Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Moral objections to Christian Belief

Until recently, people wishing to discredit the bible often did so by arguing that it was untrue, asserting that it contained records of events that either did not happen or could not happen.

Many apologetics have been written to address these objections, and perhaps one day I will write one. If I did so, I might try to divide the objections into these three categories.
  • Historical Objections: claims that a particular event probably/definitely did not occur.
  • Scientific Objections: claims that a particular event could not occur on our planet because it would violate the known laws of science. Accounts of miracles fall into this category.
  • Logical/Philosophical Objections: claims that a particular event or set of events could not occur simultaneously, regardless of the laws of science. Alleged contradictions fall into this category.
I will hopefully address some of these objections within subsequent posts, especially if I think I have a novel response to them. The particular class of objections that I am noticing more and more is objections not that the bible is untrue because of any reasons above, but that God is simply immoral (therefore not worthy of worship, or believing in) or that some or all Christians are immoral (therefore the worldview of Christianity is not worth considering) or that the belief in a religion leads to evil acts (therefore such a belief should be discouraged or banned). I shall consider these to be a fourth category of objection.
  • Moral Objections.
I don't think I am just imagining this phenomenon. Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully
It's true that he doesn't directly say within this quote that God is evil but it is clear that this is a criticism of God as portrayed in the bible rather than simply a neutral list of observations. The only part of the quote that fits into the first three categories above is referring to God as a fictional character; the remainder seems to be saying that God is morally reprehensible.

Christopher Hitchens gives the game away more clearly (even just from looking at the title) within his book God Is Not Great, which I admit I have only skimmed through in order to find a quote such as this one at the start of Chapter 15:
There are, indeed, several ways in which religion is not just amoral, but positively immoral.
One need not talk to a frank atheist for long before they start listing the many ways in which they believe God, the bible or Christians are morally flawed. Whether it is a survey of historical events such as the inquisition or child abuse within the church, or a look through the bible to point out God's apparent endorsement of capital punishment for adultery and homosexual behaviour, it is not hard to find the objections to the Christian faith based on morality arguments.

In the past I have responded to these objections by trying to defend that God as described in the bible is morally good and praiseworthy and that our conceptions of what is good or evil should be changed accordingly. Being able to do this is important for the Christian faith because I am generally arguing that the whole picture of the bible is true, and God's goodness is a clear part of that picture. I might argue along those lines elsewhere within this blog.

But recently I've taken a different tack, inspired somewhat by Tim Keller, a pastor from New York. I am now inclined to postpone providing a complete justification for God and instead asking the atheist objector on what basis they judge an action to be right or wrong.

That is, an objector asserts that it's wrong for Christians to kill people who don't believe in God. I agree, but I'd like to ask what basis they have for their conviction that it's wrong. They assert that it's wrong for God to send people to hell. I disagree, but rather than focussing on the disagreement, I again wish to know what basis they have for categorising God's actions as wrong or right.

Really what I'm looking for, then, is a coherent atheist worldview in which there is a sensible notion of right and wrong. If there is not, then atheists should stop talking about God's actions (or Christians' actions) in the language of 'right'/'wrong' or 'good'/'evil' and start using language that does make sense within their worldview, like 'pleasing to most people'/'displeasing to most people' or 'causing the sensation of pain'/'causing the sensation of pleasure'. Imagine if a scientific text book kept referring to the "miracle of photosynthesis" or the "majesty of almighty God's creation"; it would seem particularly ridiculous to use such language if it transpired that the author did not believe in miracles or God.

It is worth noting that, despite his indictment on God quoted earlier, Richard Dawkins (who I know does is not representative of all atheists) implies that evil does not exist: "The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference."

Possible responses

I have laid down this challenge for a few of my friends so far. One friend has said that he believes there is no such thing as wrong/right but the language and idea is very hard to shake, and that this is the result of a Christian heritage in Australia, so that's why it slips into his speech and his thinking. Further, the language of morality is very handy in making persuasive arguments so he doesn't mind adopting it. I'm not sure where to go with this line of reasoning; it seems to be an admission that he is happy to live under a delusion that morality exists and only when he inspects his beliefs about morality itself does he concede they're basically just strong likings and dislikings that he feels about certain actions.

Another friend of mine, Andrew, has written a blog post about the subject, presenting a view which I think is slightly different. His post can be found on his blog here, and I will attempt to respond to it in my next post, so won't say much more about it yet.

There are a couple of possible lines of argument that I think are stronger than the two mentioned above. The first is to say that "Sure, I don't believe in this concept of right and wrong, but you, Bryn, claim to believe in it. So I'm simply borrowing your concepts to show that the bible is inconsistent. That is, I'm really making an argument that the bible is logically inconsistent because it claims that God is loving but then it also claims that God punishes people for not worshipping him."

I guess this is an acceptable line to take, but perhaps the structure of the argument could be made clearer if this is what people are actually trying to say. When Christopher Hitchens asserts that religion is immoral and amoral, he seems to be saying that he actually believes this to be a true assertion about religion; i.e., it is a wicked thing. So, basically, I don't believe that the atheists with whom I've had this discussion are actually trying to assume the biblical morality and show that it's internally inconsistent.

Another issue I have with the approach is the minimal attempt to engage with the biblical view of morality. How many times have I heard "Well, the bible says wives should submit to their husbands, but that is patently an immoral position to hold, so I'm not going to engage further with the bible"? (Actually probably only once or twice, but I'm sure more people think this!).

The second line of argument that I could imagine one taking is to say that an external moral truth does exist that means some things can be classified as morally right and some as morally wrong. In response for a justification of their belief in this external moral standard, an atheist could respond by saying that they neither have one nor need one. Indeed, an atheist is simply someone who does not believe in the existence of any gods, which does not entail a disbelief in things outside the natural world. So a suitable response could be that there are truths about the natural world that science can hope to discover and there are truths that are not about the natural world, such as moral truths.

But really, this whole blog post is directing a challenge at naturalistic atheists, for whom this final defense is not available. I suspect it's not an appealing answer for an atheist to give because it seems to be (a) a claim not about physical reality, and (b) a claim that cannot be backed up with evidence. Sure, you could provide evidence that stealing from people, or hitting them, causes suffering. But that is different from showing that it's actually wrong (I'll try to address this distinction in replying to the blog post mentioned above).

For the reader has made it thus far, scrolling down to the bottom of the post in the vain hope that my ban on commenting has been lifted, I say: Well done, good and faithful blog reader! I'll try to make subsequent posts shorter.