Tag Archives: Christianity

Is the concept of moral obligation intelligible on atheistic materialism?

Commenter ECM sent me this post from Uncommon Descent about the is-ought fallacy, and the difficulties that atheists have grounding morality on worldview in which only material things exist. The post is written by Barry Arrington. He is summarizes an argument based on some of the comments from an earlier post.

Barry introduces two assumptions:

(1) That atheistic naturalism is true.

(2) One can’t infer an “ought” from an “is.” Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.

Given our second assumption, there is nothing in the natural world from which we can infer an “ought.” And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there’s nothing in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.

This makes sense to me. If only matter exists, and the whole universe is an accident, then where would an atheist get this idea that the current arrangement of matter ought to be any other way? Matter just is. This concept of “ought to be” is totally alien to an atheistic worldview where everything is matter, because moral obligations are non-material.

The article goes on: (I added the number 3)

Add a further uncontroversial assumption: (3) an action is permissible if and only if it’s not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action. This is just the standard inferential scheme for formal deontic logic.

Basically, he is saying that an action is permissible so long as there is no moral obligation against that action. Can you see what’s coming? (I added the number 4)

We’ve conformed to standard principles and inference rules of logic and we’ve started out with assumptions that atheists have conceded. And yet we reach the absurd conclusion: (4) therefore, for any action you care to pick, it’s permissible to perform that action.

And let’s be clear about why this is bad for atheists:

If you’d like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan “if atheism is true, all things are permitted.” For example if atheism is true, every action Hitler performed was permissible. Many atheists don’t like this consequence of their worldview. But they cannot escape it and insist that they are being logical at the same time.

Let me just add one more point. How are we supposed to be morally obligated to perform any action if we are pure matter? Meat machines don’t have free will. We would just be strings of dominoes falling forward, with no choice whether to fall or not. And even if we could somehow choose, our choices have no ultimate moral significance.

So, what does morality mean to atheists, then?

A while back, I listed some quotes about morality on atheism, taken from atheists who have actually thought through the consequences of atheism for rational moral behavior.

Here is a quotation from Richard Dawkins:

In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference… DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.

Of course, atheists can sense the objective moral standard that God has built into every person. But their materialist worldview undercuts the meaningfulness of moral values, moral duties and moral accountability. And people just don’t act morally once morality has become irrational for them. Acting morally is hard.

What ends up happening to atheists is that they only do the right thing for pleasure, or to avoid social punishments. Once the pre-supposition of materialism has destroyed the rationality of morality, it becomes impossible for atheists to answer the question “Why be moral?”. Any atheist who continues to act morally is living inconsistently with their own worldview – and that is not sustainable in the long run.

Atheistic assumptions wear down the awareness of the moral law that atheists started out with, so that they begin to advocate for obviously immoral things, like the suppression of freedom of inquiry. Eventually, the guilt becomes so strong that they exchange authentic moral values like chastity and sobriety for cheap narcissistic fads like recycling and yoga.

The case of William Wilberforce

Consider this article from the Wall Street Journal about the abolitionist William Wilberforce.

In fact, William Wilberforce was driven by a version of Christianity that today would be derided as “fundamentalist.”

…William Wilberforce himself, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1770s and as a young member of Parliament soon after, had no more than a nominal sense of faith. Then, in 1785, he began reading evangelical treatises and underwent what he called “the Great Change,” almost dropping out of politics to study for the ministry until friends persuaded him that he could do more good where he was.

And he did a great deal of good…[h]is relentless campaign eventually led Parliament to ban the slave trade, in 1807, and to pass a law shortly after his death in 1833, making the entire institution of slavery illegal. But it is impossible to understand Wilberforce’s long antislavery campaign without seeing it as part of a larger Christian impulse. The man who prodded Parliament so famously also wrote theological tracts, sponsored missionary and charitable works, and fought for what he called the “reformation of manners,” a campaign against vice.

