When Christians don’t know their own Bible

The American Humanist Association’s ad campaign in Washington, DC, which asks, “Why believe in God?  Just be good for goodness’ sake”, has provoked a number of sharp responses from Christians.  The American Family Association’s president, Tim Wildmon, said, for example:

It’s a stupid ad. How do we define ‘good’ if we don’t believe in God? God in his word, the Bible, tells us what’s good and bad and right and wrong. If we are each ourselves defining what’s good, it’s going to be a crazy world.

Around the blogosphere, Christians have echoed the same argument, which has got me chuckling, for it’s debunked in of all places the Bible itself.  As Paul wrote in Romans 2:14-15 (NASV):

For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them,

Paul did not originate this idea of a divinely engraved law; it’s found throughout the Bible.  Psalms 19:1-4 (NASV):

The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, and their utterances to the end of the world in them He has placed a tent for the sun,

And it’s not like no one has ever noticed these scriptures.  The existence of a “moral law” has been a constant refrain from Christians throughout the centuries, with Christian apologist C. S. Lewis being a recent popularizer (see, e.g., Mere Christianity).

The Christian response to the AHA’s ad reflects a baffling ignorance of their own doctrine.  They can’t simultaneously argue one can’t be good without a belief in God, on the one hand, and then maintain that God’s law is written on the heart of every human, on the other.  Does atheism somehow rescind a divine act?

13 thoughts on “When Christians don’t know their own Bible

  1. You are making a reasonably good point here, one that most Christians fail to parse. The Bible does discuss natural law, and from a Christian perspective, there is no such thing as ignorance of right and wrong.

    I would assert, however, that if atheism is the default position, there is no “goodness sake.” Nothing about Darwinian atheism leads me to believe that objective morality exists. There is only expedient and less-expedient. The idea of “good” and “bad” are conventions created by mankind, mostly religious mankind, and the most honest atheists acknowledge that good and evil don't really exist. Therefore, I find the message we're discussing confusing at best, and silly at worst.

    I am not suggesting that atheists can't be morally good people; most assuredly, they can! I'm simply suggesting that “good” behavior really need not be relevant to an atheist lifestyle.

  2. If there's indeed an objective morality, religions like Christianity offer no evidence or demonstration that it exists. One only need observe their shifting moralities across time to understand the point. Indeed, many times they've been behind the curve in terms of what they've later accepted as moral. Even within a particular religion, there is often wide disagreement over what constitutes a moral action, which is odd given their claim of an objective morality.

    Most theists say that whatever God commands is moral. Fine, but where can we find what God commands? The Bible? The Qu'ran? The Book of Mormon? The Bhagavad Gita? Assuming, for your sake, it's the Bible, we find a prohibition against lying (Exodus 20:16). Clear enough? Well, not so fast. There are limitless situations in which lying would actually be the moral thing to do (e.g., Nazi soldiers asking if you were hiding any Jews). It thus appears that this particular command is *cough*relative*cough* to the situation. Is lying objectively bad or good? Your (honest) answer would be, “It depends…”, which is precisely the answer the atheist would give.

    I'm a little confused by your term “Darwinian atheism”. To my ears it sounds somewhat like “Big Bang humanism”. Be careful to avoid the naturalistic fallacy.

    I'm simply suggesting that “good” behavior really need not be relevant to an atheist lifestyle.

    Would belief in Zeus or Thor really change this? In other words, what I'm asking is whether the mere belief in a deity of some kind fundamentally alters the calculus to do good.

    Obviously, not.

    “Good” behavior, however we define it, relies upon a host of conditions and situations. Nonetheless, some ethical norms have emerged which demonstrate their utility over and over in producing outcomes we all tend to value as humans. One such ethic is reciprocity, aka “the golden rule.” I as an atheist follow generally follow it because I see the benefits consistently in my life. Your claim might have some validity if there was a wide divergence in observed ethical behavior between societies where theistic belief dominates and where it doesn't. However, we don't observe that at all.

