An Atheist Reads I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist
Chapter 7: Mother Teresa vs. Hitler
- We’ve been through the Cosmological Argument and various arguments from design, so now, if you’ve ever heard William Lane Craig make an opening statement during a debate, you know what comes next: the Moral Argument.
Is There a Standard?
- The chapter opens with an anecdote from Turek, relating a conversation he had with a friend, Dave, on the meaning of life. Turek argues to his friend that without objective standards telling him why he should help people, why he should be a good person, his life is meaningless. Turek compares it to a Monopoly game — no matter how much money you make and property you buy, it all goes back in the box when the game is over.
- “Stop and marinate on that point for a minute: Aren’t you just like Dave? Don’t you have this deep-seated sense of obligation that we all ought to ‘help people’? We all do. Why? And why do most human beings seem to have that same intuitive sense that they ought to do good and shun evil?” (Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I DON’T HAVE ENOUGH FAITH TO BE AN ATHEIST, p. 170)
- Turek is contradicting himself almost within the space of a single thought, which is impressive in its way. First he asserts that we all have an innate feeling of moral obligation to other people. Then, two sentences later, he asks why “most human beings” have this same intuitive sense. So which is it? Do we all have it? Or do most of us have it? The correct answer is, most of us, not all of us, have it. And this fact doesn’t support the moral argument, as we shall see.
- Turek (and Geisler) claim that we have this moral sense because a Moral Law has been written on our hearts. This is why we feel we ought to do good rather than do evil.
- “In other words, there is a ‘prescription’ to do good that has been given to all of humanity.” (p. 170)
- Back to “all” from “some,” I notice.
- Geisler and Turek present the Moral Argument in its logical form:
- Every law has a law giver.
- There is a Moral Law.
- Therefore, there is a Moral Law Giver. (p. 171)
- “Of course, every law has a law giver. There can be no legislation unless there’s a legislature. Moreover, if there are moral obligations, there must be someone to be obligated to.” (p. 171)
- From this passage, they move quickly to the second premise, perhaps hoping we won’t notice the shell game they’re playing with the word “law.” Not so fast.
- Does every law have a law-giver? I think the answer to this question can be “yes,” depending on what we mean by “law” and “law-giver”. Obviously, if you mean a piece of legislation, yes, that law has to come from somewhere. In the United States federal government, Congress is the law-giver. And I’ll even agree with Geisler and Turek that physical laws and laws of logic and mathematics have law-givers. But here’s where we’ll disagree: Geisler and Turek argue that the giver of physical, logical and mathematic laws is their god; I argue that those laws come from us.
- How can I possibly say that? Because laws of science and logic and math are human constructs describing certain conditions we have found in reality. Did we invent gravity? Are we responsible for how planets move in their orbits? No, but we conceived the laws that describe those things, which we can then refer to when making predictions or interpreting observations. Did we create the condition of reality that prevents a proposition and its negation from both being true in the same sense at the same time? No; we conceived the law of noncontradiction to describe that condition.
- Legislative laws are prescriptive — they determine what can happen under the law. Scientific, mathematical and logical laws are descriptive — they don’t determine anything; they describe conditions of reality, how things work. They both require law-givers, but in both cases the law-givers are us — people — not gods. So that first premise is true, but not in the sense Geisler and Turek are claiming it is. Arguing that laws need law-givers doesn’t get you any closer to God.
- So what about the second premise? Is there a Moral Law? What is the Moral Law, anyway?
- “When we say the Moral Law exists, we mean that all people are impressed with a fundamental sense of right and wrong. Everyone knows, for example, that love is superior to hate and that courage is better than cowardice. . . . In other words, everyone knows there are absolute moral obligations. An absolute moral obligation is something that is binding on all people, at all times, in all places. And an absolute Moral Law implies an absolute Moral Law Giver.” (p. 171)
- Does everyone know, though? Geisler and Turek assert that everyone has this fundamental moral sense, and that this fact proves that morality is not man-made but must come from an absolute Law Giver (which, like the First Cause they appeal to in the Cosmological Argument, they take to be their god). They repeat throughout the chapter that the Moral Law is given to all of us, that it is written on every human heart. But that isn’t true. There are people — not many people, as a percentage of the population, but more than a few — who lack this moral sense. We call these people psychopaths. They lack empathy and remorse, they don’t value other people — the sort of innate sense of moral obligation Geisler and Turek are insisting is in all of us, is not in them. If morality is something imprinted on all of us by God, what explains those of us who lack it? The fact that a moral sense is not universal among people — nearly universal, sure, but not truly universal — suggests a natural explanation to me, rather than a divine one. Nature is amazing, but it’s not perfect.
How Do We Know the Moral Law Exists?
- To their credit (although probably just to get the word count up to make this a sellable book), Geisler and Turek don’t settle for merely asserting (incorrectly) that everyone has a moral sense to prove that an absolute Moral Law exists. They describe eight more reasons why the Moral Law exists. (p. 172-181)
- The Moral Law Is Undeniable. Geisler and Turek argue that absolute values are undeniable. To prove this, Geisler tells an anecdote about a speech he once gave to a group of “affluent, well-educated Chicago suburbanites” — the next-worst thing to snooty, know-it-all college professors, I take it. During his talk, Geisler asserted the existence of absolute moral values. A woman in the audience objected, saying there are no real moral values, it’s just a matter of taste or opinion.
“I resisted the temptation to make my point by shouting, ‘Sit down and shut up, you egghead. Who wants to hear your opinion?!’ Of course, if I had been so rude and discourteous, she would have rightly complained that I had violated her right to her opinion and her right to express it. To which I could have replied, ‘You have no such right — you just told me such rights don’t exist!’ Her complaint would have proved that she actually did believe in a real absolute value — she valued her right to say that there are no absolute values. . . . And therein lies the inconsistency. Moral values are practically undeniable.” (p. 173)
- “You egghead”? Norman, such language. Tsk tsk tsk.
- The only thing proved by the hypothetical complaint of this hypothetical woman to Geisler’s hypothetical verbal assault is that, as Geisler says, she valued her right to her opinion and expression. I agree with the last line of that quote — moral values are practically undeniable. Most of us do have them, most of us use them to make moral judgments every day. But that doesn’t prove that they’re absolute or ultimately objective.
- In fact, let me move quickly, with only a few stops here and there, through the rest of this list of eight reasons why we know the Moral Law exists, because they’re all pretty much the same argument: we use morals for things, therefore there must be such a thing as absolute morality. I’ll explain why absolute, ultimately objective morality doesn’t exist and isn’t necessary at the end.
- Our Reactions Help Us Discover the Moral Law (Right from Wrong). Essentially, even moral relativists react indignantly when they are mistreated. Hence, absolute morality must exist. This is almost exactly the same argument as Reason No. 1. Indignant reactions to unjust treatment do not demonstrate the existence of an absolute, divinely dictated Moral Law.
- Without the Moral Law, There Would Be No Human Rights. The Moral Law comes from God, which means human rights come from God, too. If morality was merely a matter of taste or opinion, then the Allies would have had no standing to put Nazis on trial for war crimes.
“When the Nazi war criminals were brought to trial in Nuremburg, they were convicted of violating basic human rights as defined by the Moral Law (which is manifested in international law). . . . If there were no such international morality that transcended the laws of the secular German government, then the Allies would have had no grounds to condemn the Nazis.” (p. 175)
- The fact that there is international agreement on matters of morality does nothing to demonstrate the existence of an absolute Moral Law. Next.
