…remind them that this phrase is a line from a Christmas song whose message is that you should be good so that you are rewarded for it on Christmas.
Source: Be Good for Goodness Sake?
At the root of any stereotype there is at least some kernel of truth; for a stereotype, even if it is rarely true, is at the very least not always false. The fact that I tend to regard employees of the Transportation Security Administration as a largely disagreeable bunch is not because it is true that they are always disagreeable, but because in my experience they have seemed to make a peevish attitude rather the rule than the exception; though I suspect that anyone whose job it is to daily perform the practical equivalent of herding cats might find their patience understandably stressed. Still, if one is to be violated, it might at least be with a smile.
Likewise, there is a general sentiment among skeptics that Christians are essentially like the TSA: always patting people down and cavalierly putting fun or apparently useful objects into the rubbish. “Christian” may as well be synonymous with “killjoy.” I wish this sentiment were entirely untrue, but I have encountered these unpleasant types myself. They are like the person who thinks it their sacred duty to cheerfully broadcast their diet regimen to everyone in the vicinity of the hors d’oeuvres. There is nothing wrong either with diets or hors d’oeuvres, but there is something to be said for tact.
But poor tact is not the real problem of the legalist. Finding life much easier to navigate when separated neatly into clearly defined compartments, he can make little sense of the notion that it might be perfectly acceptable for him to drink alcohol in his own home and sinful for him to drink it at his alcoholic brother’s. For the legalist, “alcohol” is synonymous with “drunkenness”. He thinks that since recreational sex is immoral outside of marriage, recreational sex is always immoral. He thinks that an expletive uttered in pain is the same as an expletive uttered in anger. Rather than trouble himself with considerations of an act’s proper context, he finds it simpler either to perform it wantonly or to banish it altogether. The world in which the legalist lives is not the one in which he finds himself, but the one he fashions in his own conscience. He worships himself as Judge, at the feet of his own law. A legalist knows little about mercy and everything about judgment. Wielding a microscope, he is ignorant of planks but an expert on specks. In his own failings he grants himself a pardon; in the failings of others he issues only a sentence. In his zeal to subdue the world with his gavel, the legalist has forgotten his real place in the defendant’s chair.
Though there is some truth to the charge of Christian legalism, it would be equally in error to suppose legalism the result of Christian doctrine as it would be to suppose fascism the result of being German. If there was one thing that drew the ire of Christ, it was the religious hypocrisy and legalism of the Pharisees. Christ was, first, Savior and, second, the great anti-legalist; and to be Christian without following Christ is (crudely) even worse than being French and having no regard for cheese. Legalism is as much a thorn in the side of Christianity as it is annoying to the skeptic. Nevertheless, the skeptic, being predisposed to believe anything that might serve to justify his skepticism, will eagerly take any example of abuse and hold it up as doctrine. Thus, every Christian becomes a hypocrite, a Pharisee, an Inquisitor, and a Crusader; for the rejection of a faith which produces moral abominations is clearly much easier than one that produces Pauls, Livingstones, Müllers, Elliots, Bonhoeffers, and Liddells. The late Mr. Hitchens said quite soberly that religion poisons everything. It is difficult to take such statements seriously. That some religions poison some things is certain, but I think I should just as soon point to unruly school children as evidence that education poisons everything. Nevermind that atrocities are committed only in spite of Christ’s example; the skeptic would have us believe that He is at best a fiction and, at worst, Lucifer himself.