  3. Are you really prepared to assert that the cultural morality of America is not markedly different than that of more secular cultures? I think of the Netherlands and Thailand particularly. Both societies are ardently secular in religious sentiment, and sex slavery and child sexual abuse are widespread in both these societies. Apparently, the “golden rule” doesn't apply for those cultures in the same way that they apply here. There are more issues at play than simply an absence of religion in these cultures, but I do think it important to note that religious culture (albeit Deist mostly) has formed American ideals about the moral characteristics of America.

    Again, I am not suggesting that secular societies are doomed to immoral behavior. What i am suggesting is that where no religious sentiment is present, ideals like the sanctity of human life are increasingly difficult to rationally defend. If I am a bi-product of a cosmic accident, why should I feel necessity to worry about being nice to my neighbor instead of using them to satisfy my desire for pleasure?

    Your discussion of lying in regard to the Old Testament reflects a common misconception about the Old Testament. in fact, lying in a general sense is never forbidden wholesale by the Bible. The OT is replete with examples of deception based upon necessity or God's command (the most ready example I can think of is God's command to send spies into Canaan). The Old Testament picture of morality is far more complex than you (and sadly, most Christians) give it credit for here. So, in a sense we agree, morality to some degree is relative to the situation, and I recognize that even the Bible presents this as the case. It would be easier if God simply gave us a list of dos and don'ts with no exceptions, but that is not the situation presented in either the Old or New Testaments.

    About your appeal to Biblical authority vs. the Koran, or Book of Mormon, etc. I could go into the numerous reasons why I find the Bible historically superior to those other forms (believe me, I spent years as a skeptic, trying to figure out which of them, if any, reflected God's truth), but I'll leave that discussion for another time.

  4. Are you really prepared to assert that the cultural morality of America is not markedly different than that of more secular cultures?

    I'm prepared to defend what I originally wrote, that there is no “wide divergence in observed ethical behavior between societies where theistic belief dominates and where it doesn't.” It is after all atheism you say which gives one no reason to be moral.

    So, you point to Thailand and the Netherlands? Why can I not point to Somalia and Saudi Arabia? Narrow it down to predominantly Christian societies like America? Very well, then let's speak of Nigeria, where young children are accused of witchcraft and abandoned, tortured, or killed.

    In any case, don't erroneously conflate secular with atheist. America is a secular country in that it officially respects no particular religion. For all we know, the sex traffickers are theists of some kind, just as America's own human slave traffickers were Christian.

    If I am a bi-product of a cosmic accident, why should I feel necessity to worry about being nice to my neighbor instead of using them to satisfy my desire for pleasure?

    This is an example of the naturalistic fallacy. What is, does not necessarily entail what ought to be, particularly when it comes to ethics.

    But allow me to turn the question around. If God has commanded it, why should I feel necessity to worry about being nice to my neighbor instead of using them to satisfy my desire for pleasure (or wives, or slaves, or revenge, etc.)? The question points to the problematic aspect of divine command ethics: there is no understanding of why something is prohibited. You follow orders, whatever they may be at the time, or suffer the consequences. This makes an excellent recipe for atrocity, as we have repeatedly witnessed in religion's history.

    I'm still struggling to understand how the Bible offers any evidence of an ethical code superior to any other. Lying is prohibited…except when it's not. Murder is prohibited…except when it's not. As an ethical guidebook, the Bible is, quite frankly, a mess. What is the objective morality you've distilled from it? Perhaps more importantly, why hasn't Christianity itself settled on a common morality? The only two moral issues which majorities of Christians appear to agree on are opposition to homosexuality and abortion, and even there the lines are blurring.

