Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Some Things are Absolutely Wrong, But Why?

Some atheists deny the existence of moral absolutes – like genocide and rape are absolutely wrong – knowing that acknowledging them leads inevitably to God’s front door. It’s hard to maintain that certain behaviors are absolutely wrong, without also acknowledging an absolute Source that makes them absolutely wrong! For example, atheist Bertrand Russell wrote, “Ethics arises from the pressures of the community on the individual.” Likewise, Michael Ruse wrote, “Morality is just an aide to survival and reproduction…any deeper meaning is illusory.”

Other atheists, embarrassed by the denial of self-evident moral absolutes, embrace them as absolutes, but try to pry them loose from God’s bosom. This latter option was taken by atheist and professor of philosophy and legal studies at Dartmouth, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, in his debate against the Christian William Lane Craig. He insists that we don’t need God in order to believe that our morals have an objective and absolute basis:

“Morality in the philosophical sense can be objective, even if people’s beliefs about it are subjective – [People disagree about everything!] After all, scientific beliefs have biological and cultural origins as well. Just as it is objectively true that the earth moves around the sun, although biology and culture lead some people to believe otherwise, so rape is objectively morally wrong.”

So far, so good! Even if people disagree subjectively about whether rape is morally wrong, this disagreement doesn’t mean that rape isn’t absolutely wrong. Similarly, scientific disagreement about the relative movements of earth and sun doesn’t prove that there isn’t a correct and absolute scientific answer.

However, what is it that makes rape absolutely wrong, whether the masses agree or not? Sinnott claims the “duty not to rape is owed to the victim.”

The Christian agrees. After all, we are our brother’s keeper, and we owe everyone the obligation to be ultimately committed to their best interests as Christ has committed Himself in love according to our best interests. However, when the atheist eliminates God, he also eliminates the moral underpinning necessary to make his case. After all, what obliges me to the victim or to anyone else? My first duty is to survive and to pass on my genes to as many as I can.

Sinnott anticipates this objection:

“Even if atheists were stuck with saying, ‘It just is immoral,’ that would be a problem for atheism only if theists could give a better answer. They cannot.”

Sinnott is correct. Theism would have to be able to demonstrate that it’s superior to atheism. He believes that invoking “God” offers nothing additional to the moral equation:

• “Why should we obey God’s commands? The answer cannot be that God will punish us if we disobey, since might does not make right. Even if a government commands you to turn in runaway slaves and will punish you if you don’t, that does not make it morally wrong to hide runaway slaves [Correct!]. Some theists answer that we should obey God’s commands because God gave us life. But our parents also gave us life, and yet, at least in modern societies, we do not have to marry whomever our parents tell us to [Somewhat correct! Nevertheless, we do owe a debt of gratitude and obedience to our parents]. Theists might argue that it’s simply immoral to disobey God, but that claim is no more illuminating than when atheists say that it is simply immoral to cause unjustified harm. A better answer is that God has good reasons for his commands. God commands us not to rape because rape harms the victim. But then that harm (not the command) is what makes rape immoral. Rape would be just as harmful without God, so rape would be morally wrong without God.”

That would be like saying that drinking this glass of water would be just as refreshing without God. Well, without God, there wouldn’t be water or anyone to drink it. Likewise, without God, there could not be any life, moral indignation or victimization.

While I think that all of the reasons cited by Sinnott carry some moral weight, I think that there are better reasons to affirm that the Christian has a far better moral foundation than does the atheist:

1. We can’t even make any credible moral judgments apart from stable, unchanging, rational measuring sticks. While the Christian worldview can account for unchanging judgments – God – the atheistic worldview can only account for what they see: molecules-in-motion. If change is the rule, how can we make an judgment absolutely? With change, perhaps tomorrow rape would be OK.

2. People are always changing. What they need is also in flux. Therefore, moral truth can’t be solely based upon our obligation to the victim, otherwise our system of moral absolutes is rendered incoherent. It must be based on a changeless God.

3. It has to be uniform in its application. Rape has to be wrong in all societies and in all places and at all times. It can’t change according to social/cultural/historical conditions. Without a moral uniformity that can come only from God, it isn’t logically possible to argue against a culture that uses rape as a form of criminal punishment.

4. Absolute moral law must come from a singular and transcendent source. It has to be great enough to trump all of our selfish, pragmatic concerns. If instead, there are multiple sources or gods, then there is no reason to not have conflict among the various gods. Sinnott has nothing higher to which to appeal. In his world, there is no court of last appeal, just a cacophony of conflicting voices without a Law by which to adjudicate among them.

5. Moral absolutes have to be authoritative. It’s not good enough to equate moral laws with physical laws. We can defy the law of gravity with impunity by getting on an airplane. This shouldn’t be grounds for a criminal charge. Rape is another story. It breaks an authoritative moral law, and we know that it deserves punishment, not like flying in a plane. This is all to say that authorities must be personal and not mindless objects or laws.

6. Even if these moral laws are authoritative, this Authority must be able to make an adequate claim for our faith and obedience. If the moral laws are just impersonal, although punitive – gravity can hurt you if you jump off a building – then we return to the oppressiveness of might-makes-right. How dare gravity hurt me! In contrast, while there are negative consequences for not following the Law of Christ, it can also prove to be a great joy and privilege to serve the One who created us, has died for our sins, and continues to love us despite our own unworthiness.

I’m glad that Sinnott affirms the existence of moral absolutes, but how much better it would be for him if he had an adequate reason – a God reason – to believe in them!

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