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Interesting Conversation with an Atheist about the Moral Law and You Know Who

07/18/2013 Comments (278)

The background of this conversation is that my reader is an atheist with various strong moral commitments to the sorts of things American atheist moralists from the early 21st century take for granted as obvious and undeniable moral commitments: equality for all human beings, just treatment under the law, the goodness of the scientific project and its abundant blessings for the human race, the need for tolerance and peace, the need for sane environmental policies, and so forth.  For my reader, obvious corollaries of these views include rejection of racism, sexism, homophobia (she is an ardent supporter of gay marriage), loathing of crimes against children (except abortion), detestation of ignorance, and so forth.  As we join the discussion (which you can see in full here), I and others have been attempting to point out that insofar as her moral commitments have any hope of being universal and transcendent moral imperatives binding all human consciences, and not mere expressions of her subjective preference for cheddar over swiss, she will have to abandon her atheism as wholly incapable of accounting for such transcendent moral imperatives.  In the words of really truly postmodern atheist, Richard Rorty, the atheist moralist has to face the fact that there is

no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, “Why not be cruel?”

Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.

The vast majority of atheists simply refuse to face this and so go on making all sorts of intensely moralistic statements: We ought to teach science.  We ought not persecute gay people.  We ought to value reason.  We ought not permit racial intolerance.  We ought to do this, we ought not do that.  And all spoken in the utter certitude that these are not mere matters of taste, but of self-evident and obvious acts of participation in a moral universe that all human beings should be able to recognize--and therefore blameworthy when they are too stupid or stubborn to see.  In short, my reader treats fellow human beings who join the KKK or help to feed poor people, not as beasts like alligators or beautiful birds who just act according to nature, but as moral agents who sin or act virtuously.  With all that in mind, we join the discussion as she writes:

What I’d say here - I’m not sure I *do* concede ‘transcendent’. If I do, I’m not sure I concede it in the way you mean.

Of course you don’t.  You are, pretty consistently, trying to have your cake and eat it.  You want to assert overarching moral transcendence for your beliefs, while pretending they are simply your opinions.  As I say, you are hopelessly muddled because you know that a transcendent moral ethos points to You Know Who.

Does the Christian God ‘transcend the universe and time’? Well ... conceptually, yes. Analogy: does Superman fly? The answer is ‘yes’ *or* ‘no’, depending on whether we mean ‘in the stories’ or ‘really’. The *story* says that God transcends time, but historically we can trace belief in the God of the Christians to no more than 2000 years out of the 14 billion available to the universe or 100,000ish available to human beings who left records, and even just by reading the Old Testament we can see God’s evolving right in front of us from being a pretty cookie-cutter physical presence sky-father kind of God who performs feats just like Baal and a dozen others (who are said to exist in the earlier books) performed.

The Saganesque appeal to billions and billions of years is, of course, just blowing smoke.  Did you really expect Triceratops to worship God?  So basically, it’s not till rational creatures capable of abstaction appear that the ability to conceive of God would appear with it, just as the ability to conceive of math appears at the same time.  That does not mean, however, that God (or the laws of math) “evolves”.  It means *our understanding* of these things evolve.  And since Christianity begins with the frank and open understanding that God reveals himself in a gradual way to a species that is slow on the uptake…

In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2)

...this is not a stunning news flash.  John Henry Newman's entire point in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine is that just as revelation unfolds gradually from the Old Testament to the New, so our comprehension of that revelation since the coming of Christ also unfolds over time.

If all of us had always believed in something like the god of modern theologians, this ‘maximally powerful’ entirely abstract being, then that might be evidence - in the absence of any new supporting empirical evidence - that God’s as real and as much a part of the shared human experience as the Sun.

Are you really seriously insisting that because 7 billion people don’t have the same sophisticated philosophy as St. Thomas there is no God?  Seriously?  So because most people couldn’t articulate special relativity to save their lives, this means Einstein is false?

