Do People Become Atheists for Only Intellectual Reasons?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

In Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian, Russell quotes the famed philosopher John Stuart Mill writing about his father’s road to atheism.  In the previous post, we looked at the transmission of atheism from one generation to the next.  Today we look at another insight from Mill’s quote.

My father [says John Stuart Mill], educated in the creed of Scotch Presbyterianism, had by his own studies and reflections been early led to reject not only the belief in Revelation but the foundations of what is commonly called Natural Religion.  My father’s rejection of all that is called religious belief was not, as many might suppose, primarily a matter of logic and evidence: the grounds of it were moral, still more than intellectual.

He found it impossible to believe that a world so full of evil was the work of an Author combining infinite power with perfect goodness and righteousness.  His aversion to religion, in the sense usually attached to the term, was of the same kind with that of Lucretius: he regarded it with the feelings due not to mere mental delusion but to a great moral evil.

What is interesting in this quotation is James Mill’s reason for becoming an atheist.  It wasn’t about primarily “logic and evidence,” but about a moral problem – the existence of evil.  For Mill, the existence of a morally perfect and infinitely powerful God is impossible given the evil in the world.  Here is a classical way to state this version of the problem of evil:

1. If God is all good, he would destroy evil.

2. If God is all powerful, he could destroy evil.

3. But evil is not destroyed.

4. Therefore, there is no such God.

How do theists respond to this argument?  Christian philosopher Norm Geisler offers the following solution in his Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (I’ve greatly abbreviated his solution below for space reasons):

Theism holds that even though God could not destroy (annihilate) all evil without destroying all good, nevertheless, he can and will defeat (overcome) all evil without destroying free choice.  The argument can be summarized as follows:

1. God is all good and desires to defeat evil.

2. God is all powerful and is able to defeat evil.

3. Evil is not yet defeated.

4. Therefore, it will one day be defeated.

The infinite power and perfection of God guarantee the eventual defeat of evil.  The fact that it is not yet accomplished in no way diminishes the certainty that it will be defeated.  Even though evil cannot be destroyed without destroying free choice, nonetheless, it can be overcome. . . .

Not only can a theistic God defeat evil, but he will do it.  We know this because he is all good and would want to defeat evil.  And because he is all-powerful and is able to defeat evil.  Therefore, he will do it.  The guarantee that evil will be overcome is the nature of the theistic God.

What is fascinating to me about Mill’s rejection of God is that it is not based on logic.  Philosophers of religion are virtually unanimous in concluding that the logical problem of evil, as stated above, is solvable by theists, and therefore does not demonstrate a true logical problem.

If Mill had used logic and reason, he might have discovered this for himself.  Instead, his failure to apply logic and reason to the problem of evil moved him to atheism.  In fact, as we’ve argued here before, it is difficult to even account for the existence of evil without a perfectly good God.

None of this is to deny that the problem of evil is a question that Christians must answer.  We must take this question seriously and explain how the Christian God can exist with the evil we see in the world.  Norm Geisler and many other Christian philosophers over the last 2,000 years have offered answers to this question.

We don’t know what James Mill concluded about the origins and persistence of evil, but it does look like he failed to consider logical solutions to the problem, and instead relied only on his moral intuitions.

  • Ten years ago I personally knew more atheists that moved in that direction after an attrocity or bad situatoin in their or someone they love’s life than due to pure intellectual reasons. Most of those came to embrace intellectual reasons, but they didn’t start out that way. These tend to be emotional and angry against Christianity, rather than just rejecting it. Whereas now, I find many more who were convinced of atheism during their college days or from being around atheists that influenced them earlier in their lives. They tend to be more matter of fact about it. You can tell most of the time right up front which camp the atheist comes from by the way they respond to Christian claims.

    What is funny, is that some who embraced atheism on intellectual grounds, from say thinking that teaching on evolution proves there is no God, have become Christians after coming to actually learn about the faith, versus some religous rhetoric. Their rejection of Christian faith early on was based on an incorrect understanding of it – which seems to be rampant these days.

  • “from say thinking that teaching on evolution proves there is no God”
    I find this quote somewhat unlikely. I know some atheists who say that evolution took away a major reason to BELIEVE in God, but I’ve never heard anyone say that anything PROVES there is no God, least of all evolution. For a start, the majority of those who accept evolution are Christians.

    “Most of those came to embrace intellectual reasons, but they didn’t start out that way.”

    Possibly. And equally, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a Christian who says it was apologetics – ie ‘intellectual arguments’ – that initially converted them. Though many Christians like apologetics for its attempts to intellectually justify and defend beliefs they already hold.

  • Andrew,

    I find that you often counter statements I make about my discussions with people, claiming they are not the case. I don’t know what circles you hang around, but it sure must be a different bunch than I see everyday. You often say “unlikely” with regard to what people tell me. So, I can only say that you don’t see the people I do.

    Lee Strobel was just one of several who did not believe because of evolution. Also, it is frequent to hear, “evolution proves there is no God.” I hear it a lot. I am glad you realize that is not the case, but it is a common statement. You are probably right that in the majority of cases, evolution only took away a major reason to believe in God, but for some, it is seen as a reason to not believe.

    You are also right that most don’t become Christians because of apologetics. However, some do. Lee Stroble is an example again. I myself came to faith while reading an apologetics book. It wasn’t what was specifically said in the book but that I realized that the Bible doesn’t tell me how God created the world, but that he did, and that science is still evolving and who knows what it will end up with in the end. It opened up my thinking even if it didn’t shape my thinking. And really, that is all apologetics is meant to do. The Word saves (or at least presents the message of salvation). Apologetics is only a means of preparing the soil so that the seed of the Word will take root and not be strangled by the rocks and thorns.

  • It’s just not something I’ve ever heard from any atheist. Perhaps it’s true that you ‘hear it a lot’ – I’m sure you believe you’ve heard it. But I often hear Christians say that atheists ate ‘always saying this’ or that, when it’s something I’ve never heard. It makes me wonder if the Christian is just misremembering something that to them sounded synonymous with the quote, but which is actually crucially different in some overlooked detail of wording. I remember Ted Haggard insisting in an interview with Richard Dawkins that ‘evolution is a random process’, and that he’d heard biologists claiming as such. I’m sure he BELIEVED they had, but I’m equally sure no biologist would have said such a thing. I’m guessing you have no quotes from atheists saying the ‘proved’ thing? Even Dawkins makes no such claim. I understand this is just something you heard, so I don’t expect you can produce a written example.

    You say you began a conversion on reading apologetics, but you also seem to admit that it wasn’t due to any intellectual logical argument in the book.

  • tildeb

    The word play as a response to Euthyphro’s Dilemma about evil is the only way around it. That’s why we see the introduction of free will to answer the charge. Of course, we must put aside the very real debate about whether or not there’s any such state as will that is in any meaningful sense ‘free’ of being anything other than it is revealed to be.

    But putting that weak and wobbly central plank of god’s defense against ‘evil’ aside for the moment, I think it is far more revealing to use the term ‘suffering’ in place of ‘evil’ so that we can truly appreciate how impotent god is to alleviate it… not just with humans but the entire spectrum of life on this planet predicated on a prey/predator system full to brimming with suffering that has nothing to do with ‘free will’. Once we see how nature really operates – utterly unconcerned with massive suffering – we can approach the Dilemma with eyes wide open and have a good long taste of reality that exhibits not one whit of godly benevolence in the face of global suffering.

    Another way of appreciating the problem that suffering brings to belief in a benevolent, powerful, present, interventionist divine agency is to ask one’s self if I would design a system of life that had so much suffering if I had the power and means to design life without it, or mitigated by, say, a nervous system shut off valve a flooding of pain relief with a life threatening injury, or something to alleviate the horrid painful drawn out deaths suffered by millions – millions – of my creatures on this planet throughout every orbit around this sun?

  • r.holmgren

    “evolution proves there is no God.”
    I’ve heard that many times from on-line atheists. Of course very few are intellectually stunted enough to actually believe the word “proves” means exactly that. What they mean is evolution takes away the necessity of God’s existence (which is an intellectually stunted statement in itself), but the phrase is most certainly used.

  • Then it should be easy for you to find me people making this claim online. Thing is, when I google the phrase, all I find is pages and pages of Christians CLAIMING that atheists say it, with no actual atheists saying it! I call shenanigans.

  • Walt, your quote of an atheistic refrain “Evolution proves there is no God” has a flip side … “God proves there is no evolution.”
    I firmly believe in the latter …

  • What, you firmly believe in evolution, or you firmly believe that God proves there is no evolution? Because evolution has been observed. It’s scientific fact. If you say your God disproves ‘x’, when ‘x’ is something we know to exist, either your argument is in trouble or your God is. At any rate, what’s your explanation for the fact that the majority of Christians accept evolution?

  • If I may jump in, it would be extremely helpful to define which version of evolution before this conversation goes any further. This word is far too slippery nowadays to be mentioned without a good definition to accompany it.

  • Andrew,
    If you don’t think that atheists say “evolution proves there is no God,” then what do you think atheists commonly say about evolution and the existence of God?

  • I believe that Dawkins said it removed a reason to believe in God. Seeing as Dawkins 100% believes in evolution, but still sees the existence of God as possible, this seems to show that ‘removes a major reason to believe in God’ is not at all the same as ‘proves there is no God’. I’ve never heard an atheist say ANYTHING ‘proves’ there is no God. The most I’ve heard claimed is that certain God concepts are logically incoherent, or that evolution shows one cannot maintain a literal reading of either of the two Genesis accounts of creation.

  • Biological evolution. The scientific definition. “Any change in the frequency of alleles within a gene pool from one generation to the next”

    But further, I’ve not heard atheists make this claim for ANY definition of evolution. So any definition that Don or r.holmgren offers – I remain sceptical that this is an atheist claim they’ve heard ‘many times’.

  • But yes, I’d like to know what Don means when he says ‘God disproves evolution’, if that is indeed what he was saying.

  • r.holmgren

    Well, to say that Dawkins says that the existence of God is possible is a bit of a stretch. For one thing God, as Dawkins understands Him would have had to evolve from a simple entity. And second, he believes that God’s existence is as likely as real “fairies living at the bottom of his garden.”

    I think you may be correct that atheists have learned through numerous discussions to stop saying that evolution “proves” no God because it isn’t true. But they certainly believe that is true. Just as atheists know that the Big Bang cannot have a natural, material, scientific cause because until Big Bang nothing material, natural or scientific existed, but they are still waiting for a material cause to be discovered. It’s all part of the absurd, incoherent, anti logic, anti scientific bias of atheism.

  • In the God Delusion, he said the following about evolution: “Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that—an illusion.”

    In the context of the book, this statement means that we don’t need God to explain how life arose – evolution does that. Since the creation of life has commonly been attributed to God by theists, then the fact of Darwinian evolution is a serious blow to the existence of a God who supposedly created life.

  • “we don’t need God to explain how life arose”

    Right, and discovering how lightning formed shows we don’t need to invoke Zeus throwing thunderbolts. Does that mean working out how lightning formed ‘proves there is no God’?

    “then the fact of Darwinian evolution is a serious blow to the existence of a God who supposedly created life.”

    It’s a blow to creationists, sure. But you tell the above to Professor Kenneth Miller, or Francis Collins, or the hundreds of millions of Christians who see no conflict between their faith and their acceptance of mainstream biological science.

  • Ggodat

    Micro-evolution has been observed. Macro-evolution has not and never will be observed. Not sure which definition you are referring to…. And, where are your facts to prove that most Christians believe in Macroevolution?? I believe in micro (or adaptation) but guess what; the finches on Galapagos are still finches regardless of beak size.

  • Ggodat, I’ve pointed out your errors so many times, and pointed you to resources showing where you’re wrong, so many times, that I now conclude that you know you’re talking nonsense.

  • Ggodat

    Then show me your evidence! I’ve pointed out many many more times that you have none and yet you still refuse to provide any. Who’s talking nonsense?? Your faith in the “unknown and unprovable” is far greater than my faith in God.

  • Poppycock. I’ve pointed you in the direction of evidence and indeed proof that you’re wrong countless times. I’ve told you exactly where you can find it in reality, and given you links for online resources too. Now you’re on your own. Do your own homework.

    “is far greater than my faith in God.”
    I think virtually anything must be greater than your faith in God, given that you are so unwilling to test it!

  • Ggodat

    And there it is… A huge lack of evidence, a gaping hole even, some would describe it as a sinkhole. You have given me nothing that is based on verifiable, repeatable and observable science. When i have repeatedly asked you to explain where the universe came from you cite ridiculous videos that claim nothing is not really nothing. It is just plain silly to just move nothingness to the sub-atomic level and forget that you need to explain where the sub-atomic stuff came from. You just cannot comprehend that for anything to even exist in the universe there must have first existed and uncaused cause for everything else.

    Nothing can come from nothing of its own accord! And clearly from Science we know that there was a “time” when no time, space nor matter existed. You simply cannot explain how they came into existence with your science….

  • tildeb

    I, too, have never heard or seen an atheist declare that evolution proves there is no god. But, as Andrew pointed out, many believers assume this is a common refrain. It simply isn’t. I have also found very few atheists (PZ the exception) declare that no evidence could convince him or her of a god; most are comfortable allowing for the possibility… no matter how remote. But what atheists do find compelling is the lack of evidence that should be there if a creative agency had been involved… especially in ways described and empowered with meaning for divine agency by believers. So far, zero evidence. This is an example where an absence of evidence really does support the reasonable conclusion of evidence of absence.

    As for evolution and what the term means, there are only subtle variants on common ancestry by natural selection (putting aside what some Discovery Institute Fellows would like to insert in its place), which has the benefit of explaining all the evidence from multiple and distinct lines of inquiry. That’s why it’s a theory – the best and most comprehensive scientific theory to date. To claim this compilation of overwhelming and consistent evidence when it doesn’t have to be this way equivalent to a ‘belief’ is to render confidence in the consistency and reliability of our understanding of gravity or germs to be an equivalent ‘belief’. In any case, religious belief is not a similar but quite distinct category.

    Anyone who denies this understanding of how we have arrived at knowing about our common decent with all other life on the planet is denying the very basis of why the method of science works to produce knowledge. In other words, it’s not about evolution to suggest it isn’t the most reliable scientific theory we possess; it’s a position that is anti-science. This is not a trivial charge to those so inclined on religious grounds to continue to deny evolution the respect it is owed; it’s a denial of the very method of inquiry we use every day woven throughout our lives about what we all know works in practice. And anyone who denies the value of gaining reliable and consistent knowledge about what works in practice to be just another and equivalent kind of religious belief without appreciating the technologies, therapies, and applications derived (that unlike religious belief works to produce singular knowledge consistent for everybody everywhere all the time) is denying any real desire to know reality as it is.

    This raises an important question religious believers must address: How valuable can the opinions and beliefs and intellectual contribution be of such a person to anyone who seeks to know what’s consistently true (and that we can know about with very high demonstrable confidence) about the reality we share?

  • tildeb,

    “So far, zero evidence.” Do you not think at all that that statement is extreme and inconsistent with the rest of what you said? Would it be better from your perspective to say, “So far, zero compelling evidence.” Because there is evidence, you just have not been convinced by it.

  • tildeb

    No, I don’t. I think “zero” is accurate for the amount of evidence we have collected to show that there has been an active creative divine agency. There is only belief. And this belief is then used as an explanation for all kinds of causal effects. But every time the scientific inquiry advances our knowledge of reality, we never find evidence for it; instead, we find natural processes when it doesn’t have to be this way. In other words, there has been ample opportunity for evidence to be found that supports an active creative agency but, alas for believers, this has not happened. All we have is the hypothesis of a causal divine agent used over and over by the religiously inclined without any evidence whatsoever to support it in all its multiple and often conflicting religious claims of its particulars to ‘explain’ how things have come to be. In total, belief in an active creative divine agency is nothing more than a substitute answer for “I honestly don’t know but I’m going to pretend I do.”

  • tildeb,

    Then you don’t mean “evidence” you mean scientifically analyzable evidence per what you said. You say all we find are natural processes. That is all science can analyze. There are evidences for Christian faith. Those evidences just don’t hold up to your standard. And, as I’ve noted before, I think that it is because the tendency of science is to look at piece parts – that which is analyzable, rather than at the whole.

    I often get the sense that atheists think we are talking about a human like father figure god – like Zeus. That seems to be the type of god thrown back at us. I in no way advocate God is anything like a human. I do say God became united to humanity in Jesus, but not that God is human in any other way. There are universals that underly the processes, the beauty, the logic, and the truth of nature. The universals must have pre-existed creation itself. These universals guide all processes. Something eternal underlies these universals. Something prior to the universe gives order, gives structure, gives purpose or goal for all that is. Whether that something is the God that is in Jesus or not is a question for another day, but there is something under it all. To say there is not is to say that all the processes are entirely random. If that is so, physicists are wasting their time looking for a grand unified theory. Everything is connected and everything has a source. While not hard indisputable “evidence,” it is as much evidence on more solid ground than any theory on evolution of life from mere molecules to intricate higher functioning organisms. Evolutionary theory and the benefits in medicine from such a theory are one thing, but blind evolution from molecules to the complexity of humans is a faith statement. We have no proof of it. We have some dots. We have some theories to connect those dots. But we have no solid evidence that higher life forms truly came from mere molecules. It is only a hunch – a faith statement. And why? Because we can not validate it except in piece parts.

  • To rename evil as suffering does not escape the problem you have at all. You are implying by your entire comment that there ought not be suffering in the world, that suffering is wrong, that any deity that would design the world and allow suffering is morally evil.

    All of these statements about what is wrong with the world assume a standard by which we can judge, a universal standard that tells us how the world should be. But where does this standard come from? Only God can plausibly provide that universal standard which you repeatedly assume in your complaints about suffering. If you really believe that all the suffering in the world is wrong, then you ought to be a theist. Otherwise, you are totally inconsistent in your complaints.

    In addition, Christians have always maintained that natural suffering in the world, particularly with regard to human beings and higher animals, is due to the free choices of Adam and Eve. Their rejection of God is the event that led to humans being ejected from the Garden, where they were free from suffering.

  • tildeb

    Walt writes, That (natural processes) is all science can analyze.

    A universe ruled by some interactive divine agency would be unpredictable, wouldn’t it? Even chaotic because of repeated interventions. But that’s not what we find, is it? For example, if you jumped off a cliff in a god-ruled universe, you could hit the ground – but it’s also possible that you might not. This would be evidence for a universe with an intervening god, one that is NOT predictable for everyone everywhere all the time.

    If something like a god were to intervene more for, say, baptists than jainists, then this would be evidence for some unexplained preference correlated to the religion of the person praying. This would be evidence. We find no efficacy for intercessory prayer.
    Certain kinds of directed prayers done by hasidic jews that correlated to altering chemical and physiological processes could be evidence. We find no such evidence that prayer alters any chemical or physiological process.

    And the list goes on and on, where claims of some divine creative agency should be present if the claim were in fact – in the reality we share – likely or even remotely true. There is no such evidence.

    In a universe with an intervening creative agency, we should not find natural process that are consistently and reliably and predictably true for everyone everywhere all the time.

  • tildeb

    Bill writes, All of these statements about what is wrong with the world (me pointing out unmitigated suffering) assume a standard by which we can judge, a universal standard that tells us how the world should be. But where does this standard come from? Only God can plausibly provide that universal standard…

    No, Bill. The standard is not an either-god-exists-so-we-have-moral-standards or god-does-not-exist-so-we-don’t-have-moral-standards case. The proposition for a god-granted or god-given or god-designed moral standard fails to adequately explain why the entire predator/prey system of which we are an active part as a species exists when we know that unnecessary suffering causes us discomfort and anxiety. Such a biological response is a common one experienced by many species of mammals with mirror neurons to the suffering of others and is most effectively relieved by mitigating the suffering. No ‘god explanation’ is required for why we evaluate unnecessary suffering as undesirable. Our biology does it for us. Because we feel an unpleasant response to unnecessary suffering, we treat such suffering as undesirable. Surprisingly, even four month old human infants recognize and respond to agents that cause this suffering to be less worthy of their attention and are more easily dismissed than the greater attention and interest and length of engagement with those who try to alleviate the suffering.

    Here’s the point: if a four month old has this common sense notion of why causing unnecessary suffering is less worthy of respect and attention that those who design it to be ever-present without cracking the spine of any scripture and long before sophisticated language skills are acquired for understanding metaphysical apologetic arguments for a capricious god who also happens to distribute ‘objective’ moral standards, then I think we adults can do at least as well as morally enlightened infants and recognize – even without belief in god or having read scripture or before being presented with a William Lane Craig debate video – that any agent, divine or human, that designs a system without any regard to the suffering it causes is less worthy of our attention and respect than attention and respect we pay to those who try to alleviate it.

    Also, Adam and Eve were not historical figures, Bill. We have zero evidence for any such bottleneck in our ancestry. This bottleneck should be evident in our genetic code if true. It’s simply not there. And that’s a fact. To deny this absence of evidence is to deny the science of genetics itself. Yet it works for everyone everywhere all the time. To maintain this denial in this one regard in the name of a religious belief is, in fact and deed, a denial in the method of science itself… one that we know works to produce practical applications, therapies, and technologies.. And the scientific method that informs genetics is exactly the same method that informs evolution, which is exactly the same method that informs physics, which is exactly the same method that informs chemistry and astronomy and geology and paleontology and so on. You do not have the luxury of selecting your own facts that agree with your theology and deny the ones that confront your beliefs directly… or moral assertions.

  • tildeb,

    “In a universe with an intervening creative agency, we should not find natural process that are consistently and reliably and predictably true for everyone everywhere all the time.”

    Why do you think that? I don’t believe that to be the case. Human beings could not live in an unpredictable world. Divine intervention is rare.

  • tildeb

    I just explained why. The complete lack of evidence for a universe where natural processes could be interrupted would not produce the universe we have, where natural processes can be so reliable that it allows us to make predictions on its reliability to the extent of, for example, eventually finding the Higgs boson… which helps to explain a lot about, you guessed it, how we get something from nothing!

  • tildeb

    Your science? How do you think your words appear on this screen? Magic? Belief? Will? Good science is science because it is a reliable and testable and demonstrable method that yields the same results for thee, me, and Andrew, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. No belief is required.

    There is no understanding of the reality we share that is improved or enhanced by accepting belief as an equivalent method of inquiry. That’s why there is one method of science but tens of thousands of conflicting and contrary truth claims about reality contained in different religious beliefs; believers allow reality to play no central part in determining its truth claims. This is a weakness of epistemology for religious belief but a strength of science that produces stuff like your computer screen…. an application of scientific knowledge you expect to work all the time in reality. Now imagine if your monitor producer insisted that reality should play no part in determining its working value; I doubt very much you would invest even one penny in such a product.

  • tildeb,

    You didn’t explain why. This idea about the universe must be continusouly interrupted is a strawman for you to knock down. The position that there is a God who can intervene does not mean that in everyday operation the universe is not operating in a predictable way. The Christian God upholds the order in the universe and operates within that order except at very rare times where validation of His prophets is required. That is so rare that the percent of all time of just human existence where a suspension of natural order occurs is infinitesimal.

    By the way, the Higgs particle explains where mass comes from, not how something came from nothing. I know of nothing in the physics realm that explains something coming from nothing. Even the big bang is not something from nothing, but something exploding from something highly condensed, or a bubble from another universe, or such – but no such thing as something from nothing.

  • tildeb

    This is a good example of why I say there is zero evidence to belief claims for the agency of a creator: you make the truth claim,

    The Christian God upholds the order in the universe and operates within
    that order except at very rare times where validation of His prophets
    is required.

    And you know this claim is true how?

    Strictly by belief. You believe reports of revelation that are then believed to be validations for the belief!

    What I am trying to reveal is that this believed disruption of the universe by this creative agency has no evidence independent of your belief. You claim it is rare… so rare, in fact, that the suspension of natural processes is an infinitesimally small – rather than common enough for us to detect it as I suggest – percentage.

    And you know this claim of rarity is true how?

    Strictly by belief. You believe this rare suspension occurs, which then becomes evidence only in your mind and not from the reality we share for a creative agency to intervene.

    But the universe itself offers us nothing to go by about these supposed suspensions of natural processes. None. Zero. If we had some evidence from the universe, rather than having to rely on your beliefs for the claim, then the possibility would be much higher that the suspension of natural processes does indeed – and inexplicably – occur from time to time. And this is why I continue to explain that the fact that our universe offers no such evidence is not a point in your favour but a condemnation of it. And that is why it is far more reasonable to remain highly sceptical of the claim creationists make about a creative agency active in the universe. Creationists continue to fail to meet the burden of proof for making and sustaining such a truth claim.

  • Andrew Ryan

    So you can’t find a SINGLE atheist making the claim online that you asserted was so prevalent? All you can say is that they’ve learned not to say it? Who says atheists ever claimed it in the first place? Just Christians, and with no evidence.

  • tildeb,

    And your claim about what the world should look like if there is a divine angency is itself not a mere truth claim? If you say that my truth claim is a mere belief based on lack of evidence from which to derive it, what is yours? I was trying to make the point to you that your claim is arbitrary. So, why is mine not? First, your claim for what you think a world with divine agency should look like has no basis what so ever on any religious teachings that I know of.and has the appearance of a claim made just so it can be knocked down – a strawman – just because you know that it doesn’t correspond with reality from the start. I would think it is better to show why claims made are false, rather than state an arbitrary one that no one believes.

    My beliefs do not come out of thin air as your claim about a divine agency did. It isn’t simply a belief without any warrant. I’ll grant you that from your perspective, you are warranted in what you believe about the universe. I have a basis for my belief, even if you don’t think it is valid. I think it is valid. You can believe I and others are fooled all you want, but we have reasons for our belief. First, is the Scriptures which describe the nature and character of God, from which I explained about the operation of a divine agency. We can debate the validity of that source, but it is a source for the belief. We can debate the reliability of Scripture and whether the resurrection really happened, yet I and others are convinved there is sufficient basis for which to justify our beliefs. We believe, and not arbitrarily, that we have sufficient grounds on which to stand. Such belief still works in the observable world. If it was so obvious that our beliefs are opposed to what we experience and know about the universe, we would not hold them. For one, it is the very order of the universe which causes me to believe there is a God. If the world was complete chaos, we wouldn’t exist, but then there also would be no basis for an absolute. That the universe exists and appears to have had a beginining indicates something is beyond the universe. When you say nature offers nothing, you mean observable processes offer nothing when viewed merely as processes. God works in the lives of people. Absolutes of the principles of logic, the complexity in design arising from chaos, says to the one who takes notice that there is more to the universe than its mere existence. That certain beings have the ability to reflect on creation is itself quite amazing. A few things of low probability existing is one thing, but the degree of complexity in the world and the probability by which it all happens to work together so beautifully points beyond mere chance. The evidence is there. It just isn’t compelling to you because you refuse to see it. You have been blinded by a predisposition that keeps you from seeing the obvious. I can imagine that you say I and others are blinded by relgious beliefs. However, I am not blinded by what science knows and can only know, but do see the big picture beyond it. I can never stress enough to stop getting lost in the details and stepping back to see the big picture.

  • tildeb

    I say reality offers us no evidence of a creative agency active in the universe because the universe (as far as we know) always reveals itself to be driven strictly by natural processes that are consistent and reliable and predictable. Every time. Where is there evidence other than this?

    Well, you say First, is the Scriptures which describe the nature and character of God , which in no way offers us any evidence from reality but belief imposed upon it. And we know that all kinds of truth claims made in scripture about reality are demonstrably false. That’s not a confidence booster in its veracity to describe such nebulous notions as the nature and characteristics of some god that you believe actually exists to cause effect in our reality. Quite the opposite.

    Then you say For one, it is the very order of the universe which causes me to believe there is a God. Well, there is order in all the natural processes so I have no clue how this is also evidence for an interventionist creator. On what grounds are we to presume that such order is logically associated to be evidence for an order-breaker (which is how many believers tell me is evidence for an interventionist creator, but who admit evidence for such ‘miracles’ reside in their belief that these events actually occurred)?

    Then you say That the universe exists and appears to have had a beginining indicates something is beyond the universe. No, it doesn’t. The accurate answer is “Beyond this point we can know nothing.” Your idle speculations about first causes is just that: idle speculation used to promote your belief in a creator god.