  5. Hmmm…there goes the “naturalistic fallacy” business again. Despite the fact that the idea of “naturalistic fallacy” is a hotly debated precept of philosophy, especially moral philosophy, I still don't really see how I've violated that principle. I've concluded that atheism offers no value judgements about the world. If I were an atheist, I would have nothing to determine what is good or bad, other than my own preference, so why not do what I'd like instead of what is good for the world? Atheism offers me little good reason to think of my fellow man, or engage in any type of love other than self-love. I am not however, suggesting that this proves that atheism is not true – the Moral argument against Atheism is still a little elusive to me. Arguments about objective morality by the likes of Austin Dacey make little sense to me, but this does not invalidate the atheist position. When we start throwing the term “naturalistic fallacy” around, we invalidate much ethical discussion produced by secular and religious thinkers alike. Don't forget that Moore, the founder of the idea of this fallacy, was not a naturalist; I could be wrong, but you seem to be a pretty naturalistic sort of fellow. If that is the case, you might have a problem with Moore's approach because he sought to address metaphysical truths not necessarily evidenced in nature.

    I am not arguing, either, that religion by itself will automatically make a culture more moral. As a Christian, I have to assume that there are better religions than others, so cultures founded on weaker religious ideals will produce weaker cultural results. What I am arguing is that atheism offers no positive alternative for morality. Atheism offers little positive argument for itself or for any kind of ethical system at all. Were I an atheist, I would really hesitate to frown on anyone's behavior, whether it be anti-Semitism or pedophilia. All behaviors simply would exist, and they would be neither moral nor immoral.

  6. Jeremy Killian: What I am arguing is that atheism offers no positive alternative for morality.

    Quite true. ‘Course neither does Newton’s Law of Gravity either. Nor does declaring Labor Day a national Holiday in America. See, neither of these two things make any claim to offer a “positive alternative for morality.” One is a scientific law; the other is a legislative act.

    Atheism says, “There is no God.” I’ll grant you that concept would certainly kill the idea of a God-created morality, but in and of itself, it is an observation of what is. Just like the law of gravity is an observation of what is. Or a closed Post Office on Labor is an observation of what is.

    We develop morality with what we have. Look, in the same way we recognize the law of gravity, but in an attempt to push against it develop rockets and wings and flight—equally we recognize all we have to determine morality is the opinions of humans, and work within that parameter.

    Whether you like it, prefer it, or desire it—is basically irrelevant to the discussion at hand. It is what it is. I’ll let you in on a secret; most of us would prefer an objective morality. Oh how easy it would be to turn to some book or law or god and ask a moral question, receiving a definitive answer as to what to do. “Wanting it” and “it exists” are too different things. I want superpowers, too. Not happening.

    Jeremy Killian: If I were an atheist, I would have nothing to determine what is good or bad, other than my own preference, so why not do what I'd like instead of what is good for the world?

    You would be surprised at how much that doesn’t work. In countries we have laws causing you to be locked up for certain behavior. Most people don’t prefer that. In societies we frown upon and ostracize certain behavior. Like burping at that table. You may find being excluded from society causes you more pain than pleasure.

    Further, you start to discover if you think it is O.K. to steal from your neighbor’s house—the neighbor finds it equally O.K. to steal from you. You find if you start to blow through 4-way stops—others do as well. What you would discover (believe it or not) is that your start to “prefer” for your own sanity, some moralistic behavior.

    Rather than dial it down all the way to “no morals,” take a tiny step first to see how this would work. I don’t know if you are married, but if you are—you may appreciate this example I always use. What if we found a 1st century copy of Matthew? In which, it was learned for the first time, Jesus said it was O.K. to get divorced.

    Would you immediately rush right out and get divorced because it was no longer a sin? Of course not! You love your spouse and want to stay with them for a great many more reasons than simply because it is a sin to divorce.

    Morals work the same way. We do things for others, we self-sacrifice, we self-impose societal standards for far greater and diverse reasons than the simple black-and-white of “I can” or “I can’t.”

    While Paul was off a bit in Romans, he did hit a principle observed throughout history. Humans limit and interact with each other, creating a moral system, in order to progress their society. Paul called it a law written on hearts—but much the same thing.

    Jeremy Killian: Were I an atheist, I would really hesitate to frown on anyone's behavior, whether it be anti-Semitism or pedophilia.

    Again, not true. You were raised in a certain culture. Within that culture, certain repeated patterns occurred, causing you to actually feel uncomfortable with premises. You wouldn’t like them. You would frown because you couldn’t stop your mouth from doing so.

