Sep 30

Explaining Logic

Glenn Hendrickson, in his essay Christianity Explains Logic, makes what I consider a shockingly bold claim. Hendrickson claims that the Christian worldview alone accounts for the laws of logic.[i] I’ll begin by directly quoting Hendrickson’s formulation of the argument:

 

1. All we experience is grounded in the laws of logic.

2. The Christian worldview alone adequately explains and accounts for the laws of logic.

3. Therefore, all we experience cannot be explained or accounted for outside of the Christian worldview.

 

I will keep this short and sweet, and even go beyond the scope of his argument. I will show that no form of theism has an advantage over atheism in explaining the laws of logic, Christianity included. The laws of logic actually require no explanation, which makes (2) false, which means we should reject the conclusion.

Have you ever asked a Christian to explain why God exists? You probably received an answer that God’s existence requires no external explanation. God exists necessarily. I want to point out that this actually is a valid response if God’s existence is in fact necessary. It would mean there was never a time when God did not exist and there is no possible world in which God does not exist.

When we say something requires an explanation, it is because it could have been otherwise. If my wife comes home early, I might ask, ‘What are you doing home early?’ The only reason this question makes sense is because it could possibly have been otherwise. Things that exist contingently require an explanation of their existence. Things that exist necessarily do not.

Now, are the laws of logic contingent or necessary? The laws of logic are uncreated and exist necessarily. They could not have been otherwise. Let’s see how this relates to the earlier argument:

 

4. The laws of logic are necessary.

5. Things that exist necessarily do not require an explanation of their existence.

6. Therefore, any worldview that recognizes this adequately accounts for the laws of logic.

 

Premise (6) renders the earlier premise (2) false. Short and sweet.

 

[This post is part of the series Why Christianity is False]


[i] I would actually say there are two arguments in this essay. Dismantling the first, though, will make dismantling the second unnecessary. If the atheist can account for logic just as well as the theist, then we are acting in a coherent manner in our daily lives

 

Sep 30

Why Christianity is False (Index)

The author of Common Sense Atheism, Luke Muehlhauser, began a counter-apologetics project called ‘Why Christianity is False.’ This project’s goal was to specifically respond to each essay in the series ‘Why Christianity is True,’ hosted by Brian Auten of Apologetics 315.

Unfortunately for those of us who enjoyed this series by Luke, he decided to pursue other projects. I wanted to see this series completed, so I suggested that a group of atheist bloggers could tackle this series of essays, lessening the burden on any one blogger. Foxhole Atheism will be teaming up with two other blogs to accomplish this: Soul Sprawl and Answers in Genesis Busted.

This page will serve as an index to the series on my own site that I will update as the response essays are completed. Comments are welcome. Enjoy!

 

Completed:

 

Forthcoming:

Sep 30

Historical Method: Tell me what is probable.

This is my second post in a series on the historical method. In my first post, I rejected the claim that skeptics are committed to a double standard for having a bias against magical claims. The reason for this has to do with probability, which will be a recurring theme in this series. This post will simply introduce the idea that we have to consider probability if we hope to make any progress.

Tell me why a given solution to a historical question is probable, rather than possible. I know I say this a lot, but it bears repeating. This has to be the starting point for resolving any historical question.

Imagine you are a historian and I come to you with some records written about Julius Caesar claiming that he was a god. Now, this claim seems to contradict everything we know from science and other sources, which leaves us with a problem. Let’s consider some possible solutions to the problem:

  • The claim is correct, meaning Julius Caesar was a god and everything we think we know is false.
  • The author was part of a conspiracy to puzzle later historians.
  • The author was himself a god, but wanted to divert your attention elsewhere so he could be left alone.

 

Strictly speaking, these three solutions are all possible. But what do they have in common? They are all so unlikely that to describe them as “vastly improbable” would be an understatement. If we do not introduce probability, then we really have no reason to prefer any one possible explanation over any other. This means we should restrict acceptable proposed solutions to those that are relatively probable. So, the following explanations would be preferable:

  • Rulers often demanded that people describe them as gods.
  • People of the time did not have our current understanding that such gods probably do not exist, so the author did not know any better.

 

Hopefully you see why we might want to restrict solutions to the second kind of answer. Historical claims about Christianity are no different. If someone wants to propose a solution for something, like the virgin birth contradicting scientific knowledge or the differences in gospel genealogies, then they should provide reasons why their solution is probable. Then, we can compare it to reasons for an alternative solution. We may not be able to operate with the precision of comparing two options in Blackjack, but in many cases we can have a rough idea.

Sep 28

Intention in Eden

I recently claimed that Adam and Eve were not morally culpable for disobeying God in the Garden of Eden. I’d like to explain why I think this a bit more.

Imagine you are getting a soda from a dispensing machine. You put your money in, press the button for Pepsi, and retrieve your soda. Unknown to you, an evil scientist has rigged the Pepsi button to an electric chair. By purchasing that soda, you also killed a man strapped into the chair. Are you morally culpable for his death?

It doesn’t seem like you should be since we are generally only concerned with intentional action. In the case above, we have an intentional action–purchasing a soda–and an unintended (perhaps even unpredictable) consequence–electrocuting a man. While pressing the button technically does both things, we certainly did not intend both. This seems to parallel nicely with an example used by Anscombe. A man is sawing a plank that happens to belong to Smith. He can be sawing a plank intentionally without sawing Smith’s plank intentionally.

With that understanding, let’s take a second look at Adam and Eve while in Eden. God commanded them not to eat of the tree of knowledge. They did not, however, have moral knowledge (since that didn’t come until after they ate from the tree). So, they disobeyed God’s command intentionally and they ate from the tree intentionally. But they did not do something wrong intentionally. The moral wrongdoing was clearly unintentional. They could not know that either of the properly intentional actions were also describable as wrong without moral knowledge, just as you did not know that your action of releasing a soda was also describable as an execution.

Thus, God’s punishment of them was unjust.

Sep 23

Free Will and Evil

Christian apologist Stephen Bedard recently made the following claim as part of a broader discussion of evil and the existence of God:

If God took away free will for doing evil, he would have to take away the free will to do good.  If we are not free to hate, we are not free to love.

I take issue with this claim. In fact, I think it is demonstrably false. Let’s first understand, briefly, what free will is and then we’ll see whether it can still be had. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, free will is “a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action from among various alternatives.”

Notice what this definition does not say. It does not require the list of various alternatives to be infinite or even large. It requires simply that a choice is physically possible, not that we have no constraint in making any logically possible choice.

Think of gravity. Many Christians will probably agree that god created gravity as part of his great act of creating this universe. Gravity does a lot of wonderful things for us. It keeps us here on the planet. It also keeps our planet in a nice, comfortable zone around the sun. God has created gravity as a means to our continued survival, which is a good thing. The physical law is in place to constrain what other things can do for some greater purpose (this line of thought is assuming it was put in place by God).

Now, let’s turn back to choices. Imagine you go outside and you want to jump. Do you have a free choice in how high you jump? It seems like it. You can just barely leave the ground. You can do any number of moderate jumps. You could even jump as hard as you can to get the furthest from the ground. But can you jump 30 feet into the air? Can you jump 1,000 feet? Can you jump out of Earth’s orbit and into space? No, there is a physical law built into the fabric of everything that keeps you from doing this. It physically constrains you. And still I’ve never heard anyone complain of gravity robbing us of our free will. That is because choices A, B, C, and D are available to us even if the potentially infinite options above and beyond those are not.

Let’s apply this thinking to moral choices. There are three types of actions where discussions of ethics are concerned. These are:

  • Obligations
  • Non-obligatory permissions
  • Prohibitions

Quite simply, there are reasons you should perform obligatory actions, non-obligatory permissions are morally neutral, and there are reasons you should avoid prohibitions. Now, we should be ready to consider an example. After explaining some of the concepts above, Stephen asked me the following:

You seem to think that free will would still work, even if all bad choices were taken away from us. I am trying to understand how that would work. You find a wallet with $500 and with all the identification in it. How would free will work if it was impossible for the person who found the wallet to keep $500 himself? Are you suggesting that God should kill the man if he seemed tempted to keep the money? Or should perform mind control and force the man to return it against his will? If the person returned the money, there would be nothing admirable about that as they would have no other choice.

Let’s take the example out of our own world and move our thought experiment into the world I propose as my solution. In my hypothetical world, God creates us without a desire to do anything which deserves a punishment of Hell. So, if stealing is a prohibition that carries such a punishment, no person would have such a desire. Since desire is required as part of intentional action (the type of action we’re concerned about in ethics), no one would intentionally steal.

Now, let’s say someone finds a wallet with $500 in it. What choices are available to them? Technically, the prohibition is available to him, but he will not take the money because he has no desire to do so. So that means that he realistically will perform one of the options that falls under either obligations or non-obligatory permissions. He could take the wallet to the police, look at the license and try to find the person, post an ad in the paper, etc. He could also simply walk by and do nothing. Remember that he doesn’t have to worry about someone else stealing the money because that sort of thing doesn’t happen in this world. Even if no one picks it up, the person who dropped it could retrace his steps and find it again with nothing missing.[i]

Notice that God had nothing to do with the choices being performed in real time. There is no control of anything or stopping anyone of doing anything. He simply did not give us a desire during creation to do things worthy of terrible punishment. Consider this example: I do not have a desire to put my cat in the microwave and kill it (people have actually done this). Does that mean that good things like petting, feeding, and generally caring for my cat were not chosen by me? If I have free will in this world, then I freely chose those things even though I did not have the desire mentioned. This raises a very serious problem for people who want to deny my claim and also say we have free will now.

Seeing this, one might retreat to a weaker position to say, “Ok, so we can have a free choice among different options, but what value does it have?” Again, this raises serious problems.

Does Mr. Bedard have a desire to perform a second holocaust to finish the job Hitler started? I doubt it. Does that mean that his good acts for people are robbed of value simply because he lacks that desire? No, I assume he thinks his good acts do have value in this world even though he doesn’t have said desire. So how can we say that  if Hitler had not had the desire to perform the holocaust, then his alternative choices would have been robbed of value? Overcoming a completely evil desire is not required for value. It’s still valuable that I love my wife even though I don’t have the desire to strangle her. This claim simply makes no sense.

 

Conclusion

Unless there are some good objections I haven’t considered, I think I’ve shown a few things to be pretty conclusively true. First, free will does not require infinite or even a large number of choices. Second, taking away the desire to perform prohibitions does not remove the possibility of free choices. Third, taking away the desire to perform prohibitions does not rob other choices to perform obligatory actions of value.

And the good news for my fellow atheists is that this is only the tip of the iceberg. The so-called free will defense has several devastating problems.

 


 

[i] That is the view I defend, but we can make an even stronger claim. Even if he could only perform the actions that fall under obligatory, he still makes a free choice. He still “chooses a course of action from various alternatives.”

Sep 21

Contra Genesis

The creation account in Genesis is quite obviously a confused myth. However, there are a very large number of people who still believe in its literal truth. Here are three short, simple arguments for those people.

 

1. Adam and Eve did not deserve their punishment.

Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:
“Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”

Genesis 3:17 (NKJV)

Theists will generally agree that in order to have moral culpability, you must have moral knowledge. For this reason, it is not wrong for a lion to kill a gazelle. God punished Adam and Eve for making a morally wrong choice (disobeying his command). Yet, they would have no way of knowing it was wrong without having the moral knowledge they gained by eating the tree. This means that God could not justly punish them since they were not culpable.

 

2. A lack of moral knowledge is good.

Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.

Genesis 1:31 (NKJV)

As part of the free will defense to the problem of evil, theists say that God wants us to knowingly choose good over evil. This apparently is morally preferable to God, which is why he couldn’t create us with no desires to kill or harm. But here we see that, according to Genesis, God did not create Adam and Eve with the ability to knowingly choose good over evil. They could freely choose, but there was no knowledge of good or evil, as we saw in the previous point. Not only did God not create us this way, but God said it was very good.

 

3. A lack of natural disease and death was good.

“But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Genesis 2:17 (NKJV)

Another argument about evil is the problem of natural evil. Would a good God, for example, allow so much (or any) natural evil, like disease? The responses are generally along the lines of saying there is some higher order good that is brought about by the natural evil. Some responses have been that it is necessary for the higher order goods of soul-making (Hick), the need for knowledge (Swinburne), character building, etc. Death, disease, and the like did not enter into existence until Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge. We saw in the previous section that God considered the existence prior to death and disease existing to be good, and even clearly seemed to prefer that earlier state of affairs. Therefore, death and disease are not required to make a good existence in the eyes of God.

 

Conclusion

So, we have three popular claims about God that conflict with the Genesis creation account:

  • The claim that God is completely just.
  • The claim that we have to knowingly choose good over evil in order to live a good life in the eyes of God.
  • The claim that death and disease bring about higher order goods in the eyes of God.

 

 

Sep 19

Atheism and Evil: Part 2

In Part 1, you hopefully saw that atheism does not need to entail objective morality in order to coherently present the problem of evil. But we were still left with the major question of whether secular morality even makes sense. This is not simply a theistic claim; you will find plenty of atheists that agree. In this post, I’ll discuss one possible way to create a framework for morality without requiring a god.

Before I begin, I want to address a few potential concerns. Definitions have a lot to do with the conclusions. This is true of anything, but there is especially fuzzy language about morality. People throw around terms like “intrinsic value” and “objective” like Benjamins in a rap video. Always seek to clarify these terms.

I also want to say that I don’t think it’s required of any atheist to be a moral realist. My goal with this article is not to tell atheists how they should think; it’s to respond to the popular theistic claim that such moral realism is not even possible.

 

Is secular morality coherent?

To say that a worldview is coherent is to say that it agrees with itself internally. For example, imagine an atheist who prays every night. Those two things (being an atheist and praying) would not form a coherent worldview. So, what we want to do here is discover whether it’s coherent for an atheist to say something is really wrong without presupposing a god or co-opting theistic morality.

 

What is morality?

Let’s start with an important definition, so we can know our target. By morality, I mean reasons for action. For the theist, their reason for acting a certain way is because it is commanded or desired by God. For the atheist, we will see that we can also provide reasons for action. This is a commonly accepted definition, but some people will not be satisfied with it. If so, have them spell out precisely what they mean by morality. Test their claim to see if it actually reduces to this definition (it often will). Be wary of definitions that go beyond this, as they may beg the question. They also may be based on something that is not part of your worldview. Since the claim is that we cannot make sense of morality in a coherent way with our worldview, any such definition should not concern us. If someone says that morality is an account of what makes unicorns happy, then my rejection of that is perfectly consistent with my worldview. Barring some better definition, I think finding reasons for action that are objective will be a good target for this article.

 

What is objective? Must it be necessary?

You will find many uses of the term objective. William Lane Craig often describes objective as meaning: it’s true whether or not anyone believes that it’s true. In other words, if Germany had won WWII and brainwashed everyone to forget what happened, their actions would still be wrong.[i] In demonstrating how secular morality can be objective, I will try to meet the requirements outlined by Craig.

Some will say objective means necessary, but this has never been demonstrated to my satisfaction. For example, there is an objective answer to this question: “How far is the tip of the Empire State Building from the tip of Olympus Mons at time t?” This relationship between the points is contingent (not necessary), but also has an objectively true answer. There is a fact of the matter. Similarly, I see no reason to tie objective morality with necessity or with moral absolutes. It may be the case that every time you have two related things you will have the same outcome under the model I will sketch (rape is an example), but there is no requirement for it. If we can show that our moral statements can be tied to a fact of the matter, like the example above, then I’d say we have something objective. Whether or not anyone knows the distance between the two points, there is a true answer.

Regarding necessity, I actually see a pretty good parallel between atheism and theism. It’s a mistake to think that theism is comprised entirely of moral absolutes. The Bible says murder is wrong and yet we have several cases of murder commanded by God in the Bible or even actually committed by God. So, obviously the definition of “wrong” in a typical Christian worldview is not synonymous with necessity. However, there might be some small class of things that Christians will propose that God would always view as wrong.[ii] I think we can give a secular account like this, as well. We can recognize that wrongness depends on circumstances, except for a small class of things that would be prohibited under any circumstances.

 

Can secular morality be objective?

So, we want to know whether a secular moral system can provide objective reasons for action. We could do this exercise with a wide variety of ethical systems and still achieve objectivity, but I’ll stick to one for the sake of simplicity.[iii] I will be answering these questions from the standpoint of a contractarian influenced by John Rawls. I’m not going to do it justice here, but I’ll explain the theory briefly.

This contractarian framework invites us into a thought experiment where we imagine a perfectly rational being behind a veil of ignorance. This being has to determine how it would it would act without knowing the position it will occupy. So, the rational being could be a victim of rape, a poor person, a wealthy mogul, etc. We can now consider whether the rational being has reasons to promote and praise certain actions and to prevent and condemn other actions.

Now, is there an objective fact of the matter when we look at the events of 9/11? Yes, a perfectly rational being would have reasons to prevent and condemn the actions of the terrorists. This is a clear-cut case. Having these reasons is analogous to saying it is wrong under our definitions.

This is a pretty good start, but I think we can go one step further. For what should we say is the foundation of these beliefs? At first glance, you might think the foundation is the perfectly rational being. That would be a problem, though, since there really is no perfectly rational being, veil of ignorance, original position, etc. That is just a thought experiment developed by Rawls. Instead, I’m going to propose something pretty abstract is happening here. Under a contractarian framework, I think we get truth value from reference to a proposition. For example, to say we have reasons to prevent and condemn action x is to say that the following proposition is true: “A perfectly rational being in the original position would have reasons to prevent and condemn action x.” What we are really grounding our morality in is rationality itself and we can point to these propositional truths in order to be describing an objectively true fact of the matter.

Once we reach this point, we also reach a puzzle. Why should we do what is dictated by reason? This seems circular, right? What reason do we have to follow reason (and what reason for that reason, and so on)? Well, I think reaching reason as a stopping point is good enough. It seems basic in the same way that we cannot justify inference without begging the question. Yet, we still accept inference. Or theists reach God and we might get into the same type of puzzle. I think any theory reaches a stopping point like this, so I’m not particularly troubled by this worry and don’t think it should count against the theory.

 

Can secular morality account for intrinsic value?

No, and it shouldn’t try because intrinsic value does not exist. I would argue that no system adequately accounts for any such thing. Consider this quote from Luke Nix:

Christian theism, specifically, holds that all people are created in the Image of God, thus possess intrinsic value. According to atheism, there is no difference between a common house fly and a human that gives it intrinsic value.

First, notice the last sentence. There is no difference between human and fly to give it intrinsic value. Well, no, of course not because there is no such thing. But that is not the same thing as saying there is no difference between them at all. Secular moral systems can recognize the differences between these two creatures perfectly well. Now let’s see how he supports intrinsic value: it is in virtue of being created in the image of God. I’m not even sure what this means. Is this because we look like God? No, that can’t be the case or statues that look like us would have it too. The only realistic sentiment I can draw from this is that we are valuable because God values us. And there’s the crux of the matter. That is not intrinsic value—it’s just regular old value coming from an external source.

 

Conclusion

After all that, let’s see how our system compares to theistic morality.

Quality Theism Atheism
Objectivity? Yes Yes
Necessity? Sometimes Sometimes
Foundation? God Rationality
Intrinsic Value? No No

The only difference in the table above is that one theory has its foundation in God and the other in rationality. Thus, we have met all the requirements, but with a secular foundation.

 
[UPDATE: I asked Alonzo Fyfe to comment on this argument, and he has responded here – http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2011/09/rejection-of-social-contract-theory.html. Check out his criticism of the argument. I’ll be following up with a response within a few days.]
 
[Based on feedback, I’ve created what should be a clearer version of this argument. It is cross-posted at An American Atheist]
 

[i] I think he’s also said in debates that it’s independent of human beings, but I think that’s too problematic in the things allowed under that loose of a definition.

[ii] If nothing else, this list could include blaspheming the Holy Spirit.

[iii] I think desire utilitarianism may be a particularly strong candidate, but I don’t know it well enough to defend it. I actually think this particular contractarian philosophy might reduce down to desirism, but that probably won’t be necessary to show my point.

 

Sep 17

The Politics of God: A Problem of Rights

Have you ever heard someone say that you need God in government to maintain your rights? They will typically say something like, “Rights are granted by God and can only be revoked by God. That’s the only way we can keep the State from unjustly harming us.” Rights in this context generally refers to only the most fundamental rights, like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Lockeans would include property). Well, if that view is your basis for rights, then you run into some interesting problems. I made this point on Facebook a while ago, but after watching a few Republican Presidential debates, I wanted to expand on the idea and relate it directly to stances taken by Republican candidates.

 

My argument is quite simple – I would formulate it as follows, taking the above position to its logical conclusion:

 

1. God is the divine author of rights.

2. Only the divine author of rights can justly revoke those rights.

3. Therefore, the State cannot justly revoke our fundamental rights.

 

Now, so far, religious people probably think this all sounds pretty good. “Yes,” they say, “the government has no right to interfere with my God-given liberties! The government should just be in place to protect them.” But let’s keep following the argument and see where it will run into some problems.

 

4. These fundamental rights include a right to life.

5. Therefore, the State has no right to revoke my life and has an obligation to protect my life.

6. Therefore, the State has no right to kill me (Capital Punishment) or to let me die through conscious inaction.

 

Rick Perry proudly boasted about his record as Governor (Head Executioner) of Texas. The crowd at the debate apparently liked it too because it drew some of the loudest cheers of the evening when he defended the murders. We can see by the above argument, however, that the position that the government can justly kill someone is not consistent with the idea that God grants our fundamental rights, a position I’m certain Perry holds.

 

Similarly, you cannot justly let someone die through conscious inaction. The purpose of government, according to the God-gives-rights crowd, is simply to protect these rights so that others cannot tread on you. Well, if you have a right to life, and you have a government with a duty to protect that right, then what should the government do in situations where someone is dying a preventable death and the government can help? The government should do nothing to help if they don’t have insurance, according to Ron Paul. Again we have cheers from the crowd, and again we have an inconsistent position.

 

The situation may be less clear in the Paul example due to heavy privatization, but we can clearly see the problem if we take it out of the context of health insurance. Imagine you are a police officer and you walk by a situation where a robber is going to shoot a man. You happen to know this man is jobless and does not pay any taxes. Since your position as a police officer is funded by taxes, this man has not paid for your help. Now, should you, as the officer, step in and stop the robber from killing the man? Of course! I can’t imagine anyone saying otherwise. So, even though the State (everyone else) is footing the bill for the officer’s time, it would be unjust to let the man die when you have the ability to prevent it. A doctor is in a similar position. They can help in a way that others cannot, and if the government needs to foot the bill sometimes to prevent an unnecessary death, so be it. We would do it in any other area that wasn’t warped by the commercial mindset of health insurance companies and others like them.

 

Conclusion

So, positions that were espoused by two of the top four presidential candidates (and subsequently cheered by the crowd) are clearly inconsistent with their position that God grants our fundamental rights. To avoid the inconsistency, they will have to either give up their conclusions (the most sensible solution) or deny one of the premises in my argument. Don’t hold your breath for either to actually happen.

Sep 12

Atheism and Evil: Part 1

Over the past weekend, an alliance of apologetics bloggers decided to tackle the problem of evil and suffering. These were specifically timed to coincide with the anniversary of 9/11; you can find a list of these articles here. I had hoped this group would provide something other than the normal amateurish turnabout, which says, “You can’t even say that something is evil because you’re an atheist.” I was wrong. In fairness, I didn’t read all of the articles, but those that I did read focused a considerable portion of their writing on this point.

As an atheist who deals quite a bit with ethical philosophy, statements like these are aggravating. So, I’d like to address two things about this attack on atheism. In my first post, I will show that the point is irrelevant to the problem of evil and suffering. In my second post, I hope to show the point is wrong, and atheists can use moral terms coherently.

 

The point is irrelevant.

Does the problem of evil require an atheist to actually believe in evil or to have a coherent definition of evil? No, absolutely not. The problem of evil is an argument against the internal coherence of Christian premises. Imagine you are reading a work of fiction. Two of the characters, John and Melissa, are married. On one page, however, there is an apparent typo and it says that Joan and Melissa are married. We don’t have to think that any of the characters or events in the story are real to recognize an inconsistency. The story itself sets up what should be consistent. In fact, if we weren’t using a premise internal to Christianity, the inconsistency argument would no longer work! It would then be an argument about two competing, but separate, claims.

To illustrate, think of the argument against biblical inerrancy that says the bible contradicts itself in the genealogies of Jesus given in Matthew and Luke. This is the first type of argument. Now think of the argument against inerrancy that says a virgin birth contradicts the external source of modern science. This is the second type of argument.

Let’s turn now to the problem of evil, which is the first type of argument in most cases. We can construct a short version as follows:

1. Christians define God as all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.

2. Things that are genuinely considered wrong by this God (like innocent children dying) happen in the world.

3. A God who is all-loving would use its knowledge and power to prevent these things.

If all of the premises are true, then there is an inconsistency. The traditional theistic response from philosophers has been to attack the argument’s premises—particularly the third premise—to dissolve the inconsistency. The response from people who don’t know any better, like the apologetics bloggers mentioned above, is to say that I can’t rightly use terms like “evil” or “wrong” in my arguments. This is patently absurd. The only thing I am bringing to the argument is the third premise, and my definition of evil or wrong is not relevant to that premise.

In conclusion, as far as internal consistency arguments are concerned, atheists have no need of a definition of evil and we don’t even have to believe that evil is real. The argument is independent of those things.

Next time, I’ll tackle the more complex issue of how an atheist can coherently be a moral realist. (Part 2 is now published.)

 

[Cross posted at An American Atheist]

Sep 09

Historical Method: Are skeptics committed to a double standard?

This is my first post in a planned series on the Historical Method. I will discuss general topics and areas of tension between conservative biblical scholars and skeptics. This series will include discussions of authorship, dating, and general reliability. My focus in this first post is the question of whether either group—the skeptic or the theist—is committed to a double standard regarding ancient texts.

 

I am Beowulf!

 

Skeptics about the Bible are often accused of holding a double standard. The theist will bring up stories about Julius Caesar or Socrates, and then claim that we believe these stories on evidence as good as or worse than the Bible[i]. I find this accusation incredibly ironic.

 

I can’t speak for every skeptic, of course, but let me (briefly) spell out my own view of ancient documents and see if you agree. There are a variety of methods historians use to assign some estimate of probability for historicity to a text. Thanks to Bart Ehrman, the general public is now familiar with some of these—multiple attestation, fitting the historical context, dissimilarity, potential for embarrassment, to name a few[ii]. I was taught by one of Ehrman’s former graduate students and one of the editors of his New Testament textbook, so his ideas are very much instilled in my approach to the texts of the Bible. Even so, these are not my primary line of defense from separating out that which is nearly certainly nonsense. These are of secondary concern to a more fundamental rubric. That is because I have a distinct advantage over ancient authors—I know more about the world.

 

My first alarm that a text contains non-historical information is when that text presents something that contradicts modern science. I don’t mean something like string theory that is seriously questioned—I mean really basic stuff. You may not think about it much, but you do it too. Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and people who in general consider themselves reasonable take this automatic approach to rejecting information from the past (in most cases). Imagine someone presents you with this brief story, allegedly written in 45 B.C.E.:

 

As the great hero Phaedrus sped into battle, he willed from within himself a great power. At once, his chariot came aloft and grew wings as if it were a great bird. Flames spewed forth from the mouth of his horse, consuming every enemy below and sparing his allies.

 

What is your first reaction? Is it to seek out multiple attestations? No, I don’t think so. I’m willing to bet you dismiss this story out of hand (and you should because I just made it up). Now to the more interesting question: Why do you dismiss it out of hand? The story is simply unbelievable because it contains magical elements. Is this a pre-existing bias against the supernatural? Yes, of course it is! And it is a justified bias based on every bit of actual evidence we have. The prior probability of something like this is so ridiculously low that we are completely justified in rejecting the magical elements on those grounds alone. Maybe there are historical bits still in the story, but no one is seriously going to grant that his chariot grew wings.

 

This is not something just atheists do; rather, everyone with a reasonable approach to history does this. But the religious do believe their own magical claims. Is it seriously because you have thoroughly rebutted and rejected the evidence for all other religious claims? No, I highly doubt that. I suspect your reasoning was more like what I described. You would dismiss something simply on the grounds that it contained magic…except in your own case. That means you are actually the one with the double standard.

 



[i] There are so many things we could say to contrast the sources for Caesar, etc. but I want to focus on the issue at hand and that discussion would take us off track.

[ii] If you’re interested in further discussion of the historical method and tools for discerning historicity, please read Richard Carrier’s excellent treatment of it in this paper.

 

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