Wednesday, January 30, 2013

"Bro, do you want someone to do that to you?"

Some religious people believe you can't have morality without God, and therefore atheists have no reason to act morally. Some atheists respond by saying they don't need the threat of eternal damnation to get them to act like decent human beings.

As an agnostic, I don't see why a belief in God is necessary in order to want to live a moral life. I can see the benefits of the Golden Rule regardless of whether you think someone will eternally reward (or punish) you depending on how you behave.

Exactly.

And I have secular friends that I think are perfectly lovely people, so I'm obviously not convinced that without God we are all just awful.

I will say, though, that when people insist religion is the only reason anyone would be pro-life, they sure do reinforce the "atheists have no morality" stereotype.

I'm against abortion because I recognize the fetus as a member of our species and I believe human beings should be valued and protected; at minimum, I think it should be illegal to non-defensively kill someone. I don't consider any of what I just said to be radical, and I don't see why any of what I just said would require religious faith in order to make sense. From the pro-life perspective, when people insist you have to be religious to be pro-life they're insisting that you have to be religious to value humanity and/or think it's wrong to kill others. Great.

But I understand that there's a disconnect here. Many pro-choicers make a distinction between human beings and people, and while the fetus is a human being, they will insist the fetus is not a person. A pro-choicer could believe that all people should be valued and protected while all fetuses can be killed, and there would be no inconsistency in that stance. So, from a pro-choice perspective, the idea that you must be religious to be pro-life is really the idea that you must be religious to believe the fetus is a human being of moral value.

I still think it's kind of sad that some secularists believe you have to be religious to value all members of our species...but I guess it's better than thinking you must be religious to think, you know, killing others is bad.

23 comments:

  1. "Some religious people believe you can't have morality without God"

    Honestly, and maybe I'm just not talking to the right people, but the only people I have ever heard say this have been atheists trying to set up a straw man.

    I know that wasn't your main point, so I won't go far in to it. The claim that religious people actually make isn't that you can't have morality or be "good without God", but that morality for atheists reduces to not even their own opinions but to the thought processes that allowed their ancestors to fend of predators and reproduce more.

    Which is kind of tangential, but I just wanted to clarify.

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    1. We must be talking to different people then, because I've seen religious people make this claim, straight up.

      I think the conversation goes something like this:

      Christian: To atheists, lying and stealing and etc. are neither right nor wrong.
      Atheist: That's not true. I think lying and stealing are wrong.
      Christian: What reason could you have for that? You don't have the Bible to tell you they're wrong.
      Atheist: Back up. Are you saying I don't think lying and stealing are wrong, or are you saying you don't think my reasons for believing lying and stealing are wrong are good enough reasons? Because those are different arguments.

      See the disconnect? I can see where deeper thinkers might be trying to have a conversation about objective morality, but people who parrot the deeper thinkers just reduce it to "Atheists think anything goes."

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    2. Maybe.

      Frankly, I think an atheist stopping anywhere short of moral and existential nihilism is lying to him or herself, out of an emotional weakness that cannot bear consistency to what the mind demands. It's the same kind of happy-thought-thinking they like to accuse me of. I think a really good, honest, non-emotional atheist would admit that of course there's no such thing as morality, of course there's no such thing as right or wrong, how could there possibly be any such thing in a universe of physics. And I guess a perfect atheist would realize that there can't be any such thing as morality, and yet... and yet... murder and stealing are *wrong*.

      And for the record, some atheists do actually claim that morality is all just relative and subjective. Or at least they claim it about the moral ideals they dislike... for the ones they themselves hold, the idea of subjective morality seems to go right out the window. It certainly is not just their personal subjective opinion that it's immoral to force others to participate in your religion, for instance.

      Scripture says this:
      All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.) This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares. - Romans 2:12-16

      Point of which is that all people have a conscience which bears witness to the reality of the moral law, whether they believe in God or not. So of course atheists know the difference between right and wrong; it is indelibly inscribed on their hearts. But they deny it with their philosophy, and they should really keep one or the other. Or at least stop grandstanding about their overabundant powers of logical, rational thinking.

      If you hear any Christians say that atheists can't be moral, then you have my permission to smack them in the face with a Bible :P Or I guess just reference that passage.

      Anyway I didn't mean to distract from your main point, which is very well said. If atheists can have moral opinions without reference to God (and they can), then atheists can have the moral opinion that abortion is immoral without reference to God (and some do). While religion would certainly play role in it, it isn't necessary. Pro-life may be highly correlated to religion, but it's a moral opinion that anyone can have without it, just like being against murder and stealing.

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    3. Don't worry about distracting from the main point. Your side convo is something I've actually wanted to talk about.

