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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

[This is the second part of a series on Richard Carrier's attempted rebuttal of J.P. Moreland's argument on Morality found in his book Scaling the Secular City. Carrier's original essay can be found here and the first part of this series can be found here.]

So, what is it that Carrier does that refutes Moreland's argument? To begin with, he doesn’t claim that there is a firm philosophical foundation for morals in the atheistic world view. Instead, he pulls a form of tu quoque, i.e., he argues that while atheism doesn’t have a foundational basis, neither does Christianity. He does this by attaching onto a statement by Moreland concerning the basis for Christian theism's alleged superior philosophical foundation for acting morally, and tries to show that it is no better than atheism's views.

Moreland’s Argument that Carrier Attacks

In attacking Moreland’s view, Carrier picks one line out of a paragraph that sets forth in a rather concise way the Christian viewpoint on the basis for morality. By pulling only one sentence out of the paragraph, Carrier removes the statement from its context making its claims less substantial than the view actually stated in Moreland’s book. In fairness to Carrier, I know as a writer that space-constraints and the desire to not make an essay overly lengthy sometimes forces limitations on quotes from an adversary. However, it seems rather inappropriate to pull the quote out of context and they try to make it sound as if the quote has no context in the original which is what Carrier appears to do.

Here is what Moreland says, with the key sentence latched onto by Carrier in bold:

According to Christian theism, the cosmos exists to glorify God and to promote the good of God's creatures, especially man. Human history has a purpose and can be seen as a struggle between good and evil, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness, which moves toward the vindication of God, justice, righteousness, and the reward of those who have trusted Christ and lived in accord with the dictates of morality (which come from God). Humans are creations of God, they have value in that they bear his image, they are objects of God's love and affection, and there is life after death. Values exist, they come from God, they can be known through intuition in the natural law and through inspection of Holy Scripture. My motive for being moral should be because I love God, I recognize him as my creator, I want to do what is right for its own sake, and I desire my own welfare in this life and the life to come. I am rationally justified in adopting the moral point of view because it is morally right to do so and because God guarantees that he will reward and honor me if I obey him."

Moreland, Ibid, p. 128.

Carrier decides to take on Moreland's argument by focusing on the highlighted portion tackling each of the four reason listed one at a time beginning with the idea that one reason to act morally is because I love God. In placing his reliance in the idea that the Christian position suffers the same epistemological defect as the atheist position, the burden lies on Carrier to show that the Christian position is groundless. Thus, if any of the four items listed in the sentence that Carrier attacks supports the idea that we ought to act morally towards our neighbors, his argument falls apart. Since his argument fails to effectively rebut the idea that Christians should act morally toward our neighbors because we should love God, it is my position that his argument fails on the very first point.

However, it seems to me to be important to clarify what Moreland said in more detail so that the failures of Carrier's argument can be more easily identified.

Moreland Doesn’t Say Why We Should First Love God
When Moreland says "My motive for being moral should be because I love God," he doesn’t state why we should love God. He simply sets forth the statement that Christians Love God as a basis for the Christian’s moral acts towards others. There are, in fact, several reasons in Christian theology for loving God, and Carrier recognizes two of them in his discussion: (1) because God first loved us, and (2) because God's character is such that we should love Him. Either one of these reasons is sufficient to support the idea that we should love God and therefore love our fellow-human beings.

The Biblical Mandate is to Love God First and Loving Our Neighbor Follows From That First Love
First, the idea that we are to love God and that such love leads us to love other people is decidedly Biblical. Consider Mark 12:28-31:

One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, "What commandment is the foremost of all?"

Jesus answered, "The foremost is, 'Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."

The scribe said to Him, "Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is one, and there is no one else besides Him; and to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as himself, is much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."

Consider also John 21:15-17:

So when they had finished breakfast, Jesus *said to Simon Peter, "Simon, {son} of John, do you love Me more than these?" He *said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He *said to him, "Tend My lambs."

He *said to him again a second time, "Simon, {son} of John, do you love Me?" He *said to Him, "Yes, Lord; You know that I love You." He *said to him, "Shepherd My sheep."

He *said to him the third time, "Simon, {son} of John, do you love Me?" Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, "Do you love Me?" And he said to Him, "Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You." Jesus *said to him, "Tend My sheep.”

Taken together with other verses found throughout scripture about love, we learn that a central message of Christianity is that we are to first love God, and loving God means following his commandments. One of those commandments is to love our neighbors as ourselves -- acting wholly selfless in our relationships with others.

Carrier’s Argument

I set forth the entire paragraph because I think that the sentence has to be understood in the context in which it is stated to gather the full extent of the argument that Moreland makes. Understanding that, here is Carrier's take on this first reason stated by Moreland (I have taken the liberty of numbering the paragraphs RC1 through RC4 for reference purposes):

RC1: First, he offers "because I love God" as the first reason Christians have to be moral. But this only begs the question, "Why love God?" Secular humanists suffer from the same objection, since it could easily be asked, "Why love humankind?" However, this only proves that the Christian and the secular humanist are on the same footing here. The Christian can offer no better reason to love God than the humanist can offer to love humankind. In both cases, it is ultimately a matter of a nonrational commitment to love.

RC2: On the one hand, it can be argued that we should love God because he loves us (while humankind doesn't). However, it does not necessarily follow that we should love those who love us, as in the case of the battered wife whose husband loves her but beats her to death anyway. And though one might say that true love is proven by acts of love, and that therefore a wife-beater does not really love his wife, this argument would also go to prove that god does not love us, since he also "beats us to death anyway," as the horrifying treatment that millions of people receive at the hands of Mother Nature adequately demonstrates.

RC3: On the other hand, it does not follow that we should not love someone simply because they do not love us. Love for us (or acts of love toward us) are not generally the conditions we set for loving someone. Rather, we often choose whom to love based on certain qualities they possess apart from how they feel or act toward us, and we certainly love many things that are not even people, such as our country or our profession. I love my wife because of who she is and what she is. I love America because of what it represents and what it has accomplished. My reasons for loving humanity are similar. Naturally, with regard to God, it cannot even be proven that God exists, much less what his qualities are. It is easy to describe a god worth loving, but it is something else to prove that such a thing actually exists, and an atheist generally feels there is adequate proof that a genuinely benevolent god does not exist. But proving this would be an irrelevant digression here. For even if a benevolent god did exist, we would love him not for what he does for us, but for his character and quality.

RC4: Ultimately, the fact remains that secular humanists, by the very definition of 'humanist', love humankind -- whatever their reasons -- and this therefore stands as a reason to be moral equally as strong as the Christian's "love for God." One may even say that the secular humanist is on stronger ground here: for the love of God can lead to acts of immorality toward mankind, as exemplified by Abraham's willingness to murder his own son because of his love for God, whereas love for mankind would only produce moral acts toward mankind -- whether God were good or evil, or real or not. This is one of the fundamental and irreconcilable differences between the values of Christian theism and secular humanism: as a secular humanist, I see Abraham's action as thoroughly immoral. A moral response in that situation would be to rebuke God, since the very act of asking Abraham to kill his son merely to prove his own faith would in itself prove that god was evil, a tyrant, and god's standing as the supreme creator would not change the fact that his character was reprehensible.

I think this attack fails to damage Moreland's point in any significant way when Moreland's view is taken in context for several reasons. I will analyze Carrier’s arguments in the next installment.

5 comments:

This is excellent, BK, and I appreciate your bringing it to our attention.

At the risk of anticipating some of what you're planning to say next, I note this about Carrier's arguments:

1) The husband who loves his wife "but beats her to death anyway" is a ridiculous analogue to God or even to any kind of loving person.

2) Carrier tries to make the analogy work anyway, in terms of the "horrifiying treatment that millions of people receive at the hands of Mother Nature." This begs a whole host of questions regarding evil in the world. Suffice it to say that Carrier ought to at least address the Christian answers to those questions. Or if he didn't care to do that, he could have saved a lot of time by just saying, "The reason Moreland is wrong is because he's wrong."

3) RC3 is a great support for Moreland's argument, for those who believe God exists. That is, it takes the question away from "why should we love God." Those of us who know God don't love him just because we should but because we see his great excellence.

Carrier doesn't believe in God and it really bothers him that we might love him without proof that God exists. Oh well. He's mixing up his arguments here, in fact. Moreland uses the moral argument in favor of the belief that God exists; Carrier seems to think that Moreland should have proved God exists first, before he could he use that argument to prove God exists.

4) RC4 would provide a basis for ethics in love of humanity if there were any coherent, agreed statement as to what that actually means. (His dismissal of the Abraham act is equally as question-begging as the matter of evil mentioned above.)

BK wrote:

"So, what is it that Carrier does that refutes Moreland's argument? To begin with, he doesn’t claim that there is a firm philosophical foundation for morals in the atheistic world view."


I think that this paragraph supports a firm foundation for morals -- it's biological.



Secular humanists have still another reason to be moral, which I personally take to be the most compelling in my own life, and it should be no less compelling to Christians. We naturally hate those who lie, cheat, murder, and steal; we hate those who are intolerant or insolent or malevolent in some way. This is simply a natural emotion arising from the human constitution. After all, such people represent a threat to our own survival and well being, as well as to that of our family, friends, and all those whom we care about, and this includes not just people, but ideals and institutions. But this hatred is felt not merely for those who threaten us or our loved ones -- it is felt for anyone who embodies malevolence. For we react this way even to fictional characters who can never harm anyone in the real world. The very idea of villainy is repugnant to us. Even the real villains among us try to paint themselves as heroes, more I believe to deceive themselves than to deceive others. People who actually want to be evil, as opposed to those who are evil but want to believe they are good, are not only rare, they can also be called monsters, for whom no argument of any kind could ever persuade them to become truly good -- even if God himself rebuked them. In the very same manner, we love those who are benevolent, honest, or otherwise virtuous -- fictional or not.
Because of this natural moral sentiment, whether inborn or learned (or both), whenever we act like those we hate, we will be faced with a psychological dilemma. We will be forced, on some level of our being, to hate ourselves. Even if we try to take steps to hide from this fact, as I believe most villains in the world do, we cannot avoid deeper psychological ramifications. Self-hatred, self-defeating hypocrisy, perpetual dissatisfaction with the world and ourselves, even outright madness will creep upon us, as history and personal experience shows. And once we have seen the truth about ourselves, even the option to hide from it no longer exists. Our self-loathing will then become direct and profound. It is those who have achieved this state of mind who truly know what it means to ask others how they can sleep at night, or how they can live with themselves, after doing something personally loathsome.

Tom G,

Thanks. You have excellent insight into what I am thinking, but I suspect that's because you're being logical and the answers are fairly obvious if you have that ability to see through the fluff. (I know you do -- your blog is one of my favorites. Keep up the great work!)

Bruce,

I certainly appreciate the time and thought you must have put into your system of morality, and there is a certain surface appeal to your viewpoint. For example, we both agree that lying, cheating, murdering stealing, intolerance and malevolence are wrong, and this instinctive agreement gives credibility to your viewpoint. (I’m not so sure that insolence rises to the same level, but I am certainly happy that you believe it is wrong to be impertinent.) The fact that we share these beliefs show that while we disagree on many things, we both agree that intentionally harming those with whom we disagree by word or deed is immoral.

However, to say that we’re in agreement on the end result of your system is not the same as saying that we’re in agreement as to how you got there. It is similar to the fact that we both know that the dinosaurs went extinct many millions of years ago, and speculating about the cause of their extinction. If you believe the extinction was caused by a meteor impact, and I believe it was caused by global cooling unrelated to such an impact, then the fact that we are in agreement to the fact that things ended doesn’t mean we’re equally correct in explaining how we arrived at that end.

Your proposal deserves more attention then I can give it in the comments, and so I will address it in a new post after I finish my Carrier series.

Thanks for the input, and I will look forward to seeing your response to what I have to say about your system (probably next week).

Thanks for the reply, BK.

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