- Without the Moral Law, We Couldn’t Know Justice or Injustice. Atheists who reject God because of all the injustice in the world are inadvertently refuting their own case, because without God’s Moral Law, they could have no idea of what the concepts of justice and injustice even meant. Then, Geisler says this:
“I (Norm) love debating Jewish atheists. Why? Because I’ve never met a Jewish person who believes that the Holocaust was just a matter of opinion. They all believe it was really wrong, regardless of what anyone thinks about it.” (p. 177)
- He loves debating Jewish atheists. Why? Because of their intellect? Because of their particular cultural background and how that informs their perceptions of God and their justifications for a naturalistic worldview? Because they know all the best jokes? No. Because he wants to throw the Holocaust in their faces to make his point — a point, ironically, about the existence of a divinely prescribed morality. Though, I guess “thought shalt not tastelessly appeal to genocide to prove your bullshit God argument” wasn’t one of the Ten Commandments, so Geisler figures he’s off the hook. What a contemptible piece of shit. More to come on this subject when we get to the Hitler/Mother Teresa comparison.
- By the way, to recognize injustice all you need is a moral standard, not an absolute, ultimately objective moral standard.
- Without the Moral Law, There Would Be No Way to Measure Moral Differences. Here we go now. What we’ve all been waiting for:
“If the Moral Law doesn’t exist, then there’s no moral difference between the behavior of Mother Teresa and that of Hitler. . . . In short, to believe in moral relativism is to argue that there are no real moral differences between Mother Teresa and Hitler, freedom and slavery, equality and racism, care and abuse, love and hate, or life and murder. We all know that such conclusions are absurd. So moral relativism must be false. If moral relativism is false, then an objective Moral Law exists.” (p. 179)
- Moral standards don’t have to be absolute in order to be real. I’ll get more into that in a few minutes. For now, let’s talk about why appealing to Hitler is such an incredibly shitty thing to do, whether the person you’re talking to is a member of the race Hitler tried to exterminate or not.
- I mentioned a moment ago that Geisler’s eagerness to bring up the Holocaust to Jewish atheists was tasteless, but that’s not the worst thing about it. I say tasteless things all the time. I try not to say them when I’m making an argument that I hope people will take seriously, but nonetheless, I can handle tasteless. The worst part about appealing to Hitler is that it’s lazy.
- Christians like Geisler and Turek appeal to Hitler, to the Nazis, to the Holocaust, all the time. They’re going to do it again before the end of this chapter. They do this because many of their arguments are crude appeals to emotion, or appeals to consequences. They want to try to connect atheism, or even secularism, with Nazism, so they can make sure the church-going public they wrote this book for (lip-service about appealing to skeptics aside) will stay far, far away from it.
- One of the frustrating things is, as an atheist, it would be very easy to appeal to Hitler as much as the likes of Geisler and Turek do. To my way of thinking, the Hitler argument cuts much more sharply in their direction that it does mine, for the simple fact that Hitler was not an atheist, or even a secularist, and that the Nazis believed what they were doing was in the service of God. I could also point out that many other nominally secular authoritarian regimes, like the Soviet Union under Stalin, or China under Mao, or North Korea under Kim Il Sung and his successors, have borrowed from the playbook of religion, effectively setting up state religions by compelling people to worship their leaders.
- But I never say any of that unless I’m responding to a theist who has played the Hitler card. Why? Because the Hitler argument is the philosophical equivalent of a fart joke. It’s guaranteed to get a reaction, but it’s the sort of thing you’d normally expect from someone who lacks the skill to come up with anything better. In pro wrestling parlance, it’s called cheap heat. That’s when wrestler’s do things that they know will get the audience to react, like insulting the local sports team, or starting a “U-S-A!” chant. It doesn’t take any skill. It’s lazy and lowbrow. Which I suppose is why people like Geisler and Turek lean on it so heavily.
- Without the Moral Law, You Couldn’t Know What Was Right or Wrong. Same argument. Geisler and Turek talk about Alan Dershowitz proclaiming that he doesn’t know what’s right, and neither does anyone else, during a debate. Completely missing the point Dershowitz was trying to make, they whip out their beloved Road Runner tactic:
“Some relativists are famous for this kind of self-defeating arrogance. They claim there is no truth, but then make truth claims of their own. . . . They deny the Moral Law in one sentence and then assume it in the next.” (p. 180)
- Yeah, and I bet they can’t explain what a word is without using words, either. Idiots.
