A Christian Philosopher’s Faulty Arguments: On the Need for God as Basis for Morality – Part II

By | April 1, 2011

In a long article, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality,” ** William. L Craig (Research Professor of Philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California) argues that objective morality requires a theistic base. In other words, without God humans do not have an objective basis for moral values and moral judgments. In the process of so arguing, Craig commits a variety of errors, false assumptions, invalid inference, and offers a rather weak argument.

I respond with a two-part critique of his article. Part I was a posted article (March 31). Here I give Part II of my critique.

Below are excerpts from the second (concluding) part of Craig’s essay interspersed with my critical response and remarks in highlighted brackets.
(This is probably too long for a blog posting; but I wanted to show most of Mr. Craig’s states in his allegations against the possibility of secular morality.)
Finally, on the theistic hypothesis God holds all persons morally accountable for their actions. Evil and wrong will be punished; righteousness will be vindicated. Good ultimately triumphs over evil, and we shall finally see that we do live in a moral universe after all. Despite the inequities of this life, in the end the scales of God’s justice will be balanced. Thus, the moral choices we make in this life are infused with an eternal significance. We can with consistency make moral choices which run contrary to our self-interest and even undertake acts of extreme self-sacrifice, knowing that such decisions are not empty and ultimately meaningless gestures. Rather our moral lives have a paramount significance. So I think it is evident that theism provides a sound foundation for morality.
[These are statements of religious doctrine; but they’re not at all statements of necessary conditions for morality.]

Contrast this with the atheistic hypothesis. First, if atheism is true, objective moral values do not exist
[It is not at all clear what is meant by saying that “objective moral values” exist or don’t exist. If your meaning is secularists lack all moral values, it is a false statement.]

If God does not exist, then what is the foundation for moral values? More particularly, what is the basis for the value of human beings? If God does not exist, then it is difficult to see any reason to think that human beings are special or that their morality is objectively true.
[All this shows is that securlarists don’t have recognize ‘moral objectivity’ as Christian theists define it. Humans are special, but not special in the Christian sense. Secular morality can be every bit as compelling and valid as Christian morality. There is no doctrine-independent reason for saying that Christian morality is objectively true, as there is no reason for accepting the objective truth of Christian theism.]

Moreover, why think that we have any moral obligations to do anything?
[For any number of valid reasons. Maybe we follow the teachings of Aristotle and strive to develop an excellent moral character.]

Who or what imposes any moral duties upon us?
[The moral community to which we belong does this and our own well-developed moral character.]

Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science from the University of Guelph, writes,

The position of the modern evolutionist . . . is that humans have an awareness of morality . . . because such an awareness is of biological worth. Morality is a biological adaptation no less than are hands and feet and teeth . . . . Considered as a rationally justifiable set of claims about an objective something, ethics is illusory. I appreciate that when somebody says ‘Love they neighbor as thyself,’ they think they are referring above and beyond themselves . . . . Nevertheless, . . . such reference is truly without foundation. Morality is just an aid to survival and reproduction, . . . and any deeper meaning is illusory .

[This is just Ruse’s view and hardly representative of the better secularist accounts of moral obligation.]

As a result of socio-biological pressures, there has evolved among homo sapiens a sort of “herd morality” which functions well in the perpetuation of our species in the struggle for survival. But there does not seem to be anything about homo sapiens that makes this morality objectively true.

[Again, other than the dogmatic requirement that ‘objectivity’ needs to spelled out in sectarian terms, i.e., in terms of your favored religious doctrine, there is no compelling reason why the rest of us should accept your meaning of “morality objectively true.”]

Moreover, on the atheistic view there is no divine lawgiver. But then what source is there for moral obligation?
[A source for moral obligation? Maybe we could ask Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and a number of other moral philosophers what they propose as “source for moral obligation. None of them agree that it must be the Christian God. ]

Richard Taylor, an eminent ethicist, writes,

The modern age, more or less repudiating the idea of a divine lawgiver, has nevertheless tried to retain the ideas of moral right and wrong, not noticing that, in casting God aside, they have also abolished the conditions of meaningfulness for moral right and wrong as well.
Thus, even educated persons sometimes declare that such things are war, or abortion, or the violation of certain human rights, are ‘morally wrong,’ and they imagine that they have said something true and significant.
Educated people do not need to be told, however, that questions such as these have never been answered outside of religion

[Richard Taylor is entitled to his view; but we don’t have any reason for taking it as the final word on these issues. ]

He concludes,

Contemporary writers in ethics, who blithely discourse upon moral right and wrong and moral obligation without any reference to religion, are really just weaving intellectual webs from thin air; which amounts to saying that they discourse without meaning.

