XFiles Weekend: Reality check

(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 2: “What difference does it make if God exists?”)

Let’s do a quick reality check. Suppose I told you that I once heard William Lane Craig speaking in person, and that I overheard him say, “I thank God, even though He is just a myth invented by superstitious men, that I am smart enough to deceive these foolish believers, and to enslave them with my deceits, so that I can profit from their ignorance and gullibility.” How many of you would be willing to just take my word for it that this actually happened?

I’m guessing most of you would be pretty skeptical, even though Dr. Craig’s testimony would be seriously compromised if what I said were true. It’s not that a skeptic would disagree with the sentiments I’m putting in Dr. Craig’s mouth. The worldview expressed by such language, however, is blatantly skeptical and anti-Christian. It’s the antithesis of the worldview Dr. Craig naturally holds. Even the tiniest bit of objectivity and critical thinking ought to warn us that the quote is highly inconsistent with what we know about his beliefs and worldview. It’s only common sense to provisionally reject such testimony unless and until more evidence can be found that he really were an atheist.

In a little while, we’re going to get a chance to see how Dr. Craig does on his reality check on a similar statement. But first, let’s set the stage. We’re on point #2 of his argument that life without God has no meaning, value, or purpose.

If life ends at the grave, then it makes no ultimate difference whether you live as a Stalin or as a Mother Teresa. Since your destiny is ultimately unrelated to your behavior, you may as well just live as you please. As the Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky put it: “If there is no immortality … then all things are permitted.”

He’s trying to make the case that values, meaning moral values, do not exist unless we live forever. Ironically, that’s an inescapably selfish and relativistic standard of morality: why should moral values depend on whether or not *I* am around to benefit from them? He wants to argue that moral values have an objective reality, and that they exist independently of our own existence and experience, yet if this were the case, then immortality would be completely irrelevant. “Good” would be good whether I was around to experience the goodness or not, and likewise “bad” would be bad even if I weren’t here to suffer from it.

Once again, he’s experiencing the inconsistencies that result from taking a subjective concept like “value” and trying to isolate it from the person whose subjective viewpoint is what gives the value its substance. The real-world context of moral values is that they exist subjectively and self-centeredly. Dr. Craig knows this, and appeals to the subjective and selfish nature of morality in order to make the argument that “ultimate” (i.e. everlasting) morals cannot exist unless we exist eternally to experience them. But in so doing, he inadvertently concedes the point that moral values draw their substance from our subjective experience, and not from some independent objective moral standard.

In fairness to Dr. Craig, though, I don’t think he’s trying to make a serious moral argument here. He’s not really thinking through what he’s saying. Sadly, what he’s actually doing is just trying to reinforce the traditional Christian prejudice that accuses atheists of having no morals. He quotes Richard Wurmbrand, author of Tortured for Christ, to make his point.

The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, “There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.” I have heard one torturer even say, “I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.”

Notice that Dr. Craig is citing this testimony as support for his point that moral values do not exist unless we are immortal. He is assuming that, just because Wurmbrand said it, it must be true. That atheistic torturer really must have thanked God for allowing him to express all the evil in his heart. Reality check? What reality check?

The problem with this testimony is that the words Wurmbrand attributes to the atheist are words that express an extremist, fundamentalist Christian worldview. It is not atheists who believe that all atheists secretly know that God is real, and are deliberately rejecting Him anyway. That’s a fundamentalist Christian assumption. It’s not atheists who believe that all atheists have hearts filled with evil. That’s another fundamentalist Christian prejudice. It’s not atheists who believe that atheists are motivated by a 1-dimensional desire to do as much evil as they can get away with. Again, that’s the fundamentalist Christian caricature of atheists. Just reading with a miniscule amount of common sense, it’s easy to see that these words are not expressing the atheist’s point of view, they’re whole-heartedly, fundamentally Christian. Yet Dr. Craig has no problem buying into the idea that an atheist would say something like that, and he even tries to use this point to promote anti-atheistic prejudice himself.

This is a particularly ironic argument for an American Christian to make in 2010, given the official torture programs endorsed and defended by born-again Christian president George W. Bush. Evil behavior may not be restrained in the absence of belief in immortality, but the presence of such beliefs does not have any restraining power either. Conservative Christians to this day are still defending torture (under the deceptive euphemism of “enhanced interrogation”), despite their belief in eternal life and final judgment. We don’t even need to look back at the Crusades and the Inquisition—Christians right now are defending the use of torture against suspects (not even convicts but just suspects) as a legitimate tool of government. But Wurmbrand and Craig blame cruelty on atheism. Go figure.

Dr. Craig’s point is that without God, moral values cannot exist.

In a world without God, who’s to say whose values are right and whose are wrong? There can be no objective right and wrong, only our culturally and personally relative, subjective judgments. Think what this means! It means it’s impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can you praise generosity, self-sacrifice, and love as good. To kill someone or to love someone is morally equivalent. For in a universe without God, good and evil do not exist—there is only the bare, valueless fact of existence, and there is no one to say you are right and I am wrong.

