Moral Absolutism in an Atheist Universe

Does atheism allow for an objective moral code?

Now, it is no use to say that ‘atheism’ is not a doctrine since not all atheists agree on all points. Nonsense. They all agree on the one point that there is no God.

All atheists in order to be called atheist must hold that there is no God. This means all atheists must hold that there is no divine intelligence who created the universe, created man, or has any right, neither by virtue of paternity nor wisdom, to issue moral imperatives to mankind, nor is there any divine authority whose writ runs to all men throughout all time and space.

This means that all atheists must hold that either morality is subjective or objective; but if it is objective, the atheist must hold that this alleged objectivity is not based on the writ of an intelligent authority whose power reaches everywhere across all time.

Within that limitation, I would offer that atheism does allow for a certain degree of objectivity in the question of morals.

An atheist could argue, and I think quite successfully, that certain self-destructive behaviors, or behaviors deleterious to the common good, cannot be maintained in a man or in a society under normal conditions. In such cases, it is simply a matter of logic, not of judgment, that one cannot will the consequences of an action without willing the antecedents. One cannot logically will self-preservation and will acts which lead to self-destruction.

By arguments along these lines, a man’s own sense of self-preservation and his own desire to serve his self-interest, can form a foundation upon which to erect an objective moral code.

The limitation to this argument is that it does not apply to emergencies, short-term situations, or situations where self-sacrifice or even self-restraint is called for.

Some atheists deal with this limitation by simply denying its application: they define self-sacrifice as not being a moral imperative, or say that ‘lifeboat’ situations do not apply in real life. The paradox here is that if I were in a lifeboat dying of starvation and exposure, and if I were the cabin boy or cripple with lots of richly marbled meat on my bones, I would much rather share the boat with starving cannibalism-prone survivors restrained by Christian notions of self sacrifice than by atheist notions of enlightened self-interest.

For one thing, the world view of atheism admits no possibility of punishment in the next life, bad Karma or Last Judgment, because neither reincarnation nor resurrection are possible in a nonsupernatural universe.

This means the strong and starving cannibal trapped on the lifeboat with my unconscious but chubby body  is restrained by no fear of penalty aside from the weak tissue of his own conscience. He can quite logically conclude that if he survives by committing an abominable crime on my person, he can find some way to soothe or smother his conscience.

A person who believes in an afterlife or next life can into account divine reward or punishment when making his moral calculation.

Ironically, even if all religion is myth and falsehood, and the cannibal sharing a lifeboat with me is totally deceived, totally superstitious, and totally wrong about the possibility of divine punishment, it is in my self interest the he be so deceived. Only if there is life after death will he calculate the costs and benefits of his planned murder of me to tear the raw flesh from my bones, and have something to add to the costs column to counterbalance the benefit of survival. Only if there is life after death is the emergency moral calculus the same as the normal moral calculus.

In other words, if there is life after death and divine punishments and rewards, does the act which in an non-emergency situation would be a ‘no-brainer’ (that is, the clearly and obviously righteous thing to do) continue to be a ‘no-brainer’ in an emergency when life and death are being weighed in the balance.

But an atheist cannot have divine punishments or rewards, and life and death weigh very heavily in the scales of moral calculus, and the temptations become as strong as can be imagined to do that which we would not do in normal circumstances.

Now, a possible objection often raised at this point is that atheists can indeed commit acts of noblest self sacrifice for loved ones, family or nation, on the grounds that the atheist, as easily as any other man, might value the life of his wife or child above his own life. In such a case (so it might be argued) the man simply holds his own life to be of less value than the life or the cause of something he loves more than himself. All well and good, and no one should scoff at this noble sentiment, but it is a sentiment only. It cannot be the basis of an objective moral imperative.

An atheist can say, “I choose to die for what I hold dearer than life itself” but he cannot say, “In it an objective moral imperative that men in a case like mine should lay down their lives, even those men who do not hold anything dearer than themselves” on the grounds that the atheist cannot deduce a moral imperative from any authority other than nature, or his own mortal mind. If an atheist judges his life to be an absolute worth, outweighing the lives of lovers, wives, children, nations or causes, no other mind has the right to overrule nor correct him, for (in the atheist universe) all other minds are as mortal and limited as his own. The mind that judges his mind, in that case, is his own, and this judge is also the one who is to be extinguished, and extinguished forever, if the mind judges self-sacrifice to be a moral necessity.

