The City Winter 2015

Thoughts on Atheism and Relativism

Stephen T. Davis

Let us stipulate that the word “God” means a unique, all- powerful, all-knowing , and loving creator of the heavens and the earth. So theists are people who believe that God exists and atheists are people who believe that God does not exist. Despite being a theist myself, I believe that atheism can be a rational position. But in this essay I will tr y to explain why I think atheism is rational but mistaken.

But first let me admit that atheism has some real advantages over theism.

  1.  If you are an atheist, you do not ever have to worry about w hat God thinks of your of what you do. This is a real advantage Atheists do not have to be ethical people if the y do not want to be. Now I am not saying that all atheists, or even atheists as a rule, are less ethical than theists. What I am saying is that theists consider that every thing the y do is under the evaluative scrutiny of a God who wants them to behave in certain ways and not in others, and that atheists never need worry about that sort of thing . Since there is no God to judge you here and now or to punish you in the afterlife, you can play golf instead of worship God if you want to. You can cheat on your income ta x or even on your spouse if you can get away with it. You do not have to help unfortunate people if you prefer not to do so.
  2.  If you are an atheist, you do not ever have t o admit that you need the help of a higher being . That is, atheists can take the attitude that it is up to them, and not God, to make it through life. They do not need the crutch of religion. Religion, they can say, is for the weak, for those who cannot make it on their own, for those who need the help of clergy, ritual,  sacred texts, and God. In short, atheists can be autonomous ; the y can run their own lives. They do not ever have to lower their self-esteem by going to God or religion for help.
  3. If you are an atheist, you can embrace any moral point of view that  you want, even moral  relativism. Theists hold, and must hold as part of their world view, that certain thing s are morally right  and other thing s  are  morally  wrong,  whatever anybody may think . We call this notion moral objectivism; it is the theory that some normative ethical statements are objectively true and others objectively  false. Moral relativism, on the other hand, is the theory that the truth or falsity of any normative ethical statement depends on what you think is morally right or wrong . Morality is relative to individuals ; if you think murder is morally rig ht then murder is morally right, but only for you. The person who thinks that murder is morally wrong is also right—for her.

My point then is that atheists are free to embrace ethical relativism if the y want. I am not saying that  all atheists are relativists ;  the point is that their worldview allows them that possibility. And the advantage here is that if you are a relativist, you can embrace any moral point of view that appeals to you. Indeed, you will be rig ht in embracing it (right for you, that is).

Notice that all three of the advantages of atheism that I just listed explicitly concern what I will call pride. The word “pride” can be used in different ways. In some senses, it is not pejorative, as for example in the sentence, “People should take pride in their work .” Here it  means something like self-respect or perhaps a legitimate sort of self-esteem arising , say, from one’s accomplishments or at least from a desire that the y be worthy of respect. But in other uses, the word does have pejorative connotations, especially where a sort of egotism or self-conceit is involved, as for example in the sentence, “Pride goes before a fall.”

Christian  theologians have often held that pride in this second sense is the orig in and root of all wrong doing . In this case, pride is held to be an arrogant assumption of superiority, a refusal to bow the knee in obedience to God. I was just saying that three advantages of atheism are that you need never worry about how God e valuates what you do, you need never admit that  you require God’s help, and you can follow whatever moral code you want. It follows, then, that those who instead set out to love and obey God are abandoning pride. The y are admitting that the y were created by God, that the y owe their existence to God, that the y must call upon God for g race, mercy, and answers to prayer, and that the y live under the moral requirement of honoring God in their lives.

What  is it  that  keeps people from God ? Obviously, some folk are atheists because the y were raised in that way by their parents. Others have known religious believers who were cruel or dishonest or hypocritical. Others are concerned about great evils historically committed by the church—its support, for example, of anti-Semitism, the oppression of women, or slaver y. In academic communities, one frequently encounters the assumption that intellectual difficulties constitute the main problem. And there is no doubt that such factors are significant. But Christianity teaches that  pride is the deepest reason for rejecting God. People do not want to admit that the y need the guidance or protection or forgiveness of God. There is even an argument against the existence of God that I think is convincing to very many people today. Let’s call it the Lifestyle Argument Against the Existence of God. It’s a simple argument, a two -step proof :

(1)     I am not living and do not want to live the kind of life that God would want me to live if God existed ;

(2)     Therefore, God does not exist.

Now the Lifestyle Argument is obviously absurdly fallacious as a piece of logic. But, in my opinion, that does not prevent people from being influenced by it.

II

But rather than tr y to reply to atheistic arguments, I am going to take a different tack . I am going to try to mount an argument in favor of belief in God. It is based upon some further thoughts about moral relativism. My argument comes in two steps. First, I will tr y to convince you that moral relativism should be rejected. Second, I will tr y to convince you that moral objectivism requires God.

So here is the first step in my argument. There is a deep incoherence in most versions of epistemological relativism. We see it most clearly in the attempt to argue that nothing is objectively true. The very claim, “Nothing is objectively true,” is certainly pushed by many relativists as if it were objectively true. Thus their theory is self-refuting , like the position of the person who says, “I am unable to speak .” And if relativists deny that the statement “Nothing is objectively true” is meant to be objectively true, i.e., if the y insist it is merely their own perspective on thing s, that immediately raises the question why those of us who think  that there are objective truths should take their idea seriously.

One contemporary  version of epistemological  relativism claims that  we all view reality through the lenses of our own particular social setting (which of course is true), and that our language,  gender, race, and class membership make objective or impartial assessment of reality impossible (which does not follow). But, again, that theory faces an obvious problem—how can we be sure that we have not been biased by our social location in marking the very claim that our social location always distorts our ability to assess reality ?

Let me now talk about moral relativism. If there are no objective values but only good and bad “for you” and good and bad “for me,” there is no rational basis for defending the ideals and accomplishments of human civilization at its best. These would be achievements like the equality of all people before the law, government as based on the consent of the people, tolerance of and civility toward those who disagree with us, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. If there are no objective values, then the only available goals are the targets of one’s own desires and the only available vehicles for convincing people are power and politics.

And here is the second step in my argument. It is to the effect that objective moral values require God. But first I want to be clear what I am not claiming . I am not denying that atheists can be morally good people. I know many who are. I am not saying that atheists cannot know what is rig ht and wrong . Of course many of them do. I am not saying that atheists cannot make moral decisions. Of course the y can. I am not saying that atheists cannot formulate a good ethical system. The y can do that.

I am saying that only if God exists is there a secure rational basis for objective rig ht  and wrong , for moral accountability, and for moral obligations.1 God’s holy and perfectly morally good nature constitutes the objective standard of rig ht  and wrong and is the source of  moral  values ;  and  God’s commands to  human  being s constitute the source of moral obligation. In the Christian faith, the essence of morality is the two -fold commandment that we (1) love the Lord our God with all our heart and mind and strength, and (2) love our neighbor as ourselves.

But if there is no God, morality is a human invention or a by- product  of biological  and  cultural  evolution, and  is  accordingly entirely  subjective and  relativistic.  Morals  are  either  expressions of personal taste  or  else devices to  help  us adapt  and  thrive  as organisms. But just so that you know that I am not making all of this up out of whole cloth, let me share with you quotations from two contemporary atheist thinkers. Max Horkheimer, a twentieth century German philosopher from the so -called Frankfort school of philosophy, wrote, “to salvage an unconditioned meaning [that is, one that stands out as an unqualified good ] without God is a futile undertaking .”2  And Kai Nielsen, the famous Canadian atheist philosopher, at the end of an essay called “ Why Should I Be Moral ?,” somewhat ruefully admits that :

We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me…Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.3

 

I agree with Nielsen. Apart from God, there is no  good reason for me to do the morally good thing in cases where I can benefit from doing the wrong thing and can do it with impunity. If morality is just a function of where the human race has evolved thus far, this seems a flimsy basis for the affirmation of such values as the worth and dig nit y of all people, their equality before the law, the need to treat people as ends in themselves and not just means to other ends, and the duty to do the moral thing even in situations where you can get away with doing what is immoral.

If I am rig ht that objective moral values and obligations only exist if God exists, then there are two choices. You can opt for atheism and some kind of evolutionary and relativistic meta-ethical theory or you can opt for theism and for objective moral values. If you are someone who thinks, for example, that torturing babies just for the fun of it is objectively morally wrong , even if there are perverted sadists who think it is okay, and even if (God forbid !) such perverted sadists became the majority, then that, I say, is a  good reason for you to believe in God.

III

Let me close with some thoughts about why I am not an atheist, i.e., why I believe in God. I will mention three reasons. First, I believe in God for the historical reason that my parents believed in God and taught me to do the same. But since many people g row up to reject opinions held by their parents, I should add the important phrase, “and I have never encountered any convincing reason to reject belief in God.”

Like everybody else, I have listened over the years to very many reasons that atheists give against God, but I have never found any of them to be convincing . There are of course serious anti-theistic arguments that theists must think about and treat carefully, but I think many of them I amount to sheer ranting or even hand waving . They  are  often  of  the  form,  “After  all,  everybody  knows  that_______” or “Of course every intelligent person today realizes that________.” Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (2006),  for example, is full of more bluster than argumentation, and when he gets to using arguments, the y are usually painfully weak .

Second, I believe in God because I have had experiences that  I naturally find myself interpreting in terms of the presence of God in my life. I have experienced what I take to be God’s protection, God’s guidance, God’s mercy, and God’s challenges. These experiences are important aspects of my life.

But both these reasons are, as we might say, subjective. Nobody else feels any need to accept what my parents taught me and nobody else has experienced my encounters with God. Accordingly, you might wonder whether I am able to give any “objective” evidence for God— an argument, perhaps. Yes, I can, although I can only briefly suggest it. I ’ll call it the genocide argument.

Let me define genocide as the crime of intentionally  destroying or  trying  to  destroy an  entire  group of people, usually  a  racial, ethnic, national, or religious group. My argument presupposes moral objectivism, i.e., the theory that  certain thing s are morally rig ht (thing s like  compassion, truth-telling , and promise-keeping )  and that certain other thing s (thing s like lying , cruelty, and murder) are morally wrong . It also assumes that genocide is one of the thing s that is morally wrong . Here is how the argument goes :

  1.  Genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be.
  1. If genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be, then there is a way that things ought to be.
  2.  If there is a way that things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things.
  3.  If there is a design plan for things, then there is an author of the plan, a designer.

5. This designer we can call God. 4

A full design plan would simply be a list of all those thing s that are morally right, that constitute the way that things ought to be, and the way that things ought not to be. Obviously, the genocide argument does not prove that God has all the properties that the God of theism is supposed to have. It does not prove that God is omnipotent or omniscient, for example. Still, since there can be no such thing as an authorless design plan, a plan for how things ought to be that follows merely from how thing s are, the designer must be a sentient being . That sentient being is not any one of us human being s, so it is surely God.

IV

My conclusion then is quite simple : if you want to avoid the contradictions and counter-intuitive implications of ethical relativism, your best bet is to embrace theism.

 


1The argumentation of this section is largely borrowed from William Lane Craig, “ The
Indispensability of Theological Meta-Ethical Foundations for Morality.”
2Cited in Richard Wolin, “Juergen Habermas and Post-Secular Societies,” The Chronicle of
Higher Education
(September 29, 2005), B17.
3Kai Nielsen,“ Why Should I Be Moral?,” American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol. 21 (1984): 90.
44I have adapted here, with his permission, an argument from Douglas Geivett.

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