CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A few days ago I came across a fascinating blog post by a prominent atheist blogger, Leah Libresco...except that it was a post announcing her conversion to Christianity and specifically Catholicism (HT: Stephen Bedard).

This conversion account is worth noting for several reasons. For one thing, it was motivated entirely by intellectual concerns, as is clear from Libresco's About page on her blog. She has been contemplating Christian and other truth claims for a long time, taking them with the seriousness they deserve and with a clear-sighted acknowledgment of their evidentiary force, which is such a refreshing alternative to the usual ignorance and laziness one encounters among atheists, who should look to Libresco as a model for the homework they have to do in order for their atheism to be even remotely rationally respectable. Her testimony shows conclusively that people do not convert to Christianity only for psychological reasons, atheist slanders to the contrary (and which sadly were all too quick to emerge in the comments section of her conversion post).

Secondly, her account is interesting because it demonstrates the force of the moral argument, which I and other CADRE members have been devoting quite a bit of attention to recently (see for example this and this). Specifically, even as an atheist Libresco was convinced that morality had to be objective somehow. As she notes in an early post:

With regard to morality, I am in the same situation I might have been in before the eye was better understood. I receive certain sense perceptions which, instead of being ordered with regard to color and hue, are organized according to right and wrong. I can no more explain how I perceive these than I can explain exactly how I parse electrical signals, but, in my day to day life, these questions are not critical. I do know that I am at least as certain that my moral perceptions are meaningful and correspond to truth as I am certain that my visual perceptions do as well. In fact, I would go farther and say that I am as certain that my moral sense is attuned to something as real and urgent as the existence of physical matter.
The conviction that moral judgments are not mere expressions of personal taste or even collective societal preference but rather are perceptions of some kind of fact is extremely hard to dislodge, as even an error theorist like J.L. Mackie admitted, and very hard to explain away. In our time probably the best attempt to do so comes from evolutionary psychology, which claims that a propensity to believe that objective moral standards exist was a good survival strategy, and was thus selected for in our evolutionary past. But Libresco also came to see that even that attempt is not really successful. After all, it is often a good survival strategy to accurately perceive objective features of our environment! 

It seems that over the past few years Libresco had been searching for a way to make moral realism compatible with atheism, but was understandably disappointed. Over time she became increasingly drawn to virtue ethics and was nonplussed to discover that the moral philosophers who seemed to be most helpful in illuminating the moral landscape (such as Alaisdar McIntyre) had ended up 'taking a tumble in the Tiber' (i.e. converting to Catholicism). Her friends frequently noted that her world-view seemed inconsistent, that she had started quoting Christian authors like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis more and more frequently, and that she might as well just convert already!

Things all came to a head on March 31, 2012, when she was having an argument with a Christian friend of hers, who challenged her to finally produce her own explanation of moral realism and how human beings have access to moral knowledge. It seems at the time she fell back on a broadly Platonic account, in which moral facts were a part of the Form of the Good. The problem was that she conceived of this Form as existing on a plane remote from that of human, everyday reality, and she could not account for the connection between this Form and our material world:
I could hypothesize how a Forms-material world link would work in the case of mathematics (a little long and off topic for this post, but pretty much the canonical idea of recognizing Two-ness as the quality that’s shared by two chairs and two houses, etc. Once you get the natural numbers, the rest of mathematics is in your grasp). But I didn’t have an analogue for how humans got bootstrap up to get even a partial understanding of objective moral law.
Her friend kept pressing her to account for human access to objective morality, and she came to the inevitable, shocking conclusion:
I guess Morality just loves me or something.
And of course, it's all downhill (or rather, uphill) from there:
I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth. And there was one religion that seemed like the most promising way to reach back to that living Truth. I asked my friend what he suggest we do now, and we prayed the night office of the Liturgy of the Hours together (I’ve kept up with that since). Then I suggested hugs and playing Mumford and Sons really, really loudly.
I must confess that this account has been very encouraging to me personally, and should be encouraging to all Christians who approach the faith intellectually rather than emotionally or existentially. I highly recommend reading through Libresco's blog, as she has a wonderfully keen and open mind and writes perceptively on all sorts of fascinating, 'big question' issues. See also this recent interview she gave:

Of course people from all perspectives will have all sorts of questions about this. Putting aside disagreements which would obviously arise much earlier in her chain of reasoning (i.e. whether morality is objective in the first place), probably the most interesting question is what led her specifically to Catholicism, above and beyond her 'mere Christianity'. Personally I see the appeal, and I have found Catholic thinkers and writers, such as Augustine and Chesterton, as well as Catholic prayers and liturgies to be stimulating and moving, but I know that some CADRE members (as well as other apologetics bloggers I could think of) will have reason to be dissatisfied with where she ended up within the broader umbrella of Christianity. But she herself acknowledges that her journey is just beginning, so I hope that for now we can all simply rejoice that God has shone the light of truth into her heart, redeeming her from the incoherence and nihilism of atheism. 

Common misconceptions about the statement “Objective morality cannot be grounded without a transcendent reality”

The idea of morality finding no 'grounding' without a transcendent reality (i.e. a reality that is more than just the natural, physical world, such as that which is postulated by theism) depends on what 'grounding' refers to. Defining it correctly changes the meaning of the statement drastically; I suggest that 'grounded' could be defined as 'made objectively true'. 'Objectively true' then refers to the idea that to say something like 'racism is wrong' is to make a statement about reality, which can be considered either 'true' or 'false' for all times and places, independent of what any contingent, physical mind believes about the matter. To say a moral maxim such as 'racism is wrong' is 'objectively true', is to say that it is true in the same way that the statement 'the moon exists' is true.

The statement above is frequently misunderstood. To clarify it, we shall explore some misconceptions about the idea; below are a few responses to these misconceptions about the meaning of the idea that truly objective morality cannot be grounded in a naturalistic worldview, which is one that denies the existence of a transcendent reality and hence any value independent of intelligent, physical minds. Looking at such misconceptions should help focus what the statement actually is referring to.

In short, this statement argues that, if morality is 'objective', this requires the existence of a reality that transcends physical reality, since physical reality itself is by nature indifferent about matters of morality. As has been observed from the time of Hume, one cannot arbitrarily move from a factual 'is' statement about an indifferent aspect of reality (such as the colour of a rock) to a prescriptive 'ought' statement pertaining to what a person 'ought' to do in a given situation. This is especially the case if we insist, as part of the definition of 'objectivity' (as has been done above), that such a statement must be independent of all human minds (or minds of any other species, for that matter). In other words, morality cannot be truly objective if this physical world is all there is.

The statement: “Objective morality cannot be grounded without a transcendent reality”

Misconception #1: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot be moral.”

This is certainly not what this statement claims; non-theists certainly can, and do, perform countless highly virtuous, loving and compassionate acts. The statement is arguing philosophically about the nature of ethics itself (meta-ethics), and what this nature implies about reality itself. It is not judging the actual morality of any individual or any group of people; in fact, this is totally irrelevant to the statement.

Misconception #2: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot be motivated to be moral”

Again, this is not what the statement claims. In a psychological sense, there are plenty of legitimate motivations for a non-theist individual to perform kind, compassionate and loving acts, as would be expected if the Christian conception of the creation of humankind in God's image is accurate. The statement is referring to the nature of ethics itself, not about psychology or motivation. It is not judging any person or group of people on their motivations or intentions.

Misconception #3: “This statement is arguing that a non-theist cannot know what is moral”

This misconception assumes that 'grounding' refers to 'knowledge of moral values', where, again, this is not the claim of the statement. 'Grounding' refers to the nature of moral values themselves, how they are 'grounded' in reality (how they relate to reality, and in what sense they 'exist') not how we know what these moral values are. There is no denial that a non-theist can know what is moral and immoral to a full extent. Indeed, this would be expected on the Christian worldview. It is not a question of epistemology (knowing), but of ontology (existing, being).

See more >>

This is a bit of an in-house dispute among trinitarian theologians. But I don't much appreciate being lumped in with people who deny the transcendent omni-capable final reality of God as God, by a fellow trinitarian who appeals to concepts of impersonal classic theisms in order to defend his notion of the not-impersonal (??) theism of the Trinity of Persons from critiques that could only possibly have weight if God was in any way relevantly personal.

I know, that's... kind of spaghetti-ish. Sorry. If your eyes aren't crossing yet, and you dare to jump into 8-1/2 pages of some hardcore metaphysics, click here. Don't say I didn't warn you! {g}

(Note: my original article title was inaccurate as to the position discussed, so I've changed it. The original title was "Is Trinitarian Theism Necessarily More Improbable Than Basic Theism?" The gist of the article was always disputing the notion that trinitarian theism must necessarily be no more probable than basic theism, however, i.e. necessarily as-or-less probable.)

Our friend David Marshall, author of several books on Christian cultural apologetics, writing at his blog Christ The Tao, has recently been responding to the "20+ Questions For Theists" asked by naturalistic atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder (another longtime correspondent of mine, from back in the days before weblogs) as part of Jeff's "Evidential Arguments For Naturalism" series at the Secular Outpost (i.e. Internet Infidels) blog.

(Whew, that was kind of a long provenance trail. Sorry.)

Since I don't already have enough large projects I'm working on, naturally I'm thinking of also working up another series to analyze his arguments (unless another Cadrist beats me to it perhaps). This is probably evidence of me being crazy, but what the hell. {g} Jeff has always been a fine opponent and I'd be glad to work with him again.

Anyway, while commenting on David's post, Jeff wrote this:

"Since Christian theism entails theism, it cannot be more probable than (generic) theism. If B entails A and A is improbable, then B or any other set of beliefs which entail A are necessarily improbable."

My immediate reply was, and is, that this seems like saying neo-Darwinian gradualism entails biological evolutionary theory, so it cannot be more probable than generic b.e.t (and maybe less so, proportionate to the number of details thanks to multiplication of probabilities).

I know there are some opponents of biological evolutionary theory (usually theists) who go this route, but I'm pretty sure proponents of the neo-Darwinian synthesis don't accept that as a principle reply. I'm also sure they have good reasons not to do so! (My own technical difficulties with neo-Darwinian gradualism aren't quite that sort.) Is this a sauce for geese and ganders situation?--if so, does it count in both directions?--if not, why not?

Eleven pages of discussion after the jump!

Hey, remember the movie about the merely human Christ that pop-culture super-violent artistic director Paul Verhoeven (voting member of the more-or-less defunct Jesus Seminar) has been trying to get off the ground for the past 20 years or so?

It has a screenwriter now. (Also it finally has financial backing, which is rather more important than a screenwriter.)

No doubt this will provide everyone with an opportunity for yet another refresher course on lonnnng-outdated naturalistic Jesus theories (Mary was raped by a Roman soldier!!), but... well... remember that book he wrote after 20 years of research that he released a couple of Easter seasons ago (April 2010) and the important and relevant and dangerous and edgy controversy it stirred up that everyone thought they ought to try to answer or get on the bandwagon with?

No? Well, the reason you don't remember the firestorm of controversy isn't because the book didn't come out. Because it totally did. There was even a Kindle edition last year, just in time for the pre-Christmas rush. (At least he finally settled on enough of a particular revisionist theory to say something kind-of solid about.)

Is it anything really new? Absolutely not; it's clearly warmed-over JSem (and warmed-over Bultmann for that matter). PV removes whatever he feels unworthy of Jesus out of the texts in order to present the "complete man" instead. That isn't my dismissive speculation; that's practically what he says in interviews and how his book has been officially marketed. It also happens (by entirely no coincidence whatever) to be such a standard operating procedure for Jesus Seminar-ians that the stereotype has become dull.

People aren't as interested in the novelty of scissoring up the texts on shaky historical-critical grounds to find a more palatable Jesus as they used to be. Even the novelty value of doing so has worn out. So the movie has to be marketed on what scurrilous rumor-mongering shock value he can attempt to attach to it, namely the old Pantera myth. Oh noes, some Christian out of the hundreds of millions of us in Europe and North America may shoot him for it!--whatever shall he do?! But he must bravely soldier on against the odds of such irrational dangerous opposition to him, despite warnings for his safety from concerned friends and colleagues.

I guess it worked enough for me to write a wry journal post about it anyway, hm? Can't say I'm not doing my part to promote his attempt! {g}

It's kind of sad when the news isn't that we have something to not really panic about, but that (after whole decades of publicly hashing out these topics repeatedly in waves) a famous director has trouble ginning up enough interest, even by controversy, to rate his attempt as being worth mentioning.

Been there; done that; threw up; got the t-shirts; threw up on the t-shirts; washed the t-shirts; t-shirts getting worn out now from multiple washings and from our growing older; time to move them on to Goodwill.

But hey, if he manages to give more conservative and careful scholars a real opportunity to chew it all up again, and to demonstrate what the results are from more valid and nuanced and detailed historical and narrative criticism, so be it.

You go, PV!

In a recent post on his blog P.Z. Myers insists that he makes moral decisions on the basis of an objective morality, and helpfully lays out the principles he uses in making those decisions. He emphatically denies that he rejects torture of toddlers (or anyone else) because he "thinks it is icky." Unfortunately, he does not succeed in demonstrating the feasibility of an "objective humanist morality" (as he describes it), and key supports in the foundation for that morality are missing. What's more, applying his principles consistently and with due regard for differences in people's inclinations and intuitions due to differences in upbringing would result in a truly nightmarish moral 'order', the very nihilism he is so concerned to distance himself and fellow secularists from.

The first factor Myers takes into account when making moral decisions is interest:
Am I even interested in carrying out a particular action? There’s a wide range of possible actions I can take at all times, and all of them have consequences. In this realm of possibilities, most options never come up: I have never been in a situation where I desire or am compelled to torture a toddler, nor can I imagine a likely scenario for such an activity. It is a non-decision; my default choice is to not torture, and the only time the choice comes up is in bizarre abstract questions by not-very-bright philosophers.
It doesn't bode well for the construction of an objective morality that your first criterion is subjective to the core. Whether or not P.Z. Myers would ever be in a position to desire or feel compelled to torture a toddler is an interesting fact about P.Z. Myers, but not about the rightness or wrongness of the act itself. And what if a person's upbringing and choices have resulted in a character for which torturing a toddler is a live option? Military history shows that it clearly has been, for many people throughout history. Would Myers advise them to indulge that desire?

Thankfully, interest is not the only criterion Myers uses to make moral decisions. The second concerns consent:
If I’m contemplating an action, I’d next consider whether all participants agree to engage in the action. If it isn’t consensual, it probably isn’t a good idea. Where does this value come from? Not gods, but self-interest. I do not want things done to me against my will, so I participate in a social contract that requires me to respect others’ autonomy as well. I also find a non-coercive, cooperative culture to better facilitate human flourishing.
I'm starting to think Myers doesn't know the definition of 'objective', because he presents us with another criterion that is fundamentally subjective. It starts out promisingly enough: people should not generally be compelled to do things against their will (Myers acknowledges some legitimate exceptions, such as vaccinating children against their will). A true moral objectivist would justify this principle by appealing to the intrinsic worth of human beings as rational, moral agents (Christian theists would add 'made in the image of God'). But the only justification Myers can appeal to is his own self-interest. He doesn't want things done to him against his will. Again, that's an interesting tidbit about P.Z. Myers, but not about the rightness or wrongness of compelling people to do things against their will. Myers also does not justify the  need for a social contract that requires him to respect others' autonomy. Why not have a social 'contract' where Myers is absolute ruler and everyone else is under compulsion except him (a horrific notion, to be sure)? The tyrants throughout history surely did not like things done to them against their will, but that aversion did not lead them to endorse a social contract respecting others' autonomy. That social contract can only be justified by a worldview which acknowledges the intrinsic, objective worth of human beings, something Myers cannot do because atheistic naturalism has no ontological space for objective worth.

Myers' third criterion concerns harm:
I avoid behaviors that cause harm to others. Again, this is not done because an authority told me to do no harm, but is derived from self-interest and empathy. I do not want to be harmed, so I should not harm others. And because I, like most human beings, have empathy, seeing harm done to others causes me genuine distress.
We encounter the same two problems with respect to this criterion as we did with the others. First of all, there is no inference from 'I do not want to be harmed' to 'I should not harm others'. The first statement is a psychological fact about a person, the second is a normative principle. How does not wanting to be harmed translate into an imperative not to harm others? A mob boss does not want to be harmed but has no scruples about harming others who get in his way. The only way for such a principle to be objectively binding would be for that principle to be built into the nature of things, as much an aspect of the way the world is as the value of the gravitational constant. But again, there is no room in Myers' worldview for moral facts. On his worldview, the facts that he does not wish to be harmed and experiences distress when others are harmed are interesting psychological tidbits but do not provide any objective basis for moral action, and the distress he experiences when others are harmed is not fundamentally different from his aversion to brussels sprouts, if he has such an aversion. The only world in which empathy is morally significant is one in which there is an objective moral order, which makes certain emotional responses either appropriate or inappropriate to a given situation. As it stands, this third criterion is every bit as subjective as the others, and if we do not take for granted Myers' particular set of inclinations and aversions, which resulted in large measure from having grown up in a culture still haunted by Christian values, application of these criteria would result in a very different, and very horrific, social order.

The final criterion is stigma:
This should be the least of my four reasons, but face it, sometimes we are constrained by convention. There are activities we all are interested in doing, that do no harm and may be done with consenting partners, but we keep them private or restrain ourselves to some degree because law or fashion demand it.
How Myers can even pretend this a moral principle is beyond me. Regardless of the extent to which we are in fact motivated by stigma in making decisions, it should be obvious that no legitimate moral decision could be made on the basis of social stigma.

It's a point that must be made over and over again (most recently see my link to William Lane Craig's comment on this): the difficulty secularists have with morality is not (necessarily) their inability to attain moral knowledge or act morally. It is the inescapable fact that, since any secularist worldview worthy of the name has a non-teleological understanding of nature (at bottom the universe is nothing but particles or fields interacting blindly according to mechanistic laws), there is no room in that ontology for the kinds of properties and facts that provide the only possible foundation for moral realism. The most consistent, clear-sighted atheists have always acknowledged this, as well as the nihilistic implications for ethics. For example, Joel Marks recently wrote a NY Times editorial piece called Confessions of an Ex-moralist, in which he recounts his de-conversion, not only from belief in God from belief in objective morality:

This would seem to be the modern, sane view of the matter: We have an intuitive sense of right and wrong that trumps even the commands of God. We have the ability to judge that God is good or bad. Therefore, even if God did not exist, we could fend for ourselves in matters of conscience. Ethics, not divine revelation, is the guide to life. That is indeed the clarion call of the “new atheists.” As the philosopher Louise Antony puts it in the introduction to a recent collection of philosophers’ essays, Philosophers without Gods: Secular Life in a Religious World: “Another charge routinely leveled at atheists is that we have no moral values. The essays in this volume should serve to roundly refute this. Every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong.” 
But I don’t. Not any longer...A friend had been explaining to me the nature of her belief in God. At one point she likened divinity to the beauty of a sunset: the quality lay not in the sunset but in her relation to the sunset. I thought to myself: “Ah, if that is what she means, then I could believe in that kind of God. For when I think about the universe, I am filled with awe and wonder; if that feeling is God, then I am a believer.” 
But then it hit me: is not morality like this God? In other words, could I believe that, say, the wrongness of a lie was any more intrinsic to an intentionally deceptive utterance than beauty was to a sunset or wonderfulness to the universe? Does it not make far more sense to suppose that all of these phenomena arise in my breast, that they are the responses of a particular sensibility to otherwise valueless events and entities?
So someone else might respond completely differently from me, such that for him or her, the lie was permissible, the sunset banal, the universe nothing but atoms and the void. Yet that prospect was so alien to my conception of morality that it was tantamount to there being no morality at all. For essential to morality is that its norms apply with equal legitimacy to everyone; moral relativism, it has always seemed to me, is an oxymoron. Hence I saw no escape from moral nihilism...I used to think that animal agriculture was wrong. Now I will call a spade a spade and declare simply that I very much dislike it and want it to stop...I now acknowledge that I cannot count on either God or morality to back up my personal preferences or clinch the case in any argument. I am simply no longer in the business of trying to derive an ought from an is. I must accept that other people sometimes have opposed preferences, even when we are agreed on all the relevant facts and are reasoning correctly... 
...My outlook has therefore become more practical: I desire to influence the world in such a way that my desires have a greater likelihood of being realized.
This is what secularist morality inevitably reduces to: the attempt to influence the world in such a way that a person's desires have a greater likelihood of being realized. Moral statements are reduced to mere rhetorical tools to try to get people to act in ways aligning with our desires. As another secular commentator has admitted:
If you ask on what grounds do I accuse rapists of having done wrong, then the authentic answer is that a world with rape displeases me and this is a tool I can use to get society to impose sanctions against it.
This, of course, is nothing short of moral nihilism. It doesn't matter that many Westerners' desires mostly align with what we consider 'enlightened', like an aversion to rape. The nightmare is that morality has been reduced to a pure will to power, so that moral influence becomes a matter of who is most persuasive to the greatest number of people. That didn't work out so well in Germany in the late 30s. 

It's time for secularists to come clean about the real implications of a godless universe for morality. Of course, prone to wishful thinking and cognitive dissonance as we all are, most will continue to live as if the cosmos had an objective moral order and that rightness and wrongness are properties of actions and states of affairs and are not simply another way to describe our own culturally bounded likes and dislikes. And who knows, maybe some of them will eventually realize that they can't help acting that way because things really are that way...

Use of Content

The contents of this blog may be reproduced or forwarded via e-mail without change and in its entirety for non-commercial purposes without prior permission from the Christian CADRE provided that the copyright information is included. We would appreciate notification of the use of our content. Please e-mail us at