I like Justin Brierley. By every indication he is a good man, a generous professional, a thoughtful Christian, a loving husband, and a doting father. He thinks he is all these things because his God made him that way. I propose there are other sources from which flow his amiable disposition. Let’s begin with the ending of Justin’s third chapter.
I have tried to persuade you of two things in this chapter. First, that humans have a real inherent worth and dignity that transcends a purely evolutionary story of how morality came to be. Second, if humans have such value then it only makes sense if there is someone beyond nature who can assign them such value, the God who created them in his own image. I believe that the conclusion flows naturally once you have accepted the first premise – that humans are intrinsically bound to that objective moral realm of right and wrong.
Atheism cannot account for such a world. That’s why God is the best explanation for human value. (70)
These are assertions upon which not everyone agrees. We’ll take up these ideas one by one. As we move through Justin’s arguments that God is the only way to make sense of human value. Let me propose a few questions. With regard to concepts of meaning, value, and purpose, could God have willed otherwise? Could He have assigned you other meanings, values, or purposes? Are rights granted or are they taken? Can a person’s worth be assigned by another? Is assigned value intrinsic or extrinsic? Is our morality better if God imposed it upon us, or is it more impressive if it is in fact the result of natural processes?
There exists a Moral Argument for God. It goes like this:
1. If there is no God, objective moral duties and obligations do not exist
2. Objective moral duties and obligations do exist
3. Therefore God exists
Let’s tease this apart, shall we?
Premise One: If there is no God, objective moral duties and obligations do not exist. Some question whether or not God is merely a creator or a lawgiver. What if a Deist creator God fired things up, became an absentee landlord, and said “You’re on your own?” But the evangelical Christian says his God is a personal God who set down rules and communicates them to him via ancient texts, and by those who interpret them for him.
There are arguments for alternatives to God-given objective morality. Some, such as philosopher Erik Wielenberg, argue that objective morality might be a sort of brute fact of the universe and need not come from God. Some, question the value of arbitrarily assigned values. Others admit that the arguments for morality without a divine lawgiver must necessarily be subjective. But what if moral duties and obligations were simply ubiquitous, universal behaviors seen in successful social species?
Premise Two: Objective moral duties and obligations do exist. Agreed. Or at least it seems so. Unless one is a sociopath, each and every human being has an innate moral sensibility. This intuition that there is right and wrong, equitable and unfair, true and false, and that in all cases the former is better than the latter. Where do these intuitions come from? The theist argues that their creator wrote the moral code upon our hearts; we know right from wrong because we were formed in God’s image.
One might as easily argue that our moral code is written so deeply upon our bones that we have mistaken it for being God-given. Other animals have been practicing pro-social behaviors for millions of years. Empathy, reciprocal altruism, mutual defense, self-sacrifice, sharing, displays of affection, demonstrations of kindness, and the ability to play aggressively without harm, are all behaviors that benefit populations that practice them. Clades – concentrations of alleles – thrived, reproduced, and were reinforced, while groups prone to dysfunction were torn apart by internal strife or by external competitors.
What is different about mankind? Speech mostly. We are one of the few animals we know of who can describe the world, our place in it, and our own behavior. Morality is a human word given to prosocial behaviors practiced on this planet for millions of years before humanity had the ability to discuss it. We gave these behaviors a name: morality. With the gift of speech came to the ability to rationalize our views of morality. How should we act toward one another? Sometimes that means we justify sticking with old behaviors, protecting the status quo, not rocking the boat. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Sometimes it means a breakdown in our commitments to actions we previously regarded as good, or acceptable, or understandable. And over time it has meant we have increased our ability to include the family next door, the people the next town over, or citizens of other countries in the circle of people we care about, our “in-group.”
Premise Three: Therefore God exists… Hold on a minute! Premises One and Two are far from agreed upon. Even if they were, what sort of God would be proven by this argument? A God of the Philosophers into whose character humanity has managed to shoehorn attributes such as goodness, holiness, impeccability, righteousness, and veracity? Maybe. But would such a divine lawgiver order his creatures to violate the very objective moral duties and obligations he communicated to us? Can the Old Testament God of Hebrew scriptures be the author of the goodness written upon our hearts?
So the Christian God can do nothing that is not good, by definition? Every act, every utterance is a reflection of his perfect goodness? The difficulty in assigning this sort of goodness to the deity worshipped by the Hebrew is that He ordered acts which our internal moral compass tells is wrong. When the God of the Old Testament ordered genocide, ethnic cleansing, infanticide, the murder of pregnant women, marital rape, and the taking of pre-teen girls as war prizes. Does he make such acts good? Suddenly, and counter-intuitively, the proscriptions against murder, theft, and coveting are no longer absolutes. Such acts become merely prohibited until ordered, at which time they become not only good but obligatory? Failure to commit such acts when ordered by God – because they offend our own God-given moral sensibilities – become a sin? What has happened here?
Justin responds to five common objections to Christian arguments in favor of a God given morality. Number three is:
Justin calling this question the red herring is in fact the red herring. He is uncomfortable and uncertain about how to interpret these passages. Good for him; he and other Christians should be uncomfortable. But one cannot “have one’s cake and eat it.” The evangelical Christian believes that the bible is the source of all information about his God.
What’s more, the evangelical holds that the bible is the inerrant word of God. When God or his prophets are quoted as saying “Thus saith the LORD” we are expected to believe that God actually said it, and meant it. If you elect to take the good while discarding the bad you are editing your bible.
Such a commitment to the inerrancy (however one chooses to define the term) of the bible or worse, to biblical literalism (the belief that every word is factually true), means everything has to work. Such literalism – Biblicism, if you will – seems to result in casting one’s chosen bible as an object or worship in its own right, as though the integrity of the entire book is much more important than any one of the ideas contained within it. If everything simply has to fit together, the Christian must not only study theology, select doctrine, and engage in apologetic, he or she, must also perform a perverse sort of harmonization. Both birth narratives happened as described in the differing accounts of Matthew and Luke. Jesus said four different sets of last words during his crucifixion, but all of them were uttered. There were four different perspectives on what happened Sunday morning at the tomb. But all of them occurred as described.
The worst example of harmonization is when the evangelical Christian puts himself or herself in the position of defending genocide, excusing ethnic cleansing, pardoning the slaughter of toddlers, and explaining away marital rape. All these things are reported as having happened in Old Testament times and the bible says God gave the orders.
Skeptics are often accused of judging Bronze Age cultures of the Ancient Near East in light of what is acceptable in 21st century culture. That, while we believe in evolution, we’re not allowing for the evolution of culture. That we have unrealistic expectations of what practices should and should not have been acceptable in the Ancient Near East. That we fail to understand that God has always worked within culture; he doesn’t ignore or defy culture. He respects culture. God respects people.
If one “takes into account the context” of the hard passages Christians are engaging in moral relativism rather than demonstrating the moral absolutes they claim have been given to mankind by an all good lawgiver. Christian relativism creates questions I’ve yet to hear an apologist answer. If it’s immoral now, why wasn’t it then? If it was moral then, why isn’t it moral now?
A concept called “Skeptical Theism” is sometimes used to address the apparent conflict between what God is supposed to be and what YHWH does in the Old Testament. It’s possible that an all-good God nonetheless had morally sufficient reason to drown all but eight members of humanity. YHWH may well have known enough about Sodom and Gomorrah to rain fire upon both cities and all their inhabitants but for one family. There may be reasons beyond our understanding for the slaughter of all the firstborn of Egypt. Of course skeptical theism is only invoked to explain away what appears to be un-Godlike behavior. No Christian I know is comfortable with the suggestion that everything God has communicated to them so far might all be a fiction perpetrated in the interest in bringing the maximum number of future persons voluntarily into a salvific relationship with the almighty. Christians quickly demur at this point.
Some Christians are willing to go all in, and give it all to God. Under Divine Command Theory (DCT) the fideist is committed to doing whatever his God tells him to do. We correctly live in fear that such a person might experience a mental health crisis. If a proponent of DCT decides God has told him to hate minorities, engage in holy war, or annihilate his family, his God-given moral compass will do nothing to redirect him.
There are simpler, kinder, less convoluted alternatives to interpreting the hard passages:
1. The ethnic cleansing happened but only because the prophets misunderstood what God said.
2. The slaughters occurred and the prophets lied about what God said.
4. The genocide was real but the editors, redactors, and compilers of the Torah put the orders in God’s mouth.
3. It didn’t happen and the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan is merely a myth of national origin written during the Babylonian captivity.
