of philosophers when the students lack the tools of philosophy. This books shows how even the most brilliant philosophers’ opinions require careful consideration. This book is accessible to anyone with at least a high school education. Reading it made me wish I had the time and resources to pursue a degree in Philosophy.