Note what you are really attempting here.  When it is pointed out that you constantly rely on the natural law and appeal to its transcendent authority—and that this transcendent authority strongly suggests You Know Who, you change the terms of the argument.  Instead of inquiring as to why you do, in fact, appeal to transcendent authority for your moral views, you attempt to wave all that away, ignore it, and change the subject to a ridiculous demand that all 7 billion human beings agree on an enormously complex issue or else you get to pretend God doesn’t exist. It’s silly.

But ... we see the opposite of that. I’ve argued that most *Catholics* have a far simpler idea of God than most theologians, and that it’s not a case of training or level of understanding. There’s an almost sneering contempt in a lot of modern theology for the naive and unschooled opinions of actual unwashed believers. That’s debatable - what isn’t is that, even now, the vast majority of human beings don’t believe in the Christian God or anything much like him.

So what?  Most people have Star Trek level views of special relativity too.  That people have all sorts of mistaken ideas about something or someone does not mean that thing or person does not exist.  It simply demonstrates the truth of the Christian proposition that we are a) finite creatures and b) creatures suffering from darkened intellects.  However, even under those constraints we are capable of knowing certain things, as for instance, the demand that people be treated justly.  You are perfectly aware of that demand, as am I, which is why you can make moral appeals and assume that I am bound by that universal precept as you are.  If you did not, you would not attempt moral suasion.  You would simply shoot me (if I disagreed) as you might shoot an alligator if you perceived me as a threat.  Why not?  In a world without either God or binding universal moral precepts there is left only force and the will of the stronger over the weaker, the smarter over the stupider.

And you, unconsciously I suspect, shift the goalposts from your specific religion to ‘theism’ and stress the commonalities between all religions. Yes, religions tend to say play fair, calm down and follow some simple rules. So do most secular systems. Is the NFL rulebook ultimately derived from theism?

I use the term “theism” primarly as shorthand for the Abrahamic traditions.  Other theistic traditions sometimes identify the source of the moral law with God or the gods (again, read The Abolition of Man) but not necessarily so.  The Abrahamic traditions definitely do. I’m not sure why it’s shifting the goalposts to stress commonalities.  But my point is that pre-Christian pagans recognized the transcendent authority of the moral law, just as you do when you aren’t pretending you don’t.  However, not having a driving need to pretend that You Know Who did not exist, pre-Christian paganism eventually came to accept the fact that the reason the natural moral law had Transcendent Authority was because God was the Lawgiver.  You, sensing exactly the same thing, attempt to avoid You Know Who by trying to figure out some other basis for the transcendent claims of your morality (such as “efficiency” or various other rubbish).  But, of course, all that comes back to “Why care about efficiency?” and that goes back to “Why care about any person who is not personally advantageous to me?”  It’s all in Nietzsche.

Are there transcendencies that are not Christian? Obviously. Not theist? Well ... yes, and you said so yourself: ‘freedom’, ‘the good of society’. I’d add ‘money’ (which is basically an act of faith, it says that right on dollar bills), ‘patriotism’, ‘love’.

What I said was that one need not be Christian to be aware, however imperfectly, of the moral law.  This is, again, not news.  It’s all in Romans 1 and 2. Your problem, which you are steadfastly avoiding, is that this is cold comfort for atheism, which cannot account for the transcendent authority of the moral law it constantly invokes.  Freedom, the good of society, faith between persons, patriotism and love are all related to the fact that man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God.  All human beings therefore appeal to that transcendent fact about us, even when they have no understanding of it, just as all people live with the awareness of gravity’s influence on their lives while having no understanding of gravitation.

In the terms of your own argument, Stalin and Pol Pot surrendered themselves to belief in transcendent beliefs ... well, OK, now you’ve got to pick one: tyrannical communism-atheism is (a) a transcendent belief utterly separate from God or (b) ultimately derived from theism.

