Monday, September 28, 2009

Jesus' Human Nature, The Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Virgin Birth, and Original Sin: Reflections on Their Relationship to Each Other

From a dialogue on the CHNI forum. The probing questions of one participant (a convert to the Catholic faith) will be in blue.

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As far as I know, it was not absolutely necessary for Mary to be sinless. If we speak strictly in terms of "necessity" (i.e., that it couldn't have been otherwise), then many things fall under the category of non-necessity: even the cross and the incarnation. God could have provided salvation for the human race in any number of conceivable ways. He could simply forgive a person upon their sincere repentance, etc.

I wrote about this very issue in one of my papers: Was Mary's Immaculate Conception Absolutely Necessary?

That said, Catholics believe that her sinlessness is extremely fitting and proper, by God's design, on the principle that the closer we get to God, the more holiness is present. That's how it will be in heaven, when God finally takes all sins away. Mary is a foreshadowing of the sinlessness that is to come for all who are saved (just as her Assumption was the "firstfruits" of the resurrection that Jesus made possible for all men), and she hearkens back to Adam and Eve before the Fall (hence her title of "Second Eve" from the fathers).

The Immaculate Conception is a return to the state of things for all human beings before the fall and rebellion against God by the human race. She is what God intended all human beings to be, if we would have simply cooperated and obeyed. So what better person to be freed from sin, than the Mother of God the Son, who bears God in her own womb?

That's altogether fitting, plausible, and believable. But it was not necessary in the nature of things.

As usual, the Church comes down in the sensible middle, between the extremes of a sinful Mary on the one hand and a necessarily immaculate Mary on the other. "Appropriate and fitting" is how the Church sees it.

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In a sense Jesus was temporarily captive of Satan during His Passion. But God chooses what He will submit Himself to. It makes perfect sense that Mary was sinless. I'm not doubting that at all. It is a dogma of the faith. I was simply saying that it could have been done otherwise (it was not intrinsically necessary). God put Himself in contact with sin by deciding to take on flesh and become a Man.

I have a question about this. If Mary had not been saved through her immaculate conception, would she not, of necessity, communicated her sinful nature to Christ? Am I flawed in my reasoning here?

Jesus, being God, is impeccable: it is not possible for Him to have sinned. Therefore, He could not have been subject to transmission of original sin, even if Mary had not been immaculate.

Nor can God contradict Himself. God couldn't have rebelled against Himself. Therefore, Jesus could not have received original sin, which means a participation in the rebellion against God.

Everything you have written makes sense, I understand that of course the path God chose was most fitting, and I also understand that as God, Jesus could not sin. But what I am trying to get straightened out in my mind (because I have an ongoing discussion with Protastants about the role of Mary, and I don't want to present flawed reasoning) is : If all people are subject to original sin through the transmission of our human nature, and Jesus received His human nature from Mary at the moment of His conception, then Mary must have been without original sin at the time of His conception. Does that follow? Or, am I making too much of a distinction between His taking on human nature, and His receiving it from the Blessed Virgin?

I think what I really want to ask is: How do we know that Mary communicated her human nature to Jesus, as opposed to Him taking human nature and using her womb as a host (so to speak)? To me it seems obvious, she was his mother, therefore she communicated her nature as every other mother does, in addition, the Holy Spirit waited for her agreement before overshadowing her, indicating that this was a cooperation on her part. I am at a loss to show the necessity of Mary's cooperation, and therefore the neccesity of her sinlessness. I hope that makes it more clear.

Did Mary give her DNA to Jesus, or did he make his own, and then implant in her womb? Did she contribute a zygote? Or do we know? has the Church ever speculated in any concrete way about this? The reason the Immaculate Conception does work is that Jesus applied His own atonement to Mary's soul at her conception, so it was not a simple matter of making a pure body out of a contaminated body. However, Jesus could not have done that for Himself - if His sinlessness was contingent on His sacrifice on the Cross, then that sacrifice would not have been sufficient since He would need that sacrifice to be made sinless,

It's not contingent upon the cross, because of His impeccability: being God He has always existed and has doe so without sin or even the possibility of sin. God doesn't need to be saved, and to say that He saved Himself is nonsensical.

but He could (and did) apply that atonement to Mary's soul at the moment of conception which left her free to choose grace and communicate her own sinless nature to Him without relying on his own sacrifice to atone for himself.

Yes (setting aside the hypotheticals for a moment) everything of that nature came from Him in the first place. Thus, St. Anselm wrote in his classic, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man):

    Anselm: Moreover, the virgin, from whom that man was taken of whom we are speaking, was of the number of those who were cleansed from their sins before his birth, and he was born of her in her purity.

    Boso: What you say would satisfy me, were it not that he ought to be pure of himself, whereas he appears to have his purity from his mother and not from himself.

    Anselm: Not so. But as the mother's purity, which he partakes, was only derived from him, he also was pure by and of himself.

The only other option I see is that He created His own human nature, and merely took up residence in Mary's womb, and I just don't buy that either. So, the question is: did Mary give Jesus His human nature, or not?

In pondering your question further, I believe I may have hit upon an answer:

Insofar as original sin is transmitted by DNA, ultimately indirectly, in the sense that the union of sperm and egg creates another person, and all persons are subject to original sin, this difficulty is overcome in Jesus, not by Mary's Immaculate Conception, but by the Virgin Birth.

Mary's egg (ovum), that she contributed to the process of the birth of Jesus; from which He did indeed receive her DNA, was not yet a person, since it is an egg, which is necessary to personhood as an immediate precursor, but not identical with it. If Jesus had been born of Joseph and Mary, then it would have been a non-miraculous process, and original sin would have (arguably) only been avoided by Joseph being immaculately conceived (having had original sin removed) and sinless, just as Mary was.

As it was, Joseph is taken out of the equation, since Mary became pregnant miraculously by means of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, if Mary's egg was not subject to original sin, since it was not a person, and only persons are subjected to that, and the Holy Spirit has no original sin (being God), then original sin would not have been transmitted to Jesus, by straightforward deduction from all of the above.

Conclusion: Mary's Immaculate Conception was not, strictly speaking, necessary for Jesus to be born sinless, without original sin, yet with human DNA and a human nature, whereas the Virgin Birth seems necessary in order to avoid "corruption" from physical human descent. There is such a thing as a human nature without sin and original sin, just as Adam and Eve possessed before the fall.

And this line of argument should be agreed to by any Protestant who denies neither original sin nor the Virgin Birth, since these are usually held by Protestants as well. It's a "general" argument that doesn't depend on prior Catholic dogma (the Immaculate Conception).

Dave, the question that your argument leaves me with is: If Mary had not been Immaculate, would Jesus have been able to receive His human nature from her?

Yes. My above reasoning accounts for this. This is one reason why we can say that the Immaculate Conception was not absolutely necessary in order to preserve Jesus from sin. It was extremely fitting and appropriate: Mary being the "ark of the New Covenant." Therefore God chose to do it that way. It makes perfect sense. And the Church in her Spirit-guided wisdom (after many centuries of pious reflection) has decided that this is a belief that all Catholics must hold.

But as for Jesus receiving His human nature (or, human qualities deriving from DNA: Jesus may very well have looked like Mary, just as any son might look like his mother) from Mary independently of whether she was immaculate and without original sin herself, that is "solved" by the miracle of the Virgin Birth.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Catholic Church's Teaching on Reproductive Technologies (David W. Emery)

This is a guest post from my fellow moderator over at CHNI, David W. Emery:

Just as contraception is a negation of the fecundity of marriage, so also is IVF [In Vitro Fertilization]. It assumes that God did not mean what he said in Genesis: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27), “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24) and “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD” (4:1).

The Vatican document Dignitas Personae (DP), issued in 2008, gives us the meaning of these passages: “The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells.… ‘Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say, from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life’…” (DP 4).

If human life begins at conception, and that life is the image of God, it stands to reason that human marriage, spoken of in Genesis as the fountain of human life, has the specific role of producing, honoring and nurturing that life (DP 6). Why is this so? “It is the Church’s conviction that what is human is not only received and respected by faith, but is also purified, elevated and perfected. God, after having created man in his image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:26), described his creature as “very good” (Gen 1:31), so as to be assumed later in the Son (cf. Jn 1:14). In the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God confirmed the dignity of the body and soul which constitute the human being. Christ did not disdain human bodiliness, but instead fully disclosed its meaning and value: ‘In reality, it is only in the mystery of the incarnate Word that the mystery of man truly becomes clear’” (DP 7). If we then relegate the matter of human conception to a laboratory dish, is this not reducing human existence to “a group of cells” and disregarding its divine destiny?

Another consequence of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) technology (to enlarge on what David S. states above) is the erosion of marriage. Instead of being a divine sacrament, it becomes merely a vehicle of selfishness and lust — divisive instead of unitive. It becomes therefore self-defeating in the same way that it does through contraception. Divorce statistics are only part of the story. We need to view the ultimate rejection of marriage in the phenomena of cohabitation and casual sex as the more obvious consequence.

Sections 14 through 16 of Dignitas Personae treat specifically of what is wrong with IVF. The following sections 17 through 23 give a summary of bioethical problems which are the direct consequence of IVF, such as the freezing of embryos. The remainder of the document touches on other techniques which are the direct outgrowth of IVF: gene therapy, cloning, stem cell harvesting, hybridization, etc. The document is worth reading in its entirety.

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Related reading:

Resources Explaining the Catholic Church's Moral Opposition to In-Vitro Fertilization and Artificial Insemination

Antidote to John Calvin's Institutes (IV,14:1-9) [Sacraments: Definitions and the Fathers / Ignorant Catholics? / Baptismal Regeneration]


See the introduction and links to all installments at the top of my John Calvin, Calvinism, and General Protestantism web page; also the online version of the Institutes. Calvin's words will be in blue throughout. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

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Book IV



1. Of the sacraments in general. A sacrament defined.

Akin to the preaching of the gospel, we have another help to our faith in the sacraments, in regard to which, it greatly concerns us that some sure doctrine should be delivered, informing us both of the end for which they were instituted, and of their present use. First, we must attend to what a sacrament is. It seems to me, then, a simple and appropriate definition to say, that it is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in our turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself, and before angels as well as men.

Sacraments are signs, but not only signs, with no further effect. Calvin has retained half of the traditional Christian definition and discarded the other equally important aspect (and a half-truth is little better than an untruth). He wants to make this an abstract and non-"transactional" process. But on what basis does he do so? As so often, Calvin's rationale seems utterly arbitrary. Where is the precedent? Who else thought this way?

He can and probably will bring in St. Augustine, but if so, he will likely ignore the "realist" aspect of St. Augustine's sacramentalism. St. Augustine refers to the "signs" aspect without denying the realism. He accepted all seven Catholic sacraments. Calvin reduces these to two, and redefines even those, so that there is no longer any regeneration in baptism, nor Real, Substantial Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist (things that even Luther retained).

We may also define more briefly by calling it a testimony of the divine favour toward us, confirmed by an external sign, with a corresponding attestation of our faith towards Him.

More abstractions and purely subjective characteristics . . . Calvin takes out the heart of the sacraments: the fact that they convey grace in order to bring about sanctification of the recipient. Hence, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

. . . a sacrament properly speaking is that which is ordained to signify our sanctification. In which three things may be considered; viz. the very cause of our sanctification, which is Christ's passion; the form of our sanctification, which is grace and the virtues; and the ultimate end of our sanctification, which is eternal life. And all these are signified by the sacraments. Consequently a sacrament is a sign that is both a reminder of the past, i.e. the passion of Christ; and an indication of that which is effected in us by Christ's passion, i.e. grace; and a prognostic, that is, a foretelling of future glory. . . .

Since a sacrament signifies that which sanctifies, it must needs signify the effect, which is implied in the sanctifying cause as such.

(Summa Theologica, III, 60, 3)
Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott further explains:

The Sacraments are neither purely natural signs . . . nor purely artificial or conventional signs, as according to their inner composition, they are appropriate for vividly depicting inward grace. They are not merely speculative or theoretical signs, but efficacious or practical signs, as they not only indicate the inner sanctification, but also effect it . . .

The Reformers, by reason of their doctrine of justification, see in the sacraments pledges of the Divine Promise of the forgiveness of sins by means of the awakening and strengthening of fiducial faith, which alone justifies. Thus, the sacraments are not means whereby grace is conferred, but means whereby faith and its consequences are stirred into action. . . . Thus the Sacraments have only a psychological and symbolic significance. The Council of Trent rejected this teaching as a heresy.

(Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, translated by Patrick Lynch, edited by James Canon Bastible, 4th edition, Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1974 [first published in German in 1952], 326-327)

You may make your choice of these definitions, which in meaning differ not from that of Augustine, which defines a sacrament to be a visible sign of a sacred thing, or a visible form of an invisible grace, but does not contain a better or surer explanation.

