Moral Relativism

This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant.

Question from Steven:
I have been debating morality with a theist, and I was a little unclear about moral relativism and the implications of the law.

1. Does a moral relativist have to be an anarchist?
2. How can relativists agree upon any set of laws?
This is specifically in reference to Dawkins wanting the pope put in prison, and my friend is arguing that as a relativist you can’t judge a child rapist.

Thanks for the help.

Answer:
This will become a reference point for similar questions, as this comes up a lot these days.

Firstly, this has no bearing on your discussion of the Pope and the Catholic Church, because child rape is wrong according to the tenets of the Church itself. Even if non-believers couldn’t judge the rapists and all accessories, the Church must do or be proven hypocritical. And now that’s out of the way.

Now to answer your questions directly:
1. No, relative (non-absolute) morals are still morals and still have worth and can still be supported. Same with laws, so anarchy is not necessary.
2. Relativists can and do agree on laws by examining their relative merit and picking what appear to be the best ones.

Moral relativism, in the sense your theist means, is the opposite of moral absolutism. Your theist thinks that God has set certain moral absolutes for us, which are supported by His divine authority, and without these no moral judgement can be supported – even the judgement that child rape is bad and should be punished.

Without being assured of the existence of a particular god as described in some religion, there’s no way to know what the universe’s absolute morals are, if any. This is the relativist position: the moral absolutes are either unknown or non-existent and therefore irrelevant. In their place, we use very similar moral codes – most codes condemn murder and dishonesty, value generosity and compassion and so forth – but we support them with things besides gods: history, the law, basic human empathy, the reasoning of philosophers (including some religious ones), abstract principles like reciprocity and the minimisation of harm and so on.

According to any of the above, to take your instance, child rape is wrong and immoral, the perpetrators deserve punishment and the victims deserve protection and/or compensation. You can reason from first principles that this is the case, for example…
– via the law: child rape is explicitly outlawed nearly everywhere.
– via harm minimisation: child rape harms the child for no good reason.
– via human empathy: you wouldn’t want to feel what the child feels while being raped.
Therefore, especially when you use several approaches, you have an objective and literally reasonable basis for your moral judgements.

The issue is that any of these objective but non-absolute bases can be challenged and judgements dismissed, whereas the divine authority of hypothetical moral absolutes cannot be trumped. This is true, and as a moral relativist (again, anyone who isn’t a moral absolutist) one must be prepared to defend one’s morality when challenged. The important thing is that one can defend oneself with logic, precedent and documentation.

Moral absolutists, on the other hand, defend only one thing: the existence of moral absolutes. If they can establish that, their righteousness in this matter is assured, but they have not and possibly cannot. (For more information, see my discussion of recent attempts.)

Ultimately, we must all choose on what to base our morality: on a combination of the flawed but sturdy and obviously real systems available to us on this planet (which usually work together very well), or on a supposedly perfect and all-encompassing moral code which may not even be there.

SmartLX

The Great Big Arguments #7: Morality

“Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, using various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing to support one adjustment over another.”

The argument, as straightforwardly put by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:
1. Moral facts exist.
2. Moral facts have the properties of being objective and non-natural.
3. The best explanation of there being objective and non-natural moral facts is provided by theism.
4. Therefore the existence of moral facts provides good grounds for thinking theism is true.

Answer:
A common opinion of the religious is that a person can’t be good without God. This argument goes a step further and says that because we know what is good and right and what is wrong, there must be a God.

A more widely used name for a “moral fact” is a “moral absolute” or “absolute moral”. It’s a standing judgement that something is either right or wrong, no matter what. In practical terms, it is what it is regardless of what people think. It’s true anywhere in the world, at any time. It’s the moral equivalent of a logical axiom or a fundamental universal constant.

Since the existence of moral facts is the first premise, and the second premise depends on it, the whole thing hinges on whether they can actually be established. So how do apologists go about doing this? Most of the time, they point out moral judgements which nearly everyone agrees on, such as that murder, rape or an event like the Holocaust is/was bad and wrong.

This won’t do, because moral facts or absolutes as described in these arguments are supposed to be independent of human beings. They’re specific properties of the universe like the laws of physics or logic, written into it by a god. If every human being on Earth disagreed with one (from the religious perspective, if all of humanity turned against God), it would still stand. Therefore the true moral absolutes (if any) could be completely at odds with near-universal human opinions, and so the fact that there are near-universal human moral opinions doesn’t make them absolutes. It just means humans have things in common.

