Tag Archives: Atheism

Is Sam Harris successful at rationally grounding objective moral values and duties?

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

I just wanted to put out a few snips from this layperson-level article on the Reasonable Faith web site. The article is about atheist scholar Sam Harris, and his attempt to provide a basis for morality on atheism.

Here’s the Harris project:

The question then is, what is the best foundation for the existence of objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions good or evil, right or wrong? Traditionally, God has been the highest Good (summum bonum) and His commandments constitutive of our moral duties. But if God does not exist, what foundation remains for objective moral values and duties?

Dr. Craig is able to show why Harris’ attempt to ground the objective moral value of humans in “human flourishing” fails, by using the law of identity to show that Harris’ rule doesn’t account for the possibility that those who do evil could possibly flourish and be happy. If Harris is right that objective morality is identical to human flourishing, then it cannot even be possible that this be the case. This can be a bit confusing to non-philosophers, though, so I’ll focus on Dr. Craig’s argument against Harris’ attempt to ground objective moral duties.

Dr. Craig writes:

That takes us to a second question: Does atheism provide a sound foundation for objective moral duties? Duty has to do with moral obligation and prohibition, what I ought or ought not to do. Here reviewers of The Moral Landscape have been merciless in pounding Harris’ attempt to provide a naturalistic account of moral obligation. Two problems stand out.

First: Natural science tells us only what is, not what ought to be, the case. As philosopher Jerry Fodor has written, “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it wouldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are.” In particular it cannot tell us that we have a moral obligation to take actions that are conducive to human flourishing.

So if there is no God, what foundation remains for objective moral duties? On the naturalistic view, human beings are just animals, and animals have no moral obligations to one another. When a lion kills a zebra, it kills the zebra, but it does not murder the zebra. When a great white shark forcibly copulates with a female, it forcibly copulates with her but it does not rape her — for there is no moral dimension to these actions. They are neither prohibited nor obligatory.

So if God does not exist, why think we have any moral obligations to do anything? Who or what imposes these moral duties on us? Where do they come from? It is hard to see why they would be anything more than a subjective impression ingrained into us by societal and parental conditioning.

So we might feel morally obligated to do something, maybe what our herd expects of us in this time and place we live in. But on atheism those feelings are arbitrary. After all, societies have evolved where feelings of obligation are felt by people to perform suicide bombings against civilians. On atheism, those feelings are as valid and grounded as any other “duties” because they emerge from the same process in other times and places. Obligations change between time and place – they are not objectively real. But that means that our moral duties are not objective, they are arbitrary – if atheism is true. The same “socio-biological evolution” is generating opposite moral duties in different times and places. This is not “objective”.

And the second objection is even more lethal:

Second: “ought” implies “can.” A person is not morally responsible for an action he is unable to avoid. For example, if somebody shoves you into another person, you are not to blame for bumping into this person. You had no choice. But Harris believes that all of our actions are causally determined and that there is no free will. Harris rejects not only libertarian accounts of freedom but also compatibilistic accounts of freedom. But if there is no free will, no one is morally responsible for anything. In the end, Harris admits this, though it’s tucked away in his endnotes. Moral responsibility, he says, “is a social construct,” not an objective reality: “in neuroscientific terms no person is more or less responsible than any other” for the actions they perform. His thoroughgoing determinism spells the end of any hope or possibility of objective moral duties on his worldview because we have no control over what we do.

Harris recognizes that “determinism really does threaten free will and responsibility as we intuitively understand them.” But not to worry! “The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.” The point, I take it, is that we do not really have the illusion of free will. Not only is such a claim patently false phenomenologically, as any of us can attest, but it is also irrelevant. The fact remains that whether we experience the illusion of free will or not, on Harris’ view we are thoroughly determined in all that we think and do and can therefore have no moral responsibilities.

On Harris’ view, human beings are computers made out of meat. But if you cannot freely make moral choices, then you cannot choose to perform moral duties or not. What is amazing to me is why he wants to deny free will in the first place. He is surely very well aware of his own experience of free will, and his own consciousness, for that matter. Before we even start to look at scientific evidences against atheism like the origin of the universe, the cosmic fine-tuning, the origin of life, the Cambrian explosion, etc. we already have evidence within ourselves that naturalism is false.