      I really respect your opinions because you clearly think things out and you also seem very well-read on certain things. SO. I hope you don't think less of me for saying so, but I am one of the secularists who really doesn't see a basis for objective morality. I've tried to talk about this with others but I must not be understanding them because their arguments came across to me as "We know there's an objective morality because it's just obvious."

      I still think certain things are wrong, obviously, but I think they are wrong based on my own understanding of morality, not on some objective Known Morality. I just happen to be the kind of person that has no problem trying to push my understanding of the world on others because, well, I think I'm correct.

      In general, when I try to decide if something is moral I think "What would the world be like if *everyone* followed this action or idea?" If I think the world would be better for it, then I think it's moral. And by "better" I mean people leading peaceful and personally fulfilling lives.

      I *like* the idea of having the law "written on my heart" and I used to believe that. I used to believe that there is an objective morality that we are always trying to discern and while our discernment may be imperfect it can bring us closer or farther from the objective standard. Variations across cultures and history are a reflection of our imperfect discernment.

      But I think I believed that mostly because I still believed in God so there *had* to be objective morality. Now I'm more inclined to believe that the variations across cultures and history are a reflection of a lack of objective morality, on our hearts or elsewhere, and morality that does have patterns (most cultures are against murder!) is more a reflection of functional cultures. When I think of the great differences in what people, including Christians and also everyone else, have considered right and wrong depending on when and where they lived, I just see little evidence for an objective morality.

      I'm interested in your thoughts on all of this.

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    4. Okay, I have a lot to say in response. To keep this from turning into a Nathaniel-Givens-rap-battle, I'll just say this bit here.

      Personally, I think it makes TONS more sense to disbelieve in objective morality than to believe in it. Like I said, of course there isn't objective morality in a world of physics; how could there be?

      You said:
      >>In general, when I try to decide if something is moral I think "What would the world be like if *everyone* followed this action or idea?" If I think the world would be better for it, then I think it's moral. And by "better" I mean people leading peaceful and personally fulfilling lives.<<

      So, first of all, you kind of just passed "morality" around. An action is "moral" if more people following it would make the world "better". The world would be "better" if people lead "peaceful, fulfilling lives". I guess we could ask what are "peaceful, fulfilling lives", since ultimately what you think about morality will impact what lives you describe as "peaceful" and "fulfilling".

      But I won't ask that. Instead I'll ask you, why peaceful and fulfilling? Why, of all the qualities, have you singled out those two as the criterion with which to judge actions?

      I think there are a few of possible answers. Most of them are dumb, like "because God said so" or "because funny comedian said so" or "just because". But I know of two possible *good* answers. One possible answer is given by nihilism, and the other answer is given by Christianity.

      Nihilism's answer is, I guess, the "manliest" of the answers. You think peacefulness is good because thinking that way helped your ancestors find food, reproduce, and avoid predators. And I don't think you ever really *decided* peacefulness was good, but rather you "just knew" it was good and erected mental structures to capacitate it. If our species hadn't evolved towards complex social structures, you might think murder was awesomely righteous. But our species did evolve towards social structures, so you like peace. That's it. It isn't your opinion, or even an opinion; it's another vestigial appendix. Mighta not had an appendix, mighta not thought murder was wrong.

      The "goodness" of peace exists only in your mind. It corresponds to no actual real goodness or evil. Murder and rape and torture are merely facts; they are things that happen. They have no moral content. Your brain attributes moral content to them, and that content never leaves your brain.

      You said "peacefulness", but if you had said "murder-rape-waring", what's the real difference? More lives here, less there.

      I guess you could say "sure, it's just an emotion, but it's *my* emotion so I'll feel it anyway". But really, I can't say that what happened in Inquisitorial torture cells was evil, AND say that its wickedness is only an emotion I'm consenting to entertain, without completely disempowering and defeating the former. I don't like torture in Inquisitions; I don't like carrot chunks in my soup, either. Same thing.

      I dunno, maybe you don't think about this stuff this way, but I don't see how to avoid it. Set up whatever kind of moral structures you want; aren't they all, in the end, just asylums of escape from the naked honesty of nihilism? Murder makes me sad, so it's immoral; thinking this way about morality makes me sad, so nihilism is false; same error, and once you've seen it you cannot close your eyes to it. The void will devour you one way or another; now, or later. May as well be now.

      I think nihilism's answer is inevitable, and of the non-theist options it alone is grounded firmly, as it alone offers nothing to need ground.

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    5. (Part 1)

      “Nathaniel-Givens-rap-battle” hahaha

      “why peaceful and fulfilling? Why, of all the qualities, have you singled out those two as the criterion with which to judge actions?”

