Tag Archives: Christianity

A Bad Argument for Moral Subjectivism

I have seen moral subjectivists imply the following argument at times:

  1. Either morality is based on God or morality is subjective.
  2. Morality is not based on God.
  3. Therefore, morality is subjective.

The argument is rarely put this clearly, but I suspect it’s a pattern of reasoning many moral subjectivists follow. They start out as Christians, accept that God doesn’t exist, and conclude that there is no morality, since the only concept of morality they are familiar with is supernatural. (This premise could also be seen as suggested by much of the moral debate in certain areas of the internet, which is mostly between divine command theorists and moral subjectivists.)

This is a bad argument because the first premise is unjustified – there is no reason why objective morality would have to be based on God. This is a Christian premise that there is no reason to accept on a secular worldview.

On a secular worldview, objective morality is much more likely to be based on the desire to live a good life. Everyone reading this likely wants to be happy, and you will be happier if you develop certain character traits in yourself over time. One example of such a character trait is productivity. People who are characteristically productive are likely to be happier than people who are lazy, because they will have accomplished more, so they will have higher self esteem, and they will likely be materially better off (more so than they would have been, at any rate).

This is the approach to morality moral subjectivists need to be considering when they make their case for moral subjectivism, not the much less plausible supernaturalist approach. We don’t use the pattern of reasoning “not supernatural, therefore subjective” in scientific issues, so we shouldn’t use it in philosophical issues.

Atheists Should Not be Moral Subjectivists

An atheist on CARM posted the following as the OP of a thread:

Many Christians have argued that there are objective moral values. Yet it seems as if all humans get their morals from reality and that morals vary from culture to culture and sometimes from person to person within a culture. If there are objective moral values, how would we know it? And what purpose would it serve if we all have morals based on reality?

I posted this in response:

Hi, I’m an atheist and I am near the end of a BA in philosophy.

I think it is mistaken, on both rational and polemical grounds, for atheists to argue against the existence of objective morality.

All living things face the alternative of life or death, and every living thing has a means of survival to keep them alive in the face of this alternative. Plants have their automatic chemical functions, and the lower animals have instincts. Human beings, however, use reason as their means of survival, which means that they have to exert effort and think about the way they live, not depend on their automatic functions. It is necessary for a human being to define a set of moral principles to live by, and the only rational standard for a moral code is life.

Most people sense that morality has a life preserving function. As a result, they react strongly to the idea that morality is merely subjective, and see this idea as destructive, although they may lack the conceptual tools to articulate this properly. If people have to choose between religion and moral subjectivism, then they will choose religion, as the fundamentalists on this forum illustrate daily.

The only hope for atheists is to articulate a set of secular values that are based on life and disseminate these values into the culture. Such a set of values has been defined by Ayn Rand, and she has provided the means for disseminating them by presenting them in the form of art, i.e., her novels.

You can find elaboration on the argument I made in the above post here.


When do Atheists have to Study the Arguments for God’s Existence?

In a previous post, I argued that atheists have no general obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence in detail – that is, a typical atheist doesn’t have to review the academic literature about the existence of God to be justified in believing that God doesn’t exist. In this post, I will discuss the conditions under which an atheist is morally obligated to study the arguments for God’s existence carefully.

The first category is atheists who have an academic obligation to study the arguments for God’s existence. I know from personal experience that a philosophy major at a good school will be required to understand a number of arguments for the existence of God in order to get good grades in their classes. There is obviously much more to a philosophy degree than arguments for the existence of God, like the nature of knowledge, but understanding arguments for the existence of God is a big component of what a philosophy major has to study.

Why is this? Are philosophers just obsessed with arcane details of the past? No, there is a good reason why philosophy majors have to understand the arguments for the existence of God. A philosophy major should come away from the degree with a fairly strong understanding of the history of philosophy, especially as that history is relevant to the most important modern debates. There are certain basic things that a BA in philosophy should be able to do, like explain what logical positivism was in outline. This is in spite of the fact that logical positivism as such is almost never defended today, because it has been so influential and its ideas are still called upon implicitly by so many people.

The second category is atheists who intend to defend atheism in public, whether that is by arguing with people on the street, writing letters to the local newspaper, or having a formal debate in front of an audience. If you are going to be defending atheism in public, then you need to know what theists will say in defense of theism and be able to respond to it. This isn’t because theists’ arguments are especially cogent, but rather because they can be very tricky to unravel on the spot and there are a lot of variants on them that can add additional complexities.

This is where atheist philosophers of religion come in. Atheist philosophers of religion are not only clever, as anyone has to be to get a job as a professional philosopher, they are specifically educated for the task of developing and refuting arguments in philosophy of religion, and they have usually been writing in the field for decades. Atheist philosophers of religion can come up with much stronger arguments for atheism and much stronger objections to arguments for the existence of God than a typical layman atheist can.

Sometimes this is just a matter of laying things out more clearly than a layman knows how to do. For example, if a layman presented the problem of divine hiddenness, it would probably look something like this:

Well, if God exists, why hasn’t he shown himself to us? God isn’t loving!

Compare that with J. L. Schellenberg’s argument from divine hiddenness:

  1. If there is a God, he is perfectly loving.
  2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.
  3. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.
  4. No perfectly loving God exists (from 2 and 3).
  5. Hence, there is no God (from 1 and 4).

This is a much clearer and more thorough way of making the argument from divine hiddenness, and if you study Schellenberg in depth by reading his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason, you will find that he piles arguments on top of arguments in support of his premises (which are pretty compelling to begin with, frankly).

In other cases, atheist philosophers of religion have an advantage due to their superior understanding of theistic philosophy. For example, Anthony Kenny in his book The Five Ways has argued that Aquinas’ five ways were originally based on Aquinas’ completely false scientific views about the universe, like his astronomical view that the planets moved around on crystal spheres. This isn’t the sort of thing a layman could learn without studying Aquinas in depth, so reading Kenny’s book is a major time saver.

So, there are a lot of advantages to studying atheist philosophers of religion if you intend to defend atheism in public, to the point that I think anyone who is going to defend atheism in public has a moral obligation to make some effort to research their work.

A Down to Earth Reason for Atheists to Study Philosophy of Religion

A lot of atheists who argue about religion on the internet don’t think philosophy justifies the claims it argues for. We can construct an argument for something, but in the absence of hard evidence to prop up the argument it’s all just air. Let’s assume this is true. The fact remains that saying “your argument is just air because it’s not supported by hard evidence” might fail to be persuasive to your audience, especially if you’re already several moves deep into the exchange.

This is why atheists routinely make arguments that assume that some of the theist’s premises are true and show that the argument fails anyway. You’re not establishing things scientifically here, but most atheists will be able to agree that having those extra internal objections could be just enough to tip a lurker over the edge. Reading what philosophers have written will help you come up with more of these potentially crucial extra arguments.

In summary:

  1. Persuading people that Christianity is irrational is valuable.
  2. Knowing internal objections to Christianity will help persuade people that it is irrational.
  3. Studying philosophy of religion will help you find more internal objections.
  4. Therefore, all other things being equal, it is a good idea to study philosophy of religion.

Here are some websites you can use.

Good luck.

The Rise of Fundamentalist Christianity

Millions of people in the United States are fundamentalist Christians who think that the Bible is infallible, the Earth is only a few thousand years old, and Jesus is due to return within half a century or so. Starting in the 1950s, fundamentalists began to engage in vigorous political campaigning against policies like sex education, the legalization of abortion, and state recognition of homosexual marriage.

Why do fundamentalists campaign against these policies, and why did they start doing so when they did? Based on what I have read, fundamentalism as a political movement started in reaction to events like Watergate, the loss of the Vietnam War, and student rebellions on college campuses. They interpreted these events as analogous to when, in the Old Testament, God would pass judgment against Israel for turning away from God, and they think that the only way to get God back on our side is to make our nation as “Christian” as possible.

To this end, fundamentalist leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have developed an enormous media empire dedicated to spreading the message of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists have numerous television shows, radio shows, and websites, in addition to having a collective captive audience of millions in the pews across the country every Sunday. Fundamentalists exert considerable political influence as well. Ronald Reagan, for example, went out of his way to appeal to the evangelical voters, and explicitly said in several of his speeches that he agreed with them on many points, like abortion.

Fundamentalist Christians think that the family is central to the survival of the United States, and they think that the husband should be at the head of the family and that the wife should try to make herself subservient and appealing to him, as the Bible allegedly requires. Accordingly, they generally oppose movements like feminism and the gay rights movement which they see as threats to the family. They were also generally opposed to the civil rights movement, although there were dissenters among fundamentalist preachers on this point.

Just as they think that the Bible should determine family roles, fundamentalists think that the Bible should be the arbiter of our scientific conclusions as well. Among fundamentalists, Young Earth Creationism is considered a legitimate, albeit controversial, scientific theory, and a serious competitor to the theory of evolution.

The odds of routing fundamentalism are not very good, but I think atheists who want to make a difference could try to do two things. First, they could explain why fundamentalism is not intellectually credible. Fundamentalist leaders repeatedly assert in their speeches that fundamentalist Christianity is intellectually tenable, and that is a clear weak point in the movement’s narrative. Second, they could explain why atheism does not imply nihilism or moral decay. As I mentioned above, one of the main concerns of fundamentalists is that abandoning Christianity will leave us without moral guidance, so atheists need to combat that claim if they are to persuade fundamentalist Christians to leave the movement.