[Interesting opinion byRichard Tayler, but ultimately one that is false!]

Now it is important that we remain clear in understanding the issue before us. The question is not: Must we believe in God in order to live moral lives? There is no reason to think that atheists and theists alike may not live what we normally characterize as good and decent lives. Similarly, the question is not: Can we formulate a system of ethics without reference to God? If the non-theist grants that human beings do have objective value, then there is no reason to think that he cannot work out a system of ethics with which the theist would also largely agree. Or again, the question is not: Can we recognize the existence of objective moral values without reference to God? The theist will typically maintain that a person need not believe in God in order to recognize, say, that we should love our children. Rather, as humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz puts it,

“The central question about moral and ethical principles concerns this ontological foundation. If they are neither derived from God nor anchored in some transcendent ground, are they purely ephemeral?”

[With due respect to Kurtz, talk about “ontological foundations” for morality and the notion of morality “anchored in some transcendent ground” are not clear at all; where such ideas can be made clear, there is no reason for thinking that religions has any advantage over secularism. When they remain vague, the religious apologist will use them to argue invalidly that theistic morality is so grounded. But outside of allegiance to religious doctrine, why should anyone believe this?]

If there is no God, then any ground for regarding the herd morality evolved by homo sapiens as objectively true seems to have been removed.
[Of course, if we play the game this way, then your conclusions follow. But why would any reasonably skeptical person play this silly game?]

After all, what is so special about human beings? They are just accidental by-products of nature which have evolved relatively recently on an infinitesimal speck of dust lost somewhere in a hostile and mindless universe and which are doomed to perish individually and collectively in a relatively short time. Some action, say, incest, may not be biologically or socially advantageous and so in the course of human evolution has become taboo; but there is on the atheistic view nothing really wrong about committing incest. If, as Kurtz states, “The moral principles that govern our behavior are rooted in habit and custom, feeling and fashion,”5 then the non-conformist who chooses to flout the herd morality is doing nothing more serious than acting unfashionably.

[No, this does not follow. Legal and moral prohibitions and even “condemnation” are not just statements that the violator is acting unfashionably.]

The objective worthlessness of human beings on a naturalistic world view is underscored by two implications of that world view: materialism and determinism.
[Naturalists do not regard human beings as worthless, whether stated in objective or subjective terms.]

Naturalists are typically materialists or physicalists, who regard man as a purely animal organism
[Where does the “purely” come from? Man is both a biological animal and a product of his culture. The development of his brain/mind and culture play essential roles in any statement of man’s nature.]

But if man has no immaterial aspect to his being (call it soul or mind or what have you), then he is not qualitatively different from other animal species.
[It all depends on what you mean by “qualitatively.” Surely homo sapiens have evolved to a human state qualitatively different from the rest of the animal kingdom. Development of language, culture, sciences, to mention a few examples.]

For him to regard human morality as objective is to fall into the trap of specie-ism. On a materialistic anthropology there is no reason to think that human beings are objectively more valuable than rats.
[Really? Does a materialistic anthropologist not value his children more than rats?]

Secondly, if there is no mind distinct from the brain, then everything we think and do is determined by the input of our five senses and our genetic make-up. There is no personal agent who freely decides to do something.

[This is False on the face of it! It indicates a very poor understanding of the free will-determinism issue in philosophy. ]

But without freedom, none of our choices is morally significant. They are like the jerks of a puppet’s limbs, controlled by the strings of sensory input and physical constitution. And what moral value does a puppet or its movements have?
[It does not take much expertise in philosophy to see that the preceding paragraph is a very poor effort, full of falsehoods and invalid argument.]

Thus, if naturalism is true, it becomes impossible to condemn war, oppression, or crime as evil. Nor can one praise brotherhood, equality, or love as good. [FALSE! There are plenty of counter-examples in history and in current social-political activity.]

It does not matter what values you choose–for there is no right and wrong; good and evil do not exist.
[FALSE! Secularists and atheists are not extreme relativists or moral nihilists in this sense.]