- Without the Moral Law, There Are No Moral Grounds for Political or Social Dissent. Without a Moral Law, no position on any issue is objectively right or wrong. Same shit, different turds — people behave morally, therefore absolute morality must exist.
- If There Was No Moral Law, Then We Wouldn’t Make Excuses for Violating It. Even people who deny the Moral Law make excuses for immoral behavior, which they wouldn’t do if the Moral Law wasn’t real. Also, people don’t make excuses for doing good things.
“No one needs to be talked into tolerating the behavior of Mother Teresa, only the behavior of some relativists. Likewise, no one makes excuses for acting like Mother Teresa. We only make excuses when we act against the Moral Law.” (p. 181)
- Mother Teresa warehoused the sick in filthy hospitals and allowed whatever was killing them to kill them. Usually they wasted away without so much as painkillers to ease their sometimes excruciating suffering. This was done because Mother Teresa believed that suffering brings one closer to God. I would damn sure like to hear a better excuse than that.
- So why don’t any of these reasons point toward an absolute Moral Law? Because Geisler and Turek have set up a false choice. If there is no absolute, God-given, objective Moral Law, they say, then there is no such thing as morality. But there is morality, we do appeal to moral standards, therefore, say Geisler and Turek, the Moral Law exists, and therefore so must God.
- But we don’t need an absolute Moral Law in order to have moral standards. We as individuals can appeal to an external standard — a higher standard, if you like — by appealing to each other, to the group, to the community, to the culture, to humanity as a whole. And that is precisely what we do. Morality is man-made. The law-giver of the moral law (or moral laws, I should say) is the same as that of legislative laws and scientific and logical and mathematical laws. That law-giver is us.
- How do we know what is right and wrong? What is just or unjust? Whether or not love is better than hate, or liberty is better than slavery? Because we created those concepts. We decided what those distinctions should be. We decided what we value, what we were going to encourage, what we were going to reward and what we were going to punish. Moral values are not absolute, they are not objective — at least not relative to humanity as a whole — but they are real. They matter. We use them constantly. We created them, and we continue to create them, every day, every time we make a moral decision, or struggle with a moral question.
- I would take this one step further and argue that this man-made morality is preferable to the hypothetical divinely commanded morality that Geisler and Turek are talking about. We aren’t just following rules that someone else handed down to us from on high. We’re engaging with our morals. We’re grappling with moral questions. Murder isn’t wrong because someone more powerful than us told us it’s wrong. We have reasons for condemning murder, and theft, and dishonesty, and exploitation — reasons, by the way, that would render any divine Moral Law useless, or at the very least redundant, if it did exist. The fact that it’s man-made, the fact that we decided what we value and why, is the very thing that imbues our morality with its value.
The Moral Law: What Do Darwinists Say?
- Full Disclosure: I’m skipping a section of this chapter titled “Absolute vs. Relative: Why the Confusion?” It’s pages 182-186, and it’s a series of objections — or “confusions” as Geisler and Turek call them — to the idea of a Moral Law. It basically boils down to Geisler and Turek insisting that even though it looks like people have fundamental moral disagreements, and it looks like moral standards have evolved throughout history, it’s really just differences in perception and changes in behavior that we’re seeing. The Moral Law itself is universally known, they say, and never changes. So let’s move on from that to an attack on the character of the non-religious, shall we?
- “How then do Darwinists deal with the question of morality? Actually, most Darwinists avoid the subject completely. Why? Because it’s not easy to explain how there can be objective right and wrong (which even Darwinists know in their hearts) unless there exists a Moral Law Giver.” (pp. 186-187)
- First, Darwinists — or “biologists,” as they are also called — don’t often deal with the subject because it’s not primarily of interest to their field. Astrophysicists don’t talk a hell of a lot about morality, either. What does that suggest?
- Second, it’s very easy to explain how there can be objective right and wrong, as long as you accept that those standards are only objective relative to individuals. Man-made morals are ultimately subjective, because we determine them ourselves, as a group, but they are objective from the point of view of a single person, because they aren’t determined by that individual alone, but by the consensus of many, many, many individuals.
