Monday, August 2, 2010

Review of "The Reason For God"-Ch 9 on Morality

Keller believes that people all believe in moral obligation. Even though some may claim that moral values are subjective, we all behave as if some values are "absolute standards" by which to live. He gives the example of genocide that most would claim is wrong and evil. He says we have a sense that values are transcendent, an indication that God exists. Keller argues against evolutionary theory as an explanation for moral obligation. He maintains that altruistic behavior directed towards those outside one's group does not provide survival value, thus natural selection can not explain it. I believe even atheists like Dennett and Dawkins believe we have reached a point in our evolutionary development where we have transcended natural selection and are now in command of our future development. I don't think they would even argue that altruism toward enemies can be explained by means of natural selection.

This question of morality, of an inherent sense of good vs. evil, is one I wrestle with the most when I consider the question of God's existence. I understand that what each culture judges to be good or evil varies over time and place. Even the Bible, which many hold up as THE example of objective morality, displays a fair amount of subjectivity. However, one thing that is common (unless maybe you happen to be a psychopath) is that we have concepts of good and evil, love and hate. Are these just artificial constructs conceived of by the mind or are they independent of the human mind, rooted in reality and waiting to be discovered, like gravity?

I will end with a quote by Keller and invite readers to respond to it. "If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists."


  1. I think attributing common morality to the existence of God is a simpler explanation, but that does not mean it makes more sense. One would have to weigh facts for the opposing argument to be able to make that statement. Saying something is true because it makes more sense seems to be begging the question. Admittedly though, it has been a couple of years since I read the book, and don't remember how Keller treats that.

    Personally, I don't "insist on a secular view of the world," I just tend to find it a more believable explanation for things in general. So it is hard for me to get past Keller's wording there, it sounds condescending. Also, "...disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world..." Fine, if you have already granted Keller's assumptions, but it sounds like an empty (condescending) philosophic assertion rather than an honest search for what is true.

  2. Why does one need a God to intuit some acts moral and other acts immoral? All of us can look back on our upbringing and see a sense of right/wrong instilled as a result of our home life and environment. An example I often use is making the bed. In my house…growing up…you always made the bed. Even if you were sick, you got up, ran to the bathroom to throw up, came back and made the bed.

    My mother strictly enforced this rule.

    Now, some 4 decades later, my mind still sees an unmade bed as “wrong.” Is it immoral? Does it require a God for a bed to be made? Of course not! Yet my upbringing instilled a certain sense that even time cannot eradicate.

    How are morals so different? Look to other societies. How their upbringing (with generations of tradition) instilled vastly different views. We find topless beaches to be titillating in America. In Europe, they are shrugged upon. Midwestern Christians frowned upon smoking, whereas Southern Christians thought nothing of it. Yet mixed bathing….

    No God need be imposed to see these differences; to understand the cultural, social and familial input generated.

    Why do we say “bless you” after a sneeze, when we all know it is a natural, uncontrollable human action, whereas we do not after a cough, when it equally is a natural action? What moral requires a God there? Why, then, would we need a God to understand the fatality of genocide?

  3. OK, you got me to crack my RFG book out. I have, "If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not." highlighted with a note in the margin, "Bible not exactly a champion of human rights."

    I still think that, you can't have your cake and eat it too, how can Keller argue a desire for human rights is evidence for God when the God he is arguing for provides a book with little regard for human rights.

    I am not so much irritated by the bible by the way as I am by Keller...

  4. DagoodS,
    I have no problem with the example you gave of making your bed. We certainly all develop our sense of right/wrong within our own culture and our behavior reflects that fact. I know we have the ability to influence ourselves and alter our consciences over time. I know many consciences have changed over time here in the South over the issues of mixed bathing(haven't heard that one in awhile), dancing, rated R movies, and drinking.

    I guess at the end of the day, I wonder, how do we have consciences at all? How do we even conceive of the concepts good vs. evil? Can there really be "unalienable human rights" as it feels to many, or is that really a product of our culture? What does it mean to give up the concept of absolute human rights?

    You wrote: "Why, then, would we need a God to understand the fatality of genocide?"

    Why did you use the word "fatality"? Certainly people who have engaged in genocide in the past haven't viewed it as a fatal problem to themselves. In some cases, it is viewed as necessary for the survival or for the self actualization of those engaged in it. Based on your world view, you might consider it wrong, but you wouldn't claim there is an absolute right to life that should prohibit all people from engaging in it, is that accurate? I am quick to add that I know genocide is commanded in the Bible (which is a considerable problem for me), so I am not trying to argue about the Bible or even about the Christian God. I'm just really trying to come to terms with this topic.