A blogger arguing for moral absolutes challenged me to come up with a reasonable way to see the Holocaust (among other horrible actions) as a good thing. The implication was that if I failed, our near-universal condemnation of the Holocaust had to be based on a moral absolute. That’s wrong, as I’ve just explained, but I took him up on it anyway. All I had to do to contradict him was step outside of the human race and consider the Holocaust from the perspective of ants, or termites. Fewer Jews in Germany meant more abandoned houses in the ghettos, so more food and living space for bugs of all kinds. The Holocaust was so obviously wrong to humans, but if it loses its tragedy when exclusively human concerns are ignored then that’s hardly an absolute.

Only humans are aware of having a stake in the moral and ethical parameters within which we live our lives. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to shape them over thousands of years, supporting one adjustment over another with various forms of authority from self-contained logic to force to claims of divine backing. It appears that we’ve done it all ourselves, completely independent and ignorant of what any true absolute moral facts might be.

SmartLX

Christianity the way to go?

“Everyone needs to recognise that belief or non-belief is not a choice as such, and people all have their own ideas about God or other gods.”

Question from Omar:
I’ve considered myself an atheist all my life. I don’t believe a god exists, I believe there’s a greater force beyond our understanding, a force that has made evolution possible, that has made things fit into place but do not be mistaken I speak of a force, don’t quite know how to put it, let’s say a great coincidence that everything is the way it is, something perinormal like James Randi says. Well it doesn’t matter much since it’s got nothing to do with my question.

I’m from Mexico, I live on the border with the USA. I’ve been with my girlfriend for the past 2 years and she’s christian. I’ve been going to church with her ever since just because she asks me to. While living with her and spending time with her family I’ve seen that they firmly believe that being christian is the way of life that will bring them salvation(salvation from what?).

Before they were christian they were catholic and when the subject of religion arises(which is often) they say how wrong other poeple’s beliefs are and stuff like that, they sound really extremist?. My family is catholic and honestly i’ve never heard them or any other catholic friend speak like that of people(christian specifically) that do not share their beliefs. I do not know how well informed you are of how religion is seen in my country since from what i’ve read christianity seems different from what I have seen here(Mexico)and seen in other places and that 90% of the population in my country is catholic.

Now all these situations(my disbelief and lack of faith and catholic family) cause a lot of problems in our relationship if you could give me some advice on how to manage the situation. i’ve considered converting into christianity just so that the issues are solved but haven’t because i still believe that i can speak sense into her(but haven’t really tried to be honest it scares me)

Answer:
Catholics are Christians too, you know. It’s still all about Christ. Your girlfriend and her family obviously belong to another denomination, or to a group of evangelicals that considers itself beyond denominations. If they have some special vitriol for Catholicism, it’s probably at least based on Protestantism.

While you’re free to go along with her family’s religion to some extent (and have no God of your own to offend by doing so), there’s nothing you can do about your Catholic family short of converting them all as well. Unless your whole family caves in completely, religion will probably always be a source of conflict between the two families as long as you and your girlfriend are together. It probably won’t help much if you yourself convert outwardly.

That doesn’t mean the relationship is not worth pursuing. Since you and your girlfriend are together despite faith and not because of it, your relationship must be supported by other things you share. It just means that you’ll probably always be caught between two conflicting faiths.

The key in the end will be tolerance. Everyone needs to recognise that belief or non-belief is not a choice as such, and people all have their own ideas about God or other gods. Taking you to church won’t convert you after a set period; something actually has to convince you. Your family sees no reason to switch denominations, any more than her family does. And you mustn’t expect anyone else’s belief to evaporate in a day, without some life-changing experience.

The crucial thing, for me, is that religion is a part of our daily lives only as much as we want it to be. If religion is interfering with your family life, it’s because you two and your families are making it an issue. You’re in love right now, and you’ve got plenty of time to sort this stuff out. When people understand that, you may have less trouble.

Your situation is close to my own experience, but our religious troubles are within both my family and my wife’s, so we’re not caught in the crossfire. I have it much easier, I think.

I hope those you care about can learn to live with each other, Omar. Keep us posted if you like, via comments. If anyone else has advice, speak up.

SmartLX

How is Evolution Incompatible with Christianity?

“If God created evolution by natural selection as many liberal Christians believe, He set up a mechanism which rendered Him completely superfluous from that point onward.”

Question from Richard:
I have been debating back and forth with my sister who is a devout Christian. I know that it is almost pointless to argue with a theist being that they have mysticism of religion to fall back on once things are not going well for them. One thing my sister seems to do is acknowledge the validity of evolution, but states that god created evolution and just let it run its course. It is really hard to comeback with something to say. This is one of those things that makes perfect sense in my head but it is hard to communicate with her why this dual belief is incorrect. Can you please help.

Answer:
If God created evolution by natural selection as many liberal Christians believe, He set up a mechanism which rendered Him completely superfluous from that point onward. If God guided natural selection along the way, then it wasn’t natural selection.

The Darwinian/neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (the main difference between the two is genetics, which Darwin didn’t know about) holds that as soon as there was a self-replicating organism which tended to make imperfect copies, the variations created by random mutation are all the raw material that was required for natural selection to encourage the progress and diversification which produced all current life. No designer was required, even if there was one available.

Natural selection isn’t really an algorithm you can design or impose. It’s an emergent phenomenon, which means it simply tends to happen when different life forms are competing for resources. It’s like how when a container of stones and sand of different sizes is agitated, the smaller particles sift lower in the pile. There’s no universal rule in place which guides each stone to its proper place in the pile; everything just falls into the available spaces, and a certain amount of order emerges. Likewise, if every life form survives or dies by being better or worse at something than its competitors, which is often self-evident, then each generation will have “fitter” creatures than the one before it. It’s not something which has to be dictated beforehand in order to happen.

As I said, many liberal Christians believe what your sister believes, including prominent evolutionary biologists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins. The issue is that when they’re called upon to justify this, they invariably do it by arguing for the inadequacy of scientific explanations. They pick an amazing physical feature such as the human brain and say that either natural selection needed a guiding hand to achieve it or, in Collins’ view, that natural selection is rigged to inevitably achieve it. That’s artificial selection, not natural selection, and it has nothing to do with Darwinian evolution. It’s very close to the position of Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe, who in his last book argued that God is responsible for beneficial mutations.

Alternatively they go back to before the beginning of evolution proper and say that the building blocks of life could not have assembled in the first place without help. This is a denial of the entire study of abiogenesis, which has made a great deal of progress in recent years despite not actually replicating the phenomenon completely. (You’d hear about it if it did, trust me.) This claim by itself isn’t even saying that God made evolution; it’s saying that God made life and then evolution simply happened. It’s still a case of biologists attacking biology, which is sad to see.

Your sister’s position is superficially tenable; it’s possible that both God exists and evolution happened, and even that one had something to do with the other. However, as I’ve argued above, this idea has implications which weaken both the idea of evolution and the idea of God. It’s the price one has to pay to accommodate both.

SmartLX

How do I deal with my parents ?

An unknown caller said….

Question: ( sent via Google Voice. Transcribed by GV and corrected by Jake )
Hi, At the age of I’d say about 12. I realized that they were a few things I didn’t quite understand about Christianity. Besides the fact that every single one of them claim the correct one and they were simply if you had facts that could be explained by psychology and sociology, that would explain the phenomenon mind set. Thats held by not only Christians, but every religious believer that I’ve met ( mostly ). I began to question the validity of questions of religion in total instead of you know just Christianity the issue being, however, that I have been going to a Christian school raised by Christian parents, who had sent me there for all of 10 years. All though I had finally convinced them to let me out of the private school and into a public school nearby which was much more convenient on us both time wise and financially, my parents been very reluctant to let me out of Christian fear or so to speak. They insist, apparently that I keep on going to church. I have explained my position to them. And no matter what the questions I say, no matter what I asked them of their motives, I tend to get nothing but their assertion ” because we say so ” and they have very little reason, even when I do go to church and I requests to bring a book that I can quietly read or say in the back and join them after its over and get back in the car. They refused saying that I need to sit next to them paying attention to the sermon, as if I have were also an interested Christian like everyone else in the room. This is very frustrating to be going for several years and I’m not exactly sure what to do about it ? It’s very grating on the nerves and I find it most irritating because they keep on speaking to me as if I were a believer in something in which I’m not. It’s very frustrating to be misunderstood by myself and seemingly also about my parents. They seem to be wanting to save face, but better than seems so much the personality of some of my mom. Maybe my dad. However, I don’t know if you have any suggestions. please host it. I am up a creek. I’m getting very frustrated and I’m not sure what to do ? I very much love, my parents, but we’re getting point where there’s an impass that neither will give ground on and you know it’s frustrating. Thank you.


Answer :
I’ve been asked this question a lot over the last 10 years. So before I hit your head with some wisdom, understand that you are not alone. Others have and are going through what you are right now. They made it through, and so will you. However, with that said…
Since you didn’t mention how old you were I’m going to assume that you are somewhere in your late teens. The sad fact is that they are right. You are living under their house, and under their rules. It might not be fair, but until you can get out on your own, you’re stuck in their clutches. Think of it like paying rent but instead of money, you’re giving them church attendance. Yes, I know this sucks, and it’s unfair, but you have to look at it from their perspective. A parents job is to create an adult. Someone who is ready to take on the world. This means they try to instill within you what they believe to be right and wrong. To do otherwise, would be to give up on you. If your parents love you, they aren’t willing to do that. So, they do what they know how to do, and to them, church is an important part. So they force you to go. It sucks, but it’s understandable.
Until your independence day, do something constructive with your forced time there. Listen to the sermon and jot down some notes. See if you can’t find scriptural contradictions in the sermon and ask about them ? Use the time to educate yourself about the one thing you’re sure you don’t believe in, Xianity.
Remember, to them, if you don’t conform to their understanding, then they’ve done something wrong. To counter this, simply be better then they are. Do some community service in your area. Volunteer as a tutor. Mow someones lawn for free. Show them that just because you don’t hold the same beliefs as they do, that you are still a good person and that over all, they did a good job. That’s all they probably really want anyway.


And again, remember you’re not alone. There are plenty of people out there who have gone through it. You’ll survive just like they did. You’ve made it this far already haven’t you ? Hope that helps.

Atheism: The inverse religion?

“Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms…”

Question from Virginia:
I’m a first year college student, and right now I’m up at 3am working on a paper on atheism for a class about Religion, Ethnocentrism, and Terrorism. My question is this: what do you have to say in response to those who would point out that certain branches of atheism resemble a sort of inverse/dark matter religion? Allow me to explain.

History has given us several examples of this phenomenon, most notably the Cult of Reason forcibly instituted during the French Revolution and the secular ‘religion’ that was spread during the early years of the USSR (and I use the word religion quite literally– they had hymnals singing the praises of the state and the proletariat). Recently, I’ve noticed a trend that I’ve labeled evangelical atheism whereby very strong atheists gather together to celebrate their mutual ‘enlightenment’ and seek to convert all the poor slobs still following the delusion of religion. They base their group identity on intellectual and moral superiority, citing their adherence to the scientific method and their tolerance of others.

And while you may be nodding and going, “Yeah, so?”, allow me to further point out the similarities between these actions and American Christianity. Historically, Christians have staged mass (and sometimes bloody) takeovers (think inquisition) in the same way large groups of atheists have staged takeovers. Christians define themselves by their belief in the bible and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe; atheists are defined by their fervent belief that there ISN’T a god and think that their way of looking at the universe is the BEST, SMARTEST way of looking at the universe. Christian fundamentalists are intolerant of people who aren’t christian; evangelical atheists are intolerant of people who aren’t tolerant (though they claim to be open to all ideas). Christians seek converts; atheists seek converts. You see where I’m going with this?

Now I realize that not all atheists are like this, but I’ve had personal interactions with enough who are to know that they are not a minority. Do you agree with this interpretation of events, or do you think it’s just complete non-sense? Any input I could get from a genuine atheist on this matter would be great. Thanks for listening.

Answer:
Well, it’s not complete nonsense, since at least some of what you say is true. No offence but it’s also somewhat cliched in places; “evangelical atheism” isn’t just your word for it. Every reporter who’s done a piece on atheism in the last four years has thought it’s terribly clever and original to couch it in religious terms: “evangelical”, “zealous”, Dawkins as the “high priest” and so on. What amuses me is that so many religious folks choose to deride us by saying we’re just like them. What does that say about them?

I’ve used the Cult of Reason before to demonstrate the difference between what atheism might look like if it were a religion, and what it is now. It actually personified Reason as a goddess, so whether it was strictly atheistic is debatable. It was physically violently anti-religious, something which wasn’t seen again until Communism. And of course Robespierre shut it down within a year, and no one seems to have even tried to revive it. Call it a failed experiment.

From what you say about the USSR, it’s clear that you don’t see religion as necessarily based on belief in the supernatural. Generally that is one criterion, and a major reason why atheism doesn’t qualify.

What the Cult and Communism had in common was the main problem with both, really: they were pseudo-religious all-encompassing ideologies, which happened to not only be superficially atheistic but see themselves as incompatible with even the existence of nearby religion. Atheism itself isn’t an ideology, a philosophy or even a worldview. It’s a position on one specific issue, which allows for the existence of contrary positions in the same room. It just doesn’t have the same drive behind it.

You start getting a bit broad when you compare atheism to American Christianity. How do you define a religion, as a group of people with a common opinion who wants to convince others that it’s correct? If so, then every political party or action group is a religion. So is every labour union, and the fan following of every football team (and some of those can get very violent). So are Amway and Avon. If you define it that broadly, then atheism probably is a religion too, but it doesn’t mean much.

One other specific issue with your descriptions of atheism: it isn’t a belief that there isn’t a god, though some atheists might believe that (they’re called strong atheists). It’s just a lack of belief in gods, usually accompanied by the acceptance that they are at least possible, though unlikely. Even Richard Dawkins, who invented a scale of total belief to total belief-in-absence from 1 to 7, only rates himself a 6.

I’d have to say that the most likely reason why you think the majority of atheists you’ve met are the aggressive, convert-hungry type is that those are just the ones who’ve bothered to identify themselves as atheists in public. Most atheists in religious countries don’t speak out about it at all, except to criticise the “evangelical” “New Atheists” for being so loud.

I hope this helps you out, Virginia, and reaches you before you fall asleep at your desk.

SmartLX

Jesus…and some other stuff

“I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism.”

Question from Rob:
Hi there,

1.I’ve been reading through some of the discussions on the site. I just wanted to explain why I believe what I believe but at the same time ask about your approach to evidence. You say in one post that you hold to an atheist position because of an absence of available, substantive evidence for God. But I can’t find anywhere on here a thorough discussion of the evidence of Jesus’ life as recorded in the new testament. Sorry if I’ve missed something!

For example, you say that the claim that Jesus is God doesn’t stand on its own merit, partly because the writers of the gospels wanted their readers to believe they were true (“whether or not they were true”). But the question of their motives is irrelevant – indeed they tell us of their motives (eg Luke – “I wanted to write an orderly account…so that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” Or John – “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing you may have life…”). Similarly, some of the most reliable and thorough accounts of the holocaust are written by Jews who have motives (to open people’s eyes to the horror of what happened and to ensure it never happens again), but these motives don’t render their accounts untrue. On the contrary – they are particularly passionate about preserving the truth, and so their accounts are the best place to go. All recorded history is biased in some way, but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it.

The question then is “ARE they in fact writing the truth, as they claim to be?”. And I think it’s important to realise that these accouts were not written in a vacuum, as it were. They reference real places, and real dates, and real people. And into that context they place this extraordinary life. And what persuaded me as I looked into this was that if they had fabricated all these stories, the accounts wouldn’t have lasted more than a couple of weeks – because the inhabitants of the towns where these astonishing events were supposed to have happened before large crowds would have been the first to pipe up and say “Hang on, I’ve lived in Capernaum/Bethany/Jerusalem etc all my life, and that never happened.” Worth remembering too that 1st century Jews were far less religiously gullible than we are – any claim to be God in such an entrenched monotheistic culture was outrageous (as indeed it proved), so Christianity never had a tougher audience than the very society in which it began (who would be hugely suspicious, and who had access to the people and places named in the gospel accounts and therefore every opportunity to disprove it if they could).

Added to this is the question of the disciples’ own transformation. If we think they made it up, we must ask “Why would they make this up?”. They had nothing to gain – in fact they lost everything and nearly all were martyred for what we would then be saying they knew to be untrue (as an aside, this sets them apart from, say, suicide bombers today – both groups sincerely believe that their views are true, but the disciples were in a unique position to KNOW if their stories were UNtrue). Furthermore, something transformed them from a terrified and defeated group locked in a room fearing the worst (after Jesus arrest, trial and execution), to a fearless, committed and convinced group of preachers and missionaries. The Bible explains that what happened was Jesus appeared to them risen, and that is what they preached.

There’s lots more I could say, I just wanted to begin a slightly fairer discussion on the subject of evidence.

2. Perhaps you could clear something up for me. I’m always confused when atheists campaign against Christianity (in particular) and other religions. Thank you for a balanced and reasonable approach on this website! But why do the so-called New Atheists have such an agenda against Christianity? If faith is a virus, as Dawkins suggests, should he not be pleased as he sees competitors in the gene pool being disadvantaged and losing a lot of street cred (which I have, believe me!), rather than rail against it. For if I’m merely a sack of particles that will soon be redistributed underground, why should it matter to me what other sacks of particles think whilst they are “alive”. How indeed can I think evaluate that a world without “religion” would be better for subsequent generations (if that is the driving force) without importing some external set of values about what is “good” or “bad”?

3. And a cheeky personal one for you! Do you see all these messages merely as things that need rebuttal? Is there no part of you that gets tired of having to explain away and thinks “Wow, maybe this is true!”?

Answer:
1.
Arguments based on Jesus are rather popular with Christians, so we’ve been through a few.

  • In the comments here I looked at the extra-Biblical documents mentioning Jesus.
  • Shortly afterwards I examined the mention by Josephus in particular.
  • Something more relevant to your point: in the comments here I respond to Simon Greenleaf’s well-worn piece, Testimony of the Evangelists.
  • Most relevant of all: back on the old site, I responded to the argument that the apostles wouldn’t have made it all up, as put forward by Lee Strobel.
  • .
    To respond to your piece directly, as briefly as I can (naturally, comment if you want to delve into something):

  • Of course the fact that the authors of the Gospels wanted to convince people of the divinity of Jesus doesn’t simply invalidate the idea, because they’d want to convince people just as much if Jesus were actually divine as if he weren’t. It certainly doesn’t support the idea, though. We expect bias, but it’s not easy to get a clear picture of an event if all known sources are explicitly biased the same way.
  • Best guess is, the Gospels first saw wide distribution about 30 years after the fact. That doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was the high end of the average lifespan. Consider that combined with the estimated literacy rate in the area: 3% or less. By the time the story was exposed to criticism, few citizens who would have seen Jesus pre-crucifixion were still alive, and few if any of those could have written a contrary account at the time. Nor would they have bothered if they could, in most cases, because as far as everyone but Jesus’ followers was concerned his death was a non-event – just another self-proclaimed Messiah easily scooped up by the authorities. Placing real places and people in the stories therefore wasn’t much bolder than Winston Groom writing JFK and the White House into Forrest Gump.
  • Your last paragraph on the subject is very directly addressed by what I wrote on the old site years ago. Here I’ll just say that even if they knew it was untrue (and there are scenarios floating around where the apostles were taken in like everybody else), then sticking to their story and maintaining their following (instead of having everybody turn on them) was actually quite a good survival strategy in the short term. The first apostle to die after Judas apparently did so eleven whole years later, despite persecution by both Romans and Jews.
  • .
    2.
    Religion isn’t the only source of altruism. Richard Dawkins and the “New Atheists” are against religion itself, not trying to wipe out the religious. They, and I, see it as beneficial to religious people for them to abandon their faiths, which is part of why they attack those faiths. They’re doing people a service. (They seem to attack Christianity more often than other faiths simply because Christianity is the major faith in the countries where they live, and therefore the most immediate instance of religion. Their criticisms usually apply to other faiths, however.)

    Religions often claim to be the only absolute authority on what is good and bad, but that’s only true if the religion is. Otherwise you’re appealing to an authority which isn’t there. There are many ways to measure merit on objective bases, rather than absolute, which are actually known to exist. Historical experience and research, common sense, the law, the minimisation of harm, the maximisation of resources and our instinctive empathy and altruism are examples. Any of them can be challenged, but especially if they all agree on something then you can reason that something is good or bad. You literally have a reasonable basis.

    We care for others, knowing that they’re sacks of particles, because we are sacks of particles and we know what it’s like. It can be hard sometimes, and we generally don’t like to see other sacks suffer. We’re wired that way, thanks to millions of years of interacting with sacks like ourselves.

    3.
    When those who disagree with you have apologetics organisations like CARM which devote tremendous resources to producing material that they challenge others to “explain away”, you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining whether you’re right or wrong. The sheer volume of Christian apologetic is proportional to the sheer amount of Christian proselytisation (and by extension the sheer number of devout Christians), and by itself says nothing about the truth of the subject matter.

    I’m here because when I realised I was an atheist, I decided to crash-test my atheism. I came to a place where all the great big arguments would be championed by the faithful, to see whether they were in fact convincing and whether I’d missed something. They weren’t convincing at all, and now I run the place.

    SmartLX

    Ghosts and the Paranormal

    “…if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.

    Question from Rory:
    When confronted by the issue of the existence of ghosts or spirits by a religious person I find myself stumped to find a scientific explanation to respond with.
    Obviously many supposed sightings of ‘ghosts’ have been misunderstandings, camera trickery or an exaggerated memory.
    Much like the stories of religion and the image of god, our perception of what a ghost is is entirely manmade; usually the image of a transparent human figure.
    But suppose someone really did see something paranormal, irrefutably standing in front of them, maybe a human figure or some other unexplainable entity. Are there any scientific theories to explain these things? Is it possible to see reflections of the past, for example?
    I should point out, I do not believe in the existence of ghosts and have never seen anything that I could ever perceive to be anything paranormal.
    I am an atheist and don’t believe in much more than what we see and can be proven.
    Neither do I believe in ghosts. I simply feel that when combatting an argument against someone who claims to have seen a ghost, the argument of the sighting potentially being anything and simply a misunderstanding comes across as vague and weak (although almost certainly true).

    Answer:
    IF someone really did see a ghost, spirit or other supernatural entity, and could prove beyond reasonable doubt that they did (have fun imagining how), then naturalistic views of the universe would be challenged. That’s a big if. Significantly, this has not happened (or even been convincingly faked) in centuries of investigations and claimed sightings.

    Thinking sideways for a moment, if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.

    That said, since science is permanently in the business of correcting itself when new information and evidence come to light, it’s probably quite likely that phenomena will be observed which at first do not seem natural, but will ultimately be furnished with a natural explanation which is then confirmed by experiment.

    James Randi has a word to describe such phenomena: perinormal rather than paranormal. Peri, as in “periphery”, implies that such things are right on the edges of human knowledge waiting to be discovered. When Randi was running his Million Dollar Challenge to test self-proclaimed psychics, it was his faint hope that a candidate would pass the test and demonstrate a real perinormal ability, and that the discovery of its mechanism would be well worth the prize money.

    For the moment, however, there are no unambiguously demonstrated perinormal phenomena to consider, let alone genuinely paranormal. So we wait, and we investigate claims. The burden of proof is on those making the claims. Responses to unsubstantiated claims are necessarily vague, since an unsubstantiated claim tends to be devoid of useful, verifiable details. That doesn’t make the responses weak relative to the claims, it simply makes them appropriate.

    One other point I should make is that if religious people are making claims of ghosts in order to support their religions, it’s worth asking them and yourself whether what they describe actually links exclusively to one religion. Otherwise they may in fact be describing events which, if true, suggest that they’re worshipping the wrong god or gods.

    SmartLX

    The Fine-Tuning Argument, in terms of probability

    “The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life.”

    Argument by Robert O’Brien, based on Probability, Statistics and Theology by David J. Bartholomew:
    “As far as I know, there is no reason to believe the values of the physical constants are necessary, in which case, we have the following likelihood ratio:

    P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|God)/P(physical constants and the universe in which we exist|no God) =

    P(physical constants|God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/
    P(physical constants|no God)P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God)

    “Now, P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and God)/P(the universe in which we exist|physical constants and no God) is essentially one since it does not seem likely that our universe depends on whether the physical constants we observe arose by design or not. Therefore, the likelihood ratio takes the form:

    P(physical constants|God)/
    P(physical constants|no God)

    which I argue is large since it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”

    Answer:
    The point of the argument doesn’t actually require most of the mathematical notation, so we can skip a lot of the above. We’ll concentrate on the last expression of the ratio of probability:

    P(physical constants|God)/
    P(physical constants|no God)

    For those who haven’t seen this kind of thing before, here’s a crash course. P(something) means the probability of that thing happening. If you toss a fair coin, P(heads) is one half or 0.5 and so is P(tails). The | in the middle, which is called a pipe, means “given” or “given that” or “in the case of” or just “if”. For example, if you take the bus to work, P(getting to work on time|catching the bus) is higher than P(getting to work on time|missing the bus and walking).

    So, O’Brien’s final expression is the probability of the universe’s fundamental constants having their present values if there’s a God (note the capital G – he means a god like the Christian one) divided by the probability of the same constants if there’s no God. The reason why the former is much higher than the latter, he argues, is that “it is easy to conceive of God wishing to create a particular universe and choosing the appropriate values of the physical constants whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to achieve the correct values.”

    Let’s transfer the argument sideways. Which is higher,

    P(last week’s lottery numbers|God) or
    P(last week’s lottery numbers|no God)?

    One would have to argue the former using O’Brien’s logic, because whether or not it happened, it’s really easy to conceive of God wishing to make a particular person rich and choosing the right numbers whereas a random selection would be very unlikely to match a given person’s numbers. Many winners do thank God, after all.

    So why are there winners all the time, then? Because any combination could be a winner, and you don’t necessarily need last week’s specific lottery numbers.

    Similarly, while some combinations of the fundamental constants are unworkable, many others are. Most who argue that they aren’t make the mistake of varying just one constant at a time. Even within that limitation, the gravitational constant for example would have to vary by a factor of about 3000 to preclude the formation of stars.

    Without the limitation, as Victor Stenger discovered, “changes to one parameter can be easily compensated for by changes to another, leaving the ingredients for life in place.”

    The fundamental constants are set in one of potentially infinite combinations which permit life. They don’t even seem terribly conducive to life, given that it has only apparently emerged on the surface of this one rock within hundreds of light years. They’re no better than a Division 3 lottery win.

    One may consider it a low or even negligible probability that an unsculpted universe will be life-ready. Assuming there are six major fundamental constants (and you may want to consider others), the entire six-dimensional sample space would have to be analysed, not just slight variations of our set, or there’s no basis for this.

    And that’s without even considering a multiverse or the anthropic principle.

    SmartLX

    The Basics

    “You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially.”

    Question from Matthew:
    I don’t have any friends who claim to be atheist and I simply like to understand the position better. If you have any other input in addition to these questions I would appreciate it. Thanks.
    1. Do you believe that a personal God exists? Why or why not?

    2. Do you believe that Jesus Christ was God incarnate? Why or why not?

    3. What is the purpose of human existence?

    4. How do you know what is right and wrong?

    5. What happens to a person at death?

    Answer:
    I assume you know the answers to some of those, but I appreciate that you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth. You’ve gone very wide, so I’ll be very shallow initially. If you want more detail, comment and ask for it, and/or better yet read through some older questions.

    1. An atheist does not believe that any god exists, let alone a personal capital-G God. The reason is generally lack of evidence or convincing arguments supporting the existence of such a god, and that’s the case with me. Check out The Great Big Arguments #1-#6, consisting of most of the early pieces on this new site, to see why the well-known arguments you might be in the habit of using have not proved convincing.

    2. If one does not believe in gods, why would one believe despite this that Jesus was the incarnation of a specific god?

    Leaving the basic position of atheism aside, the claim that Jesus was God does not stand on its own merit. The New Testament was written by people who all wanted people to believe it, whether or not it was true. The prophecies supposedly fulfilled by Jesus were available to his chroniclers, making them candidates for #5. Made to Order (in my terminology) on the list of explanations that must be considered besides the false dilemma of pure chance and true prescience. Surviving extra-Biblical documentation of Jesus, for instance that passage by Josephus, has its own issues.

    3. Since the human race developed on its own and needed no creator, there was no external purpose for its emergence. The reason for the existence of humans is that life arose on a planet saturated with its building blocks, and then competed with itself over billions of years. During this demanding competition, more and more complex forms became the standard until we were the next evolutionary step.

    If you mean to ask why we bother to keep existing now, it’s because we want to. There isn’t much of an alternative that we know of. As for giving purpose to individual human lives, humans can do that themselves.

    4. From many different sources – the law, historical precedent, varying philosophies (including religious ones) formulated over the centuries, common sense, simple concepts such as fairness and the minimisation of harm, etc. – we have built a very good picture of what is right and wrong to humans. Obviously we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on most things.

    Any of the above sources could be wrong, and any could be challenged, but they’re there and each one tends to be consistent. The alternative is to appeal to an absolute morality, one independent of humans, which may not even exist and simply cannot be tested. I don’t need the whole universe to agree with me that what I do is right, but if most of the human race agrees based on real concepts that can be reasoned through, then I literally have a reasonable basis for my actions.

    5. At death, a person ceases to exist. The person’s condition is often described using that rare and fascinating antonym of “existence”, namely “oblivion”. What happens to a person after death is therefore not worth considering, because after death there is no longer a person for anything to happen to. There is only a body. We have one life. Good thing it’s an interesting life.

    Chew on that lot and speak up if you’d like to explore anything.

    SmartLX