In this episode, Kurt discusses atheists’ objections towards the moral argument. Topics discussed include a brief summary of what the moral argument is, atheist Michael Ruse’s take on morality, an analysis on what evil must mean to consistent atheists, the issue of atheists calling out the evil of the Old Testament without the moral framework to validate their argument, and more.
Kurt: Good day to you and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It’s a pleasure to be with you yet once again here in the suburbs of Chicago. Nice weather today, although Chris would be disappointed if he were here, but he’s off today again. This is a special episode because today we are not coming to you live. Instead, this morning I was speaking at a seminar in Richmond, Illinois and I was unable to make it back here on time live, and I knew this of course, and so I’ve decided instead to play for you a talk that I gave at the seminar on the moral argument. If you have any comments or questions about what you hear in the talk, I’d love to hear from you. The number is 505-2STRIVE. That’s 505-278-7483. You’re also able to text into the show. Just text the word VERACITY to 555-888 and finally, maybe you just want to shoot me a quick email. The email address is Kurt@veracityhill.com. Here I hope you’ll enjoy this talk, this 30 minute talk, and next week we’ll get back to you with a regular live episode.
Recording: I’d like to talk to you today about the moral argument. I know Bob sort of talked about cosmology and teleology and this is a part of theology that’s called natural theology. These are the things that we can observe, even non-Christians can observe, from looking around us and so in my brief talk I’m not going to be citing from the Bible and it’s not because I’m scared of the Bible, I think it’s the divinely inspired Word of God, but because these are things that you can talk to your neighbors about, to your non-Christian friends, because they are things that they also observe and it helps to build a large cumulative case for how we can know that God exists. How many of you have heard of Richard Dawkins? He’s perhaps one of the most famous, especially you science folks out there, he’s a brilliant scientist. He’s not the best at being a philosopher though or a theologian and he has said that
“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; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Kurt: So, he clearly has an opinion about the God that we read about in the Scriptures. Now perhaps you’ve heard something, maybe a bit more moderate, from maybe an atheist that you might know, a family member or a neighbor or even a friend, and maybe you’ve just heard, “Why is it that the God of the Old Testament does this evil?” or maybe something even less controversial, “How is it that God can allow evil?” Today, I’m not here to talk about the problems of evil and how we might understand them, but rather how is it that an atheist can talk about evil? For that, we’re going to be looking at the moral argument. When we’re talking about the moral argument, we’re going to be talking about a sense of morality that is objective, that is beyond our own human minds, so when I say something’s objective, I mean that something is true regardless of whether anybody believes it or not. If we all believed that the Earth was flat, but in reality the Earth was a sphere, it is objectively true that the Earth is a sphere, even if nobody on planet Earth believed it. Right? That’s what I mean by objective morality. When we transpose this to the ethical realm, when we think about ethical truths, because I think there are ethical truths, I’m saying that these are objectively true, regardless of whether anybody believes them to be true. Okay? In order to give you a primer on the moral argument, because I know not all of us are attuned to deductive syllogisms, let me play this really nice video by a ministry called Reasonable Faith. They sort of explain the argument well, and then I’ll also leave the argument up on the powerpoint for you.
Kurt: Alright. That’s a very quick summary of the moral argument and let me get back to this slide here, I’ll pause so I can keep it open on the screen for you. The first two premises.
Kurt: There’s the argument and that’s the moral argument. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. Objective moral values and duties do exist, therefore God exists, and the logic of his is called the Modus Talens. This argument is logically valid. It’s airtight, so you can’t critique it as a formal fallacy. The question remains whether the premises are true. Let me continue on here. This was mentioned again in the video. We’ll just sort of begin unpacking a little bit. According to classical theism, morals are rooted in God’s self and so I want to prevent here people from right away thinking what was called the Euthyphro dilemma. I don’t know how many of you study philosophy, Plato and Socrates, but there was a dialogue that occurred between Socrates and Euthyphro, and the question was if God just says something and that’s what makes it good, or rather there’s something good above God and that’s what that he then tells us. Really the way we sort of get around this dilemma is that it’s a false dilemma. There’s another alternative. It’s that God says things in light of His nature. He doesn’t just say them arbitrarily. He says them because of who He is. It’s in His essence where these morals are from, so I just want to sort of prevent someone from right away getting confused as to where or why these things would be authoritative.