As predicted (I am replying as I read in this whole series), St. Augustine is brought in as a supposed witness for Calvin's heresies. But he certainly thought (vastly unlike Calvin) that the Holy Eucharist was the actual Body and Blood of Christ, to be adored, and that it effected grace and salvation:

He took flesh from the flesh of Mary . . . and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation . . . we do sin by not adoring.
(Explanations of the Psalms, 98, 9)
Not only is no one forbidden to take as food the Blood of this Sacrifice, rather, all who wish to possess life are exhorted to drink thereof.
(Questions of the Hepateuch, 3, 57)

St. Augustine, in direct opposition to Calvin, held that baptism conferred regeneration:

. . . the churches of Christ hold inherently that without baptism and participation at the table of the Lord it is impossible for any man to attain either to the kingdom of God or to salvation and life eternal? This is the witness of Scripture too.

(Forgiveness and the Just Deserts of Sin, and the Baptism of Infants 1:24:34 [A.D. 412])

The sacrament of baptism is most assuredly the sacrament of regeneration.

(Ibid., 2:27:43)

Baptism washes away all, absolutely all, our sins, whether of deed, word, or thought, whether sins original or added, whether knowingly or unknowingly contracted.

(Against Two Letters of the Pelagians 3:3:5 [A.D. 420])

As its brevity makes it somewhat obscure, and thereby misleads the more illiterate, I wished to remove all doubt, and make the definition fuller by stating it at greater length.

Great! And we shall provide a Catholic answer to whatever errors Calvin produces in so doing.

2. Meaning of the word sacrament.

The reason why the ancients used the term in this sense is not obscure. The old interpreter, whenever he wished to render the Greek term μυστήριον into Latin, especially when it was used with reference to divine things, used the word sacramentum. Thus, in Ephesians, “Having made known unto us the mystery (sacramentum) of his will;” and again, “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God, which is given me to you-wards, how that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery” (sacramentum) (Eph. 1:9; 3:2). In the Colossians, “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but is now made manifest to his saints, to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery” (sacramentum) (Col. 1:26). Also in the First Epistle to Timothy, “Without controversy, great is the mystery (sacramentum) of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). He was unwilling to use the word arcanum (secret), lest the word should seem beneath the magnitude of the thing meant. When the thing, therefore, was sacred and secret, he used the term sacramentum. In this sense it frequently occurs in ecclesiastical writers. And it is well known, that what the Latins call sacramenta, the Greeks call μυστήρια (mysteries). The sameness of meaning removes all dispute. Hence it is that the term was applied to those signs which gave an august representation of things spiritual and sublime. This is also observed by Augustine, “It were tedious to discourse of the variety of signs; those which relate to divine things are called sacraments” (August. Ep. 5. ad Marcell.).

This is only one aspect of the meaning. Calvin ignores (i.e., discards) the other. but if he is going to claim to simply be following patristic tradition, he can't possibly do that and not misrepresent what they taught. He wants to do his excessively rationalistic "either/or" false dichotomy thing, but the fathers and the Church take the "both/and" approach.

3. Definition explained. Why God seals his promises to us by sacraments.

From the definition which we have given, we perceive that there never is a sacrament without an antecedent promise, the sacrament being added as a kind of appendix, with the view of confirming and sealing the promise, and giving a better attestation, or rather, in a manner, confirming it.

That is an apt description of Calvin's sacramentology: the sacrament as an "appendix."

In this way God provides first for our ignorance and sluggishness, and, secondly, for our infirmity; and yet, properly speaking, it does not so much confirm his word as establish us in the faith of it. For the truth of God is in itself sufficiently stable and certain, and cannot receive a better confirmation from any other quarter than from itself. But as our faith is slender and weak, so if it be not propped up on every side, and supported by all kinds of means, it is forthwith shaken and tossed to and fro, wavers, and even falls. And here, indeed, our merciful Lord, with boundless condescension, so accommodates himself to our capacity, that seeing how from our animal nature we are always creeping on the ground, and cleaving to the flesh, having no thought of what is spiritual, and not even forming an idea of it, he declines not by means of these earthly elements to lead us to himself, and even in the flesh to exhibit a mirror of spiritual blessings.

God is also so merciful that He desires to convey graces and spiritual power and aid by means of the sacraments. Calvin guts them of their nature and power by confining his definition to "sign and seal" only.

For, as Chrysostom says (Hom. 60, ad Popul.). “Were we incorporeal, he would give us these things in a naked and incorporeal form. Now because our souls are implanted in bodies, he delivers spiritual things under things visible. Not that the qualities which are set before us in the sacraments are inherent in the nature of the things, but God gives them this signification.”

But the same Chrysostom believed just as St. Augustine did, and thus is no witness to Calvin's entire heretical doctrine:

Further, because he said, “a communion of the Body,” and that which communicates is another thing from that whereof it communicates; even this which seemeth to be but a small difference, he took away. For having said, “a communion of the Body,” he sought again to express something nearer. Wherefore also he added, Ver. 17. “For we, who are many, are one bread, one body.” “For why speak I of communion?” saith he, “we are that self-same body.” For what is the bread? The Body of Christ. And what do they become who partake of it? The Body of Christ: not many bodies, but one body. For as the bread consisting of many grains is made one, so that the grains no where appear; they exist indeed, but their difference is not seen by reason of their conjunction; so are we conjoined both with each other and with Christ: there not being one body for thee, and another for thy neighbor to be nourished by, but the very same for all. Wherefore also he adds, “For we all partake of the one bread.” . . . For he gave not simply even His own body; but because the former nature of the flesh which was framed out of earth, had first become deadened by sin and destitute of life; He brought in, as one may say, another sort of dough and leaven, His own flesh, by nature indeed the same, but free from sin and full of life; and gave to all to partake thereof, that being nourished by this and laying aside the old dead material, we might be blended together unto that which is living and eternal, by means of this table.

(Homily XXIV on First Corinthians, 4; NPNF 1, Vol. XII)

[N]o one can enter into the kingdom of heaven except he be regenerated through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink his blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious? These [priests] truly are they who are entrusted with the pangs of spiritual travail and the birth which comes through baptism: by their means we put on Christ, and are buried with the Son of God, and become members of that blessed head . . .

(The Priesthood 3:5–6 [A.D. 387])
4. The word which ought to accompany the element, that the sacrament may be complete.

This is commonly expressed by saying that a sacrament consists of the word and the external sign. By the word we ought to understand not one which, muttered without meaning and without faith, by its sound merely, as by a magical incantation, has the effect of consecrating the element, but one which, preached, makes us understand what the visible sign means.

The Calvinist (and general Protestant) tendency is always toward preaching as the focus, rather than the mystery and miracle and efficacious nature of the sacraments as rites designed to empower Christians to counter the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The thing, therefore, which was frequently done, under the tyranny of the Pope, was not free from great profanation of the mystery, for they deemed it sufficient if the priest muttered the formula of consecration, while the people, without understanding, looked stupidly on.

Note the denigration of what had always been central in Christian worship from the beginning. Calvin feels content to caricature the Mass as a priest dumbly muttering the "formula" (no doubt, in his mind, a dead one), with equally dumb, stupefied laymen helplessly watching. One could go on and on about the utter arrogance of this mentality, constantly exhibited by Calvin in the Institutes, but I trust that it is so obvious that we need not dwell on it too much.

Nay, this was done for the express purpose of preventing any instruction from thereby reaching the people: for all was said in Latin to illiterate hearers.

Any Catholic who knew anything at all about the Mass knew what was happening. That was one of the reasons for the "smells and bells" that are so despised. Protestant critics of Catholicism can't have it both ways: they can't condemn the Mass for supposedly keeping the people in ignorance and then turn around and condemn the very indications in the Mass (such as bells) that are precisely designed to help people know what is taking place. There are all kinds of signs and indications in the Mass of what is taking place, even if it was all in Latin.

Surely, Catholics were no more ignorant or impious or wicked than, for example, Lutherans, according to the descriptions of Luther himself (far more open and frank than Calvin ever was):
Who would have wanted to begin preaching, had we known beforehand that so much disaster, riotousness, scandal, sacrilege, ingratitude, and wickedness were to follow. But now . . . we have to pay for it.
(Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 volumes, translated by A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 [orig. 1891], XVI, 13; from EA, vol. 50, 74; in 1538. "EA" = Erlangen Ausgabe edition of Luther's Works [Werke] in German, 1868, 67 volumes)
Worse still than avarice, whoring and immorality, which had the upper hand everywhere nowadays, was the general contempt of the gospel.
(Janssen, ibid., XVI, 16; EN, IV, 6; in 1532. "EN" = Enders, L., Dr. Martin Luther's Correspondence, Frankfurt, 1862)
Now that . . . we are free . . . we show our thankfulness in a way calculated to bring down God's wrath . . . We have got the Evangel . . . but . . . we do not trouble ourselves to act up to it.
(Janssen, ibid., XVI, 16-17)
I have well nigh given up all hope for Germany, for . . . the whole host of dishonesty, wickedness, and roguery are reigning everywhere . . . and added to all else contempt of the Word and ingratitude.
(Janssen, ibid., XVI, 19; LL, V, 398, 407; letter to Anton Lauterbach, November, 1541. "LL" = Luther's Letters [German], edited by M. De Wette, Berlin: 1828)
Those who ought to be good Christians because they have heard the gospel, are harder and more merciless than before . . . Tell me, where is there a town . . . pious enough to . . . maintain one schoolmaster or pastor? . . . Thanks also to the dear Evangel, the people have become . . . abominally wicked . . . diabolically cruel . . . growing fat . . . through plunder and robbery of Church goods . . . Ought we not to be thoroughly ashamed of ourselves?
(Janssen, ibid., XV, 466-467)
I fear . . . that we are a greater offence to God than the papists.
(Janssen, ibid., XV, 467)
I've also documented elsewhere (see section V), Luther's successor Philip Melanchthon, and fellow "reformer" Martin Bucer expressing the same sort of disgust at Protestant moral laxity and impiety. So there was and is plenty of this to go around, but alas, in the Institutes we only hear about how ignorant, stupid, and impious Catholics are. To tell the fuller truth and to dirty his hands with accounts of the rampant sin and other problems in his own camp would go contrary to Calvin's purpose, and so he conveniently omits such unsavory considerations. Catholic readers tire of this, as it is a constant hypocrisy and double standard in anti-Catholic polemics.
Superstition afterwards was carried to such a height, that the consecration was thought not to be duly performed except in a low grumble, which few could hear.

At least there still was a consecration, that actually made something happen.

Very different is the doctrine of Augustine concerning the sacramental word. “Let the word be added to the element, and it will become a sacrament. For whence can there be so much virtue in water as to touch the body and cleanse the heart, unless by the agency of the word, and this not because it is said, but because it is believed? For even in the word the transient sound is one thing, the permanent power another. This is the word of faith which we preach says the Apostle” (Rom. 10:8).

Again, Calvin concentrates only on that which he wants to see and emphasize in Augustine, ignoring all that which goes contrary to his teaching (and surely he was aware of those, so this is more cynically deliberate omission).

Hence, in the Acts of the Apostles, we have the expression, “Purify their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9). And the Apostle Peter says, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience)” (1 Pet. 3:21). “This is the word of faith which we preach: by which word doubtless baptism also, in order that it may be able to cleanse, is consecrated” (August. Hom. in Joann. 13). You see how he requires preaching to the production of faith. And we need not labour to prove this, since there is not the least room for doubt as to what Christ did, and commanded us to do, as to what the apostles followed, and a purer Church observed.

Preaching is fine, but Calvin passes over the baptismal regeneration that 1 Peter 3:21 (along with several other similar biblical passages) plainly teaches, as well as the same motif in Augustine. He sees what he wants to see (and assumes that his readers will do the same, guided by his sure hand). This is also an extremely common trait in anti-Catholic apologetics to this day.

Nay, it is known that, from the very beginning of the world, whenever God offered any sign to the holy Patriarchs, it was inseparably attached to doctrine, without which our senses would gaze bewildered on an unmeaning object. Therefore, when we hear mention made of the sacramental word, let us understand the promise which, proclaimed aloud by the minister, leads the people by the hand to that to which the sign tends and directs us.

And also, let us understand that baptism and the Holy Eucharist regenerate, empower believers for sanctification, and save.