      Well I didn’t want to say “peaceful” by itself, because to my mind “peaceful” just means “free of violence” and people can have lives that are free of violence but still quite miserable. I suppose I could’ve left “peaceful” out entirely and just said “fulfilling” since, in order to maximize fulfillment on a global scale, things would have to be peaceful anyway. I’m sure there are some people who find violence fulfilling, but most don’t, and since the gauge is “How would the world be if everyone did this thing or embraced this idea?” those who crave violence would lose out.

      Which still leaves why I picked “fulfilling.” I picked it because I know what makes me feel good, and when I care about people, I want to make them feel the same way, and so far in my life it seems to me that people are happiest when they are doing something productive with their lives, particularly something they care about. Not only that, but it’s a positive cycle because often the productive thing they are doing helps others in turn, not just themselves.

      Now a secularist may argue that I’m just overall trying to increase the amount of serotonin everyone’s brains produce over their lifetimes, and a religious person may argue that I’m trying to help people be loving to each other because it resonates with God’s plan for us. Frankly I’m not really sure. I’d like to believe the communal-soul-God’s-plan version, but I’m more inclined to believe the serotonin thing. While I do find that disheartening, I just don’t see much evidence for the communal-soul thing, since me wanting to believe something unfortunately doesn't constitute evidence of that thing.

      I think it’s funny that you described nihilism as "manly." I’ve never thought of it that way. I always think of it as pointless and depressing.

      I definitely think there’s truth to people erecting mental structures to facilitate things they “just know.”

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    6. (Part 2)

      “Your brain attributes moral content to them, and that content never leaves your brain.”

      Yes, with one addendum. Most people’s brains within the society I live in tend to attribute moral content in a fairly similar way to my own attributions, so we can create some kind of congruity society-by-society. Even if moral content only exists within each individual’s brain, convincing each individual of my moral perspective can have major additive effects, since our society is built on the will of the people.

      “I don't like torture in Inquisitions; I don't like carrot chunks in my soup, either. Same thing.” Same thing, but with varying degrees of severity and the ensuing passion to get your society to help you impose your will on others.

      “Murder makes me sad, so it's immoral; thinking this way about morality makes me sad, so nihilism is false; same error” – good point.

      “I think nihilism's answer is inevitable, and of the non-theist options it alone is grounded firmly, as it alone offers nothing to need ground.”

      Yes, I think so too. I certainly would prefer a type of theist option to it, and I think that desire is what keeps me an agnostic, rather than an atheist. Well, that and the fact that the more I study science the more acutely aware I am of how little we understand in the grand scheme of things. But that still means one of my two reasons for agnosticism is purely emotional. Not a very good reason.

      I’ve long since given up worrying about it though. I’m not trying to convince anyone, and agnosticism lets me think things through without fear while still not giving in to despair. So I take it.

      And that’s not to say I’m perpetually on the verge of depression. The great majority of the time I’m not even thinking Big Thoughts About Life & Eternity and instead I’m going about trying to make my life as fulfilling as possible by being productive and hopefully helping other people feel loved and fulfilled (or at least preventing other people from being total dicks). I know how to increase my serotonin levels, so to speak, so most of the time it’s fine.

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    7. "I picked it because I know what makes me feel good, and when I care about people, I want to make them feel the same way, and so far in my life it seems to me that people are happiest when they are doing something productive with their lives, particularly something they care about."

      I mean, sure. And some people find the racial purity of their nation makes them feel good, and want to make other people they care about feel the same way.

      This is what I'm talking about with no "real" morality. You have moral opinions and beliefs that I like -- you value human life, you value productivity, you value people's happiness, you value knowledge; you value most everything that I do. But if you didn't, and if I didn't, and our society didn't, and we found ourselves in different circumstances in time or location, and we both went with serotonin to determine what is right and wrong, who's really to say what things we would be complicit with?

      The sheer number of people pushed in guillotines, strapped to stakes for burning, tortured to confession, or starved in camps by people with self-righteous smiles on their faces suggests that serotonin isn't a good gauge of morality. If humans can burn a witch in exultation and find personal fulfillment from their job of sorting out which Jews go to which death camp, then how can we ever possibly know if what we are doing is actually right?

      Either there isn't an "actual" right and only whatever we want, or this isn't the way to know right from wrong.

      If dismemberment is only wrong in your opinion, then dismemberment is a saving grace in the opinion of the woman on the clinic table. Her serotonin goes up, the baby doesn't have any, and if she keeps it a secret, yours never has to go down.

      Which is moral relativism.

      Then really honest moral relativists will realize eventually it's all a farce writ in biology and give the jig up altogether.

      So I said nihilism is "manly" because it doesn't hold back or shy away. It looks right in the face of atheism and accepts the data it presents. Yeah, it's pointless and depressing, because everything is; sucks to be alive.

