Friday, March 2, 2012

Reason Rally: Misunderstanding Atheism? (Part 2 of 4)

Last week I posted on the Reason Rally and what I thought about the values and reason atheists should ascribe to, based on the implications of their worldview.  This week I am answering some comments that particular post drew from atheists.  The main comment I got across all comments was that I was mischaracterizing atheism. In fact, from the atheists I've spoken with about the Reason Rally, they have said that one of the purposes of the rally is to clear up some of these misunderstandings. To show what atheism really is about.


But am I getting it wrong?  According to the atheists I talk to, some would definitely say yes.  Here's the problem: when they try to convince me their point of view is not what I am saying it is, the arguments lack...substance.  


In this second post of four, I begin to lay out the arguments commenter James brought to bear on my post from last week.  He has nine main points from his arguments, and here, after delineating those nine, I respond to the first three.  In subsequent posts, I will respond to the other six.

The full series of arguments.

Let me start now by listing his statements that I agree with, or at least can see his point of view:
  • There isn't really any one "atheist worldview".
  • [T]here are as many different worldviews practiced by theists as atheists.
  • [T]hroughout history we see Christian regimes commit atrocities as much as if not more so than non-theists.
  • [B]elief in a deity doesn't make someone good or bad-some Christians are moral and some atheists are moral.
  • Reason and logic are reality based.
  • Science says, "Here's the evidence, what rational conclusions can we draw from it?"
  • There are universal morals found in almost all developed societies regardless of religion.
  • Question everything and be open to skeptical inquiry.
  • Know that doubt is never a bad thing.
I agree with all of the things in these statements.  The problem is, none of them actually either (1) argue there is no God, or (2) address my points from my earlier post.  To be fair, there is a LOT more that James said.

Here is a summary of James's main points, in the order that you would encounter them in his comments:

  1. I am mistaken about the logical conclusion of atheism; in fact "atheism says nothing about morality or moral values."
  2. Following Christianity to its logical conclusion will result in a theocracy.  (This was a relatively minor point, but I think it needs addressing.)
  3. "Faith is belief without, or often contrary to, the evidence."  
  4. Along those lines, the Christian story has no compelling case for it.
  5. You shouldn't put God in our gaps in knowledge.  
  6. If God created the universe, then who created God? Proposing a God creates another level of complexity that is unneeded so is therefore discarded due to Ockam's Razor.
  7. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."
  8. There has been no evidence of prayer being answered.
  9. Morality actually comes from secularism, not from religion.
In this post, I will tackle points 1,2, and 9, since they seem to be related to each other.  In parts 3 and 4, I address points 3-5, then points 6-8.

Point 1: Atheism's logical conclusion is not a lack of moral values.

In particular, under this topic, James said, "Atheism says nothing about morality or values."  This is patently false, and philosophers know it.  The atheists that are honest about it realize that without a transcendent reality to ground objective morality (which is by definition transcendent, immaterial, and real), there can only be subjective morality.  Many are ok with that, but there are many problems with subjective (or relative) morality, including that it takes away our ability to stand in judgement over atrocities that are committed in other societies.  So, many atheists are not comfortable with it.  Some atheists propose an "objective" morality that is grounded not in a transcendent being, but in evolution (what I call evolutionary morals).  But as I said in my previous post, you find evolutionary morals are living on borrowed Judeo-Christian capital.

But even if you don't agree with me about the problems with subjective morality or evolutionary morals, my point here is that these atheists realize that atheism has a great deal to say about our morals.  (I am not making this up.)  And just because there are atheists out there that span a large spectrum of moral values, which James is absolutely correct in pointing out, it does not refute the logical, philosophical conclusion of atheism.  It only serves to support my statement in my other post that many atheists do not live according to their worldview.

Point 2: Christianity's logical conclusion is a theocracy.

"If you follow Christianity to its 'logical conclusion'...you end up with a theocracy found in places like Pakistan."  This is clearly not true.  Take passages like Romans 13, where Paul clearly lays out our proper submission to the secular governmental authorities.

In one of James's lines of evidence for this he says, "...[T]he Old Testament forbids...wearing clothes mad of two different fabrics."  I don't disagree with this statement per se, but I do want to point out that James is taking this passage completely out of context, and I think he knows it. After all, he professes:
...[R]emember I am an ex-Christian involved with lay-ministry for decades. I studied Bible courses at a Baptist college. I’ve read Dobson, McDowell, Lewis, Ham, Stroble (sic), and Colson...
So back to my point.  Yes, the OT does have a passage that says that, and it comes from the Levitical Law. The problem with using this against the veracity of the bible is that the Levitical Law is clearly divided into the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the laws specifically for Hebrew life.  This is clearly part of the third category.  There were specific reasons why you should not wear clothes made of two different fabrics; we know this today.  It's because the two fabrics stretch differently as they age, which would cause a tear in them later.  Indeed, this is actually more closely evidence the bible was supernaturally inspired rather than a point of ridicule. (I wouldn't hang my hat on it, though.) Unfortunately, atheists like to talk about these passages with glee, catching nominal Christians off guard with them, saying, "Look, see what ridiculous things your God says to do?"  So before you continue to poke fun at parts of the OT Law that say things like this, you should seriously ask yourself whether you are taking it out of context, because otherwise you are simply setting up a straw man argument.  I am quite surprised James used these sorts of tactics in his arguments, as he professes to be very knowledgeable about the bible.

Point 9: Morality comes from secularism.

In this point, which is possibly the longest point of James's comments, he describes how morality, as viewed by those in the church, has changed over time.  Moreover, the way in which morality has changed in the church is a reflection of how the secular world advanced these changes in morality.  He goes on to use slavery as an historical example of this, and homosexual rights in today's society as a timely example.  You know what?  I'm not going to argue here.  I definitely do not think he is using either example correctly, but I must admit neither issue is a strong point for me, so I will not try to give an explanation as to why.  I will simply concede his points here.  But do you see that even so, his arguments do not even come close to addressing my points from the previous post?

Let's unpack this a bit further.  James said, "A common misunderstanding that many theists have is that without god there is no morality and that religion is needed to have morality."  There are actually two theses in that one sentence.  The first is that many theists wrongly think God is needed for morality, and the second is that many theists wrongly think religion is needed to have morality.  I personally don't know if he's right about the second statement.  Is that a common misconception that theists hold?  I don't know, but if it is, then it saddens me, because I don't think that's a biblical idea at all.  Indeed, read any of the four gospels and you will see how Jesus exposes the religious leaders of his day for the hypocrites they are.  No, the bible says that our own religiosity gets in the way of our being moral.  But the main thing to note here is that I was not making this claim in my original post anyway.  What argument of mine is James trying to refute?

As for the first point, James is actually using circular reasoning, which is a point that I made in an earlier post.  He assumes god does not exist, sees morality in the world, and says that god is not needed for morality.  Rather than proving that morality still exists even if God does not, all he has proven is that you can believe morality exists even if you don't believe God exists.  This says nothing about whether or not (1) you are correct about God existing, (2) you are correct in your belief that morality exists, or (3) your two beliefs are not mutually contradictory.  My argument, which again is also held by (atheist) philosophers, remains that without God, there can be no objective morality.  As he did above in Point 1, all James has done here is show that many atheists hold mutually exclusive beliefs within their own worldview.

You may ask, how can I be sure of this?  Well, there are two positions here held in tension.  The first (my point) is that God is required for the existence of objective morality (independent of any individual's personal belief in the existence of God), and the second (James's point) is that some atheists live moral lives.  Are those mutually contradictory statements?  Of course not.  So the question boils down to, if the second statement is true (and let there be no doubt, I agree with James that this second statement is demonstrably true), what are the implications?  Is the implication that the first is false?  No, as I've just said, these are not mutually exclusive.  Instead, the implication, since the first statement rests on strong, solid philosophical ground, is that the atheists who live moral lives do not realize that God is the sole explanation of their own moral tendencies.

One more thing to point out here, and that is James has provided evidence in support of the existence of objective morality.  He says that our morals have changed over time, purportedly to get better.  The evil of slavery has mostly been abolished (from the Western world anyway), but this did not happen until after millenia of the stain of that evil being on the earth.  But if no God exists, and thus morality is relative, how can you even say that any change in morality is for the better?  How can you stand in judgement of the "evil" practice of slavery?  How can you say that any evolution in the way we view morality is "better"?  If you say something is better, you must have an objective standard by which to measure.  Now, I understand that James did not say objective morality does not exist, but the important thing is that atheistic worldview would.

What's next?

In the next couple of days, I will address James's Points 3-5, which largely deal with whether or not the Christian faith has reason on its side.  This is a major point of contention I have, and it should be fun.