Monthly Archives: June 2011

Poor arguments against atheism, no. 928

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.

Keep religious morals private

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 Christians decried fellow Christian and Congressman Paul Ryan for drawing inspiration from atheist pro-capitalist Ayn Rand.  These Christians on the left argued that Boehner and Ryan were abandoning Jesus’s teachings on protecting the poor and the weak.  The infighting has recalled to the fore a question that had been floating around in my head for a while now: how do theists decide which of their alleged objective moral duties and commands to make public policy, i.e., to impose on everyone?

On one level, it’s strange there’s even a question about this in the first place.   Shouldn’t every alleged divine dictate, no matter how trivial, automatically be a civil or criminal law?  They are, after all, supposed to be objective rules, adherence to which is not limited merely to believers, but mandatory for everyone.  Instead, theists pick and choose, seemingly at random: 

Gay marriage?  No way!  Divorce?  No problem. 

Abortion? Life is sacrosanct!  Adultery? Live and let live. 

Theft? God’s Word prohibits it!  Keeping the Sabbath? God’s Word..! Uhhh..oh, nevermind…

Source: Wikipedia

To make matters even more confusing, theists consistently revise what commands they think should be codified in law.  What was once vigorously outlawed by theists as an unforgiveable affront to God’s Holy Word, punishable by such tortuous means as tongue impalement with a hot iron, is today not only legal but routinely engaged in by theists to boot.  

The historical contingency of what’s supposed to be timeless morality is slightly less bizarre than the unresolved disagreement over just what that timeless morality is in the first place.  Can you use contraception?  Some say yes, some say no.  Drink alcohol?  Some say yes, some say no.  Have multiple wives? Again, some say yes, some say no.  Never in the entire history of theism has there been agreement on what is moral and what is not.  And what agreement there is has often been achieved through overwhelming force rather than voluntary acquiescence.

With all this persistent moral divisiveness and befuddlement, you’d think the reasonable thing for theists to do is keep their morality out of the public sphere altogether, or at least with only deep reluctance turn to scriptures when promoting it in public policy.  But “reason” and “theism” are like oil and water – ne’er the twain shall meet – so instead many shamelessly continue to insist on the primacy of whatever divine command they’ve happened to pull out of the scriptural hat.

I once had a conversation with a Christian who saw no problem with this practice.  Christians, he said, oppose murder and theft based on biblical dictates, and no one has a problem with that. So why should anyone have a problem when they oppose, say, gay marriage on the same grounds?  Objections to promoting one’s religious convictions in the public sphere are really a red herring; religion isn’t really the issue.
As I explained to this Christian (in a post which he deleted), things like theft and murder are violations of liberty, which is independent of religion.  Because one’s religious views happen to align with the preservation of liberty in this or that case does not make them synonymous, nor does it mean one’s religion is the font of rights and responsibilities applicable to all.  Such positions subvert liberty, and that’s what’s being objected to.

The ironic thing is, this is the same defense most theists employ against the imposition of other theists’ supposed divine dictates.  But such opposition is hypocritical.  If you grant yourself the right to impose your religion on others, in a democracy, you’ve granted it to all – and abdicated any grounds to object.

My advice to theists is to keep your religious morality to yourself.  Your efforts at imposing them are wildly inconsistent, which undermines both their authority and alleged objectivity.  If that isn’t sufficient reason, then remember: the sword you wield to force others to follow your morality can just as easily be wielded by someone else to force you to follow theirs.