    What if I told you I was taking my 12-year-old niece as my wife? In America, in 2008, this causes a “frown.” Yet in another culture, in another time, this would not even be worthy of a wrinkle. Or if I told you I hated Jews. Again—here a frown. In Palestinian camps? A shout of affirmation.

    You can’t help yourself. Because of how you were raised, and the world you interact within—you develop morals and codes whether you want to or not.

    Jeremy Killian: Nothing about Darwinian atheism leads me to believe that objective morality exists.

    I’m not surprised. Whatever “Darwinian atheism” is—it sounds as if it is on the right track. Since there is “objective morality.” What I hear predominantly from Christians is that objective morality exists—we just can’t know what it is. Which, if you think about it, is a difference without distinction.

    What if I told you objective morality exists and is founded in the emperor of Persei-8—an unreachable, unknowable, unverifiable planet? And that we can never know, never be certain, and never be informed as to what the objective morality was? And that we are here, on our own, trying to figure it out?

    What difference would there be between that situation, and one in which there was no objective morality? None!

    Without any way to verify this “objective morality” the discussion becomes quite unprofitable.

  7. DagoodS has largely expressed my thinking here, grounding it in concrete examples and illustrations, which is his particular forte. I would like to emphasize his point that atheism in and of itself offers no system of ethics, so your objection to it on those grounds is a bit of a strawman. The correct comparison is not between Christianity vs. atheism, but Christianity vs. secular humanism. A few decades ago, it was mostly secular humanism that Christians aimed their fire, but with the increasing prominence of a few best-selling atheist authors, now it's atheism. Atheists themselves have contributed to the false rivalry (I'm just as guilty as the rest). This is unfortunate, because it allows Christians to dismiss atheism on the very basis you have.

    Sorry to harp about the naturalistic fallacy, but I maintain this is precisely the error you commit with phrases like “Darwinian atheism”. Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory, which I'm sure you're aware, many Christians have found compatible with their religion. Does it make any sense to thus speak of “Darwinian Christianity”? Evolution may explain why we act in a certain manner, but it is no prescription for behavior.

    The key point I wish Christians like yourself would answer is, if there is an objection morality as you repeatedly claim, then what is it? How do we determine it?

  8. I agree with you that Wildmon's statement isn't the best expression of the Chrisitian view. The classical Christian view is that there is a natural law that people can know without divine revelation (as you say), but it is much harder to know that natural law without divine revelation, and our baser instincts will always work to suppress our knowledge of the natural law. Aquinas is probably the best exponent of this understanding. To quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

    “Detaching Aquinas' philosophy from his theology is compatible with distinctions he firmly delineates at the beginning of his two mature theological syntheses, the Summa contra Gentiles and the Summa Theologiae. (i) There are truths, he says, which are accessible to natural reason, that is, to ordinary experience (including the specialized observations of natural scientists), insight, and reflection; and these include practical truths about good and evil, right and wrong. (ii) Many of those truths of natural reason are confirmed, and even clarified, by divine revelation, that is, the propositions communicated directly or inferentially in the life and works of Christ, as transmitted by his immediate followers and prepared for in the Jewish scriptures accepted by those followers as revelatory. (iii) Some of the truths divinely revealed could not have been discovered by natural, philosophical reason, even though, once accepted, their content and significance can be illuminated by the philosophically ordered reflection which he calls theology.”

    Or, to quote Pope Pius XII in 1950: “human reason by its own natural force and light can arrive at a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, Who by His providence watches over and governs the world, and also of the natural law, which the Creator has written in our hearts, still there are not a few obstacles to prevent reason from making efficient and fruitful use of its natural ability. The truths that have to do with God and the relations between God and men, completely surpass the sensible order and demand self-surrender and self-abnegation in order to be put into practice and to influence practical life. Now the human intellect, in gaining the knowledge of such truths is hampered both by the activity of the senses and the imagination, and by evil passions arising from original sin. Hence men easily persuade themselves in such matters that what they do not wish to believe is false or at least doubtful.

    You may also want to consider the more modern writings of J. Budziszewski, a professor of philosophy and government at the University of Texas at Austin. See, e.g., http://www.leaderu.com/real/ri9801/budziszewski….

    Incidentally, I came to your wesbite from the post at Jen Fulwiler's website where you wrote that you're “not sure how you can read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament and Revelations, and come to the conclusion that (the Christian) God is love.” I think you're missing an important part of the the full Christian understanding on the issue. The classical, orthodox Christian understanding of revelation is that God progressively revealed Himself in a greater and greater way throughout the Old Testament, reaching its fulfillment in the New Testament. It's simliar to the growth in the relationship between a child and his parents over the years. Initially, the child is placed under restricitve rules that would not be appropriate for an adult and that the child does not fully understand. Over time, though, with the child's maturation, the rules become more relaxed, and the parent's motives become more transparent to the child. Imagine, for example, that you read a person's diary from childhood through adulthood. You might well see his view of his parents changing, from a simplistic understanding that viewed his parents' punishments as misguided or motivated by anger, to a mature understanding that sees how the parents were loving their child at every step along the way. The Jewish/Christian understanding of God similarly developed over the centuries, and the Bible is that diary. Initially, the understanding was crude and, as the Second Vatican Council put it in the document “Dei Verbum,” the Old Testament books “contain matters imperfect and provisional.” But the understanding of God developed over time, culminating in Jesus's undistilled message of God's love, as expressed in the New Testament. That doesn't do the issue justice, but it's the basic gist. For a more complete explanation, you ought to consider reading Mark Shea's “Making Senses Out of Scripture.” It's one of the books that aided Jen Fulwiler in her conversion.

  9. Hi Anon, thank you for stopping by.

    You wrote,

    The classical Christian view is that there is a natural law that people can know without divine revelation (as you say), but it is much harder to know that natural law without divine revelation, and our baser instincts will always work to suppress our knowledge of the natural law.

    This is plausible, except that what makes the Christian god the source of this divine revelation, as Aquinas presumes? Christians indeed act nobly and good, but so do the followers of other religions. And in many cases over the life of their religion, they have acted quite awful indeed. I am reminded of Gandhi's reason for rejecting Christianity, which was due to the example of its adherents.

    What, in your view, makes Christianity stand out over other religions and beliefs that its god is the source of the divine revelation we need in order to live moral lives?

    The classical, orthodox Christian understanding of revelation is that God progressively revealed Himself in a greater and greater way throughout the Old Testament, reaching its fulfillment in the New Testament.

    I have heard this explanation, but it raises more questions than it answers. For example, are we to take the events in the Old Testament as literal or figurative, then? And why the doctrine of eternal punishment, which is surely more horrific than any thing done in the Old Testament (if true)? And what are we to make of Revelations, which returns the fire-and-brimstone deity we only “crudely” perceived in times past?

  10. Hi Robert. Sorry I haven't responded sooner to your questions. They are all good ones. You ask why Christianity alone is the source of divine revelation and point to the example of followers of other religions who act nobly and good. No dispute there. CS Lewis talks extensively about how all of the major religions have come to the same core moral code (see “The Abolition of Man”), and the Catholic Church stated at Vatican II that, “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [other] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.”

    Christians do believe that divine revelation reached its perfection in Jesus. Individual Christians will often (really, always) fail to meet the standard set by Jesus, but Christians believe that the beauty of Christ's teaching (e.g, emphasizing love and forgiveness more than other religions) and the historical evidence for his death and resurrection show that Christianity has a fullness of revelation that other religions don't quite reach. But going back to your original post, Christians believe that although people of all religions (and even people without religion) can know much of the natural law, their knowledge of the natural law will be incomplete and their eagerness to follow the natural law will be poor without divine revelation. I may know, somewhere in my heart, that adultery or stealing is wrong, for example, but without divine revelation, why should I care? Without belief in God, why shouldn't I just push those inconsequential feelings aside and do whatever makes me happiest in the here and now? Why not?

