Monday, January 30, 2012

Tackling the Big Objections

I'll be posting the second draft of my questions list within the next couple of days, but right now I'm working on an appendix responding to the most common objections I expect. Here are the two major responses I'm anticipating from Christians, along with my answers:

"My God can't be proved or disproved with evidence, but I have faith that he exists and I have faith in my religion."
Imagine that thousands of people are standing in a row several miles long, each belonging to a different religion. Each one has been given a list of questions that point strongly to the conclusion that their religion is false. They shout the sentence above in unison, each of them with a deep inner feeling that they must be right. They are using exactly the same reasoning you are—and yet, not only are they wrong, but according to your beliefs they are all destined for eternal punishment.

Perhaps you feel you can apply faith to faith itself. You cry, "I have faith that my faith alone is justified!"—and the entire row of people cries out along with you. Could it be any more apparent that "I have faith" is useless as a response to evidence?
"We mustn't question the morality of God. His ways are beyond our understanding."
We have no choice but to make judgments about God's morality: If we don't, then we're forced to accept a line of reasoning that can justify literally any moral state of affairs, no matter how despicable. If God was depicted in the Bible raping and torturing infants for his own enjoyment, one could still answer with "his ways are beyond our understanding." Even if Satan, posing as God, commanded the most evil acts imaginable, obedience could still be justified in exactly the same way.

Even if God's ways are beyond our understanding, all that can be reasonably expected of us is that we do the best we can with the limited knowledge and reasoning abilities we have—and based on what we have, the only acceptable response to the biblical God's sanctioning of slavery, misogyny and genocide is unabashed condemnation. It would be patently ridiculous for God to blame us for questioning his morality, if he was the one who gave us the capacity to reason while at the same time offering no explanation of his atrocities.
Do these responses seem reasonably effective? Is there some way I could improve upon them? Are there other common answers you would expect Christians to give? Let me know. I'm also thinking about adding answers to "Evidence against God is a test of faith" and "God giving us proof would remove our ability to freely choose him", so if you have any suggestions regarding those, I'm all ears.


  1. "Evidence against God is a test of faith" and "God giving us proof would remove our ability to freely choose him"

    To the former: It is ludicrous for God to be testing us. He already knows the results of any test. It would make more sense for Him never to create those that He knows will fail the test if created.

    To the latter: It didn't seem to remove Satan's freedom to rebel in heaven. It didn't seem to remove Adam and Eve's freedom to sin in Eden. BTW, how fair was the chance given to Esau? What respect to freedom was entailed in hardening Pharoe's heart?

  2. Please define an objective moral standard, if we condemn Gods moral standard by what standard do we judge it on?

    1. Okay, let's break this down. "Objective" means "not based on the opinions of a person." God-based morality is based on the opinions of a person (God), and therefore is not objective, but subjective. If objectivity is the criterion by which we consider moral judgments to be justified, God-based morality is a failure.

      Ultimately, though, what we should be concerned about is results: the outcomes that a moral system produces. Because the fundamental desire of sentient creatures is generally to increase their well-being, morality should generally be aimed at achieving that goal for as many people as possible, as often as possible. If you're not talking about morality in terms of what increases people's well-being (and conversely, avoids decreasing it), you're talking about something different than what most people mean when they say "morality."

      By this standard, we can easily judge that the biblical God's actions such as slavery and genocide decrease the well-being of millions of sentient creatures. Thus, his actions are immoral.

    2. How do you know the standard or definition you have just given is correct.

    3. Um, you sound kinda like you're reading off a cue card. I just identified your proposed criterion as a failure for God-based morality and you didn't seem to notice.

      Anyway, I know that sentient creatures generally seek to increase their well-being because that's what the empirical evidence shows. We don't generally see people trying to make themselves unhappy, do we? No, we see them working hard to make their lives better.