5. Error of those who attempt to separate the word, or promise of God, from the element.

Nor are those to be listened to who oppose this view with a more subtle than solid dilemma. They argue thus: We either know that the word of God which precedes the sacrament is the true will of God, or we do not know it. If we know it, we learn nothing new from the sacrament which succeeds. If we do not know it, we cannot learn it from the sacrament, whose whole efficacy depends on the word. Our brief reply is: The seals which are affixed to diplomas, and other public deeds, are nothing considered in themselves, and would be affixed to no purpose if nothing was written on the parchment, and yet this does not prevent them from sealing and confirming when they are appended to writings. It cannot be alleged that this comparison is a recent fiction of our own, since Paul himself used it, terming circumcision a seal (Rom. 4:11), where he expressly maintains that the circumcision of Abraham was not for justification, but was an attestation to the covenant, by the faith of which he had been previously justified.

The same Paul repeatedly taught baptismal regeneration:

Romans 6:3-4 (KJV) Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? [4] Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

Galatians 3:26-27 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. [27] For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Ephesians 5:26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,

Colossians 2:12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

Titus 3:5 Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;

The same Paul gave the following account of what was said when he himself was baptized. He did not disagree with it at all (therefore, he obviously agreed that baptism washed away sins; i.e., regenerated):

Acts 22:16 And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

And how, pray, can any one be greatly offended when we teach that the promise is sealed by the sacrament, since it is plain, from the promises themselves, that one promise confirms another? The clearer any evidence is, the fitter is it to support our faith. But sacraments bring with them the clearest promises, and, when compared with the word, have this peculiarity, that they represent promises to the life, as if painted in a picture.

They also bring about that life, as Holy Scripture plainly attests.

Nor ought we to be moved by an objection founded on the distinction between sacraments and the seals of documents—viz. that since both consist of the carnal elements of this world, the former cannot be sufficient or adequate to seal the promises of God, which are spiritual and eternal, though the latter may be employed to seal the edicts of princes concerning fleeting and fading things. But the believer, when the sacraments are presented to his eye, does not stop short at the carnal spectacle, but by the steps of analogy which I have indicated, rises with pious consideration to the sublime mysteries which lie hidden in the sacraments.

And the believer does not neglect the most important aspect of sacraments: that they literally convey grace to the recipient.

6. Why sacraments are called Signs of the Covenant.

As the Lord calls his promises covenants (Gen. 6:18; 9:9; 17:2), and sacraments signs of the covenants, so something similar may be inferred from human covenants. What could the slaughter of a hog effect, unless words were interposed or rather preceded? Swine are often killed without any interior or occult mystery. What could be gained by pledging the right hand, since hands are not unfrequently joined in giving battle? But when words have preceded, then by such symbols of covenant sanction is given to laws, though previously conceived, digested, and enacted by words. Sacraments, therefore, are exercises which confirm our faith in the word of God; and because we are carnal, they are exhibited under carnal objects, that thus they may train us in accommodation to our sluggish capacity, just as nurses lead children by the hand. And hence Augustine calls a sacrament a visible word (August. in Joann. Hom. 89), because it represents the promises of God as in a picture, and places them in our view in a graphic bodily form (August. cont. Faust. Lib. 19). We might refer to other similitudes, by which sacraments are more plainly designated, as when they are called the pillars of our faith. For just as a building stands and leans on its foundation, and yet is rendered more stable when supported by pillars, so faith leans on the word of God as its proper foundation, and yet when sacraments are added leans more firmly, as if resting on pillars. Or we may call them mirrors, in which we may contemplate the riches of the grace which God bestows upon us. For then, as has been said, he manifests himself to us in as far as our dulness can enable us to recognise him, and testifies his love and kindness to us more expressly than by word.

More of the same largely true but incomplete treatment already critiqued . . .

7. They are such signs, though the wicked should receive them, but are signs of grace only to believers.

It is irrational to contend that sacraments are not manifestations of divine grace toward us, because they are held forth to the ungodly also, who, however, so far from experiencing God to be more propitious to them, only incur greater condemnation. By the same reasoning, the gospel will be no manifestation of the grace of God, because it is spurned by many who hear it; nor will Christ himself be a manifestation of grace, because of the many by whom he was seen and known, very few received him. Something similar may be seen in public enactments. A great part of the body of the people deride and evade the authenticating seal, though they know it was employed by their sovereign to confirm his will; others trample it under foot, as a matter by no means appertaining to them; while others even execrate it: so that, seeing the condition of the two things to be alike, the appropriateness of the comparison which I made above ought to be more readily allowed. It is certain, therefore, that the Lord offers us his mercy, and a pledge of his grace, both in his sacred word and in the sacraments;

He offers more than a pledge in the sacraments. He offers grace itself.

but it is not apprehended save by those who receive the word and sacraments with firm faith: in like manner as Christ, though offered and held forth for salvation to all, is not, however, acknowledged and received by all.

Catholics agree that the sacraments have to be received worthily; with right disposition, or else they lose much of their good effect. This is obviously true of the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), and particularly also of the Holy Eucharist.

Augustine, when intending to intimate this, said that the efficacy of the word is produced in the sacrament, not because it is spoken, but because it is believed. Hence Paul, addressing believers, includes communion with Christ, in the sacraments, as when he says, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).

I produced the same verse above Calvin is assuming that the believers put on Christ first, then were baptized as a seal. But this makes no sense with regard to infant baptism, which Calvin himself accepts. If a baby can't exercise faith first before baptism, why baptize him or her? Therefore, it makes more sense in the overall picture, to believe, rather, that baptism confers regeneration, not that regeneration proceeds in other ways, and that baptism follows as sign and seal. Besides, Paul clearly taught baptism elsewhere (especially in Acts 22:16 and Titus 3:5), so we know that he believed that, so that wherever faith comes into play it doesn't cancel out the regeneration conferred by baptism.

If Calvin can't accept the plain words of perspicuous Scripture in order to derive his doctrine, perhaps he should start rewriting it? Acts 22:16 could then read something like the following:

Acts 22:16 (RCV: Revised Calvin Version) And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and receive the sign and seal of the fact that God already washed away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

Again, “For by one Spirit we are all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13).

To become a member of the Body of Christ, one has to be born again, or regenerated.

But when he speaks of a preposterous use of the sacraments, he attributes nothing more to them than to frigid, empty figures; thereby intimating, that however the ungodly and hypocrites may, by their perverseness, either suppress, or obscure, or impede the effect of divine grace in the sacraments, that does not prevent them, where and whenever God is so pleased, from giving a true evidence of communion with Christ, or prevent them from exhibiting, and the Spirit of God from performing, the very thing which they promise. We conclude, therefore, that the sacraments are truly termed evidences of divine grace, and, as it were, seals of the good-will which he entertains toward us. They, by sealing it to us, sustain, nourish, confirm, and increase our faith. The objections usually urged against this view are frivolous and weak. They say that our faith, if it is good, cannot be made better; for there is no faith save that which leans unshakingly, firmly, and undividedly, on the mercy of God. It had been better for the objectors to pray, with the apostles, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5), than confidently to maintain a perfection of faith which none of the sons of men ever attained, none ever shall attain, in this life. Let them explain what kind of faith his was who said, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24). That faith, though only commenced, was good, and might, by the removal of the unbelief, be made better. But there is no better argument to refute them than their own consciousness. For if they confess themselves sinners (this, whether they will or not, they cannot deny), then they must of necessity impute this very quality to the imperfection of their faith.

At least Calvin agrees that some practical help comes of sacraments, by saying that it increases faith. We must be thankful for any bright spots in the midst of the serious error.

8. Objections to this view answered.

But Philip, they say, replied to the eunuch who asked to be baptized, “If thou believest with all thine heart thou mayest” (Acts 8:37). What room is there for a confirmation of baptism when faith fills the whole heart? I, in my turn, ask them, Do they not feel that a good part of their heart is void of faith—do they not perceive new additions to it every day? There was one who boasted that he grew old while learning. Thrice miserable, then, are we Christians if we grow old without making progress, we whose faith ought to advance through every period of life until it grow up into a perfect man (Eph. 4:13). In this passage, therefore, to believe with the whole heart, is not to believe Christ perfectly, but only to embrace him sincerely with heart and soul; not to be filled with him, but with ardent affection to hunger and thirst, and sigh after him. It is usual in Scripture to say that a thing is done with the whole heart, when it is done sincerely and cordially. Of this description are the following passages:—“With my whole heart have I sought thee” (Ps. 119:10); “I will confess unto thee with my whole heart,” &c. In like manner, when the fraudulent and deceitful are rebuked, it is said “with flattering lips, and with a double heart, do they speak” (Ps. 12:2). The objectors next add—“If faith is increased by means of the sacraments, the Holy Spirit is given in vain, seeing it is his office to begin, sustain, and consummate our faith.”

Calvin again acknowledges a practical benefit of a sacrament, but his overall doctrine of justification mitigates against baptismal regeneration. He is more consistent than Luther, because Luther's soteriology is in tension to some extent, with his sacramentology.

I admit, indeed, that faith is the proper and entire work of the Holy Spirit, enlightened by whom we recognise God and the treasures of his grace, and without whose illumination our mind is so blind that it can see nothing, so stupid that it has no relish for spiritual things. But for the one Divine blessing which they proclaim we count three. For, first, the Lord teaches and trains us by his word; next, he confirms us by his sacraments; lastly, he illumines our mind by the light of his Holy Spirit, and opens up an entrance into our hearts for his word and sacraments, which would otherwise only strike our ears, and fall upon our sight, but by no means affect us inwardly.

As far as it goes, this is true, but ultimately incomplete.

9. No secret virtue in the sacraments. Their whole efficacy depends on the inward operation of the Spirit.

Wherefore, with regard to the increase and confirmation of faith, I would remind the reader (though I think I have already expressed it in unambiguous terms), that in assigning this office to the sacraments, it is not as if I thought that there is a kind of secret efficacy perpetually inherent in them, by which they can of themselves promote or strengthen faith, but because our Lord has instituted them for the express purpose of helping to establish and increase our faith.

This seems like a distinction without a difference. Calvin is probably has in mind the Catholic doctrine of ex opere operato, which he rejects.

The sacraments duly perform their office only when accompanied by the Spirit, the internal Master, whose energy alone penetrates the heart, stirs up the affections, and procures access for the sacraments into our souls. If he is wanting, the sacraments can avail us no more than the sun shining on the eyeballs of the blind, or sounds uttered in the ears of the deaf.

But again, this makes no sense in the case of infant baptism. The infant receives benefits wholly apart from the Holy Spirit, since the Spirit comes precisely by virtue of the baptism. Calvin will probably say that others who represent the child (parents) have the faith, but it still remains true that the infant receives the benefit apart from his or her understanding of anything that is occurring.

Wherefore, in distributing between the Spirit and the sacraments, I ascribe the whole energy to him, and leave only a ministry to them; this ministry, without the agency of the Spirit, is empty and frivolous, but when he acts within, and exerts his power, it is replete with energy.

As a generality, this is true. All sacraments possess the power that they do because God wills it.

It is now clear in what way, according to this view, a pious mind is confirmed in faith by means of the sacraments—viz. in the same way in which the light of the sun is seen by the eye, and the sound of the voice heard by the ear; the former of which would not be at all affected by the light unless it had a pupil on which the light might fall; nor the latter reached by any sound, however loud, were it not naturally adapted for hearing. But if it is true, as has been explained, that in the eye it is the power of vision which enables it to see the light, and in the ear the power of hearing which enables it to perceive the voice, and that in our hearts it is the work of the Holy Spirit to commence, maintain, cherish, and establish faith, then it follows, both that the sacraments do not avail one iota without the energy of the Holy Spirit; and that yet in hearts previously taught by that preceptor, there is nothing to prevent the sacraments from strengthening and increasing faith. There is only this difference, that the faculty of seeing and hearing is naturally implanted in the eye and ear; whereas, Christ acts in our minds above the measure of nature by special grace.

Calvin approaches the whole truth of Catholic sacramentalism in his mention at the end of "special grace." Catholics rejoice in any similarities that can be found, while rejecting errors and novelties that depart from Scripture and traditional precedent.

How the Crucifixion is Timeless (Sacrifice of the Mass)

Salvador Dali, Crucifixion, 1954

Jesus is both God and Man. He has a human nature and a Divine Nature. The human nature could be subject to time. He was born in history, was killed on a certain date, etc.

But God, by nature, is eternal and outside of time, so in His Divine Nature, the crucifixion is timeless and ongoing. That's why we can speak of His death as both historical and ongoing, and how the Sacrifice of the Mass can occur now as a present reality. And it is why, after His Resurrection and Ascension, the Apostle John could still refer to Him as follows:

Revelation 5:6 (RSV) And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, . . .

Many Protestants (particularly Calvinists) appear to minimize the Divine Nature element of the crucifixion, and so they deny that Jesus could be present at the Mass because now He is up in heaven. This is almost akin to the ancient heresy of Nestorianism (that separated the two natures of Jesus too greatly; almost making Him two persons).

Well, if we ignore the fact that He is also God as well as man, we come up with that, but for a God Who is omnipotent, omnipresent, and beyond time (and Jesus is God and has all those qualities in His Divine Nature), the miracle of the Sacrifice of the Mass is entirely plausible, possible, and biblically sanctioned. The following passage seems to suggest a sort of transcendence of time in this regard:

1 Peter 1:18-20 You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, [19] but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. [20] He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.

What God decrees or ordains or predestines, He does from all eternity (outside of time altogether). All Christians are pretty much agreed on that. Therefore, the crucifixion (an event ordained from eternity and directed towards the God-Man Who willingly sacrificed Himself), has the same characteristics. It has a timeless element, as both a decree from God (the Father) and an act of God (the Son). God died on the cross. Hence the following passage (again, appropriately, from St. Peter, the first pope), where we clearly observe the intersection of God's timeless plan and foreordination, and human history and actions:

Acts 2:23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.

I had this thought a few nights ago, in a great discussion with a good friend of mine. I believe it is orthodox, with nothing objectionable. I'd like to pursue it further and see if I can find someone else who makes this argument. I'm sure someone has. I'm not gonna come up with anything totally new, for sure. It has always been thought of before by someone.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dialogue With an Atheist on the "Problem of Good" and the Nature of Meaningfulness in Atheism (vs. Mike Hardie)

(The Flip Side of the Problem of Evil Argument Against Christianity)

Part One
Go to: Part Two

[this was originally posted on 17 March 2005. I had to reformat Part One (goofy line breaks all the way through it), and so decided to also bring it to the top of the blog, since I consider this one of the best, most challenging dialogues I have ever participated in. Mike's words will be in blue]

* * * * *

I think the "problem of good" is a far more troublesome difficulty than the problem of evil (even granting that the latter is a very serious and substantive objection, one concerning which even most Christians often struggle in some sense or other: mostly due to lack of understanding, rather than a disproof of God's existence; and especially when we ourselves go through some suffering :-).

I hope you will be more willing to pursue in depth the logical and moral implications of your position (as I view them, anyway), than has been my experience with atheists (and also moral relativists) in the past. Usually, the opponent of Christianity is quite willing to critique what they feel to be our glaring deficiencies, but quite unwilling (for some strange reason) to examine what we regard as the shortcomings in theirs. People in all worldviews seem to be much better at levying charges and poking holes, than at scrutinizing their own beliefs, wouldn't you agree? Just human nature, I would argue.

In an earlier paper which Mike cited, to start this discussion going, I stated that:

The atheist:

1) Can't really consistently define "evil" in the first place;

2) Has no hope of eventual eschatological justice;

3) Has no objective basis of condemning evil;

4) Has no belief in a heaven of everlasting bliss;

5) Has to believe in an ultimately absolutely hopeless and meaningless universe.

This is arguably one of the most common kinds of popular replies to atheism, and I have never seen a really robust attempt to really explain it, much less justify it.

Good; nor have I seen a robust attempt by an atheist (at least those I have come across), to grapple seriously with the objections. There are plenty of Christian apologetic works which make a similar case vis-a-vis atheism. You obviously haven't looked very hard. That's okay; I haven't looked very hard at all that many atheist works, either. I would love to read all the books in the world, but I have to be selective, unfortunately.

To put my objections to it in a nutshell:

(1) and (3) come down to "atheists cannot have objective morality", when there are a multitude of non-theistic ethical theories -- i.e., theories which do not require God -- which seem to be at least as coherent as theistic ethics (i.e., Divine Command Theory or Natural Law Theory).
What is it that rules out these non-theistic ethics in one fell swoop? Let us be clear here: we are not talking about scientific materialism versus theistic ethics, but merely non-theistic versus theistic ethics. (Scientific materialism is often characterized as the view where nothing is meaningful unless it can be reduced to a purely empirical theory of some kind, and it seems pretty obvious to me that this view would have no relevant account of objective morality. But obviously, not all atheists are scientific materialists in this sense.)

What I was implying (and I again thank you for the chance to flesh out and clarify) was that according to the atheist's presuppositions, taken to their ultimate logical (and above all, practical, in concrete, real-world, human terms) consequences, cannot be carried through in a non-arbitrary manner, and will always end up incoherent and morally objectionable. All attempts that I have seen (admittedly I may very well have missed many) have not adequately explained how to overcome this inherent moral relativism, whereby some man (often, in real life, a dictator) "determines" what is right and wrong, imposes it on a populace, group, or family, and people try to live by it happily ever after.

Simply put (but I will defend this at the greatest length once we discuss particular moral questions), atheist justifications for morality (i.e., logically carried through) will always be either completely arbitrary, relativistic to the point of absurdity, or derived from axiomatic
assumptions requiring no less faith than Christian ethics require. I think it was Dostoevsky who said "if God doesn't exist, anything is permissible." Sartre said something similar, which I don't recall at the moment (probably someone here would know to what I am referring).

Dostoyevsky did indeed say that, in Crime and Punishment. Interestingly, though, I think he committed the same error that many apologists do on this point; he equated Godlessness with "the will to power" (embodied by the proto-Nietzschean Raskolnikov).

Arguably, it has been that, with regard to institutional Marxist/Communist atheism, no?

Indeed. The question there is whether this is because they are atheistic, or whether atheism (or in this case, a particular political philosophy which includes atheism) creates this tendency. Personally, I think things like the horrors of Stalinism are better explained by George Orwell than any appeal to belief systems per se. In other words, I think Stalin would have been no less murderous if his professed beliefs had been, say, Hindu.

Yes. My main point in mentioning Stalin was to argue that if Christianity is to be blamed for every evil of the Middle Ages (and we have even seen Hitler absurdly called a Christian on this list), then by the same token Stalin and Mao must come under the category of atheist. Either we reject both scenarios as misrepresentations of our views, or it seems to me that we must accept them both as representative, however distant or objectionable the "inclusion" may be.

I think it's simply a matter that both scenarios have little or nothing to do with theism or atheism.

And I would contend that it could also (by logical extension) be that in the mind of an immoral atheist who felt himself to be the "measure of all things," as the humanists say. I'm very interested in what the decent, moral atheist would say to these folks; how it would be
explained to them that atheism is incompatible with such reprehensible behavior (and why and how the other person should be "bound" to the moral observations).

And why is that? We say it is because God provides the over-arching "absolute" and principle of right and wrong which allows for coherent ethics and non-arbitrary determination of good and evil. We even believe that God IS love. Love and goodness is personified and expressed and grounded in His very Being. Furthermore, Christians believe that God put this inherent
sense in all human beings, so that they instinctively have a moral compass, and therefore largely agree on right and wrong in the main (murder is wrong, so is betrayal, rape, stealing, etc., in all cultures - it may be defined in particulars somewhat differently, but the consensus is there).

Atheists have this sense, put there by God, just as believers do, whether they acknowledge it or not (though it can, of course, be unlearned by intellectual conditioning or surroundings). And their behavior proves it. That's why (in our opinion) they are usually as moral and upright as a
group as any other group of people. But to the extent that they are moral and good, I argue that this is inevitably in conflict with their ultimate ground of ethics, however it is spelled-out, insofar as it excludes God. Without God it will always be relative and arbitrary and usually unable to be
enforced except by brute force. Atheists act far better than their ethics (in their ultimate reduction).

The Communists, though, acted fairly consistently with their atheistic principles (as they laid them out - not that all atheists will or must act this way, which is manifestly false). God was kicked out, and morality became that which Marx (or Lenin) decreed. One can argue all day whether Lenin and especially Stalin were true Communists, and so forth (I think they were). "Orthodox" Marxism - that formulated by Marx - is inherently atheistic, as I understand it.

The fact remains that the fruit in the real world of such materialistic social experiments on the grand scale was mass murder, both in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China (infinitely worse in numbers and in horrors and evil than anything that ever occurred in the Crusades or Inquisition, which we hear about endlessly, because it serves - in the vastly-distorted way in which it is presented - as quite effective propaganda against Christianity; particularly Catholicism).

The Nazis did the same thing, though they were a bit more into the occult, as I understand it. In any event, they were not Christian in any way, shape or form, which is why many thousands of Christians died in the camps as well: people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St. Edith Stein, and St. Maximilian Kolbe, along with thousands of nuns, priests, and Protestant clergymen, and why a person like Oskar Schindler was lucky to escape with his life.

That's my first statement of my thesis (many others have stated it far more eloquently). I can and will defend it at the greatest length, and - if all my past experience in such discussions is any measure - it will only be strengthened as we deal with particulars. I suspect it will be misunderstood a great deal more before we are through with this discussion, but that's why we have discussion in the first place, isn't it?: to foster further understanding on both sides, and to examine our own assumptions.

(2) and (4) have no prima facie relevance that I can see. Why are the lack of ultimate justice, or of an afterlife of eternal bliss, problematic for the notion of goodness? This would seem to suggest that something cannot be meaningfully good or evil unless it is going to be judged to be such, and rewarded or punished accordingly. But this seems false; if something is objectively right or wrong, it is right or wrong quite apart from any questions of what horrors will be inflicted on the wrongdoer or what gifts will be given to his opposite.

Please allow me to explain, if I may. The philosophical ground of goodness in the Christian view is neither the presence nor absence of justice, nor the existence of heaven and hell. It is grounded in God Himself. God is good; we are His creatures, made in His image, so we are good insofar as we are like Him, and united with Him in purpose and outlook. It's as simple as that, but one can write volumes about it, too.

My comment about eschatological justice was not intended as the basis of morality, but about the ultimate futility and nihilism of an atheistic morality - consistently carried-through -, however noble and well-intentioned. In the atheist (purely logical and philosophical) world, Hitler and Stalin and Mao and other evil people go to their graves and that's it! They got away with their crimes. They could have theoretically gone out of the world (as well as all through their lives) laughing and mocking all their victims, because there literally was no justice where they are personally concerned. Why this wouldn't give the greatest pause and concern to the atheist moralist and ethicist is beyond me.

In the Christian worldview, though, the scales of justice operate in the afterlife as well as (quite imperfectly) in human courts and in gargantuan conflicts like World War II where the "good guys" (all in all) managed to win. Hitler and Stalin do NOT "pull one over on God" (or on an abstract notion of justice). They don't "get away with murder." They are punished, and
eternally at that, barring a last-minute repentance which is theoretically possible, but not likely. All makes sense in the end, and there is every reason and incentive to endure evil and suffering when there is ultimately the highest purpose for it. Even Jesus embraced profound suffering;
therefore we can as well.

That doesn't make it a bed of roses for us, by any means, but it is sure a lot easier to endure than under atheist assumptions, where one returns to the dust and ceases to exist, quite often having utterly failed at life, or having been abused their entire life, with nothing significant to ever look forward to. Where is the hope and purpose in that? You tell me; I'm all ears. I truly want to understand how you deal with this ultimate lack of hope or purpose or design, as I would see it.

This was not so much an argument, as it was pointing out that the logical conclusion to atheist ethics is utter despair at what goes on in the world, and the ultimate meaninglessness of it all. It is not arguing that (as in your flawed perception):

All is meaningless in the end; therefore no morality (in practice) is
possible, and therefore all atheists are scoundrels."

but rather:

The ultimate meaninglessness of the universe and the futility of seeing
tyrants like Stalin do their evil deeds and never come to justice in this
life or the next, ought to bring anyone who believes this to despair, and
constitutes a far greater ("existential") difficulty than the Problem of
Evil - which has a number of fairly adequate rejoinders - represents for
the Christian.

(5) evidently requires some more detail. It cannot be saying that atheists never find any hope or meaning in the universe; obviously they do, or we would all be suicidal and mad. (We're obviously not suicidal... as for mad, well, it's an open question. ;)

Precisely my point: the atheist does not consistently think through the "eschatological" implications of his position. Otherwise, I fail to see why he wouldn't despair, go mad, or become an evil person (pure hedonism or narcissism or sadist or other such excess. Why not?). The easiest way to illustrate this is simply to ask you and other atheists on this list what the purpose of life and the universe is, how you know that; what gives you "hope" and so forth.

This goes beyond mere philosophy, to the very purpose of our existence and being. Of course we can philosophize in speculating and thinking about these things, yet the thing itself is not philosophy, but Reality and Purpose, which has to be something, whether or not we ever figure it out. And when you give me those purposes, as you see them, I think you will see - with
further dialogue - that they are based on very little other than faith and presumptuous hopes, which in turn boil down to propositions no better substantiated than the Christian ones of faith which are so frowned-upon and considered silly and unworthy of belief and so on. In fact, I contend that ours have far more objective basis than yours do.

What exactly [are you] claiming here? That atheists' hopes, or notions of what is meaningful, are invalid just because they do not center around God? But that can hardly be it.