In discussions concerning the ontological foundations of objective morality, there has traditionally been an understanding among atheists and theists alike that if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. The word “objective” is being used here to mean that the ontological foundation (being) of moral values is not rooted in or subject to opinion or belief. This acknowledgement lay at the heart of nihilism, in which Nietszche famously proclaimed the death of God and, consequently, the destruction of any objective foundation for morality or meaning. Likewise, the French existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, reflecting upon a statement uttered by a character in Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov (1880), says:
“Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself…. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior.” (1)
Elsewhere, Sartre argues that value is attached to the choice itself, such that “…we can never choose evil.” (2)
The affirmation that God’s existence is the necessary prerequisite for objective morality is still frequently recognized by many atheists as being consistent with materialism:
“The idea of political or legal obligation is clear enough… Similarly, the idea of an obligation higher than this, referred to as moral obligation, is clear enough, provided reference to some lawgiver higher…than those of the state is understood. In other words, our moral obligations can…be understood as those that are imposed by God…. But what if this higher-than-human lawgiver is no longer taken into account? Does the concept of moral obligation…still make sense? …The concept of moral obligation [is] unintelligible apart from the idea of God. The words remain but their meaning is gone.” (3)
“The position of the modern evolutionist is that humans have an awareness of morality because such an awareness of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth. Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate when someone says, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves. Nevertheless, such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory.” (4)
“The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns their ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?” (5)
Stated formally, one could construe the argument against objective morality this way:
While the second premise possesses a clearly insurmountable burden of proof, most atheists are content with arguments in favor of its plausibility rather than its certainty; and the inability to prove the truth of a negative does not render the argument invalid.
For many years, atheists nearly universally maintained the validity of this argument (or some variation thereof), but it has recently been scrutinized by such figures as Sam Harris and Richard Carrier, who have sought eagerly to make a case for the objectivity of moral values apart from the existence of God. While the attempt is undoubtedly worthy of some admiration in its intent, being an overt recognition that there is such a thing as “good” and “evil,” and therefore at least attempting to provide some sort of meaningful foundation for morality and ethics, the justification for the case made in its favor is suspect.
The basis for morality, suggests Harris, is the “flourishing and well-being of conscious creatures.” That is to say, that which contributes to the flourishing of conscious creatures constitutes the Good and that which harms conscious creatures is Evil. But this seems merely to define the “good” to mean “the flourishing of conscious creatures,” such that “…it makes no sense at all to ask whether maximizing well-being is ‘good.’ He continues: “It seems clear that what we are really asking when we wonder whether a certain state of pleasure is ‘good,’ is whether it is conducive to, or obstructive of, some deeper form of well-being” (6).
And yet Harris seems to have ignored the deeper question with which we are immediately presented: what good reason is there to think that the flourishing of conscious creatures actually is morally Good? An arbitrary definition certainly cannot constitute any kind of ontological ground; and if Harris’ definition is not, in fact, arbitrary, then by what criteria has he fashioned it? If there is such a thing as Good and Evil there must be a Moral Law by which to distinguish one from the other. The question, then, granting as Harris does that objective moral values exist, is not “what is good?,” since this concerns moral epistemology; rather it is “by what Standard do we differentiate between Good and Evil, and why is it the Standard at all?”
The flourishing of conscious creatures cannot be the Good simply because we, as conscious creatures, desire it. This seems an obviously insufficient ground; for desire is inherently subjective. Even so, a universal desire does not constitute an ontological foundation for why one ought to do anything. Indeed, Harris acknowledges that our apparently universal desire to flourish cannot itself form the foundation for the Good: “We must continually remind ourselves that there is a difference between what is natural and what is actually good for us” (p. 101). In other words, there is no necessary correlation between that which we desire and that which positively affects our flourishing. This seems evidently true; for one’s desire to achieve happiness through the use of methamphetamines, for example, will eventually end in ruin.
But again, why think that the “good” is that which contributes only to the flourishing of conscious creatures, rather than unconscious creatures, or why the “good” must involve flourishing at all? If materialism is true, are not we all destined for utter annihilation? Musing upon such thoughts, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:
“If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?” (7)
Whence comes goodness? And life? And consciousness? “From the abyss,” answers the materialist, “And to it we shall return. But cheer up.”
1. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism and Humanism,” French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, ed. Leonard M. Marsak (New York: Meridian, 1961), p. 485
2. Sartre, Jean Paul, “Existentialism,” Reprinted in A Casebook on Existentialism, ed. William V. Spanos (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1966), p. 279
3. Taylor, Richard, Ethics, Faith, and Reason (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1985), p. 83-84
4. Ruse, Michael, “Evolutionary Theory and Christian Ethics,” in The Darwinian Paradigm (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 262-269
5. Kurtz, Paul, Forbidden Fruit. Prometheus. 1988, p. 65
6. Harris, Sam, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010) p. 12
7. Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling (Penguin Classics, 1985), p. 14
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
So writes atheist and eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his best-seller The God Delusion.