      As for why we should work to achieve that goal, you can ask the same of any moral system—God-based or not—and eventually be left without a concrete answer. I like what Adam Lee said on this topic:

      "No system of thought can be derived out of thin air. They all have to be based on axioms that can, in principle, be rejected. But if that's a strike against objective morality, it's also a strike against philosophy, science, mathematics, and every other branch of human inquiry as well. Just as the hypothetical evildoer can say, "Why should I care about human happiness or well-being?", the hypothetical creationist or homeopath or astrologer can say, "Why should I care about falsifiability, repeatability or empirical evidence?" These people are beyond talking to, but that doesn't mean the rest of us can't have this conversation."

      Just as the science is a tool that sentient beings use to cooperatively and collectively arrive at empirical truths, it may be useful to think of morality as a tool that sentient beings use to cooperatively and collectively achieve their desire for well-being. And just as the scientific method—hypothesis, experiment, conclusion, peer review, replication—works well for arriving at empirical truths, a moral system based on the collective increase of well-being works well at achieving its goals.

      Our ideas about morality aren't as advanced and agreed-upon as our ideas about science, of course, but we're slowly making progress. God-based morality, on the other hand, is being dragged along kicking and screaming, driven forward only through reinterpretation of static holy books and the fear of obsolescence.

    4. Even Richard Dawkins has to admit that if all we are is a result of a mindless process of evolution then there is no good or evil , how can a random collection of atoms that just happened to become human know what is moral behaviour.
      surely the selfish gene only seeks to make sure itself and its offspring reproduce.
      What empirical evidence would you use to test the following as regards their moral status, divorce, gambling,drug taking,affairs,war,slander,envy.

    5. I've seen no indication that Dawkins thinks morality doesn't exist, and even if he does, he's not the authority on such matters.

      The evolution of our moral sense is an extremely interesting topic which I've written about at length here:
      It turns out that we have ample motivation to help people other than ourselves and our offspring due to kin selection, reciprocal altruism, co-operation and enculturation—and then of course our reasoning abilities can take things from there.

      As for empirical evidence for the moral status of all the phenomena you listed... insofar as they increase suffering and decrease well-being (intentionally, and more so than the alternatives), they would generally be immoral. Insofar as they do the opposite, they're moral. If we want to be rigorous about measuring well-being, that's tougher, but at the very least we can survey those involved and they can self-report the changes to their personal well-being.

      Naturally, this isn't a perfect system, but remember what we're comparing it to: a divine command morality that doesn't even *attempt* to take anyone's well-being into account. Even if we don't have a complete answer to every moral question, it's hard for me to see how anyone could avoid finding secular morality to be obviously superior to its alternative.

      Now, since you've asked me several questions, let me ask you this: As a Christian, what do you think about my response to the second question in the original post? Do you recognize that if you don't question God's morality, you're then forced to accept a line of reasoning that can justify literally any moral state of affairs? If God was depicted in the Bible as raping and torturing infants, for instance, would you consider his actions to be beyond our understanding, but ultimately morally good?

    6. The reason we cannot question Gods morality is that we have 2 options . 1- God does not exist so the point is moot .
      2- God does exist and hence he is the originator of morality
      and as the originator has the final say on all things moral.
      So you need do re phrase the question, maybe you could ask are the teaching of the old testament moral or not.
      By the way type Dawkins no good or evil into Google,
      I know he is not the final say in this matter, no one is and thats the problem science says nothing about good or evil science cure`s terrible disease`s and makes biological weapons science does not discriminate it just is.

  3. Maybe for the first one you should tackle what they mean by faith, and then question why they think that having that sort of faith is a virtue. The only way to successfully counter that claim would be to convince them somehow that that particular type of faith isn't a virtue. The usual ones I've heard is that "we all have faith in something" but you would have to direct that sort of response towards talking about probability, since that's what they're trying to explain. Of course, once talking about probability the only things that we should value are high probability events. Valuing a low probability event is conversely valuing its opposite. In other words, if I value something that has a low probability of being true, then by necessity I value something that has a high probability of being a lie. I don't value lies, so I should only value something that has a high probability of being true.

    Another way of looking at the "can't be proved or disproved" thing is to convince them that something that can't be proved or disproved is a quality that actual good ideas don't have. I wrote a little fictional story about that a while ago (it's basically a short narrative about falsifiability).