    Then you say Absolutes of the principles of logic, the complexity in design arising
    from chaos, says to the one who takes notice that there is more to the
    universe than its mere existence
    Come on, Walt. Logic reveals the usefulness of axioms. This is not evidence of a creative agency. The complexity in life has been thoroughly revealed to be a natural process called evolution. You cannot use this to be evidence for a creative agency unless and until you show that natural processes could not have produced this effect. This you – and all ID supporters – have singularly failed to do. Taking a shot at the how well people who notice things – as if evolution is accepted only by those dullards who do not notice things very well is cheap. Believe it or not, Walt, I have evidence that those who support the notion of Intelligent Design are motivated not by better evidence but religious motivation alone. Which camp, I wonder, do you fall in with your keen ability to notice things?

    You go on to say the degree of complexity in the world and the probability by which it
    all happens to work together so beautifully points beyond mere chance
    . No, Walt. It doesn’t. If you actually understood evolution you wouldn’t reveal this creationist canard (thoroughly debunked over and over again) as if it were a point in your favour. It reveals a rather astounding level of scientific illiteracy regarding basic biology.

    You then conclude that we have sufficient grounds on which to stand. Such belief still works in the observable world. No, Walt, it doesn’t offer us any evidence from reality to describe some creative agency with a nature and characterists we can know something about. All we still have is your beliefs. Your beliefs are not evidence from reality; they are evidence only of your beliefs.

    But that’s not the worst thing of it. Many of these religious beliefs you hold to be evidence of a divine creative agency stand in direct contrast and conflict with our knowledge from reality. And therein lies the problem with cherrypicking by religious believers the products from the method of science that works without causing their religious beliefs any angst and their willingness to reject exactly the same method of science when it does. It is this exercise in intellectual hypocrisy that reveals the problem of imposing religious belief on the reality we share. The track record is clear: religious belief is anti-science.

  • No creationist would deny that your definition of evolution is true, but it is only one definition given for evolution. Go back and read my posts on the different definitions of evolution.

  • How can you possilby know what suffering is unnecessary without a universal standard by which to judge suffering? You have written a lot of words in your comment, trying mightily to escape this universal standard, but it just doesn’t work.

    You are clearly assuming that we all agree on what suffering is necessary and what suffering is unnecessary, but if there is no purpose behind the universe, if there is Mind that designed it, then there is no possible way to say whether suffering is ultimately necessary or unnecessary. It just comes down to you saying, “I don’t like this instance of suffering,” in the same way you might say, “I don’t like chocolate ice cream.”

    That’s nice for you, but what does it have to do with me or anyone else? In your purposeless universe, everyone has different opinions about suffering, but nobody is right or wrong. You can’t be right or wrong about your likes and dislikes. They just are.

    So, again. You cannot criticize God for suffering when you have no transcendent standard by which to criticize him. All you are really saying is, “I don’t like the universe we live in and therefore God doesn’t exist.” That’s nice for you, but it certainly is not an argument. It is mere emoting.

  • tildeb,

    Rather than respond to each item, since most was a matter of you asserting your opinion anyway (your beliefs – which are fine for understanding the natural world, but do not disprove religous beliefs have a warranted foundation), I’ll just ask about two things you said.

    “And we know that all kinds of truth claims made in scripture about reality are demonstrably false.” Which ones? I haven’t followed every discussion here, but I don’t recall any “demonstrably false” claims. I’ve seen a lot of opinions, but nothing “demonstrably false.” Maybe you can point me to those discussions so I can read up on them?

    “Many of these religious beliefs you hold to be evidence of a divine
    creative agency stand in direct contrast and conflict with our knowledge
    from reality.” I haven’t seen you state this direct conflict. All I’ve seen so far is your assertion that it conflicts and rejection of my assertion that the biblical understanding of God does not conflict with what we abstolutely know about reality. So, which religious beliefs do I hold that are in direct conflct with our knowledge from reality? (Keep in mind, if you have paid attention, I have NEVER denied evolution – but I have asserted a divine creator. I don’t happen to believe evolution based on pure randomness to arive at higher functions through a survival of the fittest mechanism to be true, but I don’t see the possiblity of theistic evolution as contrary to the biblical understanding of God except in the matter of interpretation of a few verses.)

    You say there is order because the universe operates by processes. What is the source of the processes? “I don’t know” doesn’t do well to close the door on a supreme God. Physics is great at discovering those processes and describing them. And when it is possible to observe underlying processes that give rise to those processes, it can continue to describe. But ultimately, there is some process that is the master of all the processes, that gives rise to all of them. What if that ultimate process is God? I am not saying it is, but what if?

  • Can you tell me which point you’re reacting to here Bill? It wasn’t me who brought up evolution in the first place, and I don’t think I’ve made any points that are invalidated by any quibbles about the definition of evolution.

    “No creationist would deny that your definition of evolution is true”

    Well I’m going by the scientific, biological definition. If no creationist denies it, then there’s no such thing as a creationist!

  • tildeb

    Walt requests, I don’t recall any “demonstrably false” claims. I’ve seen a lot of
    opinions, but nothing “demonstrably false.” Maybe you can point me to
    those discussions so I can read up on them?

    Sure. Let’s stick with the absolute minimum that undermines christianity: Adam and Eve never existed and there never was a global Flood. There are dozens and dozens more but these two will suffice. There is no geological evidence to support a global flood and there is no genetic evidence to show a bottleneck of two. Believing either of these historical claims to be true when all the evidence stands contrary to them – evidence that informs knowledge applied to such concerns as mining and medicine – stands contrary to the knowledge we have gained through scientific inquiry. But you already know this to be the conflict, so what’s with the innocent act and request to point you in the right direction for reading ‘up’ on either?

    And yes, Walt, you have denied evolution because the term means common decent by NATURAL selection. You are inserting some supernatural intervention at some point and suggesting that’s kinda, sorta, almost accepting an unguided, purposeless, natural process. You fool no one by pretending that your squinting at evolution just so changes it into being compatible with the science, implying that it can also be a guided, intentional, purposeful process overseen by god. Where’s you evidence from reality, Walt, to support this hypothesis of yours that overthrows the Theory of Evolution?



    Yeah, that’s what I thought. Nada.

    By believing otherwise

  • tildeb

    Bill, you’re not alone in this common, but mistaken, assumption about the supposed need for a universal (meaning ‘objective’, or what is often referred to as a ‘mind-independent) moral standard.

    Rather than a long-winded explanation (boiled down to ‘our biology’) about why we can still have common standards without need for a god, I think it’s easier to understand the problem here if we change the term ‘morality’ – which comes packed with preconceptions about what it is we’re talking about – to a similar kind of idea that is also an applied standard. My favourite – and I think the easiest to grasp – is elevation.

    The notion of elevation is useful in helping us to come to an agreement determining what is ‘higher’ and what is ‘lower’. There is no need for a ‘universal’ standard, an ‘objective’ standard delivered to us from somewhere else. The very notion of elevation only gains meaning in the comparison to relative locales of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ in exactly the same way that the very notion of morality only gains meaning in the comparison of consequential actions we call ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

    Here’s the point: it doesn’t matter what we use for the common comparison. We can use sea level. We can use a specific spot. We can select a celestial point. It doesn’t matter. We don’t need to first establish an ‘objective’ or ‘universal’ standard; all we need is to agree to use a common standard. From this relative and subjective starting point, we can gain value in determining what is higher compared to what is lower.

