8/27/08

Is There a Common Misconception Regarding Absolute Moral Claims?

I was planning on posting all three parts of my response to the challenges posed by Christopher Hitchens before responding to anything in the comments sections as things are pretty busy between work and home-life—and softball :o)

To read/Or not to read


In the comments section of part I someone made a point that I thought would be best addressed in here in a new post rather than in the nether regions of that post’s comment section.

First, I wanted to point out that the ability to post as a contributor, as opposed to posting to the comments section, can be a bully pulpit. Thus, I want to make it clear that I am not singling anyone out for embarrassment or calling out the commentator by writing this post. I merely felt that the matter may be better elucidated by a new post that would also provide a new comments section to discuss one particular topic more precisely. Moreover, I chose this topic because I find that it is a very common argument.

In this post I wish to address a very particular topic. It seems to me that there is a common non sequitur which is committed regarding morality. When a claim is made that morality is absolute and or ubiquitous, authored by God and even placed by God in every human being the following objection is oft raised: If that is the case, then why do morals differ from person to person and from culture to culture?.

It may perhaps be noteworthy that morality is actually very similar from culture to culture, at least on main points.
For example, does any culture hold cowardice to be a virtue? I do not here mean something like draft-dodging since it is considered valiant to fight the power.

Does any culture consider murdering innocent and defenseless human beings to be a virtue? It would be refreshing to answer, “No” but such does not seem to be the case. Yet, this brings us to an important point. Let us imagine that there is a culture according to which brutally murdering beautiful, healthy, innocent and defenseless human babies in the womb was considered a right, moral or as Dan Barker refers to it, “a blessing.”[1]


Even in such a case we note that even while claiming that this sort of murder is a right, moral or blessing there is a plethora of excuses upon which such proclamations are premised—it is a conceptus, it is a zygote, an embryo, a byproduct of conception, it is not human, not a person, not conscience, it is her body, her choice, et al. Does anyone find themselves laboring so diligently in order to concoct excuses for feeding the poor?

George F. R. Ellis has noted the following:
“The foundational line of true ethical behavior, its main guiding principle valid across all times and cultures, is the degree of freedom form self-centeredness of thought and behavior, and willingness freely to give up one’s own self-interest on behalf of others.”[2]


The bottom line is that the reason that I do not think that the objection nullifies the claim of absolute morality is that in one case we are dealing with what I will call a “law” and in the other we are dealing with whether people choose to obey that “law.”

For instance, I say, “In the USA it is absolutely illegal to run a red light in a non-emergency response vehicle.”
Do you answer, “If that is the case, then why do some people operating non-emergency vehicles response run red lights? It must not be true that there is such an absolute law”?


In one case we have an absolute law and in the other we have choices as to whether we obey that law or not.

And so, let us grant for a moment that God has authored a moral law but has also allowed free-will. This would mean that God could author the moral law and place it within each of us but it would still be up to us to obey.

The objection may have its place in another arena but it does not seem to succeed as a refutation of claims of moral absolutes since in this context it is a category mistake.

[1] During his debate with John Rankin (Evolution and Intelligent Design: What are the issues? ) and his debate with Dinesh D'Souza (Christianity versus Atheism)
[2] W. Wayt Gibbs, “Profile: George F. R. Ellis – Thinking Globally, Acting Universally,” Scientific America, Oct. 1995, p. 55

Continue reading Is There a Common Misconception Regarding Absolute Moral Claims?...

8/26/08

Need some feedback here

It turns out I will have a bit of free time this semester (at least, it looks that way). So I thought I'd do something a little interactive. I'm thinking of doing book reviews every once and awhile to highlight my own thoughts on contemporary (or not so contemporary) works. I'd need some suggestions, though. That's where you come in. I am willing to read nearly anything within reason (no Shel Silverstein books) as long as the book is generally available and would roughly be a significantly viable topic for this blog.

My areas of interest and education are:

*Philosophy
*Religion (the history and development of Christianity)
*Evolutionary Studies
*Consciousness
*Politics
*Atheism

You shoot me some titles, I talk it over with the guys and you get a review from me with the intent of spurring discussion. Sound good?
Continue reading Need some feedback here...

8/24/08

Christopher Hitchens : The Challenges, part I of III

I admit that I am at a loss as to what the qualifications to any answer proposed to Mr. Hitchens’ challenges might entail.

