Are atheists able to perform the greatest moral duty?

Goodness Without God: is it possible?
Goodness Without God: is it possible?

J. Warner Wallace looks at what Jesus says the most important commandment is, and then asks whether atheists can be justified morally if Jesus is right.

He writes:

I was an atheist for the first thirty-five years of my life. While I was a committed (and often aggressive) non-believer, most people who knew me would probably have described me as a “nice guy”. My behavior wasn’t all that different than many of my Christian friends. I worked with many other atheist police officers. We were often suspicious of the Christians in our midst and the people we arrested who claimed to be Christians. Even as atheists we were familiar with Jesus’ directive to “love your neighbor as yourself.” My partner, Tim, used to say, “If there is a good God and a good Heaven, I think I will be there when it’s all over. I’m a good person. I try to ‘do the right thing’. I’m not a bad guy; I put bad people in jail. So I’m not worried about it.” Tim held a “works based” moral worldview and he was sure his good deeds would earn him a spot in Heaven if he was wrong about the existence of God. But Tim (and I) were unfamiliar with Jesus’ teaching in its full context, and now, years later as a Christian, I’ve come to understand why the first part of the “Greatest Command” is even more important than the second.

When approached by a skeptic, Jesus affirmed the greatest commandments of God in the following way:

Matthew 22:35-40
One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Most unbelievers recognize the value of the second half of this command (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”) but deny the value of the first part (“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”) There’s a reason, however, why Jesus listed these two commands in this specific order. The first command (loving God) is the “great and foremost commandment” because it is required to achieve the second command (loving others). You can’t truly do the right thing unless you understand the relationship between these two commands:

Read the rest at Cold Case Christianity.

I’ve made the same point here many times, but I have never been an atheist and I don’t make the point in the same winsome way that Wallace does.

I think his post is worth sending along to any atheists you may know who think themselves justified. I think it is a mistake for people to derive their own version of morality based on the time and place where they are, and then think that picking and choosing the parts they like will justify them with God. Remember, a recent survey of atheists found that 97% of them favor abortion rights. I think this is consistent with the atheist view that there are no human rights, including a right to life. Moreover, in my experience, I have found that most atheists have no problem with the government stomping all over the consciences of Christian business owners when it comes to things like gay rights. It’s important to show them that there is a standard independent of their personal opinions, justifications and rationalizations. And that they don’t measure up to it.

Do atheists have a lower divorce rate than Christians?

Investigation in progress
Investigation in progress

I’ve been having discussions with atheists lately, and finding out that in the atheist community, a lot of false beliefs persist because they (as a group) insulate themselves from rational inquiry. Basically, one of them says something that makes Christians look bad, and the rest of them believe it without ever looking into it, or even listening to a critical point of view. Anything that makes Christians look stupid and/or evil is believed without question.

It’s not just the big lies like “the universe is eternal”, “Jesus never existed”, “unborn babies aren’t human beings”, “the multiverse explains away the cosmic fine-tuning”, “the origin of life is a solved problem: aliens seeded the Earth with life”, “the Cambrian explosion occurred over tens of millions of years”, “moral realism is perfectly rational in an accidental universe where humans evolved randomly”, etc.. Sometimes, it’s just ordinary stuff like divorce rates between Christians and atheists. Stuff you can check pretty easily, as long as you’re not lazy and ignorant.

I thought I would re-post this USA Today article from 2011 about that.

Excerpt:

It’s been proclaimed from pulpits and blogs for years — Christians divorce as much as everyone else in America.

But some scholars and family activists are questioning the oft-cited statistics, saying Christians who attend church regularly are more likely to remain wed.

“It’s a useful myth,” said Bradley Wright, a University of Connecticut sociologist who recently wrote “Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites … and Other Lies You’ve Been Told.”

“Because if a pastor wants to preach about how Christians should take their marriages more seriously, he or she can trot out this statistic to get them to listen to him or her.”

The various findings on religion and divorce hinge on what kind of Christians are being discussed.

Wright combed through the General Social Survey, a vast demographic study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and found that Christians, like adherents of other religions, have a divorce rate of about 42%. The rate among religiously unaffiliated Americans is 50%.

When Wright examined the statistics on evangelicals, he found worship attendance has a big influence on the numbers. Six in 10 evangelicals who never attend had been divorced or separated, compared to just 38% of weekly attendees.

[…]Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, agrees there’s been some confusion.

