Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Ethical Question of God and War

Have you ever wondered how God could order the death of so many pagan nations in the Old Testament? The book of Joshua is the most commonly cited example. When entering the promised land, God told the Israelites to eliminate all the current inhabitants. The latest series of Ten Minas Podcasts answers this question. Check out the "Podcasts/Other Resources" page on the Ten Minas website to listen to this four-part series. God bless.


DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries,

I listened to your podcasts. (If you gained nothing else out of it, I was whistling, “This is my Father’s world” all afternoon.)

I am not really in a position to make very many comments on them. It sounded as if you were teaching a class. A class of people who believe there is a God. Who believe the Bible is historical regarding the Amalekites. Who believe the Bible is divine.

I am none of those. The talks were not addressed to the likes of me, so to critique them from my position is to not treat them in the manner in which they were given.

After having listened to them all, though, I think it was all summed up in the first one when you said:

“The source of morality as we know it--is God.”

“But if God is the source of morality, then is there any problem--if God is the one commanding these people to do this? Then you kinda know that it’s the right thing to do. I mean if the very source of morality Himself is what’s telling you that its OK to do this, then we know that it is the right moral thing to do.”

It seemed to me, if I could put it in the classical premise/conclusion framework, you were saying:

P1: Everything God does is moral.
P2: God did X.
Conc: X is moral.

(And this is a bit simplistic, but it works for this particular situation.)

Whether X is ordering us to mow the lawn, or ordering us to help our neighbor build a shed or ordering us to commit genocide. Three things that we (as humans) would normally classify as “non-moral,” “moral” and “immoral.” But if God orders it, then it must be moral.

The problem with using this technique with a skeptic, such as myself, is that we are approaching the problem from two different paradigms. I would say that in order for the phrase “God’s ordering X is ‘moral’” to have any significance, we must have some way, independent of God, to determine what is moral or not. Otherwise “God is Moral” becomes tautology. A statement that provides no new information about God.

We look the problem two different ways. Hence we could never arise at a consensus on a conclusion. You see the action and say, “God did it. It IS Good.” I see the action and say, “Allegedly God did it. IS it Good?” As long as we are coming at it so differently, I think the discussion will never progress much beyond my making my point and your making yours.


I find it fascinating that pragmatically Christians talk about God’s actions in the Tanakh from my worldview—not from the concept that whatever God orders must be moral.

Look at your own talk. More than once you said, “We mustn’t sugarcoat it.” I will go out on a very weak limb and say that you have never used that phrase when teaching on “Love your neighbor.” I have never heard a Christian say, “Look, this is really tough, and hard for us to explain why God would do such a thing, but Jesus gave this story about a Good Samaritan. Yes, yes, I know that it sounds reprehensible to us now, but we need to deal with the facts as presented in the Gospel of Luke.”

Even Christians recognize that there are some passages that are troublesome to some intuitive moral system we have. They do NOT treat the Golden rule and Joshua’s genocide with equal aplomb of “God ordered it. It must be moral.” The first they proudly parade; the second they quietly attempt to explain.

Frankly, if you really thought that “God ordered it, it must be moral,” your talk would end at 10:40 in the first podcast. Instead you go on, explaining and to some degree, attempting to justify why this was moral. Yes, I understand that partly that could be to give us more explanation than Job received (as you stated) but still—“cutting out cancer”? That is more justification than is in 1 Sam. 15:1-3.

No, Christians act as if they have to excuse God’s actions by some other method than simply, “God did it; It must be moral.”

Anyway…good reminder for me why I shouldn’t attend church. It is not designed for the likes of me.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

I'll have to get back to you on this later, but I just wanted to quickly confirm for you that yes, this was a class taught to believers. Most of the podcasts under the "Biblical Studies and Discipleship" heading are more geared towards believers, while the ones under the "Argument for Christianity" heading are geared more toward both believers and non-believers. My approach to the war problem would, as I think you could guess, be somewhat different when arguing to a non-believer because there are some underlying assumptions that I do not need to justify when speaking to believers (because they already share those asumptions) that I would have to explore in more detail with non-believers. But more on this later...


Ten Minas Ministries said...

I don't think I'm fully understanding your point about "love your neighbor". Perhaps you could flesh this out a bit more. I guess I'm failing to see what needs to be "explained away" about loving your neighbor.

