Sorry. I know I have broken my own dictum about saying nothing about Christopher Hitchens because he does not deserve to be taken seriously. And now I am about to break it again. I can’t help myself, his writings are so ludicrous.

Hitchens writes, ‘We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion.’ In this statement Hitchens instantly runs into the problem of how we decide what is ethical if there is no God. If there is no ethical authority then we either descend into utilitarianism, where morality is governed by public opinion. Or we become our own authority in these matters, in which like Hitchens, we substitute ourselves for God. True morality needs an absolute moral standard. It requires a judge who will ensure that righteousness will prevail in the end.

Hitchens mistakes his personal values for ethics. In reality Hitchens is really more to be pitied than laughed at.

37 Responses to “Sorry”

  1. Joe Says:

    That’s one of the least ludicrous things that I have read from Christopher Hitchens. It also happens to be true.

  2. sibbesian Says:

    Thanks Joe for the comment. I would be interested to know on what basis you think ethical decisions can be made if God does not exist.

  3. Joe Says:

    On the same basis they are made by people who believe god exists. Based on human empathy and the human desire to fit into society. These things are imperfect, but they are what motivates humans to do good.

    The basis for ethical decisions is really irrelevant to the issue though. The simple fact that atheists are no more or less moral than theists should be enough. People have a sense of ethics and certain motivations to follow them. I’ve yet to see any evidence that atheists are lacking either of those fundamental pieces.

  4. sibbesian Says:

    Thanks for the reply. I think you misrepresent the basis on which theists make decisions. They do not base ethics on ‘human empathy and human desire’ but on the moral absolutes prescribed by God. In Christian morality God defines ‘good’ not my feelings.
    The basis for our ethical decisions is exactly the point. Atheists are less moral- although they may behave in a moral manner- since they have no absolute moral standard. How can an atheist know that they are behaving in a moral way? For example, an atheist is under no moral compulsion not to commit adultery but a Christian is. At worst an atheist is going to offend his own conscience. A Christian is breaking an absolute moral command. An atheist has done nothing ‘wrong.’ A Christian has offended God.
    My point holds good that atheists cannot be ethical without descending into utilitarianism or putting their own views in the place of God. When atheists behave in an ethical manner, which I have no doubt they do, they simply prove what Paul writes in Romans 1 that the law of God is written on their hearts- whether they believe that or not.

  5. Joe Says:

    Ok. I think part of our problem here is that we are talking about two different things at the same time. There are two issues when it comes to morality:
    1. How to decide what is right.
    2. What motivates someone to do that right thing.

    I believe that number 2 is the same for both atheists and Christians. We are motivated to do right ultimately by our genes. We evolved as social animals and part of that is a desire to fit into society. The desire to fit into society is what drives the motivation to be moral. (Which is why we can all find example of societal pressure being used to pervert “moral” behavior in immoral directions. It is ultimately motivated by the desire to “fit-in”)

    The basis for decisions is a much harder question. Theists have an easy answer. Which is why this is an easy argument for them to make against atheism, and not as easy for the atheist to respond to. If you are interested in ethical theories I suggest you read up on philosophical ethics. Much has been written on the subject over the centuries.

    I believe it remains a hard problem even for the theist. If gods rules were so clear and truly right than there would be no religious concept of the moral dilemma, though I bet all theists have experienced some. There would be no time when a clearly stated moral law should be broken. (Honor an abusive father? not a chance!) Morality is full of gray, even if there is a god.

    Please point to some evidence that demonstrates that atheists are less moral before you repeat the claim. It has no standing and simply is a repetition of the no morality without god myth.

  6. sibbesian Says:

    What motivates someone to do the right thing? I do not accept that atheists and Christians are motivated by the same thing. A Christian is not motivated by a desire to fit into society. Indeed Christians are called to live a life that is contrary to the standards of this world. We are not motivated to try to fit in but to stand out- hence we have Christians to the lions.
    The basis for decision making for the Christian is obedience to God. Sometimes this does create moral dilemmas not because what God says is not clear but because life throws up situations that are not specifically governed by Scripture e.g. issues surrounding the unborn child and developments in modern medicine.
    Although you kindly point me to works on philosophical ethics to answer my question on where atheists find their basis for morality, you have not answered that question. As far as I am concerned my point still holds good- atheists may perform ethical actions but that is not rooted in morality. Morality requires an absolute which atheists do not have. They must descend into some form of relativism and relativism as far as I can see is not ethical.

