TIA Tuesday: Getting low on gasNovember 18, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Believe it or not, Vox is still trying to chew his way through what he calls Occam’s Chainsaw, but the teeth on that old saw are just getting duller and duller, and the engine is starting to sputter like it was low on gas. Here’s his rendition of what he calls “The Argument from God’s Character.”
This is another superficial argument popular with Low Church atheists, although it pops up from time to time among the more militant High Church breed. It states that even if God exists, the morality He dictates is so abhorrent to the atheist and inferior to the atheist’s own moral sensibilities that the atheist cannot believe in Him. And in the unlikely event that the atheist is ever confronted by God, he will refuse to acknowledge His divine status let alone His right to rule over Mankind.
One is tempted to think that Vox expects most thoughtful and rational readers to have abandoned his book before now, leaving him free to say whatever he likes without worrying too much about whether or not he can get away with it. Surely by this point only his fans are still tuned in, and they’re not going to worry too much about whether he’s really addressing substantial arguments against God or merely breaking rhetorical wind, so long as he talks like he’s refuting the Bad Guys.
But we’re still here, Vox.
Vox’s “argument from God’s character” sounds vaguely like a combination of the argument from the inconsistencies in what men say about God’s character, coupled with a non-propositional reaction to the absurdity and incoherence of the pictures men paint of their God(s). The latter isn’t even an argument at all, of course, since it’s merely an expression of how one might react to the conclusions Vox is drawing. Yet it is the latter notion that is the focus of Vox’s “rebuttal.”
I find it very difficult to take this argument seriously, given how the first words out of every angel’s mouth seems to be “Fear not!” I am as arrogant as anyone (and more than most, I’m told), but on the day when I meet my Maker, the Creator Lord of the Universe, I fully intend to set new speed records in performing a full proskynesis complete with averted eyes. It’s not so much the Biblical confidence that “every knee shall bow” that makes me skeptical about this theoretical atheist machismo in the face of the Almighty, it’s the part about how even the demons believe . . . and tremble. I don’t know what it takes to make a powerful fallen angel shake with terror just thinking about it, but I have a feeling that neither Richard Dawkins nor Bertrand Russell will be wagging their fingers at God and criticizing Him for insufficient evidence on the day their disbelief is conclusively destroyed.
Yeah, I don’t expect Dawkins or Russell or anyone else to be wagging their fingers at anyone on some future Final Judgment Day either, though not for the same reasons as Vox. Vox apparently wants to make the belligerent version of Pascal’s Wager—the threat that “God’s gonna gitcha because you dared to disagree with what I believe about Him!” Only it’s a hollow threat, because Vox is only sharing the things that people have told him and that he gullibly believes just on their say-so. There’s no real-world basis for concluding that God is too darn scary to be opposed, there’s only the stories that Vox heard from the Christians, who heard it from the Pharisees, who heard it from the Persians, who heard it from Zoroaster, who made it up so that people would be afraid to doubt him.
Vox does almost seem to recognize that he’s beating up a non-argument, though of course he tries to make it look like he’s actually accomplished something significant with this little charade.
The argument is totally specious from the logical perspective, of course, because the fact of God’s existence no more depends on the quality of His character than does Charles Manson’s. Things exist or don’t exist regardless of whether we wish them to be or not.
And that, in a nutshell, is Vox’s big problem. Regardless of whether or not he wishes God were true, God does not actually show up in real life, which means Vox has no real-world source for his information. He has only the stories men tell about God, and the superstitions and subjective feelings of believers, and the speculative sophistries of theologians, as the foundation for his faith—and those stories, superstitions, subjective feelings and speculations all say inconsistent and mutually-contradictory things about God and about His character.
We can’t tell what’s real and what’s not just on the basis of what we do and do not wish to be real, yet that’s all Vox has to go on: he wishes God were real, he thinks God ought to be real, therefore God is real. But the infallible and objective standard of truth is that truth is consistent with itself. The Gospel stories about God fail to meet that standard, and therefore, no matter what anyone may wish or not wish, the Gospel is not true and God does not exist, at least as Christians envision Him.
We’ve got room for another blunted link on the Chainsaw, so let’s look at the “Argument from Moral Evolution.”