Let me just move ahead to sort of the atheistic objections. There are two ways that atheists object to this argument. The first way, we’re actually going to do this a little bit in reverse order, because the most common way for atheists that are consistent with the tenets of atheism, is to reject the second premise. They want to say that there are no objective moral values and duties. Right? They’re willing to bite the bullet, because this seems like a very tough thing to want to defend, but there are atheists who do so, so for example Michael Ruse. He writes,
“God is dead so why should I be good? The answer is that there are no grounds whatsoever for being good. There’s no celestial headmaster who’s going to give you six or six billion billion of the best if you are bad. Morality is flim flam.”
He’s having some rhetorical flair here.
“Does this mean that you can go out and rape and pillage? Behave like an ancient woman grabbing Sabine women? I said that there are no grounds for being good. It doesn’t follow that you should be bad. Indeed, there are those, and I am one, who argue that only by recognizing the death of God can we possibly be that which we should and behave properly to our fellow humans and perhaps save the planet that we all share. We can give up all that nonsense about women and gay people being inferior, about fertilized ova being human beings, and about the Earth being ours to explore, exploit, and destroy.”
He thinks that morals are grounded in a socio-evolutionary process. That’s just where morals kind of arose. He doesn’t think that they’re actually objective and in a moment we’re going to talk about why that’s a problem. For the person who like Ruse who rejects the second premise, there are two challenges. First, he or she must defend the very unpopular position that objective morality just does not exist. What this means is that we can’t condemn terrorists for flying planes into buildings. We must not think that there are good moral reformers in this society. Right? Because if morality is just determined by society, then any person that changes the status quo is by definition someone against or being immoral, they’re against the morality or present morality. They want to change it. Well, if you want to change it you’re being immoral. Right? But clearly moral reformers have done good things. Right? It was good for Martin Luther King Jr. to do what he did before the law reflected those changes. That’s a problem for someone who thinks that there are no objective moral values and duties because we can just see that there are moral reformers and they do good things and I mean objectively good. I don’t just mean subjectively good. Here, Ruse thinks that whoever cannot tell that raping children is wrong is just as mistaken as the person who thinks that 2 + 2 = 5. That was in the video. Remember that quote? But why, given his view, should we think that? Or consider the position of a caller to the podcast a couple of months ago. His name was David from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We did a show on atheism and he called in and we had this fine discussion about morality and he rejected the second premise and so we were having a dialogue and I asked him “What would we say about the Nazis? If morality is just determined from society to society, how can we say that they’re wrong?” “Oh. Well we can say that they’re wrong because we won the war.” We won the war so that’s why we can say they were wrong. Historically, I think the Nuremberg Trials show it’s not just because we won the war, it’s because we’re grounding on higher authority than the collective society’s own view. It’s something that goes beyond that.
More interestingly is that, I said to David, “What if they had won?” “Well they never would have won” he said. “It was an impractical society. It just wouldn’t have worked.” Right? So he’s sort of grounding the fact that they had an immoral society on the basis that it wasn’t functional, at least in the long term. Right? He’s not saying what they did was wrong because what they did was wrong as an intrinsic thing, but because, Oh, it just wouldn’t have worked. I think that’s very problematic because I think we can think of say, Nazi Germany 2.0, on a small island and let’s imagine where people don’t know what’s going on. On David’s view, as long as that society could function, then it would be moral for those actions to have occurred. I think it’s very problematic, although he and I have actually stayed in touch a little bit since he called in, and he’s continually adamant that it just would not have worked, and it’s difficult because I think he’s missing the point there about the justice that, we just know, it’s obviously true to us, and I’m going to talk about this a little bit later, that that would be an immoral society. For him, if he wants to be consistent, he can’t say that.
Let me continue on here. The second challenge for the atheist who rejects a second premise is to come up with a model for how this works. Right? Those who like Ruse think that morality is a human convention brought about by social-biological evolution. He wrote,
“Morality is something then not handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. It is something forged in the struggle for existence and reproduction, something fashioned by natural selection.”