The atheist can make no reference to a person outside himself who granted him his life and who has the right to command the atheist to value it to a certain degree or value it in a certain way. This is because, absent any divine beings, life is a natural phenomenon, an accident, not something an intelligence granted on purpose or designed or defined with an intelligent purpose in mind. Obviously no mortal person can claim to grant life or have authority over it.

Experience also shows that emergencies happen often enough that an entire apparatus of custom and law we call the nation or the state must be erected to prevent violent death at the hands of our fellow men, and in such conditions of war, self-sacrifice is noble and heroic.

As for the rest of the argument, it is enough to note that no matter what atheists do not have in common, they do have in common that they do not believe in any gods. Hence, any discussion of moral imperatives among atheists is restricted to (1) matter of fact and (2) man-made laws and customs.

There are those who say that one can deduce a moral conclusion from a matter of fact. In fact, one cannot, unless one adopts a moral axiom, express or implied.  Frequent candidates for the moral axiom are such things as efficiency or survival or the ability to act morally. Sad experience shows than men will act against their own long term best interest, sometimes their own short term interests, when vice lures them.

Logic can indeed show that it is objectively true, true for all times and places and conditions, that a suicide bomber blowing up himself in order to wound, maim, and murder Jewish schoolchildren does not act in his own longterm self interest of his continued earthly life. However, he only abrogate an absolute moral rule against murder-suicide if it is an absolute moral rule that he ought to serve his own longterm self interest of his continued earthly life.

This is called the ‘naturalist fallacy’ or sometimes it is said to be ‘the attempt to deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

A man made custom cannot be the basis of an objective moral code, since any man beyond the pale of civilization, visiting a foreign land, or living a number of years sufficient to see the laws and customs he knew in his youth fall into oblivion, finds himself in a landscape where his old moral certainties no longer apply.

In sum, there are only two options. Absent a god or divine power of some sort, an atheist can only ground his moral code on the imperative, not of an divine authority who has a lawful right to demand the obedience of all men, but merely on (1) the imperative a human authority, or on (2) the imperative of self-interest, or some other universal principle.

The limitations both in wisdom and power of human authority preclude this first option for arguing that morality is objective.

The second option contains no compulsion for obedience beyond one’s own personal inclination. It may be a fact, objective and true for all men, that act X leads to outcome Y, so that if one wants outcome Y one needs must do act X, but this is still a conditional, not an absolute, so that if I do not want outcome Y, then act X has no authority or imperative force over me, and no grounds on which it can be called morally right or morally wrong.

The strongest argument to be made in favor of a conditional objective moral code is by making X, the basis of the code, something as universal as can be, such as a drive for self-interest or survival.

But even the drive to survive does not apply to all men at all times. If a soldier finds he must throw his own body on a hand-grenade to save his squad, or a mother chooses death in childbirth so that her child might live, the most that a moral code based on self interest can say of that soldier’s action, or the act of that mother, is that it did not serve self interest.

The philosopher advocating an objective moral code based on self interest cannot call an act of self sacrifice wrong or evil, for whose authority did soldier or mother defy? Who gave them the order to live? Who had the right to give such an order, and by what authority did he give it?

This authority cannot come from nature, since nature is unintelligent. And unintelligent circumstance can establish a set of facts (such as “you must do X to achieve Y”) but an unintelligent circumstance cannot issue a lawful order which rightly commands our obedience (“you ought to achieve Y”). A moral imperative imposed by a divine being can.

32 Comments

  1. Comment by The Deuce:

    An atheist who believes in an irreducible, Aristotle-style teleology can point to a coherent, non-arbitrary basis for objective moral imperatives.

    However, a materialistic atheist (which is what nearly all Western atheists are) cannot.

