Posts Tagged ‘morals’

The burden of proof in absolute/objective religious morals



This post will not examine whether humans are capable of doing good without God, but simply present religious apologists with the burden of proof they have to satisfy in order to argue that God is indeed the source of human morality.

Rather like Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents stating that God must occupy gaps in human understanding of science, religious apologists invariably fall back on the self-same deity of the gaps when arguing for the source of human morals: “Science seemingly cannot explain where human morals come from and why we are capable of behaving with kindness, compassion and altruism towards our fellow man, therefore it must be God”.

In presenting this false dichotomy and arguing for God as the default explanation, they are actually make at least four distinct claims which they must substantiate, namely that:

  1. there is de facto a predetermined objective/absolute moral standard;
  2. this moral standard originates from a supernatural deity;
  3. said supernatural deity is the one in whom they believe i.e. Yahweh, Christ or Allah as opposed to Krishna, Zeus or Poseidon; and
  4. they know what acts their deity considers to be moral.

Evidence for a de facto absolute/objective moral standard

There is no evidence whatsoever that a pre-determined objective or absolute moral standard.  As Th1sWasATriumph puts it in his videos debunking William Lane Craig’s five “arguments” for God’s existence, “morality is an infinite spectrum of grey areas”.

You only have to look at the moral disagreements between people of all faiths and none (or the cartoon at the head of this post for ease of reference) to see that there are no easy answers to questions of ethics.

Maybe it would be wonderful for us to refer all our ethical problems to a supernatural agency for ultimate answers, but just because a certain concept may give us comfort, this does not mean for one moment that it exists in reality.

Evidence that moral standards can only originate from a deity

As Victor Stenger argued in his 2003 debate against William Lane Craig, even if an objective moral standard did exist, it could have been hardwired into our genetics by evolution as a mechanism to assist our survival.  I have not been presented with any convincing argument or evidence ruling out such a naturalistic possibility.

Evidence that a particular deity is the only source of human morals

Human societies have earnestly believed in countless millions of gods over the centuries; none of them have been disproved with absolute certainty.  As Sam Harris has pointed out, the Biblical God has exactly the same evidentiary status as Zeus and Poseidon, yet it is only by slight variation in language that outwardly religious politicians like Tony Blair and George W. Bush do not sound like complete lunatics to the majority of people by citing his moral guidance as opposed to the residents of Mount Olympus.

Who knows; perhaps the key to objective morality lies in Ovid’s Metamorphoses?

Evidence for knowing what their deity considers to be moral and ethical

How exactly do religious believers know that their god disapproves of murder, rape, child abuse, genocide, eugenics and so forth and approves of love, compassion, charity, truth and altruism?  This is the heart of Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma: is the good loved by the gods because it is good, or is it good because it is loved by the gods?

William Lane Craig has written and recorded a disgusting tract arguing that Yahweh can arbitrarily alter his own moral law to command his chosen people to commit genocide, which has rightly been lambasted by Richard Dawkins as the reason why he will never share a public platform with Craig.

Furthermore, the equally repulsive branch of theological “thought” known as theodicy has it that all evil and suffering in the World is part of God’s great plan to redeem as many souls as possible and bring them into his kingdom for an eternity of bliss once they are through with this veil of tears.

The unfortunate – but nonetheless unavoidable – fallout from this line of “thinking” is that everything that the victims of Nazism went through was perfectly worthwhile, their transition to a better place was simply accelerated, and Hitler and SS were agents of the divine will.

As Muslims say, “All is as God wills it”, which is another theological profundity that I have yet to fathom.

But that’s for another post.

Sam Harris at TED 2010: Science can answer moral questions


manicstreetpreacher is delighted to see that his hero of atheism has still got it!

My detractors who chide me for being a mouthpiece for the Four Horsemen should take a look at this and see why I choose to rely on Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens so much.

Questions of good and evil, right and wrong are commonly thought unanswerable by science.  But Sam Harris argues that science can – and should – be an authority on moral issues, shaping human values and setting out what constitutes a good life.

Sit back and enjoy.

TED link

Thread on Richard

Sam Harris’ homepage

Project Reason

Sam Harris’ Wikipedia page

Michael Shermer debates David Robertson on whether Christianity is good for us: Premier Christian Radio, “Unbelievable?”, 20 February 2010


manicstreetpreacher to Michael Shermer:

I have of course had multiple encounters with Pastor David Robertson of St Peter’s Free Church, Dundee, Scotland, author of The Dawkins Letters.  For the Saturday, 20 February 2010 edition of Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? Robertson debated Michael Shermer, head of the American Skeptics Society and author of numerous books debunking all things paranormal and pseudo-scientific, such as Why People Believe Weird Things and Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design.

The debate focuses on the comparative levels of charitable giving, happiness, well-being, mutual respect and trust and attitudes towards slavery and gay rights between believers and non-believers.

I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow account of the debate, and I’m certainly not posting this to gloat at Robertson (who I consider a personal friend of sorts after our encounters), but he is an extremely tough debating opponent.  While I was satisfied with how I came off in my debates against him, I took as many hits as I scored and tripped over my own arguments on a couple of occasions, particularly on evidence an atheist would accept as evidence for God in Show One and the moral argument in Show Two.

Shermer on the other hand is a seasoned pro and has heard it all before and will do so a thousand times again.  While I in my reckless youth tend to take more of an all-guns-blazing approach at the microphone, Shermer is far more laid back in his citing of peer-reviewed journal papers, opinion polls and tried-and-trusted philosophical arguments.

These were especially effective against Robertson’s arguments which seemed to be based largely on personal experience of visits to “Sweden’s atheist utopia” where apparently people are much less willing to sell you a drink than the Americans.  Shermer is going to withhold judgement until he runs the experiment for himself.

I particularly admired the way Shermer put paid to the popular notion that Christians lead the fight against slavery by pointing out that William Wilberforce and John Newton were in the minority of Christians who opposed the practice when the established Anglican and Catholic Churches were defending it.

In a similar vein to how Christianity has a posteriori claimed the moral high ground in respect of abolition, Shermer predicts that the current firestorm over gay marriage in the USA will be resolved in the next 20 years or so to the benefit of homosexuals.  While today the most vehement opponents of gay marriage are Christians, as with slavery, Christians will surely single out the few of their number who supported gay marriage and hold them out as leading the fight for equal rights!

I will credit Robertson for contributing to a high-brow discussion and for once not playing the “Hitler and Stalin were atheists” card while giving a nod to the crimes committed by the Christian Conquistadors against the indigenous people of the Americas; a Holocaust in its own right.  Perhaps MSP’s email to him in response his comments following Brierley’s coverage of the Dawkins/ Grayling I2 debate on atheist fundamentalism had a small part to play in that.

The two places where I thought Robertson really fell down was in his closing remarks where he accused the secularists as “living in a fantasyland” before going on to say in the same breath that Christians know that they will not live in a utopia until they get to heaven.  Right.

In addition, Marx and Engels never said that “religion is the opiate of the people”.  This is in fact one of the most common out-of-context quotes of all time.  The full quote from Marx’s introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right is:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering.  Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.  To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun.  Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.

Don’t let Christopher Hitchens hear you say that one, David!

Download the full debate audio.