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Apr 12 2010

Peoria trip report, wrap up

Matt has already posted an excellent summary of the rest of our trip, and I encourage everyone to read it. So rather than repeat everything he said, I’ll just fill in the few odds and ends I’m remembering that he may have missed.

One other thing I didn’t mention about the young woman in the back who wanted to know about secular morality. We approached this question from several different angles, but mindful of the Euthyphro dilemma, the last thing I asked her was: “I hope you don’t mind if I reflect the question back at you. Where do you think God gets his morals from?” She immediately said “I have no idea,” and went on to explain that she is not a theologian or a religious studies major.

That kind of sums it up, doesn’t it? People pretend to be concerned with where morality “really” comes from, but when you want to explore the source of religious morality, it turns out that they actually couldn’t care less. Most theists simply assume that somebody else who is a religious scholar must know the answer; but if not, they assume that God knows what he’s doing.

This dovetails nicely with a central theme of my initial presentation on science. Basically, “God Did It” appears to be an answer to all questions, but it is actually a copout. If we were satisfied with those answers, then we might still believe that Ra pulls the sun across the sky every day in his barge, and we wouldn’t be able to reach an understanding about the complex and interesting way that the earth and sun interact with one another through gravity and conservation of momentum.

Similarly, answering “God Knows It” is a copout on figuring out how to answer moral questions. I tried to provide an example of a question for which the Bible is no help at all, and I’m not sure how well I succeeded, but here it is. What does the Bible have to say about net neutrality? Not a thing. You can reason out what should be done, and you can pretend that you are basing this on Biblical principles, but it’s unlikely that you can conclude anything that would not be contradicted by any number of people from the other 38,000 sects of Christianity in the world. (Brief correction: During the talk, I said there were 38,000 sects in the United States alone. Now I see this was a mistake. I regret the error.)

Anyway, people do actually get morality by looking at their own core values and reasoning from there. The only difference is that theists are willing to pretend that the conclusions they reach are in agreement with an infinitely knowledgeable being who knows for a fact what is best. This approach is no more helpful for ethical matters than it is for determining why the sun goes around the earth. (Tip: it doesn’t.)

Regarding the other guy in the back whom Matt mentioned, the one who claimed that there would be no religious conflicts if everyone were the same religion, we don’t see a likelihood of those 38,000 sects collapsing into one soon. While it’s true that people might not conflict if they all thought the same way, that’s pretty unrealistic. The difference is not necessarily in the specific beliefs, but in approach. Neither Matt nor I would ever endorse a system that bans religions or prohibits their free exercise. What concerns us is when a particular set of religious beliefs is in some way codified and endorsed by law. There isn’t a symmetry there.

Now on to the Catholics who attended on Saturday.

Matt’s already described their smug attitude, which I’ll duplicate just by Quoting For Truth:

After a quick back and forth with one of them, he followed up with something that I didn’t quite catch (and I still have no idea what he was saying). I said something like, “I’m sorry, you lost me for a moment” as a lead-in to asking him to repeat himself. He adopted a particular smug tone and said, “I’m sure I did” and promptly handed the microphone to our host…as if he’d just ‘pwned’ me.

This sort of exchange actually happened more than once. When one of them asked their first question about science, it went something like this:

Catholic #1: “Are there true things that science doesn’t know about yet?”
Matt and Russell simultaneously: “Yes.” “Of course.”
Catholic #1: (smirk) “Thank you.” Sits down.

You know, I don’t claim to be the greatest debater in the world or anything, but I do know that acting as if you’ve scored a point is never enough to make your case. You have to actually make one. In this case, he clearly thought it was some kind of “gotcha” when he got us to “admit” something that, in fact, we’d been saying all along for the last two days.

The other thing people should be aware of is that asking a smarmy question and then sitting down is an attempt to play to the audience. And you can’t play to the audience effectively if you haven’t gauged their mood. Whenever they sat down, the effect was absolute stony silence. I expect that inside their heads, they heard cheers and laughter, as well as stunned gasping from me and Matt. Out there in the real world, it was… well, the effect would have been better with crickets, but you get the idea.

Now that I’ve had a couple of days to reflect, I realized — I know where this technique comes from! It happens in every Christian urban legend about a heroic student apologist facing down a wicked atheist professor. Tell an atheist professor that he can’t prove he has a brain, and the class erupts in pandemonium… and the students sit down. Poke holes in the theory of evolution, and the atheist professor slinks out dejectedly to resign from his university, while fellow students clamor around you to hear the good news about Jesus Christ.

This was a great illustration of what happens when you do this in reality. Crickets. Then the audience laughed when the response was given.

Matt mentioned a courtroom scenario that one of the Catholic Trio brought up to show how one can be both perfectly just and perfectly merciful. What was weird that the scenario boiled down to this: “You are on trial, and you are innocent of the crime you have been accused of, but the evidence implies that you’re guilty. The jury lets you go out of mercy.”

As a way of proving the point, it was a terrible failure. If you’re actually not guilty, then justice was done, whereas it would not be served by incarcerating you. If you were guilty, then letting you go would be merciful but unjust. Even the guy who brought it up had to fall back on saying “Well it’s not a perfect analogy.” It doesn’t even begin to be a good analogy, because the whole idea of divine justice is that God has perfect knowledge of people’s actions. I still don’t see where he was going with it.

Finally, quoting Matt’s post again:

Another of his friends made an appeal to justice. He argued that the Catholic view held that someone like Hitler would eventually see justice, even if they didn’t see it in this life and then asked which view, his or mine, was more beautiful. Russell immediately pointed out that the Catholic view doesn’t guarantee that justice is going to be served, and that it may be possible for Hitler to be in heaven while his Jewish victims are in hell…and that there wasn’t anything beautiful about that.

We did a nice little good cop/bad cop routine here, with me arguing that, no, there isn’t anything especially beautiful
about Christian doctrine; while Matt argued that, beautiful or not, it makes no difference to whether or not a thing is true.

I would like to add, though, that when I asked: “Are you sure that Hitler is not in heaven now?” he replied that he was couldn’t be sure, but it would be just as beautiful if Hitler reformed and went to heaven.

Can’t overemphasize the importance of this ad hoc mid stream change of subject. Apologists love to pull out this line that “There must be a hell, because it wouldn’t be fair if Hitler didn’t go there.” But they’re lying. Many of them would be just as happy if there was a hell and Hitler escaped it. Indeed, the doctrine of being saved through faith requires there to be a very real possibility that Hitler — if he said the right words before dying — received his “get out of hell free” card, and received eternal happiness, without having ever made amends for his earthly crimes. The idea the eternal reward and punishment is portioned out not based on any real actions, but on being divinely forgiven, is not beautiful at all. It’s demented. It’s a solace for war criminals to rationalize that, no matter how much evil I may do in this life, it won’t matter if I’m wrapped in the sinless shroud of Jesus.

Anyway, I echo Matt’s sentiment that I had a really fun time on the trip, and it was great getting to tag team with him. If anyone else wants to pay for us to come hang out, give a ring.

18 comments

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  1. 1
    Paul Wright

    Basically, "God Did It" appears to be an answer to all questions, but it is actually a copout"God did it" in this case serves as a semantic stop sign. Though I take the point that Christian philosophers argue God's existence is necessary, that's not what's going on in popular versions of the "argument": there the aim seems to be to find something big enough to be psychologically satisfying.

  2. 2
    Lurker

    Please please please post links to the audio or video of your events if they ever get put online. Please?Also, Star Trek Rule FTW. I love that argument.

  3. 3
    Matt D.

    One more thing that I forgot. The guy who was arguing for "beauty" also argued that hell was a kindness because the people who wound up there wouldn't have enjoyed heaven.

  4. 4
    Kazim

    …To which I responded by asking "Will I enjoy being in hell? Will it be at least as enjoyable as being alive, or would I be better off just dying and that being the end?"He REALLY didn't want to commit to an answer on that one; I'm pretty sure his actual answer would be no.

  5. 5
    Lukas

    Thanks fr the link, Paul. It mirrors my own thinking on the matter.

  6. 6
    Alexrkr7

    Wow those Christians were all over the place and didn't really know what to argue. They came in and went out purely to contradict you and not listen. Was there a single religious person who was actually trying to hear what you were saying?

  7. 7
    Ing

    "One more thing that I forgot. The guy who was arguing for "beauty" also argued that hell was a kindness because the people who wound up there wouldn't have enjoyed heaven."This reminds me of an argument i heard in Highschool justifying not giving money to the poor. Money's the root of all evil, and Christ said a rich man has no chance in hell of getting in, so keeping them in destitute poverty is a charity.

  8. 8
    Guillaume

    I can't believe that Catholics are still smug where you went, given the recent paedophiles scandal. Both in England (where I now live) and in Qu├ębec (where I come from), public interventions of Catholic priests and outspoken practicing Catholics is often the subject of ridicule. @Ing-This is maybe why Christianity appealed both to the poor and the elite in Rome: Christ was giving the poor Heaven at the end of their days…and the rich were satisfied that the poors did not mind as much being poor.

  9. 9
    Asadullah Ali

    I had called last show about the issue with moderates "covering" for fanatics.In my discussion with Jeff and Don, I had noted that people misintepret scientific theories as well and then use them for ill means, so under the same logic we should get rid of science. Under the same logic we should get rid of all politics, ethical theories, etc.The response was "Yeah, but these are facts." I don't see how that solves the apparent inconsistency. All it proves is that even if you were to get rid of all the non-scientific ideas of the world, people would still do bad things (and based on history, even moreso it appears). So it actually favors my argument more.The reason I bring this up is that the article states the following: " While it's true that people might not conflict if they all thought the same way, that's pretty unrealistic"If this sort of thing is so unrealstic, then why is it that many contemporary atheists (anti-theists, to be more precise) are fighting for just exactly that? They want to eradicate religion off the face of the earth and replace it with "rational science". They want to get rid of religion from the minds of the moderates and the fanatics and save the world from its seemingly negative fate. They want everyone to think just like them regarding religious ideas. I find this rather ironic.Other points in this article, to me, show that there is very little understanding morality from a theistic perspective, both from the atheists who attended and the theists as well. We all get our morality from the foundation of all existence (the source, as it were). For the Theist, it is an objective, rational standard that understands how the universe is supposed to work and how humans can make the most of their lives.For the atheist, it's a meaningless beginning (or eternity) with no standard attached, therefore the only thing that can be justified is a subjective view of ethics. To ask where "God got his morality from" is, to me, a misunderstanding of what morality is and where it actually comes from. If it just comes from human beings, than no ones morality is superior to anothers. Neither is the majority superior to the minority (since to claim such is a value judgment in and of itself).In a universe with subjective morality, the person who goes to feed the poor every weekend and dedicate their life to helping people is no more or less moral than the serial killer. The statement is meaningless.You can argue that morality is what "works", but where are you getting that from? It makes no sense. You can't prove this statemen, no matter how much philosophizing and scientific scrutiny you attempt to put it under. The moment you say that morality is subjective, all attempts to set a standard are pointless and ludicrous.

  10. 10
    5 cats

    Thank you Matt and Russell for coming to Peoria. You are so nice to everyone…and both of you are alot of fun. Wish I could have stayed for the meet-up after the show. Hope to see you again soon!

  11. 11
    Afterthought_btw

    Asadullah AliFirst off, this is only a comment, I don't have time to get into the type of discussion in the previous thread. So just take this as such, please. :)Before I say anything, it seems to me you are making many assumptions about what atheists think. This isn't particularly sensible given that all being an atheist requires is not believing in god. Just a heads up.Anyway,"For the atheist, it's a meaningless beginning (or eternity) with no standard attached, therefore the only thing that can be justified is a subjective view of ethics."This is a complete non-sequitur. By the same reasoning:"For the atheist, it's a meaningless beginning with no standard attached, therefore the only thing that can be justified is a subjective view of mathematics."Hopefully I don't have to explain why this is not true!Anyway, the thing I really wanted to point out is that your claim that theism provides an objective morality is riddled with subclaims, and is not particularly convincing to an atheist.What a theist's claim that a god provides them with objective morality entails:(1) There is a god.(2) This god is theistic, rather than deistic, pantheistic, etc.(3) This god is the particular god that the theist worships.(4) The theist has interpretted their religion accurately (e.g. to take Christianinty, they have correctly chosen between Protestantism and Catholicism, Baptist and Methodist, all the way down until they have chosen the right interpretation of their little sect.)And possibly most important:(5) There is an argument which surmounts the Euthypro Dilemma. As far as I can tell, the theist is 0 for 5 with the validity of those claims. I see no reason to accept that the theist has objective morality until all those claims can be shown to be valid. Indeed, given that some of the claims seem to me to be incoherent (e.g. God exists – I have yet to come across a coherent definition of a theistic god), I would go so far as to say that the theist's definition of morality is also incoherent.Of course, I may have missed some hidden claims in there, if I have, feel free to add to them.On the contrary, of course, it is facile to create an objective morality as an atheist – all you have to do is stringently define words such as morality, and good.E.g. define morality as:"That which promotes the greatest happiness for the world, whilst not interfering with their basic human rights."And you have an objective moral standard. You might say: 'But how can you know this is the best thing to do'… Hopefully you won't, mind, because then you will have missed the whole point of defining the terms stringently. (Here's a hint: 'the best thing to do' in that statement is a nebulous concept, which also needs to be defined stringently in order for the statement to make sense.;))

  12. 12
    Dorkman

    When the Hitler example comes around, I like to emphasize more on what Russell touched on — that whether or not Hitler wound up in Hell, his Jewish victims certainly did. So we call Hitler a monster and say that if anyone deserves Hell, it's Hitler (I disagree, incidentally — infinite punishment for finite crimes and all that). But why is Hitler a monster? Because he tortured and killed six million Jews (among others). And yet now those Jews are being tortured in hellfire [i]for eternity[/i] by a God that the people condemning Hitler would consider just and merciful. If Hitler is a monster for what he did to a group of people over the course of about a decade, is there even a word for a being that would do worse to those same people for all eternity?

  13. 13
    Ing

    "You can argue that morality is what "works", but where are you getting that from? It makes no sense. You can't prove this statemen, no matter how much philosophizing and scientific scrutiny you attempt to put it under. The moment you say that morality is subjective, all attempts to set a standard are pointless and ludicrous."What does your holy book say about oooooooooh Cloneing or stemcells? using only the book come up with an objective moral standard.

  14. 14
    Robert Morane

    You can argue that morality is what "works", but where are you getting that from? It makes no sense. You can't prove this statemen, no matter how much philosophizing and scientific scrutiny you attempt to put it under. The moment you say that morality is subjective, all attempts to set a standard are pointless and ludicrous.Morality is objective. Whether an act is considered moral or immoral depends on whether it is associated with positive or negative emotions – an act that makes most people feel revolted and disgusted will be considered immoral, while an act that makes most people feel good will be considered moral. (Why most? Because there are people with defective brains – psychopaths; furtunately, these people are small in numbers.)Now here's the crux of my argument: because one does not choose what one feels, emotion-based morality (which I have just described) is objective. You simply cannot change the way you feel about a particular act or behaviour. You cannot look at a child being tortured to death one morning and feel revolted by the sight, and the next, feel happy and content. You just can't.I define two kinds of morality: universal morality (don't kill, don't steal) and cultural morality (don't drink alcohol, don't have sex outside of marriage). Universal morality is causal: groups that allow killing and stealing put their members at a disadvantage (they can be killed, stolen from), while groups that don't, give their members an advantage. That's why all human societies forbid murder and theft -those that didn't vanished.The second kind is cultural morality. This morality is enforced culturally, and insofar as you are raised in a culture that says drinking alcohol is wrong, that's what you'll believe. If you believe that drinking alcohol is wrong, then you'll feel bad every time you drink alcohol, so you'll refrain from drinking it, as we are genetically wired to avoid repeating what we dislike (just like we're wired to repeat what we like).But theistic morality is subjective. Maybe you're a protestant and you believe that death penalty isn't wrong. But maybe if you become a Catholic next year, you'll believe that it is wrong (the Catholic Church is against death penalty… today, but it used to be in favour of it, which supports my point: religious morality is subjective).As someone else mentioned in the comments, you choose your god, your religion, your version of that religion, your version of the sacred texts, your translation, your interpretations of the texts, and so on. Not quite objective, is it?

  15. 15
    Ing

    Besides morality is by definition opinions which is by definition subjective. Claiming god is the source of morality is just out sourcing who is making the subjective decision. Me letting my neighbor pick what color to paint my house does not make the decision objective.

  16. 16
    Leisha Camden

    @Robert Morane: Great post. :-)

  17. 17
    Frits

    Ali,quote: In my discussion with Jeff and Don, I had noted that people misintepret scientific theories as well and then use them for ill means, so under the same logic we should get rid of science. Under the same logic we should get rid of all politics, ethical theories, etc.The response was "Yeah, but these are facts." I don't see how that solves the apparent inconsistency. All it proves is that even if you were to get rid of all the non-scientific ideas of the world, people would still do bad things (and based on history, even moreso it appears). So it actually favors my argument more.End of quoteI honestly how it makes your argument stronger tbh. For scientific theories there is a clear and usually quite unambigous theory to fall back to. let's take darwinism as an example. Darwinism states a theory on how life came to be on this world. Now any misinterpretations are unlikely to begin with, since the theory in itsself is unambigous. However there have been ideas loosely based on the idea of natural selection that are called social darwinism. This has nothing to do with the theory of evolution. It simply takes some parts of it and applies it to something completely different. I would call that misuse of the theory, cause it's taking bits and parts from the theory rather than the whole theory. The same can be said of the (mis)use of isolated ideas from nietszche by the national socialists and others (objectivism would be good example of misuse of nietzsche I'd say) Now if you look at religion there is absolutely no unambigous theory to start with. There is just scripture in one form or another, and from the widely varied denominations found in pretty much any large religion I'd say there is no conclusive base theory that is misused. scripture is ambigous and very much more open to interpretation than a scientific theory. So pretty much anything goes, as long as you find some bit of scripture that might be interpreted as supporting it.

  18. 18
    The Invisible Pink Unicorn

    Hey guys, go to my blog if you want to see a few pictures that I snapped while down at Bradley U.http://atheistally.blogspot.com/2010/04/weekend-at-bradleys.html

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