  2. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    Thank you for writing another interesting essay. I agree with what you said about how a boy or man lost at sea with other men who were starving would far rather have his companions be restrained from eating him for Christian reasons, instead of enlightened self interest or logic. But, would it be immoral to eat a human being if the men lost at sea had NOT slain that human being? Cannibalism is gross and repulsive, but isn’t it at least arguably tolerable in emergencies as long as we did not kill the person whose body we ate ?

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

    • Comment by Darrell:

      In what way do you mean tolerable?

      If you are asking is it sinful, would the eating of another human bring you closer or farther from full communion with God?

      • Comment by Sean Michael:

        Hi, Darrell!

        Perhaps I was not clear enough. I’ll try to elucidate my thought. Murder is always and every where wrong. But I agree with Mr. Wright that if you are an atheist, it becomes very difficult to logically stand by that principle if all you can base it on is logic and self interest.

        Now, as a Christian I agree it would be wrong to murder you or anyone eslse for food if we were lost far at sea and starving in a lifeboat. But we are morally bound to preserve our lives by all MORAL and reasonable means. Now, if one of the men in our lifeboat died by other means than murder, is it wrong, under dire circumstances like these, to eat his body?

        Eating a fellow human being is gross and repulsive, but would cannibalism in cases like this necessarily alienate us from God? I would welcome comment and correction on this matter.

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

        • Comment by John Hutchins:

          Symbolic ritualistic cannibalism is an established part of Christianity, with some debate on how symbolic the practice actually is.

          Acts contains the command to the Christians from the Apostles to follow the Noahide Laws of Judaism. These include such things as not eating animals that are still alive, not eating blood, and prohibiting cannibalism. I am not sure of the Catholic position in regards to Acts 15 and the Noahide Laws because blood sausage is eaten by Catholics and Middle age feasts would sometimes cook birds while keeping them alive so not sure if the prohibition against cannibalism stands or not.

        • Comment by Darrell:

          Sean

          Now, as a Christian I agree it would be wrong to murder you or anyone eslse for food if we were lost far at sea and starving in a lifeboat. But we are morally bound to preserve our lives by all MORAL and reasonable means. Now, if one of the men in our lifeboat died by other means than murder, is it wrong, under dire circumstances like these, to eat his body?

          I feel as if my answer is going to press whatever button it is that impels people to invoke Orwell or use words such as relativism or political correctness and I would ask anyone that responds to resist the impulse.

          You and I are separated by a common religion, to twist a phrase to my ends, and as such my thoughts on the matter may not be very compelling. When you use words like moral and morally bound I’m not certain that I know what you mean by them but I suspect that you are talking about the construction of an ethical system. If I am correct then my response is that I don’t know if cannibalism is moral or not and that I don’t spend much time thinking about morality. If moral is a replacement word for sinful then I would ask, do you prayerfully believe that Jesus would cannibalize a man’s corpse to survive in a similar situation?

          As we are called to be like Jesus you should act in the way that you authentically believe Jesus would in a similar situation. After the fact, as in any situation where you are spiritually troubled, you should discuss the situation with your priest and confess your sins as appropriate.

          All men will falter in this fallen world and miss the mark (sin) of what we should as the children of God do, which is why we were not provided a system of ethics from God but rather Jesus Christ and His Church.

          Orthodox Christianity, as a whole, has less of a legalistic outlook than the Roman Catholic Church does and has less of a focus on punishments and rewards and instead is more oriented towards a medicinal outlook. Typically in Orthodox Christian thought it is understood that it is not that unrepentant sinners will be punished so much as that they will dislike their reward — which is the same presence of God that the repentant and devout will receive.

          I hope that answered your question.

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            If I can answer as a lawyer rather than an apologist, under Anglo-American common law, it is a crime to desecrate or mishandle a corpse. There are also certain torts or crimes which can be excused by necessity.

            Murder, by the way, is not one of them. There was a famous case of men lost in a lifeboat who killed the cabin boy and ate him, drinking his blood to quench their thirst. When they were rescued and brought to England, they were promptly hanged. The court held that men should draw straws in that situation, and die and be eaten like gentlemen, and not commit murder. It was a more civilized age.