      So while I think the above is a rational way to look at morality, that's clearly not how I look at it. That's also clearly not how most people look at it, thank God.

      I haven't shared my view of things, not really, but I think it has a lot of merits. Maybe I'll write that in another post, or maybe not. My point here was really to explain what people like myself mean when we say that atheists cannot have an actual system of morality while remaining atheists. If they have morality, then they have failed to be atheists; if they have perfect atheism, then they have no morality.

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    8. Yes, other people find racial purity makes them feel good. Or unfettered access to abortion. Or sex with children. And there are some in every one of those camps that want society to see things their way.

      But I don't believe it's all equivalent. If we pushed for societies to achieve those goals, sure, the serotonin levels of some people would go up, and for others they would go down, but the overall global serotonin level would go down. We've got plenty of history (and research) to show how terrible things can get if *everyone* chooses to embrace some of those ideas. Frankly I think abortion is really the most nebulous of them all, but I do believe accepting abortion is part of a larger-scale problem of devaluing people in general, which leads down the same path.

      This isn't me arguing that there's a "real" morality. Witches burning and heretics tortured into confession are only a handful of a multitude of examples of how society's idea of what's morally acceptable changes a lot over time and geography. I would think if there were a "real" morality, we'd see a sign of some kind of consistency. A common call to an objective Right Standard. But we don't. I don't, anyway.

      It's interesting, I think even people who don't bother wondering about this stuff live assuming there is some sort of objective morality. When I was a teenager I *could not fathom* how anyone could be pro-choice. I certainly believed at some point that all pro-choicers were heartless, irresponsible, selfish, and/or just wanted to have sex with no consequences. Since then I've seen that there are plenty of pro-choicers who have thought *extensively* about their position, and are motivated out of compassion and concern for women (combined with a disbelief in fetal value). And meanwhile most pro-choicers believe pro-lifers truly hate women and sex and whatever.

      I'm not trying to recap everything you already know about the abortion debate. I find these different perspectives significant. Granted, I think most people go with their gut feelings without thinking about it too much, but I do think there are good-willed people on both sides of the fence who have really soul-searched, if you will, and landed on opposite ends of the fight. And not just with abortion, with a lot of things. Even if there was an objective morality, I'm not sure what use it has if we can't discern it, or if only a subset of those who want to know it can find it.

      Again, this is not to say that "higher global serotonin levels" is an objective morality either. That's simply me trying to explain how I try to discern how to live my life. It's really just the golden rule, but with a bit of biology. I don't think it's that objective. I think it varies a lot, but just as different actions make peoples' serotonin levels go up, different people can try to follow the golden rule and end up doing things all along the morality spectrum.

      tl;dr - I do think it's subjective, I don't see much evidence for an alternative, but it doesn't bother me too much because I still have plenty in my life to raise my serotonin levels, including raising the serotonin levels of people I care about. :-P

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    9. >>I would think if there were a "real" morality, we'd see a sign of some kind of consistency. A common call to an objective Right Standard. But we don't. I don't, anyway.<<

      So, when you say things like this, it makes me think that you don't really understand what I believe. Which I guess makes sense, as I haven't really told you. I quoted Romans 2, but I haven't tried to correct your misperceptions of what I meant by it. I've been too busy trying to make the case for nihilism.

      Your flat rejection of it is reaffirming. You seem willing to hold it in your mind (like I am) but you write it off (as I normally do) as just depressing and over-dramatic nonsense. Even though I think I've made the case that non-morality is the only morality offered to us by reason and experience, and that your idea of morality is irrational and unfounded and unfoundable, and even though you pretty much admitted to not having any kind of argument against what I said, you don't seem particularly perturbed. You're going to keep on trying to do what is right and convince others to agree with you on what is right. "You just will".

      Which, of course, is exactly what I expect people to do, believing as I do in Romans 2.

      Let me try to briefly explain that I believe about morality. I fear it's going to be very long. Very long...

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    10. The part in Romans that I quoted is not the happy-sunshine thing you seemed to take it for. Rather, it comes in the middle of a longer sermon wherein the Apostle Paul is illustrating that everyone on earth is guilty. Everyone knows the power and existence of God from creation, but they don't care and turn to gods of their own fashion. Everyone knows right from wrong internally, as everyone has a conscience that one minute approves them and another accuses them, and yet everyone still violates even their own rules. Even the Jews that Paul is addressing in this letter have the Law of Moses, given by God himself and attested by prophets and miracles, and they do not follow it. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. "There is no one righteous; no, not even one." (Romans 3:10)

      So according to this, the fact that people know to make distinctions of good from evil is evidence that God has the authority to justly judge their actions.

