On Moral Absolutes; or, Why the Atheist I Was Rooting For Irritated Me

I recently had the pleasure of watching a debate between David Silverman, current president of the American Atheists, and Alex McFarland, a Christian apologist, on the question “Can Christianity Cause Immoral Behavior?”  They held this event, the latest in what has apparently become an ongoing series of confrontations, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, which is how I became aware of it: my friend Chad (quoted in my most recent post) lives in Vancouver and was in the audience.

Silverman vs McFarland

Silverman is not only an atheist, he also subscribes to (I hesitate to say “believes in”) an ethical stance that is commonly attributed–albeit inappropriately–to atheists, that of moral relativism.  While this idea is touched upon repeatedly in the debate, Silverman expounds it most succinctly–and most painfully reveals its limitations–in this five minute snippet from another debate he participated in.  If you watch that bit, you’ll notice that at 3:34 he flies into a brick wall when, on the basis of his moral understanding, he asserts there is no legitimate way to condemn (or even complain about) what the Nazis did while in power.  So, if you think starting a world war and slaughtering twelve million people in concentration camps is bad, well…that is just an “opinion.”

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If you are shocked by this stance on ethics, you are not alone. In the UBC debate I just found it irritating; the snippet above renders it stupefying.  But this begs the question: how should an atheist respond when asked on what basis he or she would condemn the Nazis for their behavior?  Is there an intelligent and reasonable approach to ethics that does not require a Bronze Age sky god telling us what to do?

(Note: I’ve not previously stated my position on theism within the context of this blog, so this seems an appropriate place to clarify what I think: I’m an atheist, meaning I see no more reason to believe in the god of the Bible and Koran–they are the same–than I do in the Tooth Fairy, unicorns, or Bigfoot.  Please note this does not mean I adhere to any particular doctrines over and beyond what I just said.  “Atheism,” a most useless and misleading term, is in fact not an ism at all–it possesses no content, signifies nothing more than skepticism, and has no moral–or immoral–connotations.  You cannot know someone by the fact they’re an atheist, for there is no “there” there; no substance, no agenda, no teleology or ontology lurking within those seven letters.  It is certainly not something I “believe in,” “subscribe to” or derive comfort from.)

Before trying to answer the question of what might constitute a non-relativist atheist morality, I should note that discussions of morality between theists and atheists inevitably divide along these lines.  Theists argue from their position of alleged moral certitude, quoting verses from their favorite scripture and claiming their edition of God guarantees an objective standard from which to make moral choices, while atheists reject god and scramble to justify their moral preferences by some other means.  Thus from the start of any debate, atheists would seem to occupy the low ground, for their energy must be devoted first to explaining why anyone should prefer museums to crematoriums, democracy to fascism, or philanthropy to cannibalism.  In his lecture Existentialism Is A Humanism Sartre clarifies the existentialist (viz. atheist) position:

Existentialists, on the other hand, find it extremely disturbing that God no longer exists, for along with his disappearance goes the possibility of finding values in an unintelligible heaven. There could no longer be any a priori good, since there would be no infinite and perfect consciousness to conceive of it. Nowhere is it written that good exists, that we must be honest or must not lie, since we are on a plane shared only by men. Dostoevsky once wrote: ‘If God does not exist,everything is permissible.’ This is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and man is consequently abandoned, for he cannot find anything to rely on – neither within nor without. First, he finds there are no excuses. For if it is true that existence precedes essence, we can never explain our actions by reference to a given and immutable human nature. In other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. If, however, God does not exist, we will encounter no values or orders that can legitimize our conduct. Thus, we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse (pp. 28-9).

Image result for jean paul sartreWhile I doubt Sartre would go so far as to suggest condemning Nazis amounted to mere “opinion” (he spent nine months in a German prisoner-of-war camp), he clearly thinks morals, in the absence of God, must be relative constructs: socially and collectively conceived, perhaps, but ultimately a matter of personal choice and responsibility.

Theists, as already pointed out, have it easier.  They don’t have to think: they have merely to resort to Revelation, whereby they “know” or are told what the right course of action is.  In his debate with Silverman, McFarland went on at some length describing how an absolute reference point—God—acts as the arbiter or measuring stick for all values and behaviors.  Christian apologist and theologian William Lane Craig well describes this position:

So God, in his moral nature, is the paradigm of goodness. He is by nature essentially good, loving, kind, faithful, just, loyal, truthful, and so forth. So I see moral values as defined paradigmatically in God; that is to say, God is the standard. Then that moral nature issues in divine commandments to us. It is out of that nature that God commands us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves; that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind and so forth. These moral commandments then constitute our moral duties. This is the source of moral obligation for us that we are commanded by God, the paradigm of goodness, to do certain things (William Lane Craig at reasonablefaith.org).

Unfortunately for Craig, this passage invites some awkward questions.  How, for instance, can we tell the real God’s commandments from the idle babbling of pretenders and false prophets?  As a Christian apologist, it is safe to assume Craig accepts a priori that the Bible is the appropriate source for divine commandments, but to anyone who has not already made up their mind on the subject, this is not obviously the case–the world, after all, is a busy marketplace for sacred texts and tomes of higher knowledge.  Unless a loud voice begins pronouncing wisdom and warnings from the heavens on a regular basis, humanity will remain in the dark on how exactly to figure out which god is the real God and what exactly he/she/it’s saying.

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But let’s for a moment take Craig and the apologists at their word.  If we turn to the Bible, does the God we find there live up to His billing as the gold standard of morality?  Is the deity revealed in the pages between Genesis and Revelation in fact a “paradigm of goodness”?

Consider the following: While in one instance (Ex. 20:13, 15) Yahweh tells us not to kill or steal, in others (e.g. Josh 5-13, Deut. 7 et al) he urges a genocidal war in which murder and theft (and presumably rape) are well and fine.  When he turns to nation building and lawmaking we discover that stoning (Lev. 24:16, Deut. 17:2-7, Deut. 22:23-24 et al), slaughtering animals (Lev. 1:1 ff et al) to “make a pleasing odor” (Lev. 4:31) and slavery (Ex.21:1-4, Deut. 15:12-18, Lev. 25:44-46 et al) are considered acceptable—even virtuous—practices.  God himself is the author of global devastation (the Flood in Gen. 6-9), the destruction of cities (Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 8-9; Jericho in Josh. 6:1-27), the whimsical killing of people for the most trivial offenses (Onan’s death because he refused to impregnate his sister-in-law!!, Gen. 38:9-10), and the cruel manipulation of innocent bystanders (the Abraham-Isaac incident in Gen. 22 and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, Ex. 7:3).

Contrary to popular press, it does not get better in the New Testament.  Jesus (Yahweh in human form) indulges in fits of rage (against the money changers at Mt. 21:12–17, Mk. 11:15–19, Lk. 19:45–48), needlessly blasts harmless vegetation (the fig tree in Mt. 21:18-19 and Mk. 11:13-14, 20), speaks anathema against anyone who doesn’t believe in him (Mt. 10:33, 13:40-42, Jn 15:6 et al), and encourages the laceration of disobedient slaves (Lk. 12:42-46).  On this last subject–slavery–the epistles are clear: it is a perfectly fine institution, so long as it is not accompanied by indiscriminate abuse (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 4:1, I Tim. 6:1-3 et al).  Yet by the seventeenth century many in Europe at least were beginning to recognize slavery for the abomination it is, and by the eighteenth-century nations began outlawing it (Russia in 1723, Scotland in 1778, Massachusetts in 1783, Spain in 1811, etc etc).  The United States—the so-called “land of the free”—was a real laggard in this regard, waiting until Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.  (The supreme irony is that in any argument between abolitionists and supporters of slavery, the supporters always cited the Bible in their defense.) Thus in clear defiance of the Biblical deity’s mandates, men and women made the rational, moral choice to abolish this odious institution.

Finally, if we take Christianity at its face value, we are forced to conclude the majority of human beings who have lived in the past 2000 years will suffer eternity in hell—all because their skeptical intelligence or cultural upbringing prevented them from believing a first century Galilean carpenter was actually the creator of the universe in disguise.  This monstrous indictment, perpetrated on account of such happenstance triviality, is the grossest evil of the Biblical god, easily surpassing the accumulated horrors of the Old Testament.

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On account of the foregoing I submit that the Bible cannot offer any moral absolutes.  Like many other ancient texts that have managed to survive the ravages of time, it is simply literary detritus, which by odd turns of fortune has been elevated in stature such that a person today–say a William Lane Craig or an Alex McFarland–by the accident of his birth and upbringing might come to believe in the god of its pages as The Truth.  Theistic morals are thus every bit as arbitrary and subjective as those of Sartre’s existentialist.  They are worse, in fact, for as Sartre indicates in other passages of his lecture, the reflective person, in the absence of revelation, must take responsibility and do the hard work of determining for him or herself how to be good in the world–something the theist is forbidden to do.  And for the reflective person, this is not just a choice for himself: the more he considers the meaning of his actions, the more he realizes his actions are a template for everyone else:

And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.  In fact, in creating the man each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be.  Choosing to be this or that is to affirm at the same time the value of what we choose…  Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns all mankind…  (pp. 23-24).

A follower of Biblical or Koranic revelation can never attain this degree of subjective lucidity, for he or she cannot think beyond the text to which they are beholden.  The moment they do, they awaken and begin to think for themselves, and for that person, the God of the text has ceased to make all the rules.

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Sartre points us in the right direction: you have to take stock of your situation in the world, you have to consider what you will do, and you have to accept responsibility for what comes of your actions.  But Sartre does not, I think, rise above the charge of relativism.  So is there a way to go from here to a moral absolute?  I’ll try to describe that path in my next post…..