  5. atimetorend,
    Your point is well taken. Our western concepts of human rights are blatently violated by a number of scriptures. However, there are those who would not argue for an inerrant scripture dictating the very words of God, but view it as a fairly human document somehow imparting something of the divine. Many support a trajectory approach to scripture and see the morality within the Bible slowing evolving over time, indicating the direction in which God would like us to grow. Of course, you could also see the Bible as a wholly human endeavor, merely reflecting culture as it has developed over time.

  6. DoOrDoNot,

    I believe we have consciences as a result of our mammalian society characteristics.

    A fascinating tale, in Dawkins recent book, regarding a Russian scientist attempting to develop tame foxes through breeding. Basically (and simply) took the most friendly and docile pups, breed them, and then took the most friendly and docile pups from that liter and breed them and so on.

    An interesting side development—picture a fox ear. It is sharp and pointed and alert. And the tail is out, ready to be used in flight. After a few generations, the scientist noted an unexpected side effect. The tamer foxes’ ears began to flop down. Their tails likewise began to hang down rather than out. They began to look more like dogs than foxes.

    Evolution sometimes produces unlikely side effects. One such effect from mammals is that we tend to be societal creatures. We generally herd together. Watch any nature show, and this becomes apparent. (Unlike reptiles, for example, who are solitary creatures.) And being IN a society has caused us to learn to act differently. If we have a look out—we have to learn to rely upon that look out. As well as take our turn at being a look out.

    Otherwise…we die.

    And being within that society, we adapt and learn things that harm the society and things that help the society. Eventually, in order to communicate and designate, we attribute words (and concepts) like “bad” or “good.”

    Look-out fails to do his job = harm to society = “bad.”
    Look-out does her job = protect and benefit society = “good.”

    Are there “inalienable human rights”? I tend to think so, but I would—I’m human! *grin* We tend to be species-centric. Killer whales and dolphins work together to produce food the whales and dolphins share. Explain to a killer whale your “inalienable human rights” and see how far that gets ya!

    I used “fatality” because I like the sound of it with “genocide.” Panache. No, you don’t have it quite right. In my meta-ethic, genocide is always immoral. I haven’t seen a justification allowing people to engage in it. (By the way, this doesn’t mean I hold moral absolutes—just that so far it has always been demonstrated as wrong, and will be as near as I can tell for the future.) In fact (and the point I was making) there are many meta-ethical positions that hold genocide as immoral, without the necessity of invoking a God.

    Not so much an “absolute right to life” but that genocide has always demonstrated itself as a negative upon society. The same way I see child sacrifice to the volcano in order to ensure good crops as being immoral for the same reason.

  7. DagoodS,
    Thanks for giving me your perspective and helping me think through this issue of morality.

    So, to clarify then, is your meta-ethic a type of consequentialism, where behaviors are judged on the positive and negative consequences they have on (a gobal?) society? And you view your meta-ethic as a by-product of the evolution of mammalian society?

    For you, there are no absolute human rights, because, conceivably, the consequences to violate human rights could benefit society as a whole (such as going to war with another country)? As I consider it, there may be very few people who actually subscribe to human rights in an absolute way.

    Given your point of view, I'd like to hear your take on this comment that was made on an earlier post of mine by JeffM:

    "But I do think that moral standards that are not ultimately rooted in a creator who decides what we should be can go no deeper than a person's individual decision to promote or obstruct consequences of "the grand accident." We can argue about how to reach the mind of God. But can we really claim that, given the total absence of that mind, we have some obligation to promote the continuance of things started without purpose?"

  8. DoOrDoNot: … is your meta-ethic a type of consequentialism, where behaviors are judged on the positive and negative consequences they have on (a gobal?) society?
    I hold to a combination of aversion (If an action is adverse to me, I presume it will be adverse to others) and social contract theory. I try to live by the Platinum Rule (treat others as they would like to be treated) and often fail. I don’t necessarily hope and expect others to.

    I understand if others utilize a different meta-ethic. That’s what makes the world so interesting! (and unfortunately, terrifying as well.)

    I do think society (and consequently morals) is an evolution by-product. Although it doesn’t have to be. Whether evolution, or alien-seeding or creation—we are stuck with our world the way it is. We humans need to figure out a way to get along, communicate and socialize. Otherwise the bears will eat us.

    JeffM: But I do think that moral standards that are not ultimately rooted in a creator who decides what we should be can go no deeper than a person's individual decision to promote or obstruct consequences of "the grand accident."
    Well…yes. Not sure what a creator has to do with it. Nor even a creator who decides what we “should be.” [do?] The only person I can control is…me. I may try to influence or persuade others to agree with my individual decisions to promote consequences. They will try to influence or persuade me to agree with them.

    Equally, even if there was a creator—a creator who established morality—is it not up to me to decide whether I will promote or obstruct the consequences of this universe?

    What it sounds like to me (and I could be wrong) is that JeffM wants some ultimate vindication. Some eventual determination that says, “Bob—what you did when no one was looking and no one knew was a grand and moral thing. Here now is your reward. Sue—what you did to Bob was unjust and when on earth you did not suffer any consequences, but now you will receive your just punishment.”

    Heck, who doesn’t want that? Wouldn’t it be great if that bully from the second grade finally get his come-uppance? Or that good deed you did, but blew up in your face was shown as the good deed it was?

    Wanting something and it being a reality are two very different things. (In fact, we need to be even more on our guard to claim something is true if we want it. Our desire will affect our ability to rationally determine the evidence.)

    JeffM: But can we really claim that, given the total absence of that mind, we have some obligation to promote the continuance of things started without purpose?
    Again, we impose our own obligations. Is there some “ultimate” obligation? No. (Again, irrelevant as to a creator, as this creator has certainly not communicated any obligations very well!) Whether you or JeffM or Bill down the street decide to promote the continuation of the universe or not is up to you, and JeffM and Bill.

    We do note that species promulgate and promote their own. They look for ways and means to preserve and protect their children, their children’s children and so on. This goes for bacteria, snakes and chickens. Why should it be any different for humans?

  9. DagoodS,
    I think you may talk about morality in a way that is different from many atheists I've encountered. You don't insist on a particular meta-ethic for everyone. You accept that "we impose our own obligations" and that not everyone will choose to promote the continuation of the universe. You may wish to do so and may influence others to do likewise, but no one can say something like "It is absolutely wrong to blow up this planet. If you do so, you are breaking the supreme rule of (the universe, God, Allah, etc)." Is that an accurate assessment?

    From talking with JeffM, I think his concern may not be so much ultimate vindication, but an ultimate reason for moral obligation. I think he feels it is inconsistent for an atheist to insist that there is an "ultimate" obligation to promote the planet despite the fact that many do so.

  10. Hi DoOrDoNot, I wandered in from Rend's blog.

    You might be interested in my own review of Keller's book, which is here and here. I thought Keller was a compassionate evangelist, though ultimately not convincing enough for me to return to Christianity.

    These days, I'm a bit puzzled by the moral argument. I think you need to have a certain sort of psychology for it to work on you: you just have to feel that "real" morality has to come from a sort of divine king who will see that everything is all right in the end. But in fact that question of what morals are and whether anyone will ultimately enforce them are separate: it could be that there are moral facts but no enforcer. Jeff's statement reminded me of John D's post on God and Morality (John D's a guest poster at Common Sense Atheism, but his own blog is good too).

  11. Hmmmm…

    I like aversion, social contract and Platinum rule. If it was up to me, I would have everyone follow these as a meta-ethic. I guess I realize how it isn’t up to me. And to go around insisting, “This is the meta-ethic you MUST follow” is not very persuasive, is it?

    Better to see where we agree, (“What? Under your meta-ethic murder is immoral? Me, too!”) and if we agree on all but a very few, what matter is it that they are a utilitarian or a theist? That is why I don’t get too worked up it.

    I am also extremely cognizant of being wrong in the past—good chance I’ll be wrong in the future. If I don’t listen to other people’s positions, and weigh their arguments for their meta-ethic—how will I ever learn I am wrong?

    I think it would be immoral to blow up the earth. I am adverse to it, it violates the Social contract, nor is it treating others how they want to be treated. They don’t want to blow up. BUT…if faced with a person who was intent on doing so, telling them “Hey, that is immoral under my meta-ethic” will probably not cause them to say, “Gee, I didn’t know that. I will stop.”

  12. Does Keller address Euthyphro's Dilemma in Reason to God? Unless one holds to a divine command theory, the existence of God by itself doesn't actually answer our questions about human rights. We still have to base our conclusions on reason.

    I don't think that the existence of God really "makes sense" of human rights as much as it helps assuage the cognitive dissonance.

  13. Paul Wright,
    Thanks for stopping by. I checked out your review and found it helpful. You had quite a lively discussion about it. I also read John D's post and one article which he referenced. I found the article quite thought provoking.

    Keller hasn't yet addressed the Euthyphro Dilemma and I doubt it will be in any of the remaining chapters. You make a good point about divine command theory. The article I just referenced in my comment to Paul Wright addressing that very question. I admit I find divine command theory morally unacceptable, so I am in a difficult position as a theist. I will be reflecting on this topic more over the weekend.

    Your line of reasoning is internally consistent and makes sense to me within the atheistic world view. I think I mainly have a hard time understanding the position of those who claim a subjective morality but then act as if there is absolute morality on particular topics.