      In this letter (which is a long letter), connection is made between the current state of humanity and the action of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. They ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It's a long name for a tree, but the long name is important; it's *not* the Tree of Knowledge, it's the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The ability to make judgements about what is right and what is wrong. The serpent, trying to tempt Eve, says this:
      "You surely will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." - Genesis 3:4

      So they eat it, and realize they are naked. God used to come visit them in the Garden, and go on long walks with them there. Now ashamed, they cover themselves and hide from him.

      The rest of the Biblical narrative that follows is depressing. It isn't about good, happy people loving one another and doing what they know is right. It's about selfish and bitter people striving and struggling to get what they want, whatever they want. There's betrayal, murder, adultery, rape, war, genocide. The "bad guys" do these things, the "good guys" do these things. There is not a single "hero" in the Bible who does not at some point explicitly sin. Well, except for Jesus. Peter sinned, Paul sinned, John sinned, David sinned, Moses sinned, Samson sinned, Solomon sinned, Jonah sinned, Noah sinned, Lot sinned, Jacob sinned, Abraham sinned, Isaac sinned, Elijah sinned. Sarah sinned, Rachel sinned, Mary sinned.

      Take this all as figuratively as you want to. Even if it's all a metaphor, it's a metaphor to say this; that people were once innocent, but a rebellion happened and now we make ourselves our own gods, making our own rules and following our own hearts, and this is the cause of every human evil in the world.

      So I believe that people are born moralizers. Everyone, atheist or Christian or Jew, is born with a longing to be "good". And everyone determines to be good on their own terms. Atheists reject God to be good, Jews obey ancient customs to be good, Puritans burnt witches to be good. So yes, people make up their own morality. They make it up to follow their conscience, and they make it up to soothe their conscience; I'm reminded of the giant from George MacDonald's fairytale "The Giant's Heart", who eats little children like radishes and is cruel to his giantess wife, yet who reminds himself that he "wears the whitest stockings on Sunday" and so feels no remorse. Because people make it up, a lot of it varies with how they feel at the time and place.

      It's also likely that the majority of the content of the majority of social morality in the world is objectively good. Later in Romans (chapter 13) it says that if a society can no longer maintain order, God causes it to perish and establishes a new society in its place.

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    11. The objective morality I believe in is God. Not the commands of God, but God.
      "For it is written, 'Be holy, because I am holy'" - 1 Peter 1:16
      What is good and true and beautiful is what God is. Because God is eternal, his attributes are eternal. Because he made everything, goodness is inherent in creation. Morality isn't a thing added on top like a cherry, or just a bunch of stuff he dictated; it's part of who he is, and it's a nontrivial part of the world he made, and it's a nontrivial part of how he made us. And the Lord don't make no junk.

      Does he command it because it's good, or is it good because he commands it? Rather he commands it because it is who he is, and it is good because it is who he is.

      God is love. God is patient and merciful. God is just, and punishes wrongdoers, but he is also long-suffering and willing to forgive them if they turn from their sin. God is faithful, and God is stead-fast, and God is orderly.

      Which would be suspicious, if God didn't also disagree with me on numerous occasions. I don't think there's anything bad about homosexuality; live and let live is how I feel about it. I don't think divorce is such a big deal. Or masturbation. Or defensive use of violence. I don't care if women want to be preachers, or if they want to sell their bodies for money. I don't care if kids want to sleep around in high school. Heck, sometimes abortion doesn't even seem that bad, if it's early on or whatever. Lot's of things that God forbids that I could easily shrug my shoulders to. They just don't bother me.

      And that is the struggle, I think, of every human heart. I could decide God is a joke and believe whatever I want and make my own morality (and even pretend to believe in him while so doing, as many do), or I could accept what he says.

      It's the ending of Job, all over again.

      If I decide to go with what I think because I think it, then I'm going to fall, eventually, in to all the depressing and unsettling things I've been going on about with nihilism. When morality becomes human caprice, then everything is morality; which is a fancy way of saying that nothing is. Most people can probably stand the cognitive dissonance their entire lives; I couldn't. It'd seem dishonest.

      I talked a lot. I'm sorry. Obviously I don't expect to win you over to my way of seeing things by sermonizing you on your blog. Just you seemed to be misunderstanding what I believe, because I was unclear.

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    12. TL;DR
      People can be wrong about morality; they can be wrong about it precisely because morality is objective. Otherwise they'd only ever be different.

      People can also be "good" without God, and people can even do things objectively good without God. "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt 5:45).

      Objective morality isn't the consensus of people; it's founded in the character of God. We see it imperfectly because we rebel and choose our own course in life, rather than his; we seek to know good and evil for ourselves and "be like God".

      That's most of it, anyway.

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    13. Your response brought up a lot of ideas for me and I doubt I'll be able to capture them all at once, but a few thoughts:

      1) If we have knowledge of good and evil, why can't we trust our own judgments?