            • Comment by Sean Michael:

              Dear Mr. Wright:

              Very interesting! The Victorians were more civilized, logical and CHRISTIAN than our age.

              As an SF fan, I also had in mind how Poul Anderson treated the theme of cannibalism in his Hugo winning story “The Sharing of Flesh.” Part of that story included a discussion of various reasons for cannibalism. But I’m not sure if Anderson mentioned cases like being lost at sea.

              Wait! In a way, he did. Anderson used the idea of how, because of a genetic flaw, all the male inhabitants of a long lost human colonized world HAD to practice cannibalism in order to survive. I really shouldn’t say too much more because that would reveal too much of the plot.

              Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

          • Comment by Sean Michael:

            Hi, Darrell.

            Many thanks for your reply, even tho I don’t think your comments quite applied to what I had in mind. I fear it’s largely because of that “legalistic,” Aristotelian turn of mind you mentioned as being emblematics of Catholics like me. So, to me, I found Mr. Wright’s comments on how some torts, like desecration of a human body, being sometimes justified by necessity more convincing.

            Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

            • Comment by Darrell:

              The inestimable Leah Libresco made a point on a blog post (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked/2012/12/can-you-cyrano-de-bergerac-your-moral-philosophy.html) that sums up nicely what the Church teaches:

              “A virtue ethicist wants to become the good person, not just look up what the good person would do and then do it.”

              Please note that I am not suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church does not ultimately teach the same, but rather the emphasis tends to be different than that of the Orthodox Church.

              • Comment by Sean Michael:

                Hi, Darrell!

                Iow, Catholics tend to be too hard headed and practical compared to mystical Orthodox? (Smiles)

                I would trace this difference in emphasis between Catholics and Orthodox to how the former were intellectually shaped by Roman law and Aristotelianism/Scholasticism while the latter leaned more to Platonism. In all frankness, I prefer the former because I believe it is ultimately more true than Platonic idealism.

                And I did read the Leah Libresco link you gave. Perhaps I misunderstand her, but she seems to favor a “reinvent the wheel” approach by each generation. Something I disagree with because I believe giants like Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas have settled many issues and questions.

                Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

                • Comment by Darrell:

                  Sean

                  Iow, Catholics tend to be too hard headed and practical compared to mystical Orthodox? (Smiles)

                  There is certainly a school of thought that believes Roman Catholicism to be more legalistic and less mystical than Orthodox Christianity. While not in full disagreement with this sentiment I tend to think of it as being more of a difference in emphasis, how this emphasis
                  is commonly understood, and what the impacts of this emphasis are.

                  I would trace this difference in emphasis between Catholics and Orthodox to how the former were intellectually shaped by Roman law and Aristotelianism/Scholasticism while the latter leaned more to Platonism. In all frankness, I prefer the former because I believe it is ultimately more true than Platonic idealism.

                  I’m not certain that Orthodox Christianity is particularly Platonic, though it definitely makes use of Hellenic philosophical language when trying to explain certain concepts. I am not, however, a philosopher and so defer to those who are more learned in both philosophy and Orthodox Christianity to draw out the parallels.

                  Many different philosophies, ideologies, and religions have stumbled across some of the truths of Christianity so it would not surprise me to find some connections to either Platonism or Aristotelianism.

                  And I did read the Leah Libresco link you gave. Perhaps I misunderstand her, but she seems to favor a “reinvent the wheel” approach by each generation. Something I disagree with because I believe giants like Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas have settled many issues and questions.

                  Ms. Libresco is a Roman Catholic recently converted from atheism and so I disagree with her on much that she writes. The quote that I provided was the point where I felt she, perhaps inadvertently, hit upon a relatively good description of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. I suspect, in fact, that it is a good description of Roman Catholicism as well, but Roman Catholics have a tendency to have put matters into a legalistic framework such that they lose sight of the point of the rules which is theosis and not punishment and rewards.

                  • Comment by Sean Michael:

                    Hi, Darrell!