  7. Joe Says:

    So atheists perform ethical actions, but are not moral? That sounds like a distinction without a difference. If you insist that the only morality must be absolute then you are defining yourself into victory and reducing your argument to circularity.

    Why must morality be absolute? If there is no absolute morality, what then? Should people just make something up and pretend there is?

    Christians may not do right to fit into society at large, but they do it to fit into the Christian community. I think that is a big motivator, because I listen to people when they speak of their motivations. But I will accede to your having more experience on that front and that Christians may do good is to be obedient to god. You would know better than I.

    I would argue as a result that the atheists who do good are more moral. Because they do not do good deeds for the desire to be obedient to authority, but because they wish to do good itself. Much as you would be more proud of a child who did the right thing of their own accord rather than because you told them to. The atheist does good for goodness sake.

    But that is about motivation. I can’t give you a hard in fast answer about making moral decision. It’s muddy water with many theories all of which have limitations. Atheists learn their sense of what is right and wrong from the society they grow up in, from their parents, from interacting with peers. Just like Christians, minus reference to god.

  8. sibbesian Says:

    ‘Atheists perform moral actions but are not moral’- there is perhaps subtle distinction here but an important one. For example an atheist may be faithful to his wife- which is a moral action, at least in Christian terms. But he is not bound to be faithful to his wife since he has no absolute moral framework. He could for example be faithful to his wife for ten years- a moral action. But thereafter decide to be unfaithful since he owes a higher duty to his self-gratification. There is no moral framework to stop him taking that step, since morality is defined by his own impulses.
    My argument is that morality must by definition be absolute since morality deals with matters of right and wrong.
    You are right to a point that Christians behave a in a certain way to fit into a community. However their motivation for being part of that community is their response to God’s commands. Their being part of the Christian community is secondary.
    I hope that Christians also do good for goodness sake. But unlike the atheist they have a clear basis by which to define good. The standard of good is that which is set by God. True Christian motivation comes from a love for God which in turn overflows into love for one’s neighbour.
    True morality comes from an absolute commitment to right and wrong. You speak of the atheist’s sense of right and wrong inherited from their community. But what about those who grow up in an immoral society, for example a racist one. The atheist has no grounds to complain against racism since that persons racism is simply a product of their society.
    In ethical questions the basis on which we make our decisions is crucial.

  9. Joe Says:

    You make some good points and I greatly appreciate this discussion. Even if I disagree with you a lot it is great to have to stretch myself to justify my positions. This is a hard one to do it on. 🙂

    An atheist is as bound to be faithful as a Christian is. Many atheists and Christians break that promise and many adhere to it. How can you say the atheists that adhere to it are less bound by the promise than the Christians? Or that the Christians that break it are more bound? I’m not sure how you measure the “boundness” other than by how the promise is adhered to.

    As an atheist I don’t believe there are moral absolutes. Morality is a subject mess. That’s why it is rarely simple. But despite this most moral issues humans agree on, because humans can figure out what is right and what is wrong to a great degree of accuracy. The tough problems just get the most attention, because they are tough.

    I don’t think it is my place to speculate on the motives of Christians for being moral so I won’t debate you on that. I would disagree that love for one’s neighbor has anything to do with love for god.

    You bring up a good point about immoral societies. It is a very interesting issue. I will use an historical example to try and explain my thoughts.

    Slavery in the United States was an immoral institution that at a point was not considered immoral by society at large. It is true that children raised in that society would grow up not being taught that slavery is immoral and they would not see it that way. Whether they believed in god or not.

    Now I would decry slavery as immoral, and you would wonder what ground I have to stand on considering that I do not believe there is an absolute morality. I, of course, am judging from my moral framework, which is no more privileged than theirs, is it? I believe that the key is a consistent moral system.

    Slavery as an institution cannot exist within a consistent moral framework. There is hypocrisy built into the system even if the people in it cannot see it. They claim to support freedom and liberty for all people, but define away their slaves as non-people to assuage whatever moral qualms they may have. That double standard is what gives me the grounds to denounce their “morals” as immoral. People of the time and raised in the system found their way out of it to agree with me, they saw the double standard.

    That’s the best I can do. My moral frame is the one that I think is the best. When I see thinking that is better I adopt it. I am the ultimate authority on what I find to be moral, as Christians are on their morality. That is why there are hundreds of Christian sects, because people pick and choose what they think is moral and the break away from their religion if it contradicts their sense of morality too much.

    Sorry for the ramble.

