Justifying Non-Christian Objections
Douglas Wilson & Farrell Till
Whenever we object to something, we always assume some standard or rule that the thing violates. Similarly, when non-Christians object to the Christian faith, they assume some standard that Christianity violates. But can non-Christians justify these standards that they so readily use? In the following interchange, the editor of Credenda/Agenda, Douglas Wilson and Farrell Till, editor of The Skeptical Review, discuss the topic of justifying non-Christian standards of ethics and reason.
For the past thirty years, Farrell Till has been an English instructor at Spoon River College in Canton, Illinois. Prior to this, he was a preacher and foreign missionary for the Church of Christ. He attended two Bible colleges and received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Harding University. His preaching career spanned twelve years, five of which were spent in missionary work in France. After becoming an agnostic, he quit the ministry in 1963 and began a teaching career. For the past five years, he has edited The Skeptical Review, a quarterly journal that focuses on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. He has regularly debated inerrancy-related issues in various public forums, including radio and television. Having begun this work as an agnostic, he now considers himself an atheist.
DW: Many unbelievers commonly object to the God of the Bible on the basis of ethical "problems" with the character of God as revealed in the Scriptures. Whether they use psalms of imprecation, the slaughter of the Canaanites, the eternal wrath of God on the impenitent, etc ., the central theme is usually the same "Who would want to worship a God like that !" But despite the surface plausibility of the objection, a careful examination of it shows their Achilles attacking our Hector with his bare heel. Far from being the unbeliever's strongest case against the true God, this objection actually reveals the radical futility of unbelief; without God there are no ethical objections to anything .
FT: Although you didn't expressly state the "objective-morality" position of evangelical apologists, you certainly implied it when you said that "without God there are no ethical objections to anything." The fallacy of this position is its failure to recognize that morality is an intellectual abstraction. As such, it is no different from abstractions of tragedy, sorrow, or any of many other abstractions the human mind has formulated from its broad range of experience. Arguing that human intelligence cannot determine if acts are immoral without a god to tell us they are is as illogical as arguing that we cannot tell if events are tragic without a god of tragedy to tell us they are.
DW: Fine, I'll bite. If there is no God, then all the things you mention are in the same meaningless category. Morality, tragedy, and sorrow are equally evanescent. They are all empty sensations created by the chemical reactions of the brain, in turn created by too much pizza the night before. If there is no God, then all abstractions are chemical epiphenomena, like swamp gas over fetid water. This means that we have no reason for assigning truth and falsity to the chemical fizz we call reasoning or right and wrong to the irrational reaction we call morality. If no God, mankind is a set of bi-pedal carbon units of mostly water. And nothing else.
FT: You bit too hard. In equating all human abstractions with "swamp gas over fetid water," you overlook verifiable facts. The human mind can think; swamp gas can't. Human intelligence can evaluate situations and formulate abstractions of beauty, happiness, sorrow, fairness and morality; swamp gas can't. Are these abstractions valid? Well, what IQ level is needed to conceptualize abstractions like beautiful, sad, fair, right or wrong? Can one with an IQ of 100 do it, or must his IQ be infinite? The existence of moral concepts is verifiable; the existence of gods who put such concepts into human minds is unverifiable. Please address this problem.
DW: You missed my challenge. You acknowledge the distinction between human intelligence and swamp gas, but you have no way to account for it. If there is no God, then why is there a distinction between the chemical reactions in your head and elsewhere? Suppose we agreed that the walls of a house are straight. I say there must be a foundation under it -- a precondition for straight walls. Your hypothesis is the house has no foundation at all and doesn't need one. "See, the walls are straight without a foundation." But given your worldview's assumptions, why ? Can you explain how time and chance acting on matter can produce the straight walls of reason and morality?
FT: No, you missed my challenge. You are the asserter, so you must bear the burden of proving your assertion. You have asserted that "without God there are no ethical objections to anything," so I insist that you prove that. You have admitted that human intelligence can formulate abstractions, but you say that " all abstractions are chemical epiphenomena, like swamp gas over fetid water." Prove that please. Can the brain's solution of algebra problems be right? If so, does "God" have to put the right solutions into the brain? If not, can a brain that correctly solves algebra problems correctly solve moral problems? If not, why not? Where did your god get his intelligence?
DW: Since you insist, I'm glad to repeat my argument. If there is no God , then all that exists is time and chance acting on matter. If this is true then the difference between your thoughts and mine correspond to the difference between shaking up a bottle of Mountain Dew and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. You simply fizz atheistically and I fizz theistically. This means that you do not hold to atheism because it is true , but rather because of a series of chemical reactions. Thus, your atheism destroys rationality and morality. Intellectual and moral relativism have long challenged atheistic worldviews. No atheist has successfully addressed this problem, although you are invited to try.
FT: If I fizzed "flat-earthly," and you fizzed "round-earthly," would you argue that you don't hold your view because it's true but "rather because of a series of chemical reactions"? Would your "round-earthism" then destroy rationality and science? There is a truth in the theism-atheism controversy. The fact that no one can establish that truth to everyone's satisfaction doesn't mean the truth doesn't exist. So I'll repeat my challenge. What IQ level is necessary to abstract moral concepts? To discover moral truths? Let's take the Amalekite massacre (1 Sam. 15:2-3). How much intelligence is needed to determine that no morally perfect entity could have ordered the slaughter of children and babies?
