Monday, June 18, 2007

Free will & morality

This is a follow up to a discussion that actually began on another blog ( It is in response to something Dagoods said there, but as I have explained in the past, I unfortunately do not have time to jump around from blog to blog, so I have to confine most of my comments to this particular locale. Also, in the interest of fair play, Dagoods has a blog of his own for anyone interested at

So here’s the issue for discussion. Dagoods advanced a position on that other blog as follows:

“What the ‘greater purpose’ defense says is that there is something more important than morality. To God. (And due to the complete lack of ability to verify what God finds important, this is all speculation, obviously.) If I do something immoral, what is more important (to God) is that I showed free will. If I do something moral, what is more important (to God) is that I showed free will. Regardless of what I do, God’s greater purpose is fulfilled. Morality is the same as immorality. Like saying regardless of whether I take a train or a plane, the greater purpose of reaching Indianapolis is obtained. Planes are the same as trains.”

And in a later elaboration:
“I see it as a logical consequence of the Free Will defense to the evidentiary Problem of Evil. Christians may not want to say it, but that is what it logically entails. Tell me if I have the answers incorrect in the following questions. I believe the answers (in bold) are the Christian position to the Free Will defense. Could God create a world without immorality? Yes. Would that world have Free Will? No. Does our world have immorality? Yes. Therefore it was more important, in this world, for God to have Free Will than to have a world with no immorality. I am uncertain how one gets around this.”

So is it a necessary consequence of the free will defense that God considers free will to be of greater value than morality? Actually, I believe the way Dagoods phrases the first two questions is incorrect. He seems to be operating under the assumption that we have two separate entities here: (1) morality, and (2) free will. After all, he is saying that (according to Christians), free will is more important than morality. They must then be separate entities with no cross-over between them. But if free will in and of itself has moral value, this comparison doesn’t make any sense. After all, he would essentially be saying “a moral good is more important than morality”, a nonsense statement. In fact, if free will has moral value in and of itself, then all that is going on here when God allows some evil in order to accommodate free will is a weighing of the moral consequences, just like we undergo with any other moral decision. Does the value of allowing free will outweigh the harm done by allowing evil? We can all disagree in our little finite minds about whether or not we think the benefits outweigh the costs in this equation, so to speak. But to say that God believes free will is more important than morality is to separate free will from morality when in fact it is a subset thereof.

I personally believe it is pretty easily apparent that free will has at least some moral value of its own. After all, if I was to bind you up (without cause) and forcibly keep you from going home, going to the grocery store, or doing whatever else it is you desire to do, I think we would all agree that I have committed a moral wrong. So free will clearly has some moral value, which means the locus of our discussion can be on whether the costs outweigh the benefits, but not on whether God believes free will is more important than morality.

Dagoods also said

“I once saw a Christian defiantly proclaim to a non-believer, ‘If you were God, do you think you could make the world any better?’ To which they responded, ‘Sure. All I have to do is create the exact same world we have today, only with one less child dying. Or one less broken arm. Or even one less tear being shed. That would, by definition, be ‘better’ than what God can apparently do.’”

I’ve seen this argument many times, and it strikes me as being more illustrative of the speaker’s unwillingness to make a genuine inquiry into whether God exists as opposed to trying to set up a legitimate standard by which we can decide whether or not to believe. After all, if God really did keep just one more child from dying, or prevent one more broken arm or one more tear, how would you know? This is a standard which atheists like to raise but which we can never know if it was met. So if we can never know if it has been met, is it really a reasonable standard? After all, it argues from the ABSENCE of an activity (i.e., one more child who DID NOT die, one more arm that DID NOT break, one more tear that WAS NOT shed). If these events never happened, how would we ever know they were missing? In fact, someone could easily point out to the atheist who makes this argument, “How do you know God has not already done so?” That’s the problem. It is a statement without meaning because we can never know whether or not the requirements of the statement have been satisfied. In fact, the only way to know if God is preventing any evil or suffering would be if He was to eliminate ALL evil and suffering, but that falls into all the free will problems that have been outlined countless times before (the removal of the concept of evil from this world would also eliminate the concept of good as well, but that is a philosophical discussion for another day).

Finally, a personal note to Dagoods. You mentioned in your post on the other blog that my concept of God hates you. I’m sure you’ve probably heard this before, so I’m probably not telling you anything new, but God does not hate you. He loves you and He is reaching out to you as we speak. I can certainly understand why you would think He hates you, especially with the unfortunate way that some people who claim to be Christians (especially online) spew hatred your way (not meaning you specifically, but toward all non-believers) instead of love and respect. This is an unfortunate tendency for which I myself have “called out” many Christians, but it is not God’s will for how His people are to treat others in the world. To the extent I even have the authority to do so, I apologize to you for any poor treatment you have received in the so-called name of Christianity. It is not right, and I will continue to do my best to treat you and everyone else (believer or non-believer) with dignity and respect.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

2007 Relay For Life

The 2007 Relay for Life of Havre de Grace fundraiser for the American Cancer Society was last night, and it was a resounding success. This was only the 3rd year of the Relay in Havre de Grace. In year 1 it took in $20,000. Year 2 totalled $44,000. So far, Year 3 has brought in over $90,000 and counting. I will have a detailed page on the website shortly with more information and pictures about the event. Its not too late to donate. Donations can still be credited to this Relay as long as they are received by the ACS no later than August 25. See the Ten Minas site for details on how to make a donation.

On a personal note, I would like to congratulate my wife, Mary Kay Coughlan, who has been the Volunteer Event Chair of the Havre de Grace Relay since its inception and is stepping down as Chair. She will be leaving the Relay in a very healthy condition with interest at an all time high, and will be passing it off to good hands in Debbie Leodore. Ten Minas (including my wife) will still be involved in future years, and we thank you all for your support. God bless.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

New podcasts in the Argument for Christianity

FYI - Podcasts on lessons 6 through 9 in the "Argument for Christianity" (covering General Relativity and the Kalam Cosmological argument) are now up on the website. Lesson 10 is partially recorded, and should be forthcoming shortly.


Modern day Jewish atonement

I openly admit that I am far from an expert on modern day Jewish theology, but I have done some reading on the subject (as well as partaking of a lot of conversations because the majority of the people I work with are Jewish). I have a logical question that I would like to see if anyone out there (preferably someone with a Jewish background) can answer.

As most people reading this probably know, Christian theology is based upon blood atonement. It holds that blood is necessary for the atonement of sins. The shedding of Christ’s blood made this atonement for us. However, the whole concept of substitutionary atonement and atonement by blood was foreshadowed in the Old Testament by the animal sacrifices instituted by God.

During the time of the Old Testament prophets the Jewish people started believing that these sacrifices were in essence a “get out of jail free card.” They made little to no effort at actual devotion to God, figuring that as long as they made the sacrifices they could keep God happy with them. A number of the Old Testament prophets spoke out against this attitude.

Of course, the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, leaving modern day Jews in a quandary. If sacrifices are necessary for atonement, but there is no Temple at which to perform the sacrifices, how are they to make atonement for themselves?

The answer given (to my understanding) by modern Judaism is that God set up two alternative methods of atonement: (1) substitutionary animal sacrifices; and (2) sincere repentance, seeking forgiveness from those you have wronged and confession to God. Today, on Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), they first prepare ahead of time by confessing and seeking forgiveness from everyone they have wronged over the past year. Supposedly, by going through this process and seeking forgiveness from God, their sins can be atoned for even without an animal sacrifice.

The important question, then, is why would God have ordered animal sacrifices if they were not necessary? The modern Jewish answer to this question is that the sacrifices were one alternative method of atonement, so they weren’t meaningless. But Jews could also opt for the repentance/confession method of atonement if they chose. If they chose the path of trying to walk in God’s law, and confessing their sins seeking forgiveness when they fail, then the sacrifices were not needed.

And here’s my dilemma. We have two alternatives. I will call the first “(1) sacrifices” and the second “(2) repentance.” Supposedly, according to modern Jewish theology, these are two alternative methods of atonement. Modern Jews allow (2) to stand on its own because they use it every Yom Kippur without (1) playing any part at all. But if (1) really is an “alternative”, it too should be able to stand on its own, without any regard to (2). But if we examine the Biblical condemnations against the empty sacrifices that were being made by the Jews, they always suggested that the sacrifices were meaningless to God because the Jews were making no attempt at sincere devotion, or at sincerely following God’s law. In other words, if the sacrifices were to have any meaning, the Jews would first have to be sincerely repentant for the sins for which they were seeking atonement. (2) is a prerequisite to the efficacy of (1). Sacrifices are only effective if they are preceded by repentance. But if this is the case, before we ever get to (1), we have already satisfied the requirements of (2), so our sins are already atoned for before we make a single sacrifice. We are back to the problem of God meaninglessly ordering animal sacrifices even though they served no purpose whatsoever. So how are these really two alternative methods of atonement?

Of course, under Christian theology, repentance is necessary, but it does not eliminate the need for the atoning sacrifice. Repentance will lead us to recognize the need for the sacrifice, which makes our partaking of that sacrifice sincere. So repentance does not make atonement for our sins. That role is played by the sacrifice. But sacrifice without repentance is simply going through the motions and is empty. If I have misstated modern Jewish theology in any way, I would appreciate if someone would clarify it for me. Are these really viewed as alternative methods of atonement, and if so, how do you get around the dilemma I have outlined? Thank you and God bless.