                    Many thanks for your comments. As you said, the differences between Catholics and Orthodox seems to be largely a difference of emphasis. Not a disagreeing on the ends desired.

                    But, in this nihilistic and decadent age we live in I still believe some stressing of law and rules and a firm stating of what is good and true as opposed to what is bad and false is necessary. Else we run the risk of sinking into a vague, empty, New Ageish “spirituality.”

                    But, I don’t really think we are seriously disagreeing!

                    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  3. Comment by robertjwizard:

    He can quite logically conclude that if he survives by committing an abominable crime on my person, he can find some way to soothe or smother his conscience.

    This is a quickie since my back is blown and I have very limited time to use it before it starts singing Dixie and I already used it up with Christopher.

    Do you truly believe such a thing? By this logic, if I knew you, I’d have to be afraid of you regaining consciousness, because the first chance you get you’re going to try to kill me because you think I am going to eat you! So one or both of us die for no damned reason.

    Also there seems to be an awful lot of people walking around thinking they have some mighty big punishments coming in the next life – and apparently don’t give a crap. So, the deterrent argument is not so strong. Like you said, take them out of the everyday humdrum that they stain up, and put them in the life and death scenario of the lifeboat.

    Are you sure I have nothing to fear? You can always repent and always absolve yourself in the belief that you are forgiven. I don’t have that option. So who is going to eat whom doesn’t seem so cut and dry.

    Although if you switch it up and put me in there with another atheist, say our friendly neighborhood doctor, well, I’ll let you know how a physicist tastes. It is one piece of meat against the other in his eyes, so I am merely engaging in self-defense.

    I also find this fixation on one’s own death a little troubling. One is supposed to fear the death of those one loves, not one’s own. We are never there for ours, we are there for theirs.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I believe atheists who are born and raised within Christian societies, or Jewish, adopt the moral maxims of their parents and teachers even while disbelieving the metaphysical foundations which give those maxims logical meaning. I believe an atheist in a lifeboat will be held back from cannibalism by his sentiment, but only by sentiment, for he cannot give a logical reason to sacrifice his life to mine, if there is no life after death.

      The question is not whether Christians are more untrustworthy than Atheists. The question is whose moral philosophy is a better model or a better description of the actual universe in which we actually live.

      The Christian who commits murder and claims necessity, the tyrant’s plea, to excuse his crime is condemned by the moral philosophy he himself espouses, whereas the atheist who has no higher moral authority than the value he places on his own life is not.

      An atheist who serves something higher than his own life, in a situation where his moral code demands the sacrifice of his life, must confront the paradox that if he should die, utter nonexistence blots out any possibility or reward or penalty, even the slight reward of the knowledge that he died in a good cause. It requires superhuman fortitude of will to embrace death under such a circumstance.

      On the other hand, even the most self-serving Christian, such as the one who plans to repent an act before he commits it, faces eternal damnation, and the prospect of embracing crime should make him hesitate, but death is not an escape from consequences.

      As for atheists adhering to Judo-Christian maxims, we need only look to the statistics of how many bodies were piled up by Soviet and Red Chinese tyrants to see the subhuman character of atheist morality. That is how men who do not fear God act, who do not just so happen, as most Western atheists do, to follow Christian moral teachings out of sentiment.

      The atheist does not believe in any punishment after death. For him, self sacrifice is not in his best interest. For the Christian, self sacrifice, even martyrdom, has a logical reason behind it, because there is no division between what the Christian ought to do and what will reward him in the long run.

      The atheist lives in a world of moral paradox where his instincts are at odds with his reason. The Christian lives in a world of moral harmony were everything works out for the best in the long run.

      Even if the Christian claims are false, it cannot be denied that the moral paradox which arises when one’s own death places one into oblivion and thus beyond the reach of any reward or punishment, regret or criticism, does not exist within the Christian worldview. We do not claim to have the right to preserve our own lives at all costs; we do not claim death nullifies all moral calculus or acts as an escape from all judgment.

      • Comment by robertjwizard:

        …for he cannot give a logical reason to sacrifice his life to mine, if there is no life after death.