Um, no.  Exactly what Stalin and Pol Pot, being atheists, did was try to find some other basis for their moral choices than a transcendent God.  All evil is parasitic. It has to steal from God whatever is good.  So in the case of the commies, they stole ideas like justice for the oppressed, the triumph of the little guy, etc.  But as is always the case with sin, they then sought good ends with monstrously evil means and rationalized it by saying they sought good ends. (You gotta break a few million eggs to make that omelette of the coming economic utopia!)  They achieved this precisely by insisting that the moral law comes, not from God, but from The New Communist Man (i.e., themselves).  And that meant that since they made the rules, they could use whatever deadly force they liked to enforce those rules.  They were themselves the measure of right and wrong.  It’s your own philosophy.  Only it was in the hands of people less timid about imposing it on others.  Insofar as it was right and good, it was right and good because of what it stole from God.  But insofar as it refused to be referred to God, it was simply evil.

I think, oddly, you have to pick (b), and I think this is your basic problem: you see atheism (and everything else) as a deviation from Christianity. Christianity as the normative, default value for the human race - the universe, I think, ultimately.

No. I don’t worship “Christianity”.  I worship God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He is not a “value”.  He is God.  We are in his image and likeness and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.

And that’s ... not how it looks. Now, yes, you might be right and the majority may be wrong

No.  When it comes to atheism vs. theism, it is you who are both wrong and in the minority.  As C.S. Lewis points out, when he was an atheist he was bound to believe that the overwhelming majority of the human race was absolutely and totally wrong about the thing that mattered to it most and TRVTH had been granted only to a tiny minority of first world materialist technocrats and a few crank philosophers.  When he became a Christian, he was freed to believe that even the queerest religious sect intuited something of the truth of things.  An atheist is bound by her dogma to a number of preposterous sweeping negations.  A Christian and a Catholic can find all sorts of points of commonality with other religious traditions.  Heck, even a Satanist has something on the ball, with his recognition that there does indeed exist both God and fallen angels.  He’s backing he wrong team, but at least he knows there are teams to back.  The atheist is still trying to figure out if there is even a stadium on his GPS.

- the nature of reality is not decided democratically - but you’re appealing to the idea of normative values and what feels right to everyone. And then assuming that Christianity is normal, any slight variation from that is mere distorted Christianity and any massive difference is evidence of a disordered soul.

The nature of reality is not decided democratically, but the testimony of the overwhelming mass of mankind certainly weighs heavily in the formation of human cultures and traditions.  As Chesterton says:

"I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.”

I’m not assuming Christianity is normal. I’m not, at present, arguing for Christianity per se at all.  I’m merely arguing that atheism is false and that you are consistently stealing from the transcendent God the quality of transcendance for the bits of the moral law you happen to like while denying you are doing so.  If I were to argue for Christianity, I would not assume it is normal. I would assume it is supernatural and that many of its moral demands are about as far as you can get from what untutored natural man regards as obvious.  Anybody can figure out from natural law that you should love your friends as they love you.  When Christ says, “Love your enemies” this is not intuitively obvious and only a fool would assume it is.

It doesn’t work, historically. Christianity’s actually one of the most recent of the major religious beliefs.

You seriously think this is news to anybody?  “We are of yesterday” said Tertullian.  The claim is not that Christianity is the most ancient religion.  It’s that the Ancient of Days, who created all of time and space, was born in a stable in Bethlehem and crucified as a nuisance under Pontius Pilate and that the whole religion of Israel, as well as aspects of paganism, and indeed of all creation point to him as prefiguring signs since he is the Creator of all.  What Paul (and the Church following him) says is not that everybody can see this (in fact, Paul and the Church will insist that supernatural grace is necessary to see this).  But Paul, and the Church following him, will say that some things are visible by the light of natural reason.  So, no, nobody will get as far as grasping that Jesus Christ is the second Person of a Trinitarian Godhead who died for our sins and rose again for our justification by the light of natural reason.  Seeing that requires the assistance of grace and supernatural revelation.  But that there is a God?  That can be deduced by the light of natural reason:

“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20)