4. It didn’t happen and the stories are meant to serve some metaphorical function in a complex Midrash.
All these options still put the vile utterances in God’s mouth, but one can discard them when clinging to them becomes too discordant, too painful, or too difficult. Of course such alternatives come at the cost of dispensing with biblical literalism (certainly) and probably inerrancy.
Unfortunately, evangelicals are so committed to the truth of their book, it seems they would rather believe in a God that orders the murder of children than to admit the stories are not literally true. Ironically, this results in the Christian – not the skeptic – engaging in moral relativism, making excuses for murdering babies, raping war prizes, and beating slaves to death (but only if they don’t die too quickly). This from the theist making the claim that our moral intuitions were written upon our hearts by an all loving God. This from the inerrantist who strains to harmonize Numbers 31:17-18 with Luke 18:15-17. So, set aside for a moment the fundamentalist notion “The bible says, I believe, and that settles it.” Set aside the idea that these things really happened. Give some thought to why the Hebrews, or the Jews who compiled the Tanakh, felt it necessary to describe their God this way.
What shall a person do if their innate, God-given moral compass conflicts with God’s instructions?
Justin refers to three Unbelievable? episodes in this chapter. He correctly identifies the moral center of several questions, but he fails to see that the source of his moral sentiments once gave orders for precisely the behaviors he finds abhorrent.
Justin writes of his conversation with Ariane Sherine, the organizer of the UK atheist bus campaign, which put posters on buses reading “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The discussion included an examination of the morality of rape.
Since we agree rape is always wrong, what shall we make of God’s instructions for its application?
If a modern soldier took a vanquished female captive after a battle, shaved her head, locked her up in his house for a month, and then forced himself on her, he’d be guilty of violation of the laws of war. He’d be correctly accused of kidnapping, false imprisonment, physical and emotional abuse, and rape. He would be keeping a sex slave. If delivered into the hands of the law, he’d be imprisoned and his victim set free.
To this and other hard passages, Christians routinely make the relativistic retort, that’s just the way things were in those days. That other tribes’ soldiers just raped women on the battlefield. That in Jewish society unmarried women were destined to poverty or prostitution. Rather than accepting such equivocations as an excuse, why is this not seen as an indictment of Jewish society? Under whose strict rules – and God-given morality – was Jewish culture operating at the time?
Recounting a 2012 discussion between Hemant Mehta and Leah Librescu, Justin writes,
We disagree on this point. I certainly don’t believe that our moral code was inscribed on our hearts by the infanticidal God of the OT. If you, as evangelicals, inerrantist, or literalist, believe in a God that orders the murder of defenseless infants, toddlers, and pregnant women, you have much more work to do to explain how or why that same God also provided you your moral framework.
As for infanticide in the interest of social order…
Justin recalls a conversation with Ravi Zacharias, who claimed to have had a conversation with a skeptic:
Whether this is another example of Zacharias’ glib sophistry or he really had this conversation with an honest to God moral nihilist we may never know. What I do know is that there are any number of passages in which YHWH, the God of the Old Testament, part and parcel of the same Holy Trinity most Christians believe in, is reported as having given the orders which resulted in children being “cut up, ruthlessly into bits.” Not for nothing does the spiritual “Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho” end with the refrain “And the walls came a-tumblin down…”
We are horrified by such passages. And should be. We rebel against them. The faithful still seek – some three millennia later – an explanation for how such acts can be ordered by the same loving God who wrote our moral code upon our hearts.
I agree. Yet God’s will and whim with regard to his behavior - and more importantly his instructions to his finite creatures - suggests that his morality is indeed subjective and arbitrarily assigned. Christians engage in similar subjectivity as well when they engage in cultural and moral relativism with regard to the treatment of women, children, slaves, not to mention the opponents of the Hebrews in the Old Testament. Our sense of what is moral has evolved over time. Owning slaves, forcing oneself sexually upon one's wife without her consent, and beating our children were all regarded as acceptable, if not normal, at one time. There are rules for each behavior in the bible. Most Christians have outgrown these concepts because the society in which they live – family, clan, tribe, country – has outgrown the concepts expressed in the book. Morality – secular and sectarian – has evolved. In some congregations some Christian doctrine has evolved with the societies in which it resides. The Christian’s bible has not.
It is true. On this all sensible, compassionate, loving people are agreed. It’s universal, or ought to be. It takes a theist to justify female genital mutilation (FGM). Not Christians you say. True enough, I suppose. But what of male circumcision? FGM is wrong as practiced by other cultures with other religions, but circumcising boys (or adult slaves), cutting on their genitals without their consent, was not only acceptable in the Old Testament, it was ordered by God himself. The good news is that as a culture we are outgrowing the need to scar the penises of our sons. Are we becoming more moral? Or is our sense of morality – our ability to extend more rights, more consideration, more compassion, to more people – evolving?
I believe that evolution is the source of the altruistic social behaviors we now call morality or ethics. I believe that evolution, both biological and more recently social, is the reason we are able to broaden our definition of those encompassed by our ”in group,” thus entitled to our compassion and empathy. Some of the myths found in the Christian bible strive to tell such a story. It succeeds in some cases. It fails miserably in others. As a result, Christianity has been the source of exquisite goodness and a regrettable history of pain inflicted upon others.
So what if all we are is “molecules in motion?” Another way to look at it is that “We are stardust. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out.” The elements that make up our bodies were forged by exploding stars over billions of years. Our chemistry emerged from a primordial soup made of meteors, comets, and belching volcanoes. Our bodies have been shaped by countless iterations of trial and error. Our forebears evolved altruism, empathy, and love for the community. Humanity has emerged with the ability to reason, argue, and resolve differences of opinion. We have learned to expand our definition of in-group to include all of humanity, raised the possibility that other animals may be sentient, and that animals have feelings. Not bad for molecules in motion.
There is nothing “mere” about our moral values. They are part and parcel of our emergence as a sentient species and our astonishing abilities. They are not merely a “social framework” they are burned into our bones, printed on our genes, and are reflected in our behaviors from our first breath.
Yet you do. Unless you engage in an awful lot of work to rationalize away instincts imprinted upon us for millions of years you act guided by your intuitive sense of “right and wrong.” You almost can’t not.
Most of us don’t run around doing whatever we can get away with. Most people engage in prosocial behavior quite naturally. There are those who do not – the sociopath, the mentally ill, and career criminals – but society applies limits to them in the common interest. It’s interesting that I’ve met only one self-professed moral nihilist in the wild. It seems that many Christians – especially adult converts – claim they used to be rapacious anti-social nihilists. I suppose I’m glad those who need such reward and punishment – carrot or stick – structure have access to a religious system that supports them. I’m not as worried as some that this is but a convenient fiction if the alternative is theft, robbery, rape, and murder at the hands of the unrestrained, the anti-social, or the ill at heart.
As for naturalistic expressions of the good, we might not be having this dialogue if flourishing wasn’t better than suffering, life better than death, or success better than failure. Perhaps you can’t derive an ought from an is, but this system has been working since the dawn of life on our planet. It seems unlikely the life would endure in any other way, here or on any other planet in universe.
Objective? God-given? Perhaps not. But universal and ubiquitous? Certainly.
David and Ed tackled the Jesus section of Justin's book. We decided that it wasn’t worth it to chase the mythicist angle because few atheist even pursue that line of argumentation. It remains somewhat of a mystery why Justin spent so much time on it.
Instead, we chose to carry on with the assumption that Jesus was a real person in history who was fairly represented by the gospels. If one starts with these assumptions, would it be enough to make the Jesus of the Bible compelling? We laid out several reasons why the answer is a resounding NO.
We also wanted to give the resurrection the maximum ground possible. Do we have sufficient reason to believe it happened? And even if it did, what should that mean for our lives? What if other resurrections happened such as the ones claimed by the followers of Sathya Sai Baba? Would that be sufficient reason to declare him lord of our lives and worship him as the god he claimed to be?
At best, we find Jesus to be an interesting figure who was hailed as a wise teacher, and perhaps something more by his followers. He is also remembered as a wonder worker. He joins the ranks of a whole host of such men. He has no more claim to your devotion than any other. Here is our case: