The late Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant man and wordsmith par excellence, was nonetheless a militant atheist–but not at his logical best when engaging the subject, imbued with an acerbic tongue and flaming rhetoric, but at some points not with altogether cogent reasoning. He used to love to offer a challenge to theists, a challenge that I found singularly unimpressive. He “challenged” us with this question (I paraphrase, but I’m getting the clear gist): “name one moral act you (Christians) might do in the name of your God that I cannot do in the name of atheism.” To which the answer, of course, is two-fold: one, there is none (you “win”, Chris), and two, Christian faith makes no such claim in the first place–but of course, this point, such as it is, is of little significance, and this for a variety of reasons. One, it’s not about “moral acts” or “moral living”. Two, as I said, this is not a claim theists (of any understanding) would ever make. But three, there is a question that Hitchens couldn’t answer, and that is this: why should anyone act in a “moral” way in the first place? I won’t even get into the source of the very definition of morality…but back to my question, and I’ll put it another way: since we cannot speak of “morality” as a code defined from individual to individual–but rather as a more-or-less universal norm by which to gauge the actions, not only of oneself but others–by what authority can Mr. Hitchens compel any other person to act in accord with his personal definition of “morality”? Morality isn’t about “could”, but about “should”; whereas Hitchens wanted to talk about what he as an atheist could do, we must speak in terms of what all people should do.

And that conversation leads to the reasoning found in this excellent article:

“‘Who Sez?’ The Place of God in Moral Philosophy”

As this article makes clear, those who would attempt to craft a morality on a basis other than some Lawgiver (Whom we Christians believe to be God) will ultimately founder on the rocks of “sez who?”

17 responses »

  1. ken says:

    ” “name one moral act you (Christians) might do in the name of your God that I cannot do in the name of atheism.” ”

    Faithfully convert someone to christainity (or whatever religion you hold).

    Of course, that leads to the question of “is that actually a moral act”. Certainly the religious person might think so, although Hitchens may disagree. Which bring me to my next point, there is no universal moral code.

    Byron, you seem to imply there is when you say:

    “since we cannot speak of “morality” as a code defined from individual to individual–but rather as a more-or-less universal norm by which to gauge the actions”

    Morality can be defined person to person (or rather group to group). For example, vegetarians may consider it immoral to eat meat, while others may not. And vegans might have an even stricter moral code about using animals.

    Finally Nilsen’s argument is flawed in that he misses the fact that a moral code can be derived from reason, rather than from a “law giver” as you put it. Let’s take the slave owner example he cites. If the slave owner can have slaves, then it is possible that HE could become a slave as well. So if you don’t want to risk becoming a slave, you shouldn’t support slavery. Christianity refers to this concept as the “Golden rule” (or do unto others). And you can build a very sophisticated moral code from this one concept. No religion required.

    • Byron says:

      Touche, Ken, on the one point about converting someone–but I don’t think that’s what Hitchens had in mind!

      I would disagree on your next point: I very much believe that there is a universal moral code, but I would add in the next breath that that code is not universally recognized, and never fully lived-by, to boot. To your arguments vis a vis vegetarians and vegans, I would agree that they would consider certain things immoral, but their considerations wouldn’t make it so…I would argue that it is either moral or immoral to eat meat, and thus that neither my opinion nor that of vegans is ultimately of consequence.

      Much as I like and agree with the Golden Rule, but I would disagree with using it as the sum total of a basis for morality. The Golden Rule, certainly, is a guide for behavior, but I don’t see Jesus grounding the rationale for it in self-interest, as your analogy seems to imply (you don’t want it done to you, don’t support doing it to others). First, Jesus’ standard is not cast in the negative, but in the positive, if you will. Second, it doesn’t limit itself to the presumed possibility of being mistreated by others. It just says, “do it”. And it is predicated upon the other things Jesus taught, that there is a God Who is, among other things, a righteous and just God, to Whom we all have to answer.

      That’s not to say you can’t build some kind of code on it; I would agree you can. But I’m not at all sure that it can bear the weight to which you assign it.

  2. Mark Merritt says:

    Ken, I agree with much of what you’ve written, but fail to see how a true moral code can be created and observed apart from a moral agent to validate. Eventually a situation will arise that likely could cause a person to abandon the self made code for a pragmatic reach toward opportunity, be it vice or not. The golden rule was spoken by Christ- though Confucius originally spoke it in the negative. Sure you can build a moral code from it, but ignoring the originator makes it a weak building. I could build a house from duct tape and velcro [always wanted to do that], and I may live in it for a while, but when the you-know-what hits the fan where will I be? A moral code without the proper authority to validate it to one’s own conscience is merely a prop or a facade. So my duct tape house will remain a pipe dream, much like the idea of morality without a moral agent originator. Thoughts?

  3. ken says:

    Mark Merritt
    Thursday November 8th 2012 at 1:48 am

    “but fail to see how a true moral code can be created and observed apart from a moral agent to validate.”

    I think we have a slightly different understanding of a “moral code.” A moral code is a system by which someone determines (judges) right or proper conduct/behavior, NOT a system of enforcement of that code. Your moral code may say it is wrong to cheat on your wife, but it doesn’t prevent you from cheating on your wife.Except in the desire to adhere to your moral code (and so show others of your peer group that you adhere to the moral code).

    “Sure you can build a moral code from it, but ignoring the originator makes it a weak building.”

    I disagree. You can judge a moral code without knowing who originally developed it or why they did. Might be helpful, but it isn’t necessary.

    Lets take your duct tape and velcro house example. Do you know who invented duct tape and/or velcro and why they did so? Do you need to know that to understand that building a house out of duct tape and velcro is a bad idea? I don’t think so. You just need to understand the properties of duct tape and velcro and the requirements of a sound house to know whether it is a good idea to build a house out of those materials.

  4. Mark Merritt says:

    Ken, thanks for your response. I need some time to think about it before I post again as I’m at work on break right now. I will say that when I originally encountered you on this site I mistook you for a typical liberal. As I’ve read your contributions to the topics here, I realize that I made a mistake. You may be liberal, but definitely not typical. That’s a good thing.

  5. Mark Merritt says:

    Just a few thoughts on morality, the Bible and Jesus among other things:

    If I wanted to build my real-life house to specification and be assured of ultimate reliability then I would follow a specific set of guidelines, rules and codes. In this case I would want to consult the person or source [book or other media] that can provide me with the information.to enable me in that endeavor. A trustworthy source, hopefully.
    I’m utilizing the scriptures as my spiritual authoritative source and guide to the rules, codes and [ultimately] discipline of living life to know God. Remember that discipline actually leads to freedom and indiscipline to slavery and bondage. I have to trust the Word in order to do that.

    It’s not abnormal that I have a plaque of the Ten Commandments on my wall, but the Great Commandment fulfilled the law and it is recorded in scripture. I trust that Jesus actually walked the planet as recorded. I trust that he said “The greatest Commandment is love God with all of your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”

    To me that sums up the essence of the 10 and also provides me with a proactive way of living morally in the proactive sense [loving] rather than reactive [thou shalt not].

    That said, it’s an ideal that I hope to continually attain and from time to time I fail. I’ll finish on that sobering note, for the sake of humility.

    M

    .

  6. ken says:

    Byron
    Friday November 9th 2012 at 4:52 pm

    “I very much believe that there is a universal moral code, but I would add in the next breath that that code is not universally recognized, and never fully lived-by, to boot.”

    If I’m reading your argument correctly, it is essentially the same as there only being one true religion. However, in the case of a moral code that people can’t fully know/understand seems contrary to the concept of a moral code.

    “Much as I like and agree with the Golden Rule, but I would disagree with using it as the sum total of a basis for morality.”

    My example of the golden rule was to show how a moral code could be based on reason/logic and not require religion or a law giver of some sort. While just this one rule may or may not be enough to create a complete moral code, other rules, again based reason, not religion, could be used as well.

    • Byron says:

      Yes, Ken, you read my argument correctly. I’m not sure it’s contrary to the concept of a moral code, though…”ignorance of the law is no excuse”, as they say. I think you’d agree with me that killing people in order to eat them is morally wrong, but there are a few primitive societies where apparently it is not considered so. And we could think of other examples; I would argue that the fact that a society rejects–knowingly or unknowingly–a particular facet of morality does not render morality moot.