- By the way, if you’re arguing that the Moral Law was created by God, you’re not arguing for ultimately objective morals, either. It’s the same arrangement, with just another level of separation between individuals and the source of the standard. God-made morality would be objective to us as individuals, and objective to humanity as a whole, but it would still be subjective to God, because he’s determining the standard, which means ultimately, morality would still be subjective. The only way you get to truly objective morality would be to postulate moral laws as describing pre-existing conditions of reality, like laws of logic. And for them to be absolute, God would have to be subject to them as well, which would eliminate them as evidence for God’s existence.
- So why can’t you account for morality without assuming God? Here’s what Geisler and Turek say:
- “First, Darwinism asserts that only materials exist, but materials don’t have morality. How much does hate weigh? Is there an atom for love? What’s the chemical composition of the murder molecule? These questions are meaningless because physical particles are not responsible for morality. If materials are solely responsible for morality, then Hitler had no real moral responsibility for what he did — he just had bad molecules. This is nonsense, and everyone knows it.” (p. 187)
- So glad we agree. The point Geisler and Turek miss here with their stupid questions about the weight of hate or the molecular composition of murder is the same one they missed when they asked what the difference was between a dead body and a living one: it’s not the stuff that something is made of that’s important; it’s what that stuff is doing. Hitler was morally responsible for his actions, despite being made up entirely of material, because even though the molecules that constituted Hitler didn’t have any moral responsibility, Hitler himself was a conscious, sentient person. As I said in the previous video, life is not just a bunch of chemicals stuck together — it’s a process. The process, not just the chemicals themselves, is the key. Our consciousness, our perception, our thoughts, our morals — these are all products of material, biochemical processes. Yes, we’re made out of materials, but we’re people made out of materials, people with moral awareness who are therefore morally responsible for our actions.
- Also, Darwinism doesn’t assert that only materials exist. Materialism asserts that only materials exist. Darwinism refers to the theory of evolution. Words have definitions, see.
Ideas Have Consequences
- Here comes Hitler again!
- “Hitler, like other Darwinists, illegitimately personifies nature by attributing will to it . . . But his main point is that there are superior races and inferior races, and the Jews, being an inferior race, have no right to exist if they don’t want to fight. In other words, racism and then genocide is the logical outworking of Darwinism.” (p. 189)
- According to Hitler! Am I seriously supposed to accept that Darwinism leads inexorably to genocide based on the logic of Adolf fucking Hitler?
- “Two other Darwinists recently wrote a book asserting that rape is a natural consequence of evolution. According to authors Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer, rape is ‘a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage,’ just like ‘the leopard’s spots and the giraffe’s elongated neck.’” (p. 191)
- Where do Thornhill and Palmer argue that rape ought to be morally acceptable? Evolutionary theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. It says what is, not what ought to be. If rape is in fact a natural product of evolution, that doesn’t make it morally acceptable. It’s still a crime, because we, as moral beings, have decided that it’s a crime.
- Also, I checked the end notes for this chapter and noticed that the quote from Thornhill and Palmer is actually taken from a magazine article written by someone else about the Thornhill and Palmer book, which means Geisler and Turek didn’t even read the book they’re quotemining.
- “Objective moral laws require a transcendent Law-Giver, but the Darwinian worldview has ruled him out in advance. So consistent Darwinists can only consider murder and rape as personal dislikes, not real moral wrongs.” (p. 191)
- The transcendent Law-Giver has not been ruled out; there’s no evidence for him, and there’s no need to assume he exists in order to explain anything. And man-made moral standards are not “personal dislikes” — they are products of moral consensus. They don’t come from individuals, they come from broad agreement among many individuals, across entire cultures of people. To insist that man-made moral standards are matters of personal opinion is either ignorant or dishonest. And having gotten to this point in the book, I’m leaning toward the latter.
Next: Chapter 8: Miracles: Signs of God or Gullibility?