“You do hear, both in Christian and non-Christian circles, that Christians are no different from anyone else when it comes to divorce and that is not true if you are focusing on Christians who are regular church attendees,” he said.

Wilcox’s analysis of the National Survey of Families and Households has found that Americans who attend religious services several times a month were about 35% less likely to divorce than those with no religious affiliation.

Nominal conservative Protestants, on the other hand, were 20% more likely to divorce than the religiously unaffiliated.

“There’s something about being a nominal ‘Christian’ that is linked to a lot of negative outcomes when it comes to family life,” Wilcox said.

Here’s a quote from an Oklahoma State University study that confirms the Wright and Wilcox conclusions:

History of Divorce and Religious Involvement

Those who say they are more religious are less likely, not more, to have already experienced divorce. Likewise, those who report more frequent attendance at religious services were significantly less likely to have been divorced. This pattern of findings held using various analytic techniques that test which variables differentiate persons who have been divorced from persons who have not been divorced, while controlling for other variables that might affect the interpretation of the data, such as age, age of first marriage, income, and gender. When both the global rating of religiousness and the item assessing frequency of attendance at religious services are entered into the same analysis, the attendance item remains significantly associated with divorce history but the global religiousness item does not. This suggests that a key aspect of how religious faith affects marital relationships may be through involvement with a community of faith.

So, please do bookmark this information for the next time you hear an atheist make this argument. Obviously, you can’t expect people who are not serious about their religion to be bound by the moral duties imposed by that religion. People who attend church regularly are probably more serious about their religion, and also probably more informed about what their holy book says. If their holy book is the Bible, then there are few options for divorce.

An article from Focus on the Family by Amy Tracy explains when divorce is allowed according to the Bible.

God is very clear, however, that He hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). He also says, “So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). According to the New Testament, there are two justifications for divorce: infidelity (Matthew 5:32) and desertion (1 Corinthians 7:15).

So divorce is not something a Bible believing Christian can do for frivolous reasons, unless he wants to be in rebellion against God.

The future of marriage in the church
In my own case, I learned about chastity and sobriety and courting outside the church, and in my case that means that I am still a virgin, that I don’t drink more than a beer a year, and that when I like a girl, I court her. I do think that people in the church are generally more moral than people outside the church, but that’s more because of convention rather than conviction. I don’t think it’s going to last, in other words – it’s more like a hangover. Church is not the place where reasons and evidence are given that help people to resist peer pressure when they enter hostile environments, like the university. And often, parents are too busy working at their jobs (to make money they don’t even need) to understand the issues and communicate them to their children.

We’re probably not going to keep our low divorce rate unless we start to get serious about learning how to discuss moral issues practically, using evidence. Take premarital sex as an example. I’ve never been in a church where they explained the hormones that are released during sex that cause you to bond to the person you’re having sex with. You would have to look in books or listen to lectures in order to understand the problem with having sex with someone you are not committed to – how it causes you to hold back your emotions for fear of a break-up. The church doesn’t have much to say about the social effects of single motherhood by choice or the effects of gay parenting on children. Nor do they have any positive vision to offer men about how they can serve God by marrying carefully. Now is probably a good time to start thinking deeply about how to have a good relationship, how to have a good marriage, how to raise children who will make a difference.

Is the Bible’s definition of faith opposed to logic and evidence?

Bible study that hits the spot
Theology that hits the spot

Probably the biggest misconception that I encounter when defending the faith is the mistaken notion of what faith is. Today we are going to get to the bottom of what the Bible says faith is, once and for all. This post will be useful to Christians and atheists, alike.

What is faith according to the Bible?

I am going to reference this article from apologist Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason in my explanation.

Koukl cites three Biblical examples to support the idea that faith is not blind leap-of-faith wishing, but is based on evidence.

  1. Moses went out into the wilderness and he had that first encounter with the burning bush, and God gave him the directive to go back to Egypt and let his people go. Moses said, Yeah, right. What’s going to happen when they say, why should we believe you, Moses?God said, See that staff? Throw it down.Moses threw it down and it turned into a serpent.God said, See that serpent? Pick it up.And he picked it up and it turned back into a staff.God said, Now you take that and do that before the Jewish people and you do that before Pharaoh. And you do this number with the hail, and the frogs, and turning the Nile River into blood. You put the sun out. You do a bunch of other tricks to get their attention.And then comes this phrase: “So that they might know that there is a God in Israel.”
  2. [I]n Mark 2 you see Jesus preaching in a house, and you know the story where they take the roof off and let the paralytic down through the roof. Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.” And people get bugged because how can anyone forgive sins but God alone?Jesus understood what they were thinking and He said this: What’s harder to say, your sins are forgiven, or to rise, take up your pallet and go home?Now, I’ll tell you what would be harder for me to say : Arise, take up your pallet and go home. I can walk into any Bible study and say your sins are forgiven and nobody is going to know if I know what I am talking about or not. But if I lay hands on somebody in a wheelchair and I say, Take up your wheelchair and go home, and they sit there, I look pretty dumb because everyone knows nothing happened.But Jesus adds this. He says, “In order that you may know that the Son of Man has the power and authority to forgive sins, I say to you, arise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he got up and he got out. Notice the phrase “In order that you may know”. Same message, right?
  3. Move over to the Book of Acts. First sermon after Pentecost. Peter was up in front of this massive crowd. He was talking about the resurrection to which he was an eyewitness. He talked about fulfilled prophecy. He talked about the miraculous tongues and the miraculous manifestation of being able to speak in a language you don’t know. Do you think this is physical evidence to those people? I think so. Pretty powerful.Peter tells them, These men are not drunk as it seems, but rather this is a fulfillment of prophecy. David spoke of this. Jesus got out of the grave, and we saw him, and we proclaim this to you.Do you know how he ends his sermon? It’s really great. Acts 2:36. I’ve been a Christian 20 years and I didn’t see this until about a year ago. This is for all of those who think that if you can know it for sure, you can’t exercise faith in it. Here is what Peter said. Acts 2:36, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” There it is again. “Know for certain.”

What is faith according to Bible-based theologians?

I am going to reference this article from theologian C. Michael Patton of Parchment and Pen in my explanation.

Patton explains that according to Reformation (conservative, Bible-based) theologians, faith has 3 parts:

  1. notitia – This is the basic informational foundation of our faith. It is best expressed by the word content. Faith, according to the Reformers must have content. You cannot have faith in nothing. There must be some referential propositional truth to which the faith points. The proposition “Christ rose from the grave,” for example, is a necessary information base that Christians must have.
  2. assensus – This is the assent or confidence that we have that the notitia is correct… This involves evidence which leads to the conviction of the truthfulness of the proposition… This involves intellectual assent and persuasion based upon critical thought… assensus… says, “I am persuaded to believe that Christ rose from the grave.”
  3. fiducia – This is the “resting” in the information based upon a conviction of its truthfulness. Fiducia is best expressed by the English word “trust.”… Fiducia is the personal subjective act of the will to take the final step. It is important to note that while fiducia goes beyond or transcends the intellect, it is built upon its foundation.

So, Biblical faith is really trust. Trust(3) can only occur after intellectual assent(2), based on evidence and thought. Intellectual assent(2) can only occur after the propositional information(1) is known.

The church today accepts 1 and 3, but denies 2. I call this “fideism” or “blind faith”. Ironically, activist atheists, (the New Atheists), also believe that faith is blind. The postmodern “emergent church” denies 1 and 2. A person could accept 1 and 2 but deny 3 by not re-prioritizing their life based on what they know to be true.

How do beliefs form, according to Christian philosophers?

I am going to reference a portion of chapter 3 of J.P. Moreland’s “Love Your God With All Your Mind” (i.e. – LYGWYM).

J.P. Moreland explains how beliefs form and how you can change them.

  1. Today, people are inclined to think that the sincerity and fervency of one’s beliefs are more important than the content… Nothing could be further from the truth… As far as reality is concerned, what matters is not whether I like a belief or how sincere I am in believing it but whether or not the belief is true. I am responsible for what I believe and, I might add, for what I refuse to believe because the content of what I do or do not believe makes a tremendous difference to what I become and how I act.
  2. A belief’s strength is the degree to which you are convinced the belief is true. As you gain ,evidence and support for a belief, its strength grows for you… The more certain you are of a belief… the more you rely on it as a basis for action.

But the most important point of the article is that your beliefs are not under the control of your will.

…Scripture holds us responsible for our beliefs since it commands us to embrace certain beliefs and warns us of the consequences of accepting other beliefs. On the other hand, experience teaches us that we cannot choose or change our beliefs by direct effort.

For example, if someone offered you $10,000 to believe right now that a pink elephant was sitting next to you, you could not really choose to believe this… If I want to change my beliefs about something, I can embark on a course of study in which I choose to think regularly about certain things, read certain pieces of evidence and argument, and try to find problems with evidence raised against the belief in question.

…by choosing to undertake a course of study… I can put myself in a position to undergo a change in… my beliefs… And… my character and behavior… will be transformed by these belief changes.

I think definition of faith is important, because atheists seemed to want to substitute their own definition of faith as blind belief for this Biblical definition, but there is no evidence for their view that faith is belief without evidence. I think this might be another case of projection by atheists. Blind faith is how they arrive at their views, so they are trying to push it onto us. But the Bible is clearly opposed to it.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

 

Is the definition of atheism “a lack of belief in God”?

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

First, let’s see check with the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God.

Stanford University is one of the top 5 universities in the United States, so that’s a solid definition. To be an atheist is to be a person who makes the claim that, as a matter of FACT, there is no intelligent agent who created the universe. Atheists think that there is no God, and theists think that there is a God. Both claims are objective claims about the way the world is out there, and so both sides must furnish forth arguments and evidence as to how they are able to know what they are each claiming.

Philosopher William Lane Craig has some thoughts on atheism, atheists and lacking belief in God in this reply to a questioner.

Question:

In my discussions with atheists, they  are using the term that they “lack belief in God”. They claim that this is different from not believing in God or from saying that God does not exist. I’m not sure how to respond to this. It seems to me that its a silly word-play and is logically the same as saying that you do not believe in God.
What would be a good response to this?
Thank you for your time,

Steven

And here is Dr. Craig’s full response:

Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God.  Compare my saying, “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.”   If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars.  There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).”   Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.

But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.

There’s a history behind this.  Certain atheists in the mid-twentieth century were promoting the so-called “presumption of atheism.” At face value, this would appear to be the claim that in the absence of evidence for the existence of God, we should presume that God does not exist.  Atheism is a sort of default position, and the theist bears a special burden of proof with regard to his belief that God exists.

So understood, such an alleged presumption is clearly mistaken.  For the assertion that “There is no God” is just as much a claim to knowledge as is the assertion that “There is a God.”  Therefore, the former assertion requires justification just as the latter does.  It is the agnostic who makes no knowledge claim at all with respect to God’s existence.  He confesses that he doesn’t know whether there is a God or whether there is no God.

But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.”  So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).  As Antony Flew confesses,

the word ‘atheist’ has in the present context to be construed in an unusual way.  Nowadays it is normally taken to mean someone who explicitly denies the existence . . . of God . . . But here it has to be understood not positively but negatively, with the originally Greek prefix ‘a-’ being read in this same way in ‘atheist’ as it customarily is in . . . words as ‘amoral’ . . . . In this interpretation an atheist becomes not someone who positively asserts the non-existence of God, but someone who is simply not a theist. (A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip Quinn and Charles Taliaferro [Oxford:  Blackwell, 1997], s.v. “The Presumption of Atheism,” by Antony Flew)

Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view.  It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all.  On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists!  In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.

One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.

So why, you might wonder, would atheists be anxious to so trivialize their position?  Here I agree with you that a deceptive game is being played by many atheists.  If atheism is taken to be a view, namely the view that there is no God, then atheists must shoulder their share of the burden of proof to support this view.  But many atheists admit freely that they cannot sustain such a burden of proof.  So they try to shirk their epistemic responsibility by re-defining atheism so that it is no longer a view but just a psychological condition which as such makes no assertions.  They are really closet agnostics who want to claim the mantle of atheism without shouldering its responsibilities.

This is disingenuous and still leaves us asking, “So is there a God or not?”

So there you have it. We are interested in what both sides know and what reasons and evidence they have to justify their claim to know. We are interested in talking to people who make claims about objective reality, not about themselves, and who then go on to give reasons and evidence to support their claims about objective reality. There are atheists out there that do make an objective claim that God does not exist, and then support that claim with arguments and evidence. Those are good atheists, and we should engage in rational conversations with them. But clearly there are some atheists who are not like that. How should we deal with these “subjective atheists”?

Dealing with subjective atheists

How should theists respond to people who just want to talk about their psychological state? Well, my advice is to avoid them. They are approaching religion irrationally and non-cognitively – like the person who enters a physics class and says “I lack a belief in the gravitational force!”.  When you engage in serious discussions with people about God’s existence, you only care about what people know and what they can show to be true. We don’t care about a person’s psychology.

Dealing with persistent subjective atheists

What happens when you explain all of that to a subjective atheist who continues to insist that you listen to them repeat over and over “I lack a belief in God, I lack a belief in God”? What if you tell them to make the claim that God does not exist, and then support it with arguments and evidence, but instead they keep leaving comments on your blog telling you again and again about their subjective state of mind: “I lack a belief in cupcakes! I lack a belief in icebergs!” What if they keep e-mailing you and threatening to expose you on Twitter for refusing to listen to them, or denounce you via skywriting: “Wintery Knight won’t listen to me! I lack a belief in crickets!”. I think at this point you have to give up and stop talking to such a person.

And that’s why I moderate and filter comments on this blog. There are uneducated people out there with access to the Internet who want attention, but I am not obligated to give it to them. And neither are you. We are not obligated to listen to abusive people who don’t know what they are talking about. I do post comments from objective atheists who make factual claims about the objective world, and who support those claims with arguments and evidence. I am not obligated to post comments from people who refuse to make objective claims or who refuse to support objective claims with arguments and evidence. And I’m not obligated to engage in discussions with them, either.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

Should government get out of the marriage business?

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse

Here are three articles by Jennifer Roback Morse posted at The Public Discourse. The articles answer the charge from social liberals and libertarians that government should “get the government out of marriage”.

Here’s the first article which talks about how government will still be involved in marriage, even if we get rid of the traditional definition of marriage, because of the need for dispute resolution in private marriage contracts. She uses no-fault divorce as an example showing how it was sold as a way to get government out of the divorce business. But by making divorce easier by making it require no reason, it increased the number of disputes and the need for more government intervention to resolve these disputes.

Here’s the second article which talks about how the government will have to expand to resolve conflicts over decisions about who counts as a parent and who gets parental rights. With traditional marriage, identifying who the parents are is easy. But with private marriage contracts where the parties are not the biological parents, there is a need for the state to step in and assign parental rights. Again, this will require an expansion of government to resolve the disputes.

Here’s the third article which talks about how marriage is necessary in order to defend the needs and rights of the child at a time when they cannot enter into contracts and be parties to legal disputes.

The third article was my favorite, so here is an excerpt from it:

The fact of childhood dependence raises a whole series of questions. How do we get from a position of helpless dependence and complete self-centeredness, to a position of independence and respect for others? Are our views of the child somehow related to the foundations of a free society? And, to ask a question that may sound like heresy to libertarian ears: Do the needs of children place legitimate demands and limitations on the behavior of adults?

I came to the conclusion that a free society needs adults who can control themselves, and who have consciences. A free society needs people who can use their freedom, without bothering other people too much. We need to respect the rights of others, keep our promises, and restrain ourselves from taking advantage of others.

We learn to do these things inside the family, by being in a relationship with our parents. We can see this by looking at attachment- disordered children and failure-to-thrive children from orphanages and foster care. These children have their material needs met, for food, clothing, and medical care. But they are not held, or loved, or looked at. They simply do not develop properly, without mothers and fathers taking personal care of them. Some of them never develop consciences. But a child without a conscience becomes a real problem: this is exactly the type of child who does whatever he can get away with. A free society can’t handle very many people like that, and still function.

In other words I asked, “Do the needs of society place constraints on how we treat children?” But even this analysis still views the child from society’s perspective. It is about time we look at it from the child’s point of view, and ask a different kind of question. What is owed to the child?

Children are entitled to a relationship with both of their parents. They are entitled to know who they are and where they came from. Therefore children have a legitimate interest in the stability of their parents’ union, since that is ordinarily how kids have relationships with both parents. If Mom and Dad are quarreling, or if they live on opposite sides of the country, the child’s connection with one or both of them is seriously impaired.

But children cannot defend their rights themselves. Nor is it adequate to intervene after the fact, after harm already has been done. Children’s relational and identity rights must be protected proactively.

Marriage is society’s institutional structure for protecting these legitimate rights and interests of children.

I recommend taking a look at all three articles and becoming familiar with the arguments in case you have to explain why marriage matters and why we should not change it. I think it is important to read these articles and to be clear that to be a libertarian doctrine does not protect the right of a child to have a relationship with both his or her parents.  Nor does libertarianism promote the idea that parents ought to stick together for their children. Libertarianism means that adults get to do what they want, and no one speaks for the kids.

The purpose of marriage is to make adults make careful commitments, and restrain their desires and feelings, so that children will have a stable environment with their biological parents nearby. We do make exceptions, but we should not celebrate exceptions and we should not subsidize exceptions. It’s not fair to children to have to grow up without a mother or father just so that adults can pursue fun and thrills.

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

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