DW: "There is truth in the theism-atheism controversy." Amen. You are able to say so because you assume that truth is objective. Again, you bet. But objective truth cannot be validly derived from the premises of your worldview. You are borrowing objective rationality and morality from the Christian worldview in order to attack the rationality and morality of the Christian worldview. There was a moral problem in the Amalekite attack -- Saul was disobedient and didn't kill everything as God instructed. You should have no objection. Given your worldview, there is no moral difference between the Amalekite massacre and a day at the beach. In both cases, all you have is atoms banging around.
FT: If the Amalekite children who were killed with Israelite spears could speak, would they say there was any difference in what happened to them and a day at the beach? You know they would. What IQ level would they need to distinguish the difference? You have evaded the issue long enough, so why don't you tell us how much intelligence is needed to formulate abstractions of beauty, loyalty, justice, etc.? Without a god of beauty, can one validly determine that a sunset is beautiful? If so, why can't one determine that acts are immoral without a god of morality? Truth is objective because of reality, not because some deity arbitrarily decides what truth is.
DW: Well of course, you and the Amalekite children may assert some objective moral distinction between good and evil. But given the basic assumptions of your worldview, neither of you can justify that distinction. On your assumptions , the chance collection of atoms called Jews objected to the Holocaust; the random atoms called Nazis did not. And so what? Given atheism, what is the difference? Do the good atoms wear white hats? Your persevering but irrelevant inquiries about intelligence reveal that you do not yet understand the nature of the problem. Objective and universal standards of reason, morality, and beauty simply cannot exist in your purely material world. You are fighting Christianity with borrowed Christian weapons.
FT: When have I said that "objective morality" exists? It doesn't. To say that objective morality doesn't exist, however, is not to say that morality doesn't exist. Rational processes can validly distinguish "good" from "evil" just as they can validly distinguish happiness from sorrow, but I can't explain in 115 words how this can be done. If you care to debate this in a less confining forum than your "Disputatio" format, then let's do it. Meanwhile, why don't you explain where your objective morality came from? If you say, "From God," then please explain where he came from. No theist has successfully addressed this problem, but you're invited to try. Try to remember that you're the asserter.
DW: If morality is not objective, then it is subjective. If it is subjective, then it is as diverse as five billion subjective states of mind. Such fragmented subjectivity provides no authoritative ethical voice, and hence no morality deserving of the name. Related to this, you must now disclaim "objective rationality" as well as "objective morality," for the two are built on the same foundation -- or rather, in your worldview, not built on the same non-foundation. But if objective rationality does not exist, then your worldview does not permit you to reason for three words in a row, much less 115. The laws of logic are as nonmaterial as the God you so diligently oppose.
FT: Are you arguing that subjectivism cannot determine truth? If so, reality will not support your claim. You keep harping about my worldview, so please address the many problems in your "worldview." Where did "objective" reality come from? From God? Well, where did he come from? How can one determine what "objective" morality is? From the Bible? If so, a lot of subjectivism will be involved in reading and interpreting it. Looking for "objective" morality in the Bible will produce a morality "as diverse as 5 billion subjective states of mind." If not, why not? "Such fragmented subjectivity" will provide "no authoritative ethical voice" and so "no morality deserving of the name." Please address this issue.
DW: Reality doesn't support my claim? Would this be your reality or mine? Would this be subjective or objective reality? If subjective, then I don't think ice cream has bones either. If objective, then you would have to identify (and defend) the authoritative voice through which this reality speaks. Of course, I am arguing (and have shown) that subjectivism destroys truth. The fact that you have in effect embraced subjectivism means that the debate over the existence of God is over, and we are now discussing certain problems that arise from an affirmation of His existence. Having shown that atheism is inescapably false, I am happy to turn to the problems you raise. Next round.
FT: You've been a master of evasion. You assert the existence of "objective" morality, but you have evaded all challenges to prove that it exists. Nothing exists -- not even your god -- simply because it would be nice if it did exist. In your final installment, please address this issue. How do you know that "objective" morality exists? Where did it originate? If you say from God, please prove that God exists. If "objective" morality is revealed in the Bible, it becomes something inseparable from subjective interpretation, so just what is the great advantage that your "worldview" has over mine? If you ignore this issue again, I'm afraid your evasion will be obvious to all.
DW: The proof you seek has been pervasive throughout the debate. I have been pointing to the impossibility of your alternative. The debate over God's existence does not fit in the same category as a debate over the existence of peach jam. The jam may or may not exist, leaving our thought processes unaffected either way. If God does not exist (as this alleged "master of evasion" has pointed out repeatedly above), then our thought processes (yours and mine) are one thing. If He does exist, then they are something else entirely. The content of your affirmations has been atheistic, your unacknowledged presuppositions theistic. This means that, on a fundamental level, you and I agree that He is.
Originally appeared in Credenda/Agenda (Vol. 7; No. 1)
Online Reading List
- An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish by Bertrand Russell (1943)
- Bible Teaching and Religious Practice by Mark Twain
- God is Imaginary
- Is there an Artificial God? by Douglas Adams (1998)
- Skeptics Annotated Bible
- The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine (1795)
- Which Way? by Robert Ingersoll (1884).
- Why I Am Not A Christian by Bertrand Russell (1927)