      To the second point, I certainly agree that a moral code could be built upon reason, sans religion, but I doubt the possibility that anything could, built purely upon reason, be said to be unequivocally wrong. In that scenario, the source of authority would be other men–well-meaning, intelligent, decent men, perhaps–but only men. The “sez who” question isn’t answered, even if the code produced was instructive, reasonable, etc., and it would be difficult, in my judgment, to ever say “wrong” with absolute conviction. If there is a God, Who has determined the boundary of right and wrong, there is no such dilemma, even though, as you correctly say, there are undoubtedly many who don’t recognize it as such.

  7. ken says:

    Byron
    Saturday November 10th 2012 at 10:06 pm

    “I’m not sure it’s contrary to the concept of a moral code”

    I’m not claiming it is contrary to the concept of a moral code (I’m only saying a moral code doesn’t have to be based on religion, not that it can’t be). However, the problem with such codes (like with religion) is the adherents tend to fall into the “my moral code is better than your moral code” based solely on subjective beliefs rather than objective ones. (not that codes based on reason can’t fall into the same trap).

    “The “sez who” question isn’t answered,”

    But it is answered, you even answered it yourself : “the source of authority would be other men”. However, that isn’t always the case. To be more blunt: I say. I decide what moral code I will adhere to. Not you or your god. Just as you are free to adhere to your own moral code (or rather that you believe your god’s moral code to be).

    • Byron says:

      Here, I would argue, would be a key difference, Ken: while it is true, as you suggest, that we each decide what values will govern our lives, it is also true that the source of the morality I espouse (and fail to live up to, altogether too often) is God. I immediately grant that that counts for little to those who are not convinced of His existence–and it’s not my point here to attempt to prove Him one way or the other–but only to say that the source of my moral beliefs are outside myself, indeed outside my belief that they come from any man, or committee of men, and are as regards my position, objective. Put another way, if there is no God, then man is a law unto himself, and no one can ever ultimately look at another person and say, with absolute conviction, “should”. If there is a God, then as haltingly and failingly as we might attempt to do His will, the word “should” can be spoken, because that God has decreed the morals that ought to govern men. Again, I understand that many, yourself included (I assume) would reject that understanding of “should”, and I wouldn’t attempt to deprive you of that prerogative. But I can, with conviction, say “should”, and apply that “should” to all men and women, everywhere (first of all, to myself!), such that actions can be objectively judged right or wrong by that standard (again, granting your freedom to disagree with my assessment). Hitchens speaks of “can”, and with that, I don’t argue one whit; indeed, there are certainly atheists whose sheer morality contrasts well with some people of faith; no argument there. But any system built on the ideas of men cannot, I would argue, ever get to “should” when directed toward society.

      Illustrated, I say, “you should not kill”, because God says so. A “you should not kill”, coming from any mere human source, seems unconvincing as an absolute moral guide. Live by whatever values/code you choose, and those values may cause you to be an upstanding fellow; it’s just that I can’t understand “should” from a mere human perspective, and absent “should”, it seems to me that the very meaning of “morality” is diluted beyond recognition.

  8. ken says:

    Byron
    Saturday November 10th 2012 at 10:06 pm

    “it is also true that the source of the morality I espouse (and fail to live up to, altogether too often) is God.”

    However, your god didn’t give you this moral code personally did he? In fact, your sources for your moral code are other people (your parents/guardians, teachers, ministers, the men who wrote/interpreted your bible, peers etc) and possibly from your own research as well. Granted many of these other people may have also claimed their source was god as well, but I think you’ll agree that source is pretty far removed.

    And for people whose moral code is based on reason (or any other non-religious source), they also got that from their parents/guardians, teachers, peers, possibly ministers, etc. And the process is pretty similar to how you developed your own code, the most significant difference is they aren’t claiming their original source is a god.

    My disagreement with you (and Nilsen) is your claim that a moral code isn’t valid, simply because its followers aren’t claiming the ultimate source is a god.

    And I’m sure you will agree, there are many cases of people claiming they are doing what their god wants, that probably have nothing to do with god (just as there are people who claim their actions/beliefs are reasonable, but are not). However, given the many conflicting claims about “god’s will”, how can anyone realistically claim they are correct about their interpretation of it? Even you have said you don’t fully know what god’s moral code (ex: whether it is or is not morally correct to eat meat).

    I have more faith in humans (despite their many faults) to be able to develop their own moral code, than you do. And given your god’s lack of a clear moral code, maybe he does too.

    • Byron says:

      Yes and no, Ken! True enough, I didn’t get it from God directly. But that doesn’t mean that He is not the ultimate Source; let me explain.

      With any other source of a moral code, by very definition, a human, or some group of human beings, would be the origin, the source, the “furthest back you could go”. And while you might have faith in the ability of humans to develop a moral code, the term I’m using isn’t whether such a code is “valid”, to use your word, but whether a moral code even could possibly serve as an objective, unchanging standard of conduct wherein the word “should” could be said with conviction. Speak to this: on what basis, if one’s moral code had as its ultimate origin another mere man, could you, as a proponent of such a code, ever look at me and say, “you should do this, and if you don’t, you are committing an act of moral evil”?

      As I see it, you mistake the source for the medium with regard to your reasoning regarding my statements. Merely for the sake of argument, and to help you to understand what I’m driving at, accept my premise: there is an omnipotent, omniscient Being (God) Who has created standards of right and wrong, which as Creator, He has the prerogative to do. Not asking you to agree to that, or to sign off on it, but merely to accept it in order to hear my argument. If that were the case, could you not agree that no one could argue with those standards? Could you not agree that one person could say to another person, on the basis that “God says so”, that he/she should or should not do certain things?

      The other issues you raise, then, become not unimportant, but secondary. Yes, I do believe that God used men to “mediate” that message, to be certain, but that He did so in such a way that the message as given by God was unassailably true. I certainly agree that there are many cases of people claiming they are doing what their god wants; no argument there, but it doesn’t make everyone right, of course. And though I wouldn’t use the issue of eating meat as an illustration of what God desires, it is true that at not every minute point can I, as a fallible person, be absolutely certain that I’m getting it right; the Bible, the more proximate source of God’s revelation, doesn’t speak to every conceivable permutation of decision-making that might arise, and it’s at these points that we should say, humbly, that we do our best to discern and act on our best understanding of God’s will as revealed in the Bible.

      And so, when it comes to most of the decisions faced by humans, and effectively all of the ones of significant consequence, I can say “should, because God said so”. That “should” doesn’t mean that everyone accepts it, and it doesn’t mean that in every detail I get it right, and it certainly doesn’t mean that I always do what I say I “should”. But I do have a moral code which, I believe, comes from a Source beyond any man-made code, and it’s on that basis that I can say “should”. It is difficult to imagine any code of human origin which could ever get to “should”, and if a code can’t say “should” with conviction, it’s hard to see how even its proponents can expect that code to be morally compelling when applied to anyone else.

  9. ken says:

    Byron
    Thursday November 22nd 2012 at 12:27 pm

    “If that were the case, could you not agree that no one could argue with those standards? Could you not agree that one person could say to another person, on the basis that “God says so”, that he/she should or should not do certain things?”

    No, because it depends on what the moral code says. Lets assume there is conclusive proof of a god and what his moral code is. No doubts god’s word direct from the source. Further, lets say this code he gave says the following:

    my chosen believers are to be exhalted above all others. Non-believers are less than human and considered property of the believers.

    I don’t care what your source is for that code, I won’t ever agree with it (say it should be followed).

    “but that He did so in such a way that the message as given by God was unassailably true.”

    Is it “unassailiably true” that men can own other men as slaves? that women should be considered the property of their husbands? that women should “be silent” and “dress modestly”?

    • Byron says:

      Ken, your first response, though you didn’t state it in so many words, sounds like this (and you may not take any umbrage at my putting it this way, I don’t know): “I will only accept as moral that which squares with my own particular ideas of justice/morality.” Which, of course, gets us back to the starting point: while I can agree that the example you give certainly doesn’t strike me as moral–and of course, God doesn’t say that–we nonetheless may have to agree to disagree. My argument is that by definition, God’s ways are higher than our ways, and His moral will is right, both in those instances when I understand and can agree with it, and in those in which I might more naturally rebel against it, or fail to have a clue as to the “why” of a particular thing. Though I won’t pursue this line of reasoning (can you say, “can of worms”?), there are those who would argue, persuasively in my opinion, that absent a God, we have no real basis for being able to discern what is “good” and what is “bad”. But let me move on…