  10. sibbesian Says:

    Thanks again for taking time to reply. I’m glad you have found the discussion as stimulating as I have.
    I find it interesting that you resort to the language of ‘faith’ to describe atheism!
    You’re are right that a Christian can break faith- but only because there is an absolute. So when a Christian lies for example he is being immoral because God forbids lying. In an atheistic worldview neither lie nor truth has absolute value but both have equal value. To me that is not morality which I have defined as being concerned with right and wrong, which I take to be absolute rather than relative.
    I agree that love for one’s neighbour is not dependent upon love for god. I’m merely stating that in Christian ethics it is a corollary of one’s love for God.
    Nor am I sure that humans can largely work out what is right and wrong. For a start how can they if there is no right and wrong? Even if humans can largely agree on certain ideas-e.g. the right to life there is no basis on which to disagree with those who reject that ideal. Again an historic example how can anyone state in absolute terms that Hitler was wrong to deprive the Jews of the right to life? After all millions of Germans and other nationalities agreed with Hitler. In the atheistic worldview the holocaust was neither right nor wrong.
    You state that you are the ultimate authority with respect to your own morality. So is the person, to take your example, who believes in slavery, many of whom still exist across our world. Their morality is simply their won construct.
    Nor are Christians as you suggest their own authority. God is their authority. The fact that they might disagree simply means that they interpret the rule of God’s authority in different ways.

  11. Joe Says:

    But Christians are their own authority. If they don’t agree with the morality that they inherited from their parents they ignore it, they form their own version of Christianity, they drop religion altogether, or they go join another religion. Even if there is a god with a well-defined rigid moral code no person alive on this Earth will follow it unless they buy into it. They have their own sense of what is right or wrong and if it conflicts with what the church tells them they don’t always listen to the church.

    To summarize: Even if a Christian chooses to be moral to please god they choose the god and which interpretation of “his” moral code to follow. It is still subjective it is just packaged with a bunch of other non-moral beliefs and given as a hard sell to them when they are young. All believers have the choice whether or not to buy.

    I have more to say, but not the time to write it. I think tomorrow there will be a morality post on my blog.


  12. sibbesian Says:

    You seem to confuse a couple of issues here. In Christianity God is the ultimate authority, the arbiter of right and wrong. Of course someone may reject his authority and take one of the options you suggest. The question is whether or not they are still truly Christian. So if a person claiming to be a Christian engages in what I believe is an immoral act I can challenge them as to where their authority for that action comes from. For they like me must establish divine authority for their actions.
    My point throughout, and I hope I have been consistent in this, is for Christians there is an overarching standard of right and wrong established by God. That there is an external standard of right and wrong is the essence of morality. However for an atheist there is no external standard of right and wrong. For example an atheist such as you may believe that freedom of speech is right. An atheist in a communist system of government may decide to repress free speech. You have no grounds to challenge him since you reduce morality to a system of personal preferences.

  13. Joe Says:

    I would challenge him on the consequences of repressing free speech. After all that is what makes something wrong, negative consequences.

    I understand that for Christians god is the ultimate authority on morals, but they are the ultimate authority on which interpretation of god they choose to obey. For all practical purposes their morality is as much a personal preference as mine.

  14. sibbesian Says:

    I still maintain that my point holds good- you may have reasons to challenge him on free speech but you have no moral basis. Who says you are being moral and he is not? In your worldview it is simply your opinion against his. Something cannot be judged immoral simply because it may have negative consequences. For example imprisoning a criminal may have lots of negative consequences but it still may be a moral action
    Also my point still holds that Christian morality is based on the idea of an absolute morality established by God. In practical terms a person may choose what they obey but to me that is not then authentic Christianity.
    I look forward to reading your own blog entry. Let me know when it is posted.

  15. Joe Says:

    “Also my point still holds that Christian morality is based on the idea of an absolute morality established by God.”
    It is based on that idea, but if that idea is false, it is really just a particular brand of subjective morality like everyone else.

    From a secular perspective everyone’s morality is subjective. A few of us are aware of it.

  16. sibbesian Says:

    You are of course right that my ideas are subjective. Since they are my ideas they could not be otherwise. But they are rooted in what I believe is something objective- God.
    And this I suppose brings things full circle ,that I began by saying that atheists are essentially immoral for they have no moral base beyond their personal preferences.

  17. Joe Says:

    But you just admitted that you don’t either. Your personal preference is to follow your version of god. Good for you, but I guess that leaves you just as immoral as I am.

  18. sibbesian Says:

    You’re missing the point. I believe in an absolute- whether or not that absolute exists is another question- and it is that belief in an absolute that is the difference between true morality- right and wrong- and merely personal preferences. I have an external court of appeal- God. You do not. You only have your preferences which you are free to change at will- that is not morality.

  19. Joe Says:

    So you believe that one should believe in absolute morality even if it doesn’t actually exist?

  20. sibbesian Says:

    My argument is that morality only exists if there is an absolute. How can one judge right and wrong without a standard of right and wrong to appeal to?

  21. Joe Says:

    So should one believe in morality, even if it doesn’t exist?

    I think you can speak of a subjective morality. You just can do it without reference to specific values. To say something is wrong has no meaning to me without reference to a particular value. “If you value human life, murder is wrong.” People who agree on values agree on most of morality. Most of humanity has the same values, so most morals are agreed upon.

    The moral aspect of religion is simply a package deal on values. A bunch of moral values grouped together with a specific label.

  22. sibbesian Says:

    ‘Subjective morality’ is an oxymoron, like fried ice. Okay, let’s take group morality. In the 1930’s many Germans believed Jews should be eradicated. Their lives had no value. In fact one had a moral duty to the Fatherland to eradicate Jews. In your scheme of morality these people did nothing wrong because they were guided by group values. The Holocaust was therefore a moral act according to your scheme.

  23. Joe Says:

    No, it is immoral because I value human life and liberty.

  24. sibbesian Says:

    But on what grounds are your values to be set above the values of the Nazis? Their values are an expression of agreed values (your definition of morality)- in this case genocide against a particular ethnic group.

  25. Joe Says:

    Because they are mine.

    Are you faulting subjective morality because with it the Nazis see their actions moral? The Nazi’s DID see their actions as moral! That supports my argument that morality IS subjective! I judge things based on my values, other people judge things based on their values.

    As I described above regarding slavery any given moral framework or system of values can be objectively judged on its internal consistency. Other than that there is no absolute measure whether or not something is right or wrong. That is a brute fact of the universe.

  26. sibbesian Says:

    So, let me get this straight. You are arguing that the holocaust was moral because the Nazis believed that it was moral?

  27. Joe Says:

    Not at all. It was not moral, but it was obviously moral to THEM.

  28. sibbesian Says:

    Who are you to judge it as immoral since it was moral to them and they have met your definition of morality- as the shared values of a group?

  29. Joe Says:

    Anyone has the right to judge anyone else’s actions. They should concern themselves more with their own of course.

    Again I would question the internal consistency of their moral code. Beyond that I can say it is immoral based on my values, which it is. But morality is subjective, so I can’t declare anything absolutely immoral because there is no such thing.

  30. sibbesian Says:

    I suppose we are going to have to agree to differ on the nature of morality. You’re last comment simply confirms to me that atheism is immoral. That it cannot admit that the systematic slaughter of 5 million innocent men, women and children is an act of absolute evil. You confirm that whether or not it is wrong is just a matter personal opinion. I find that very sad indeed.
    What you suggest is not morality- that personal opinion is the ultimate arbiter. It is what the Bible describes as everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. It is a recipe for moral chaos.

  31. Joe Says:

    Well it is not simply a matter of personal opinion. It is the collective opinion of most members of modern society. Across cultures and national borders. I think I can say with confidence that the Nazi’s were immoral, but you can’t deny that THEY would disagree with me. Of course they were wrong, but the more interesting question is WHY were they wrong. Ignoring the role of values in the construction of moral code and calling them “evil” just clouds over the issue.

    Moreover it leads to a situation where we have no need to guard against such immorality in our own country. We could watch as our freedoms are restricted and our politicians exert more control over our lives with the thought that it is ok, because they talk about god guiding them therefore they are not “evil”. But it isn’t being evil that is the problem. The problem is the lack of value that they place on freedom!

    Although it isn’t implicit in atheism. I don’t think most atheists would believe in “evil” as it is usually thought of. Evil is simply someone who doesn’t value the right things or values the wrong things.

    Of course I believe that Nazi’s are immoral. I just don’t pretend that I have an absolute morality cheat sheet in my pocket. The reason they are immoral is because of the way they devalued human life, freedom and dignity.

  32. sibbesian Says:

    We’ve been here before. 3 things
    1. You’ve already told me morality is subjective. Therefore collective opinion about morality is irrelevant.
    2. How can you call the Nazis wrong when all they did was behave in accordance with their own value system which you equate with morality.
    3.Evil is simply someone who doesn’t value the right things or values the wrong things- according to you there are no right or wrong things because there are no absolutes.
    I’m also curious to know why you are keen to be thought of as moral since such an absolute value does not exist

  33. Joe Says:

    1. Morality is subjective which is why a collective consensus on what is right or wrong is vitally important for a healthy society.

    2. Because I judge their value system as wrong. I am merely stating my opinion and the consensus of our society here. Are you claiming that the Nazi’s thought what they were doing was immoral?

    3. Of course there are right or wrong things. They are not absolutely right or wrong however. They are judged that way from the perspective of people and their society.

    I want to be considered moral, because I am moral. We are going around in circles, but I think part of our trouble is a definition of moral. I don’t know if we are using the same one.

  34. ej Says:

    Joe, the question is why your concern for morality is anything but superstition. Why not discard those concerns?

    Do whatever you feel like. You’re just buying into what the judeo-christian superstition has put over on society.

    I mean, right and wrong? Prove it. Design the experiment to show what is good and what is evil. And if it is subjective, then it is the same mumbo jumbo of all religion.

    Also, if it’s subjective, what right do you have to impose your views about it on me. How can you justify any law or any opposition to a law (including Nazi edicts)?

    By the way, why is “a healthy society” a good thing? What makes that good? Who cares if there is any human society at all? It’s all just atoms, thermodynamic arrangements that don’t matter one way vs another. To believe anything else is to BELIEVE something that the evidence cannot support.

  35. Joe Says:

    Morality predates Christianity, my friend. Look into the ancient Greek’s works on ethics would you? It has nothing to do with superstition, which in my experience seems to be the belief in bizarre causality and the idea that super-natural agents behind all interesting phenomena.

    The idea that there could be an experiment to prove that something is right or wrong is ludicrously rooted in the notion of absolute morality. Have you even been reading my posts?

    I don’t believe I have imposed any of my views on you. Can you explain where I have?

    Again beliefs in these areas are based on values. I value human life and liberty. A healthy society is important because it allows individuals the greatest opportunity to enjoy their lives and make their own decisions. These ideas are based on personal values, they are subjective so there is no proof involved. If you do not value human life and liberty than you might disagree.

    “Proof” cannot tell us what is important, because the importance of things is subjective. You seem to confuse subjective with nonexistent or super-natural, let me assure you it means neither.

  36. Feargal Says:

    I am finding the meanders of these posts immensely challenging. Joe, if I take up a point you made earlier; morality is universal since it is hard wired into our genes. In other words, you are genetically deterministic in you philosophy. Could I ask how many other areas you are deterministic? For that very statement undermines everything you have said about subjectivity.

    Unless, you step over Dawkins chasm, and launch full force into determinism. It is, after all, the most consistent thread of thought ijn Western atheistic thought.

    One correction; a christian cannot love God while not loving other human beings. Jesus was so strong on that point, as John, his follower directly tells us (along with other statements – no murderer has eternal life in him).

    It is time I believe for a more holistic discussion on the limitations of theistic and atheistic philosophies. I say that with full understanding that christian belief is premised on the story of Jesus being true in the most basic sense of the word.

  37. Joe Says:

    “I am finding the meanders of these posts immensely challenging. Joe, if I take up a point you made earlier; morality is universal since it is hard wired into our genes. In other words, you are genetically deterministic in you philosophy. Could I ask how many other areas you are deterministic? For that very statement undermines everything you have said about subjectivity.”

    By “Morality is universal” do you mean there is an absolute standard of morality? Maybe our problem is a definition in terms. As an atheist I believe that morality exists only in the minds of humans. Each individual makes up there own mind about what is wrong or right. They don’t make this decision in a vacuum. They are influenced by the way their brains work (genetics and development) and by what they are taught or experience (environment).

    Despite all the humans in the world most tend to agree on what is right and what is wrong, because most moral questions are simple; don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t hurt other people if it can be avoided. These kinds of rules are simple and obvious and when followed benefit society. I believe that we evolved to hold these values, because it benefits our social group which benefits us. There always will be a small numbers of “defectors”, because a society can survive with a little defection.

    If you are asking if I believe that genes determine who you are, the answer is: not entirely. Your genes and the environment that you develop and experience determines who you are.

    “One correction; a christian cannot love God while not loving other human beings.”

    Yet many Christians manage to not like some human beings. Christians are human like everyone else. You won’t find they commit fewer crimes.

    “It is time I believe for a more holistic discussion on the limitations of theistic and atheistic philosophies. I say that with full understanding that christian belief is premised on the story of Jesus being true in the most basic sense of the word.”

    More holistic? Please explain.

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