    Now take a moment and appreciate the thought experiment about morality in a similar way: along come people who insist that a very practical and usable metric of figuring out relative points higher and lower to each other (like, say, the metric based on sea level) is useless because it’s too arbitrary to reflect the gift from god to a metric of various flora mentioned in some ancient writings. That metric alone, these earnest folk argue, is the only divinely sanctioned one anyone is allowed to use to reveal true elevation; all others are actually a denial of elevation! Moreover, we are assured that no one can possibly gain insight into true elevation unless we first believe that the flora metric is divinely inspired.

    Moral considerations – what are comparatively right and wrong actions (mitigated by intentions and circumstances) – do not require this scripture or that holy book to be just as practical and useful as one claimed to be divinely inspired. Because we share our biology, all we need to be moral agents is to trust how we feel. As evidence for this, I introduce killing, which is sometimes the right thing to do and sometimes the wrong thing to do. There simply isn’t an ‘objective’ rule book to determine that the act itself – killing – is either right or wrong. But you make a mistake to assume that without such a rule book we cannot possibly know whether it is right or wrong. I think we have excellent evidence to show that our biology creates the common metric we need to have a practical and useful morality.

  • Moral comands contain an oughtness in them. They tell us we should do this or we should not do that. All biology tells us is that we feel this way or that way, not that we ought to feel this way or that way. You cannot derive an ought from an is.

    Again, in a purposeless universe where morality is simply reduced to feelings, there is no such thing as right and wrong. To say so is to distort the meaning of these words. You have kidnapped these words and replaced them with imposters.

    All you can say is that “this action caused me pain or that action caused me pleasure.” But that in no way suggests that one action is right and one action is wrong. Without purpose built in to moral considerations, it is impossible to say what is right or wrong in any objective sense that would apply to all people.

    Your declarations of right and wrong simply do not apply to anyone but yourself and your particular feelings. They certainly don’t apply to me, because I could care less about moral feelings. Our feelings lead us astray all the time, and I would certainly never cite my feelings to justify my behavior.

    When I feel like insulting someone, my moral reason suppresses that urge. When I feel like striking my child in anger, my moral reason says no – that would be wrong. God forbid that we lived in a world where only our feelings guided us. That would be a living hell.

  • makarios

    No, I’ve said that over the years I’ve noticed that atheists have adjusted what they used to say.
    . Just as they used to say, “Nothing can begin to exist without a cause,” now they fudge that up.
    . Just as they used to say, “Inanimate and inorganic gases cannot evolve,” now they fudge it up.
    . Just as they used to say, “I don’t believe that God exists AND I don’t believe anything unless it is supported by science,” now they say, “I’m a non believer in God, so I don’t need evidence to support my non belief.
    Atheists are nothing if not disingenuous.

  • Ggodat

    So, where are the reliable and testable results that conclusively show how something came from nothing and then how fish became frogs? I’d love to see it!

    But seeing as there isn’t any and the best you can come up with is that Darwin observed the length of beaks changing based on the amount of rainfall in a given year, I’d say “your science” is definitely based on a need to believe…

    “There is no understanding of the reality we share that is improved or enhanced by accepting belief as an equivalent method of inquiry” Do you “believe” your statement to be true?

    Also, I don’t deny that an engineer designed the circuitry to run a computer and that someone designed the screen and someone created the software to make them all run. I can know these things by using a computer and knowing that it works. In the same manner I can know God exists due to the complexity of the universe and life in it (infinitely more complex that a computer!) but you on the other hand believe that this complexity is based on pure non-intelligent randomness…

    Also, just because there are conflicting truth claims doesn’t mean one of them cannot be true. It’s just non-scientific to claim otherwise.

  • Andrew Ryan

    Right, and Christians haven’t changed their positions on any major issues over the years, decades, or centuries, right? At any rate, on the subject of ‘disingenuous’, I’ve lost count of the times Christians have told me what atheists are ‘always saying’ but then can’t find me a single example of. Find me anyone claiming they don’t believe something unless supported by science. I don’t believe you!

    Which specific atheists have shifted their position? Or are we talking different positions from different atheists over time?

  • Pingback: Athiest saying | Aceflyer()

  • tildeb

    Bill, you miss the point entirely by switching biology to ‘feelings’ and pretending the conclusion – that we require an objective standard – is a necessary premise. My analogy shows an objective standard is not needed; all we need is a common one so that we may successfully compare and contrast right from wrong relative to that common starting point. You make finding this mutually acceptable starting point (let’s call it human well-being as one possibility) much more difficult by insisting that we must first accept one and only one moral standard; this is equivalent to arguing that pilots must first agree to one and only one objective standard for elevation’s starting point rather than simply a common starting point before they can determine elevation relative to each other. You would ground all air travel with your false certainty about what is required to determine relative elevation. Your conclusion about morality’s need for an objective standard is simply not true and demonstrably so.

  • You used the word “feeling” and I was merely following your lead. Not sure why you say that I switched to “feelings.”

    I agree we need a common standard to contrast right from wrong. In order for you to make moral comparisons, you must appeal to this common standard which would also must apply to all people at all times and in all places – that is what an objective standard is.

    If the standard is not applicable to all people living right now (e.g., my standard is different from your standard), then we are left with moral relativism. If the standard is not applicable to people living at different times in history (e.g., a Roman citizen living 2000 years ago has a different standard than you), then we are left with moral relativism. If the standard is not applicable to people living in different places (e.g., your standard is different to the standard used in Mongolia), then we are left with moral relativism.

    Because you believe that the common moral standard is merely a human convention, that it does not come from a divine law-giver, then your moral system is relativistic. You are unable to make moral judgments about any person who disagrees with your standard because they live somewhere else, lived in the past, or simply disagree with your standard.

    Since you are a moral relativist, then you cannot coherently claim that unnecessary suffering is an objective moral evil. It is an evil for you, under your moral system. But since your moral system only applies to people who happen to agree with your conventional standard, it has no application to God, or to me, or to anyone else who disagrees with your conventional standard.

  • tildeb

    Bill writes, In order for you to make moral comparisons, you must appeal to this
    common standard which would also must apply to all people at all times
    and in all places – that is what an objective standard is.

    And this is why there is no such thing as an ‘objective’ moral standard. It is all relative… including yours. But you fail to appreciate this fact; instead, you mistakenly conclude it renders a common moral standard to be insufficient to determine right from wrong. That’s simply not true in reality. There really are different standards used and the discussion needs to move towards finding better common moralities than poorer ones. But as long as you reject as a matter of doctrinal faith any moral standards not in agreement with your chosen religiously motivated standards, then we’re stuck arguing Iron age morality with modern morality. And this conflict is unnecessary when you yourself have already moderated the Iron age biblical morality to a more modern acceptance of better standards without the sky falling. Slavery (and indentured servitude) really isn’t a good way to treat others, which is why you think it is morally wrong. Respecting individual autonomy and gender equality really is a better way of increasing access to realizing human potential, which is why you think allowing women to have only some of the rights and freedoms you enjoy is morally wrong. Holding later generations responsible for the ‘sins’ of an ancestor really isn’t fair to those who come later, which is why you think holding you responsible and indebted to the actions of great, great, great grandfather is morally wrong. And so on.