Insofar as God offers the only means of hope in terms of purpose, yes. Meaning is put into all human beings by God. But more accurately, I am simply acknowledging - with Sartre - that it is a sad and troubling, devastating thing if God does not exist, that a universe with no God is
(when all is said and done) a lonely, tragic, and meaningless place. This is presupposed by the very Argument from Evil that is used against us! So you can scarcely deny it! Most lives on this earth are not all that happy or fulfilled.

And you would have us believe that after miserable, ragged lives lived all through history (e.g., the millions who don't have enough to eat right now, or the Christian victims of genocide and slavery in the Sudan), the persons die and go in the ground, and that they ought to be happy during their tortured lives? Why? What sense does it all make? We can play that game in
prosperous North America and Europe because all our material needs are met and we can occupy ourselves with various pleasures so that we don't have to think about the sad realities of the world all that much (Maslow's hierarchy).

What does this suggest? That things are not ideal.

Beyond that: that the universe is fundamentally senseless and hopeless for many millions of persons.

That we have a very good reason to make things better, rather than waiting for God to do it for us.

That's a non-issue. The issue is "what is the purpose of all that suffering and futility, in the atheist worldview?"

Suppose there is no purpose. Maybe it's just the case that humans suffer because the universe is not designed to accommodate us; that suffering is just a thing we should try to minimize, not something which has a particular value in itself.

Okay, I'm supposing it. Now how do you cope with that?

By trying to minimize suffering.

I don't think everyone ought to be happy. I think a lot of people aren't happy, and for very good reason. And it's a dreadful thing. Again: sure, it'd be great if everyone were happy at some point. Then again, it would be even better if everyone were happy all the time even before heaven, wouldn't it? But this would be a pipe dream, yes?

In the sense of the probability of it happening, yes. But you are still not really directly dealing with my question.

I'm trying to. In the case above, I'm trying to do this by getting you to see things from the atheistic perspective. We can all think of things that are untrue, yet would be great if true; yet we don't believe these things, and we make do nonetheless. I'd personally grant that it would be great if all suffering culminated in endless bliss; but I don't believe it does, and I find meaning in the happiness that does exist.

So nothing in atheism troubles you, not even to the extent that the problem of evil bothers me as a Christian?

Atheism is nothing more than the denial of theism. There are some ramifications of theism that would be great if true -- who wouldn't want a friend in high places? -- but nothing that seems so necessary that their absence is troubling. To reuse an example, wouldn't you agree that it
would be great if humans could fly? But you presumably don't find the lack of this ability "troubling", in the sense that you lose sleep over it. This is sort of how I think about the nicer implications of theism.

Now, this isn't to say that there aren't difficult intellectual issues with atheism. Naturally there are! For example, arguments for God (ontological and cosmological, largely) are ultimately uncompelling, in my opinion, but not always simply, straightforwardly, or uncontroversially so.

The question you seem to be asking me is, "but how can the happiness that you do find be enough? How can that be enough for meaning, hope, etc.? How can it be enough when you know some people live really horrible lives?" The problem is, I don't know how this question might theoretically be answered, because this is simply asking how it could be enough for me. What can I say, except that it is enough? I think the problem here is that you want something like an objective philosophical justification of an essentially subjective and emotional phenomenon (i.e., finding life meaningful, valuable, etc.).

Now, maybe you think this is just the point: that atheists (or this atheist, at any rate) downplay meaning and hope to a subjective phenomenon, whereas Christians try to make it into an objective one.

Yes, I think that becomes a huge problem, if followed through consistently, and I say that we see its negative fruits in the increasingly secular world today.

The thing is, the situation is the same for both parties. Both Christians and atheists believe in a lot of different facts about the universe. But no fact implies meaning or hope for us, or the ability to dispel existential despair, apart from our subjective view of it.

That's not true if revelation is true, because that gives us solid, objective facts. God exists; He has a certain benevolent nature; He cares about the world and His creatures, etc.

No, you missed the point here. I am making a distinction between facts and subjective values. No fact about external reality has subjective value for us intrinsically. We have to subjectively find value in the fact. God having a benevolent nature is (on the theistic view) a fact, but it is an
irrelevant fact for our personal hopefulness, etc. unless we happen to think God's benevolence is valuable.

If you find meaning in the idea that God has created you to do X, this is meaningful for you -- i.e., it solves your existential despair -- because you find it meaningful. If you didn't care that God had created you to do X, it would not be any sort of "ultimate meaning or purpose" for you at all.

But that's pure relativistic existentialism. The Christian finds the meaning precisely because he believes that God exists (on other grounds) and is the basis and foundation for our existence and purpose. One must determine whether there is a God, then move on to the next stage. We don't just believe because it gives us meaning, which is an entirely different thing; almost a pragmatic approach to theism, which is really no Christian theism at all.

But interestingly, this sort of pragmatic theism seems to be the basis for your argument against atheism. But if this is no real theism at all, then it doesn't really contradict atheism, does it? That is, you seem to be saying that atheists cannot consistently be atheists on pragmatic grounds... but based on what you say above, this doesn't mean that atheism in the more legitimate sense is inconsistent.

Similarly, whatever it is that an atheist might find meaningful is meaningful for him or her just because he or she find it to be such.

In a subjective fashion, yes, but I thought we were discussing possible objective solutions? If we confine this discussion to subjectivism, then there can be no discussion in the first place, because one person's opinion would be irrelevant to the next person's - since they have no relation to each other epistemologically. It would be like discussing whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is intrinsically "superior."

Exactly! This is the situation as I see it as regards meaning and hope.

Personally, I like this particular quote very much:

"Each of us visits this Earth involuntarily, and without an invitation. For me, it is enough to wonder at the secrets." -Einstein

That's great, as far as it goes. Christians have more than enough "secrets" to wonder about, too; even more, because of the extraordinary nature of God.

One might find meaning in the search for truth, as in the above quote.

But that is not sufficient when you ponder that you will cease existing in a very short period of time. And that injustice is all around us, with much of it unpunished.

Or in happiness, for oneself and for others.

That's all fine and dandy, and we would expect it, but it doesn't deal with looking the black universe in the face and truly reflecting upon its ultimate lack of purpose.

And so forth. Is it that atheists cannot do this?

Not at all; it is that they can't do it consistently with their philosophy in the fullness of its implications, and that they must fall back on the equivalent of Christian faith at some point in order to do so, and that they live off the "capital" of the image of God which exists in them whether they accept it or not.

Or is it that these are insufficient for some reason?

They are that, too. If my biggest purpose in life were to sit here and be entranced with ideas (much as I enormously enjoy doing so), I would be in despair, because life consists of far more than intellectual titillation or love of ideas, or some futile search for "happiness," considered apart from ultimate purposes.

All that aside, too, it's unclear how (5), even if it were true, would be a "problem of good" for atheists.

Because it is clearly far worse to have a Hitler and a Stalin do what they did and go to their end unpunished, than it is to believe in an afterlife where monster-morons like that are punished for what they did, and that those who lived a far better moral life are rewarded at long last (for
many, the only significant "happiness" they ever had). These are not proofs; I am simply answering why this is even more so a difficulty (in the sense of a "troublesome thought") for the atheist. The other part of this is to ask "why be good?" The Christian answers, "because that is the reason I was created; to be like God, and to be unified with Him, and in so doing, also
unified with my fellow man." The atheist says: ???

That's more than enough for now. This will be far more nailed down in the course of dialogue. It is much stronger and persuasive in application to particular moral situations and questions, I think.

Do you see the points you made as more applicable to refuting the problem of evil, or to making it into a problem for atheists? (The latter doesn't necessarily equal the former.)

The latter. That was my intent. It's turning the tables. But I still consider the Problem of Evil the most formidable and understandable objection to Christianity. Obviously I don't think it succeeds . . .

I'm not widely read on the topic either. (I have, for example, never read a single atheistic apologetic work.) I have come across the problem in readings -- e.g., in CS Lewis, or Cornelius Van Til -- but have never seen it presented in a philosophically robust way.

Anyhow, your point above actually sounds more or less exactly like what I was describing in my initial objection. What you present above is simply Divine Command Theory -- or at least, the most popular variant of it, which states that moral standards are grounded in the nature of God.

It's always fun to learn of the technical term for one's position. :-) This, then, would also be the Catholic Christian (particularly Scholastic/Thomist) perspective on the matter.

Why does the assertion of this theory prove that atheistic ethics are completely "arbitrary" or "relativistic to the point of absurdity"?

It doesn't "prove" it because it is a separate theory. It is simply a superior ethical option (as a coherent, consistent system) to any atheist brand, in my opinion. My argument is that atheist ethics will always end up being self-defeating, and/or relativistic to the point of being utterly incapable of practical application. Failing God, the standard then becomes a merely human one, therefore ultimately and inevitably arbitrary and relativistic and unable to be maintained for large groups of people except by brute force and dictatorship (which is precisely what happened, if Stalinism or Maoism are regarded as versions of consistent philosophical atheism to any degree, or even corrupt versions of it).

Obviously they would be such if DCT were assumed -- DCT being true would of course mean that atheistic ethics were false -- but no atheist is going to grant that from the get-go. But maybe I've missed something here.

You have. That was not my argument, which was: "atheists have their own 'problem of evil,' even more troubling than the Christian one." I merely referred to the Christian version of ethics insofar as it is able to resolve certain problems which, it seems to me, the atheist cannot solve, or at least only with the greatest difficulty and arbitrariness.

Exactly which problems?

How to arrive at an objective criteria; how to enforce it across the board; how to make such a morality something other than the end result of a majority vote or the power of governmental coercion. Also, how do we solve thorny societal problems such as various sexual differences, and beginning and end of life issues such as abortion and euthanasia and cloning?

I don't see that these are particularly problematic for atheism. There is dispute, of course, about what the best objective criteria are; but then, there is dispute within the ranks of theism, too. (There are different conceptions of DCT, for example, plus Natural Law theory. And there are even theists who hold to nontheistic ethics -- this is not a contradiction in terms, because these are nontheistic rather than atheistic per se).

As for enforcement, naturally the thing that concerns the atheist is enforcement in the mortal realm. Here, again, all moral theories are on a more or less equal footing. How, if one knew DCT were true, would one go about enforcing morality in the here and now?

By evangelizing people, helping them convert, and thus unifying the world population. :-) Short of that, at least convincing them of the need for universal norms and arguing the Christian positions on a case-by-case pragmatic/utilitarian basis (using arguments the non-Christian can relate to).

The solution to societal problems is more or less a consequence of the sort of theory we end up with. For example, contractualism would simply say that the issue of euthanasia comes down to whether or not ending one's own life defied the social contract.

The Christian must believe that life is sacred and that decisions to end it (apart from justified war, self-defense, etc.) are best left in the hands of God. Of course, without God, then without any higher criterion than human, anything becomes possible in terms of the ending of life. So we see the fruits of that worldview all around us.

In other words, Christians have the universal and absolute standard: God. What do humanists have? Most are ethical relativists, I believe. How, then, are worldwide ethics to be determined and lived out? Relativists have a certain obvious set of problems. If there is an atheistic absolutism (as I suspect), then that will have to be explained to me: how it is arrived at; why anyone should accept it, etc. I've been trying to have this conversation for years. I almost
did with an agnostic scientist I debated, but he was never willing to truly subject his own views to the scrutiny I was prepared to give them.

All of this would seem to follow only if indeed the ultimate ground of ethics were (and had to be) God. Have you got an argument demonstrating this much?

Briefly, and off the top of the head, my reasoning might run as follows:

1. There is a God (cosmological and teleological arguments, as well as many others).

2. There is such a thing as the natural law (as evidenced by the profound
similarities and broad consensus of ethics anthropologically, and the
impracticality and tragic results of all relativistic ethical systems).

3. It is plausible and sensible (granting #1) to ground natural law in God,
and His nature, because He is both First Cause, Creator, and Eternal.

4. God has revealed Himself as good (revelation, miracles, Jesus Christ).

5. God is the lawgiver and Creator, Who made man in His image, including
their moral sense.

6. Particulars of the moral law which is generally understood intuitively
(#2) are fleshed out in revelation (Ten Commandments, the Jewish Law, New Testament ethics).

A theistic or absolutistic ethics can be arrived at by #1-3. The fuller, more worked-out Christian version incorporates the additional points.

My critique of atheism presently, however, is independent of the validity or soundness of my own Christian view, because it is aimed at internal inconsistency, incoherence, and (I contend) impossibility of concrete application (as well as a few historical examples which I take to be - in
some measure - substantiating evidence of my argument).

I have never agreed with the "Crusades and Inquisitions" objections either (at least with regard to the notion of Christian morality in general).

Great. You are a rare bird!

But all you're doing here is making the same objection against atheism. It doesn't work any better this way.

