In this video I talk about why it’s good to talk about the downsides of atheism, despite it generally being more attractive to be positive rather than negative; to make the case for something and not to merely make the case against one of its alternatives. That reason is that people often take the “cheese pizza” approach. If they think that there’s a common denominator, they will pick that to avoid conflict. By talking about the problems with atheism, it can help people to realize that there is no plain cheese pizza; that there is no common denominator.
I have previously written at some length about why atheists can’t write good stories. If you want to read a more in-depth treatment, there’s Why Moderns Always Modernize Stories and Why Do Moderns Write Morally Ambiguous Good Guys? However, for convenience, I’ve come up with a very succinct version:
Unless an atheist pretends that God exists in his story, his story is set in Hell. There are no good stories in Hell.
In a video in which a former MMA fighter accepts a challenge from a self-defense coach to fight, the comment section was, as you might imagine, lapping up the drama like a man who just walked through the desert a lemonade stand. One comment stood out to me, though:
I’m an atheist, but please God, make this happen.
In his excellent video on prayer, Bishop Barron said that studies show that everyone prays—even atheists. And indeed, they do. But it’s curious to consider when they pray, since they’re not exactly known for regularly saying their bedtime prayers. (What follows is, of course, guesswork and painting with a broad brush.)
The second biggest time, I suspect, is in cases of danger. And of course there is the prayers asking to be spared from danger. But more interesting is a reason given by the blogger Richard Fernandez, who went by the pen name Wretchard the Cat at the time. He was explaining why there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s not because people are scared. It’s because they need forgiveness.
And indeed, forgiveness is one of the two great problems that atheists face which they cannot possibly solve. As a creature in time, they cannot change the past; this means that things done wrong cannot be put right. God, being outside of time, can apply a balancing payment at the very instant of a misdeed; people can only try to make amends and try to forget. But amends do not fix the original problem, since it remains what it ever was. Only God can change the problem in the moment of its existence, since only he was there and not causing the problem.
The other great unsolvable problem which atheists have relates to what is probably the more common type of atheist prayer: hope. An atheist has precisely no reason to hope. The only way to live life, other than in despair, is in hope. We are too finite—too weak and short-sighted—to live in any way other than despair and hope. But to live in despair will probably just end in suicide; though to quote Chesterton it might be suicide using the tools of pleasure, rather than the tools of pain.
The type of prayer that hope produces is generally that of asking for life to work out according to an intelligible rational plan, or as it is more commonly known, asking for stuff.
Which brings us back to the quote with which this started. Everyone knows, on some level, that for the world to be good it must be ordered according to a rational will. It’s curious how much of the time, in a rich society, one can not think about that fact.
A skill I’ve been refining over time is leading atheists who are trying to argue with me into admitting that they reject reason. Typically by getting them to say that the laws of logic aren’t true, that reason cannot reach truth, or that logic does not describe reality. If I were fourteen, I would probably do that because it’s a game and fun to outwit them. Since I will soon be bidding goodbye to my 30s, I have a practical reason for it.
Christians have a duty to give the truth to anyone who will accept it. However, modern technology (such as twitter, comments to YouTube videos, etc) has put each of us into contact with more people than one can possibly talk to in a lifetime. Worse, there is a minority of people who love to waste other people’s time who go around looking for people whose time they can waste. Since they will merrily go from victim to victim, one such person can waste the time of hundreds; this greatly magnifies the problem for those open to talking with strangers.
As a result, it is only practical to become efficient at weeding out people who are not talking in good faith. The difficulty is that since their purpose is not honest they will try to disguise themselves as honest questioners. However, they cannot hold an actual position or there quickly becomes nothing to say. If they pretended to some particular belief they would quickly end up where actual believers of that belief did, which is at the stalemate of differing perceptions of the universe. Hindus and Christians, for example, rarely argue because they simply have incompatible starting points, and there’s not to say about that.
When it comes to trying to waste the time of Christians, a popular approach these days is “lack of belief” atheism. I’ve written and done videos about this extensively, but the short short version is that they don’t lack a belief, they only pretend to, so that they can pretend that they don’t actually have a position. But of course since they live in the world whether or not God created the world and gives it purpose is of fundamental importance and unavoidable. By living, one either acts in ways compatible with God’s purpose for the world or one acts in ways incompatible with it. If the atheist is not living exactly as if God exists—and they never do—then he is behaving inconsistently with his profession that he has no idea whether or not God exists.
When this is pointed out to them they will try to squirm out of it in various ways, but in my experience the most popular, by far, is some variation of rejecting reason. “I’m not being inconsistent if contradictions can be true!” they say, only far less clearly. They don’t want to be clear, of course, because the moment one rejects reason the game is up. There’s no point in talking to a man who rejects reason.
This is both because language is fundamentally rational, and because nothing can possibly be achieved by trying to reason a man into a conclusion when he rejects reason. No matter how good your argument, he will simply reject some step in it because he can reject any step in it as his whim.
So, to sum up, when a stranger is asking questions on the internet and especially if they’re things he should already know with a few minutes of reading if he was actually interested, it can save a lot of time to force him into admitting some unpleasant consequence of his claimed position—or lack thereof. If he actually believes it, he’ll admit what comes along with it. If he’s just trying to waste your time, he’ll try to wriggle out of it and odds are very good he’ll deny reason.
It’s not an insincere denial, and those who deny reason tend not to have much foresight.
On the internet one will run across many atheists who are speaking in bad faith. I give a technique for how to tell whether any given atheist is speaking in good faith or in bad faith. Or you can view it on YouTube, if you like:
The following is the script to my video, A Few Gumballs Short of a Picnic.
I got an email from an (I presume young) man by the name of Ken who said:
What you say about the burden of proof is very interesting to me, especially about engaging with [the] question and not just saying “you have to prove it to me; I don’t have any burden of proof so get busy proving your idea to me”: I think part of why so many atheists, and I am an atheist at this time say the burden of proof is on the one making a positive claim i.e. god exists or god doesn’t exist is because so many Christians respond to questions of how do you know god exists with ‘”well, can you prove god doesn’t exist?” “I’m going to continue to believe god exists until someone proves to me he/she/it doesn’t” Have you heard of Matt Dillahunty? He said something about burden of proof I find very compelling: He talked about the game of guessing how many [whole gumballs] are in a clear glass jar. Matt said that before you even begin to try to figure out the answer there is one thing you absolutely know and that is that the number is either and odd or even. If someone asserts that the number is even and I say I don’t believe that, that is not the same as saying I think the number is odd. The default position before you find out the answer is “I don’t know yet’. He said a god either exists or it doesn’t exist. For clarity we need to keep god exists and “god doesn’t exist” separate and examine them separately. if I say you have failed to meet your burden of proof that your god exists I am not saying your god doesn’t exist but that you have not established that it exists. It seems to me that if the burden of proof is on atheists to prove YHVH does not exist then Christians have the burden to prove that the thousands of other gods do not exist and if you set about trying to prove all those gods/goddesses don’t exist those believers will use the same defenses Christians use to defend their god claim [and will say] you failed to prove their deity doesn’t exist. I am wondering what you would say I am missing here?
This video will answer this question.
I’d like to preface my video by saying that the Christians who respond to questions about how one can know the faith is true with “how can you know it’s false” are simply not the people to talk to. Most people—regardless of belief system or topic—are simple people and simple people are not good at explaining things. This is true whether you’re talking about religion, engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or anything else. Only some people are good at explaining things and these are the people you should seek out when you want an explanation. But, unlike in engineering, science, art, swing dance, wine making, or just about anything else, Christians who are good at teaching will happily teach you about the truth of Christianity for free. There are tons of free apologetical materials online and plenty of excellent books available at basically the cost of printing—and plenty of Christians will happily buy books for people who are sincerely seeking the truth.
With that out of the way, there’s one other thing which will help for us to establish before we proceed: every positive claim is convertible to a negative claim, and vice versa. This is because a double-negative is equivalent to a positive. You can say that a man is dead or not not-dead, and they mean the same thing. If you want to make it sound better, just give not-dead a name, like “alive”. This will come up in a bit.
So the first thing to say about Matt Dillahunty’s jar of gumballs is that his explicit conclusion is entirely true. To not come to a conclusion and to conclude a negative are not the same thing. To not be convinced that somebody is right and to be convinced that they are wrong are not the same thing. To not accept the truth of a proposition and to accept the truth of its negation is not the same thing.
Here’s the thing: no one ever thought that they were the same thing. What he is saying is true, but it is also trivial and irrelevant to the subject of whether God exists as it is discussed by human beings. And, to be clear, by God I mean the uncreated creator of all that is; the unchanging source of all change, the necessary source of all contingency, the ground of all being, the reason why there is something rather than nothing. I don’t care about big guys with hammers or worshipping the sun. If Thor exists, at most he is a more powerful creature than I am but still just a creature; this is utterly unlike the source of every moment of my—and if he exists, Thor’s—existence.
Matt Dillahunty’s example is about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. Now, within the example, the number of gumballs has no practical consequence, and whether the number is even or odd has, if possible, even less significance. It doesn’t matter in the slightest to anyone. This is not true of whether God exists, however. There is nothing that matters more, and nothing of greater practical consequence, than whether God exists. It affects every aspect of life in every moment of life. And everything you do is going to be consistent either with God existing and having created the universe on purpose and with meaning, and therefore with a nature out of which flows a particular morality, or it won’t be. I talked about this at length in my video Atheist Morality, but the short short version is that morality either flows out of human nature, which can only have been given to us by a rational creator, or what you call morality is just a name for people doing whatever they want—which needs no name. The short short short version is that you can’t know whether you’re using or misusing something until you know what it’s for. In Dillahunty’s made-up example, you can ignore the question and the question goes away. But real life doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it.
In a moment I’m going to present a much better analogy for the situation human beings find ourselves in, but first, I want to point out that you can see this flaw even in Dillahunty’s example just by looking at where he stops: he ends the example before he writes his name and contact info and a number on a piece of paper and puts it in the submission box. The jar of gumballs is part of a contest (if you look up the video where he first presents this analogy, it’s explicitly part of it). And yet in the analogy he never enters the contest. He apparently just loses by not trying. Of course he couldn’t enter the contest in his analogy because if he did, the number he wrote down, being a specific number, would have to be odd or even. The only way he can remain uncommitted is by not playing the game for which the jar of gumballs was set out. Let’s be really clear here: this is a strategy to guarantee that you lose. This is, literally, a loser’s strategy.
But even if you include the parts which were left out of his analogy, a jar of gumballs just isn’t much like real life. So let’s take a different example which has the same point that the gumball example does but like real life involves skill and effort, and the results actually matter:
Suppose you are the umpire in a baseball game. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning in the last game of the world series, there are two outs, and the score is tied. A ground ball is hit and the runner on third base dashes madly toward home plate. The short stop initially fumbles the ball but the third baseman ran behind him and picks up the ball, then throws it home. The catcher catches the ball and tags the runner as he slides into home plate.
Now, one thing you know for sure is that the runner is either out or safe. The runner says to you that he’s safe, but doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. The catcher says that the runner is out, but also doesn’t offer enough evidence to convince you. If you simply announce that you don’t have enough evidence to make a call and so you’re going home now, this is definitely very different from calling the runner safe because you believe he’s safe or calling the runner out because you believe he’s out. For one thing, you’re going to be fired from your job as umpire and may well be hanged from the nearest lamp post by outraged fans before you make it home.
And now we come to the big problem with the umpire who refuses to come to a conclusion if the players don’t prove their case to his satisfaction. Why is he being so damn lazy? As the umpire, it’s his job to know whether the runner is safe or out. That’s the whole reason he’s on the field at all. It’s not the players’ jobs to prove they succeeded in their goals, it’s his job to pay attention to the game closely enough to know who succeeded and who failed. If he spends the entire baseball game in a closet playing video games and then throws up his hands when a call is necessary, he’s not nobly committed to intellectual honesty, he’s just neglecting his duty.
But bear in mind that this example does prove, just as much as the marble example, that there is a difference between refusing to commit to a side and committing to the negative side. Does anyone wonder why Matt Dillahunty picked his jar-of-gummballs example and not this umpire-in-a-baseball-game example?
But throwing up one’s hands and going home—in the real world this is the equivalent of freezing motionless or perhaps committing suicide—is not what people actually do. Atheists like Matt Dillahunty define some course of action as the default—they never, of course, explain why it’s the default, since they can’t, since there’s no such thing as a default when it comes to morality—and then do that if the contrary isn’t proven to them. So let’s look at that.
Suppose you decide to define “safe” as a positive claim and “out” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually out—call him “out” since the runner didn’t satisfactorily prove his positive claim. So what? You are still calling him out. That you don’t really believe him out changes exactly nothing about what you’re doing. The game will go into overtime just as much as if you actually believed your call was correct.
Suppose that you did the contrary and defined “out” as the positive claim and “safe” as the negative claim then—without believing that the runner is actually safe—call him “safe” since the catcher hasn’t satisfactorily proven his positive claim. Again, so what? The runner is still just as safe, the run counts just as much, and the team has won the game to exactly the same degree as if you actually believed that your call was correct.
Incidentally, I’ve heard it claimed that there is a rule in baseball that “the tie goes to the runner”. Several things need to be said about this. First, if you look this up, it refers not to uncertainty on the umpire’s part but to the case when the ball and the batter-turned-runner reach first base at the exact same instant such that neither arrives ahead of the other. Second, this is not a rule in baseball but rather an interpretation of the rules—which not all major league umpires subscribe to. And third, let’s ignore those first two and suppose this actually was a rule for there being a default to resolve epistemic uncertainty. Find me a case in real life where the following happened:
In a situation like above, bottom of the ninth, etc. where the umpire wasn’t paying attention and doesn’t know what happened at home plate, so he follows the default and calls the runner safe. The team manager from the team who has now lost comes up to the umpire, screaming at him that he must be incompetent, stupid, blind and on drugs. The umpire calmly tells him, “Sir, I wasn’t actually looking when the play happened and so I went with the default call of safe.”
The team manager, clearly taken aback, stammers and says, “Oh man, I’m so sorry for what I said. I thought that you actually thought that the runner was safe. Oh man. I didn’t realize that you had no idea what happened and just went with a default call. I take back everything I said about you being incompetent. Please accept my most sincere apologies for insulting your umpiring. You are a credit to your profession.”
Find me that. Preferably in video. But I’ll accept newspaper reports.
If an umpire makes a bad call because he was going with some default because he didn’t know what happened, this is not better than making a bad call because he was mistaken. It’s still a bad call, and it’s still his fault because he didn’t take the trouble to make a good call.
If you cheat on your wife with her sister but “don’t really mean it,” you’ve still cheated on your wife. If you cheat on your wife with her sister and father a bastard, that child exists just as much and has the same needs whether or not you actually believe that you should have cheated. This whole project of trying to do things without having them count is just pure cowardice. There’s no honor in doing things without thinking that you should do them and there’s even less in—if you don’t know what you should be doing—not spending every waking moment of your life trying to find out what you should be doing.
The Matt Dillahunties of the world are busy trying to say that if I shoot you in the head because I believe you are a zombie, I’m crazy, but if I shoot you in the head because I haven’t been convinced that you’re not a zombie (that is, that you’re alive), I’m the pinnacle of rationality. (And since this is the internet, don’t take this analogy literally. Shooting someone in the head symbolizes, say, fornication, and “because they’re a zombie” symbolizes sex being purely about pleasure.)
Now, to come to the crux of the matter: the only reason anyone likes this irrelevant gumball example is that it sneaks in the assumption that it doesn’t matter whether God exists. Just like a stage magician getting you to focus on the hand that’s pretending to have the coin when the coin is actually in the hand that you’re not looking at, this example is purportedly about whether or not indecision is identical to disbelief, but in reality is about whether disbelief matters.
I talked about this before, but to go over it again because it’s so important: there is no truth more important to human life than whether or not God exists. I’ve also covered the practical importance of the question of whether God exists in my video Atheism Changes Everything, but just consider for a moment that if a rational, loving God created the world, we have a nature out of which morality flows so morality is not merely the arbitrary question of what people happen to approve of. We have a soul which can live past the death of the body and live with the consequences of whether we acted in accordance with our nature or against it, that is, it is possible we will go to some sort of heaven or some sort of hell, with justice actually being enforced in the end. There is no such thing as a hidden deed; it is not possible to get away with something merely because no other human beings know about it. Having a common creator all human beings are a sort of sibling; we can have duties to strangers and even to enemies. The good things in life like beauty can be true and not merely meaningless preferences.
Someone who thinks that whether these things are true is like whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even has to have replaced his brains with rat droppings. Then taken the rat droppings out and burned them. Then used a hose to suck even the air out of the empty cavity in his skull so that in place of his brain there is now only vacuum.
The idea that it doesn’t really matter whether God exists is not even within spitting distance of a reasonable position. It’s not within sight of a reasonable position. It’s not on the same planet as a reasonable position.
And even on just a mundane, nitty-gritty level, practicing religious people are less likely to smoke ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28667475 ), to abuse alcohol ( https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/charlie-sheen-circus-and-_b_836934.html ), and to divorce ( https://shaunti.com/2014/06/marriage-month-daily-tip-12-go-church/ ), just to name a few things (in the studies showing this, practicing tends to mean regularly attending church). Correlational studies should always be taken with a grain of salt, but does your position on whether there are an odd or even number of gumballs in a jar have that sort of effect, or even just correlate with that sort of effect?
And yet, you see this from atheists all the time. They say, “I don’t believe in God and I’m able to go on living without any problems.” Perhaps, but how do they live their life?
Just take a look at the lives of the atheists who make these arguments about how their life is unaffected by disbelief. It’s not a pleasant thing to have to point out, but when they say this, then take a look. Do they refrain from excessive alcohol, recreational drugs, pornography, fornication, adultery, gossiping, backstabbing, and so forth? Do they further spend their own time, energy, and money being generous to people who can’t repay them? Do they constantly strive for greater self-control, that all they do may be upright and good? Is their life marked by a sense of gratitude for all of the good things they’ve received, including existence, intelligence, and the opportunity to see beauty and help others?
Now, Christians fall short of these things all the time. It is a terrible shame, but it is true, that not all Christians are saints. But are any atheists saints? Just take a look at them. Is there a single atheist anywhere who hasn’t noticed that the world being a meaningless accident that only has the meaning they give it (that moment) has the implication that whatever they find hard isn’t worth doing and whatever temptation they want to give into is justified? Especially over time? Atheism is, I fear, a degenerative disease.
So take a look at the older atheists. How many of them have any sort of remarkable virtue or self-control? How many ascetics practicing self-denial do you find? How many of them have dedicated their life to helping people who can’t contribute to their patreon account? How many of them have forsworn sex so that they may dedicate all of their time to service? Heck, how many of them spend even one hour a week set aside for appreciating that existence exists and being grateful for it? Most of the atheists I know talk about how going to church once a week is such an unbearable burden that you would think they were talking about being woken up at 2am to spend 14 hours in a hot standing cell without food or water.
So yes, there is theoretically a difference between acting as if God does not exist because you believe that he does not exist versus because you merely assume that he does not exist. There is not, however, a practical difference between these two things. The difference doesn’t matter in the slightest.
Well, actually, that’s not quite true. Someone who believes he knows that God does not exist is justified in not spending time trying to find out whether God exists, since he already has an answer with which he is satisfied. Someone who claims to not know—and therefore to have no idea whether what he is doing is good, evil, or indifferent—had better be spending all of the time and effort he can spare from immediate necessity trying to find out the answer.
Consider a man holding a gun. If he knows that it is unloaded because he verified it himself (including checking the chamber), it is fine for him to wave the gun around or even to point it at someone and pull the trigger—since he knows he will certainly do no harm. A man who has no idea whether the gun is loaded is grossly irresponsible for doing the same thing and no amount of him saying that it has not been proven to him that the gun is loaded changes that he is being a bad man.
Men who exist in the world will act or not act in each moment they continue to exist. It is their first responsibility to find out what they should do and what they should refrain from doing. And there is nothing more important to answering that question than whether a rational God created the world and, if so, what purpose and nature he gave it.
Someone who tries to answer that question, even if he comes up with the wrong answer, is at least trying to be a decent human being. Someone who merely ignores the question isn’t even trying to be human.
Ironically, though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, it’s that latter group who seems to spend the most time boasting about how rational they are.
Until next time, may you hit everything you aim at.
I got an email from a young man named Ken who asked me about an analogy Matt Dillahunty presents about whether the number of gumballs in a jar is odd or even. I originally did an unscripted answer but a lot of people missed the point so I did a scripted video which should be a lot clearer. You can of course watch it in YouTube:
On the internet it’s very useful to quickly tell whether someone is asking questions about Christianity in good faith or just trying to waste your time. There are lots of ways, I’m going to show one easy one.
It’s this: Point out that the existence of gravity cannot be empirically verified, it can only be shown through its effects. Then see what they do.
Now, this is unarguably true. Something which can be empirically verified is something which can be directly observed by the senses (possibly with the aid of an instrument, such as a magnifying glass or stethoscope). Gravity:
- Has no color and cannot be seen*.
- Has no taste.
- Has no smell.
- Does not feel like anything. (if you push on it, there’s no resistance. Your arm might feel heavy, but the gravity itself doesn’t feel like anything.)
- Has no sound.
It is easy to discover that there is gravity, though the difficulty depends on exactly what you mean by gravity (gravity as described by general relativity is hard to discover), but it must be done by observing the effect of gravity upon things. After observing this effect one can then infer the existence of gravity, but the gravity itself cannot be observed.
Gravity is, in this regard, like observing wind purely by sight. You cannot see the wind, you can only see the effect of the wind.
This is not a controversial point, and it’s not a difficult point. If you can empirically observe something you can say what color it is, how loud it is, what it tastes like, what it smells like, or what it feels like. You can do none of these things with gravity. This is what makes it a useful test.
If an atheist acknowledges this point (and proceeds in a manner consistent with acknowledging this point), he’s probably sincere and not merely trying to waste your time. If he twists himself up into self-contradictory knots trying to fight this point, he’s just trying to waste your time.
The only reason anyone ever has for denying something which is obviously true is because their primary goal is not the truth.
*This is not quite 100% true as one can argue that gravitational lensing is actually directly observing gravity. The only problem with this is that no one has actually seen gravitational lensing. It has been observed in radio frequencies by radio telescopes, but humans do not see in radio frequencies. Once you have an instrument which translates what we cannot see (etc) to something that we can, you have to make arguments for why the translation is correct, and those arguments cannot be empirically verified. Thus anything which rests upon observations through translating equipment is not empirically verified by rests upon indirect observation and argument.
I got a request to look at an analogy originally presented by Matt Dillahunty, so I explain why it’s a bad analogy. (Oddly, some atheists don’t seem to understand that to call something trivial is to say that it’s true. They seem stuck on the idea I’ve missed the point that reserving judgment is not identical with affirming a negative; which is true but only important in cases where one doesn’t have to act on the truth or falsity of the proposition, which has nothing whatever to do with whether God exists.) There’s a correction or two I should note, such as the original example was gumballs instead of marbles, and in some examples he specifies whole gumballs.
(I’m coming out with a scripted version of this video which will be much tighter, by the way.)
You can of course watch it on YouTube, too:
Over at Deflating Atheism, Rob examines the quote, “For good people to do evil, that requires religion.”
I love that he tackles it by just taking it at face value. I don’t come across this quote much—it’s the sign of a complete idiot if you see someone think there’s anything to it, and I tend to avoid complete idiots—but the few times I have I just look at how ridiculous the idea is that people are naturally good. As if theft, murder, rape, adultery, lying, and so forth never occurred to anyone on their own but only came from directives they were taught!
So I found it especially fun that he demolished it from the opposite end.
I suspect everyone who knows atheists has encountered people who say that atheism does not entail nihilism, because “life has the meaning you give it”. I just want to mention a small point regarding that.
My favorite definition (more a description) of “reality” is:
That which, when you stop believing it, doesn’t go away.
It’s not a complete description, but it’s a pretty good working description, especially in our confused times. Anyway, it’s worth noting that “the meaning you give to life” goes away when you stop believing in it.
The atheist retort that atheism does not entail nihilism thus amounts to:
Life doesn’t have any meaning, but I can pretend that it does.
Which no fool ever doubted.
I’ve heard the explanation that some atheists become atheists because they want to feel smart. That never made much sense to me, but I’ve recently gotten some insight into what it might mean and I present that interpretation of the idea for consideration. You can also watch this on YouTube if you prefer:
Some thoughts on how atheism is not a free-floating proposition but instead affects every aspect of reality. You can of course watch it on YouTube, too:
One of the questions which comes up in discussions of morality is whether you can get an “ought” from an “is”. This is relevant primarily to discussions of atheism, since to the atheist everything is a brute fact, i.e. an “is” which is not directed towards anything, and therefore an atheist cannot get any “oughts” out of their description of what is. Or in simpler language, if God is dead then all things are permitted. (Note for the unpoetic: by “God is dead” we mean “there is no God”.)
There are two reasons why if God is dead all things are permitted:
- If God is dead, who is there to forbid anything?
- If God is dead, then there is no ultimate good because all is change and therefore nothing has any lasting reality.
If you argue this sort of stuff with atheists long enough, somewhere along the line while you’re explaining natural ends (telos) and natural morality, you may come by accident to a very interesting point which the atheist will bring up without realizing it. It often goes something like this:
OK, suppose that what God says is actually the only way to be eternally happy. Why should you be eternally happy? Why shouldn’t you do what you want even though it makes you unhappy?
This question sheds some very interesting light on hell, and consequently on what we mean by morality. Our understanding of morality tends to be like what Saint Augustine said of our understanding of time:
What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
Somehow or other atheists tend to assume that ought means something that you have to do, regardless of what you want to do. It’s very tempting to assume that this is a holdover from childhood where ought meant that their parents would make them do it whether or not they wanted to. It’s tempting because it’s probably the case and because that’s not an adult understanding of ought. And it’s not because ultimately we can’t be forced to be good. (Or if this raises your hackles because I’m “placing limits on God”, then just take it as meaning that in any event we won’t be forced to be good.)
Hell is a real possibility. Or in other words, it is possible to see two options and knowingly pick the worse option.
What we actually mean by saying that we ought to do something is that the thing is directed towards the good. And we can clarify this if we bring in a bit of Thomistic moral philosophy: being is what is good. Or as the scholastic phrase goes, good is convertible with being. But being, within creation, is largely a composite entity. A statue is not just one thing, but many things (atoms, molecules, etc.) which, in being ordered toward the same end, are also one thing which is greater than their parts.
And you can see a symphony of ordering to a greater being, in a human being. Atoms are ordered into proteins (and many other things like lipids, etc), which are ordered into cells, which are ordered into organs, which are ordered into human beings. But human beings are not at the top of the hierarchy of being, for we are also ordered into community with other created things. (Please note: being part of a greater whole does not rob the individual of his inherent dignity; the infinite goodness of God means that creation is not a competition. Also note that God so exceeds all of creation that He is not in the hierarchy of being, but merely pointed to by it.)
And so we come to the real meaning of ought. To say that we ought to do something is to say that the thing is ordered towards the maximum being which is given to us. But we need not choose being; we can instead choose non-being. The great lie which the modern project (and, perhaps not coincidentally, Satan) tells us is that there is some other being available to us besides what was given to us by God. That we can make ourselves; that we can give ourselves what we haven’t got. And, not at all coincidentally, are the things which we ought not to do—that is, those things are not ordered toward being. They’re just what the atheist says that all of life is—stimulating nerve endings to fool ourselves that we’ve accomplished something.
And yet atheists complain when one says that, according to them, they’re in hell.
God, at least, has a sense of humor.
Recently my friend Eve Keneinan had a Twitter Thread in which she talked about the problems with defining Atheism as “a lack of belief in God”:
There is a problem she doesn’t mention with this definition, which is that there are no useful sentences which you can construct. In order to have a useful sentence using a word, there has to be something you can predicate of all of the things described by the word. And (ignoring the problem of rocks and krill being caught up in the lack-of-belief definition), there is nothing you can predicate of people who believe God doesn’t exist, people who aren’t sure he exists, babies, the mentally retarded, and people who’ve never heard of the concept. They’re not all tall or short, stupid or intelligent, fat or thin, nor anything else. You can say that they exist, but that’s about it. This disqualifies it as a possible definition by what should be called the “uselessness test”. That said, let’s ignore it for now.
Eve mentioned a possible way of amending this definition to avoid catching up rocks and bricks and such-like as atheists:
However, this amended definition still leaves it a completely useless definition for a different reason than the one above (which still applies). Actually, before I even get to that, there’s a problem which needs addressing: it’s under-specified. Specifically, what sort of beliefs must the atheist be capable of forming?
There are different ways of defining “belief”, but since atheists are pretty much all materialists and thus don’t believe in a soul nor an intellect (in the traditional sense), they have to define “belief” as some sort of behavioral relation to the outside world. As such, it is clear that a rat which nibbles on a block of rat chow “believes” that the rat chow is food. So we still have the problem that under this amended definition, most atheists are bacteria and funguses, followed by higher-order life forms like krill and beetles. OK, so let’s grant the atheist the ability to use a theist’s definition of “belief” such that it’s the sort of thing which only human beings have, despite there being absolutely no way for a materialist to do this at all consistently.
We now get to the problem I mentioned about under-specificity. What sort of beliefs must these beings be capable of forming? To give an overly simplistic example to illustrate the point, it is utterly uninteresting that a man whose ability to form beliefs encompasses nothing more than the belief that cucumbers exist does not believe in God. This generalizes to the real point: if a man is for some reason limited in that he’s not capable of forming a belief in God, it is not an interesting property that he doesn’t believe in God. It is uninteresting for the same reason that we don’t count a man who can’t do even 1 pushup as as physically unfit if the reason he can’t do a pushup is because he has no arms. An armless man who can run a sub-6 minute mile is still quite physically fit. And further, his being fit but unable to do pushups tells us nothing about a couch potato with arms who cannot do pushups because he does nothing all day long. In the same way, if a man has a cognitive defect where he cannot form a belief in God he is unfortunate, but he has nothing whatever in common with someone who can form a belief in God but has formed the belief that God does not exist instead.
But really, either way, this definition cannot be applied to anyone given the limits of human knowledge. We have no way of finding out whether a man is capable of forming a belief in God except that he actually forms it. And even if we retreat from that we have no way of knowing that a man is capable of forming beliefs at all (without being him). We can tell us that he does, but I can easily program a computer to say that it forms beliefs, too. Heck, one could easily write on a rock, “I, this rock, can form beliefs”. If one rejects noetic knowledge as most online atheists do and demand evidence from the one making the claim, it is impossible to know whether anyone is an atheist since we can’t know what’s actually going on inside of his head. And this is different from taking his word about whether or not he in fact believes in God, since that presupposes he’s the sort of being which could have a word to give. The amended definition of “atheism” now requires us to find out whether he’s the sort of thing which can give his word before we know whether the definition applies to him.
Of course atheists tend to take the practical solution of demanding that theists merely assume the theistic worldview at all necessary places in order to make sense of what the atheist is saying, but to then reject it wherever it is not necessary for the atheist’s statements to be other than raving gibberish. At some point I think that everyone is tempted to say of online atheism what King Arthur said of Camelot, “No, on second thought, let’s not go there. It is a silly place.”
Or you can watch it on YouTube: