Does Atheism truly "render good and evil nebulous"?
In his comment, Hays writes:
atheism is a "bad joke" because it renders good and evil nebulous; values addressing such are the product of nothing more than social and emotive pressures; life has no intrinsic meaning or value.
Sadly, in fact, there are additional ways in which the Christian worldview blurs the meaning of these crucial terms.
For example, atheism is not the position which claims that there is such a thing as “a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists” a la Greg Bahnsen (Always Ready, p. 172) or that the genocidal butcher of children can be exonerated by believing that their murder essentially “meant their salvation” (as William Lane Craig argues here; see also here). But Christians do claim such things, and they’re actually forced into affirming such views in order to defend the nightmarish worldview of Christianity. If such teachings do not “render good and evil nebulous,” what could?
Also, it is Christianity, not atheism, which models a “loving father” deliberately turning his back on his only child while that child is being tortured and prepared for execution. This models a parent allowing one his highest values to be destroyed when it could easily intervene and prevent the loss. And yet, this is called “good” according to Christianity; in fact, Christianity holds up this model as the highest expression of virtue! If that does not explicitly “render good and evil nebulous,” what could?
Furthermore, it is Christianity, not atheism, which teaches that all of human history, right down to the very tiniest details and most trivial events, unfolds according to “God’s plan,” which can only mean that all the evil which has happened, which is happening and which will happen throughout human history, has been planned and premeditated by the Christian god all along. And although this clearly obviates the very notion that man has a will of any kind (such a view “renders” man a mere puppet), many Christians insist that man still has a will of his own. But this would only show how shallowly such believers are willing to ignore the problem: in a contest between wills, whose will – man’s or the Christian god’s – would prevail? How can the will of a puny, weak and insignificant mortal prevail against a supernatural will imagined to be so powerful as to have wished the entire universe into being by sheer force of will?
Or consider slavery: many Christians pretend that slavery is a non-issue or ignore discussing it altogether, especially since the practice of slavery is condoned in the Old Testament and nowhere in the New Testament is slavery even criticized, let alone condemned. But some Christians do come out and openly admit Christianity’s coziness to slavery, such as when Dustin Segers (yes, this Dustin Segers) came out and openly confessed (see here):
As to slavery, i believe you are correct: slavery is perfectly biblical--always has been, always will be until Christ comes again and sets up a society that is free of all work, hardship, suffering, and servitude of any kind… Yes, slavery is biblical and I'd agree with my BLACK friend TreyFrog. OT/NT believers owned slaves and were slaves, the Mosaic law legislated slavery and and the NT gives principles of ownership re: slaves, slaves were instructed to submit to their masters in the OT & NT, both freedom and slavery could be considered a blessing, and some form of slavery will continue till the end of time. Slavery is considered to be neither "here nor there" by the Apostle Paul and is a recognized social institution in the NT. What is condemned as sin in the OT, and especially in the NT is the mistreatment of slaves. I've written a fairly detailed paper on biblical slavery demonstrating that it was not considered sin in either the OT or NT eras yet I also demonstrate that it would be sin to practice it in the modern USA. [sic]
Atheists typically do not try to justify criminal behavior by claiming that a god told them to kill someone, as we find among theists according to the following:
'Voice of God told me to save people from a space alien attack': Man who beheaded bus passenger in frenzied attack speaks of 'holy instructions'Florida woman accused of killing 2-year-old while re-enacting Bible story (see the murderer’s ownsuicide note)
What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code. (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 13)
Objectivism also repudiates the view that values “are the product of nothing more than social and emotive pressures.” These “social and emotive pressures” are irrelevant to the nature of man’s need for values. Man’s need for values is a consequence of his biological nature, not a reaction to “social and emotive pressures.” No matter how much pressure a social group or particular set of emotions may exert on an individual, his need for values will not change. So, for example, no matter how much a group insists that circumcision or burnt offerings have moral significance for human life, such pressures cannot make these things an objective value. Even if the fact that certain tribal societies practiced such rituals makes a person today feel all warm and fuzzy, such “emotive pressures” will not alter man’s nature in such a way that these practices satisfy his need for values.
Speaking of primitive tribal practices, let us ask: where does Christianity define morality in terms of a code of values? It does not do so. Where does Christianity explain that man needs morality because it serves his life’s needs? It does not do so. Where does Christianity teach that man needs values because of his biological nature? It does not do so. Where does Jesus explain what values are, why they are important, how one should go about distinguishing them from non-values and threats, how one should preserve them, how one can trade his values with others? One will search the New Testament documents in vain looking for such instruction – it simply is not there. Quite the contrary, biblical teaching leaves those who take its instruction as their moral guide completely clueless when it comes to the objective understanding of values, so much so that believers come to view the sacrifice of values as somehow virtuous, as exemplified in the model of Jesus willingly embracing a premature death.
This analysis is confirmed by the fact that Christianity essentially conceives of morality as consisting of “duties” which the believer is to obey regardless of their impact on his values, as we see in the examples of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac and Jesus sacrificing himself on the cross. In Christianity, the highest expression of morality is not achieving and preserving one’s values, but sacrificing them.
Observe also how the bible’s own stories demonstrate reckless inconsistency when it comes to consequences of actions it prohibits. Presumably if an action is prohibited in the bible, Christians will consider this action “wrong,” even though the English translations I have examined do not use this word. For example, while at some point the bible puts the words “thou shalt not kill” into the mouth of its deity, it nowhere says that killing is “wrong.” But Christians, who typically think of morality as knowledge of right and wrong (apparently regardless of how one acts), will infer from such commands that killing is therefore wrong. Such language mutation is commonplace in apologetic defenses of biblical teaching. But how consistently does the bible’s own god react to disobedience and violations of its commands?
In Genesis we have the famous story of Adam eating the prohibited fruit, and as a result the bible’s god curses him and his offspring forever. Apparently the Christian god expected his pet creature to infallibly follow its commands, and when it didn’t, it cursed it. It’s like putting a loaded pistol into the hands of a chimpanzee and punishing it for discharging the weapon. Is it any wonder, with parenting models such as this, why there’s so much misery throughout the world, misery which all too often begins in childhood?
Elsewhere in the bible we have stories of biblical heroes who killed people (cf. King David), who had thousands of concubines (e.g., Solomon), even the story of Peter denying and cursing Jesus after he had witnessed all those miracles that he is said to have performed, and many more such examples. But yet these individuals were rewarded in spite of their wretched behavior. Justice is never meted out in a consistent and uncompromising manner. How the assumption that such stories are historically and theologically accurate could contribute to a consistently clear, non-nebulous distinction between good and evil is beyond me. But that’s because I do have a consistently clear, non-nebulous understanding of the distinction between good and evil (given my adherence to Objectivism), and I’m not committed to protecting a theistic fantasy at all costs.
Consider Moses after he comes down from the mount, having communed privately with the creator of the universe for forty days and forty nights, as depicted in Exodus 32. When he arrives back at the camp, he finds the people worshiping a golden calf, a craven image that they had created in desperation for something to worship (yes, that’s how deranged these people were). Moses then famously “waxes hot,” throws onto the ground the clay tablets that the Lord had given him, breaking them into pieces. Next he assembles all the Levite men and gives them the following order (v. 27):
Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.
thou shalt not kill, unless of course thou shalt kill.
Taking stories such as this to inform one’s worldview and understanding of moral norms, especially given their basis in metaphysical subjectivism, how could one fail to “render the concepts of good and evil nebulous”?
I’m happy to report that there is a rational alternative to all this mess. But the rational alternative requires that we abandon the mythological fantasies of the bible and turn our attention to those facts which are relevant to human life. An objective view is a factually informed view. So an objective understanding of morality must be based in facts, not fantasies.
On an objective orientation to reality, man’s life, and the morality he needs in order to live it, the concepts of good and evil are inextricably bound to the concept of values. It’s important to note that values are inherently selfish in nature. Man needs values to meet and satisfy his own life’s needs. When a rational individual labors for values, he does so primarily for his own personal gain; he does not labor for values to spite himself and leave his needs unattended. When one works for a living and gets his paycheck, he deposits that paycheck into his own account and uses it to defray the costs generated from living his own life, just as when he eats, he fills his own stomach. Values are self-centric, and necessarily so: it is one’s own need for values which prompts him to labor for them.
This does not mean that others cannot also benefit at the same time. If I am a husband and a father, my entire family benefits if I take care of myself, earn wealth, improve my skills, finance a home, etc. Similarly, if I am an employee, my employer also benefits if I am productive. But I don’t become an employee primarily so that my employer benefits while I languish and atrophy, just as the employer’s primary purpose in having a business is not so that I can get a job there. The point is that acting primarily in one’s own self-interest does not automatically mean that others cannot benefit as well. Moreover, Objectivism does not teach that one can truly benefit only if others lose values. That is the Christian model – consider Jesus losing his life so that believers can gain salvation.
Christianity is notorious for its condemnation of selfishness. Selfishness is considered by Christians to be the root of all sin. Christian teaching emphatically holds that one’s self is the essence of spiritual dysfunction, and that the proper remedy is to “die to self.” As Paul Washer puts it (Die to Self, Surrender to Christ):
It is really what Jesus said: die and give your life to Him. Die.
One Christian website frames the matter as follows:
Selfishness is that attitude of being concerned with one’s own interests above the interests of others. However, the Bible commands us to “do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4, NASB).
But again, consider this: which Christians actually follow such teachings? According to this teaching, at least some Christian out there should be putting my interests on the same level as or even above his own. But it’s empirically obvious that no one is doing this, Christian or otherwise, which is perfectly fine to me. After all, it’s not my worldview that teaches me to collect on others’ sacrifices. But Christianity does teach this. Often Christians will say that selfishness entails profiting from someone else at their own expenses, and this is what they are condemning when they condemn selfishness. But this implicates Christianity’s entire formula for salvation, for salvation requires that believers profit from Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Christianity explicitly teaches believers to expect a return on Jesus’ suffering and death. So to the extent that Christians condemn selfishness so-conceived, they are condemning their own worldview’s distinctive formulation for redemption.
In conclusion, far from atheism rendering good and evil “nebulous,” we once again find that the Christian apologist condemns atheism for shortcomings plaguing the Christian worldview itself. Christian teaching sabotages the concepts of good and evil from every angle, from failing to provide stable, consistent and objective definitions which clearly distinguish good and evil with respect to man’s moral needs, to presenting models of “virtuous” behavior that are mired in contradictions, from deploying apologetic defenses which claim that an all-good and omnipotent supernatural being has “a morally sufficient reason” for evil and excusing the murder of children as though it “means their salvation,” to condemning rational self-interest and the individual’s moral prerogative to be the primary beneficiary of his own actions. With the nightmarish doubletalk that inhabits Christian moral notions, the concepts of good and evil and what distinguishes them couldn’t be more nebulous.
I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
by Dawson Bethrick