To read/Or not to read


We have all been in such situations have we not? When someone asks you a question and they are so eager to give you a certain response that they are not even listening to your answer but just waiting for you to pause for three nanoseconds so that they can take the lid off of their canned response. It happened to me recently, some asked me a series of questions and regardless of my answers they were dead set on coming to a preconceived conclusion. Yet, upon considering their conclusion, I noted that they disregarded my statements and simply pushed their desired conclusion right through my statements as if they were irrelevant—pragmatism is not a virtue.

What I am going on and on about? During the debate between Christopher Hitchens and Alister McGrath which was entitled “Poison or Cure? Religious Belief in the Modern World” (reviewed here) Mr. Hitchens proposed a series of challenges. The problem is that the challenges are stated in a generic manner. That is, in a generic enough manner that I am afraid that any answer will be discredited due to a preconceived conclusion, which is that the challenges cannot be answered viably. The challenges presuppose that they are unanswerable and thus, appear to be crafted in a generic enough manner so as to make them very small and difficult target to hit.

I thought to parse the challenges into three parts and so deal with them in three posts. Let us consider the first part:
“I have a challenge which I have now put in print on the Christianity Today Website and in many other places. It's this: if it's to be argued that our morality or ethics can be derived from the supernatural, then name me an action, a moral action taken by a believer or a moral statement uttered by one, that could not have been made or uttered by an infidel, a non-believer.”

My first observation is that these challenges are based upon presuppositions. They are obviously based on Mr. Hitchens’ worldview and also upon his misunderstanding of alternate worldviews—namely the Judeo-Christian worldview. Thus, I will attempt to respond by elucidating those portions of his challenges which are premised upon miscomprehensions of the Judeo-Christian worldview. While other theists, deists, etc. can respond according to their own, my responses will be based a Judeo-Christian presupposition.

From a Judeo-Christian perspective this portion of the challenge is a non-issue for various reasons. Please note that by non-issue I do not mean unimportant or invalid as a logical question but I mean that this portion is premised upon a misunderstanding and is evidence of lack of knowledge.

Moral actions and statements are prompted by God, whether they proceed forth from the sayings and doings of a prophet or from a non-believing infidel. It is a category mistake to take a claim such as, “God is the author of the moral law” and assume that it means that no one can access that law without a direct and conscious relationship with God.

In crafting this portion of the challenges Mr. Hitchens is responding to an argument that no one has made. Rather, he is arguing against his own misunderstandings and with direct violations of that which the Bible does state and thus he is setting up a straw man.

A biblical texts aught suffice as a response:
“…for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Romans 2:14-15)

Continue reading Christopher Hitchens : The Challenges, part I of III...

8/21/08

Upcoming Books of Interest

I am a book aficionado. I have a large collection that encircles the room vaguely ordered by topic and author, numerically proportioned by my interest in the topic (who would have guessed?). Along with my "real" job, I work part-time at a bookstore. While not as romantic as it sounds, I do get an inside track to many forthcoming books of relative importance to the topics kicked around here that I would not have otherwise come into contact with before publication. That being said, I'm providing a small list of titles that y'all want to keep a watchful eye on. I may make this a reoccurring entry depending on my vigilance and your interest. So here we go...

To read/Or not to read


Future of Atheism: Alister McGrath and Daniel Dennett in Dialogue (10/1/08)

Love 'em or hate 'em, McGrath and Dennett are two of the most gentlemanly participants in the recent flurry of religious debate. Dennett is an established philosopher, having added significant ideas to philosophy of mind, language and evolution.

McGrath is beginning to make a name for himself as well. He has debated Hitchens and Dawkins, and outside of apologetics has blazed a trail through some sticky areas in theology.

Now, this book is a transcript of a debate that has already taken place, but for the 99.99% of us who aren't familiar with this meeting ought to find this book a great addition to their library.


The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (10/13/08)
by Edward Feser

This book is tentatively making me curious. I had read his stuff on the great libertarian F.A. Hayek way before I knew about this book. I enjoy his writing style, but this appears to be his initiatory foray into the world of atheism. We can be a little skeptical of him until we get our hands on it, but I will remind you that the next great entry in this debate is always around the corner. I am reminded of how little most Americans knew of Christopher Hitchens before that little screed of his hit the bookshelves, and Feser seems witty, enthusiastic and greatest of all, philosophically trained. The little blurb by Beckwith is annoyingly tantalizing--

"There have been largely two types of critics of the `New Atheism.' One type grants the empiricism of the atheists and then tries to show that belief in God is consistent with it. This approach gives away the store by removing God from the realm of the knowable. The second also grants the atheists' empiricism, but argues that it leads to the detection of design in the universe and thus the existence of God. This approach gives away the store as well, by limiting knowledge to the empirically detectable. Professor Feser offers us a third approach, one that is far more effective in defeating the New Atheism. He provides persuasive arguments that show that God is knowable and that what is knowable is larger than the set of that which is empirically detectable. This is a tour de force that should be in the library of every thinking citizen, believer or unbeliever."

Society without God (10/1/08)
by Phil Zuckerman

Normally these kinds of books slide under my nose without the least bit of a whiff from me. A few things stick out, however. It is published by NYU Press which tends to put out absolutely fantastic work. I heard from an insider that their peer-review is devastating, so we ought to at least see unreligion dressed up in a scholarly uniform. Next, this appears to be the only popular level book that delves into the "other" atheistic countries. We all hear loads about theocracies in Iran and America, and atheists in China and Russia, but what of the Danes?

This book will end up being an apology for atheistic socialism/liberalism which I guarantee will oversimplify matters economic and social, but look for this to be a sleeper in the atheists repertoire.

The Character of Consciousness (2008?)
by David Chalmers

Please, David, give us a release date.
I'll stop calling, I promise.

....

Ok, for those of you not in the know, Chalmers is the fellow that changed the way we talk about consciousness. He baptized the "Hard Problem of Consciousness", wrote a wildly successful book...and then didn't write anything for twelve years. He gave us life-changing zingers like:

The process of natural selection cannot distinguish between me and my zombie twin.

Anyway, I really have no idea what this book is going to be about, but his last book gave many of us the motivation to delve into consciousness studies and say maybe consciousness WAS designed.

Even so, David Chalmers, come back soon.

The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (4/1/2009)
Ed. by Craig and Moreland

Here it is, the golden grail. This promises to be the ultimate resource of theistic arguments in one volume. The roster is an all-star team of young, emerging scientific and philosophical stars. Let me plug two of the essays that will come in the package- the Argument from Reason by Vic Reppert and the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument by Alexander Pruss. These are thought-provoking arguments that have flown under the radar is standard volumes on philosophy of religion.

Craig really has found the best of the best here. I can't think of better defenders of any of these arguments save the Ontological Argument. It would've been nice to see Plantinga writing on it, but it seems that he is getting to old for this kind of thing and he has found a spiritied disciple. I trust Craig's judgment. Listen to Craig's description of the book here, and add that thing to your wish list (200$ price tag notwithstanding).

Continue reading Upcoming Books of Interest...

8/20/08

News Item of Interest

“The Jewel of Medina” is the title of a book that Random House refuses to publish.

To read/Or not to read


“The novel traces the life of A'isha from her engagement to Mohammed, when she was six, until the prophet's death.” The novel’s author, Sherry Jones, “I have deliberately and consciously written respectfully about Islam and Mohammed…I envisioned that my book would be a bridge-builder.”

As for (not so) Random House: their deputy publisher, Thomas Perry, cited, “cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment…we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel.”



I suppose that I will repeat one of the reasons why, back in the day, I declared Thank God for The Da Vinci Code!!!

Let us compare Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, and Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code:
1-Rushdie wrote a fictional novel about Islam.
Brown wrote a fictional novel about Christianity.
2-Rushdie was rewarded by being condemned to death.
Brown was rewarded by becoming a millionaire.
3-Rushdie was forced to run for his life, go into hiding, and live a secluded life.
Brown became an instant celebrity with millions of adoring fans.
4-Rushdie’s novel is actually based on a subject matter that the Qur'an itself refers to as fact—Muhammad’s proclamation and later revocation of certain verses that were explained away by the claim that he had been influenced by satan in moments of weakness. The verses that Muhammad dictated during these moments are known as the satanic verses and were known as such long before Rushdie wrote of them in his novel as they had been attested to by classical Muslim scholars such as at-Tabari and Ibn Sa'd.
Brown’s novel is based on old and utterly discredited conspiracy theories.