Just in passing, my friend Micah sent me this article about Sam Harris’ academic credentials. Although Harris has a PhD in neuroscience, the underlying reality is a bit more complicated. When I watched him debate William Lane Craig, he seemed to be ignorant of simple problems with his utilitarian moral views, and his inability to ground libertarian free will. The problems with utilitarianism have been known for hundreds of years. You can watch the debate yourself and see if you think he was prepared or not.

Making sense of evil and suffering within a Christian worldview

One thing I’ve noticed in talking to atheists who grew up in Christian homes is that they often leave their Christian worldview behind because of a disappointment with God. For some reason, they get this idea that God is our cosmic butler. We can do whatever we want in order to be happy, and if we want any help in this, then we just ring for him. When we encounter disappointment, our tendency is to just leave God behind.

Paul Copan explains the high points of the problems of evil and suffering in 17 minutes. (H/T Apologetics 315)

The MP3 file is here.

The video is here:

Topics:

  • the question itself reveals that we are moral beings
  • the problem of evil is the great interrupter of human well-being
  • every philosophy of life has to address this question
  • is God required to give us a life that is easy and comfortable?
  • evil is a departure from good, i.e. – the way things ought to be
  • a way things ought to be implies a plan for what ought to be
  • human evil implies a plan for the way we ought to be
  • free creatures have the ability to deviate from the plan
  • where does this plan for the universe and us come from?
  • how can there be a way we ought to be come from?
  • evil is the flip side of good so where does good come from?
  • God’s own moral nature is the standard of good and evil
  • where does evil from natural disasters come from?
  • how dangerous natural phenomena preserve Earth’s habitability
  • there is a benefit from tectonic activity
  • similarly, God lets humans freely choose knowing harm may result
  • people are free to try to find meaning in something other than God
  • God is able to use negative things to bring about positive results
  • e.g. – when good people suffer, they can comfort and care for others
  • can people be good enough on their own without God?

I do think it’s worth thinking about whether the New Testament portrays God as our cosmic butler, just waiting on us hand and foot so that we can be happy. Personally, I think you’d have to be crazy to get that impression of God from the Bible. Especially from the life of Jesus, who suffers in order to do the will of his Father. Wouldn’t it be funny if atheists were disbelieving in a God of their own making? Suffering in the pursuit of goodness has always been the center of the Christian life. I’m not sure where people get this idea that God’s job is to make us happy, according to our own desires. Seems kind of shallow. Certainly not Biblical. Do people even read the Bible any more to find out what God is really like? Maybe that’s the problem.

If you want to read two good books for beginners on Christian Apologetics that cover a range of intermediate issues, then pick up “Passion Conviction” and the companion “Contending With Christianity’s Critics”. Awesome, awesome resources. The Kindle editions can often be had for $3 each on Amazon.

Mainstream media celebrates mass starvation and political prisons in North Korea

CNN raves about North Korea's brutal regime, yay communism!
CNN raves about North Korea’s brutal regime: Pretty! Glamorous! Stylish!

I’m sure everyone has heard about the mainstream media’s embrace of North Korea’s charming smiles at the Olympics. I like to listen to the Ben Shapiro podcast, the Andrew Klavan podcast, and the Daily Signal podcast and they ALL talked about it. But I wanted to tell people the truth, and remind people that this isn’t the first time that mainstream media types have covered up atrocities in order to make their heroes look good.

The Daily Signal posted celebratory tweets from seven different mainstream media sources: CNN, ThinkProgress, The New York Times, Politico, Reuters, and a bureau chief of the Washington Post.

The New York Times tweeted: “Without a word, only flashing smiles, Kim Jong-un’s sister outflanked Vice President Mike Pence in diplomacy” and Reuters tweeted: “North Korea judged winner of diplomatic gold at Olympics”.

Before we go any further, let’s learn a bit about starvation in North Korea from a radically leftist source: Newsweek.

Excerpt:

Roughly 18 million people in North Korea are not getting enough food, a United Nations report released this week found. That means 70 percent of the isolated nation’s population relies on food assistance to get by, including 1.3 million children under the age of five.

“Amidst political tensions, an estimated 18 million people across DPRK [North Korea] continue to suffer from food insecurity and undernutrition, as well as a lack of access to basic services,” the U.N. report said. “Furthermore, 10.5 million people, or 41 percent of the total population, are undernourished.”

North Koreans also need basic healthcare and sanitation, the U.N. report determined. Without safe water or better sanitation and hygiene, diarrhea and pneumonia have become the leading cause of death for children under five, the report said.

The radically-leftist NBC News reports on the concentration camps:

Atrocities committed by North Korea against its own people are “strikingly similar” to those perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II, the head of a United Nations panel said Monday after publishing an unprecedented report.

The year-long investigation called for urgent action by the international community to stop allleged crimes against humanity committed by Kim Jong Un and his regime.

[…]But the report also shed new light on the country’s darkest side – its labor camps.

As many as 120,000 North Koreans are thought to be imprisoned across the country, many of them in four large camps. This number may have shrunk in recent years, according to the report, but only because many of the inmates have been murdered or starved to death.

People and their families are held for arbitrary crimes such as “gossiping” about the state.

[…]The U.N. report contains more of this harrowing testimony, which it says is tantamount to “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence.” It compared conditions to camps run by the Nazis during World War II and gulags set up in Soviet Russia.

This is what the mainstream media declined to mention while they were praising a woman smiling and Mike Pence frowning as some great evidence of moral equivalence between North Korea and the United States of America.

Atheism in action: a satellite photo of North Korea at night
One big concentration camp: a satellite photo of North Korea at night

This is not the first time that the mainstream media has covered up for forced starvation, imprisonment and mass murders.

Here’s another case written about in The Weekly Standard.

Excerpt:

AT LONG LAST a Pulitzer Prize committee is looking into the possibility that the Pulitzer awarded to Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent whose dispatches covered up Stalin’s infamies, might be revoked.In order to assist in their researches, I am downloading here some of the lies contained in those dispatches, lies which the New York Times has never repudiated with the same splash as it accorded Jayson Blair’s comparatively trivial lies:

“There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.”
–New York Times, Nov. 15, 1931, page 1

“Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
–New York Times, August 23, 1933

“Enemies and foreign critics can say what they please. Weaklings and despondents at home may groan under the burden, but the youth and strength of the Russian people is essentially at one with the Kremlin’s program, believes it worthwhile and supports it, however hard be the sledding.”
–New York Times, December 9, 1932, page 6

“You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”
–New York Times, May 14, 1933, page 18

“There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
–New York Times, March 31, 1933, page 13

I would like to add another Duranty quote, not in his dispatches, which is reported in a memoir by Zara Witkin, a Los Angeles architect, who lived in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. (“An American Engineer in Stalin’s Russia: The Memoirs of Zara Witkin, 1932-1934,” University of California Press ). The memoirist describes an evening during which the Moscow correspondents were discussing how to get out the story about the Stalin-made Russian famine. To get around the censorship, the UP’s Eugene Lyons was telephoning the dire news of the famine to his New York office but the was ordered to stop because it was antagonizing the Kremlin. Ralph Barnes, the New York Herald Tribune reporter, turned to Duranty and asked him what he was going to write. Duranty replied:

Nothing. What are a few million dead Russians in a situation like this? Quite unimportant. This is just an incident in the sweeping historical changes here. I think the entire matter is exaggerated.

And this was at a time when peasants in Ukraine were dying of starvation at the rate of 25,000 a day.

And that is how mainstream media journalists think about the people who are harmed by their leftist policies – whether it be the unborn, children raised without one or more biological parents, families who cannot get make ends meet, innocent people murdered by terrorists and other criminals, etc. Kill them all, as long as big government is in control, making everyone “equal”. Journalists want to call evil “good”, and good “evil”, until the people are so confused that they lose the ability to judge the crimes of Marxist regimes.

You can get the facts about the forced starvation of Ukrainian civilians – in this article from the center-left The Atlantic, written by historian Anne Applebaum.

Here’s one quote:

In the years 1932 and 1933, a catastrophic famine swept across the Soviet Union. It began in the chaos of collectivization, when millions of peasants were forced off their land and made to join state farms. It was then exacerbated, in the autumn of 1932, when the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside. Despite the shortages, the state demanded not just grain, but all available food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and local Party activists, motivated by hunger, fear, and a decade of hateful propaganda, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, and farm animals. At the same time, a cordon was drawn around the Ukrainian republic to prevent escape. The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger all across the Soviet Union. Among them were nearly 4 million Ukrainians who died not because of neglect or crop failure, but because they had been deliberately deprived of food.

Neither the Ukrainian famine nor the broader Soviet famine were ever officially recognized by the USSR. Inside the country the famine was never mentioned. All discussion was actively repressed; statistics were altered to hide it. The terror was so overwhelming that the silence was complete. Outside the country, however, the cover-up required different, subtler tactics. These are beautifully illustrated by the parallel stories of Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones.

Collectivization: that’s what the mainstream media loves. Everyone the same and equal, and no differences. Cogs in a machine, with no dissent from our watchful government above. When you look at North Korea, or Cuba or Venezuela, you’re looking at the Marxist atheist ideal. Free people are so unpredictable, they say, that we need a big government if we want to avoid catastrophes like global warming and overpopulation. This is how leftists think – or should I say, this is how leftists feel. They don’t think.

Leftism starts with a feeling of superiority over one’s neighbor, and the desire to be delivered from these inferior people by an infallible government. Those stupid neighbors with their religion and their values – they are wasting food and electricity on their large families. They should be thrown into a concentration camp, so that they don’t teach their children their mistaken values, e.g. – chastity, sobriety and natural marriage. Who can stop them from having views different from mine? The government can, if we enlightened people vote to make it big enough to control them.

It’s very important for people to understand what it is that they are consuming when they turn on television shows on CNN, or pick up a New York Times newspaper.

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.

Positive arguments for Christian theism

William Lane Craig lectures on the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let's take a look at the facts
Sherlock Holmes and John Watson: let’s take a look at the facts

Here is Dr. William Lane Craig giving a long-form argument for the historical event of the resurrection of Jesus, and taking questions from the audience.

The speaker introduction goes for 6 minutes, then Dr. Craig speaks for 35 minutes, then it’s a period of questions and answers with the audience. The total length is 93 minutes, so quite a long period of Q&A. The questions in the Q&A period are quite good.

Introduction:

  • Many people who are willing to accept God’s existence are not willing to accept the God of Christianity
  • Christians need to be ready to show that Jesus rose from the dead as a historical event
  • Private faith is fine for individuals, but when dealing with the public you have to have evidence
  • When making the case, you cannot assume that your audience accepts the Bible as inerrant
  • You must use the New Testament like any other ancient historical document
  • Most historians, Christian and not, accept the basic minimal facts supporting the resurrection of Jesus

Fact #1: the burial of Jesus following his crucifixion

  • Fact #1 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
  • Fact #1 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
  • Fact #1 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it praises one of the Sanhedrin
  • Fact #1 is not opposed by any competing burial narratives

Fact #2: on the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some women

  • Fact #2 is supported by the early Passion narrative which was a source for Mark’s gospel
  • Fact #2 is implied by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
  • Fact #2 is simple and lacks legendary embellishment, which argues for an early dating
  • Fact #2 passes the criterion of embarrassment, because it has female, not male, witnesses
  • Fact #2 passes the criterion of enemy attestation, since it is reported by the Jewish leaders

Fact #3: Jesus appeared to various people in various circumstances after his death

  • Fact #3 is supported by the early creed found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15)
  • Fact #3 is supported by multiple, independent reports of the events from all four gospels
  • Fact #3 explains other historical facts, like the conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother James

Fact #4: the earliest Christians proclaimed their belief in the resurrection of Jesus

  • Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians continued to identify Jesus as the Messiah
  • Fact #4 explains why the earliest Christians were suddenly so unconcerned about being killed

Dr. Craig then asks which hypothesis explains all four of these facts. He surveys a number of naturalistic hypotheses, such as the hallucination theory or various conspiracy theories. All of these theories deny one or more of the minimal facts that have been established and accepted by the broad spectrum of historians. In order to reject the resurrection hypothesis, a skeptic would have to deny one of the four facts or propose an explanation that explains those facts better than the resurrection hypothesis.

I listened to the Q&A period while doing housekeeping and I heard lots of good questions. Dr. Craig gives very long answers to the questions. One person asked why we should trust the claim that the Jewish leaders really did say that the disciples stole the body. Another one asked why we should take the resurrection as proof that Jesus was divine. Another asks about the earthquake in Matthewand whether it is intended to be historical or apocalyptic imagery. Dr. Craig is also asked about the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes, and how many of the minimal facts he accepts. Another questioner asked about the ascension.

If you are looking for a good book to read on this topic, the best introductory book on the resurrection is “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” and the best comprehensive book is “The Resurrection of Jesus“.