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It might not surprise you to learn that my answer to that question is “no.” If you read the paper and have comments or complaints, feel free to offer them here.
Andrew Sullivan recently linked to an article by Jennifer Fulwiler in which she argues that her atheism and her belief that life is meaningful were in irreconcilable conflict and that the only way to resolve the conflict was to renounce atheism (she converted to Catholicism). The best criticism of her implicit argument, that atheism implies that life is meaningless, that I have come across is from Will Wilkinson. Sullivan also published some of his readers’ comments, a few of which took the opportunity to express disagreement with Fulwiler about what makes life meaningful. In response to one reader’s comment, Sullivan said something that I found rather odd. I’ll quote the relevant portion of the reader response, followed by Sullivan’s rejoinder:
“We have a constant explosion of love and sadness through the enormous sweep of the cosmos and it makes us feel without meaning? If the Universe is anything, it is proof that meaning can be found in the smallest of existence, from atoms to neutrinos and down beneath it. It can be found in a virus if one has to look. The lesson of the Universe is not insignificance, the lesson of it is our mutual enormity. The Universe is loud with it.”
But this is God. It is certainly what I understand as God. Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love.
It is very odd that nonbelievers are being admonished to let go of something that they explicitly don’t believe in. But what Sullivan thinks he means is that nonbelievers are confused about the real nature of God and that if they understood what God really is, then they (or at least many of them) would realize that they do believe in God. But this is deeply confused. Atheists have let go of the anthropomorphic sky deity because that is what an atheist is: someone who thinks that there is no such thing. Whatever else he may believe about the source of meaning, and whatever he may want to call that source, what the disbeliever disbelieves in is a personal creator.
Theism is the belief that there is an almighty person who created and sustains the universe. And thus atheism is the belief that there is no such almighty person.
Now, if Sullivan himself has let go of the anthropomorphic conception of God, and if he means by “letting go of” that he believes that this conception is false, then Sullivan is an atheist. Atheism is just the rejection of theism, and theism, to repeat, really is the belief that the world was created by an almighty person. And so if Sullivan thinks there is no such almighty person, then he is an atheist (despite his repeated assertions that he is a Catholic). If he does believe that there is an almighty person, then it is very peculiar that he is admonishing atheists to give up the anthropocentric being.
But actually the above quote suggests that Sullivan has not completely let go of the anthropocentric being, for he tells us that God is “the highest consciousness of all.” This is an enigmatic phrase, to say the least, and its occurrence in this sentence is highly ambiguous. Is he saying that God is that consciousness that is highest of all, that is, higher than any other consciousness? Or is he saying that God is the highest consciousness of everyone; asserting that there is some kind of collective consciousness? Well, he doesn’t make this clear. But if he is claiming that there is some kind of highest consciousness, higher than any other, then it is pretty obvious that he has not completely let go of the anthropocentric bearded guy. For Sullivan is, on this interpretation, asserting that there is some kind of greatest conscious being, which is really not far from claiming that there is an almighty person.
But suppose he really does want to assert the proposition that there is some kind of collective or underlying consciousness of all of us. It is not at all clear why Sullivan would call that God. Did this consciousness create the universe? Did it send its only son to die for the sins of humanity? Did it die on the cross? And if he does want to say that this consciousness did all of these things, then he is most definitely conceiving of it as a kind of person.
Here is the upshot: Atheists deny that there is an almighty conscious creator. (They also, by the way, generally want to add that the supposition that there is such a conscious being does not at all help us account for any of the important aspects of life, including that life is meaningful). Theists assert that there is such a being. I don’t really know whether Sullivan is an atheist or a theist, and it doesn’t really matter. But when anyone asks questions such as, “Can life be meaningful on the assumption that there is no God?” or “Can atheism account for the fact that life has meaning?” we need to be clear about what we are talking about. When an atheist claims that life is meaningful even if there is no God, what this means is that the existence of an almighty person is not required for life to have meaning.
I came across this article by Matt Flannagan criticizing a recent article by Jerry Coyne about secular morality (thanks to Jeffery Jay Lowder at the Secular Outpost). Coyne seems to want to make two distinct points: One, that atheists have a well-developed moral sense and thus you don’t need God to be a good person; and two, that morality cannot come from God. Flannagan makes some good observations about the relevance of the distinction between having a moral sense and being under a genuine moral obligation and shows that Coyne doesn’t always acknowledge this distinction. However, Flannagan himself is guilty of misunderstanding Coyne’s argument about the Euthyphro dilemma and he wants to downplay some of the serious problems that the dilemma creates for God-based moral theories. I’ll quote the relevant portion of Flannagan’s article:
The only time Coyne is remotely on point is when he argues that if moral obligations are constituted by God’s commands then morality becomes arbitrary; anything at all could be deemed ‘right’ as long as God has commanded it – even stealing or infanticide. Coyne suggests this argument is devastating and has known to be so by philosophers for hundreds of years.
In fact, since Adams’ publication, this argument has been subject to extensive criticism in the philosophical literature. So much so that today even Adams’ leading critics grant that it fails. Adams contended that moral obligations are, in fact, the commands of a loving and just God; therefore, it is possible for infanticide or theft to be right only if a fully informed, loving and just person could command things like infanticide and stealing. The assumption that this is possible seems dubious. The very reason Coyne cites examples such as infanticide and theft is because he considers them to be paradigms of conduct that no morally good person could ever knowingly entertain or endorse.
Coyne seems vaguely aware of the response, stating “Of course, you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.” Here he again falls into confusion. What his response shows is that people can have ideas about and recognise what counts as loving and just independently of their beliefs about God and his commands. Now this is true but this does not show that moral obligations can exist independently of the commands of a loving and just God. Coyne again fails to grasp the basic distinctions involved in discussions of God and morality.
I think Flannagan is wrong in his interpretation of Coyne’s argument. And I know that he is wrong about what Adam’s leading critics say about the validity of the arbitrariness objection that stems from the Euthyprho Dilemma. (One need only consult the work of Michael Martin, Erik Wielenberg, Mark C. Murphy, or even Richard Swinburne, to see that this is so). Regardless of what the academic consensus is, it is fairly easy to show that the arbitrariness objection is very powerful. But first, I want to address Flannagan’s misinterpretation of Coyne’s argument.
Coyne does not make the mistake that Flannagan accuses him of; he is not just saying that in order to judge God’s commands as moral or immoral we would have to have a moral sense that is independent of God. Rather, he is saying that we would need a standard of moral obligation that is independent of God. What Coyne has done is condense a bit of argumentative interaction between the purveyor of the Euthyphro objection and the defender of the divine command theory (DCT). One aspect of the Euthyphro objection is that, if the DCT is true, then morality is arbitrary. If the DCT is true, God can make any action (even something universally regarded as horrendous such as torturing small children) morally right just by commanding that we do it. But this conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions: it seems natural to believe that something as awful as torturing children could not possibly be morally right. But the DCT implies that this action, along with any act that causes unwarranted and horrendous suffering, could possibly be right (Note: the notion of possibility at use here is metaphysical possibility, not epistemic; more on this below.) One divine command theorist response to this is to say that a loving and moral God would never issue commands the require us to needlessly cause people to suffer (this is the response that Coyne mentions).
There are a few problems with this response. The most important (and the one that I think that Coyne had in mind) is that if we are to understand the reply to mean that a moral God would not issue immoral commands, then this in essence capitulates to the Euthyphro objection. That is to say, the response implies that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God against which he and his commands can be judged. But if morality is independent of God, then the DCT is false.