Reveling in Mr. Dawkins’ scathing wit, and brandishing such quotes as weapons, devoted followers of the “New Atheism,” as it has been called, seek to vociferously evangelize the masses sheepishly duped by the trappings of religion. The charges against religion, and Christianity in particular, are copious in number, and if the whole were to be distilled, the remainder would be a weighty moral indictment. The gist of Dawkins’ above remarks, and indeed the bulk of the allegations leveled at Christianity, are that God, the Bible, Christianity, Christians or all four are not just false, but are in some way evil.
One could say (quite rightly, I think), that Dawkins’ affections for religiously-inclined persons are minimal at best. However, the problem does not lie in his manifest dislike for Christians or their God but in the implicit notion that if the Old Testament texts are true, God is guilty of a moral infraction. In light of this, two serious problems inevitably arise.
First, if Mr. Dawkins’ moral judgment is to carry any weight, he must first establish a legitimate basis in which to ground objective moral values. By “objective moral values” I mean moral values that are binding whether or not anyone believes in them. For if moral values are ultimately subjective or relative, then all moral allegations are reduced to mere opinion and thus become as trivial as one’s preference for, say, a particular flavor of ice cream. But Dawkins’ is not simply stating eloquently his dislike for the God of the Bible. He means that if God does exist and did in fact do the things alleged in the Old Testament, God is therefore wrong on moral grounds.
But on what basis can Mr. Dawkins make this claim if he intends to refer to something more compelling than his own personal opinion? In making the claim that God is evil, one assumes, naturally, that there is such a thing as evil. If one assumes there is such a thing as evil, then he assumes there is such a thing as good. If there is such a thing as good and evil, then there must be a Moral Law by which to differentiate between good and evil. If there is such a thing as a Moral Law, there must be a Moral Law-Giver in which such a Law is grounded.
Regarding morality’s objectivity, even many atheists acknowledge the necessity for a transcendent Authority. J.L. Mackie, a vehement anti-theist, writes:
We might well argue…that objective intrinsically prescriptive features, supervenient upon natural ones, constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are most unlikely to have arisen in the course of ordinary events, without an all-powerful God to create them” (quoted by J.P. Moreland, “Reflections on Meaning in Life Without God.” The Trinity Journal, 9 NS, 1984, p. 14).
Those wishing to dispute the notion that a Moral Law-Giver is necessary for the existence of objective moral values must justify their position. Dawkins, while obviously rejecting the existence of God, provides no such justification anywhere in his writings and therefore implicitly accepts all the premises but insists on rejecting the conclusion. In effect, he borrows from theism in an attempt to prove it false!
G.K. Chesterton summed up this contradiction in his book Orthodoxy:
“But the new rebel is a sceptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician, he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then, as a philosopher, that all life is waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie, and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie. He calls a flag a bauble, and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble.
The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts; then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting, where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.”
Thus, as a matter of intellectual consistency, the atheist must provide a basis for objective moral values before he may level the barrels of morality at Christianity (or anyone else, for that matter). Yet, far from attempting such a justification, Dawkins manages to cut off the very branch upon which he sits, saying:
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no other good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Out of Eden. New York: Basic Books, 1992, p.133)
If “there is, at the bottom…no evil,” then just what does Dawkins mean by describing God in such a way as to imply that He is evil? Dawkins’ moral outrage seems incoherent and pitifully insignificant given his view that we live in a world of “blind, pitiless indifference.” In the absence of an appeal to a Moral Law, why should anyone regard Dawkins’ indictment as having any authority whatsoever? Again, is there such a thing as an objective good and an objective evil or not? Atheism, not just Dawkins, leaves us completely devoid of a coherent answer.
Second, the view that it is even possible for God to be evil is itself rather puzzling. The Christian view is that God is an omnipresent, omniscient, all-powerful, morally perfect, self-existent, personal, necessary, being. In essence, God is the greatest conceivable Being. If, however, for the sake of argument, Dawkins assumes this view of God for his critique, what then does he mean by implying that God is evil? If God is, indeed, the greatest conceivable Being, then it is manifestly impossible for God to be subject to anything else, including, in this case, a Moral Law external to His nature. For if God were subject or subservient to some external Moral Law, then He would not be God, since He would therefore cease to be the greatest conceivable Being. Given this consideration, Dawkins is faced with the problem of explaining how his own moral judgment might have any credibility when the object of his criticism is the God of the universe.