I don't agree with your tautology suggestion. Why do we need some source independent of God to test what is moral and what is not? I agree that we need something other than just the bold statement that "morality comes from God." That statement requires evidence (which I argue for, in admittedly somewhat of an overview fashion, in lessons 3 through 6 of the Argument for Christianity podcasts). If I show through evidence OTHER THAN GOD OR THE BIBLE that God is the source of morality, then it is only the next logical step to realize that if God orders it, it is moral.

I guess depending on your perspective, you could view it as a tautology, but if you think about it, it doesn't really make a difference. Essentially, you are claiming that since I say that God is the source of morality (or in other words that He is morality), when I say "what God orders is moral" what I am saying is that "morality is moral." Of course, God is far more than simply morality, so in reality there is no tautology because morality is a subset of God, not the sum total of God. But for the sake of argument, let's assume it is a tautology. So what? The key point in this discussion is whether or not God is the source of morality. You are essentially claiming a tautology in step 2 when what really decides the issue is step 1.

Do you deny that IF God is the source or morality, then it follows that if God orders something it must be moral? So we can argue about whether God is the source of morality, but if He is, it really makes no difference whether or not saying "What God orders is moral" is a tautology, because the Christian's case is already made before we even get there.

That part of the argument is merely reassurance for our finite understandings. It is not part of the argument for God as the source of morality in and of itself. Its simply the logical result of that argument.

Again, this is why I commented in the podcast that the argument showing how God was the source of morality was a subject for another day. That wasn't the point of the lesson. All I was doing during that part of the lesson was pointing out what should be obvious. IF that argument is true, then we can rest assured that what God tells us to do is moral. Does that mean we have no other explanations? No, of course not. God could give us more of an explanation, and sometimes (as I believe is the case here) he does. But as Job discovered, He cannot always give us an answer. So this point of the argument is simply to give us an answer for those situations when we cannot see the answer.

DagoodS said...

Ten Minas Ministries,

To explain my point on “Love your neighbor” vs “Death to the Amalekites!”

Step entirely away from the theistic debate. Imagine sitting with me while I watch a group of 4 and 5-year-olds playing. We see Susie help Johnnie pick up his toys. “Good Job, Susie!” I call out. We look over at Jimmie skipping rope with Joey. I say nothing. We glance up and Timmie is hitting Janie with a stick. I say, “Excuse me, I need to break this up” and I proceed to reprimand Timmie.

Later you and I could have a long discussion of what is moral, or what is not, but your observations of me in action would speak so much louder than any words. Obviously I find helping others moral, playing non-moral and hitting people immoral. I demonstrated that by how I reacted to the situations as they develop.

Christians say that every thing God does is moral. Yes. I hear that. But what I observe is protracted defenses of certain actions and no such defenses for others. By doing so, the Christian demonstrates that, regardless what they say; they act as if certain events surrounding God have more of an appearance of immorality. Otherwise they wouldn’t work so hard to defend why God killed baby Amalekites, but never defend Jesus’ tale of the Good Samaritan.

Even Christians see that some acts are more reprehensible. They don’t have the appearance of all falling under “moral.”

Taking this one step further. Imagine Timmie’s mom comes in and talks to us. We all observe Timmie helping someone else. She says, “Isn’t he sweet?” We then observe Timmie hitting Janie (again) with the stick. We turn to her, waiting for the reprimand, and she says, “Oh, what a rambunctious pixie he is!” We see Timmie beating up on the other kids, and she says, “He is just misunderstood.”

After a bit, you and I are convinced that Timmie’s mom can’t see Timmie doing anything wrong. What you and I would call immoral, because of her bias, everything he does, she considers moral. (Sadly, we all have met parents like that.)

See, this is what Christians aren’t doing with God. They are NOT sitting on the sideline saying, “Gee, everything God does is moral.” They squirm and struggle with the fact God likes virgins and gold more than baby boys. They wonder how kidnapping females to avoid a vow is appropriate. They, such as you do, realize that genocide can’t be sugarcoated.

That tells me, pragmatically, they may say everything God does is moral, they may even try to force themselves to believe it, but it is a struggle.

Ten Minas Ministries: Do you deny that IF God is the source or morality, then it follows that if God orders something it must be moral?

Sure! Perhaps I am unclear by what you mean by “source.” Assuming God is the source, he could decree that eating apples is moral and eating oranges is immoral. But simply limiting the terms does not limit that God can or cannot do something. Maybe God can eat an orange. Maybe God can order someone to eat an orange.

For all we can verify, God is moral, immoral, non-moral and amoral. God can define whatever he wants, but equally perform whatever he desires as well.

Or what if God is solely moral? Can he order someone else to do something immoral? Again, the answer would appear to be yes, as long as the action of ordering someone is not immoral. I would note he ordered Abraham to commit human sacrifice. Even though the event did not happen, if you presume God is solely moral, then he can, at the least, order someone to do something immoral.

In the Amalekites’ case God ordered Saul to wipe them out. Saul did not do so. In Abraham’s case, God ordered Abraham to commit human sacrifice. Abraham did not do so. Is “ordering” in and of itself immoral?

As to the tautology—if God did do something immoral—how could you tell? Unfortunately, here is where Christians start to become like Timmie’s mom. Everything their little terror does, even though it would never be accepted in other children, is presumed innocent.

If I told you anybody but God committed genocide, you would call it “immoral.” The sole defense you have for what God is claimed to have done, is not in the act itself, but rather that you are bound to call all things God does as moral.

It’s moral because God does it.
God does it, because it’s moral.

Which of those two statements do you disagree with?

While God may be more than morals, in the morality department we are left with no new information about God, nor any way to make a determination as to what an immoral act would look like.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Correct me if I am misunderstanding you, but basically you are claiming that Christians say one thing, but their actions show something else. They claim not to have moral problems when God acts in a certain way, but in their everyday lives they condemn similar behaviors when they see them all around.

If you recall, I addressed this in the podcast. The fact that we have a limited understanding of the full implications of a moral act (i.e., any act with moral implications) does not excuse us from taking the action that appears to be correct based upon the limited information we have. If God has more information, He will be better able to determine what the proper action is and what is not. But does the fact that we have limited understanding excuse us from “doing our best?” My argument is that it does not. So it is only natural to conclude that what appears to us to be the correct action will not always be so when seen from God’s point of view, but this does not mean that we should not take that action. Otherwise, in our heart we will sincerely believe that a certain course of action is the right thing to do but refuse to take that action anyway. That is clearly an immoral intent.

You say that Christians do not spend time defending stories such as the Good Samaritan whereas they do defend stories like the Amelekites. So obviously they truly believe that there is a moral difference between these actions, one requiring a defense and the other not. To which I would respond, “of course.” There is a fundamental difference between these scenarios. As I have said many times before, we have limited information, God had unlimited information. If an act appears to be moral even based upon our limited information, why would it need a defense? It is only when our limited information comes into conflict with God’s unlimited information that a defense is required. This seems to be common sense. Do Christians “struggle” with these “hard issues”? Of course. That is why I say we cannot sugarcoat it. At least on the surface these actions do not seem to be moral BASED UPON OUR LIMITED UNDERSTANDING. However, upon further reflection, I believe that even the elimination of the Amelekites is cast in a different light when we think through all the implications that are available even to our limited understanding (such as the necessity of the spiritual purity of Israel in order to bring about atonement for humanity). But the fact that our “gut reaction” is negative does not mean that reaction is correct.

Frankly, it is a byproduct of human arrogance that we feel that we must be able to know everything, and if something does not fit perfectly within our realm of knowledge it must not be correct. Humility is necessary, as well as an acknowledgement of just how little we do know (i.e., see Job) and the limits of what we are even capable of knowing. However, I believe that the atheistic position constantly requires that God act in the same way that humans would (see for example your example of comparing God’s actions to “Timmie’s Mom”, a finite human), and this requires God to limit Himself to our finite understanding. That is the ultimate in humanistic thinking, elevating man above God and making man the measure of all things. If God is infinite, then the humanistic approach is completely illogical.

A lot of your remaining points we have already discussed in other posts, so I am not going to reopen those cans of worms here. But if God’s character is the source of morality, and the “character gear” inside God moves the “actions gear” within God, then it is not possible for God to act in an immoral manner. This is the basic law of non-contradiction. If God is perfectly moral, then it is logically impossible for Him to act in an immoral manner (otherwise He would have done something immoral and could not therefore be perfectly moral).

I disagree with your comment “For all we can verify, God is moral, immoral, non-moral and amoral.” First of all, assuming God is infinite (which I argue He is), you cannot use the word “and” at the end of this sentence. Again, this is the basic law of non-contradiction. One being cannot be both infinitely moral and infinitely amoral (or non-moral, immoral, etc.). At best, you can say “or” to conclude your statement without violating this logical law. But even this I have repeatedly argued is incorrect. I have said many times why I believe the existence of morality necessitates an objective source for morality, and that objective source can only be God. We would be opening another can of worms to go into that here, and we have already discussed it at length before.

