Atheism and Moral Arguments

I found it interesting recently to read a blog called Godless in Dixie – a former Christian who is now an atheist.  It got me thinking about this particular group of people, atheists in general, and the arguments they use to justify their point of view.  It also made me think about myself, and why I personally believe in a god, specifically the Christian version of God, and every belief that flows from that.

There may be other types of argument out there, but from observation, arguments surrounding the existence of God tend to take one of three forms:

  1. Historical/Testimonial:  Arguments surrounding the testimony of others and their experiences;
  2. Philosophical:  Arguments related to observing the world as it naturally is; and
  3. Moral:  Arguments related to perceptions of right and wrong.

In justifying my own faith, I’ve tended to lean on #1 & #2.  With regards to #1, I find the testimony of the apostles, evangelists and bishops of the first century regarding Jesus of Nazareth and His claims convincing.  With regards to #2, you could jazz up my arguments and make them more Aquinian, but my view is that the existence of the universe makes more sense allowing for the existence of a God as testified to by Christians, than it does should that God not exist.  But if I were to engage in a debate with atheists on the subject, I don’t imagine I would lean too much on philosophical arguments, and I would certainly not make a moral case for God’s existence.  While it’s true that philosophical thought stimulates a search for meaning, and for an existing God, that doesn’t necessarily make a concrete case.  Rather I tend to focus on the reliability of the gospel account of Jesus, a unique figure in history who claimed to be the incarnation of God.  This seems to me to be, by far, the most compelling case for God’s existence, since history has the possibility of being verifiable.  Anything else will always remain in the realm of guesswork.

thomasaquinasThat’s why I don’t understand why apologists for theism don’t talk about Jesus more.  The bulk of Western theists are Christian.  It would seem like the incarnation of God would be your starting point in any argument.  But they don’t – they start talking about uncaused causes and other such whimsy, as if God were a vague philosophical concept.  And I don’t think that’s ground you can win on.

Which brings me to how atheists argue.  It seems like #1 arguments are little discussed at all, and that atheists are most concerned with #3 type arguments.  It seems that many atheists either become or remain atheists, for the most part, because their own view of morality defines the Christian God as “immoral” and therefore illogical.  You can see it in the Godless in Dixie discussion of hell, in which hell cannot possibly exist because to send someone to hell for eternity for something done in a short period of time doesn’t make sense.  Or in the number of atheists who cite the Problem of Evil (ie. an all loving, all powerful God ought to stop bad things from happening, but doesn’t, therefore can’t exist).

Cthulhu-rlyeh-risingThe problem with these arguments is that it does not follow that if God’s nature is apparently morally contradictory to your subjective view, then His existence can be questioned on that basis.  Just because you don’t like the idea of hell, doesn’t mean such a place does not exist.  The idea of the fictional Lovecraft deity Cthulhu, for example, or the Scientologist nemesis Xenu, is far more malevolent than the Christian God.  And yet nobody would argue that Cthulhu couldn’t possibly exist because it would make the world a more dark and woeful place than it appears by observation to be.  They argue that Cthulhu doesn’t exist because HP Lovecraft made him up.

This seems to be a mistake that many people, Christian and atheist, make.  They steer the debate away from one of testimony, and put it in the realm of what God *should* be like.  This doesn’t strike me as particularly scientific, or in fact, any sort of good reason for being an atheist.  The real questions, in terms of a Christian God, are:  Is Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God, and is the testimony of the Church, including the gospel accounts of him, reliable and accurate?  An atheist must then face CS Lewis’s trilemma – that either Jesus and His Church are liars, or that they are mistaken/deluded, or that Jesus is Lord and His Church is true.  Nowhere in that equation is morality an element.

For atheists to dismiss the notion of a Christian God on moral grounds is the equivalent of Einstein’s argument against quantum theory, where he famously said that “God does not play dice”.  Maybe God does play dice, and maybe He doesn’t.  We know one way or the other through the testimony of what is observed, and accept or reject any theory of the universe on those merits.

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4 thoughts on “Atheism and Moral Arguments

  1. Brian says:

    Well written Blair.
    I think Paul says it best in 1Cor 18-31.
    Although I also believe that through prayer-our directline to God- everyone can see for themselves whether or not He exists.
    But wait, isn’t it easier to reason He doesn’t? :)

  2. Paul says:

    I arrived at your blog after following your comment about the “atheist singing club” on Whaleoil. We probably agree on most things but as any philosopher knows there is no fun to be had in that so I will proceed to tell you why you are wrong.

    The problem with 1 is that it requires an a priori commitment to the existence of the God in question. I find “others” historical (and present) interactions with God interesting because I believe that they are (potentially) genuine sources of information about the nature of God. Religious studies scholars find them interesting for entirely different reasons. History is full of people who claimed to be God(s) indeed for most of human history it was almost a requirement for any self respecting leader.

    The problem with 2 is that is currently fashionable to pretend that there is nothing to explain by taking the rather impoverished position that most of human experience is a social construct.

    What is interesting about 3 is that moral philosophers try and inject the “meaning” for want of a better word back into philosophy while (in the case of atheists) continuing to deny the metaphysical commitments that would require.

    • Sorry for late reply. I think I agree with you up to a point, but historical/testimonial arguments, imperfect though they may often be, still make a better case than the other alternatives, which get much more play. I think it’s impossible to come to a state of faith in the Christian God without drawing from oneself some sort of a priori insight (concurred by John 6:44), but it seems to me that when one is asking questions such as “did this actually happen?” instead of “is this consistent with what I presume a form of God would be like”, then that is a more genuine participation in the search for the truth of the matter.

  3. Abel says:

    You are spot on in how Jesus is #1 for us Christians. We know that debates never will win anyone over, to either sides. Yet we can’t just sit in silence when people ask. I always try to start and end with saying my faith is that the historical person of Jesus actually is God. It’s all we have!

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