Even during the 18th century, evangelicals were derided as over-emotional “enthusiasts” by their Enlightenment-influenced contemporaries. By the time of Wilberforce’s “great change,” liberal 18th-century theologians had sought to make Christianity more “reasonable,” de-emphasizing sin, salvation and Christ’s divinity in favor of ethics, morality and a rather distant, deistic God. Relatedly, large numbers of ordinary English people, especially among the working classes, had begun drifting away from the tepid Christianity that seemed to prevail. Evangelicalism sought to counter such trends and to reinvigorate Christian belief.

…Perhaps the leading evangelical force of the day was the Methodism of John Wesley: It focused on preaching, the close study of the Bible, communal hymn-singing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Central to the Methodist project was the notion that good works and charity were essential components of the Christian life. Methodism spawned a vast network of churches and ramified into the evangelical branches of Anglicanism. Nearly all the social-reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries–from temperance and soup kitchens to slum settlement houses and prison reform–owe something to Methodism and its related evangelical strains. The campaign against slavery was the most momentous of such reforms and, over time, the most successful.It is thus fitting that John Wesley happened to write his last letter–sent in February 1791, days before his death–to William Wilberforce. Wesley urged Wilberforce to devote himself unstintingly to his antislavery campaign, a “glorious enterprise” that opposed “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” Wesley also urged him to “go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”

Wesley had begun preaching against slavery 20 years before and in 1774 published an abolitionist tract, “Thoughts on Slavery.” Wilberforce came into contact with the burgeoning antislavery movement in 1787, when he met Thomas Clarkson, an evangelical Anglican who had devoted his life to the abolitionist cause. Two years later, Wilberforce gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament.

…This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in “For the Glory of God” (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor. When chattel slavery, long absent from Europe, reappeared in imperial form in the 16th and 17th centuries–mostly in response to the need for cheap labor in the New World–the first calls to end the practice came from pious Christians, notably the Quakers. Evangelicals, not least Methodists, quickly joined the cause, and a movement was born.

William Wilberforce believed that slaves were made in the image of God – that they were embodied souls who could be resurrected to eternal life. Wilberforce believed that the purpose of human life is to freely seek God, and to be reconciled with God through Christ. He wanted all men and women to have the opportunity to investigate and respond to God’s self-revelation to them.

Further study

You can read more about Wilberforce’s beliefs here and his public activities here. And you can still see modern-day abolitionists, like Scott Klusendorf, acting out their Christian faith. Only today they’re called pro-lifers.

A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally grounding prescriptive morality is here.

Is it OK for Christians to marry non-Christians?

I want to draw your attention to a talk given by William Lane Craig. Bill is the ablest defender of the Christian faith operating today. You may remember Bill from such famous debates as “Does God Exist?” with Austin Dacey, “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” with Bart Ehrman, or “Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?” with Paul Kurtz.

The 32-minute talk is in MP3 format and is available on his web site Reasonable Faith, here. This was Bill’s chapel address to Biola University students, and he is introduced by his son, John, a Biola grad. As you listen to the talk, and reflect on the quotations that I will reproduce below from his writings, the question “is it OK to marry a non-Christian?” will be answered.

In the talk, it becomes clear that Bill’s wife Jan plays an enormous role in his success. Indeed, you will see that if it were not for her, he never would have gotten either of his doctorates, or even his second Masters degree. Just imagine: Bill Craig with one M.Div pastoring a seeker-sensitive church, instead having 2 MAs and 2 Ph.Ds and stomping Christopher Hitchens with both feet! What a loss!

Here is a quotation that occurs about 11 minutes into the talk, as Bill describes the completion of his Bachelor’s degree at Wheaton:

And it was at Wheaton that my vision began to focus on presenting the gospel in the context of giving an intellectual defense of the faith, to appeal not only to the heart but also to the head, as well. And so I determined that I would go on to seminary for further training.

But, my senior year, in chapel, we heard a speaker who challenged us, before going on to further education, to take a couple of years out, and to wring out the sponge, so to speak, that had been soaking up all that knowledge, and to work with university students while we were still about the same age.

And so I joined the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ for 2 years, and was assigned to Northern Illinois University. And that was where I met my wife Jan. She was a graduate of the University of North Dakota where she had come to faith in Christ. And she had a similar vision for her life of evangelism and discipleship.

And as we worked at NIU together, she with gals and I with the guys, leading students to Christ and discipling them to walk with the Lord, we fell in love. And we decided that we would be more effective if we joined forces and became a team.

It is at this point in the talk where Bill begins to explain just how Jan molded him into the lean, mean debating machine that travels the world striking terror into the hearts of atheists today.

Bill’s first story about Jan occurs early after their marriage while he is working on his first Masters degree at Trinity:

And it was also at that time that I began to see what an invaluable asset the Lord had given me in Jan. I remember I came home from classes one day, and found her at the kitchen table with all the catalogs and schedules and papers spread out in front of her and she said, “look! I’ve figured out how you can get two Masters degrees at the same time that it would normally take to get one! All you have to do is take overloads every semester, go to all full-time summer school and do all these other things, and you can do two MAs in the time it takes to do one!”

And I thought, whoa! Are you sure you really want to make the commitment it takes to do this kind of thing? And she said, “Yeah! Go for it!” And it was then I began to see that God had given me a very special woman who was my supporter – my cheerleader – and who really believed in me. And as long as she believed in me, that gave me the confidence to dream bigger dreams, and to take on challenges that I had never thought of before.

In an article on his web site, he talks about how Jan encouraged him to do his first PhD:

As graduation from Trinity neared, Jan and I were sitting one evening at the supper table in our little campus apartment, talking about what to do after graduation. Neither of us had any clear leading or inclination of what we should do next.

So Jan said to me, “Well, if money were no object, what would you really like to do next?”

I replied, “If money were no object, what I’d really like to do is go to England and do a doctorate under John Hick.”

“Who’s he?” she asked.

“Oh, he’s this famous British philosopher who’s written extensively on arguments for the existence of God,” I explained. “If I could study with him, I could develop a cosmological argument for God’s existence.”

But it hardly seemed a realistic idea.

The next evening at supper Jan handed me a slip of paper with John Hick’s address on it. “I went to the library today and found out that he’s at the University of Birmingham in England,” she said. “Why don’t you write him a letter and ask him if you can do a doctoral thesis under him on the cosmological argument?”

What a woman! So I did, and to our amazement and delight Professor Hick wrote back saying he’d be very pleased to supervise my doctoral work on that subject. So it was an open door!

And in the same article, he explains how Jan encouraged him to get his second Ph.D:

As Jan and I neared the completion of my doctoral studies in Birmingham, our future path was again unclear to us. I had sent out a number of applications for teaching positions in philosophy at American universities but had received no bites. We didn’t know what to do.

I remember it like yesterday. We were sitting at the supper table in our little house outside Birmingham, and Jan suddenly said to me, “Well, if money were no object, what would you really like to do next?”

I laughed because I remembered how the Lord had used her question to guide us in the past. I had no trouble answering the question. “If money were no object, what I’d really like to do is go to Germany and study under Wolfhart Pannenberg.”

“Who’s he?”

“Oh, he’s this famous German theologian who’s defended the resurrection of Christ historically,” I explained. “If I could study with him, I could develop a historical apologetic for the resurrection of Jesus.”

Our conversation drifted to other subjects, but Jan later told me that my remark had just lit a fire under her. The next day while I was at the university, she slipped away to the library and began to research grants-in-aid for study at German universities. Most of the leads proved to be defunct or otherwise inapplicable to our situation. But there were two grants she found that were possibilities. You can imagine how surprised I was when she sprung them on me!

Both of these Ph.D experiences are also described in the talk. And the talk concludes as follows:

I am so thankful to be married to a woman who is tremendously resourceful, tremendously talented and energetic, who could have pursued an independent career in any number of areas, but instead, she has chose to wed her aspirations to mine, and to make it her goal to make me the most effective person I can be, for Christ. And she has been like my right arm in ministry over these many years. And it is a tremendous privilege to be a team with a person like that.

And you young men, I would encourage you, if you marry, to find a gal who shares your vision, not some independent vision, but who is interested in aligning herself with you, and pursuing together a common vision and goal that will draw you [together], so that you will avoid the growing separateness that so often creeps into marriages.

And now you know the rest of Bill’s story. The person you marry will have an enormous influence on the impact you will have for Christ and his Kingdom. It is up to you to decide whether that influence is going to be positive or negative, by deciding if you will marry, and if you do marry, by deciding whom you will marry.

Conclusion

The level of influence of a significant other in a non-platonic relationship greatly impacts your ability to achieve the vocational task that the Lord has set for you. My recommendation is to avoid engaging in any romantic relationship in which self-sacrificial service to the Lord is not the main focus. And remember, physical contact greatly reduces your ability to make objective evaluations.

Today, Christians treat the Christian life as a hobby that we engage in for our benefit. And this includes romantic relationships. One way of screening prospective mates is by assessing how well prepared they are to defend the Lord’s reputation, when it is called into question. An authentic Christian should care enough to have prepared to defend God’s existence and character in public.

UPDATE: New William Lane Craig lecture specifically on the topic of Christian marriage:

  • Healthy Relationships (National Faculty Leadership Conf. 2008) (audio here)

Related posts

Christianity and the birth of modern science

UPDATE: Welcome, visitors from Free Canuckistan! Did you know that Binks is a web elf? It’s true!

Super-commenter ECM sent me this post from Pamela Geller’s blog, Atlas Shrugs. I thought that this was something wonderful because this is not an area of expertise for me, although it is something that I do get questions about, because atheists believe that Christianity is anti-science, and I need to know how to respond. The post discusses an essay by the blogger Fjordman.

And here’s how it starts:

Neither Roman, Egyptian, Chinese nor Indian civilization created the Scientific Revolution; they all stagnated after making initial gains in knowledge. This is because the natural human tendency is to want immediate results. If the research does not yield reasonably quick benefits, interest wanes. Yet you needed a critical mass of accumulated knowledge before the Scientific Revolution could be ignited. The Bible commands mankind to subdue the Earth, but in order to do so, men need to understand how the world works. In addition to this, the Bible portrays God as a Creator who made the universe work according to rational laws. Since God’s laws are immutable, it remains for us to discover them. Many of the scholars who created modern science, including Galileo and Newton, believed that they were honoring God by studying his Creation. They saw science as a religious duty.

Now, I’ve blogged on the vital importance of scientific progress to the Christian worldview. Let me be clear. We are in a period of economic abundance which exacerbates arrogance, hedonism and disdain for theology and morality. We absolutely must avail ourselves of every sign of creative and/or intelligent activity in the natural world. And that means science must progress.

The essay then cites an Oxford University Press textbook by James Evans as follows:

“…Kepler went on to become the most outstanding mathematical astronomer of his generation. His greatest gifts were inexhaustible patience, great calculating ability, and a relentless drive to understand. But his motives for astronomical research always involved a quest for higher knowledge. Everywhere, he sought for connections between apparently disparate realms of thought. He wanted to know God’s plan for the cosmos….”

Fjordman then continues:

While leading scholars during the Scientific Revolution such as Galileo, Kepler and Newton were indeed inspired by the mathematics of the ancient Greeks, their Christian world view made the connection between mathematics and the natural world even more powerful and explicit. Isaac Newton spent a great deal of time looking for hidden codes in the Bible, and undoubtedly believed that he was studying both of God’s Books: The Bible and the Book of Nature. Nothing similar happened in East Asia, or indeed in any other civilization.

But wouldn’t any old monotheism do in order to ground natural laws? Agnostic sociologist Rodney Stark says no:

…Rodney Stark agrees that Islam does not have “a conception of God appropriate to underwrite the rise of science…Allah is not presented as a lawful creator but is conceived of as an extremely active God who intrudes in the world as he deems it appropriate. This prompted the formation of a major theological bloc within Islam that condemns all efforts to formulate natural laws as blasphemy in that they deny Allah’s freedom to act.”

Fjordman continues:

In contrast [with Islam], for Jews and Christians, God has created the universe according to a certain logic, which can be described. Kepler firmly believed the Solar System was created according to God’s plan, which he attempted to unlock. Sir Isaac Newton was passionately interested in religion and wrote extensively about it.

And it ends with this:

Does mathematics have an independent existence in nature or does the human mind invent it? The answer potentially has huge philosophical implications. The people who created modern science lived predominantly in Europe, an overwhelmingly Christian continent with an important Jewish minority. They apparently had an advantage when they assumed the universe to be designed by a rational Creator. I admit this is a challenging dilemma for those of us who are not religious: Why can nature apparently be described mathematically and rationally if it has not been designed by a rational Creator? As a non-religious man, this is the only religious argument that I find difficult to answer.

It’s an interesting essay. It made me think of this article by Walter Bradley in which he talks about the relationship between mathematics and nature as a pointer to an intelligent designer. For those interested in the relationship between Christianity and science, please take a look at the index of Christianity-related posts.

Video and audio from Christopher Hitchens panel debate

UPDATE: My play-by-play transcript of the Biola debate is here.

Over on Apologetics 315, I’ve found links to video and and audio from the recent debate panel from the Christian Book Expo in Dallas, TX. This is a useful preview for the upcoming debate on April 4, 2009 between Christopher Hitchens and William Lane Craig.

Below is a summary of the initial 4-minute speeches of all of the participants, in order of speaking:

Lee Strobel

1. There are good arguments for the existence of God:

  • creation out of nothing (the big bang)
  • cosmic fine-tuning
  • biological information (DNA, etc.)
  • consciousness (intentionality)
  • free will
  • historicity of the resurrection

2. Christianity makes a positive difference on people’s lives.

Christopher Hitchens

1. Christianity is not needed for personal morality or social cohesion.

2. Christian stories are not unique, they are paralleled in other religious. Therefore, they are not historical, but invented.

3. Christian leaders say and do things that are harmful, but also inconsistent with their stated beliefs.

William Lane Craig

1. There are good arguments for the existence of God:

  • the contingency argument
  • creation out of nothing
  • cosmic fine-tuning
  • the argument from objective moral values
  • the argument from objective moral duties
  • the ontological argument
  • historicity of the resurrection
  • religious experience (in the absence of any defeaters)

James Denison

1. It is not effective to argue against religion in general by citing the specific bad behaviors of certain religious people in a variety of religions.

Doug Wilson

1. Rational thought is not compatible with atheism, because atheism is committed to materialism. If human behavior are totally determined by chemical reactions, then it is not possible for humans to reason about the world.

Further study

To read more about these arguments, please see my index of arguments used in debates. To see an analysis of Hitchens’ case that he used in his recent debate with Frank Turek, click here.

The story of the Wintery Knight blog so far…

Those of you who have been reading the blog know that the blog is split between Christian apologetics and policy analysis. Here’s a little list of the topics that I have touched on related to Christian apologetics, with topics yet to appear later in italics.

Positive apologetics

Scientific arguments for theism:

  • the creation of the universe out of nothing (Warning: SNARKY)
  • the fine-tuning of physical constants and ratios to support the minimal requirements for life (Warning: SNARKY)
  • the origin of biological information in the simplest living organism
  • galactic, stellar and planetary fine-tuning to support the minimal requirements for life
  • the sudden origin of all animal phyla in the Cambrian explosion
  • the natural limits of biological change

Philosophical arguments for theism:

  • the moral argument
  • the argument from evil
  • the origin of non-physical mind, rationality and free will

Historical arguments for Christianity

Negative apologetics

Scientific objections:

Philosophical objections

Emotional objections

Moral issues

Mentoring

Apologetics advocacy