        What? I thought you were afraid of the atheist murdering you in your unconscious state for your meat? Turns out your complaint is the atheist can’t find a logical reason to offer up his own meat. You are correct, I cannot find a logical reason to offer myself over to your stomach. I do note the only question that occurs to you is who is going to be sacrificed to who.

        The question is whose moral philosophy is a better model or a better description of the actual universe in which we actually live.

        I thought the point of Christian morality was not to achieve some sort of earthly practicality but to do as Christ commanded no matter how absurd, so why should the Christian morality reflect the world any better? Your claim cannot be that it reflects this world, it is not designed to be such, it is not geared to your convenience, your comfort, your survival, your interests, your life, your anything. It is not geared to anybody’s anything. And the only reason to defy every protest of your reason, of your body, and even the outrage of your conscience and sense of justice, is the promise of praise after death.

        Not to say that the entirety is a wrong or a false model. Only Kant achieved a complete, 100% false model. In fact the Christian model keeps the primary fact of self-interest in sight, by making the sacrifices it demands not really sacrifices but temporary loans to be cashed in at the gates on the other side.

        Judo-Christian maxims…piled up by Soviet and Red Chinese tyrants to see the subhuman character of atheist morality.

        Judo-Christian maxims, nice concept, huh-yaaa!

        You mean the subhuman character of a materialistic morality.

        You need to prove that atheism is by inescapable necessity materialistic, that one implies the other. Otherwise your above statement is a rhetorical flourish.

        I wonder if, at this point, if every one is going to use the term atheism interchangeably for materialism without identification. If so, I would appreciate the courtesy of being formally informed so I can simply disagree and bow out.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I thought you were afraid of the atheist murdering you in your unconscious state for your meat? Turns out your complaint is the atheist can’t find a logical reason to offer up his own meat. You are correct, I cannot find a logical reason to offer myself over to your stomach. I do note the only question that occurs to you is who is going to be sacrificed to who.

          If you are not going to be serious, there is no reason to discuss a serious question. You have neither detected an error nor asked a question, you have voiced an emotional reaction to a matter of phrasing.

          I thought the point of Christian morality was not to achieve some sort of earthly practicality but to do as Christ commanded no matter how absurd, so why should the Christian morality reflect the world any better?

          Same again. This is neither a criticism nor a question, merely huffing and puffing. Please do not descend into the intellectual sewer of Dr Andreassen, with whom I cannot have a serious conversation. If you have a sober question on the topic, ask it. If you find a flaw in my logic, point it out. Then we can have a conversation.

          Your claim cannot be that it reflects this world,

          My world is larger than your world, friend. When I said Christianity reflects the universe accurately, I meant the whole universe, all of creation, both the seen order of being and the unseen. Obviously I meant to include both life and afterlife in my descriptions because (1) otherwise my claim that there is a harmony between rewards and punishments and what all men know to be good and bad behavior would be nonsense and (2) I would not be discussing the only point to the discussion, which is how the presence of absence of an afterlife alters one’s moral calculation.

          So if the use of the word “universe” was ambiguous, I am happy to clarify.

          Christians are happier in this world and in this life than atheists, by the way, and we give more to charity. Look at our art and architecture, and compare that to the art of the modern world. Who knows more joy? Who is better suited to life on Earth? We have no logical cause to fear death, and the atheist does. If the atheist places something other than his own life as his highest value, he is behaving sentimentally, not logically. If the Christian places his life as his highest value, rather than God, he is behaving sentimentally, not logically. That is the difference.

          I made a distinction in the original post between materialistic atheists and Platonic atheists. No, materialism is not necessarily atheism, nor do I need to prove it for my statement to stand. My statement is that Communism is an atheist doctrine, based on Darwinian views of the nature of morality. All I need to show for my statement to stand is that there is a tendency for atheists to restrict their moral codes to purely naturalistic systems.

          Since atheism refutes the concept of supernaturalism, logically atheists should be naturalists, Darwinians, when it comes to morals, or at least Utilitarians. Those who are not are not for sentimental reasons, not logical ones. They abide by Christian maxims without adhering to the metaphysical assumptions on which Christianity is based. This is what Ayn Rand called the Stolen Concept fallacy. She herself is guilty of it.