    Your biblical morality really has already undergone a massive shift in the moral zeitgeist of christian believers and this reveals the very relativity in moral standards under which all of us actually live. Your good reasons for rejecting poor moral standards outweigh the submission to biblical authority others try to impose on you. It is no different for me. Ducking away from this reality we happen to share in moral relativity – a relativity which you yourself participate in – does not strengthen your claim that you exercise god’s morality by believing in standards extracted from the bible… unless your god is also subject to the relativity of the conflicting moral standards revealed in biblical scripture.

    By all means, if you can find this ‘objective moral standard’ and show how it is exists independent of local motivations of those who exercise what they claim is an religiously authoritarian objective moral standard, only then can you be in a position to judge other standards honestly. (And I think this bolsters the claim that the only common morality we have is driven by our common biology and not religious beliefs, and that the method of science is the best way to determine what these biological moral drivers are). But until then, you are jumping to a conclusion that is not supported by reality: that morality really is a common standard that is relative to those who exercise it.

  • Ggodat

    Let me get this straight, You agree that there is no objective moral standard and that morals are just plain relative but then in the same sentance you say that we should move to finding better common moralities….. Based on WHAT?? YOUR relative moral standards? I think that’s just plain dumb. You have crushed your own arguement.
    Kind of reminds me of a Wile E Coyote cartoon…

  • Tildeb,
    In your comment, you admit that all morality is relative, but then you go on to compare iron age morality with modern morality. You simply cannot coherently do this. Iron age morality and modern morality cannot be compared because there is no common standard by which to do this comparison.

    You refer to better moral standards, but better again refers to a common moral standard which you deny exists. If all morality is relative, as you believe, then it is impossible to compare any moral command to any other moral command in any objective sense.

    If an iron age person could dialogue with you, he would say that your morality is inferior to his, and if all morality is relative, you would have no way to refute him. It’s just your opinion against his. He likes chocolate and you like vanilla. Vanilla can’t refute chocolate. It’s just a matter of taste.

    The bottom line is that you say that all morality is relative, but in the next breath act as if there is an objective standard by which iron age morality can be compared against modern morality. You can’t have it both ways. If you truly believe that all morality is relative, then you must abandon your claims that your morality is better than someone else’s. That statement is simply incoherent on your view. One person’s personal, subjective tastes cannot be better than another person’s subjective tastes. Again, vanilla cannot refute chocolate.

  • Ggodat

    but clearly chocolate is better!

  • tildeb

    If you truly believe that all morality is relative, then you must abandon your claims that your morality is better than someone else’s.

    No I don’t. In the same way that a common standard of elevation can reveal very exacting differences between highs and lows (which is exactly what we do in practice), so too can we develop a common morality that specifies exacting differences in right and wrong. All we need is to agree to use a common – not an objective – standard! And this is where enlightened reasoning can yield its greatest rewards (which is exactly what we have done in regards to human rights and human freedoms and laws (standards) for achieving human legal equality rather than Iron age standards of clerical authority that supports legal discrimination, bigamy, and misogyny. When compared and contrasted to the standard of modern morality based on better reasons, the Iron age morality that allows for the very standards you yourself reject (like slavery, gender discrimination, and inheritance debts) can be shown to be worse reasons in the same way that higher and lower can be determined from a common starting point. And a useful starting point for any moral comparison between different specific moral considerations can be exercised by a simple thought experiment of a room with a curtain: your job is to assign the person on the other side of that curtain rights, freedoms, duties and responsibilities. The catch is that it could be anyone of any gender or race or ethnicity or religion… including you. We find a common standard of morality across the globe when we do this experiment in real life. That’s a pretty good standard to start with when comparing and contrasting any other specific moral considerations (like comparing highs and lows with a single common point of reference. In other words, your insistence that because a starting point can be relative we cannot achieve a common standard for legitimate comparisons of moral considerations is simply not true. We really can determine better and worse moral outcomes… relative not to some authoritarian ‘objective’ moral standard but to a common one we already possess.

  • So what happens if I put you in the room, and then I put an iron age cleric, and then I put Joseph Stalin, and I have you all do the same exercise? You will obviously differ somewhat in your conclusions.

    How will you now decide who is right and who is wrong in the areas where you have disagreements? You cannot appeal to your modern moral sentiments as that is merely begging the question. I feel certain you would not allow Stalin or the cleric to appeal to the moral sentiments of their cultures. Without a standard that is above the three of yours, there is no way, in principle, of ever adjudicating between the three of you.

    The winner will be, in the end, who has the most power and can, thereby, force the other two to conform. Might makes right.

    Your room with the curtain approach only works if you poll a group of people who already have the same moral sentiments because they are living in the same place at the same time, and they were raised by parents who had the same moral sentiments. As soon as you introduce people who were raised in different places or times or upbringings, the room with the curtain technique completely falls apart.

    That is why it is completely incoherent for you to make moral judgments about anyone who does not agree with your moral sentiments. You have no common standard, above you and others, to appeal to.

  • tildeb

    This is the remarkable result, Bill: because you assigning standards to an unknown person who could be you, a family member, your neighbour, or someone from another continent altogether with completely foreign language, religious beliefs, and social values, what we find is a standard of commonality to all people that transcends the local customs, language, religious beliefs, ethnicities, genders, age, sexual orientation, race, economic position, social hierarchy, family ordinal and relational blood line; what we find are core values common to all endorsed and special privileges negated.

    You asked how we could possibly find such a common standard without appealing to some higher authority as if this were an impossibility due to selfishness, and I’ve answered this question with real life results: within ourselves. We already have in place a moral standard common throughout the human species. This is the same moral standard you brought to bear on your first introduction to the religious beliefs you now hold. You rejected out of hand certain divine demands that you knew were unfair (and even immoral), and switched these demands into interpretations and requests sensitive to the times in which they were made rather than applicable to you today that you (a priori) agreed with on first reading, on first hearing. Your presumption is that you have been taught these ‘divine’ values whereas there is compelling evidence you already possessed them prior to receiving these moral ‘instructions’.

    So, no, the room with a curtain approach is not dependent on which people are selected to assign moral standards based on parental instructions of their sentiments nor does it fall apart if the folk are different. These common results are, in fact, ubiquitous across all artificial boundaries of assumed differences and assigned privileges.

    In contrast, once we learn to accept certain privileges, then these same studies show that people are quite willing to harm others in the name of maintaining learned privileges. And this is what we see in reality when people assume their privileges are warranted by some other authority than themselves. In other words, empowering outside moral authority over and above a commonly derived moral standard is a surefire method to promote and protect immoral discrimination and harm on others. The danger (the likelihood) of being immoral, of doing immoral actions, of committing immoralities on others at their expense, of causing harm in the name of morality, increases directly with the respect and obedience granted to following an imposed moral standard. And reality shows us this to be true: the stricter the moral standard, the more inflexible it becomes; the more codified into right and wrong behaviours, the greater the harm to those on whom it is imposed. Totalitarian states – political or theological – commit the greatest harms on its subjugated populations compared to those with the least imposed moral standards.

    We can recognize and agree to respect baseline moral standards to codify into law that have everything to do with humanity and our shared environment and nothing whatsoever to do with the wishes of divine beings. We can create a much more moral society than any Iron age god-sanctioned moral standard could ever hope to achieve and accomplish this goal not as adversaries divided by misguided beliefs but as allies pursuing a common goal through common means… known as enlightenment thinking in action.