    You also ask about the Old Testament and hell. I think we can take some events in the Old Testament as figurative or allegorical. The Catholic Church, for example, does not require you to believe that the universe was created in seven 24-hour days. But much of the Old Testament is clearly historical, and its overall message — i.e., its explanation of the nature of humans and their role in the universe vis-a-vis God — is one that I believe is true and one for which Christ's teaching is the ultimate fulfillment and refinement.

    With respect to eternal punishment, you note that it is horrific. But as a preliminary matter, whether it is or isn't horrific shouldn't be the criteria for whether you believe it's true. There are plenty of aspects of life that are horrific, but they're true, and we can't just stick our heads in the sand and refuse to believe that something in life isn't true because we find it horrific. But the question you raised originally is whether the concept of hell is consistent with what Jen Fulwilwer said — that God is the ultimate embodiment of love. It's not an easy question, but I think it's interesting and telling that the place in the Bible where hell comes up the most is in the New Testament and in Jesus' teaching in particular. The notion of eternal punishment doesn't, for the most part, figure into the Old Testament. So we have this strange paradox that the person whose teaching about love has, by any objective account, been the most influential in history is also the same person who talks the most about eternal punishment. Now you could chalk up Jesus's teaching about hell to him being a crazy person, like a wacky street preacher that you cross the street to avoid. But the people like that who I've seen have never taught anything like Jesus' profound teaching on love. Maybe Jesus is onto something about a connection between love and punishment. Perhaps the reconciliation of this paradox is that hell is simply the consquence of God giving us free will and the ability to reject his love. Without free will, we never could have a loving relationship with God — it would be forced upon us. But free will creates the possibility of having such a loving relationship wiht God, or rejecting one. And the best way to think about hell might be that it is what happens to people who ultimately reject God's love — people who choose to go on loving themselves, putting themselves at the center of the universe, rather than making the initially difficult choice of surrendering themselves in love to God.

  11. Hi Anon, welcome back!

    Have you ever witnessed the worship of a Muslim, Jew or Mormon? It's very difficult to imagine that such individuals are “loving themselves,” or “putting themselves at the center of the universe.” Like you, they believe they have a loving relationship with God–only that their god is not the god you worship–a mere incorrect choice for which Jesus nevertheless condemns them to eternal punishment.

    Yes, it is indeed a paradox, one which seems to me far easier to resolve with the view that no such god as yours (probably) exists.

    You wrote,

    I may know, somewhere in my heart, that adultery or stealing is wrong, for example, but without divine revelation, why should I care? Without belief in God, why shouldn't I just push those inconsequential feelings aside and do whatever makes me happiest in the here and now? Why not?

    Very simple. You know through experience that what seemingly makes you happiest “in the here and now” may not redound to your long-term benefit. It would make me very happy to eat nothing but pumpkin scones all day, but the health consequences down the road strongly cautions me against doing so.

  12. Hi Robert. Sorry I take so long on replies. I have a busy job and 3 kids, so my web-surfing sometimes is limited (which might be a good thing!).

    On your first point — that Jesus condemns all Jews, Muslims, and Mormons to eternal punishment — I don't think most Christians believe that is true. The short answer is that we don't know who exactly is consigned to hell. I believe it was Pope John Paul II who said we don't even know if Judas ended up in hell. What the Bible does say is that we are saved only through Jesus, but at least the Catholic understanding is that even non-Catholics and non-Christians can be saved through Jesus even without explicit faith in him. See Lumen Gentium, another document from Vatican II (“the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator…Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.”).

    Peter Kreeft, a professor of philosophy at Boston College, describes this as “a traditional, mainline Christian position, from the time of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria to the time of C. S. Lewis. It is halfway between the liberal view that one can be saved in other ways than Christ (for example, by good intentions) and the frequent fundamentalist view that it takes an explicit knowledge of Christ to be saved.” See http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/35-faqs_… (question #34) and http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/christia

    On your second point — that “what seemingly makes you happiest 'in the here and now' may not redound to your long-term benefit” and that this is sufficient to make people act morally — I have to disagree. There are plenty of cases where acting immorally will be more advantageous to me in my earthly existence than acting morally, even if you look at it in the long-term. Many people do cheat and end up winning, with no adverse long-term consequences. Think of all the slaveowners who died rich, old, and contented. Conversely, there are many moral acts that will never be rewarded on this earth. I simply see no reason to believe that morality will always align with earthly rewards, even if you take the long view.