The idea that morals are not defined by sacred texts but have instead evolved naturally is the subject of much pseudo-scientific speculation and a few books, such as Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds, have been written about it. Christopher Hitchens is the foremost advocate of this idea among the New Atheists. While they admit that morality exists, they argue that it has evolved naturally through a material process, therefore it cannot have been acquired through divine revelation.
Apparently, Vox believes that morality is younger than writing, since illiterate people can’t derive their morality from sacred books they are unable to read. Pity those poor savages, having their food stolen, being beaten, sometimes having family killed, and sitting around wondering, “Hmm, I wonder if that was a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t have any Bible to tell me right from wrong, so there’s no way I can tell whether pain and loss and suffering are better or worse than strength and health and satisfaction. Gosh, I sure hope we learn to read and write soon!”
Vox’s rebuttal to the idea of moral evolution is to play stupid, and pretend to believe that the only way morals could “evolve” is biochemically.
There are a number of problems with the idea of moral evolution if we pretend that it is not a metaphor but literal evolution. First, if the mechanism of evolution takes place at the gene level, it is very difficult to understand how one moral would mutate and replicate itself genetically. Second, it is easy to observe that the pace of moral transformation is rapidly accelerating. Less than forty years ago, homosexuality was universally considered an immoral action. Today, there is a substantial minority in the West that insists that belief in either the immorality or the psychological abnormality of homosexuality is itself immoral, a rapid notional transformation that is consistent with neither past moral transformations nor biological evolution. Furthermore, moral evolution depends upon the group selection aspect of evolutionary theory that has largely fallen into disfavor among modern evolutionary biologists.
Either mankind should expect to start sprouting wings within the next century, or the process of human moral development cannot be reasonably described as evolution.
As California’s Proposition 8 sadly showed, morals are not evolving quite as fast as Vox would suggest. In fact, taken in the light of gay history as a whole, it would seem that Californian morals were rather regressing more than advancing. It’s true we’ve at least progressed beyond the point of outright stoning gays, as was the “morality” advanced by the Old Testament. But we’ve still got quite a ways to go before people can relax their homophobic prejudices enough to refrain from punishing people for simply being what they are.
Be that as it may, Vox either does not understand what moral evolution is, or he’s just playing dumb so as to have an excuse to give a flippant dismissal to a very serious problem: The Bible, as a source for “divinely-inspired” morality, has some pretty immoral things in it—things that were supposedly revealed to man by God Himself.
Take ritual mutilation of the genitals of baby boys, for instance. Or animal sacrifice. Or stoning people for working on Saturday, blaspheming, or disobeying their parents. Ok, we still practice the genital mutilation, but a lot of those things we’ve more or less outgrown, culturally. How is it that our morals are better than some of the morals in the Bible, if the Bible is supposed to be the authoritative source for morality?
The answer is that the Biblical writers (and more importantly, the Biblical writings) were the products of their times. That’s a big problem for the inspiration of the Scripture, because if we can discover that the Bible has outdated and inferior moral information, why should we assume that any other information is necessarily true and up-to-date, especially in the face of verifiable evidence to the contrary? Why should we take the Bible’s word for it that God created the world in six days when we manifestly cannot take the Bible’s word for it that slavery and genocide are A-ok with God?
It’s no wonder Vox would rather play dumb than confront this problem squarely. Moral authority is supposed to be the Bible’s strong point, and if we admit that Biblical morality is unexpectedly obsolete, it casts doubt on all the rest as well. And it does no good to say that the bad stuff is all in the Old Testament, because Jesus stated quite clearly that he regarded the OT Scriptures as being genuinely inspired, authoritative, and perfect. That means Jesus was no more morally advanced than the OT writers were, and didn’t point out any moral flaws in the Law of Moses because he couldn’t discern any. We, today, are morally more advanced than Jesus, and how can that be if Jesus were God the Son?
Maybe that’s why believers today feel a twinge of nostalgia for the “good old days” when you could really punish people for disagreeing with your religion. Maybe Proposition 8 was an expression of dissatisfaction with modern moral advances, and a desire to go back to a more primitive system based on “might makes right” and “different is evil.”
Let’s hope it was just a temporary setback, but let’s also work twice as hard to improve our culture’s morals. Unlike biological evolution, moral evolution takes hard work by men and women of conscience. But it benefits everybody in the long run. Even nostalgic people with rusty chainsaws.