News items:
Random House Pulls Novel on Islam, Fears Violence
Free Speech Jilted by Muhammad Romance Novel 'Warpath'

Continue reading News Item of Interest...

8/12/08

Please tell us about it!

There seems to be a general opinion amongst Atheists that they are the victims of severe abuse at the hands of Christians. I invite these who have experienced such abuse by Christians to tell us about it, the situation and the effect of the abuse, as well as the type of Christian(s) and their beliefs, if these facts are known.

Thanks in advance!
Continue reading Please tell us about it!...

Oops...An Upside-Down Analysis

A commenter from my first post mentioned an article from “Edge”, discussing the arguably growing world population of “disbelievers” (link here). The commenter was disputing my contentions that atheism, lived as fully as possible, has disastrous effects, rather than positive ones, and that consistent atheism is not compatible with human experience. The converse was a subtle contention of the linked article’s authors, but the more noteworthy point they made was accidental. In the midst of all the pseudo-intellectual psychobabble, Paul and Zuckerman manage to demonstrate just how unnatural irreligion – atheism in particular – really is to the human experience.+/-



The article doesn’t do much to dispel the notion that “hard” atheism is detrimental to society. That’s not their intent, though they repeatedly imply that progress and security are owed to secularization - a suggestion which is historically backwards. What the article does attempt to do is to show how freer, more prosperous societies tend to have lower rates of belief than less secure societies. The gradual spread of prosperity is followed by a general decline in religiosity.

Depending on your own views, this may or not may be controversial, but it’s an idea that Christianity, at least, has been well aware of for millennia. Jesus’ challenge to the rich young man, and His subsequent lament over the problem of wealth (Mark 10:21-23), demonstrates this idea clearly. Those with full stomachs and fat wallets tend (though not unavoidably) to falter into materialism of one stripe or another.

The article’s authors seem to miss the implications of their own data, though. The facts of history force a chronology into their assertion: a decline in religiosity follows an establishment of prosperity and security. They couldn’t rightly say that the decline comes first, since it doesn’t. This doesn’t say much about the societal value of overt irreligion. The article actually notes, quite blatantly, that non-belief struggles without a heavily supportive, pre-existing social structure:

“…secularism and disbelief do best in nations that are the most democratic, educated and prosperous…”

Note, please, that in the course of this article the authors surreptitiously define “democratic, educated, and prosperous” nations, ad hoc, as those with near total social welfare systems and a strong endorsement of evolution. The sophomoric equating of “belief in evolution” with “disbelief in religion”, as though the two were mutually exclusive strains of thought, is indicative of a shallow grasp of the topic at hand. The rest of the analysis does not disappoint.

Question: if secularism in general, and atheism in particular, have something positive to offer humanity, if they have something resonant to add to the human condition, why then do they thrive only in times of ease, and wither in times of hardship? The authors continually note that only nations with expansive social welfare have pronounced levels of non-belief, and then make hysterically dense statements such as:
“So much for the common belief that supernatural-based religiosity is the default mode inherent to the human condition.”

So, either we are to believe that the “default” condition of humanity is extensive state-run safety nets, or that Paul and Zuckerman need to pay more attention to their own line of thinking. Intentionally or not, they went to great lengths arguing that societies with more social “safety nets” are less spiritual, then suggest that this is a condition inherent to humanity.

Ironically, one of the major counter-points is the United States, still the freest and most prosperous nation on Earth, as well as one of the most religious. Of course, this fact doesn’t fit with the authors’ preconception that truly modern, educated people don’t believe in God. So, they do some silly rhetorical gymnastics to paint the US as an insecure, not-quite-so-free, not-quite-so-prosperous place. One of their complaints, apparently is that the barbaric Americans allow people to lose their jobs. All this really does, though, is highlight this notable flaw with secularism: it only survives where people feel their every need will ultimately be met by the state. Paul and Zuckerman seem to be saying, inadvertently, that a nation featuring anything less than total guarantees of material security won’t be particularly irreligious.