    Robert, you've a very kind and generous host of this blog, and I've enjoyed our discussion. But — and please don't take this the wrong way — your comments lead me to think that you're not giving the religious or Christian viewpoints a fair shake. In our discussion, you've started by quoting a poor explanation of the Christian position on natural law (the Wildmon quote at the start of this post), and you've later implied that all Christians believe all Jews and Muslims are going to hell. If that's your view Christianity, I don't think you're really contending with the strongest arguments for theism and Christianity.

    In the same way that I feel it necessary to learn and respond to Richard Dawkins's and Christopher Hitchens's best arguments, you need to respond to the best arguments for Christianity. Have you read C.S. Lewis, for example? Or “The Language of God” by Francis Collins, the former head of the Human Genome Project and atheist-turned-Christian? Or the books highlighted by Jen Fulwiler: http://www.conversiondiary.com/2008/01/from-ath…. I think you will find in books like these an intelligent, reasonable, moderate Christianity that can't be dismissed so easily. Again, please don't take offense at what I've said. I hope to continue visiting your blog, and I appreciate your willingness to engage in rational discussion with me.

  13. Welcome back Anon. There's no statute of limitations policy on this site, so drop in when you wish!

    You're right that many–perhaps most–Christians today no longer regard hell as an automatic destination for non-believers. But this was not always so (even among Catholics). I believe a plain reading of Jesus' words favors the traditional view, but your understanding may also be correct.

    Nonetheless, I think we can agree that Jesus taught there would be eternal punishment. For whom? Christians cannot give a definitive answer. The gap in understanding seems inexplicable. Given its horrific nature, one would think everyone should be crystal clear on how to avoid it. That there are some crimes that even warrant eternal punishment seems outlandish to me, but that is another discussion…

    On your second point — that “what seemingly makes you happiest 'in the here and now' may not redound to your long-term benefit” and that this is sufficient to make people act morally — I have to disagree. There are plenty of cases where acting immorally will be more advantageous to me in my earthly existence than acting morally, even if you look at it in the long-term. Many people do cheat and end up winning, with no adverse long-term consequences.

    I'm sorry I implied that taking the long-view is sufficient justification alone for one to act morally. I was responding to your question why shouldn't we do whatever makes us happy “in the here and now.” The answer I gave is that we don't because we know that our actions can have consequences. But that's not the only reason to act morally. Some of it may be simply in-grained as a result of evolutionary processes (e.g., our predilection for cooperation, our capacity for empathy, etc.). Other reasons may be based on emotions. We don't divorce our spouse not because it's a “sin,” but because we love them, as from DagoodS's example above.

    I simply see no reason to believe that morality will always align with earthly rewards, even if you take the long view.

    I don't think I've claimed that morality will always align with earthly rewards. Can you identify what actions will find reward – or punishment – in the afterlife? It's interesting you mentioned the slaveowner. As you know, owning slaves was long considered a perfectly acceptable practice, even among Christians. Will such slaveowners find some degree of punishment in the judgment to come, merely because later generations found the practice repulsive and immoral?

    If that's your view Christianity, I don't think you're really contending with the strongest arguments for theism and Christianity.

    The “strongest arguments”? Whose are strongest? The Calvinist's? The Catholic's? The Mormon's? You all say you have the strongest arguments. I agree, some are certainly stronger than others, but they all have their own problems. And more often than not, I need only to read other Christians to understand what those problems are.

    In any case, the strength of the argument doesn't necessarily bear on its truth. For the longest time, the strongest argument for life on earth was creation by a supernatural agent – until the theory of evolution.

    As always, thanks for stopping by and offering your thoughts 🙂

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