But this doesn’t solve the issue at all. Right? Why should we abide by the social construct? If the social construct were to change, say starting with me, why should I abide by that construct? Because constructs change. Humans evolve through natural selection. He might say “It should be for the survival of the species,” but we’ve all faced situations where it would be the most practical thing, we might do something where it wouldn’t be good for our survival but we recognize it as good. Consider self-sacrifice. In a world where survival’s the greatest good, it’d be foolish to lay down your life for those your love, but let we recognize that as one of the greatest goods. Right? Isn’t that what Jesus teaches as well? That can be a bit problematic and we can run into a number of other sort of thought scenarios where we can recognize something that isn’t good for our survival, but we do find that it is objectively good.
For the person that rejects the second premise, who thinks that there is no objective morality, there are three ways that they can ground morality. Either socio-biological evolution, that morality is relative to the society, or that it’s just relative to the individual. You might hold to sort of individualistic relativism, so there are three main ways. Let me say this. If you’re ever in a conversation with an atheist, ask them what they mean when they talk about that word evil, when they say God did evil or that evil exists. How does that person define what is evil? If evil is merely subjective or relative and even the evolutionary process model, that’s still subjective. It’s just in our minds. Right? When we say that their complaint against Christianity or against theism is in general really falls flat because they don’t think that such and such instance was actual evil. It’s just relative evil. Because it may not be a problem for someone else in another society. Right? Whatever evil action that occurred. Why did God supposedly command genocide in the Old Testament? Oh? Well in some societies genocide is good and cool. Let’s do this. So that’s not really a problem. The atheist is really making a contextualized limited objection against theism. That’s very important to remember because I think the objection really falls flat. It lacks power.
Let me continue on here. I said we were doing this in reverse order. We went to the second premise first. Let’s go back to the first premise. There are some atheists that reject the first premise. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist. They would say, “Maybe God doesn’t exist, but we can still think that morality is objective.” Right? One of the most popular camps at least in philosophy of religion, this is called atheistic moral realism. Morals are real. Atheistic moral realism. Atheistic moral realism does not attempt to ground morality in the constructs of evolution. Rather, they exist sort of as brute facts, somewhere out there in the ethereal space. There are three responses though to this.
First, what does it mean to the atheistic moral realist to say that justice exists? How can it be that justice exists independently of human relations? If there were no animals, including humans, on the planet, would justice still exist? Is it just floating around somewhere in the cosmos? Can we go find it somewhere?
Secondly, if we grant that objective morals do exist, again on their view, how does that existence present for me a duty? Why should I follow that? Suppose, there is that statement, do not kill, out there somewhere in the universe. Why should I follow that statement, that truth? There’s trouble sort of connecting the dots to get from the proposition out there to me.
Third, finally, why should we think that the type of creatures that emerge from blind evolutionary processes of time, matter, and chance, correspond to these abstract values. It’s much more plausible to think that the physical and the non-physical could connect with one another if there were a creator or a lawgiver than to think that they just happened to correspond as a matter of chance. This is another issue that is seen with C.S. Lewis’s argument from reason or Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, which shows there’s a lack of connection between the external world and the subject. That creates a problem for the naturalist.
The second sort of person that would reject the first premise would be the humanist, the classic humanist. Humanists believe that the human is the supreme being in the universe. We are the ones who give ourselves meaning and purpose, who determine right from wrong, but like our concerns against atheistic moral realism, how does the humanist decide what is objectively right and wrong? The humanist needs to explain why moral truths are the way they are, but they are presently unable to so they just fall against the same criticisms that we presented before, even perhaps some from those that object to the second premise. It would just be arbitrary. Maybe they think that societies discover them differently, like societies have different views of scientific facts. There’s some problems that the humanist would run into as well.
What’s interesting to note is that while each of the responses either rejects premise one or two, usually it affirms one or the other, so in rejecting in second premise, atheists affirm the first by correctly understanding that if God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist, and for the people that reject the first premise, they affirm the second. The atheistic moral realistic affirms that there are objective moral values and duties. It’s ironic. They’re willing at least to grant us one part and so that’s maybe something you can work with.