However, if Dawkins does not assume for the sake of his argument that the God of the Bible exists, then at whom, and by what authority, is he directing his diatribe? For if God does not exist (as it is clear Dawkins believes), then one is again faced with the irksome difficulty of objective moral justification. It seems Dawkins is at an impasse: If God exists, moral values must necessarily be grounded in His nature, and attempts to criticize his nature fall resolutely flat. If God does not exist, moral values are merely subjective and any moral judgments are reduced to utter trivialities. Many atheists correctly seem willing to admit the latter.
Though in conversation the admission of morality’s relativity is often readily made for the sake of its apparent consistency with an atheistic framework, one may rightly wonder at the expeditious nature of the outcry the moment that same person has experienced some perceived injustice. A man who has just been beaten and robbed does not simply shrug his shoulders, dust himself off, and proceed to go about his business in the knowledge that we live according to forces that may ultimately be characterized as blind, pitiless, and indifferent. No, there is instead an instant appeal to a sense of moral ought-ness which has just been violated. The argument is wholly inconsistent with the action. This is precisely the contradiction identified by Chesterton. That the action (or reaction), the sense of having been wronged, is always involuntary is a fact that should be regarded with a great deal of suspicion by materialists (I say “materialists” because there exist atheists who nonetheless believe in the supernatural). Whence came such an innate moral conscience? What do the irrational forces to which materialists claim everything can be reduced have anything to do with a sense of moral ought-ness, whether perceived or real? While such a sense may certainly be affected by social pressures, the fact that it exists at all cannot reasonably be attributed to social cultivation. Young children who have not yet had exposure to the greater social sphere, nor possess the faculties enabling them to receive moral indoctrination, nonetheless exhibit the same basic sense of moral ought-ness as their parents. A child who has been taught nothing of stealing knows precisely when he has been stolen from.
Atheists bothered by both the prospect of accountability to a transcendent Moral Authority and by the alternative, a universe consistent with Nietzche’s nihilism, wholly void of any objective moral standard, have attempted the singular argument for morality’s objectivity without the postulation of a divine Authority. The attempt proves upon inspection to be rather unsubstantial, though its underlying motivation, the attempt to have the Good without the nuisance of accountability, should not inspire surprise. To suggest, for instance, that qualities universally regarded as “good” (justice, love, mercy, generosity, etc) simply exist of their own accord is but to beg the question. Without any situational context, what does it even mean to say that the abstract quality of “Justice” simply exists as a positive entity? How is this even possible? If materialism were true, a particular moral value would not be objective even if every person that had ever lived affirmed the goodness of it. For if there remains even the logical possibility of a single dissenter that particular moral value is inescapably subject to relativity. Therefore, in order for moral values to be objective, they must necessarily be grounded in something greater than human perception or understanding.
One must consider, then, just what kinds of things could even possibly serve as a ground for objective moral values. It seems obvious that the category of possibilities will inevitably be exceedingly limited. Human opinion has already been eliminated. As has been mentioned, and J.L. Mackie affirmed, objective moral values are at least reasonably grounded in the nature of God. If this is so, then objective moral values must necessarily be grounded in something very much like God, if not God himself. If, however, the materialists are correct, and all the goings-on in the universe can ultimately be attributed, at bottom, to irrational, material forces, we seem to be out of options, given that anything remotely identifiable with the concept of a Divine Being cannot possibly exist. If there is one thing of which we may be certain, it is that objective moral values are not reasonably the product of material forces. If somehow they were, why should anyone feel compelled to adhere to them? And if they are not, then materialism is false. But if materialism is false, and objective moral values are in some way transcendent of the material world, is it not but a reasonable step to conclude that they are grounded in the nature of God?
The moral indictments frequently wielded against Christianity are therefore without a legitimate starting point. If the atheist wishes to be able to use morality as a point of argument in his critique, he must first establish the objectivity of his claims or else abandon them to the realm of the inconsequential.