Book Plunge: Evidence Considered Chapter 2

Is the moral argument a failure? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

The next argument Jelbert goes after is Paul Copan’s moral argument. Now as the moral argument is framed, I’m not much of a fan of it. I see it as too limited in fact. Why do we talk about moral actions and behaviors only? Why not try to cover goodness entirely. There are good actions, but there are also good books, good foods, good people, etc. Why not take on all goodness at once?

Most all of us know how the moral argument goes. It can be something like this:

If objective moral values exist, then God exists.
Objective moral values do exist.
Therefore, God exists.

Or

If there is no God, there are no objective moral values.
But there are objective moral values.
Therefore God exists.

Jelbert’s first objection is that Copan is wrong. Not everyone has a conscience because there are people like Psychopaths. I don’t think Copan would dispute this. I think you could easily change the argument to say most everyone has a conscience just like most everyone has a body system that registers pain, though CIPA we can see is an exception to the rule.

He also contends that Copan says there is not a behavior a Christian could do that an atheist could not that is moral. Even if this was true, so what? I have argued that forgiveness has been done uniquely because of the impact of Christ. Jelbert goes on to say that warped behavior has been allowed because of religious books. Yet what would he say to something like this?

The militant atheists lament that religion is the foremost source of the world’s violence is contradicted by three realities: Most religious organizations do not foster violence; many nonreligious groups do engage in violence; and many religious moral precepts encourage nonvio lence. Indeed, we can confidently assert that if religion was the sole or primary force behind wars, then secular ideologies should be relatively benign by comparison, which history teaches us has not been the case. Revealingly, in his Encyclopedia of Wars, Charles Phillips chronicled a total of 1,763 conflicts throughout history, of which just 123 were categorized as religious. And it is important to note further that over the last century the most brutality has been perpetrated by nonreligious cult figures (Hitler, Stalin, Kim Jong-Il, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, Robert Mugabe—you get the picture). Thus to attribute the impetus behind violence mainly to religious sentiments is a highly simplistic interpretation of history.

Or

Militant atheists seek to discredit religion based on a highly selective reading of history. There was a time not long ago—just a couple of centuries—when the Western world was saturated by religion. Militant atheists are quick to attribute many of the most unfortunate aspects of history to religion, yet rarely concede the immense debt that civilization owes to various monotheist religions, which created some of the world’s greatest literature, art, and architecture; led the movement to abolish slavery; and fostered the development of science and technology. One should not invalidate these achievements merely because they were developed for religious purposes. If much of science was originally a religious endeavor, does that mean science is not valuable? Is religiously motivated charity not genuine? Is art any less beautiful because it was created to express devotion to God? To regret religion is to regret our civilization and its achievements.

So is this a dyed-in-the-wool conservative Christian saying this? No. It’s an atheist. It’s Bruce Sheimon in his book An Atheist Defends Religion. What I would ask at this point is that if an atheist murders someone, is he acting inconsistently with atheism? He could be violating his own moral beliefs, but atheism doesn’t necessarily entail any particular moral beliefs. You can be an atheist and be a saint or an atheist and be a scoundrel and still be a consistent atheist. On the other hand, if you do murder someone as a Christian, you are violating the teachings of Christ. Should Christianity be judged on when it has not been applied consistently?

Jelbert also says that the commandment against violating the Sabbath in Exodus 35 and that whoever does this shall be put to death is obviously a warped commandment. Is it really? This was part of the covenant between YHWH and Israel. In showing their trust in God, they were to not work on Saturday. Doing otherwise for a person would be known as the sin of the high hand, where a person goes against what the one in charge of them says and says they’ll go their own way.

In the terms of Israel, they were in a suzerainty type covenant. That covenant was a king would put his clients under a relationship where the king (or patron) would give benefits of protection and such to the clients in exchange for their loyalty. A person who goes against this is risking the welfare of the community for their own benefit.

Secondly, Jelbert says that if Christians don’t persecute him for his beliefs, it’s because their religion no longer overwhelms their basic humanity, but it is a wonder which religion he is talking about. This is an idea that would be far more fitting for Islam. He contends that this was the case a few centuries ago, but has he really looked at the instances he speaks about? If we looked at the Crusades, while some of the Crusades were horrendous, should we remember that it was a defensive war at first where the West, at great expense to themselves, went to help the people in Jerusalem that had already been conquered by the Muslims who had been using the sword to spread their ideology for centuries? Should we consider that the Inquisition was seen as a force of good by even many non-Christians? The worst one of all, the Spanish Inquisition, left 3,000 deaths in 300 years. 3,000 too many to be sure, but not the numbers you would get from atheistic literature. Perhaps he should familiarize himself with historians of the time like Thomas Madden and Henry Kamen.

Furthermore, what is this basic humanity? Is he implying that there is something about humanity that means that we automatically know right from wrong? Then if so, then that would mean that there are objective moral truths and that we are capable of knowing them and in fact do know them and if we don’t know them, there’s something wrong with us. That might seem like a small point to some, but as we will see, it is an important one.

Finally, if we are talking about persecution like this being immoral, then what about the rampant killing done by atheist regimes that specifically targeted Christians in the 20th century and still to this day. Do they get a free pass? We can say again that Christians are acting inconsistently with Christianity. Are atheists violating any central moral tenets of atheism?

It is important because in the very next paragraph, Jelbert says we get our morality from evolution. We might want there to be objective morality, and maybe science and peer-review can get us there, but the case is far from made that morality is necessarily objective. If Jelbert is right, then why is he talking about an obviously warped law with the Sabbath? A law in the moral sense is something that is meant to help you to do the good, but if there is no good to do, then there can be no such thing as a flawed law. It is just a law that you do not like.

Suppose for the sake of argument I grant evolution to Jelbert, which I really happily do with no problem. Saying that evolution provided us the features to come across certain knowledge does not explain how that knowledge itself exists. Perhaps evolution gave us minds capable of discovering the truth of mathematics, but to discover the truth of mathematics, the truth of mathematics must exist. If morality is something that we use just because it works, then perhaps we could say the same about mathematics, but nothing is objectively true in mathematics. If Jelbert says there are moral truths to be discovered, then it doesn’t matter if one comes to them by evolution or divine revelation. They’re still there and need an explanation. If he says there are no moral truths to be discovered, then evolution is leading us to believe something that is false and Jelbert has no reason to hold an argument from evil or talk about flawed laws or activities he deems immoral, such as persecution.

Jelbert then replies to the claim of Copan that if there is no God, there is no objective morality. Jelbert remarkably says that humans are masters of believing in things that do not exist. Indeed, many are. Yet now we have a problem. In this very paragraph, Jelbert himself talks about moral problems and sectarian violence. Perhaps Jelbert himself in arguing against objective morality has convinced himself that somehow it still exists.

Jelbert ends this section saying it might be difficult to see how valuable and thinking humans came from valueless and unguided processes, but that does not make it impossible. Indeed, it does not, but who said anything about that? How did a paragraph starting about objective moral truths end with talking about the origins of human beings?

We could go further and say that it looks like Jelbert holds to some objective goodness, even if not objective morality supposedly, since he affirms that humans are valuable. Is this an objective statement or not? Does it apply to all humans? If so, we hope Jelbert is opposed to abortion. If not, then who does it apply to? If they are valuable, on what basis? What is it about humans that separates them from all other beings in the universe?

Jelbert also says that Copan says subjective morality would undermine moral motivation, but Jelbert contends that this is not so. He says that natural theories better explain things like moral gray areas and an evolving sense of morality and that religious opinions have been on the wrong side of morality often throughout history. It is incredible to see something like this written.

Just at the start, Jelbert is obviously arguing for subjective morality, but if all we have is subjective morality, there are no moral gray areas because that implies a moral truth. There is also no evolving sense of morality, because that too implies a moral truth. All that there is is just changing opinions on how people want society to function, but to what end is to function? If there is any desired goal, then it is automatically implied that this is a desired goal which lo and behold, leads us to objective goodness which would entail objective morality.

As for religions being on the wrong side, it is inevitable that with a nebulous term like religions, some will get things wrong and some will get things right so you can point to any religion that you want and find an error then somewhere either in its teachings or its history, but again, we could consider that the 20th century was one of the bloodiest centuries of all and a lot of this came from atheist regimes. Further, Christians have long opposed practices like murder, lying, theft, adultery, etc. Does Jelbert think that Christians are on the wrong side?

If we wanted to see much motivation for the good in the world, it comes from Christianity. Christians originally ended the slave trade. Does Jelbert consider this a wrong? Christians ended widow burning in India. Is this a wrong? Christians have regularly gone out into the world and brought about literacy, medical care, and other such goods. It is quite unfair for Jelbert to take what he doesn’t like and ignore all the positive. As Frederick Douglass said in his own account of his life.