  • tildeb,
    You started out telling me that all morality is relative, that there is no objective standard, and now you are saying there is an objective standard that can be derived from human beings as a species. That is a major improvement over the moral relativism you were espousing a few comments ago, so I welcome you to the moral objectivist club!
    Since you have given up arguing for moral relativism, and have accepted that there is a common moral code that is true for all people, at all times, and all places, then we can move on from that topic.
    My next question for you would be this: where did this common moral code that resides in the human species come from?

  • tildeb

    This moral relativism is based not on an objective exterior ‘law giver’ (or source, one that should be unchanging over time if it were so) but a subjective source (our biology, which does change over time relative to a changing environment). This is the very sense of an ‘objective’ moral code that Harris refers to as a means to agree to our shared morality of what’s deemed right and wrong… our ‘objective’ moral code relative to our ‘objective’ biology!

    I know… it’s a bit confusing but I think well supported by strong evidence from reality. This is why he compares the moral landscape to differing elevations: relative to a shared point of reference that can change over time, we can achieve very exacting standards of comparison. In other words, we do not need an external law giver to come up with excellent moral laws. All we need is ourselves to do an outstanding job of creating and codifying a ‘universal’ moral standard that is true for all people in all places all the time.

    This reveals why the claim that atheists cannot be as moral an agent as a devout believer in god is inaccurate yet remains in spite of strong evidence to the contrary a fairly popular canard.

  • Ggodat

    So now you are back to Moral relativiism? You make no sense what-so-ever! You
    claim (at least i think) that morals do not come from an objective moral law
    definer but you also claim that we should come to a common set of morals. Do you
    not see the circular reference you have created? You claim there is no cake but
    you clearly want to eat it too…. How is that even possible? And you think
    believing is God is foolish….

    Point blank, if there is no ultimate being that has the authority to define
    objective morality, there is NO MORALITY! Any perception you have between right
    and wrong is just YOUR OPINION and has no value above or below any other opinion
    of any other person that has ever lived! Pol Pot, Mao Zedong, Hitler, Idi Amin,
    you cannot say anything they did was morally wrong! You can have a differing
    opinion to how people should be treated and not murdered against their will but
    you have no ground to stand on if claiming the wrongness of murdering hundreds
    of millions of innocent people.

  • tildeb,
    You seem to be contradicting yourself. Please help me understand. In one paragraph above, you say that our moral code comes from biology which changes over time.

    In the next paragraph you say that we need to construct, from our biology I assume, “a ‘universal’ moral standard that is true for all people in all places all the time.”

    How can biology, which changes over time, be the source of a moral standard which does not change over time?

  • tildeb

    You’ve hit the hard-to-understand nail on the head with this question, Bill.

    You ask How can biology, which changes over time, be the source of a moral standard which does not change over time?

    Easy: they (biology and a moral standard based on it) remain relative to each other. That is the fixed relationship, in the same way that they (elevation and sea level) remain relative to each other. We can use this fixed relationship to base a ‘universal’ code of conduct on which to compare and contrast claims of moral behaviour.

    As for the notion that we require a moral law giver, I think MacDonald sums it up nicely here: that “people who assume that morality is bound up with religion often prove that it is not, for they themselves are prepared to make judgements about religious morality. If morality depends upon religion, this should be impossible, but it isn’t, so it doesn’t.”

  • But sea level changes over time. That means that you cannot compare one elevation report today, to another elevation report from 5,000 years ago. Because they are relative to sea level and sea level is changing, then it makes comparison impossible, unless you take into account the amount that sea level has changed over the last 5,000 years.

    Likewise, if biology has changed over time, then you cannot compare moral claims today to moral claims of the past without taking into account how biology has changed. But I have not seen you take biology into account at all. You have been comparing iron age morality to modern morality without any accounting for how biology has changed over that time. How can you do this?

  • Andrew Ryan

    Iron age man was virtually no different to us. A few thousand years is a blip in evolutionary time.

  • Ggodat

    Morality does not depend on “religion” it depends on the one being that has the absolute power to define it. I’m really surprised that you think you can logically say that morality can be common between people but then in the same sentence say that the thing that causes it is constantly changing. If morality is relative to a constant change in biology then you absolutely CANNOT have a common morality because it is “constantly changing”! Everyone (if you believe in evolution) is evolving differently so the relative morals we have are relative to each other and are meaningless.
    Are you opposed to the tens of millions of innocent people that Pol Pot had murdered? If so, please explain why it is nothing more than your opinion that it is wrong to murder millions of innocent people. You simply can’t.

  • Ggodat

    Ok, explain why Hitler was bad.. He clearly had a different evolutionary position and took the “survival of the fittest” mantra quite seriously. I guess he was a great man in atheism because he actually carried into actions the theories of Darwin. He was only trying to make a superior race so who are you to condone his actions?

  • Then that is equivalent to saying that there is, for all practical purpose, a universal and objective moral law that is the same for all people, at all times, and in all places. Tildeb has been denying this for this entire comment thread. That is my confusion.

  • sean

    I do believe Richard Dawkins says that evolution is what really convinced him the most that there is not compelling reason to believe in a god of any form. So, there are atheists out there who do claim that evolution disproves god beyond a reasonable doubt.

    I agree with a lot of this post. Not all atheists are lead to their atheism by logic and evidence. Some are born into an atheistic family, and others, like Steve Jobs, are swayed away from the church for moral reasons. There is no inherent logical problem with a god allowing evil in general. However, some religions claim a god who is perfectly good, which is where the contradiction comes in. A perfectly good god cannot allow for the inequality we see in today’s world. (i.e. the life of the average American juxtaposed against the life of an average African. That, being sheer chance, is why some object to the Christian god on moral grounds. It is perfectly logical.)

  • Ruby

    Summary of Scientific Evidence for Creation (Part I & II)

  • Ruby

    As quoted,

    “Evolution is a framework that explains how species can adapt and change over time. We can see in modern animals how that can happen.

    That is not the same as saying, that is how man came into existence. The bible is not a science manual, it does not describe the details and mechanism of creation.

    Evolution for its part only discusses now species could develop once life already exists. It has nothing concrete to say about how said life came into existence.

    A lot of the controversy that exists arises from the fact that some evolutionist represent evolution as a complete explanation of the origin and development of man. Without evidence for the beginning of life, it is not.

    The bible’s account does not satisfy scientists, but it is not supposed to. Discovering the secrets of the world would take many lifetimes, the fact that we don’t live that long suggest something about the purpose of existence.

    Evolution relies for its existence on the idea that the present is the key to the past. It is an axiom. If it is not correct, all the reasoning that follows from it is flawed.

    For that reason, I rarely argue the ideas beyond this philosophical point, since I doubt that the answers are within reach.

    Some theologian feel the need to prove the existence of god, or disprove evolutionary origin. If it takes a thousand years to do, we won’t see the results. So we have to decide now how to live our lives and what we need to believe.

    I believe it is in us to find God, and a higher education is not required for this purpose.”

  • Andrew Ryan

    At best you can say you disagree with Mill’s intellectual arguments, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t use logic or intellectual reasoning.

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