Consider: If God’s commands are the standard of right and wrong, then it makes no sense to say that one of his commands is immoral. Say he commands that every person kills at least one dog in their lifetime just for fun. If his commands establish the moral facts, that, e.g., an action is morally right (or wrong, as the case may be), then his command that we kill a dog establishes that killing dogs is obligatory. And it makes no sense to say that this command is immoral because killing dogs is morally wrong. On the DCT, under this scenario, killing dogs would be morally obligatory, full stop, just because God commanded that we do it. Thus, if the DCT is true, it is logically impossible for God to command us to do something that it would be morally wrong for us to do. The fact that God commanded us to do it establishes that it is morally right. The very important upshot of this for the purposes of the current discussion is that, on the DCT it is a logically necessary fact that every action that God commands us to do is a morally right action.
So now, if we say that God is a morally good being and that therefore he won’t issue immoral commands, we are assuming that there is a standard of morality that is independent of God. For according to what standard are God’s commands to be judged? We just saw that on the DCT, it is logically impossible for God to command us to perform an action that is immoral; but that is just because an action is morally right just in virtue of God’s commanding it. And this means that no matter what commands God issues, including that we kill dogs or torture children, those things would be morally right. So, if we want to say that God won’t issue those kinds of commands because he is moral, then we have to assume some standard, independent of God, according to which an act can be judged as moral or immoral. And this means that we would have to reject the DCT.
This is the point that Coyne was making when he said, “you can argue that God would never sanction something like that because he’s a completely moral being, but then you’re still using some idea of morality that is independent of God.”
Notice that this has nothing to do with appealing to a moral sense that is independent of God. The point is a logical one and does not depend on us having a moral sense or on there actually being genuine moral value. So I think Flannagan just misinterprets the gist of Coyne’s objection in the above quoted passage.
In any event, as Flannagan indicated, the debate does not end here because the divine command theorist may concede the point but still insist that all he needs is that God is all-loving, and he will get the same consequence (or at least one that is close enough); namely that God will not issue commands that require us to cause horrible pain and suffering (or do anything that we all agree would be horrendous). If developed in the appropriate direction, this reply can lead to a fully developed response to the arbitrariness objection. That response goes something like this: “God is necessarily an all-loving being. The commands that he issues flow naturally from his essential nature. Thus it would be impossible for an all-loving being to issue commands to kill, maim, or unjustly harm. So, in fact, it is not possible, on the DCT, that torturing children is morally right because, on the DCT, it is not possible for God to issue a command that we torture children.”
There are two problems with this response. The first problem is that when we are talking about what is metaphysically possible, we are talking about what can happen, not what will happen. So, if I want to know whether it is possible (in the relevant sense) for my friend to jump off of the Empire State building, I need to know only whether he can do it. It is irrelevant to this question whether or not my friend will do it. He may be an unusually content, satisfied, and happy person by nature who has absolutely no inclination toward suicide. I may conclude therefore, that he will not jump from the Empire State building. But it remains the case that he can do it. Similarly, we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command. And if he can do it, then it is possible for him to do it. So, it is possible for an all-loving God to command that we torture kids and thus, on the DCT, it is possible that torturing kids is right.
But even if we could somehow respond to this concern, there is still a second problem. This problem stems not from a concern about what it is possible for God to do, but what is possible period. Consider:
The following is possible:
(A) There exists an all-powerful creator that enjoys watching sentient beings suffer.
As I’ve done in the past, let’s call this horrible deity, ‘Asura.’
Given that (A) is possible, the following is also possible:
(T) Asura commands that parents torture their babies.
To translate this into possible world semantics, we’ll say that there is a possible world (call it WA) in which (A) and (T) are true. If the DCT is true, it follows that in WA the following is true:
(O) Torturing babies is morally obligatory for parents.
What all of this means is that it is possible that it is obligatory to torture babies. And it’s important to note that I am not saying that it is epistemically possible, that for all we know torturing babies is obligatory (on the contrary, I think we know that torturing babies is wrong). Rather, I am saying that, if the DCT is true, then it follows that it is metaphysically possible that torturing babies is the right thing to do.
There are two relevant conclusions to draw from this: First, it shows that the arbitrariness objection cannot be answered via the claim that God is necessarily a loving being. Second, it demonstrates once again that the DCT has consequences that are fundamentally contrary to our moral intuitions. We cannot imagine that torturing babies could be right. Torturing babies is wrong everywhere, every time, in all possible worlds. That is to say, torturing babies is necessarily wrong. Since it implies that it is possible for torturing babies to be obligatory, the DCT conflicts strongly with our moral intuitions.