We’ve explored how the atheistic positions fail to account for their intended purposes, so why should we think, this is a question that I’ve dealt with, why should we think that there are objective moral values and duties? For me, the first one, I never really had a problem with the first premise, but the second was like, how do I actually know? How can we affirm that premise? How do we know it’s true? Two ways. One, from our moral experience. Right? In the video clip that we watched the guy is robbed and then he trips and he’s like, oh no, you stole from me.” When we observe states of affairs where someone is robbed, that’s part of our experience and we just recognize it as true. We sense it in the same way that we sense that we’re all sitting in this room at chairs and tables and so throughout our life we have numerous moral experiences and we can trust these as being accurate and true. I’m not saying perfect. I’m not saying infallible. Right? There are some issues that there are gray areas, but for some issues we recognize them as being objectively true and this is part of our experience and we shouldn’t let someone who is spiritually blind or morally blind to bring doubt upon that. Would you, all of a sudden, be in a state of confusion, if a physically blind person said, “Well how do you know there is a chair right there?” “Because I’m looking at it!” Right? I’m looking at the chair. In the same way, the person that’s spiritually blind or morally blind shouldn’t cause you to be confused. How do you know such and such is wrong? Right? The person in a sense suffers from a disability if it’s only just a worldview disability. They’re just having trouble recognizing this.
Alvin Plantinga, who’s a very famous Christian philosopher, he thinks that atheists who lack belief in God, he calls them not properly functioning. There’s something that’s wrong and it’s part of the fall perhaps and it’s a good reminder that we need to be gracious, merciful, and patient with people who may not see things the way we see them, but in the very least it shouldn’t cause us to be confused ourselves. We need to recognize that. It should be obvious to us that certain things are wrong and our experience of them is a valid means of knowing that it’s wrong.
Secondly, grounding of rights. Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence said we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with rights. It’s fascinating, the American experiment is really founded upon this idea that we have rights, but where do these rights come from? Are these rights only given by the government because we collectively decide what rights the government gives? That’s the position a number of atheists might take, but that’s not really the position we should take, because if the government can give you rights then they can take them away, but it strikes us that no, heck no, I’ve got these rights and I can do certain things and I shouldn’t have the government persecute me. But where do these rights come from?
A philosopher by the name of Nicholas Wolterstorff has written a book called Justice, Rights, and Wrongs and he persuasively argues that rights are grounded in God and it’s because God has given us this human worth that we have these rights. Again, it’s not the government that gives them. Government secures our rights. Those rights already exist. Even if say for a moment you take the atheist position and you say the government just gives rights, ask yourself, or if you’re talking to an atheist say, “Well wait a second. Didn’t we believe those rights existed before the government made a law to protect those rights?” Rights can’t come from the government. The government is responding to an environment that recognizes those rights exist. Okay. Well how do those rights exist? Where do they come from?
So how do we know that second premise is true? Our moral experience, our intuitions, right, and also the grounding of rights only makes sense if the creator God has given them to us. So for the atheist that accepts objective morality, they can speak about evil so the person that accepts…or the humanist wants to say that morality is objective. Right? But they can only talk about evil when they do so without knowing about why they can talk about evil. Again, in my introduction I said I want to talk about how is or whether if atheists can even talk about evil. Right? In the first category, the people that reject the second premise, those types of people, they can’t really talk about objective evil. They can only talk about subjective evil, but for the second group here, they can talk about evil, but they can’t really know about why they’re talking about it, and that’s a problem, so ultimately the attempts to defeat the moral argument fail and atheists are forced to deny their position or they really just have to go back to the drawing board.
I suggest that they join us. Some of the atheists are willing to accept the existence of objective moral values. I actually think that the vast majority of atheists do accept the existence of objective morals and you can just run a few thought experiments with them, like steal their purse or something. If they believe that what you did was wrong say, “Why? How? Not in my society is that wrong. That’s a good thing.” I eventually I think you can say that the vast majority of atheists do think that there is good objective morality, so the question is what makes the best sense of objective morals. I think that the best explanation for what makes sense of objective morals is that God grounds these morals as being true. Thank you.