Atheism should feel a particular sting from this article’s analysis. The authors make a lot of mention of “irreligion”, or “nonreligion”, and relatively little of atheism proper. They note that atheists’ numbers are expanding, but their proportions are actually decreasing. Even in the most heralded “secular” European nations, sizable majorities still believe in some level of spirituality or religion. This should also be considered in light of the other means by which atheism spreads: naked force. Much of Europe is less than a generation removed from government-enforced irreligion, a phenomenon that requires time to heal.

The danger with this aspect of the relationship between social structures and irreligion is exactly in line with my contention about the dangers of atheism. Irreligion is only going to be common in places where the state exerts greater control over the lives of the citizens, one way or the other. Either the state provides for practically all material needs, so people follow the common inclination to brush aside a God they feel no need for; or, the state throttles religion out of the people with the heel of its boot.

As I’ve often noted, people tend to act out the fullness of their beliefs when faced with extreme hardship, and extreme authority. In either of the above cases, once God is truly rejected by moving from irreligion to actual atheism, the state moves from the ultimate civil authority to the ultimate authority, period. If that coincides with some real or imagined crisis…enter Stalin, Mao, and on and on and on.

So, if you haven’t already, read the complete article to get a useful, if accidental, perspective on just how disconnected atheism (and irreligion in general) actually are from natural human experience. If irreligion can’t survive without social security, and faith can exist both in prosperity and hardship, perhaps it’s not religion, but secularism, which is really on “life support”.

[also posted at Gladio Mentis]

Continue reading Oops...An Upside-Down Analysis...

8/11/08

Challenge to Atheists

[Also posted at atheism analyzed].
Atheists are de facto Materialists. Materialism is a necessary consequence of denying the supernatural. As Materialists they tend to revere empiricism as a source of truth. And they are convicted of their own possession of the singular truth of the universe, that there is no first cause.

Since Atheists have possession of the truth, they should not be adverse to sharing it here with us. The truth, of course, would be material and in the form of empirical experimental data, replicated by separate disinterested scientific teams, unfalsified, yet falsifiable, peer reviewed and published in a major scientific journal. These are criteria frequently cited by Atheists, and should be agreeable to them.

Here is a partial list items requiring material, empirical proof (See Rules below):

Note: If you can prove #4 (abiogenesis), there is $1,000,000.00 waiting for you here.

more below:


1. Prove there is no God.

2. Prove Materialism is true.

3. Prove Monism is true.

4. Prove abiogenesis actually happened.

5. Prove macroevolution actually happened.

6. Prove Parsimony is a Law of Nature.

7. Prove Universal Uniformitarianism exists in all cases.

8. Prove wisdom does not exist.

9. Prove humans are perfectible.

10.Prove universal happiness is a moral imperative.

11.Prove information is identical to the media scaffold upon which it resides.

12.Prove the Multiverse exists.

Rules:
1. Only empirical experimental data, replicated by separate disinterested scientific teams, unfalsified yet falsifiable, peer reviewed and published in a major scientific journal.

2. No generalities or philosophical meanderings will be accepted; only empirical (material) experimental proofs are allowed.

3. Truth by majority vote is not accepted; Truth by deferring to authority is not accepted.


Continue reading Challenge to Atheists...

8/4/08

Condolences

Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
1918-2008


Russian Nobel laureate who was incarcerated in the Gulag died on Sunday, August 3, 2008.



To read/Or not to read


In 1973 he wrote the following regarding Communist Russia and the Gulag:
“…tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims. Was it only that explosion of atavism which is now evasively called ‘the cult of personality’ that was so horrible?...

Is it not still more dreadful that we are now being told, thirty years later, ‘Don’t talk about it!’? If we start to recall the sufferings of millions, we are told it will distort the historical perspective! If we doggedly seek out the essence of our morality, we are told it will darken our material progress!...”[1]




In 1983 he stated:
“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.

Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.

What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God….

It was Dostoevsky, once again, who drew from the French Revolution and its seeming hatred of the Church the lesson that ‘revolution must necessarily begin with atheism.’ That is absolutely true. But the world had never before known a godlessness as organized, militarized, and tenaciously malevolent as that practiced by Marxism. Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions. Militant atheism is not merely incidental or marginal to Communist policy; it is not a side effect, but the central pivot…”[2]


[1] Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, Thomas P. Whitney, trans., The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 – An Experiment in Literary Investigation (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 93-94
[2] Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, “Men Have Forgotten God” – The Templeton Address

Continue reading Condolences...