So, contrary to Flannagan’s dismissal of it, the arbitrariness objection to the divine command theory is very much alive.
I just started reading, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman Geisler and Frank Turek. Literally just started, I’ve read just a few pages, and already I’ve found quite a lot that is problematic, as might be expected. One thing that might not strike many as terribly problematic concerns the following sentence:
I (Frank) enrolled in that class [a university course on the Old Testament] because I was in the midst of a spiritual search. I didn’t want any religious party line. I just wanted to know if there was a God or not.
Well, the search for the answer to the question “Is there a God?” is one kind of spiritual search but it is hardly the only kind. In our culture, dominated as it is by monotheistic religious conceptions, it is naturally to assume that a spiritual search entails searching for God. (Some might even assume that these are the same quest.) You can find some such presupposition in the common view that to be an atheist is to be non-religious or non-spiritual. But these assumptions are misguided as any study of non-monotheistic religions will reveal.
In fact, if we read early buddhist texts, such as the Cala-Malunkya Sutta or the Tevijja Sutta, we find the Buddha claiming that excessive concern with speculative metaphysical issues (of which the question of the existence of a transcendent god is most certainly an example) is a hindrance to progress on any spiritual journey. For Buddhism, the spiritual quest is the search for a path to relieve the sense of dissatisfaction with life. Relieving this dissatisfaction, for a Buddhist, will have nothing to do with finding out whether God exists.
One of the problems with recent discourse about religion and atheism is that atheists have often been presented (and often present both themselves and atheists more broadly) as hostile to religion and spirituality more generally. This is wrong. Atheism is just the belief that there is no all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator. There have been many atheists, e.g., Camus, Sartre (and other existentialists), Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and others who are very much interested in something that, while obviously very different than most mainstream religious thought, is still recognizably connected to what is called religion and/or spirituality.
I have long felt that a genuine religious sensitivity compels a person to doubt the existence of God (more precisely, to doubt the truth of theism). This conclusion is based upon a number of beliefs that I have about the nature of religious experience, some of which I have articulated in this blog, and all of which may just be idiosyncratic to me. In any event:
The core of religious experience for a theist is developing a personal relationship with God. Someone who believes in a God who does not concern Him/Herself with our welfare and with whom it is not possible to have a meaningful personal relationship is not a theist. I suppose deism would be the best term for such a set of beliefs. The theist is committed to the view that God is a person who, in addition to being all-powerful, etc., is all-loving and thus wants each of us to experience His divine love.
Those who are not moved by the problem of evil have always struck me as callous, unwilling to see the intensity and boundless extent of the pain and suffering that has been experienced over the course of human history (and why stop there, the dinosaurs must have suffered tremendously) and that continues to be experienced every day. This callousness often hides an appalling self-centeredness; what makes me immune from the suffering of others is their distance, emotional or otherwise, from me. So long as things are relatively stable and good in our own lives, we rarely have occasion to question those beliefs, commitments, and relationships that provide joy and fulfillment.
In contrast to the wealthy and self-satisfied believer whose share of suffering is no greater than the average citizen of the 21st century industrialized world is his fellow citizen, equally comfortable in the material sense, whose life has recently been shaken by tragedy, the loss of a spouse or a child perhaps, to such an extent that her own faith in an all-loving Father in Heaven cannot withstand the pain. This latter person betrays a (by no means unusual) self-focus in that while she has witnessed from afar the devastation caused by the loss of a loved-one, seen others as profoundly affected as she now finds herself, that suffering of others, which, she would acknowledge, vastly surpasses her own at least in quantity, has never come close to shaking her religious convictions.
