Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Responding to an Atheist

Today, a new reader (Welcome, Uriel!) posted a comment on one of my older posts, The Blasphemy Challenge. Uriel took what will, on this blog, be an unpopular position advocating an atheistic/agnostic approach. While I disagree with this position, I welcome his comments, as they force us to think. Below, I will respond to his post paragraph by paragraph.

"If there is no God, then we have no basis on which to declare the Nazi's guilty of moral wrong!"

Um... NO. Right and wrong are in fact relative to culture, cultures change over time. Christianity has changed its views over time. Morality is a function of social contract. Society decides what behaviors it will punish or accept. If you grew up in a world were slavery was the norm, you wouldn't consider it wrong, or you would be less likely to question it.
Uriel has advocated cultural relativism, a position which maintains that an individual, by agreeing to live within a certain culture, is agreeing to live according to the norms of that culture (social contract). When this social contract is fulfilled, the individual has acted morally. In other words, culture determines morality or, as uriel said, morality is relative to culture. This approach may seem to be a well-reasoned response to a theistic approach. However, it fails when the following factors are considered.

First, which culture? Each culture has within it sub-cultures which have their own moral understandings. If one operates according to the morals of his sub-culture, he may be acting in opposition to popular culture.

Furthermore, in global matters, cultures are often diametrically opposed to one another. As I pointed out in my original post, cultural relativism was the defense that the Nazi's used in their war crimes trial at Nuremburg following WWII. In essence, they argued, "Whose law did we violate? America's? Britain's? We were not amenable to either of those laws, because we are not a part of those societies! Within German society, what we did was perfectly lawful. Since we are amenable to German law, we are innocent!" The verdict at Nuremburg was that this cultural relativism defense failed, not because it was poor logic, but because it failed to recognize a law that transcends the provincial and the transient!

In other words, the Nazis operated within the acceptable moral norms of their culture. In order to be consistent, Uriel and other cultural relativists have conclude that they therefore were guilty of no moral wrong. Otherwise, they would have to abandon their cultural relativism and admit that there is a "higher" source of morality. But that admission would equate to theism!

Uriel writes, "If you grew up in a world were slavery was the norm, you wouldn't consider it wrong, or you would be less likely to question it." The question isn't whether I or anyone else would CONSIDER it wrong. The question is whether slavery is, in fact, wrong. I say YES! It is wrong REGARDLESS of what the prevailing cultural view is. Why? Because there is a higher source of morality than culture! Cultural relativists would have to say that slavery is potentially morally acceptable.

The Nazis were evil bastards because western culture said so. It had NOTHING to do with invisible silent wizards in the sky. The Nazis thought your god was on THEIR side. Osama thinks god is on his side. George Bush thinks god is on his side. They can't both be right. You'll say that god is on your side of course, and require no proof other than your faith. How convenient.
Why was western culture the norm? And how do we determine what western culture said? Certainly the governments of western nations were opposed to the Nazis, but do governments necessarily serve as the voice of culture? Does that mean that governments determine morality. And if we're going to expand the discussion beyond German culture to include western culture, why not expand it all the way to include global culture? Good luck determining what the global culture was!

What if western culture had determined that their actions were morally acceptable? Would that make it so, or would western culture have been wrong? I believe that the actions of the Nazis were wrong ABSOLUTELY, regardless of whether the culture approved or disapproved of their actions!

I agree that it had nothing to do with "invisible silent wizards in the sky." However, it does have to do with a power higher than the individual or the culture or the nation. If you say that the Nazis were ABSOLUTELY wrong, and that there is no scenario in which their actions would be morally acceptable, then you must ask where that absolute morality comes from. The existence of absolute morality demands the existence of a "higher power." That's theism!
i wish i had a book that would justify doing anything i want and feel righteous about it. As an atheist, i have no such luxury. My moral compass comes from reality, my own experiences, what i feel to be right or wrong, but i am accountable to the law, to the morals of those around me. You decide what is right or wrong based on your feelings too, but you have a book written in the bronze age to back you up. Have you ever actually read Leviticus? It's horrible.
This illustrates the difference in Uriel's worldview and mine. I would run from any book that would justify doing anything I want and guaranteeing that I would feel good about it. I recognize my fallibility. I have no delusions of grandeur. I don't feign perfection. I find great relief in the fact that I have someone higher than myself to appeal to that directs me.

Uriel's implication is that the Bible justifies doing anything I want. This is a curious claim because one of the objections that many atheists make is that the Bible somehow inhibits human freedom. Uriel seems to view the bible as giving too much freedom to people. Perhaps this is Uriel's way of repeating the common and accurate criticism that people have through history used (or, misused) the Bible to justify virtually any atrocity. This shows a great deal about man's sinfulness, but it proves nothing about whether absolute morality, and the implicit Source of that absolute morality, exists.

Do I assume too much when I conclude that Uriel is just looking for a thinly veiled insult as he pretends to be intellectually superior? After all, Uriel's moral compass comes from "reality," implying that we poor, ignorant, superstitious, aboriginal nitwits live in wonderland because of our theism.

Uriel, I believe your moral compass is based on a flawed view of reality. Your reality consists of your feelings, experiences, society's laws, and society's morals. I find it interesting that each of these change. Your feelings, experiences, society's laws, and society's morals could potentially all approve at one point in history of the holocaust and disapprove it in another. So, based on your "reality" the holocaust is not absolutely immoral!

You're wrong when you say that I determine right and wrong based on my feelings. In fact, I don't determine right and wrong at all. I determine my actions. Sometimes those actions are right. Sometimes those actions are wrong. The morality of my actions depends entirely on how they measure up to the higher standard. And the bronze age book to which you refer condemns my actions at least as often as it backs them up (probably more often)!

Yes, I've read Leviticus. I assume from your comments that you have read it, too. I wonder if you've tried to understand it, though. Since you didn't elaborate, I can't really respond.
You're also presuming the existence of this god. You and i have something in common. We are both agnostic, the difference is that you are in denial about it. You don't know that there is a god, or that there aren't several. It is a hope, a wish, an assumption on your part that there is.
I do not PRESUME God's existence. I have CONCLUDED His existence. One of the most convincing evidences upon which this conclusion is based is the moral argument that we have been discussing.

I find it interesting that you refer to yourself in one paragraph as an atheist and in another paragraph as an agnostic. Which are you? An atheist claims, "I KNOW there is no God." An agnostic claims, "It is unknowable whether there is or is not a god." I am neither. I know there is a God, and I have already given you one strong reason why.
When a terrorist kills an infidel, he does so with faith that if they were innocent, their soul will go to heaven anyway. i believe that if i killed someone, that's it. They cease to exist, forever. Which is a bigger crime: sending someone to eternity in heaven early or utterly destroying a consciousness forever?

Note that i say 'i believe', i say that because i can admit that i don't know.
I'm sorry. I don't understand the point of this paragraph. I agree that mankind is incredibly sinful, but I somehow don't think that's the point you were trying to make.
Since you already invoke Godwin's law, this is fair game: The Nazis and Al Qaeda believe(d) in moral absolutes. We don't need moral absolutes. Humanity is better served with compassion and reason, with adapting to changes in reality.
I've never heard of Godwin's law, but I did read the Wikipedia entry on it, and found it quite interesting. Ironically, I grow weary of Nazi comparisons, too. In my original post, I was simply making a historical reference to the fact that the Nuremburg Trials reached a verdict that denied the cultural relativism defense of the Nazi's and adopted a theistic view of morality.

The fact is that without moral absolutes of some sort, Nazis and slave owners and KKK members and pedophiles and any other practitioner of the vile and grotesque may, in an approving culture, act with complete moral impunity and, in fact, innocence.

In fact, the Nazis did NOT believe in moral absolutes, as their Nuremburg defense shows. Al Qaeda does. But the terrorist actions of Al Qaeda are done with the approval of their culture. According to your moral standard, that means that their terrorist actions are morally right! According to mine, they are morally wrong.

The issue is not whether bad people have acted in bad ways while also believing in absolute morality. Certainly they have! But the existence of moral absolutes is what declares their actions immoral! Relativism cannot do that!

Uriel, I welcome your comments and dialogue any time on this blog. It is only by having our thinking challenged that any of us can grow. So, please, come back and help us grow!

1 comment:

Frank Walton said...

You're fast on your intellectual feet, my friend. Way to go. For your interest I actually have a blogsite against the blasphemy challenge here.