Monday, May 25, 2015

Does Atheism truly "render good and evil nebulous"?

In this follow-up entry to my post Does Atheism Truly Lead to Nihilism? I examine a statement proffered by Steve Hays over on Triablogue which are intended to characterize atheism as such in the most degrading light possible. Hays’ statement comes from the comments section of his blog entry Quest for Nihilism.

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.
While such assertions are quite commonly expressed by Christians, I’ve always found them to be quite at odds with the biblical worldview – as well as the implications of certain defenses of it, and for a variety of reasons. For one, I can find no definitions of either ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in any of my bibles. At no point do we find a verse that says “Good means….” and another that says “Evil means….” What could keep the concepts of evil more nebulous than simply failing to state their definitions in an explicit manner?

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]
How can a worldview which excuses slavery and even goes so far as to rationalize the practice of slavery by suggesting that "slavery could be considered a blessing," avoid rendering good and evil nebulous? No answer is forthcoming here.
More fundamentally, the very claim that “atheism is a ‘bad joke’ because it renders good and evil nebulous” stems from a subjective understanding of good and evil. It is essentially the claim that simply believing or not believing something has the power to make something a value or a non-value, to make something good or evil, even to erase the distinction between good and evil. But if the concepts of good and evil have an objective basis (as Objectivism teaches), then good things are good and evil things are evil regardless of what any particular individual may happen to believe or disbelieve. Belief does not have the power to alter reality or erase fundamental distinctions, and yet Hays’ very statement implies this to be the case. As such, it gives away the dubious shortcoming of stemming from the primacy of consciousness metaphysics.

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:
The nebulosity between good and evil which Hays cites (and which, as can be seen from the above, his own worldview nurtures and promotes) is ultimately the result of divorcing moral precepts from an objective understanding of values. According to Objectivism, values are those things which make man’s life possible and worth living, such as food, shelter, clothing, skills, achievement, enjoyment, relationships, pleasure, etc. Man needs values because he is a biological organism which faces a fundamental alternative: life vs. death. In order to live, man needs to acquire those values which make his life possible. But since he has no automatic means of knowledge, he needs to apply reason to the task of living his life. Morality is essentially the product of applying reason to the task of living. I quote Ayn Rand:
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)
Now Objectivism makes the relationship between morality and values, as well as man’s need for both, an explicit fundamental premise in its approach to ethics. This is why Objectivist morality is the moral code of life.

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.
So here the Christian god is ordering people to kill, in direct violation with one of its own commandments (cf. Exodus 20:13). Clearly the lesson here is:
thou shalt not kill, unless of course thou shalt kill.
This is a story, not of individual or religious liberty, but of religious intolerance and tribal tyranny modeling the use of force to back up that tyrannical intolerance.

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.
Notice what happens when people “die to self” and sacrifice themselves to an invisible magic being: the first things to go are their mind, their character, their conscience. In fact, quite typically (from what I’ve observed among Christians), believers are happy to sacrifice their minds, their characters, their consciences long before they sacrifice any material goods. They still want their ipods, their DVD collections, their comfortable homes, nice cars, etc. I have no problem with this since, according to my worldview, these are proper values that one should work for and preserve if he wants them in his life. But their own worldview requires them to sacrifice. As Washer puts it, “Self-denial is the condition for being a disciple of Jesus.”

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).
So why shouldn’t a person be “concerned with [his] own interests above the interests of others”? No other reason than simply that we are “commanded” not to be selfish is given. No rational justification offered is offered for such a view. All we’re essentially given is: “Don’t be selfish, or else!” with the implication being that if you disobey this commandment, something bad will happen to you. But that’s the hidden dirty secret about proscriptions against selfishness: such proscriptions are implicitly appealing to your selfishness in order to refrain from being selfish. After all, if one were truly selfless – i.e., completely indifferent to his own interests – he wouldn’t care if something bad were going to happen to him. In this way the morality of the bible is thus inherently self-contradictory.

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


Anonymous said...

Christianity's defence seems to always consist on their projecting their own shortcoming onto others.

Justin Hall said...

I know you are but what am I? Neener neener neener... So right you are Photo.

Justin Hall said...

Ydemoc I am going to go out on limb here and make a speculation. I think I have found Nide online. The individual known as Gary Moore and known on Youtube as Gman. I really think they might be one and the same.

Ydemoc said...


Interesting development. I have little doubt that he's continuing to spew his nonsense somewhere.

I must say, though, that I've come across quite a few apologists whose posted comments are reminiscent of Richard (Nide). I detect a common denominator.

But you've piqued my curiosity, so I'll have to check it out.



Justin Hall said...

hey Ydemoc, I have a new video up on youtube. Trying this out to see if it works as a better vehicle to convey my ideas. Tell me what you think please.

Ydemoc said...


Okay, I'll check it out, but I'm not sure when that will be. Probably later rather than sooner.

By the way, I looked into the Nide/Gman connection, and I don't think they're one and the same. I watched a little of Gman's video and compared the voice in it to Nide's, and they sounded different to me. I also did the same with Nide and Gman's respective appearances on Fundamentally Flawed podcasts. There too they sounded different.

However, as I alluded to before, as far as style and the content of what each peddles, they are definitely difficult to distinguish.


Justin Hall said...

Thanks of checking it out. I did try and contact Alex Botten and ask if he thought they were the same person but he has not yet gotten back in touch with me.

johzek said...

In a contest between man's will and God's will Christians shallowness on this point is exhibited to an even greater extent when they have to call for God's little helper Satan to come to the rescue. It must be that these two supernatural wills sometimes cancel each other out so that ours prevails, but apparently only when bad things happen, which I guess only serves to prove our depraved and sinful nature.

Anonymous said...

The quote I'm trying to find is that about presuppositional apologetics being only about getting atheists to shut up.

Bahnsen Burner said...


That rings a bell - obviously it's a driving ambition of presuppers to be able to "stop" the mouths of non-believers - like Jesus stopping the mouths of demons in gospel stories. But it's nice when they come out and admit this explicitly.

Do you recall where you might have seen that statement? Or who stated it? Was it Nide? Sye? Micael Rawlings? Rick Warden or Dan Marvin perhaps?

Anyone else recall?


brownmamba said...


I just want to say that I'm the person that Steve Hays was reacting to in the comment section on the post "Quest for Nihilism". The correspondence became pretty long-winded, especially since other commentators decided to chime in, so I decided to give him the last word. I think Hays had some weak responses to some of my main points; (mainly a symotom of being on the wrong side issue), but I probably should have done more to be more persuasive.

My points were that looking to the Bible for answers to the Big Questions is useless, (especially since many issues trespass on the territory of scince), and taking atheism off the table, apriori, defeats the very purpose of going on a "quest for truth". It doesn't do justice to the very desrires and capacities that motivate people to search for truth in the first place. The idea that you need to affirm the "intrinsic value of truth" before searching for it is just mistaken.

I am not an Objectivist, so I can't say I am in full agreement with your philosophy, however, I still find your blog to be insightful and interesting. I don't find many reactions to Christian apologetics to be particularly sophisticated, but blogs like this one are helpful.

Bahnsen Burner said...

Hi brownmamba,

Thanks for commenting.

I agree that the bible is not a viable source for philosophical guidance. Then again, the bible was written in the milieu of a pre-rational, pre-scientific culture in which superstition and belief in magic were commonplace. People today, especially in the west, have no excuse for treating it as more than this. But the bible still enjoys wide influence among many.

I think many people turn to religion because they genuinely want guiding principles in their lives, and they don’t know what else could supply them. Secular philosophers on the whole have been a huge disappointment. Of course, this hasn’t helped keep religion in the past. Apologists are only too happy to point to examples of failure in secular philosophy in order to smear any alternative to religion. And there are many examples available for just this.

One point I try to make in my writings is that, though I am an atheist, it’s not helpful to promote “atheism” as though it were some kind of end in itself. Atheism is not a philosophy. Being an atheist only tells us what someone does not believe; it leaves wide open what one actually affirms. Treating atheism as a “worldview” only blurs fundamental distinctions between different secular philosophies (note, for example, the deep contrasts between Objectivism and Communism), and it enables thinkers to import certain tenets which, historically, were the domain of religion into secular thinking (such as the primacy of consciousness, anti-rationality, altruism and sacrificial ethics, collectivism, man needs to be controlled, etc.).

Many today who are vocally anti-religious often do not realize that they’ve adopted a secular reprint of the religious view of the world, subliminally accepting many of religion’s premises as if they were unquestionable. History is very clear in teaching us that the secularization of religion’s distinctives leads to large-scale destruction of man’s values. Of course, this too hasn’t helped to keep religion confined to the past either.

Many in the US in particular have accepted the abysmally wrong premise that religion is the proper antidote to communism, when in fact the two are joined at the hip. I’m reminded, for instance, of Mark Levin (the conservative radio host) who rightly points out that leftists have a “totalitarian mindset.” What he does not admit is that the root of a totalitarian mindset is an authoritarian mindset, and religion shares this feature with communism in lockstep. Compare life in the Soviet Union with life in Saudi Arabia. There is no liberty for the individual in either state.

Christians insist that Christianity would never lead to something like what we find in Saudi Arabia today. But history does not bear this out. When Christianity was the predominant ideology in the west, we had what was called the Dark Ages, and they were called this for good reason. There is such a thing as philosophical causality – i.e., the results of good or bad ideas put into practice, and history presents us with a laboratory to see how certain “experiments” have fared.

Also, Christians in the west take for granted the influence of Aristotelianism – re-introduced in the west in the Renaissance – which is what is responsible for the individualism we’ve enjoyed in the west. Onkar Ghate, an Objectivist philosopher, makes the point that every culture throughout history has been steeped in some form of mysticism, but only in the west have we seen the influence of Aristotelianism and the rise of the concept of individual rights, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas did not spring from religion. They sprang from an explicitly pro-reason worldview, and Objectivism is the effort to develop a fully integrated philosophy of reason.

You say that you’re not in full agreement with Objectivism. You’re certainly not alone. The majority of people in this world take reason for granted and are happy to jettison it. It’s a choice that we all must make for ourselves.


jake frys said...

If I may....

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

You say that the concept of these rights did not spring from religion. I know that all of the framers of the Declaration were not explicit "Evangelical Christians" or "Biblicists" as we would call them, but is this not at least a thread of organized religion that is being appealed to??