I disagree with your statement “God can define whatever he wants, but equally perform whatever he desires.” Again, you are getting back into Euthyphro and trying to make God’s morality arbitrary. But we’ve discussed that before as well and I have put forth that God’s character being the source of morality removes any arbitrariness.

Your entire argument, all the way up to your final conclusion, commits the logical fallacy of the undistributed middle. You repeatedly compare God to Timmie’s mom, and contend that because we would come to one conclusion about Timmie’s mom, the same must be true of God. The fallacy of the undistributed middle, as applied in this instance, points out that just because two items have one thing in common does not mean that they have everything in common. Timmie’s mom and God take similar actions. Therefore, what is true for Timmie’s mom must be true for God. Not so. This conclusion is only true if God and Timmie’s mom are alike IN ALL RELEVANT RESPECTS. They are not. Timmie’s mom is a finite creature with finite understanding. God is not. This is an enormous and relevant distinction between the two. Therefore it is fallacious to conclude that the conclusion we would arrive at for Timmie’s mom is the same conclusion we should arrive at with respect to God. This also explains why Christian humans may act differently than God may act at times. After all, even we Christians are finite beings and can only act in accordance with our finite understanding. So when you ask me to "step entirely away from the theistic debate", you essentially "stacked the deck" in your favor. You cannot step away from the theistic nature of the question because the very fact that we are dealing with an infinite God is what decides the question.

As a final note, you ask which of your final two statements I disagree with. The answer would be either “the second” or “both” depending on what you mean by your first statement. It is incorrect to say something is moral “because” God does it. A more accurate statement of what I have been arguing would be that we can conclude that something was moral because God did it. It is not the fact that God did it that MADE it moral. But because God did it, we KNOW it is moral. It is a classic difference between ontology and epistemology.

Thank you again.

DagoodS said...

I know this blog entry is long past, and I apologize if you miss this. But I finally drafted out an article on the Amalekites.

Dolphison said...

The arguement that Morality comes from God is an interesting one. To take it a step further, Ten Minas Ministries, your old post stated: "How morality proves the existance of God."

Even if one were to accept this premise, it still says nothing about God. For example, Which God? The Christian God? The Muslim God? The arguement for God based on morality is vague.

Where you make your critical leap is when you assume that God is the Chistian God. Unfortunatley I believe it is the case with most religious persons that they fail to look before they leap. Sadly, Christian parents who have taken the same leap of faith push their children off the same ledge.

The result of this leaps is Christian apologetics. In the light of a civilized society that reinforces positive morals and ethics, the Christian God's actions and ethos come into question. Invariably, Christian apologists step up to defend their faith and flaunt the moral authority of God. We also end up with Liberal Christians who divorce themselves from the Christian God's ethos.

The fact is, that in the light of reason and compassion, the Christian God is evil.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

I have two simple questions for you dolphison. (1) When you say the Christian God is "evil", from where do you derive the standard to call him "evil"? (2) Do you believe that there can be such a thing as a "greater good", and that the same action in one context may be morally correct but morally incorrect in another context?

As for your earlier points, bear in mind that I have never claimed that the argument from morality proves the existence of the "Christian" God, only that it proves the existence of God in general. The evidence that this God is the Christian God comes from elsewhere, and is the subject of a totally different series of articles on the website (podcasts on why the Christian God is the correct conception as opposed to others are still upcoming; we haven't gotten that far in the "Argument for Christianity" podcast series yet). I do not assume that the God of which I speak is the Christian God. I seek to prove it. That is just a separate, unrelated argument to the argument from morality.


Dolphison said...

Question 1:

When I call the Christian God evil I am deriving my standards based on my own sense of morality.

Question 2:

This is an interesting question. I would have to repsond by saying that actions taken under different contexts are different actions. This means that pushing your child down to save his life is a completely different action than pushing him down to cause him harm. For a single action to be judged from seperate contexts you would need seperate observers. In this case a single action will be viewed under two different contexts. In this situation it is possible for one observer to judge the action as moral, and the other to judge the action as immoral.

I do not believe there in a "greater good" because morality is relative. I do believe that it is important to make moral decisions and judgements. By making moral decisions we can teach morality by example. By making moral judgements we can share our morals and teach morality. As humans, our ability to communicate allows us to share moral judgements. Also, by possesing a greater ability to reason, our moral judgements/values become more refined (meaning that we can make logical decisions and take useful actions).

