Atheistic Incoherence

Posted: September 10, 2011 in apologetics, atheism, controversy, current events, secularism

Doug Wilson’s masterful response to Christopher Hitchen’s latest article for Slate (“Simply Evil“):

All this is Hitchens doing what Hitchens does best, and he does it for most of his article. And then, fulfilling the promise of the title (“Simply Evil”), he veers into incoherence at the very end when he only had about two column inches to go. It was like watching a bicycling Tour de Something rider, 50 yards ahead of the nearest competitor, anticipate the finish line by raising both hands above his head, at which point he triumphantly bites it.

“The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called ‘evil.’”

Evil? Since the 2009 publication of God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens has spent a great deal of energy trying to persuade all of us that the idea of God is a false and pernicious one. But now he ups and calls these bad guys . . . evil. Given the premises, what might the definition of that be? Who determines what is evil and why? By what standard? But there may be a wiggle-room word in there. Hitchens only said they deserve to be called evil. But that generates the same questions. By whom? And whoever that person is, how did he wind up in charge of our moral lexicon? Was there an election? Did I miss a meeting? And what weight does being called evil have? When Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad pass into the same gray nothingness that will swallow the greatest altruists and the sweetest grandmas who ever lived, will those men then care that some people (back where consciousness is still going on) are calling them evil? Sticks and stones . . .

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Comments
  1. “Who determines what is evil and why?”

    Humanity does, based on things called ‘harm and benefit’.

    Just because your deity doesn’t exist doesn’t mean good and evil is unable to be determined.

    • Matt Tully says:

      Thanks for the comment. The problem with that line of thought is that what you’re describing is a totally subjective standard by which to judge others. Your (implied) contention that “benefit” is better than “harm” is no more than mere opinion if there is not some objective standard. Who gets to judge what is harmful and what is beneficial? “Harm and benefit” to whom? If you call something evil and I disagree, who’s to say you’re right? In the end, it just comes down to power – the stronger individual/group enforces their will on those who are weaker.

      I’d encourage you to check out the documentary Collision, in which Wilson and Hitchens debate this very issue. I think Wilson demonstrates, quite convincingly, the inconsistency of the atheistic position at just this point.

      I appreciate the comment.

  2. “The problem with that line of thought is that what you’re describing is a totally subjective standard by which to judge others.”

    So?

    This is what we, as humans, do. We come up with ideas that are basically subjective but that we try to base on our experiences in the real world. Then we form societies and cultures with others who share those subjective ideas.

    “If you call something evil and I disagree, who’s to say you’re right?”

    I am.

    And we may disagree with what’s evil. But I see no reason that your answer (the god you believe in told you so, or had it written down somewhere) is better than my answer (it causes demonstrable harm). In fact, my answer seems a lot more universal than yours.

    “the stronger individual/group enforces their will on those who are weaker.”

    Or, the vast majority of humanity agrees because our experiences are very similar.

    For example…nearly everyone in the world will agree that killing people is bad. What they disagree on is what is meant by ‘people’. For some, it’s every human on the planet. For others, it’s just those who are a part of their particular religious tribe. I happen to lean towards the former, and do my best to encourage that in others.

    • Matt Tully says:

      “We come up with ideas that are basically subjective but that we try to base on our experiences in the real world.”

      Well, it seems that we agree that this must be the atheist’s fundamental perspective: relativism.

      However, the problem with this worldview is that the best that it can do is describe reality. The atheist can say, “Such and such society has agreed to prohibit killing,” or “I would prefer (and indeed will fight for) this prohibition against killing.” But those personal (or corporate) sentiments are a far cry from “ought” statements. To call something or someone “evil” (as Hitchens does) normally implies that you believe that what that person did ought not to have been done ever or by anyone. However, in my opinion, statements of ought have no place in an atheistic worldview. The very category of ought is meaningless. Nietzshe understood this in his nihilism.

      Have you seen the documentary?

      • “But those personal (or corporate) sentiments are a far cry from “ought” statements.”

        They are ‘ought’ statements because they reflect what I value. I value things like life and freedom, and thus my actions reflect that. Using things like evidence and reason, we can determine what is the best way to preserve life and freedom.