          • Comment by robertjwizard:

            If you are not going to be serious,…

            I thought my wording made it pretty clear that wasn’t serious(except for the last sentence). I made no attempt to hide the intent of, nor disguise the nature of the comment. Yes, I was having a jest at your phrasing, I didn’t judge that my comment needed a humor label.

            Your charge holds water if I were attempting to pass off frivolity as seriousness, it was not my intention.

            Same again.

            No, this one was serious. I had assumed you were making a moral/practical harmony argument. Was I not right in what I said assuming I understood you correctly? You yourself have said the demands of Christ are outrageous.

            Then a few paragraphs later you switch and give me the benefit of the doubt by saying this.

            So if the use of the word “universe” was ambiguous, I am happy to clarify.

            You are correct that it was not a criticism, I was attempting, apparently without success, to state your argument and why I thought it, Christianity, was not about achieving an earthly practicality as I thought you were trying to establish. If I am incorrect in this, please just say so. I can give a thousand instances of myself on your blog giving the benefit of the doubt to others for my lack of understanding, reading skill, talking past each other, and a host of other, possible, communication difficulties.

            And I, again, offer this. Perhaps I am being dense today, muddled or ineffective. I don’t see the justification of your accusation as a first possibility.

            Christians are happier in this world and in this life than atheists, by the way, and we give more to charity.

            I not only do not disagree with this, I have probably said it myself. I do not think it is universally so (I know plenty a miserable Christian) nor do I think it is necessary. Some of my most vitriolic comments have been against the atheists, usually the fangled New Atheists or “Brights”. In my view atheists, with one exception, have been supported by philosophical manure of the lowest order. You guys have Aquinas and thus Aristotle (at least the Catholics do) what do the atheists have? Nietzsche? Marx? Bastardized reinventions of Darwin’s work in biology. Crackpots, feminists, sexual deviants and drug addicts, Foucault, Sartre, etc.

            I will not accept the claim that Rand qualifies as a member of sexual deviants. One affair is almost wholesome compared to the exploits of these people. I would merely suggest you read up on the “lifestyles” of these supposed intellectuals.

            They abide by Christian maxims without adhering to the metaphysical assumptions on which Christianity is based. This is what Ayn Rand called the Stolen Concept fallacy. She herself is guilty of it.

            I am loathe to bring Rand into the discussion, but the inclusion confuses your statement for me. What metaphysical assumptions are we talking about? Are you merely talking about God’s existence? Are you talking about axioms?

            It would seem sensical to me that Christianity being some two thousand years old and housing thousands of thinkers (and some very fine thinkers to boot) would arrive at a great many truths of the world that are true even on a “merely” naturalistic level.

            If I become convinced of a Christian argument, yet I have no belief in God, then something in the argument made sense to me on this earth, of man and his nature as a natural creature. That the argument points to truths that I can observe. This is not a stolen concept. And it is not the case that Christian positions about life on earth are hidden behind some partition that I cannot see.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              I was attempting, apparently without success, to state your argument and why I thought it, Christianity, was not about achieving an earthly practicality as I thought you were trying to establish.

              No, I was not arguing that Christianity is mean to make men happier on earth. Christianity is meant to cure the Fall. If you don’t believe in the fall, I can phrase this another way: Christianity is meant to cure death, criminality, self-destructive behaviors, hatred, sloth, arrogance, cruelty, war, disease, natural disasters. It is meant to exchanging mourning and weeping for gladness and joy.

              I do think, as a side effect, Christianity does make men more suited for life on earth than the soul-crushing passivity of Buddhism, or the legalistic strictness of Islam or Judaism. It unleashes the wildfire of reformation and social improvement that classical Polytheism, a morbid and fatalistic religion in its every form, crushes. It encourages the equality of man, and paradoxically encourages obedience to civil authorities. It encourages holy abstinence and also holy matrimony, and leaves aside the dreary an hateful institutions of polygamy and concubinage which all non-Christian societies had, and which creeps back into use as Christianity retreats. Despite the laughable propaganda of Protestants and, later, atheists claiming Christianity is a pro-slave religion, in the Middle Ages, without a Civil War, slavery was abolished from Europe, and, later, after the Renaissance reintroduced the horrid institution, Christians in England without a Civil War, and in America with one, once again abolished it. It is making a come back wherever Christianity retreats, and the modern socialist view (which is actually the ancient and barbaric pagan view) replaces Christianity.

              • Comment by robertjwizard:

                I do think, as a side effect, Christianity does make men more suited for life on earth than the soul-crushing passivity of Buddhism, or the legalistic strictness of Islam or Judaism.

                I do not disagree and I could add several more to your list, namely, the 20th century experiments and their views of man. Can you imagine where we would be if we hadn’t fallen from the heights of the 18th and 19th centuries? You look at a man like George Washington (one of my top personal heroes) at his awe-some character, and you look now… it is to weep.

  4. Comment by Curubethion:

    I feel like materialist atheists tend towards (even if they don’t realize it) the idea that authority is a gestalt identity, derived from the composite wills of the members of society. Which, of course, is really just a subjective sort of morality which is so large as to have the appearance of objectivity.

    For instance, in your scenario, the atheist in the lifeboat would be compelled (by the shame to be poured upon him when he got back to shore) to desist from such a course of action, although in desparation, said shame could easily be overridden. So I suppose it still doesn’t hold water. Well, that was enough diabolical advocating. ;-)

    Here’s another analogy which may be less extreme (and therefore more applicable) to today: wealth. The extraordinarily wealthy man is faced with a choice: he can sacrifice wealth in order to preserve the poor, at the same time weakening his own position. As you move down the sliding scale, you get to a point where an individual with some money is obliged to exploit the less fortunate, in order to have financial security, because wealth can be a fickle thing.

    When you look at it this way, it becomes far clearer that objective materialist morality degrades into Darwinism: the greatest moral imperative is for every man to survive as best as he may, and the weak perish.

  5. Comment by The OFloinn:

    Interestingly, arguments against an objective moral code come from atheists like Nietzsche, Sartre, Rorty, and Rosenberg while the argument that an objective moral code is knowable in large measure by human reason is given by theists like Plato, Aristotle, and St. Paul.

    Another atheist, Stanley Fish, is keenly aware of this. To say that moral standards can be derived from a secular principle (like “fairness” or “equality”) is inherently parasitical on religion and merely smuggles in “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’” under a secular disguise. “Fairness” et al. are empty abstractions from which nothing follows until we have answered “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” That is, something prior to fairness and equality, etc. is the actual ground of morality.
    See Stanley Fish. “Are There Secular Reasons?” (NY Times Opinionator Blog, February 22, 2010, 6:00 pm)
    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/

  6. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    A person who believes in an afterlife or next life can [take] into account divine reward or punishment when making his moral calculation.

    I think you have a confusion here. Punishment or reward does not enter into a moral calculation; only into a calculation of self-interest. “I might go to Hell for this” is certainly a factor in a believer’s decision; but it is not a moral factor.

    If an atheist judges his life to be an absolute worth, outweighing the lives of lovers, wives, children, nations or causes, no other mind has the right to overrule nor correct him, for (in the atheist universe) all other minds are as mortal and limited as his own.

    It’s a good principle that nobody should be judge in his own case. Moreover, nothing in atheism requires all men to be perfect judges of their own values; one may simply make a mistake in logic or, so to speak, arithmetic – accidentally multiplying, as it were, what should have been added. If there is a core of moral truths that all men, with sufficient reflection, will reach and assent to – and nothing in atheism forbids this – then it is not unjust to correct someone who asserts something that contradicts it.

  7. Comment by CPE Gaebler:

    “It may be a fact, objective and true for all men, that X leads to Y, so that if one wants Y one needs must do X, but this is still a conditional, not an absolute, so that if I do not want X, then Y has no authority or imperative force over me”

    Should be
    “[...] so that if I do not want Y, then X has no authority or imperative force over me”

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