The attacks on 911 are a perfect example of what happens when humans abandone reason and moral judgement.

In this case, most humans responded with repulsion to the senseless act. I can remember that the most widespread response was "why?" As we witnessed the tragedy unfold we searched for some reason to make sense of such a terrible act.

In the Muslim world we heard reports of chearing and celebration. The Muslims could make sense out of the chaos. Such a terrible act appealed to their sense of morality. The reason was their shared belief in Islam. Their devotion to their religion and its destructive dogma had twisted their perception of morality.

In my opinion the highjackers were immoral. In the opinion of Islamic fundamentalists the action was moral. This demonstrates moral relavitism. I will claim that my moral judgement is sound. I will also claim that the moral judgement of the Islamic Fundamentalists is unsound and dangerous/evil. Unfortuantely there is no higher power to take this matter to. If there is a God (and I doubt it) he is not swooping down to make judgements. Even if he did come down and say "that was awful!" It would still only be his judgement. It would still be up to us to decide if God was right or wrong. Judgement is reserved for us as humans. It is up to us to make moral judgements to insure the survival and prosperity of the human race.

To quote Sam Harris from "Letter to a Christian Nation"

"Along with most Christians, you believe that mortals like ourselves cannot reject the morality of the Bible. We cannot say, for instance, that God was wrong to drown most of humanity in the flood of Genesis, because this is merely the way it seems from our limited point of view. And yet, you feel you are in a position to judge that Jesus is the son of God, that the Golden Rule is the height of moral wisdom, and that the Bible itself is not brimming with lies. You are using your own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible-and then, in the next moment, you assert that we human beings cannot possibly rely upon our own intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend upon the prescriptions of the Bible. You are using your own moral intuitions to decide that the Bible is the appropriate guarantor of your moral intuitions. Your own intuitions are still primary, and your reasoning is circular."

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you for answering. Now I’d like to posit a few thoughts about what you said. First of all, your answer to the second question really is moot given your answer to the first. The second question is designed to bring out the limited human capacity for understanding (as opposed to God) for someone who believes in objective ethics. Because you believe morality is all relative, it really does not apply so much to you.

However, much of what you said in response to question #2 further illuminates your answer to #1. In other words, you fleshed out your idea of relative morality a bit more. So I want to take a few brief moments to examine some of what you said in that context.

You have indicated that you believe all morality is relative and that there is no “higher power” that objectively defines what is right and wrong for all of us. Now what evidence did you provide for this position? “In my opinion the highjackers were immoral. In the opinion of Islamic fundamentalists the action was moral. This demonstrates moral relativism.” How exactly does this illustrate moral relativism? Your argument suffers from the same problem I have seen in all moral relativistic or nihilistic arguments. You confuse epistemology with ontology. Take the civil law as an illustration (I think we’ve probably gone over this before, but just in case we haven’t, I’ll mention it again). If I punch you in the face and say “I think I was legally right”, you will likely say “I think you were legally wrong.” Now assume we both genuinely believe this to be true. After all, the legal system is full of disputes in which the parties have genuine disagreements about what the law actually holds. But there is an objective source to appeal to; i.e., the civil law itself. The fact that we both have genuinely different beliefs about what is legally right and legally wrong does not somehow negate the fact that an objective standard exists in the civil law.

When you make the claim that “all” morality is relative, you bear the additional burden when trying to prove your case of not only showing that people have different perceptions of morality, but also that these perceptions are the total ontological truth of morality; i.e., there is nothing more. Nobody disagrees that people come to their own differing opinions about morality just as you and I had different opinions about the civil law in my example. But logically that fact does absolutely nothing to prove that an objective standard does not exist. Your premises are insufficient to prove your conclusion. Differing opinions are just as compatible with an objective system as they are with a relative system.

Given that general objection, I would like to address a few of your specific comments that did not seem to make sense given your relativistic position. First, you said, “by possessing a greater ability to reason, our moral judgments/values become more refined (meaning we can make logical decisions and take useful actions).” But to “refine” something suggests progress toward some goal or standard. To refine a substance means to purify it, moving it more toward the goal of perfect purity (even if it never reaches the ultimate goal). But in your relativistic system, there can be no such goals. There can be no moral progress. You use the term “our”, suggesting societal or communal refinement, but if the only truth of morality lies in individual beliefs (as you have suggested), then there can be no “our”. Morality is individual, so there can be no common communal goal. Also, the very concept of a goal makes no sense in a relativistic framework. After all, if all moral truth is relative, then my sincerely held moral beliefs are just as “legitimate” as yours. Not only that, but they are legitimate NOW. If they are legitimate now, what possible reason is there for progression toward something else? Would the goal be any more legitimate than my current beliefs? Not if morality is relative. So your whole concept of refinement makes no sense in a morally relativistic worldview.

You tried to clarify this point by saying that it allows us to take “useful” actions. But how can you define “useful” on a communal level without objective morality? The entire concept of usefulness implies an alternative that is “better” than some other alternative. But once we use the term “better”, we are invoking a moral term, and if you are applying that term to the plural “we”, as you did in your comments, you are invoking a moral standard that applies universally to more than just the individual; i.e., an objective moral standard.

You made these same errors again when you referred to the moral perception of radical Islam as “twisted.” To say something is “twisted” implies the existence of some “untwisted” state. But if the whole truth of morality lies only in individual perceptions, their belief is no more “twisted” than yours, because there is no standard of “untwisted” against which we can measure both of your moral systems.

Later you again say that “It is up to us to make moral judgments to insure [sic] the survival and prosperity of the human race.” But how do you define “prosperity”? Survival? If “prosperity” only means “survival”, then you have the problem of explaining moral rules that exist but do not benefit the survival of society (such as rules against murdering severely mentally deficient people even though they are not contributing to the survival of society). Does “prosperity” imply something about quality of life? If so, then you get back to the concept of “better” that I discussed two paragraphs ago. Again, you are invoking a term with moral implications to define your argument.

Ultimately, in order to give any discussion meaning, the terms we use to frame that discussion must have objective meaning. This is why hardly any serious scholars today will claim that ALL truth is relative (as opposed to simply saying all MORAL truth is relative). If you say all truth is relative, do you include that statement or exclude that statement. If you include that statement, then even the statement “all truth is relative” is only sometimes true, because it in itself is relative. If you exclude that statement, then you have just defined at least one statement that is objectively and universally true. But by defining that one statement, you have at the same time defeated that same statement (because if one thing is objectively true, then “all” truth cannot be relative).

This logical problem has led many people (I assume including you) to limit their position to only saying that all MORAL truth is relative. But in defining your position, you repeatedly use moral terminology (such as your repeated implication of the concept of something “better”). But if all moral truth is relative, even this concept of what is “better” is relative and only sometimes true. The result is that your entire argument is based on statements that are at best only sometimes true. Even your premises are not objectively true, so your argument cannot apply to anyone beyond yourself. In essence, you have said nothing.

You also said that “it is up to us to decide if God was right or wrong”, but of course this suffers from the same problem. If there is no objective standard, by what standard can you ever declare that God was either right or wrong? Furthermore, if God’s character IS that standard, then we would be measuring the standard by the standard itself. Given that state of affairs, your position would be incorrect. It would never be appropriate for us to decide whether God was right or wrong. In essence what you are saying is that we who are subject to the objective standard (whether we agree with it or not) are morally required to question the standard itself. As a practical matter people do this all the time, but in order for a standard to be “objective”, by definition is beyond question.

Finally, the quote from Sam Harris completely mischaracterizes the Christian position. Do Christians judge that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Golden Rule is the height of moral wisdom, and that the Bible itself is not brimming with lies? Of course we do. Harris is also correct that atheists draw the moral conclusion that God was wrong to drown humanity in the flood. The problem is that the atheist is drawing a moral conclusion whereas the Christian is drawing a logical one. The atheist arrives at his or her conclusion that God was wrong based upon his or her individual perception of morality (as I said before, though, this does disprove the existence of an objective standard outside of those individual perceptions). The Christian, though, does not conclude that Jesus is the Son of God because it is morally right to believe this. If you think about it, this is a pretty ridiculous statement. “Jesus is the Son of God” is not a moral statement. There is no sense of “ought” behind this statement like there is in the atheist’s statement that God was “wrong.” Christians support their statement by offering logical proofs. You may or may not accept these proofs, but the form of the apologetic is still logical, not moral in nature (unlike Harris’ flood example). Now it may be the natural outworking of that logical proof that it is a morally justifiable belief that Jesus is the Son of God, but that is not the nature of the initial proof. The same is true for the statement, “the Golden Rule is the height of moral wisdom.” While the Golden Rule clearly is a moral statement, I do not believe this necessarily because it conforms with my personal sense of morality (although it does). I believe it because I am convinced by the logical evidence that God is the source of objective morality and that this rule comes from God. The BASIS for the belief is a logical proof, not a moral statement, whereas the atheist’s basis for belief is a moral conclusion (i.e., the flood is either compatible or incompatible with their personal moral beliefs).

This concept could not be clearer than if you were to listen to the podcasts that were the original subject of this thread. God ordered the destruction of the Amalekites and I repeatedly said in those podcasts that we could not sugarcoat was God was ordering. I openly acknowledged that this action was not necessarily in conformity with what we would believe the correct moral conclusion to be. I then go on to explain what I believe is the logical basis for accepting moral judgments that come from God even if they seem puzzling to us. So Harris is comparing apples and oranges. He claims that Christians condemn atheists for making their individual moral judgments while at the same time defending their beliefs based upon individual moral judgments. But the examples he gives for the Christian are not moral judgments at all, but rather logical ones.

All of the above illustrates why I do not believe a purely relativistic position is defensible. Not only is it un-provable (because all the evidence only addresses epistemology, not ontology), but it inherently results in repeated contradiction and is in and of itself un-definable in objectively valid terms.

Thank you again for your comments.

dolphison said...


You are correct that a purely relativistic position is not defensible. I believe that I have been unclear in defining what I consider to be moral relavitism. I do believe in moral objectivisim to a limited extent. That is to say I do believe that through reason/logic and shared morality we can form objective conclusions about the morality of a statement or action(It is important that shared morality be founded in reason/logic in this instance). From an ontological perspective I beleive that we can determine moral truths through objective morality. I do not believe that these conclusions exist independent of human opinion. This means that while my judgement of the 911 highjackers holds objective truth, through reason/logic and shared morality (a reasonable form of shared morality), it holds no ultimate truth, it is merely a judgement that originates from me and ends there.

I believe that moral judgements can be "objective," however these moral judgements are not absolute. The reason we know that they are not absolute is because they do not extend beyond our individual opinions. These moral truths are explainable/provable and can be shared, but they still contain no "magical/greater" properties. This means that you may find the ultimate moral truth, but it will only exist within you, others will hold their own ideas about morality no matter how right you are. You may dismiss the moral judgements of others, but that does not make them magically disapear; Just as you knowing this ultimate moral truth does not magically make everyone else know it too. I believe this demonstrates the type of moral relavitism/objectivism I believe in.

Ken, you said:

"Finally, the quote from Sam Harris completely mischaracterizes the Christian position. Do Christians judge that Jesus is the Son of God, that the Golden Rule is the height of moral wisdom, and that the Bible itself is not brimming with lies? Of course we do."

Well than he does not completely mischaracterize the Christian position. (nit pick- sorry :P) But, you do represent the athiest's position rather poorly in the later part of your arguement. It is true that the athiest does draw a moral conclusion from the flood, but with the other examples Harris provides an athiest will draw conclusions based on logic.

Ken you said:

"The problem is that the atheist is drawing a moral conclusion whereas the Christian is drawing a logical one. The atheist arrives at his or her conclusion that God was wrong based upon his or her individual perception of morality (as I said before, though, this does disprove the existence of an objective standard outside of those individual perceptions). The Christian, though, does not conclude that Jesus is the Son of God because it is morally right to believe this."

Now you are the one comparing apples and oranges. The example you provide for the athiest is the flood: an event that a moral conclusion may be drawn from. The example you provide for the Chrisitans is Jesus as the son of God: a statement that does not hinge on morality, but rather truth (true or false). Why don't we examine this fairly.

The flood: an event with moral implications.

Athiest- The athiest draws a moral conclusion based on reason/logic and shared morals (based in reason/logic). The athiest's conclusion: It was wrong to kill all of those people.

Christian (using Harris' model of a Christian Fundamentalist)- The Christian may choose to draw a moral conclusion (Although, I expect you might avoid doing so altogether). The Christian will suspend reason/logic in favor of shared morals (In this case the shared morals are that of the Christian dogma). The Christian's conclusion: God was right to kill all those people because he is God and his actions are above my judgement.

Christ as the son of God: A statement (to be determined true or false)

Athiest- (not making a moral judgement this time is he?) The athiest uses logic to determine that there is insufficient proof to support this statement and that it is almost certainly false.

Christian- The Christian uses "logic" (false faith based logic, that lacks objective truths) to determine that the statement must be true.

Now we are comparing apples to apples.

dolphison said...

By the way, I realize that this may not be the appropriate forum for this discussion. I could not find your blog on "How morality proves the existance of God." So I chose a more recent blog to resume our old discussion.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Maybe your position requires more clarification, but it still sounds like moral relativism to me. You say, "I do believe that through reason/logic and shared morality we can form objective conclusions about the morality of a statement or action (It is important that shared morality be founded in reason/logic in this instance). From an ontological perspective I believe that we can determine moral truths through objective morality. I do not believe that these conclusions exist independent of human opinion." So essentially, you argue that we discover objective moral truth by reason and logic. But as I see it you have two alternatives. Either (1) reason and logic is helping us learn about some moral truth that exists independently from us (similarly to how scientific experimentation can help us learn truths about the natural world that are independent of us) or (2) reason and logic are helping us learn about moral truth that is not independent of us. The Christian would adopt the former (I disagree with your statement that Christians forego logic in favor of blind Christian dogma, because even the decision to trust God in the hard situations is a decision that can be supported by logic and reason. If you are deep sea diving with little experience and choose to follow the advice of your professional diving instructor, even if you do not understand the reasons behind his advice, are you being illogical? Are you suspending reason in doing so? I believe you are using reason and evaluating what you know about his experience and superior knowledge and making a perfectly reasonable decision).

Your position seems to be the second. You even specifically said that this "objective" moral truth that we discover through logic and reason does not exist independently of human opinion. If it is not independent from human opinion, then different people can arrive at different moral conclusions, and one opinion is no more "right" than the other. So perhaps a group of people puts their minds together and comes to some moral conclusion. Perhaps that moral conclusion is "objective" within that group, but that is only because they all share the same opinion. Some other group could come to a completely different moral conclusion and their opinion would be just as legitimate. The very definition of "objective" means that it cannot be objective for some and not for others.

The only way out of this dilemma that I see for you is for you to claim that logic and reason, when properly applied, will inevitably point to certain objective moral truths for everyone, such that logic itself is the source of morality. But this brings up a plethora of other problems. First, you would have to abandon your position that morality is not independent of human opinion because this would be independent of opinion. Second, you would have the problem of bridging the "is/ought" gap. Logic can only output what you put into it. In other words, if your premises are all "is" statements (i.e., statements that are descriptive of the natural world without being judgmental in any way), then you can only draw "is" conclusions. In order to derive an "ought" conclusion, you will need at least one "ought" premise. But this would be assuming the very morality you are trying to prove. So logic alone inevitably cannot be the source of morality without you first assuming a moral statement as one of your premises, which begs the question of what is the source of that assumed moral statement?

Finally, I think you improperly attribute something to me that was really Harris' failing. You said, "The example you provide for the atheist is the flood: an event that a moral conclusion may be drawn from. The example you provide for the Christians is Jesus as the son of God: a statement that does not hinge on morality, but rather truth (true or false)." I didn't provide these examples. Harris did. You have proven my point about apples and oranges. Harris is the one who said Christians were making a moral judgment when they said Jesus is the Son of God. He is the one who threw this statement and the Noahdic flood into the same comparison, not me. Harris is the one who said, "You [Christians] are using your own moral intuitions to authenticate the wisdom of the Bible-and then, in the next moment, you assert that we human beings cannot possibly rely upon our own intuitions to rightly guide us in the world; rather, we must depend upon the prescriptions of the Bible." He claimed that we support statements like "Jesus is the Son of God" by using our "moral intuitions" and admitting that he uses moral intuition to decide that the Noahdic flood was wrong. I am glad that you see the difference between these statements, but by illustrating this difference you have only further supported what I was saying about the unfairness and illogic of Harris' comparison.

I understand that you believe that atheists use logic to arrive at their moral conclusions and Christians do not, but I have been trying to argue that this is not true. It is perfectly logical to trust God. But when we Christians make our own day to day moral conclusions about our own actions, we use logic. However, logic does not exist independently of everything else. It requires premises in order to be applied. You must have starting assumptions. When it comes to morality, the Christian gets his or her starting assumptions from the general moral guidelines God has revealed to us (and even this decision is supported by logic). Where does the atheist get their starting assumptions from? I believe that there is no such source available to the atheist without slipping into moral relativity.

Thank you again for your always interesting comments.