      To the examples you list in your second statement, briefly, I would ask where in Scripture “owning other men as slaves” is presented as a moral good. Same question to the second statement; where does the Bible say, “do this”, or “think this”, in the sense of a moral command? As to the other two, you’ve misunderstood or misspoken. The Bible categorically does not teach that women should “be silent” or “dress modestly” (though to that latter point, I’m not sure at all why you’d consider modest dress to be some problem morally). What the apostle Paul wrote in I Timothy 2 regarding “being silent” was not directed to “women”, but to a subset of women (specifically to Christian women) in a particular place (the assembly of Christians together in that geographical setting). Further, there is a legitimate debate among Christians of good will as to the extent of the applicability of this admonition. Paul was speaking very directly to a particular group of people dealing with a particular set of issues, and where/how Christians apply that teaching today is a matter of some honest debate.

      To this entire topic, let me give you a quick perspective that I find missing in your argument, and the arguments of some others who come at least roughly from your perspective, as well, unfortunately, as way too many professing Christians!–and I do this for no other reason than to give you an understanding of Bible interpretation. When the Bible is read, it must be read through the lens of several things, summed up by the word “context”. You quote from one of Paul’s letters, and a simple rule in reading anything from that genre, any kind of letter (not restricted to the Bible, but just a common-sense approach to any letter you’d read), is that letters are addressed to specific people regarding specific situations, and anyone else reading that letter “reads over the shoulder” of the addressee, right? If I wrote you an email, and said, “Ken, let’s get together at Starbucks for coffee on Thursday”, another person reading the email would be foolish to assume that a.) the invitation was for him to meet at Starbucks, and b.) that “any old Thursday” would do. You could probably think of some other things that’d be foolish to assume as well (“any old Starbucks”?). Now, I give you this for no other reason than to help you get a perspective on how to understand how a text like the Bible needs to be approached, not just by an “outsider”, of course, but by Christians. Sadly, this approach is all too lacking on many fronts…

  10. ken says:

    “though you didn’t state it in so many words, sounds like this (and you may not take any umbrage at my putting it this way, I don’t know): “I will only accept as moral that which squares with my own particular ideas of justice/morality.” ”

    No that is not what I said at all. What I said was that there are some things I will NEVER accept as moral no matter what the source. Not that I would never accept anything that I didn’t personally agree with as moral. For example, personally, while I have no problem with pre-marital sex, I recognize others have a moral code that prohibits that.

    “while I can agree that the example you give certainly doesn’t strike me as moral–and of course, God doesn’t say that”

    My point was had your god said that, you would consider it moral. That is your argument, god’s word is the law no matter what he said.

    “I would ask where in Scripture “owning other men as slaves” is presented as a moral good.”

    Never said anything about “presented as a moral good”. That is you twisting what I said. What I said was that owning slaves was morally acceptable to your god. And there are SEVERAL passages in your bible that allow for owning (and selling others) into slavery. Your turn where in the bible does it SPECIFICALLY CONDEMN SLAVERY AS IMMORAL?

    ” “dress modestly” (though to that latter point, I’m not sure at all why you’d consider modest dress to be some problem morally). ”

    because if you DO NOT “dress modestly” it means you are immoral. C’mon Byron, if your reasoning skills are that poor I’m wasting my time here.

    “I Timothy 2 regarding “being silent” was not directed to “women”, but to a subset of women (specifically to Christian women) in a particular place (the assembly of Christians together in that geographical setting). ”

    Where does it say “only in a particular place”? (I’ll grant you that it could be assumed Paul only meant it to apply only to christian women, but are you claiming your god’s moral code only applies to christian’s and god never intended it to apply to all people?)

    • Byron says:

      Wow, way too long to respond. Ken, you asked a direct question about the Bible not directly condemning slavery. It can be said, as you suggest, that the Bible does not explicitly condemn slavery. That said, it can also be said that in the New Testament, there are clearly seeds sown which lead to the moving away from slavery as the proper way for people to be treated today. William Wilberforce, perhaps the greatest anti-slavery warrior the world has ever known, was of course motivated by His Christian convictions, and we rightly hail him as a hero today for causing the British empire to do away with the sad practice. John Piper puts it far better in this article than I ever could, but I agree substantially with the points he makes:

      Why Did God Permit Slavery?

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