That means that an atrocity like the Holocaust was really morally indifferent. You may think that it was wrong, but your opinion has no more validity than that of the Nazi war criminal who thought it was good
[False. Secular ethical theories can give arguments which justify such moral judgments; in fact, they can give better arguments than those based on theistic authority. ]

In his book Morality after Auschwitz, Peter Haas asks how an entire society could have willingly participated in a state-sponsored program of mass torture and genocide for over a decade without any serious opposition. He argues that
far from being contemptuous of ethics, the perpetrators acted in strict conformity with an ethic which held that, however difficult and unpleasant the task might have been, mass extermination of the Jews and Gypsies was entirely justified. . . . the Holocaust as a sustained effort was possible only because a new ethic was in place that did not define the arrest and deportation of Jews as wrong and in fact defined it as ethically tolerable and ever good.
Moreover, Haas points out, because of its coherence and internal consistency, the Nazi ethic could not be discredited from within. Only from a transcendent vantage point which stands above relativistic, socio-cultural mores could such a critique be launched. But in the absence of God, it is precisely such a vantage point that we lack.

[Most Germans who accepted Nazi policy were Christians of one sort or another, Catholics, Lutherans, and such. Hitler himself was Catholic.]

One Rabbi who was imprisoned at Auschwitz said that it was as though all the Ten Commandments had been reversed: thou shalt kill, thou shalt lie, thou shalt steal. Mankind has never seen such a hell. And yet, in a real sense, if naturalism is true, our world is Auschwitz. There is no good and evil, no right and wrong. Objective moral values do not exist.

[This is a tactic typical of religious apologists: identify naturalism with immoral policies like that of the Nazis. But it is a transparently preposterous claim, more propaganda than philosophical argument.]

Moreover, if atheism is true, there is no moral accountability for one’s actions. [False.] Even if there were objective moral values and duties under naturalism, they are irrelevant because there is no moral accountability. [False] If life ends at the grave, it makes no difference whether one lives as a Stalin or as a saint. As the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky rightly said: “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

[This is nothing more than a view of moral accountability conditioned by religious doctrine. How many of us believe that without immortality all things are permitted?]

The state torturers in Soviet prisons understood this all too well. Richard Wurmbrand reports,

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.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflected on prisoners.

[As Immanuel Kant and Walt Kaufmann pointed out, this is nothing but the ethics of prudence: Do X for you will be rewarded. Do contrary to X and you will be punished. This is not moral behavior which involves personal autonomy, which is more the mark of moral action than is acting from prudence.]

Given the finality of death, it really does not matter how you live. So what do you say to someone who concludes that we may as well just live as we please, out of pure self-interest? This presents a pretty grim picture for an atheistic ethicist like Kai Nielsen of the University of Calgary. He writes,

We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me . . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.

[Surely this is taken out of context. Nielsen’s main point is that pure practical reason will not take you to morality. His position is that experience and practical reason to take you there. Eventually Nielsen advocates a modified utilitarianism. One need not be a utilitarian to be moral in a secular sense; but utilitarianism is one form of secular ethical theory.]

Somebody might say that it is in our best self-interest to adopt a moral life-style. But clearly, that is not always true: we all know situations in which self-interest runs smack in the face of morality. Moreover, if one is sufficiently powerful, like a Ferdinand Marcos or a Papa Doc Duvalier or even a Donald Trump, then one can pretty much ignore the dictates of conscience and safely live in self-indulgence. Historian Stewart C. Easton sums it up well when he writes,

“There is no objective reason why man should be moral, unless morality ‘pays off’ in his social life or makes him ‘feel good.’ There is no objective reason why man should do anything save for the pleasure it affords him.”

[Strictly read, the proposition that “there is no objective reason why man should be moral” applies to theistic, authoritarian moral systems as well as under secular systems. Nobody has ever proven that a supernatural, moral authority is objectively real.]

Acts of self-sacrifice become particularly inept on a naturalistic world view. Why should you sacrifice your self-interest and especially your life for the sake of someone else? There can be no good reason for adopting such a self-negating course of action on the naturalistic world view.

[This just shows that Craig and others who argue along these lines lack an imagination. They’re plenty of secularists who sacrifice self-interest for causes they believe in.]

Considered from the socio-biological point of view, such altruistic behavior is merely the result of evolutionary conditioning which helps to perpetuate the species.
[This is a false and a simplistic assessment.]

A mother rushing into a burning house to rescue her children or a soldier throwing his body over a hand grenade to save his comrades does nothing more significant or praiseworthy, morally speaking, than a fighter ant which sacrifices itself for the sake of the ant hill. [This is preposterous!]

Common sense dictates that we should resist, if we can, the socio-biological pressures to such self-destructive activity and choose instead to act in our best self-interest. The philosopher of religion John Hick invites us to imagine an ant suddenly endowed with the insights of socio-biology and the freedom to make personal decisions. He writes:

Suppose him to be called upon to immolate himself for the sake of the ant-hill. He feels the powerful pressure of instinct pushing him towards this self-destruction. But he asks himself why he should the future existence of a million million other ants as more important to him than his own continued existence? . . . Since all that he is and has or ever can have is his own present existence, surely in so far as he is free from the domination of the blind force of instinct he will opt for life–his own life.

Now why should we choose any differently? Life is too short to jeopardize it by acting out of anything but pure self-interest.

[Again, simplistic, lacking imagination, and suggesting a distorted notion of how secularists think.]

Sacrifice for another person is just stupid. Thus the absence of moral accountability from the philosophy of naturalism makes an ethic of compassion and self-sacrifice a hollow abstraction. R. Z. Friedman, a philosopher of the University of Toronto, concludes,

“Without voluntarily . . . carry out the suicidal programme to which instinct prompts him? Why should he regard religion the coherence of an ethic of compassion cannot be established. The principle of respect for persons and the principle of the survival of the fittest are mutually exclusive.”

[The irony is that, despite this very slanted characterization of moral thought, the fact is that theists do not show a better record (than secularists) on questions of compassion and self-sacrifice. This notion that only believers in God show compassion and self-sacrifice is just another piece of religious propaganda.

We thus come to radically different perspectives on morality depending upon whether or not God exists. If God exists, there is a sound foundation for morality. If God does not exist, then, as Nietzsche saw, we are ultimately landed in nihilism.

[What Nietzsche meant by “nihilism” is another issue; but it is significant that the Craig states the opposition between theistic and secular morality as “different perspectives,” which suggests that it is all an issue about what people believe; not an issue revolving on the reality of God.]
. . . .
Speaking recently on a Canadian University campus, I noticed a poster put up by the Sexual Assault & Information Center. It read: “Sexual Assault: No One Has the Right to Abuse a Child, Woman, or Man.” Most of us recognize that that statement is evidently true. [Yes.] But the atheist can make no sense of a person’s right not to be sexually abused by another.
[Really? The non-believers that I know would not have any trouble making sense of this. All you’ve shown is that the atheist does not “make sense of a person’s right..” on the basis of your sectarian, theistic doctrine.]

The best answer to the question as to the source of moral obligation is that moral rightness or wrongness consists in agreement or disagreement with the will or commands of a holy, loving God.
[How exactly does anyone determine and demonstrate this “agreement .. with the will and commands of a hold, loving God”?]
. . . . .
[For the next few pages Craig offers more of the same (none of it cogent at all) before stating his conclusion: ]

. . . . .
In summary, theological meta-ethical foundations do seem to be necessary for morality. If God does not exist, then it is plausible to think that there are no objective moral values, that we have no moral duties, and that there is no moral accountability for how we live and act. The horror of such a morally neutral world is obvious. If, on the other hand, we hold, as it seems rational to do, that objective moral values and duties do exist, then we have good grounds for believing in the existence of God. In addition, we have powerful practical reasons for embracing theism in view of the morally bracing effects which belief in moral accountability produces. We cannot, then, truly be good without God; but if we can in some measure be good, then it follows that God exists.

[In a dream world Mr. Craig might claim to have shown this; but in the real world he has not even come close to demonstrating any of this to be true. Of course, he has failed to make a good case for these conclusions.]

[The problem for people like William L Craig is that they lack an imagination. They cannot conceive how anyone who doesn’t share their theistic, supernaturalistic perspective on morality can recognize moral obligation and live moral lives. They have the stilted notion that only those who believe in a fantasy of a supreme divine authority and heavenly rewards for doing good have any good reason for trying to live morally good lives. Do we have to show that this is a prima facie false proposition?]

[This terminates Craig’s article and my critical comments.]

** Source: William Lane Craig, “The Indispensability of Theological Meta-ethical Foundations for Morality.” Foundations 5 (1997): 9-12.


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