      I mean, I understand having a sinful nature, but if we sincerely seek to know and do right, shouldn't we be able to discern what right is? Yet you gave a decent list of moral issues where you believe you and God differ, and so you try to follow Him despite not really agreeing with some of the stances. Why do we have consciences if we can't trust them?

      2) If we can't discern what right is, how can you know you discern the correct interpretation of the Bible? Is there a big difference between sincerely seeking to understand scripture and sincerely seeking to understand how to love our neighbors? It seems like we can either trust our judgment or not, but maybe I'm oversimplifying.

      3) You say you would expect me to keep trying to do right and convince other people to do right despite not having a strong foundation for why I should, and you expect that based on your understanding of scripture and God. At the same time people who follow their own moralities and make themselves their own gods is also a predictable outcome of your understanding of the world. If there was no God, what do you think the world would look like instead? In other words, what would you take as evidence *against* your understanding of God?

      Please don't apologize for talking a lot. I love talking about these things with you. You're insightful, knowledgeable, funny, calm, respectful, honest. I don't know many people I would rather talk to about religion or spirituality. You help me think.

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    14. >>If we have knowledge of good and evil, why can't we trust our own judgments? <<

      You cannot know how clever a response that is :)

      I don't remember saying we can't trust our own judgments. I think we can trust our own judgments, generally at least. However, our judgment is often clouded by our own selves. I'm thinking of dropping twenty kids on an island, like in "Lord of the Flies". They formed a democracy and had the speaking conch to ensure everyone got to have their voice heard -- good ideas. But then they wanted more meat, so the hunters started taking over in power, and to keep power they had to torture their subjects, and eventually commit murder. I think that somewhere in there, the kids knew that Ralph was right and Jack was wrong, and simply decided it wasn't important. And in so deciding, they effectively formed their own religion with their own morality. They decided that meat and hunting were a higher good than civilization or human life.

      I don't know why I'm referencing that book, besides that I was thinking of stranding people on an island to see how morality works. Obviously it's a work of fiction, but I don't think it's too far from the truth. People using their own judgment can probably generally tell if a thing is right or wrong; but then they can decide that they don't care. Eventually they find righteousness in the wrong they've chosen and wickedness in the right they've spurned.

      >>If there was no God, what do you think the world would look like instead?<<

      Not even a void, as a void implies a lack of something.

      Of course, it's hard to form an answer to this question, as we only have one data point :P

      >>In other words, what would you take as evidence *against* your understanding of God?<<

      So, I expect you to keep holding moral beliefs. Your moral beliefs happen to largely coincide with my own, so my calling them "right" is largely incidental. I'd expect Viking Norsemen who believe that moral goodness is mighty acts of strength and valor to have the same response to moral nihilism: to go right on slaughtering the weak anyway. I expect atheists who think it is right and just to oppose open expressions of religion wherever they occur to go right on opposing open expression of religion (and that's what they do, every time I have this conversation with them). These aren't examples of different things.

      Humans in general are psychologically incapable of being moral nihilists, no matter how much sense it makes, as they have consciences. Some people might "accept" nihilism... out of a dedication to honesty and following the truth. Whether they turn to the true God or to society or themselves, people will find moral rules to follow and enforce.

      What I expect isn't so much for you to keep doing *right*, but to keep insisting (with your words or with your life) that there is such a thing as right. I do think, as far as I know you, that you're a very morally upright person, but that's not what I was referring to.

      I definitely do not deny the abilities of the human mind. People are created in the image of God, having the abilities of rational thought, of moral reasoning, and of appreciation of beauty. We do not always use these, and sometimes we use them to bad purposes; we still always have them. Really though, it seems any other position would call in to question the ability of human minds to grasp these things, which is why your response was kind of ironic.

      Answering your question more generally would be a longer post and have no bearing on the current conversation, but in short, no Christian claims to know anything about God by means of learning or philosophy. We claim to know God by the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Which I'm sure is a very infuriating answer, but it's the answer I've got.

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    15. By the way, this conversation is becoming increasingly difficult for me. I am trying very hard to keep my own opinions out of it, and rather to give a statement that all believing Christians, from Roman Catholics to Dutch Reformed, would agree to. This is very hard to do. Hopefully I haven't misspoken, but don't put errors past me; I may have overlooked something. I have some security in the "bullet points" of my posts, but maybe not so much in the steps in between, and if there are errors or faults there, then someone smarter or holier than myself may be able to fill them in.

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    16. Look, related! http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_fOORhFmbA6s/Sf40z9GREqI/AAAAAAAABqQ/kLls6FYZjjY/s400/nandr.jpg

      >>.You cannot know how clever a response that is :)<<

      Ha. …Good.

      >>I don't remember saying we can't trust our own judgments.<<

      You may not have. I believe that good-willed people can genuinely attempt to discern what is right and can come to different conclusions. If that’s true, I think it must imply that either (A) there isn’t an objective morality to draw us or (B) our judgment is too flawed to reliably get us to the objective morality. If (B) is the answer, then I think it must imply that either (1) it is through God’s revelation that we can discern morality or (2) we can’t reliably discern morality. And if (2) is true than I think justice demands we be judged based on our efforts and intentions more than our results.

      I agree that people may have a good idea of what they think is right and might ignore it for other reasons. I’ve seen this many times. I’ve done it myself. So I’m not trying to discount that. But I do believe people can really want to do the right thing and either not know what the right thing is or genuinely believe that the wrong thing (to my perspective) is right. I know I’ve felt that way before too.

      >>Whether they turn to the true God or to society or themselves, people will find moral rules to follow and enforce.<<

      I agree, I’m just not convinced a desire for rules implies the existence of Real rules.

      >> Really though, it seems any other position would call in to question the ability of human minds to grasp these things, which is why your response was kind of ironic.<<

      I’m afraid I’m still not following you.

      >>In short, no Christian claims to know anything about God by means of learning or philosophy. We claim to know God by the revelation of the Holy Spirit. Which I'm sure is a very infuriating answer, but it's the answer I've got.<<

      I appreciate the honesty, and it’s not a new answer to me. Unfortunately, this gets to the crux of why I don’t believe in God. If the Holy Spirit exists, he hasn’t given me revelations, and there was a time when I was basically begging for them. Of course it’s possible that there is a God and, for whatever reason, He has chosen me to be an unbeliever. However that makes this a non-falsifiable theory, and I don’t like or trust non-falsifiable theories. That, and it goes against what nearly every Christian has suggested as, I guess, the mechanism of faith. And I find it incredibly unjust to say only those who believe may be saved and then pick and choose who is permitted to believe. And I can’t make sense of a God who would give me an analytical mind and then make the very thing that is supposed to be the crux of my existence—faith and relationship with Him—defy analysis.

      Sorry for rattling all that off. It’s just the idea that faith is something I can’t learn and hasn’t been given is a sore point for me. Not upset at you or anything, but you’re right, it’s a frustrating answer.

      >>By the way, this conversation is very difficult for me…<<

      I’m sorry it’s been difficult for you and I don’t want you to feel obligated to it, but I think you’ve done a great job. I understand you aren’t the smartest, holiest man that ever lived, but you are smarter (and, imo, kinder) than most people I know. That’s good enough for me. Certainly this conversation has been a good deal more useful and less frustrating than others I’ve tried to have on some of these topics.

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    17. >>I believe that good-willed people can genuinely attempt to discern what is right and can come to different conclusions.<<

      In so far as there exist good-willed people who genuinely attempt to discern what is right, yes. They can come to different conclusions.

      >>And if (2) is true than I think justice demands we be judged based on our efforts and intentions more than our results.<<

      As in, the morality you end up deciding versus the true morality? In certain cases, I think so. I mean, that's sort of the point of the part in Romans I quoted. The first part says that "All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law." If you don't know that you are doing something wrong, then you cannot sin by doing it. The other part says that "Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law". This is said in connection to the first part. People show by their actions that they have a law. And this law is contrasted to the Law of Moses. Since Gentiles don't have the Law law, but have A law, God couldn't judge them by the Law because they did not willfully violate it -- it wouldn't be just. But he can judge them by the law on their hearts, for this one they knew. This sort of relationship between sin and law is covered further in Romans 7, later in the same letter.

      I think it's important here to point out, that sin isn't the trespass itself, but the knowledge of the trespass and the deliberate willing of trespass.

      >>But I do believe people can really want to do the right thing and either not know what the right thing is or genuinely believe that the wrong thing (to my perspective) is right. I know I’ve felt that way before too.<<

      Yeah. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a great thing about this, when he was deciding whether it was right to assassinate Hitler. He looks to one hand, and he is thinking of saving millions of lives from horrendous oppression and death. He looks to the other, and he has to actively and willingly murder someone to do it. He was conflicted. He could not decide what was right; he would pray and fast and search Scripture, and he did not know or have peace about it. Finally he decided, that if he couldn't know and he had to do something, he would just trust it to the righteous judgment of God and act on his best judgment.

      I'm not trying to discount that kind soul-searching. It's real. Sometimes, the heavens are simply silent, and humans have to use judgment as best they can.

