I wasn’t a partner in a conversation – I was an accessory. Just like you might carry a beer, or a handbag, or a cigarette, so too I was being carried around for a ‘look’. The young friend at the bar was speaking to me from his subconscious, mumbling nonsense soaked in smiles and over elaboration. The jokes were not ‘funny’ jokes – that wasn’t their purpose. The purpose of the jokes, and the laughter, and the bar, was to show that we were part of the group that was young and full of potential. He kept turning away from me whenever I spoke, scanning his eyes around the crowd, looking for a better conversation. He mustn’t have found anything because he turned back and burst out laughing at my mild joke. Around us the room swelled with nihilism, and then we were and out onto the street.
It is all or it is nothing. It is black, and the brightest white, or it is all-consuming grey. It’s right and wrong, purpose, meaning, value, reason, identity and choice, or it’s endless darkness, that cannot, and does not care to lift.
Each of us builds a conception of life upon some initial foundations.
The structure that must be built upon a materialistic foundation, is by necessity, a totally different structure to the one that must be built upon a theistic foundation.
What is materialism? A belief that the universe is composed only of matter, of no super-natural substances, no souls, no Gods, no angels etc.
What is theism? A belief that a personal God exists.
Most of us see only surface differences between these two worldviews. ‘Atheists can be good people too, in fact, many are better.’ ‘I can create my own purpose, in my materialistic life.’ ‘Science shows us that our logical faculties can be trusted.’ ‘I am the master of my destiny.’
Some of these statements are, in my humble opinion, true, and yet missing the point. They are true at a level, but not true foundationally. Let me spend four page explaining that confusing sentence.
But first I wish to defuse a landmine.
Are atheists better or worse people than Christians? Well, God seems to reach out to those who are weak in this world, more than those who are strong. So I suppose Christians may be marginally worse than atheists, if all rights and all wrongs could be tallied. Conversely, I do believe that Christians are benefitted by the clear example of Christ, the only moral man, and aided by the Holy Spirit.
So, call it a draw. John Newton expresses a deep summary of how a Christian should feel, regarding the level of their morality, ‘I am not what I ought to be — ah, how imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be — I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good! I am not what I hope to be — soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was.’
Call it a draw, it’s not so important. If I am to be used as a piece of evidence, then the atheist side probably wins.
But back on topic. Christians raise the ‘Atheists are Less Moral Argument’ a fair bit. Why? Out of a sense of superiority? Yes. But also because they have misunderstood a far better argument.
For in the atheist worldview, there is no room for objective morality. That is not a controversial statement. Theists have objective morality, Materialists have subjective morality. An objective morality is a morality that exists outside of human creation, independent of human perception.
The force of gravity is a good example of an objective reality. I did not create it (I don’t weight thattt much), and my perception does not control it (distracted or not, I still fall).
Conversely, fashion is a good example of a subjective reality. What is fashion? Fashion is, in my understanding, an ever-changing opinion.
There is, I believe, no absolute such thing as a fashionable, or un-fashionable pair of jeans. There are only opinions, swaying with the seasons. The concepts ‘fashionable,’ and ‘unfashionable’ do not exist outside of our heads, in the universe itself, like gravity. Without humanity, fashion would cease to exist.
So, materialists cannot believe that morality is objective. Again, I do not believe that this is a debatable conclusion, it’s just a fact. They believe that morality is just an opinion, there is no grand right and wrong, no overhanging standard to which things are judged. Morality is more like a set of fads or fashions (although thankfully quite stable), rather than natural laws that exist outside of us and must compulsorily be obeyed.
Why do theists believe in objective morality, and educated atheists believe only in subjective morality? The argument is reasonably simple.
Objective morality rests upon the existence of value in the universe. That is its anchor point, its foundation. Specifically, it rests upon the idea that human beings have value, that we are of intrinsic worth. Rocks, do not have value, and thus if a person treads upon a rock, no moral offense is attributed. So the question is, how different are we from rocks? Objective morality rests upon the assumption that human beings are a different category to rocks, that we have something in us that differentiates us from the other stuff of the universe, that sets us aside from the mountains, and the rocks, and the atoms, which themselves have no intrinsic rights.
Traditionally, the source of this differentiation has been notions implicit in theism.
- A theist may believe that humanity is more than just a material body, but has also a spiritual soul.
A materialist must say something quite different. They must say that the universe is made entirely of matter. That every thing that exists, has the same component parts, and that at the most basic level, those component parts are made of the same one ingredient. Therefore, I am made of the same ingredient as you, just arranged in different ways. Similarly we are both formed of the same basic ingredient as a rock is (at the most basic level). The human brain, is no more than a rearranged rock, a bunch of atoms thrown together in such a way that consciousness emerges. The theistic idea that human beings are by virtue of their composition, intrinsically valuable, is expelled.
- A theist may believe that humanity was created, by a creator, for a purpose, and in the Judeo-Christian variety, in that creator’s image, standing over and above the rest of creation (by a Big-Bang or otherwise, through evolution or otherwise).
A materialist must say that humanity arrived through mindless processes, through unthinking, unguided chemical reactions. Humanity has no purpose, he just is. We are certainly not set above the rest of creation in importance.
- A Christian believes that life is eternal, that recompense will be made for all events, that justice will be rendered.
A materialist believes that each human being has limited time, that the universe itself will eventually fade away, and that the true future of the human race is nothingness, the void, the silence of non-existence.
It should be easy to see the different conceptions of morality that must derive from these foundations. A theist must believe that by virtue of his intrinsic attributes, status, purpose, meaning, eternality, spiritual nature etc, that morality is an objective reality that is binding upon him.
A materialist must believe that morality is a creation of the human mind. The atheist Michael Ruse summarises this well, he states that, ‘Ethics is a shared illusion of the human race.’
Now someone might interject now that, ‘Sam Harris showed that science can be used to derive morality.’
Sam Harris tried to show that, given that:
- human beings are valuable,
- and a particular ethical framework is then adopted as superior to all others (utilitarianism),
Then science can tell us a lot about maximising happiness.
This argument deals with foundations, with roots of the tree, rather than branches. The question my argument is asking is, why should we assume that humanity is valuable? The tree grows out of its roots. It says a lot that when an atheist like Sam addresses this question, he has to avoid almost everything about the topic that is of importance, teleport up to the top of the tree and muddle around in the branches.
The problem with morality just being an opinion that a lot of people happen to share, is that the psychopath, who holds a different opinion, is not actually wrong about anything. The difference between a serial killer and someone else is just a different taste, like a difference of opinion regarding fashion, or wallpaper. The NAZI’s did what they believed was right, so good for them. Hence the brilliant Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous sentence that, ‘without God “everything is permissible.’
It isn’t that atheists can’t be good people, they can! Thankfully! Because functionally speaking, in reality, they believe in right and wrong, and they enforce those theistic concepts on others. In doing so, they are behaving quite irrationally. But fine. If they want to borrow our God then they are very welcome to do so. That said, it might be nice if they referenced their sources.
So that’s the moral problem (and people say that reconciling the idea of a good and all-powerful God is difficult).
On to a greater problem.
A theist may make the claim that God endowed us with reason, and that our reason echoes his. A Christian would believe that our reason is an attribute of ours that exists in the image of God. We mirror God’s faculty of reason, but imperfectly, veiled and shadowed, like in a mirror dimly. Our reason, though corrupted by sin, can somewhat be trusted.
A materialist sees his natural faith in reason eroded by the reality of the incompatibility of evolution, materialism and reason.
This problem was perhaps first famously articulated by Charles Darwin. He stressed that, ‘But then with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions at all.’
It is worth imagining the mind of a chimpanzee. Chimpanzees have quite extraordinary intelligence, compared to many of their evolutionary relatives, and compared even to many of my relatives. But many of their convictions, although productive, are probably incorrect. A chimpanzee may believe that it looks the same as its trainer, who it sees every day. It may not even have self-awareness, it may not have the ability to differentiate between itself and the world around it. Or given that, the ability to differentiate between the world around it, and the human trainer within that world. It may have developed an almost limitless number of false, but productive and survival enhancing beliefs about itself, life and the universe.
We, as a higher being, when presented with the mind of a chimpanzee, might identify and mock the many errant beliefs that the chimp could hold.
But we are in the same quicksand. How can we know whether our beliefs are productive and true, rather than just productive and false? It has served us well, in our maths and sciences, to believe that the square root of twenty five is plus or minus five. But is this really true?
How can we truly tell? We might say that if one plus one equals two, then the square root of twenty-five is plus or minus five. Perhaps some mathematical proof could show the relationship between these two contentions.
But the proof would likewise be a product of reason. The logic that moves us between the two statements may be productive and not true. In fact, the belief that one plus one equals two, may be productive and not true. Every belief we have is up for grabs, and none are sacred.
Alvin Plantinga, perhaps the world’s greatest living philosopher (and a Christian), explains the problem,
‘Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief… Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it; but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it… Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behaviour.’
‘natural selection doesn’t care about the truth or falsehood of your beliefs; it cares only about adaptive behavior. Your beliefs may all be false, ridiculously false; if your behavior is adaptive, you will survive and reproduce.’
Evolutionary theory asserts that our beliefs exist in our minds because to some extent they improved the survivability of our ancestors. It is not necessary that those beliefs were accurate, only that they produced the correct physical responses in order to allow for survival and reproduction.
A scientist may be thinking, at this point, ‘Fair enough, evolution has no stake in our beliefs being true, I agree. But we can cross check our beliefs between multiple fields in order to ascertain their truth or untruth. Our mathematical beliefs are corroborated by our success in building bridges that do not collapse, for instance.’
But the problem is much deeper than that. If our reason is telling us that our reason cannot be trusted, then how can we use our reason to respond?
The argument isn’t about pruning branches off the top of a tree, it is about pulling the tree out by its roots. You can’t hold up an upper branch and say,
‘But you see this branch shows us that…’
Because someone should rightfully cut you off with,
‘But the whole tree is falling over!’
If evolution suggests to us that our beliefs could theoretically be productive but not true, then all of our beliefs are up for grabs, and the whole tree is ready to fall.
A man who has broken both his legs may be tempted to try to run away from his problems. He can’t. The problem that he wants to run away from, is the fact that he can’t run.
Again, one cannot use the evidences of our senses, processed by our faculties of reason, to disprove arguments concluding that our senses cannot be trusted, and that our reason is at base, probably faulty.
So then it is about probabilities.
Sadly, the probability of our beliefs being true are very low in a materialistic system. There are simply many more theoretical productive but untrue beliefs, than productive and true beliefs. A child could be told dozens of different, false but persuasive reasons not to step out onto the road. True reasons, conversely, are scarce (the passing cars may hit you).
So for us, even the most basic truths we hold to may be utter nonsense, that aids our survivability and reproduction.
In fact, in a materialistic worldview, the odds of most of our beliefs being true are very, very low. Perhaps, we may believe some things that are true. Perhaps not. There really is no way of ascertaining.
Even that sentence, and the one before it, is probably not true. And the entire set of arguments I have just made is probably based upon beliefs that are productive but not true. And the thing your family member just said to you (if they exist) is probably nonsense. And… oh boy, where, when, what are we?
Either materialism, evolution, or reason must collapse. Take your pick.
Of course materialism and evolution are products of our faculties of reason, so one of them should be the one to go (for me, it is immediately obvious that one should favour materialism, as evolution has evidence to support it, whereas atheism is blind conjecture).
Professor John Lennox of Oxford sums up the whole argument like this, ‘How then is it rational to believe in the theory that the evolution of our faculty of reason was not directed for the purpose of discovering the truth, and yet irrational to believe that it was designed and created by our maker to enable us to understand and believe the truth. Let me emphasise that as a mathematician, atheism gives me absolutely no logical justification for the conviction common to all scientists that science can be done… the bible gives a clear and solid basis. It is this conviction that lies behind the meteoric rise of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that lies behind science and is forgotten so easily.’
Ok, back to the big idea.
The point of that tangent, was to say that not only is objective right and wrong gone in a materialistic worldview, but identity is also gone, meaning and reason are also gone, choice is gone (an implication of us being complicated rocks, ie biological machines, not souls who make decisions that shape the material world). And now, reason can be thrown in there as well.
The philosopher John Searle sums up the set of problems like this, ‘There is exactly one overriding question in contemporary philosophy… How can we square this conception of ourselves (humanity) as mindful, meaning-creating, free, rational etc, with a universe that exists entirely of mindless, meaningless, unfree, non-rational, brute physical particles?… For the scientific naturalist, the answer is, ‘Not very well.'”
So, where are we? If we throw out God, what do we see. What landscape lies before us. Well, not much. The word for this is nihilism. Nothingness. If we throw out the roots we lose the tree. If we knock out the first floor we lose the skyscraper.
No right or wrong, no identity, no meaning, no reason, no choice.
This is the eternal grey. This is standing on the edge of a precipice, staring into the darkness, gazing down at an abyss. This is reality at its darkest, without a source of light, or shape, or form.
There’s nothing left.
Believing that we are made in the image of a creator isn’t a surface decision, it is a decision that results in a change that should paint colour across every wall of the reality you see. Reality matters. When the Son rises, light cascades out into every corner of the universe, bathing it in meaning and value, rescuing it from nihilism.
There is right and wrong. Many of the things we believe about reality may turn out to be true.
We are not rocks, we are children, ‘and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.’
Most of this discussion has not been an argument for God. I have tried to read fairly the New Atheists, and Christian apologetics. And I do believe that good arguments exist, and I may outline them elsewhere. But this is not primarily that. The presentation of the fact that Christianity is infinitely more desirable than the opposite cannot be classed as an argument. It’s just something that I find interesting.
And I guess, what I was trying to do, was to show you the splendor of theism.