Reason this

by Robert

My excitement over next week’s Reason Rally continues to grow, particularly over the recent news that members of the Westboro Baptist Church will be attending.  As you may not be aware, this is the Christian group famous for picketing the funerals of dearly departed kittens and puppies, usefully informing the world at such events that God hates America, fags, and polyester.

So why am I in such a tizzy? Because other Christian groups besides Westboro plan to attend the rally too.

Curiously, all these Christian visitors have upset some within the atheist/skeptical community.  But where they see only downsides, I see golden opportunity!

You see, Christians disagree with the declaration that atheism is reasonable, and they’re coming to argue it is Christianity that’s reasonable.  I’ve noted before that such a position contradicts their own scriptures, not to mention the teachings of their major theologians.  Nevertheless, I propose we take them at their word and provide them the chance to demonstrate the rationality of their beliefs – demonstrate, that is, to their fellow Christians!

The elephant in the Christian church is its thousands of sects, many of whom hold long-standing, diametrically opposed beliefs which all cannot be true.  Such a situation seems inexplicable for an allegedly reasonable religion like Christianity.  After all, other, far younger enterprises that are based on reason and evidence – science is a good example – for the most part lack this splintering.  So, the Reason Rally is in reality a fantastic opportunity for these Christians to resolve their differences in polite, meaningful, and reasonable exchange.    Does God really hate gays?  Is America irrevocably doomed to damnation?  Will my wearing a cotton shirt, wool shorts, and a silk tie offend the Almighty? I’m sure such contentions questions will be reasonably settled by reasonable Christians who, after all, worship the God of Reason.

The stakes are high.  Christians certainly don’t want to ward off potential converts with contradictory messages.  Besides, does not the Bible warn of other gospels that put us under God’s curse if we were to be misled by them? Dispelling false Christian doctrine once and for all would pay huge dividends in souls saved.  Finally, billions speaking in a unified voice would set Christianity apart from its squabbling cousins and provide powerful evidence of its veracity.

Let the first test of Christianity’s reasonableness be whether it can convince its own adherents to shed incorrect gospels and unite behind a single doctrine.  This achievement seems trivial for a religion that’s truly reasonable, one headed by a deity who is supposedly no author of confusion.

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Interrupting my irregularly scheduled apatheism, I bring you the following irony…

A video gone viral recently among the Christian blogosphere argues that religion should be shunned.

A video gone viral recently among the atheist blogosphere argues that religion should be emulated.

Well, perhaps that’s oversimplifying things a bit, but you have to appreciate the surprising switcheroo.

If you’re going to watch just one video, I recommend the second.  Its point is that religion provides us -  atheists included – many of the things we need to prosper – things such as a moral framework, and community.  Even as societies abandon religion, the needs it fulfills remain.  The question the video answers is how best to do that, and with what.  Its title is apt: Atheism 2.0.

I found the first video interesting from the perspective of a student of the religious phenomenon.  It explicitly agrees with many of the critiques of religion made by the so-called new atheists, which suggests a significant influence even among believers.  But it takes the bold tact of attempting to divorce Christianity from religion by redefining the former.  Historically and theologically, I find that a daunting and problematic – if not predictable – task.  Christianity 259,761.0.

So what’s this about apatheism?

Increasingly, I feel that arguing over the existence of god is like arguing over the existence of the Tooth Fairy.  The arguments for such a being or beings just seem silly to me, and become more flabbergasting when they involve the claims of particular religions.  If you’re a believer unable to relate, consider your stance vis-à-vis Scientology.  The question of its truth is something you likely find patently absurd, hardly worth sparing a moment of your time for.  This is how I presently feel about the god question.

Nonetheless, I continue to enjoy identifying incoherencies in religious belief.  I’ve lately been thinking about faith; in particular, how a religious believer can justify it for themself, but dismiss it of others.  Hopefully, a blog post with some scattered thoughts will see the light of day soon.

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Recent increases in the numbers of those who reject traditional theism have spawned a vast army of god-defenders, the quality of whose work, in my estimation, has varied widely.  It seems many of these new apologetic theists, being unused to the role, are not well-versed in the practice of crafting sound, coherent arguments.  Consequently, you often come across some humorous, even silly attempts to “debunk” atheism.  These are actually worthwhile to engage because untangling the intellectual morass can be an interesting challenge.  Besides that, you just might get lucky and get a comment so funny or bizarre, it’s worthy of submission to the Fundies Say the Darndest Things website.

But once in a while, you’ll get someone who is simply not interested in defending their arguments.  You’re response just goes down a black hole, or is rejected for inconsequential reasons.  The latter was the fate of a response to a post titled The Problem of Morality by one Carson Weitnauer, part of his “The Problems with Atheism Series” on his blog Simple Apologetics.  Carson didn’t like the “tone” of my response, though, as you’ll see, I believe it was appropriate for his arguments.  Besides, it was directly only at them, and not at Carson personally.  Because the problem of the disappearing rebuttal is hardly new, I keep a copy for posting on this blog (to his credit, Carson emailed me a copy of my reply as well).  Additionally, while I argue (and I think show) that Carson’s case is ludicrous at best, his bogus claims are not uncommon, and serve only to spread popular myths that deserve debunking wherever they appear.

I recommend you read Carson’s original article first to get the full context of my rebuttal.  Portions of his article that I specifically respond to are in italics.


Upon reading this post, it’s clear to me it contains a number of errors and misunderstandings which fatally undermine your case.  I’d like to spell out why in further detail and look forward to a response.

First, your theistic bias is clearly evident, particularly in the unstated premise that good and evil, as well as moral truths, can only exist if the theistic god exists.  Your arguments make sense only in light of this premise.

Second, the alleged problem you describe is not particularly an atheistic problem, but more properly identified as a problem for non-theists, because your arguments, at least in part, apply to deists and pantheists as well.  They too do not believe in a theistic god.

Third, the following assertions are false:

“atheism…denies that there exist any moral rules”

“atheism affirms that all that exists is matter, energy, and space-time”

“these elements are not enough to support the existence of morality”

Atheism – the lack of belief in god(s) – neither affirms nor denies anything about moral rules.  This is an irrelevant question to atheism.  Does it make sense to say a-unicornists deny the existence of any moral rules?  Absolutely not, unless you believe moral rules come only from unicorns.

In any case, individual atheists do believe in the existence of moral rules; clearly they do because they practice them each day.  What they deny, along with deists and pantheists, is the existence of divine commands.  They obtain these rules from reason, experience, and evolutionary programming.

You confuse atheism with the theory of materialism.  There are atheists, such as animists, who certainly do not think reality can be reduced to the material.

I got a good laugh at your caricature of how non-theists view morality.  Do you really believe we think of it as some kind of physical substance composed of matter, energy or space-time, as you suggested in your thought experiment?  What a ludicrous straw man!  Are you going to charge us with denying, say, philosophy because we also cannot arrange the molecules or “put the pieces together” to re-create it in a lab?

What you have to notice is that all of this “moral discourse” would just be in their heads! There is nothing really wrong with murder or really right about promise-keeping. Instead, it just happens to be the case that those behaviors are viewed as bad or good, respectively, by their humanoid society.

You just described the utilitarian, welfare-promoting aspects of keeping promises and not murdering, and then dismiss them as merely a view?  As if the consequences of those things were wholly absent or irrelevant?

Let’s imagine that, one day, bored in the laboratory, you set up the humanoid society so that murderers find themselves with an extra 10,000 laboratory dollars in their bank accounts. (Imagine a sick version of The Truman Show). This turns out to be enough money to pay for bodyguards, eliminate other genes from the population, and get their own genes passed down in a higher proportion to the next generation far in excess of other humanoids. On it goes for a few generations, and before long, you have a humanoid society that heartily approves of murder, and violently opposes anyone who tries to keep murderers from their deserved wealth and social status.

No, before long, you wouldn’t have a humanoid society that heartily approves of murder; you’d have no society at all.  Leaving aside the comical question why 10,000 “lab dollars” induces people to kill others, you’ve assumed that the murderers would not murder fellow murderers, or even their own bodyguards.  However, this assumption makes no sense in light of the condition that I emphasized above.  Your theoretical exercise is so illogical and incoherent, you should blush that you even suggested it could ever apply to the real world.

If you want to be a consistent atheist, then every time you go from “here are the facts” to “here is the proper moral rule for evaluating these facts” you should stop yourself. Then remind yourself: these rules are just a social illusion.

You’ve failed to demonstrate how moral rules are “just a social illusion”.  Your case, so far, is built on risible straw men that in no way approximate reality or the way morality is understood.

What this means is that there is no way to call evil “evil.”

Certainly there is, if you subscribe to certain moral tenets which dictate that it’s evil, say, to inflict involuntary suffering on others, with only limited exceptions.  Because someone else may hold to a contrary moral tenet in no way impinges on this ability.  It is irrelevant.

To summarize: under atheism, there are no such things or categories as good or evil. And second, any perception to the contrary is completely illusory and is merely a byproduct of non-moral, socio-biological forces.

Your claims are based on nothing more than caricatures which rely on theistic assumptions.  One could just as easily build a similar case why under theism there are no such things or categories as good or evil because it denies the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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Keep religious morals private

June 10, 2011

While theists on the political right have been regular contenders in battles over public policy, those on the political left have recently flexed their muscles.  First, there was the letter from progressive Catholics chastising fellow Catholic and Congressman John Boehner for pushing a budget that would cut some social welfare programs. And later, some liberal […]

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Now that’s chutzpah!

May 26, 2011

Over at the Huffington Post’s Religion section – which rivals Fundies Say the Darndest Things! as the most consistent stream of ROFL-inducing religious babble on the whole internet – one Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster, of Rabbis for Human Rights North America, posted a piece entitled “Building Bridges of Freedom: The Interfaith Movement to End Slavery”. After […]

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16:9-20 & 666 – numbers that debunk the Bible

May 19, 2011

Dr. Richard Carrier recently published a comprehensive article on Mark 16:9-20.  If you’re not aware, these final verses in Mark are unquestionably a later interpolation, i.e., falsification or forgery.  This is a pretty devastating verdict on the Bible’s own claim of divine inspiration. Some Christians, no doubt, will reject this verdict, so allow me to […]

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When the natural law condemns the lawgiver

May 11, 2011

Professor Matt McCormick provides an excellent exposition on the dilemma facing theists regarding the morality of God’s actions – and inactions.  He asks, “If a human did what God is allegedly doing right now, would we consider that a morally good action?”  He briefly touches on one implication of his argument for the “natural law” […]

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Will the real god please stand up?

April 11, 2011

Blogging inspiration hasn’t struck me that often over the last few months, so I’ve been sticking to blog discussions here and there.  Lately, however, I’ve been coming across a theistic error so glaring, it cries for comment.  The curious thing about this error is that it’s being committed by some of the more prominent religious […]

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Do you have a religious litmus test?

October 19, 2010

Unless you recently awoke from hibernation, if you’re American, you’re probably aware there’s an election coming up pretty soon.  As a result, you’ve likely given at least some thought to whom you’ll vote for and why.  As for myself, I live in a part of the country where the election of a particular candidate is […]

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The Holy Spirit is worse than useless

October 5, 2010

Something that completely vexes the Christian believer is why non-Christians are not at all convinced by their testimony of the witness of the Holy Spirit, the aspect of God which is said to confirm the truth (1 John 5:6, John 14:17).  The short answer is that this alleged being appears everywhere, “confirming” indisputably contradictory theology.  […]

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