Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A quote from Gary DeMar's essay "Why Atheists are Theocrats"

Quoted in Christopher's Price's post on CADRE

If atheists get their way, they will be running the world in terms of some ultimate principle. At the moment, atheists have the benefit of a vibrant Christian worldview where they can borrow moral plugs like compassion and kindness to keep their hole-filled materialist boat afloat. Given time, future generations of atheists will logically throw off these moral precepts that at one time had been mined from "ancient literature." Consistency will lead these newly empowered atheists to conclude that "kindness" is a superstitious remnant of an ancient book-led religion that once proposed that immaterial entities exist. Science will show that there is no way to account for these religion-defined virtues given naturalistic assumptions.... When atheists no longer have Christianity to borrow from, from what bank will they draw their moral capital?

Are moral atheists borrowing their moral capital from Christianity?


exapologist said...

Oh, brother.

Hallq said...

Oh, brother indeed.

After two and a half millenia of work on secular ethical theory, you'd think theists would learn to say something more substantial than "how do you avoid moral chaos?" We need to refuse to answer, "Are moral atheists borrowing their moral capital from Christianity?" with anything other than "You've given us no reason to think so," until they begin producing worthwhile material.

JD Walters said...

Apparently those two and a half millenia of work haven't been enough. There is still no broadly sufficient secular account of morality. Take it from the horse's mouth, atheist philosopher John Gray: "Humanism is a secular religion thrown together from the decaying scraps of Christian myth." (Straw Dogs, London: Granta Books, 2002, p.31)

You're still waiting for theists to produce worthwhile material? Apparently you're blind to the last 2 thousand years of work on Christian ethics, by such luminaries as Aquinas, Grotius, Scotus, Erasmus and Kant, or more recently MacIntyre, Elshtain, Hauerwas or Meilander, to name only a very few.

And read more carefully. The post does not speak of moral chaos per se, but of a radical redefinition of morals once ethical concepts, which until recently were defined under religious categories are no longer seen as defensible on naturalistic assumptions.

This kind of smug dismissal only shows how vulnerable secular thinkers are to complacency, which they so often accuse religious thinkers of. I wish more skeptics were like Richard Norman, whose elegant critique of the necessity of religious ethics in Ratio 2006 made me think much more highly of nonbelieving thought.

Sturgeon's Lawyer said...


This is exactly what I said about the Hitchens/Wilson "debate:" already, people are talking right past each other. Neither side is going to even admit that the other has ever produced any work worth considering.

Yes, there is a rationalist basis for ethics/morality.

Yes, Christianity has produced luminous works of ethical/moral philosophy (as have Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, &c.).

But Christians aren't going to acknowledge the former, because they "have no basis," and atheists aren't going to acknowledge the latter, because they're "grounded in superstition."

Sometimes I despair of my species. We are not rational a-tall, a-tall.

JD Walters said...


"Neither side is going to even admit that the other has ever produced any work worth considering."

I said in my post that I greatly admired Richard Norman's critique of religious ethics. How is that not admiting the existence of good work on the 'other' side?

"Yes, there is a rationalist basis for ethics/morality."

Ooh, I'm convinced. You said that so confidently.

"But Christians aren't going to acknowledge the former, because they "have no basis," and atheists aren't going to acknowledge the latter, because they're "grounded in superstition.""

What do you mean by 'acknowledge'? Accept that secular moral theory is superior to Christian moral theory? By definition a Christian will not do that, because he/she is convinced that Christian morality is in fact superior. But acknowledging secular moral work in the sense of thinking it important enough to engage with seriously is amply in evidence, as any perusal of works by the modern ethicists I refer to makes abundantly clear. If after such engagement a clear-thinking person comes away thinking that secular morality indeed 'has no basis', that in itself is hardly grounds for criticism. What if the arguments really do favor theistic morality?

The kind of agnosticism which you seem to advocate has to be argued for just as rigorously as the other two positions (for an excellent comprehensive recent effort, see J.L. Schelenburg's forthcoming "In Praise of Doubt"). It's way too easy to just say, "A plague on both your houses!" and claim the intellectual high ground.

exapologist said...

Hi JD,

I just wanted to get clear on some things you said.

You didn't mean to imply that you have a sufficient grasp of all the important works of 25 centuries of ethical theory so as to competently judge that no non-theistic account is sufficiently plausible, correct?

Also, did you mean to imply that you have in hand a moral theory that (i) is most plausibly grounded in a christian worldview, and (ii) is sufficiently plausible that all, or most (or even half?) of all reasonable, competent, and honest people would accept it?

If you *did* mean to assert either of these things, or something similar enough, I would be very interested in hearing a defense of them.


JD Walters said...

Hi exapologist,

No, I haven't read all the major works in secular ethics from the past 25 centuries. But in what I have read so far I see no reason for optimism (for the secular moralist). In any case, I was simply responding in kind to hallq's equally sweeping statement of optimism about secular ethics. As if referring to 'two and a half millenia of work on secular ethical theory' is a good enough argument to dismiss theistic ethical thought 'until they begin producing worthwhile material'.

As for the second question, I've only just begun my studies of Christian ethics but I have already found several very promising lines of development. It will of course take time to fully articulate my intuitions and digest the most important work that has gone before. Rational thinking is a diachronic process, but there are still so many people who think in terms of one all-out, master stroke of reasoning that will resolve all questions once and for all. I don't have that and neither does anyone else. But you will probably hear more about my ethical thought as time goes by, and it matures.

And I'm not very impressed by broad appeals to consensus from 'most reasonable, open-minded people'. I know enough about human psychology to expect a wide range of disagreement on fundamental issues of life and thought. And I'd like to see you come up with a consistent secular moral theory that has satisfied your requirement. To the best of my knowledge there are not just two schools of secular ethical thought left, each commanding the consent of an even half of all rational people!

Stephen said...

It seems quite obvious to me that a coherent theory of ethics is *not* required for people to be ethical. Ethics isn't grounded in books from moral philosophers but in biology. Ethical theory is fine, but to claim that any one school of ethics is superior to another ignores the universal biological root of ethics.

Hallq said...


First, appeals to authority (like your appeal to John Gray) in philosophy are worthless. The fact that you haven't figured this out yet makes me a little reluctant to try to engage you an intelligent dialogue.

Second... wait, no there is no second. I'm leaving things there.

JD Walters said...


So I take it your appeal to 'two and a half millenia of work on secular ethical theory' was just a historical observation not meant to make any sort of point? It sounded awfully lot like an appeal to authority to me.

My not having figured things out yet is reason not to engage me in intellectual dialogue? In that case we should all just stop talking to each other, because no one has figured EVERYTHING out. It's yet another instance of someone failing to recognize the diachronic element in reasoning.

And Stephen,

People can exhibit ethical behavior without having a full-fledged moral theory. That doesn't mean we don't need one. Actually, philosophers like Joshua Greene argue that our moral instincts, since they are evolutionarily grounded, are not trustworthy in many situations and that should prompt us to think harder about how we should use those instincts in a modern context. I'm getting tired of facile statements like 'ethics is rooted in biology' without any further attempt to figure out what that means or what consequences it should have for ethical thought.

Hallq said...

The point is not that because many secular philosophers have believed that there are good secular theories of morality, there are in fact good secular theories of morality. The point is that theists who want to be taken seriously on this issue need to address them in at least a general way.

On the other hand, maybe I misread your point. Maybe you weren't arguing "John Gray says secular theories of morality don't work, therefore they don't work." Maybe you're arguing that because secular philosophers disagree, they can all be ignored. This, of course, would be a license to dismiss all of theology, including all justifications for theistic belief.

Imagine the following exchange:
Atheist: "How do theists justify their irrational beliefs? How how how how? There's no answer to this question, therefore theism is irrational."
Theist: "You're ignoring centuries of work on this issue."
Atheist: "Ah, but there's a theist who once said these attempts don't work."

That's the sort of stupidity you're defending, only turned around.

JD Walters said...

Or maybe you misread my point yet again. If you had read my 'exchange' with exapologist just above your own comments, you would have seen that I quoted John Gray to counter your own massive appeal to the authority of 'two and a half millenia of work on secular ethical theory' with a claim to authority of my own, to see how it sounds coming from someone else.

And I certainly got your point about having to take secular ethical theorists seriously. That is why I pointed to contemporary theistic theorists who do just that.

Edward T. Babinski said...

DeMar's comment about "kindness" being "a... remnant of an ancient book-led religion," and John Gray's comment that "Humanism is a secular religion thrown together from the decaying scraps of Christian myth," strike me as both being superficial because books containing moral advice, codes and ethical pronouncements, go back quite far, further back in time than the Bible, while before all books, before human beings evolved, their primate ancestors already existed in social groups, got into fights, and forgave one another. So social behaviors, reactions and recognitions of a very real and internal sort existed prior to Christian myths and book-led religions.

"Forgiveness is not, as some people seem to believe, a mysterious and sublime idea that we owe to a few millennia of Judeo-Christianity. It did not originate in the minds of people and cannot therefore be appropriated by an ideology or a religion. The fact that monkeys, apes, and humans all engage in reconciliation behavior (stretching out a hand, smiling, kissing, embracing, and so on) means that it is probably over thirty million years old, preceding the evolutionary divergence of these primates... Reconciliation behavior [is] a shared heritage of the primate order... When social animals are involved... antagonists do more than estimate their chances of winning before they engage in a fight; they also take into account how much they need their opponent. The contested resource often is simply not worth putting a valuable relationship at risk. And if aggression does occur, both parties may hurry to repair the damage. Victory is rarely absolute among interdependent competitors, whether animal or human." [SOURCE: Frans De Waal, Peacemaking Among Primates]

See also We're all Machiavellians by Frans B.M. de Waal* See also de Waal's interview, The Two Apes Within Us.

Neither does it seem necessary to me that such behaviors require an authoritarian explanation in order to account for them, or to keep us all from slipping into total ethical and moral chaos.

Also, as the Brit philosopher Mary Midgley pointed out:

Darwin proposed that creatures like us who, by their nature, are riven by strong emotional conflicts, and who have also the intelligence to be aware of those conflicts, absolutely need to develop a morality because they need a priority system by which to resolve them. The need for morality is a corollary of conflicts plus intellect:

“Man, from the activity of his mental faculties, cannot avoid reflection... Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well-developed, or anything like as well-developed as in man.”(Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man)

That, Darwin said, is why we have within us the rudiments of such a priority system and why we have also an intense need to develop those rudiments. We try to shape our moralities in accordance with our deepest wishes so that we can in some degree harmonize our muddled and conflict-ridden emotional constitution, thus finding ourselves a way of life that suits it so far as is possible.

These systems are, therefore, something far deeper than mere social contracts made for convenience. They are not optional. They are a profound attempt--though of course usually an unsuccessful one--to shape our conflict-ridden life in a way that gives priority to the things that we care about most.

If this is right, then we are creatures whose evolved nature absolutely requires that we develop a morality. We need it in order to find our way in the world. The idea that we could live without any distinction between right and wrong is as strange as the idea that we--being creatures subject to gravitation--could live without any idea of up and down. That at least is Darwin’s idea and it seems to me to be one that deserves attention. [SOURCE:
Mary Midgley, “Wickedness: An Open Debate,” The Philosopher’s Magazine, No. 14, Spring 2001]

Edward T. Babinski