That’s Paul talking, not about Christians, nor even about Jews, but about pagans.  He’s arguing that there is no excuse for being unaware of the existence of God since he’s left calling cards, lines of logic, and so forth, pointing back to him and people of good will can follow these calling cards.  Among the signs pointing to him is the fact that everybody sees universally binding moral truths, including you.  Indeed, you have an overwhelming need to assert certain moral truths as universally binding and not merely as your personal preference for cheddar over Wendseleydale cheese.  And so powerful is that grip of transcendence on your heart that you keep clinging to it and returning to it the moment you stop spouting rubbish to try to keep You Know Who at bay.  A Catholic does not believe that the topic of morality is exhausted once it is acknowledged that everybody recognizes certain transcendent moral claims.  We can go on from there to talk about the gradual revelation of the moral law to Israel, the effects of sin on our perception of the moral law, the need for Christ to raise the natural law by grace and reveal things typically (though not always) unknowable to us (like the demand to forgive and love enemies) or absolutely unknowable to us apart from revelation (such as life after death or the Real Presence in the Eucharist) and the need for development of doctrine to penetrate fully the revelation (a project that will continue till Christ’s return).

But an atheist, in contrast, basically is stuck at square one and can have no coherent moral system. That’s not to say an atheist is immoral.  Atheists are typically intensely moralistic—about a few things.  It’s not that atheists are immoral, it’s that they have no coherent account of their morality.  They are, ironically, like fundamentalists who simply assume that their Lawbook (whether the Bible or the Law Written on the Heart) is self-evidently authoritative. An atheist constantly appeals to the transcendence of the moral law and only denies that transcendence for the special purpose of pretending to theists that it is “socially conditioned” or “the result of evolution” or some other lame naturalistic explanation. But the moment the theist is out of the picture, the atheist returns to appealing to the natural law, not as though it is a hair color you can change if you like, but as though it is self-evidently binding on all mankind that you cannot rape a child, or shoot homosexuals in the back of the head or lynch black people. Result: you borrow bits and pieces of the Moral Law that you happen to like while pretending your aren’t.  And when some future atheist comes along who takes seriously your claim that the moral law isn’t really transcendent, the atheist is then shocked when his children implement his claims that morality is simply a by-product of evolution like his hair color by committing some outrage he never anticipated.  So, for instance, H.G. Wells ends his life writing “Mind at the End of Its Tether” after a great nation state implements his recommendations for dealing with the lower orders and a world war and Holocaust ensues.

It was possible for cloistered medieval scholars who rarely met someone who wasn’t another monk to fantasize that it started in Eden and we all knew the Christian God, then spread across the Earth and got muddled up. That’s the Old Testament account. But we know different now. Christianity - and Judaism before it - clearly derived from earlier traditions, not vice versa.

Again, you think it news to Christians that the Church derives from Israel?  And that Israel comes from Abraham and pre-Judaic pagan cultures?  But note again how you are changing the subject.  My point was that your appeal to transcendent moral values points to You Know Who.  You keep struggling to change the subject.

It’s not atheism that’s a bastardized form of Catholicism (even typing that, it sounds absurd, doesn’t it?). It’s that your current belief is a vestigial form of the medieval Christian that literally centered the universe and history around Christian concepts. A view of history that doesn’t take into account actual geography or chronology.

Who said atheism is a bastardized form of Catholicism?  The issue here is not the truth of the Catholic faith.  It is simply the falsity of atheism.  The only thing I’ve been attempting to demonstrate here is that your atheism cannot adequately account for your moral intuitions and your insistence on certain transcendent absolutes that are universally binding on the human conscience.  That’s not demonstration of the Catholic faith.  It’s merely demonstration that your atheism is a lousy account of the universe and that theism is a better account.  As Peter Kreeft says, that’s not a proof of the biblical God.  But it is a pretty thick slice of him.

And, fine, the Old Testament’s myth not history ... but you’re treating the *myth* as in some way representative. That even if *historically* we didn’t come out of Eden, symbolically we did.

Not sure what this means.  You do realize it’s possible to talk about a historic event (the Fall) but in non-newspaper language, right?  So, for instance, when Nathan tells the story to David of the rich man who stole the poor man’s lamb, that doesn’t mean David never existed and that the murder of Uriah the Hittite and David's adultery with Bathsheba never occurred.  It just means that sometimes non-literal language is the best way to express the inner truth of an event.  I don’t know how you think the sciences could ever demonstrate the falsity of the Fall.

‘That’s what everybody means by God’ is ... simply a false statement. I don’t mean that by God, a Hindu wouldn’t, there are branches of Christianity that portray God as being distinctly hostile to most human activity.

Sorry.  It was a reference to St. Thomas.  The idea is not that literally every human in the world understands that the Transcendents ultimately point to God.  But that’s basically because of “math error” not because Transcendents and God don’t exist.  The basic problem you continue to face is that you want transcendents, but you also want to pretend they derive from things lower than you and not from the transcendent God.

What you’ve done is elided ‘my God’ with ‘universal notions of truth’. And that’s consistent with your religious beliefs, but your argument needs it to be consistent with *everyone’s* religious beliefs to work, and that’s where I think you’re over-reaching.

No.  What I’ve done is note that everybody, including you, has some sense of universally binding transcendent moral goods.  That’s because we are creatures made in the image and likeness of God.  That humans vary and sometimes get the moral law wrong is due to our finiteness and our sin (as well as to cultural variations that can be innocent).  Insofar as they are really transcendent (and everybody, including you, acts like they are, whatever bunk they may spout to deny it), that transcendence points to a transcendent God from whom we derive our dignity.  In short, I can account for why you talk the way you do about morality.  You can’t and when you try to, your account is self-contradictory because you talk as though certain things are transcendent and universally binding on all humans, while trying to pretend they are either just your personal preference or else mere epiphenomena of time, space, matter, and energy like our hair color.

It’s culturally determined, I think. It’s a common, modern American way of looking at the world. ‘Everyone wants the same thing, deep down’, the Lexus part of the Lexus and the Olive Tree model. You, as a product - as are we all - of the postmodern age hint at the *actual* problem with postmodernism - that it reduces difference, makes history the present but with funny clothes, and foreign countries to America-done-badly ... and all belief systems that aren’t your personal ones as Christianity-lite.

It’s culturally *conditioned*, but not culturally determined.  That’s why you know that raping children, taking gays out and shooting them, lynching black people and forcibly inseminating you is really wrong and not merely something you happen to not prefer.  It’s why you hold Jeffrey Dahmer, but not an alligator, morally responsible for eating people.  And you only make yourself temporarily morally stupid when you deny it for the special purpose of contradicting Christians here.  The rest of the time, when you are arguing for the dignity of homosexuals or some other treasured moral cause, you forget all about it and assume the existence of transcendent moral goods like “justice” that bind all human consciences.

I’m all for looking at the commonalities of the world.

Of course you are.  Because you recognize that human beings have an inherent dignity as members of the human race and that the duty to attempt to foster peace and love among them is a binding and transcendent moral imperative and not merely a personal preference.  In short, you recognize that "love your neighbor as yourself" is a transcendent and universal moral imperative.

We have much in common, there are common human experiences. You and I share most values and agree about most things, I suspect.

Of course we do.  We are both the beneficiaries of a civilization steeped in Christian values about the dignity of the human person.  You receive it as a custom and an assumption.  I receive it as a conscious legacy from the Christian tradition and know that apart from the faith, there is no particular reason to assume the morals will continue.

But thinking that we all believe in the same God, deep down, just because we all think stealing is bad or having a nice meal with the family is good, is an error.

What on earth would make you suppose I think that?  Knowing that the same God rules the universe of the Christian as of the atheist is, in no way, to say that the atheist believes in that God.  I never said you believe in God.  I merely say you steal from him. :)

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.