      >>I agree, I’m just not convinced a desire for rules implies the existence of Real rules.<<

      This sort of thing is a common thread in C.S. Lewis' writing. The desire for food implies actual food; you couldn't desire it if it weren't real. But then people desire all kinds of intangibles that - if they exist - don't exist in any way like food at all. Things like purpose, morality, love, beauty. So how do we know if these intangible things we long for are real or not?

      I don't think, strictly logically, that a desire for rules would imply the existence of Real rules. I do think the nature of God implies the existence of Real rules, and the existence of Real rules implies our longing for them.

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    18. >>Of course it’s possible that there is a God and, for whatever reason, He has chosen me to be an unbeliever.<<

      I remember having this conversation with you. Actually, I'm sure we've had it many times.

      You may remember when I was in the happy-rainbow-sunshine phase of my faith, and was probably unbearably saccharine. This was then followed by the "am I even a Christian anymore?" phase of my faith. A phase where I felt like God was ignoring me and abandoning me, that the heavens were barred to me, that I'd finally gone too far and now I was on my own. And no matter how I prayed, I felt like the love of God was withheld from me. Was I a Christian still? And if I wasn't now, was I ever a Christian? And how can I become a Christian if God won't reach me first?

      It was an awful, terrible time, and I'm not entirely over it yet.

      I remember you saying this to me before, maybe years ago, and it's been rattling in my head since. I'd like to give you an answer. I probably don't have one.

      I've offered bad advice in the past as relates to God, so I'm hesitant to offer any more, especially knowing personally now how deeply upsetting it can be to ask God to show up and... he doesn't. I can say, anyone who will humble themselves, turn to Jesus and repent *will* be saved. There exists not a single person who has ever placed their trust in God that has been turned away. It would seem to me that if you were to begin attending a church that teaches the gospel, and if you were to receive prayer there, that you would meet God. Not immediately, but you would.

      If not, then I'd have no more answers for you. On anything. That would completely defy all that I know of God, it'd defy all that I know of existence. I'd resign myself to to curl up under my bed and await until the nothingness took me. Don't let that discourage you from trying. If there's actually no God, then I guess I'd like to know it.

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    19. Ok, but if good-willed people who genuinely try to discern what is right can come to different conclusions, does that mean they can have different laws written on their hearts, so to speak? Is that the same idea?

      >>I think it's important here to point out, that sin isn't the trespass itself, but the knowledge of the trespass and the deliberate willing of trespass.<<

      That makes sense.

      >>I'm not trying to discount that kind soul-searching. It's real. Sometimes, the heavens are simply silent, and humans have to use judgment as best they can.<<

      I guess I’m operating under the assumption that if there is an objective standard of morality, humans must be able to sense it somehow, and if they can’t sense it, it comes to the same thing as if it didn’t exist.

      As an aside I would like to point out how nice it is that when you reference an author or thinker or anecdote I may not be familiar with, you take the time to explain the gist of it. Some people just name drop and then wait for you to dig up their meaning. So frustrating.

      >>And no matter how I prayed, I felt like the love of God was withheld from me. Was I a Christian still? And if I wasn't now, was I ever a Christian? And how can I become a Christian if God won't reach me first?<<

      Even though we don’t share a lot of beliefs, I find it so easy to talk to you, because you’re so honest and kind.

      >>I can say, anyone who will humble themselves, turn to Jesus and repent *will* be saved.<<

      I recall a CS Lewis quote, “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” It’s a comforting thought.

      >>…that you would meet God. Not immediately, but you would.<<

      Perhaps. I’m just not sure how long I ought to wait like the stupid teenage girl that keeps thinking he’ll really call this time.

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    20. >>Ok, but if good-willed people who genuinely try to discern what is right can come to different conclusions, does that mean they can have different laws written on their hearts, so to speak?<<

      I think the idea of "law written on their heart" is referring more to conscience. I'm sure there are some things, like murder and stealing and adultery, that are universally known to be wrong interiorly, but then there are probably other things that are only known as virtues, like courage and charity, often conflicting, and the particulars of them are worked out by societies and individuals. But that's an opinion that I've formed to try and make sense of things; I don't know if that's real or not.

      >>I recall a CS Lewis quote, “We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him.” It’s a comforting thought.<<

      It's definitely an interesting thought. The technical name for this belief is Inclusivism. Lewis was one of the first big name proponents of it.

      >>I’m just not sure how long I ought to wait like the stupid teenage girl that keeps thinking he’ll really call this time.<<

      It's vivid image you paint.

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  2. After thirty minutes of whittling my response down to the "4096 characters" that blogger allows in comments (and I counted, my response was under 3900), I give up. Too long or not, blogger won't let me post it. Now it's late and I really need to do research work. Maybe later, if I'm up to it again.

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    1. That sounds horribly frustrating. If you decide you'd like to try again, you can always email me instead.

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