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the  slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.

Jelbert then says that Sam Harris wrote a book defending objective morality and that it is discovered through science. Much of my review you can see starting here. A scathing review of that book by Michael Ruse can be found here. Jelbert speaks about the debate Craig had with Harris and says at the end that Craig admits he could not see how objective morality could arise without God, but if Jelbert thinks this is a point somehow, perhaps he would like to show how it could come about. Still, I once again wonder. Jelbert has spent much time arguing against objective morality. Has he suddenly switched here?

Amazingly, Jelbert himself questions if science is objective. Maybe a society could have arisen that could have skipped Newton’s understanding and gone straight to Einstein’s. Perhaps, but if we say a Newtonian view is wrong in some way, then it is objectively wrong and not subjectively wrong. One wonders really if Jelbert knows what he’s really writing here. For someone who is said to have a Ph.D. in physics, it has to be wondered if his degree is in something true or just subjective.

Jelbert concludes saying that the discussion is fascinating, but says it is far from true that morality is objective. Again, if so, then what are all these warped laws and evils that Jelbert is writing about? If all it is is Christians even being inconsistent, so what? That even assumes that hypocrisy is an evil which gets us back to objective morality.

Second, he says it is not clear that objective morality could only come from God. Perhaps it isn’t, but it is entirely consistent with the idea and a reasonable case has been made. Jelbert would need to, if he accepts objective morality, show where it comes from and how it exists. If he does not, then again, much of what he says is deflated.

Third, he says it cannot be connected to any specific God. By itself, no. Jelbert should note the argument is an argument for God. It is not an argument for the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. If the argument works, all we get is some form of theism and we have to go further to see which one is true, but theism is still established and atheism refuted. It is hard to say an argument is faulty for not showing what it was never meant to show.

Let’s hope that things improve from here on for this chapter is certainly lackluster.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

 

 

 

  • I’m sorry you find it “lacklustre.”

    N T Wright comments: “The hard-and-fast distinction between objective and subjective must be abandoned as useless. If anyone, reading that sentence, at once thinks ‘so there is no such thing as objective knowledge’, that merely shows how deeply ingrained the positivist tradition has become in our culture, just at the moment when it’s perpetrators have finally admitted that it was wrong.”

    The point of my essay is that I was trying to get away from the objective and subjective dichotomy. For the moral argument to be persuasive, you would need morality to be necessarily objective. For it to fail, it suffices to say “maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.” And, philosophically, objective and subjective may not even be valid.

    I do appreciate your saying that you’re “not a fan” of the moral argument as phrased. It is okay for you agree with me on any number of these chapters. If we can join cause in removing weak arguments from the apologetics armory then we will both have moved closer to the truth and a more interesting discussion. A Procrustian response, where we have to pick the “right” side of every argument is not necessary.

    My point is that you dismiss my response as lacklustre and defend the original essay, although you agree that the original essay is not convincing! If neither of us is convinced by it, let us celebrate together and seek to take the arguments to a higher level.

    • No. I do not defend the argument from morality, but I have a problem with what I think is a weak point on morality. It looks like sometimes you argue that it is objective, such as the Old Testament, and then say that it is not objective. It can’t go both ways.

      My problem with the moral argument is not that it doesn’t work, but that it doesn’t go far enough. It only looks at good actions without just considering goodness in general.

      • I am only explaining why Copan’s morality argument does not persuade me (it does not persuade you either, so here we have common cause).

        I am not convinced that objective and subjective are appropriate measures, and do not come down on either side in my essay. The NT Wright quote I gave above shows that many modern philosophers are rejecting positivism and the objective-subjective dichotomy also. In the wider culture, positivism has had such an influence that people cannot conceive of a discussion outside of this framework.

        Regardless of whether it is objective or subjective (or whether that is something that can be known), there are some areas where we know the answer already (murder, rape, etc), and can discuss independent of the objective-subjective framework, which is what I attempt to do.

        You are misrepresenting my argument and then declaring it as weak.

        • Actually, the argument does persuade me, but I don’t think it’s as strong as it could be. It sticks with one kind of goodness and ignores others.

          I would like to see the N.T. Wright source to see what he’s talking about really. I don’t know any philosopher who is really taking the approach that you are taking and I don’t see how the argument is misrepresented since it really looks like you’re arguing two different things.