The Stalinist and Maoist examples are not central to the argument (in fact, completely dispensable). They were merely thrown in for consideration. I know all this wasn't explained, but that's why more discussion is always helpful.

The problem is that it conflates two different issues:

a) Can, and have, atheists been immoral?

Yes, but so what? So have many Christians (in fact, all of them: we believe in original sin LOL).

b) Does immorality derive from atheism?

No; it derives from giving into the baser elements of our natures (again, Christians explain the strange moral duality of man by original sin and a corruption of the initial created purity). Atheism, at best, might be used to justify intellectually, or to rationalize, various individual sins and evil acts.

Exactly right (sans the original sin stuff, of course). Just about any belief system can be used to rationalize misdeeds. Consider the Pope of the time, for example, in justifying the Crusades... he explained that when the Bible commanded people not to kill, it really meant "don't kill other Christians." :)

No, this is absurdly simplistic. The biblical command "Thou shalt not kill" is better translated "Thou shalt not murder," because that was the meaning of it. Some forms of killing were permissible; indeed Jewish Law had the death penalty for a number of offenses. The Christian Just War theory (developed by Augustine and others) worked out the instances where war was ethically justified. Unless one is a strict pacifist, this is necessary for everyone to determine (the times to ethically use force).

Well, of course, a strict pacifist might very well argue that this "Just War theory" is an excellent example of such rationalization...! Who was it, again, who commanded people to turn the other cheek? :)

He also said that His disciples ought to purchase a sword (Luke 22:35-36) and did not rebuke a Roman centurion for being a military man; in fact He highly praised his faith (Matthew 8:5-13). This is not rationalization at all. It is a real-world ethical system, very poorly-understood by many critics of Christianity, and even by pacifists within Christianity.

At any rate, that was just an off-the-cuff example. I think we agree on the basic idea (i.e., that rationalization can be used to pervert any belief system).


Of course (a) is true. It is true of atheists, theists, and everyone in between. The fact is, anyone who is a human being is capable of being

Exactly. Why that is, is a whole 'nother discussion, of course. But no one would dream of disputing the fact of it.

But this is no connection at all with (b).

I agree.

How does simply presenting the Christian view of morality show that absurdity is the end result of atheistic thinking?

It doesn't; that wasn't central to my argument. I was simply stating that Christians solve the "problem" in a certain fashion, and wondering out loud how atheists solve it. Two roads to the same destination; that sort of thing.

"Nihilism" is inapplicable here. Nihilism is the view that there is no such thing as moral value at all;

It remains to be seen (in my opinion) how relativistic and/or atheistic ethics can avoid a logical reduction to nihilism. I'd be delighted to see this demonstrated, but I am skeptical so far.

and lack of ultimate punishment/reward in no way suggests that.

I agree. I didn't say it did. Yet lacking the latter might arguably become an incentive for immoral and dominating behavior.

This is certainly arguable, at any rate. This is the same sort of argument that is advanced in favour of capital punishment, for example, yet the retort is that capital punishment has never been shown to have deterrent value. I don't even know how we would go about showing that belief in ultimate justice has deterrent value; maybe by assessing crime rates among Christians versus atheists. I'm not sure, though, that the results would unequivocally suggest anything. (For example, it's apparently a fact that Christians are statistically overrepresented in prisons... but I don't think that's particularly suggestive of anything).

Probably only that atheists come from the more educated classes, which tend to be more financially well-off, hence less prone to crime. :-)

Could be. Or it could even just be the fact that more prisoners are likely to report being Christian when they know perfectly well that professed religiosity helps their chances of parole.

:-) Great insight! We've just seen this process in a President, so it rings true with me.

As for futility, there are several points to be made here. The first is that not all ethicists see justice as retributive. Some also take a correctional view, for example, to which ultimate
punishment/reward in the sense you give would be quite irrelevant. On this view, the point of punishment and reward is consequentialist: to correct the error of the wrongdoer and reinforce the behaviour of the good. Is there something inherently futile about this view?

No, not as far as it goes. But the Christian sees justice as "cosmic." Evil is a blot on the "normality" of the universe, and it offends God. It is an offense against the ontological nature of things, as God intended it. Obviously, these things are no factor in atheist ethics. They are

Quite right. But the question is, is this a problem for atheistic ethics?

Incidentally, the view of justice as "cosmic", or of evil as an abnormality/offense, do not themselves suggest a retributive view of justice. The basic difference between retributive and correctional views is just this: retributive views put the premium on "eye for an eye", or punishing harm with harm; and correctional views put the premium on simply doing whatever best stops people from committing harm. Why, I wonder, wouldn't God take the correctional view?

He does! But he is also Divine Judge, as analogous (if rather dimly) to earthly judges.

This analogy doesn't really answer anything, since whether or not earthly judges do, or should, dispense correctional or retributive justice is hotly debated.


You seem to have God faithfully practicing two conflicting kinds of justice at the same time, which doesn't make sense. Correctional justice takes the end, or purpose, of justice to be consequentialist. That is, if one is to judge in this sense, then one is looking at producing whatever judgment will produce the best state of affairs. So: if God is consequentialist, God simply dispenses justice in whatever way will lead to the most people being saved and fulfilled. God would not be out to harm those who do wrong, or are evil; he would be out to correct their errors, and make them into good people.

God can judge the sins but also at the same time cause people to come to grips with what they need to do in order to be ultimately saved. But there is mercy and forgiveness, which in turn depends on human will and the willingness to repent.

Alternatively, retributive justice takes the end of justice to be vengeance. If one is to judge in this sense, then one is attempting to visit some harm those who have acted wrongly or are deficient in character.

Well, if God has, in fact, given everyone ample opportunity to repent and they choose not to, there has to be some point at which His mercy comes to an end and Judgment enters in. To live with God forever, one has to be perfect; cleansed of evil. To do that one must repent, receive God's graces and strive to live above sin and evil. But people - having free will - can refuse that. If they make a habit out of it, they become comfortable living without God; they become "hardened."

So, then, if they die, they will be judged by whether or not they received God's free gift of grace, what they know (many will be saved by the loophole of ignorance), and what they did and didn't do with what they knew about God and good and evil. If they are not "fit" for heaven, not having been redeemed by Christ's death for them, then they must live eternally separate from God, and that is what we call hell. Why eternal hellfire is a "cosmic necessity," I cannot explain, I freely confess. But I have every reason to believe that God is both fair and just in both His judgments and distribution of His graces.

The problem is that either view requires a different kind of judgment in certain cases. Let's suppose that, after his death, Hitler is forced to stand before the almighty. In this moment -- following the Jack Chick school of theology :) -- Hitler realizes how evil his acts on the earthly realm were, and falls down in atonement. God, being able to see into hearts and all, can see he is sincere. What does God do?

If God is dispensing correctional justice, God lets Hitler into heaven. The past misdeeds were terrible, but God can see that Hitler now realizes this fact; there is no reason, now that he has realized his past error, for Hitler to be punished for anything.

Hitler had to do this before he died (which is extremely unlikely, knowing human evil and corruption and what it does to a soul, as we do, but still remotely possible); that is the only catch. There has to be an end-point for the mercy which God extends. God is not required to be merciful at all, in exercising His prerogative as Judge. So it is not "evil" of God to simply set a time at which the mercy comes to an end. And that time is every individual's death.

It's like a Governor extending the offer of a pardon 47 times to a prisoner on death row, and being refused 47 times. Is he then "unjust" or "cruel" to conclude "enough is enough" and to cease offering pardons? Of course not. And who do we blame if the prisoner then gets executed? The Governor, right???!!! :-)

If God is dispensing retributive justice, God sends Hitler to be nibbled on by demons for eternity. Sure, he's sorry now, and sure, he's changed; but he has to pay for the pain he has inflicted with pain of his own.

It is not unjust if a person spurns God's grace and chooses to become increasingly more evil. That person must be judged (and damned) in the end. The alternative (Hitler and you and I or Mother Teresa all having exactly the same end) is infinitely more troubling to me. I don't know how anyone could think otherwise, except by habit of thinking poorly of God (or of the unaccepted concept) and not understanding His dual role as both loving, merciful Father and Holy Judge.

Do you see what I mean? The ultimate end of justice for God cannot both be retribution and correction, because those views themselves have conflicting ends.

Not at all, as I hope I have adequately explained.

Indeed, if the only purpose of justice is to put the cosmic house in order, as it were, why would God stress retribution? To use that analogy: if your house is in disarray, does it make more sense to destroy everything that's out of place -- e.g., burn all your clothes because they're not properly tucked away in the closet -- or to put everything back as it should be...?

That's the distinction between redemption and final judgment. God is both Savior and Judge, because He is the Creator. He made us; He desires us to be saved and fulfilled, which entails union with Him and with His will, but at the same time He allows us the freedom to disobey Him, and that will eventually involve separation from God and eternal punishment for those who choose that course and spurn God's free gift of grace, by the very nature of things.

The second is that many atheists, myself included, would not agree that ultimate "justice" in the classical Christian sense really is just at all. That is: justice in this sense involves infinite punishment, but humans are only capable of finite crimes. If justice involves matching the
punishment to the crime -- as it must, lest we start executing jaywalkers -- then any infinite punishment would be de facto unjust. This point would not, of course, apply to universalists.

Hell is a completely different discussion, so I can't indulge it here. Suffice it to say that human beings are immortal. They have a free choice to choose to obey God and be in union with Him, or to reject Him. We make these choices in this life, and the choices have eternal consequences. God honors that freedom. He can't force love anymore than human beings can (well, He could have done so, but He chose not to). It is simply the nature of things that souls are immortal, and that they can either be with God or separate from Him, eternally.

Hell is the individual's choice. It is like a lifer in prison turning down the Governor's free pardon. Is that the Governor's fault? C.S. Lewis said that the doors of hell were locked on the inside. So I don't see this as any sort of blot on God's character at all. It (hell) is the tragic result of man's rebellion, selfishness, pride, self-delusion, and stupidity.

Hell is indeed a different topic. I brought it up just to make the point that, apart from the issue of whether it is necessary for morality, there is some serious question as to whether the classically Christian view is even sufficient.

Not for orthodox Christians. :-) We may not like the idea (emotionally, and at a gut level) much more than you do, but we don't accept things in theology based on our likes and dislikes. In this case, we have a teaching repeatedly referred to by Jesus, and thus not optional for a Christian.

I won't go off on too much of a rant, but I will say for the record that the view you describe above -- of hell as the individual's choice -- smacks to me horribly of rationalization. Imagine a mugger: "give me all your money or you're dead." The person refuses, and gets killed. Could the mugger then say, "well, it was his free choice to die; is it my fault he chose that?" Hardly! The person who refused did not choose to be killed; he merely refused to do what the mugger wanted him to do, and the mugger decided that the consequence would be death. As you say, though, this issue deserves a thread in itself.

This is a completely false analogy because it involves coercion and no fault on the part of the person judged, whereas with us and God, God lets us freely choose good or evil, and we are at fault if we choose wrongly, or - to follow up on my earlier point - we have chosen to separate ourselves from God and He says "okay, have your way." Otherwise, He would have to force us to love Him and desire to be with Him, and that is no love at all, anymore than a love slave really loves their master.

The analogy wasn't to do with the justice or morality of the demand, but just on the fact that God is making a demand and enforcing obedience as opposed to just sitting back and saying "well, it's your choice whether you go to heaven or hell". We do not choose heaven or hell; we choose
obedience or disobedience, and it is God who decides the consequences. (Unless, of course, going to heaven or hell is just some sort of natural process that God has no part in. But I'd be really surprised if any Christian said that).

This seems to me to be a distinction without a difference.To be disobedient is to separate oneself from God, which in turn is ultimately the state of hell, or outer darkness. Again, that's like the proverbial death row inmate, who (in my previous example) refused a Governor's Pardon 47 times. He chose to be "disobedient" to the Governor, or - put another way - to separate himself from the non-prison, free world, with the Governor and those in his "kingdom," so to speak. Now, is it the Governor who decided those "consequences" or the inmate?

The Governor decided the consequences. This, again, is not itself meant as any judgment that doing so is necessarily unjust; but it is nevertheless a fact that the prisoner did not choose to be such. Choosing to go to prison, construed meaningfully, would mean actually willing this end
and no criminal actually wills the end of going to prison.

I think willing the end is necessary to be able to say we choose it, because otherwise choice becomes too inclusive. For example, suppose that your car has, without your knowledge, been rigged to explode when started. You choose to turn the key in the ignition, and the car blows up... did you choose to die? Clearly, not in any significant sense. The end you willed was simply to make your car start. Similarly, if we disobey God -- by being atheists, say -- we do not thereby will ourselves to go to hell. Indeed, if we are atheists, we don't even believe in hell -- it is as
unforseen a consequence for us as the explosion of the car would be for you.

It's true that God decides, or judges, but we have already made our choice, reinforced through many years of practice (what the Christian would characterize as resistance and rebellion) in most cases. He is merely definitively proclaiming what is already a reality (separation from God), and granting the resister his will in full. The outcome of that is hell; that is what it means to be completely separated from God, and since souls cannot die, by their very nature, therefore hell must be an eternal state as well. "Ya lives yer life and ya makes yer choice."

This seems equivocal. Are you saying that it is impossible for God to do other than send sinners to hell...?

But as to the justice of the matter, one simple point settles it for me: justice always proportions the punishment to the crime. Hell is an infinite punishment; but there is no way that a finite human being can commit an infinite crime.

The third point is that you are speaking above as though morality were only meaningful if it may be absolutely enforced.

Not so much meaningless per se, as impracticable, arbitrary, and philosophically unjustifiable.

The problem is that it's still unclear where these are coming from. Why is such a view of morality impracticable?

Because people will always disagree on this or that (abortion is a prime example today). Therefore, the only way to enforce standards across the board would have to be by force, majority vote, or both. But if one believes in objective morality, that is insufficient. The Christian solution provides a standard for one and all, because it is a code grounded in natural law, revelation (itself supported in numerous ways), and in God's very character. Utilitarian ethics eventually break down.

All objective morality provides a standard for one and all, and I'm not sure how it is that DCT would be more enforceable than other kinds of morality in the here and now. So, I'm not sure what you could be arguing here.

Obviously, atheists do practice it, so you must mean that it ought to be impracticable... but why? What makes it arbitrary? (What is meant by arbitrary?) Why is it philosophically unjustifiable? It isn't enough that the Christian view includes it, and you take this to be somehow superior; these are ambitious, positive claims about atheism.

I think I have explained myself previously . . .

But why should the atheist agree?

He doesn't have to; he needs to justify his own ethics, based on his own premises.

Obviously, anyone who pretends to have a full-fledged theory of ethics needs to do this. But this is quite irrelevant to your claim that atheistic morality is impracticable, arbitrary, and unjustifiable. If you make this claim, then you must know something about atheism which reduces to this moral impracticability, arbitrariness, etc.

Simply because there can be no conclusive standard for all people to be held to unless it is "above" humanity. Otherwise, morality invariably becomes relative, self-centered, or subject to governmental coercion and/or majority vote. The Germans voted in the Nazis, and they made certain laws, and the laws were, in turn, regarded as "good" and "right." There is no higher Being to be subject to, which was assumed by, e.g., the Declaration of Independence, and throughout early American jurisprudence; now being more and more whitewashed of its natural law elements.

Your argument, then, is this:

1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures, governments, or individuals).

2. Without a higher being, all behavioural imperatives are relativistic.

3. Therefore, there can be no objective morality without a higher being.

The problem is premise (2). Why should anyone believe it? You have given no argument for it as yet. What you have done is asked me to show you how an objective theory of morality works without God (and I've done so) -- but this is in no way an argument for (2), only a request for potential disproofs of it.

Your characterization of my argument is incorrect, for numbers 2 and 3 (but that's okay, as I set forth lots of things, and no doubt not as coherently or clearly as I could have done). Here is how I would state them (I do contend that my argument is considerably more sophisticated and nuanced than you seem to realize):

Okay, fair enough; I'll address your argument as given.

1. Objective morality must be non relativistic (not relative to cultures, governments, or individuals). [good enough]

2. Without a higher being, all behavioral imperatives logically and in practice reduce to (ultimately arbitrary) relativism, in the sense that no single standard will be able to be enforced for, or applied to one and all (which is what "objective morality" - #1 - requires); and that because no substantive or unquestionable criterion is given for the grounds for such a standard, as an alternate to the Christian axiomatic basis of God, in Whose Nature morality resides and is defined.

I'm not sure what this means. All objective ethical theories offer a standard which is applied to all. Enforcement is a difficult matter, but it's hard to see why this makes nontheistic morality impracticable or arbitrary; objective ethics supply the standard for behaviour, and thus
inform our attempts to enforce morality... an objective ethical theory just means that we ought to enforce some standard, not that it is or can be fully enforced. Moreover, any objective ethical theory being true implies that the immoral actor is committing an error whether he gets caught at it or not. I just don't see the relativism you allude to.

As for the purely practical side, it's not clear that people will feel free to disregard morality simply because there is no ultimate enforcement. This would be ultimately a psychological claim, but it's not one that has been generally substantiated. (I previously mentioned, for example, the
fact that capital punishment -- which is a pretty ultimate enforcement -- has never been shown to have deterrent value.)

3. Therefore, there cannot logically be a self-consistent objective morality (one able to be consistently practiced by one and all in the real world) without a higher being; all merely human-based efforts will end in arbitrariness (and often, tyranny), due to the inability to arrive at a necessary, non-relative starting point and systematic moral axiom.

One problem here is that it's not clear to me when exactly you're talking about ethical theory and when you're talking about applied ethics. Your first sentence suggests the latter, but terms like "necessary, non-relative" suggest the former. The two cannot be used interchangeably;
things like logic, coherency, and relativism/objectivism apply at the theoretical level, and things like possible practicability or enforceability at the applied level.

To clarify, then: is your point that atheistic ethics are flawed in theory or in practice? Or is it both?

To me, what I called the "heart" of my critique was the point at which you admitted that each individual's moral choices were his own, or relative, to some extent (I don't recall your exact phrase, offhand).

"The internal criterion." By the way, there's a really good essay that explains all this metaethical terminology: "The Normativity of Instrumental Reason" by Christine Korsgaard (a prominent neo-Kantian). While it's not directly on topic here -- she is dealing with the question of how, exactly, practical reason is binding on us -- I personally found it immensely clarifying. I couldn't find an online version, but Korsgaard's own webpage can be found at:

Another good source is David Velleman, who writes on the same sort of topics. He's not quite as clear as Korsgaard, in my opinion, but I think some of his stuff is available online at his page:

How is that not relativism? How is it not inconsistent with your claimed objective system? And how can others condemn individual's behavior given such inherent relativism and subjectivism? This is all part of my moral argument, not the argument for meaning.

Simply because the objectivity of morality refers the universality of its normativity, yet this requires, of course, that it is in fact normative for us -- there has to be some sense in which we commit an error of practical reason by being immoral. As practical reason is just the sort of reason that guides our attempts to realize our ends, this means that ultimately objective morality comes down to "it is practically irrational for all people to be immoral, as this compromises their own interests".

The difference here from subjectivism or relativism is that these positions do not hold that it is always practically irrational to obey a set of moral norms. A subjectivist would hold, for example, that if one person's inclination is to commit murder and another's inclination is to abhor murder, then neither commits any error at all -- anymore than they would commit an error by disagreeing over favourite ice cream flavours. The objectivist, on the other hand, says that one of these people is definitely committing an error, and thus that one is really rationally (and thus
objectively) wrong. Both views share a basis in the desires of people; the difference is that the objectivist introduces an external criterion (practical reason) and says that this applies to all people regardless of their peculiar idiosyncracies.

Differently put: the objectivist derives morality from desires, sentiments, or needs common to all human beings -- those which are in us simply because we are human. The subjectivist either says that such desires, etc. do not exist, or denies that their fulfillment always makes any particular sort of behaviour practically irrational.

If it's just that you don't currently understand how atheistic ethics are justified, then your claim is far too strong.

Well, of course that is what I am seeking to learn by engaging in this thread with three different correspondents. I went off on the sub-topic of abortion, but thus far, I have not seen it justified by anyone here. Personally, I consider that to be the "morally absurd outcome" of atheist or secular ethics (which is why I mention it so much; also because I think it is self-evidently wrong; at least in the later stages). That is where secularist ethics leads, when followed through consistently: to the "culture of death." But the value and goodness of life, is, I think, a fundamental assumption of any ethical system, is it not? So I see a conflict, and absurdity there.

Many, if not most, secular people hold that abortion is permissible, but this is not the same as holding that this view is a necessary consequence of secular ethics. You need to argue the latter. Also, you present abortion as a reductio ad absurdum, but you are simply assuming that this
is an absurd consequence. This is hardly compelling, since naturally there is much controversy over whether abortion is wrong -- you'd need to resolve that controversy before your argument even gets off the ground.

Again, the Christian system resolves this problem: life is sacred, because human beings are made in the image of God, and possess an eternal soul. Abortion is wrong on this basis: it is ultimately an affront against God, the Creator of all (as all murder is). There is no question here such as that which comes up in war or police actions, where force becomes necessary to protect the innocent; even whole societies and cultures, as it were. It is simply an innocent child trying to make it to the world outside its mother's womb without being torn limb from limb.

The issue of abortion is not settled by any ethical theory on the market, including yours. It is a tenet of many Christian organizations that abortion is wrong, but this does not derive logically from DCT itself.

The reason for this is that the most basic ethical tenet relevant to abortion is "it is wrong to murder an innocent person". This is not a tenet unique to DCT; it is a consequence of virtually every ethical theory around -- and, on the more practical level, nobody disputes it. The
question is simply whether or not a fetus is a person, and, if so, when they move from non-personhood to personhood. (At conception? After brain activity is measurable? At the second trimester?) This, in turn, is not an issue for ethical philosophy, but rather for metaphysics. Specifically, it is the issue of personal identity, which is the philosophical attempt
to define the nature of persons and how personhood is contiguous over time.

Suppose you and I are considering a locked bank vault. This conversation follows:

M: I say that this vault cannot contain any Spanish doubloons.

D: What? How can you justify that?

M: Well, give me a justification of why there should be any Spanish
doubloons in there.

D: Well... I suppose there might be any number of possible reasons. I can't think of any I consider most plausible, though.

M: Aha! Therefore, since you have no account, my point remains: the vault cannot contain any Spanish doubloons.

Has "M"'s logic here been sound? No. The failure to demonstrate that there are Spanish doubloons in the vault does not demonstrate that there cannot be; it just demonstrates that there's no reason to think there are any. M's fallacy is called, in formal terms, argumentum ad ignorantiam.

Similarly, what I often see apologists doing is the same thing with morality. "I say atheistic morality is absurd. You disagree? Well, then justify morality. You have no answer that satisfies me? Aha! Atheistic morality is absurd... QED." This is precisely the same fallacy.

Not yet (if at all), because we have just begun to see what would justify atheist morality and how it can stand up to logical scrutiny, not simply name-calling. I need to see your replies to, e.g., the critiques of utilitarianism by Geisler [below]. We've just begun, as far as I am concerned.

Now, I'm not convinced that you mean to commit this fallacy here. But what is needed from you to justify your strong claim is your account of what, in atheism, reduces morality necessarily to absurdity.

I've stated much already, and will continue to, as we consider specific ethical questions. I have tried to make abortion a test case, but as I said, it hasn't worked so far. One person even implied that my inquiries on that topic weren't even sincere. So what can I do? You are welcome to pick a topic of your own which you think makes Christianity absurd (such as hell), but then we are back to Christianity, and I am trying to avoid that so we can stay on-topic.

Abortion is a pretty poor "test case" for a number of reasons. First, it is not ultimately an ethical issue, but rather a metaphysical one -- i.e., it is not an issue that can be resolved by ethical philosophy alone, and the quintessentially ethical components of the controversy aren't really
disagreed upon by either side. Second, there is no necessary position on abortion implied by nontheistic ethics in general. Different theories, on this issue and any other, will yield different conclusions. Third, I suspect that this issue is so inherently loaded that it is virtually
impossible to discuss it dispassionately. It lends itself to too much rhetoric and invective.

Nor is there really such a thing as an alternative test case, because different nontheistic ethical theories imply different positions on issues. For example, Kantianism implies that lying is always wrong, whereas utilitarianism would imply that it is sometimes justified.

If something is wrong, it is wrong, regardless of whether anyone has the power to back up their judgment with force.

Well, that is an absolutistic system, and I need to know you arrive at that, and I will have a ton of questions for you, all along the way. :-)

That's simply the nature of objective morality. Unless of course objective morality were nothing more than "whatever is backed up by force is right"... but I don't think either of us subscribe to that view. Hope not, anyhow.

Of course not, but you have given no "explanation." You have simply stated that "what's wrong is wrong," which gets us nowhere and resolves nothing. I assume you know this is no argument, so I won't accuse you of circular reasoning. :-) I wanna know why you think this, and you are not helping me much to understand, so far.

This particular paragraph wasn't meant as an argument, it was simply stating that the scenario you described obtains if objective morality is true.

Right and wrong serve as ways of judging others, but this is not the main point of morality; the main point is to give us the ability to exercise correct judgment with regard to our own behaviour.

This means little by itself, so I'll let it pass.

If we conceive of justice in a retributive sense, then Hitler's crimes going unpunished would indeed be a horrible thing. But how does even this make morality futile? It doesn't render moral value meaningless (indeed, it assumes that moral value is meaningful).

Actually, it has more to do directly with existential purpose, and a feeling of futility of life and the universe, that such things can occur, and that there is no felt "justice" to make them right. So we licked the Nazis' and put an end to it. Great (thank God), but how does that bring justice to the 6 million Jews and many thousands of others who perished in the camps and in battle?

It doesn't give them justice at all, supposing that by justice we mean revenge/retribution. Would this suck? Yes! Does it mean that life is completely futile and useless? Only if there is nothing in life that is worthwhile enough to justify it for individuals. But I say there is enough in life; there's enough for me, and evidently there's enough for all the other people in the world who don't believe in God. Moreover, I say that things can be better than they are.

So you admit that there is no justice for the 6 million Jews and others who perished in the camps and the war. In the Christian view there certainly is, because there is the Judgment and the sentence of damnation for evil persons. And I know this is not an argument (which is on other grounds). I'm simply explaining how we view the world in terms of ultimate justice and meaning, and seeking your alternative system of making sense of such monstrous evils as Naziism and Stalinism.

I admitted that there is no ultimate retribution for them, yes. Of course, there was some degree of retribution, since Hitler was defeated.

It doesn't mean there is no reason to be moral, because if morality is truly objective, then morality already is normative for us. All it would imply is that the universe is not a perfect place.

The epistemological basis of this "objective" morality you refer to, under atheist premises, is what I am very interested in.

Hopefully I've given some information on this above. Again, the basis of nontheistic theories of objective morality is essentially practical reason and human nature.

And my point is precisely that these theories are impracticable, if carried through consistently. To the extent that they are able to be carried out with a fair degree of happiness and harmony, I contend that Christian notions and/or the Natural Law have been smuggled in, unbeknownst to the practitioners.

Wouldn't this imply, if true, that no non-Christian or non-theistic society could ever have happiness and harmony? But that's not true, is it?

E.g., in the American legal system, which seems to have worked pretty well, natural law and a Creator was assumed from the outset. Christian morality was casually assumed to form the backdrop of jurisprudence (though differences in particulars existed, of course).

The actual extent to which American law is influenced by Christianity is always hotly debated. I myself am no expert (nor need I be, I suppose, since I'm Canadian). There seem to be good arguments both ways. On the one hand, the USA is clearly predominately Christian, and always has been. On the other hand, many of the founding fathers were of a deistic bent. Who knows. All Americans are slightly nuts anyhow, if you ask me. But that's okay, since we Canadians are all drunks. ;)

The idea is that objective moral imperatives derive their normativity from some kind of basic, natural human drive or sentiment, and their universality from reason. Lots of detail has been given on this previously... where would you like more detail, exactly?

"If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life; and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this one." -Albert Camus

A false dichotomy, of course, and therefore philosophically silly and insubstantial. Pie in the sky is irresponsible and dumb, but then I would contend that "this life only" is arguably equally unbalanced and shortsighted. The proper view is that this life is infinitely valuable, and
to be lived responsibly to the fullest, and that we also have the next life to look forward to, where the justice of God will be fully confronted. So the "super-pious," head-in-the-sand buffoon has a similar problem to the atheist, whereas the thoughtful, biblical Christian has a "normal" view.
:-) I don't mean to sound insulting; I'm just making an argument. I don't think this has ever occurred to me before.

The most general answer is that atheists find hope and meaning in what is good about their existence.

One must define that good and determine the ultimate rationale for doing

What is good about an individual's existence, in this sense of "good", is just whatever the individual finds to be good. Here we're no longer talking about objective moral value, but subjective value simpliciter.

Exactly, and now you're getting to the heart of the matter, as I see it. You just admitted (as far as I can tell) that "good" is relative to the individual. How, then, can there be an objective standard of "good" applied to all?

You are mixing up two issues. I agree that there is an objective standard of moral goodness, but "good" in the sense of "making life worth living" is another issue altogether. What is morally good is whatever we are obligated to do; what is good in the latter sense is just whatever moves us
to keep on living rather than going mad and committing suicide.

By what standard do we decide what is good for everyone to do (what obligates them)?

It depends on the moral theory. A moral theory which derives from the desire of all people to avoid suffering, for example, would say that this obligates us (via practical reason) to a certain kind of conduct. (This is what contractualism, and probably utilitarianism, do... although in vastly
different ways, of course).

And of course a host of troublesome examples now leap to the fore. Hitler thought the Holocaust was good. Stalin thought the starvation of the Ukrainians was good. Corrupt Crusaders in the Middle Ages thought slaughtering women and children was good. Timothy McVeigh thought blowing up a building and killing 168 people was good. Terrorists think blowing up cars in crowded market places is good. The American government (and most of its people) thought annihilating civilians in two entire Japanese cities by nuclear bombs was good. America thought slavery was good (and later institutional racism and discrimination). Pedophiles think molesting children is good. Etc.

How do we resolve this inherent relativism? The Aztecs thought human sacrifice was good; the Catholic Spaniards thought it was a hideous evil. How do we resolve such conflicts? Was Aztec sacrifice good or evil (or neither)? And if the latter, how do we convince someone of a different culture that what they are doing is evil? Of course it had a religious basis, so we also have to convince the people that this religion has gone awry somewhere along the line and may perhaps be a false religion. As it was, mass conversions in Mexico (perhaps the most remarkable Christian revival in the history of the world) solved that problem demographically.

Maybe the easiest way to make the point is like this. Suppose someone says, "I believe that the world, as it is, is completely and utterly perfect and joyful. I also believe that everyone attains everlasting happiness after death. Now, Christians believe that the world as it is is at least often horrible, and that many people will be in pain for eternity. This is unendurable." How would you reply to this?

I would say that only a nutcase could ever say that about the world. That would be sufficient to dismiss the view.

But as you're well aware, a lot of people conclude as much about Christianity.

I'm still awaiting a vision superior to Christianity, both in terms of truth and existential meaning.

You're missing the point. The point is, for you, the Candide-like theist is a nutcase, and his supposed justification for existential meaning is a pipe dream. You seem to think this is enough to dismiss that view out of hand. Why, then, cannot the atheist -- who thinks Christianity is in
error, and its notions of existential meaning are pipe dreams -- do the same with your view?

Obviously, if one truly believed that everything that happened in this world were pure bliss, then there would be no need for punishment, and (presuming one truly believed this) one would always be happy.

Yes, this is the view of the insane asylum (at least of the drugged-up ones).

Obviously, the answer for you would be that this view is false.

Hopefully, it is for you too. LOL

But if that is a sufficient reply, then the atheist already has a sufficient one for you, too: he believes Christianity is false.

But that is another discussion, isn't it? Again, I am trying to understand your rationale for the most important, fundamental issues that all human beings face: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of life? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong? What is justice? How does one end injustice? What is love? What is truth? Etc.

You keep saying you want to understand where atheists are coming from, and I'm trying to do that with an illustration. The illustration is sketched around Christianity simply because that is your view, and therefore it will hopefully be easier for you to see the point.

And it doesn't become less false simply because it proposes things that would be nice if they were true; and more to the point, your own life doesn't become unendurable just because such a view exists. I mean, it would be great if human beings could all fly, but this is no reason to
believe that they can.

This is the atheist's reply to the Christian as well. Assuming a retributive view of justice, would it be great if there were an ultimate judge to back it up? Sure (although I personally wouldn't see God, as often characterized, as any kind of perfect judge). Would it be great if, after a life of mixed suffering and joy, there were eternal joy waiting for us? Sure! But this doesn't mean that life is unlivable without such beliefs.

But again, that is not my argument. I'm not saying, "believe our version of reality because it makes more sense and will make you happier and have more purpose!" I'm saying, "assume that all this afterlife and God business is false and untrue; now tell me how purpose, hope, and meaning is constructed in such an atheistic worldview."

But imagine that our "loony theist" described above levelled the same argument against you. How would you convince him?

That's another discussion. If we keep switching over to Christianity, this will go nowhere. And I will have to conclude that you can offer me no answers to my questions. If you have no answers, simply admit it. I will respect that. I don't have ultimate or comprehensive, totally explanatory answers to the problem of evil, either, and I consider it the most troubling objection to Christianity. But then again, I don't believe I can figure everything out in the first place, whether there is a God or not, so I don't lose sleep over it.

The point is that I don't see what sort of answer can theoretically satisfy you. You want me to tell you how it is that the meaning we can subjectively find in life can be enough to keep us from going mad, assuming there is no God. But how is it possible to give an account of that that
will be meaningful for you, when you clearly cannot understand how anything other than Christianity could suffice?

So, what I'm asking you to do is exercise your imagination, and imagine that someone is asking YOU for an account of how your worldview can possibly give you enough hope, meaning, etc. How would you go about answering them? If you can tell me that, then maybe I can see what kind of answer will satisfy you.

Alternatively, if all you want is a list of what I personally consider meaningful and valuable, okay; I don't see that this will be of any help, but okay. I find value in intellectual pursuits. In recreation. In art and music -- I love classic blues, among other things, and play blues
guitar (badly!). In my family. In my friends. In my girlfriend. In travel. In the Sopranos (damn, I love that show). Etc., etc., etc. These things, and others, are both enjoyable and meaningful for me.

At some point, you'd just have to say that the world you do believe in is meaningful and hopeful enough for you.

Why (for the atheist)? Is your view simply existentialism, where one believes whatever they want, so as to achieve "meaningfulness"? That would be no better than the pie-in-the-sky which atheists so despise, of course. It simply substitutes pie-in-the-head (no pun intended).

No; I'm not sure where you got that from. I was simply saying that there is a limit to how much one can justify purely subjective matters.

For example, I can't understand why on earth anyone would buy plain vanilla ice cream when other flavours are available. Yet people do. Suppose I were to demand of them some justification for this: "how is plain old vanilla good enough for you?" How could they answer me? Ultimately,
they'd have to say that it just is good enough for them.

I'm not sure how atheists in general would reply, but I'd say that there just is no ultimate purpose of life and the universe.

That's honest; thanks. But do you think this dire conclusion has negative implications for objective morality, as I do?

It would have negative implications for a teleological theory of morality -- i.e., one formulated around the notion of purpose -- but that's about it. Remember, morality is about ways we are obligated to behave. Meaning, hopefulness, etc. are about what gets us out of bed in the morning.

Life, or the universe, having a purpose would seem to imply that it was created with a purpose; and, obviously, I don't believe in a creator (much less a purposive one).


But this does seem to me to be besides the point. Suppose there was such an ultimate purpose. Whose purpose would this be?

I'm asking you, according to your view.

Well, the creator's, of course; not necessarily our own.

The Christian outlook is fairly well-known.

(Of course, it could always be that we are somehow programmed to share the creator's purposes...

Yes, of course.

but this would seem to contradict the usual theistic notion of free will).

No; it is simply how we are "wired," as to ultimate questions and "orientation," so to speak. We still have free will to act upon the divinely-caused noble impulses or to rebel and go by our own evil impulses. Human beings are very curious mixtures of both great evil and great capacity for good and love. This is another thing that the Christian view explains far better than any other I have seen.

Atheists always have to chalk evil up to environment, because they don't look at it in metaphysical, ontological, or spiritual terms. So McVeigh had a Bircher for a father; Hitler was done in by his anti-Semitism; Stalin by his lust for power, the killers at Columbine High School by the availability of guns and right-wing fanaticism, etc., and what-not. Christians say that all people are capable of great evil or great good, depending on the courses of action they take, and how they respond to God's graces. Environment is a factor, but not the sole or overwhelmingly primary factor. But then, I digress as well. :-)

No, you're getting morality and meaning mixed up again. We were talking about purpose, in the sense of "my life has some purpose for me to work towards". Now, suppose that God has some sort of purpose for us. This, in itself, is not a purpose we hold, just one God holds. It could be
the case that we all naturally share God's purposes -- say, redemption with God himself -- but this would be the same as saying that nobody ever has other, stronger impulses. This is both untrue, and, if true, would contradict free will (since we would be unable to do anything except what God's purposes suggest).

As regards the issue of being able to consistently maintain one's sanity, avoid complete existential despair, etc., the only thing that matters is that we find sufficient meaning in the universe ourselves.

How does an atheist do that?

By finding the things that give him or her hope, happiness, purpose, etc. You find it in religion; atheists find it elsewhere. (Or most do, at any rate. I keep forgetting that there are even atheist-friendly religions, like Unitarian Universalism and some forms of Buddhism or even Taoism).

It doesn't matter, as far as this goes, whether or not it also happens to be the purpose and meaning of any creator. If playing guitar were alone sufficient to give my life meaning, for example, then it would be a valid "meaning of life" for me in this context.

End of Part One
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