This is not to say that every theist is self-centered, only that it is easy to allow one’s own self-focus to affect one’s religious beliefs. And this brings us to very important point: all major religions seem to agree that excessive self-focus is the cause of many of life’s evils. Perhaps Buddhism is most explicit about this, to such an extent that the aim of the spiritual life for a Buddhist can be identified with the extinction of the self (which, it is claimed, was always illusory anyway). Jesus was also very clear, telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I often wonder whether many people actually stop to think about the implications of this commandment and I also wonder whether there has ever been a person alive who loved his neighbors as much as he loved himself. In any event, Jesus is telling us that we must radically re-orient our lives; that, among other things, we must give as much concern to the suffering of others as we do to our own. Similar points about the need to relinquish excessive attachment to the self can be made concerning Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam.
So many, if not most, of the world’s religious traditions claim that spiritual progress is made only when we abandon our (very natural) narrow self-centered perspectives. My contention is that feeling the real force of the problem of evil requires one to abandon, if only partially and temporarily, one’s normal self-centered perspective. If I were to feel the pain and loss of others as if it were my own, how could my faith in God survive? Of course one could not actually endure this; if I were to experience the suffering of even a very few others, I would most likely not want to go on living. But appreciating the power of the problem of evil does not require that I feel the pain of all of those countless others, but to simply acknowledge it and realize that, if we could feel it, it would indeed be incapacitating.
How, having acknowledged this, can I then return to my faith in an all-loving God? To continue to reap the benefits of a relationship (real or imagined) with the all-powerful creator would be the height of selfishness, which is the exact opposite attitude that religious belief ought to inspire.
One aspect of religion that I think should be somewhat surprising is the conjunction of two seemingly unrelated aspects: that of wonder or awe at the power, beauty, and mystery of the universe and the feeling of being morally compelled to engage in certain behaviors (and to avoid others). Why should reverence be tied to morality?
In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins distinguishes the object of his criticism, which he sometimes refers to as ”supernatural religion,’ from his own religious or spiritual sensibilities, a perspective that he calls Einsteinian religion. Einstein often used the word ‘God’ when talking about his fundamental appreciation of the power and mystery of the world. (Dawkins thinks that Einstein’s choice of terminology is regrettable since Einstein manifestly did not believe in a personal supernatural deity.) Famously, Einstein said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
Dawkins wants to simultaneously endorse the “pantheistic reverence” of Einstein and insist that such reverence does not entail a belief in anything supernatural. Dawkins is certainly right about this; the feelings of awe and wonder so well-articulated by Dawkins, Carl Sagan and other scientists do not have any obvious theistic implications. And I agree that a naturalist can be religious in this sense and not believe in anything supernatural.
What is conspicuously absent in Dawkins analysis, however, is any recognition of the other side of religious feeling; the sense that what we stand in awe of has some kind of legitimate authority over how we live our lives; that we are compelled by some source of authority outside of ourselves to change for the better–to bring our activities, thoughts, and emotions in line with the objective standard of Goodness, Righteousness, and Justice.
Perhaps because it is easier for conscious beings to understand other conscious beings, it is natural for humans to understand both of these aspects (awe and duty) in an anthropomorphic way. Theism is the view that the ultimate source of beauty, power, and creation is a person (a special kind of very powerful person, but a person nonetheless); and this view is coupled to the understanding of morality as the dictate of Divine Will. This deep connection between the feelings of awe and obligation would naturally lead a theist to be very suspicious of Dawkins and Einsteins religious sensitivities. The natural question to ask Dawkins would be whether that which he reveres in nature holds any ethical power over us. Does the feeling of transcendent wonder at the glory of the universe generate, as a matter of necessity, any sense of obligation in oneself toward the universe and its parts (or the transcendent glory)? There is no doubt that Dawkins does feel the compulsion of objective morality; he rightly points out that an atheist can recognize the power of objective moral values. The question is whether this appreciation of morality is connected to his feelings of wonder, awe, and reverence for the natural world.
Of course I believe that the Divine Command Theory is a failed understanding of the source of moral authority; the idea that moral obligation can be tied to divine will is as deeply flawed as the parallel view that the source of logical entailment could be found in the will of God. Nonetheless it remains that case that genuine religious feeling seems to involve not just awe and reverence but also an understanding that proper reverence requires us to examine ourselves and improve ourselves, to bring our behavior, thoughts, and values in line with an ultimate and external standard. This is why one of the tests of genuine religious experience is whether that experience brings about a change in attitude and behavior.
However, that these two feelings should be connected remains somewhat of a mystery to me: Why should an appreciation of ultimate reality entail a change in myself? I’ll leave that question for next time.
I’ve been reading a new collection called Is Goodness without God Good Enough? (edited by Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King). The collection begins with a debate between Paul Kurtz and William Lane Craig (which bears the same title as the book) and includes several essays inspired by the debate topic as well as closing comments by Kurtz and Craig. It is a nice collection with some good articles (especially one by Mark C. Murphy called “Theism, Atheism, and the Explanation of Moral Value”).
As expected, Craig defends the theses that (I) if theism is true, then we have a sound foundation for morality and (II) if theism is false, then we do not have a sound foundation for morality. While reading through Craig’s arguments I was struck by something that often occurs to me when I read modern apologists. There is a certain form of argument that is incredibly problematic and yet is often appealed to by apologists (most notably those of the presuppositionalist school). This kind of argument begins by pointing out some allegedly difficult-to-account-for phenomenon(morality, say, or meaning, or even consciousness, or the very existence of the universe itself). The apologetic move is to then assert that this phenomenon, whatever it is, cannot be explained under the assumption of a naturalistic universe. If all that exists is matter and the void, they claim, then it is not possible for there to be genuine morality (or ultimate meaning in life, or veridical beliefs, etc). However, if God exists, then we can account for this stuff (we can have real meaning, objective moral values, etc.), or so the argument goes.
The problem is that there is a great big gaping hole here: we have no explanation for how God is able to produce (or realize, or bring into existence, or sustain, pick you favorite expression) the thing the existence of which, we supposedly agreed, was difficult to explain. We just have this bare assertion that with God we can have what it is impossible to have without God. But how does God do it? How does God’s existence help us account for it?
Craig and others apparently find the ethical dimension of reality to be rather difficult to account for. So difficult that it requires intervention from a non-natural order. But what is wanting, on Craig’s account, is an explanation for how the non-natural realm can accomplish what the natural realm, left to its own devices, cannot. What is it about God and God’s nature that enables Him to ground ethical principles? What does God have that the universe does not? Unless we know this, then how can we be in a position to claim that if God does not exist, then there is no sound foundation for morality?
One would hope that Craig would see this hole and offer some kind of argument for the conclusion that if God exists, then objective moral values exist. But in fact he offers nothing of the kind. Indeed, he seems to think that this conclusion is so obvious that there is no need to argue for it. He says, “The first contention, that if theism is true, we have a sound foundation for morality, should not really be a point of controversy. Even nihilists will generally concede this conditional claim.” (p. 168)
At another point he says a bit more: “On the theistic view, objective moral values are rooted in God. He is the locus and source of moral value. God’s own holy and loving nature supplies the absolute standard against which all actions are measured.” (p. 30)
The vacuousness of this is hard to overstate. True, if God exists then He has a nature (and maybe its all-loving and all that), but I also exist and I also have a nature that is very loving (if I do say so myself) [and I have the added virtue that you don't need to have faith that I exist]. How is it that God’s nature supplies the absolute standard against which actions are judged while my nature (or the nature of any other person) cannot supply this standard? Again, what is so special about God? How does His nature do it?
To really see just how vacuous Craig’s theistic account of morality is, imagine an atheist said the following: “On the atheistic view, objective moral values are rooted in the universe. It is the locus and source of moral value. The loving nature of the loving sentient beings in the universe provides the absolute standard against which all actions are judged.”
This is completely empty as an account of moral value. It gives us no idea, really, where morality comes from; it offers no compelling metaphysic grounding of objective moral values. But what goes for the atheistic version must also go for Craig’s theistic account.