Once again he falls into the error of isolating “values” from their real-world context. Right for whom? Wrong for whom? All values are relative to some person who holds them. Adding God to the equation only introduces one more Person who happens to hold a certain set of values. But does that change anything? Who is to say whether God’s values are right or wrong? Is genocide wrong, if God commands it? I’d say yes, but the apologist says we can’t judge God’s values according to objective right and wrong, we have to assess them relative to the cultural and subjective conditions of the time. Oh really? Whose foot is the shoe on now?

Moral values emerge as a consequence of people living in an environment where many behaviors have predictable consequences. Being material creatures, we are subject to conditions that either benefit us, or harm us, and after millions of years of evolution, we have developed mechanisms (desire, appetite, pain, fear, etc) that naturally urge us to pursue the beneficial consequences and avoid the harmful ones. Consequently, morality has both an objective dimension and a subjective dimension: the laws of nature constrain which behaviors result in which consequences, and thereby create an objective separation between beneficial outcomes and harmful ones, at least in many cases. But the only reason these differences become values is because we, as material creatures, are affected by these outcomes, and our natural, material instincts give us a preference for the beneficial outcomes, and an aversion to the harmful ones.

The problem is, our perceptions aren’t always accurate, and sometimes we like things that are actually harmful, or dislike things that are actually beneficial. Morality is a guide, not an absolute dictate. It exists relative to our subjective experiences within the constraints of an objectively real world with objective laws governing cause and effect. To the extent that we all live in the same objective reality, our common ground of real-world experience can give us a common morality, so there is a sense in which morality has an objective dimension. Unfortunately, misunderstanding this leads people like Dr. Craig to jump to the conclusion that morality is based on some universal objective moral standard “out there” somewhere.

We know, however, that there can be no such standard. A moral standard, as envisioned by apologists, is a list of rules: when X, do Y. But which circumstances constitute X? Is it ok to lie to the police? About where the Jews are hiding? Every circumstance is, in some way, unique, and in many cases the circumstances experienced by one person are in conflict with those of another. Any universal, objective moral standard would either have to be infinitely detailed, in order to cover every possible circumstance (in which case morality would be unknowable because it would be too vast), or else it would have to be imperfect because it failed to consider all the relevant circumstances. And even then, there would be circumstances where what’s good for one person is bad for another, and vice versa. A “perfect” moral code would have to contradict itself, one way or another, since it would be immoral to apply one standard to one person, and a conflicting standard to the other.

As Dr. Craig himself has noticed (without realizing it), good and evil do exist, even in a world without God. They exist relative to us, which is why he begins his argument by saying there are no ultimate moral values unless we ourselves exist forever. Values are a relative, subjective, personal experience, and the existence or non-existence of God is irrelevant. Even Craig’s argument shows this, since he argues that our real motive for good living is ultimately based on our personal expectation that we will be happy forever, or else that we will suffer forever. True morality, even in Craig’s worldview, is ultimately all about us, about what we want and what we don’t want. God does nothing to change the fundamentally subjective and personal nature of morality itself.

I say “subjective,” but again, morality has both an subjective dimension and an objective dimension. It’s not that there could ever be a universal list of Right vs. Wrong, even in the mind of God (unless by “morality” you really mean “tyranny”). What’s “out there” is the real world, the laws of material reality, and our own nature as material beings affected by these laws. Our experience of this reality, and our response to it, constitute our moral values. Morality springs from material reality itself, not from some immaterial Being. God is not only irrelevant to the nature of morality, He’s an actual impediment to gaining an accurate understanding of it. He short-circuits Christian thinking by substitution a superstitious attribution for a real investigation into the actual components and mechanisms that constitute ethics and morals.

So once again, Dr. Craig’s Christian presuppositions make his considerable intellect useless. He wants to claim that there can be no moral values without God, but in reality it’s the other way around: his own worldview blinds him to the existence of reality-based moral values, and goads him into jumping to superstitious conclusions that actually contribute nothing to our understanding of morals. Moral values are what they are, without God, and Craig’s attempts to argue otherwise only leave him unable to perceive reality-based moral values. In this entire section, he has nothing of substantive value to contribute.

4 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: Reality check”

  1. mikespeir Says:

    “How many of you would be willing to just take my word for it that this actually happened?”

    But sometimes I would like to be a fly on the man’s wall.

  2. Len Says:

    The morals that people experience are indeed subjective, but when you continually move within a (large) group of people who share the exact same morals, they can start to look quite objective. Because everyone you know agrees with them, it’s easy to lose sight of their subjective nature – you can be convinced that they are the only correct and true morals, that come – obviously – from God.

    • Anonymous Says:

      people share similar morals cos we are tribal creatures, we need our morals to get on with each other. these existed a long time before gods were thought of in the minds of bronze age superstitious illiterates who didnt know how thing worked in the way we do now. the same morals are observable in all higher mammals and the come even more obviously as a result of evolution.To deny this is just silly

  3. pboyfloyd Says:

    “There is no reason to be human.”, unless there is a carrot to hope for and a stick to fear? Is Craig a philosopher, a theologian or both? Does he have two actual hats he wears while writing and we get a few clues as to which one it was by what the sentence says?

    Since when was the notion of a supernatural carrot and stick great philosophical thinking?

    And the atheist thing is flabberghasting. We can only imagine people concluding that atheists are evil incarnate because Craig said as much and he’s a philosopher after all.

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