        “However, in my opinion, statements of ought have no place in an atheistic worldview.”

        OK.

        Your opinion is viewed as inaccurate by most if not all atheists. But you’re welcome to keep it.

        “Nietzshe understood this in his nihilism.”

        Good for him. I’m not a nihilist.

        What it comes down to is, or so it seems to me, that believers want someone to tell them what is right and wrong. And they have scriptures do that for them. But that doesn’t make those ideas of right and wrong correct or objective. It’s not even really morality at that point…that’s just doing what someone stronger is telling you to do.

      • Matt Tully says:

        “They are ‘ought’ statements because they reflect what I value.”

        I understand what you’re saying. However, again, I think to be logically consistent, the atheist should give up the “ought” statements and instead be clear that their “morality” claims are, when the rubber meets the road, just personal preference. Worms don’t cry foul when birds eat them…

        Needless to say, I think we run into many problematic situations when the measure of morality is located within the individual (or group of individuals). An “end justifies the means” mentality undoubtedly follows (see tomorrow’s post).

        In regard to God, I would argue that his existence does provide me with an objective standard. If the Christian contention that God is the sole eternal and sovereign creator of the universe is true, then, by definition, he gives meaning to all things. We can fight against his meaning and truth, but in the end he makes the rules and will act accordingly. The Christian has a firm foundation for morality because there really is a good and just God reigning over the universe.

  3. “when the rubber meets the road, just personal preference”

    Not at all.

    If it were just personal preference, it wouldn’t be based off of reason, evidence and observation.

    “An “end justifies the means” mentality undoubtedly follows (see tomorrow’s post).”

    I hope you will forgive my bluntness, but I find it mildly amusing that my way of looking at things is called ‘the end justifies the means’ when the book you claim to get your morals from endorses slavery and genocide. What could be more ‘end justifies the means’ than ‘drowning all of humanity’?

    • Matt Tully says:

      Within a Christian worldview, God’s actions as recorded in the Old Testament are entirely just. Again, as creator and sustainer, he gets to make the rules. That’s not to say that he’s capricious or fickle. Quite to the contrary, the Bible presents him as incredibly patient, long-suffering, and forgiving. However, the fact of the matter remains that Christians affirm that he has the right to do what he wants with his creation. Add to that the fundamental Christian contention that all humans have rebelled against his authority and are thus subject to his just judgment, and it is clear that the mere fact that any of us exists is a testament to his mercy and grace.

      Additionally, just because the Bible records something doesn’t mean it prescribes it. In my experience, many of those who deride the Bible as containing a laundry list of extreme immorality seem to miss that distinction. The Bible does not “endorse” slavery, nor genocide. Those Christians who have used it to support their evil actions (i.e. the Crusades, Southern slavery, etc.) in fact misused it, to their shame.

      A fair reading entails acknowledging the historical context in which things were written, understanding that God gave instructions to a particular people in a particular setting. His instructions to Israel to destroy other nations were specific commands, not an open invitation to do whatever they wanted. In fact, we see in the Old Testament many instructions that went against the grain of the prevailing worldview/attitudes of the time (i.e. the lex talionis, the care for orphans and widows, good treatment of strangers and sojourners, etc.).

      With that, I think I’ll bow out. I truly do appreciate the discussion.

      – Matt

      • “Within a Christian worldview, God’s actions as recorded in the Old Testament are entirely just”

        Which is why I’m morally opposed to the Christian worldview. At least that kind.

        “Again, as creator and sustainer, he gets to make the rules.”

        Which makes your morality completely arbitrary based on this creator’s whim. How is that objective? How is that even morality? That’s just doing what the stronger being tells you to do.

        “Additionally, just because the Bible records something doesn’t mean it prescribes it.”

        The Bible specifically states how you should treat your slaves, how to mark them as yours, how often to beat them, and under what circumstances you can keep Jewish slaves as opposed to non-Jewish slaves. That’s endorsement.

        Nowhere does it say slavery is bad, or that you shouldn’t have them.

        “A fair reading entails acknowledging the historical context in which things were written”

        Why? Was there ever a time that slavery or killing women and children non-combatants in a war was a good thing?

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