2nd debate, Atheism and Morality, 5th Round, Atheist's Post
Fifth Round: Chad's Post
Note: the ">" signifies an earlier post from me, Matt Slick, to which Chad was replying.
>Thank you for your reply. Again, for the sake of trying to
>be brief, I will not respond to every point you have made.
I must confess to some frustration at this point -- not because you haven't responded to all of my points but because where you have responded it seems in many cases that you have ignored what I wrote. In all honesty, as I write this I have serious questions over whether you are debating in good faith or whether you simply wish to state and restate your position with little interest in understanding atheism or answering my posts. I hope these concerns will prove unfounded as we continue.
I will try to illustrate what I'm saying with some specific "reply with quotes" sections, but otherwise will try to cover the remaining issues in the "what is atheism" part of our discussion so we can move on to morality where I think a lot of work remains to be done.
On the source of actions:
You continue to assert that actions come from beliefs, and continue to avoid any mention of other factors. In so doing I believe you are creating a false dichotomy – unfortunately you snipped my discussion of this false dichotomy and essentially repeated your original claim as though my post hadn’t been written.
My assertion remains that actions come from a combination of factors including beliefs, "stakes," the ability to affect future outcomes, and the cost of engaging. This is important because if true it invaldates your claim that we can deduce beliefs from actions unless we account for the other factors. I sought to illustrate this with the "gambling in Vegas" story and asked:
Do you think her non-belief in his vision is stronger in the latter example? I submit it is identical but the stakes of the question are higher and this is why she argues against trusting his vision whereas she might have just indulged him if he only wanted to bet $10.
>Matt4: I agree that the higher the consequence, the more
>serious the result, and the more serious a "vision" should be
Unfortunately this ignores my question. I agree that if we think a question is important we should expend more thought on it...but what I asked is whether her non-belief (or disbelief if you prefer) in the reliability of her husband's vision/intuition regarding the wheel is necessarily stronger when he wants to bet their life savings than when he wants to bet $10?
I submit that while she might do some quick thinking and reflection and conclude more strongly that her husband's vision is unreliable, this is not at all necessary for her different actions in both stories to be sensible. The increase in “stakes” alone is plenty to explain why she might indulge the bet when it’s $10 and argue strenuously against it when it’s $10,000.
(Similarly, an atheist may hold the same level of lack of belief or active disbelief regarding Martians, the Christian God and Odin, but only spend time debating the existence of God because there are billions of people who believe in God and who affect his life as a result of their belief.)
Please answer my question so we can continue.
On atheists working to support their disbelief:
I fear we will do nothing but waste time here, but I’ll try to answer you. Your comment that you know of only one atheist who honestly wanted to believe in God but was unconvinced of the evidence is, IMO, very telling.
I want to believe in God if and only if God exists. That is true whether by "God" we mean God as you understand him, God as Metacrock understands him, God as oldbob understands him, as unfusilier understands him, etc., etc. And those are just Christian variations on God.
It's really very simple. I have been told by many people of many different Gods. I have reflected on what they have told me, on my own experience, and on the arguments and supposed evidence for these claims. And I have honestly concluded that there is insufficient reason for me to believe any of these claims to be accurate.
I have no need to "further" this lack of belief. If God does exist (in one of these forms or in some other) I certainly want to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, I do not want to believe in him – I would rather not have a false belief.
If you look at what I and many, many other atheists have written in response to the (roughly monthly) question, “Why would an atheist come to CARM?” you would see ample reasons…none of which depend on your presupposition that we are here in an effort to maintain or spread atheism.
It is, of course, your call on whether we are being honest or not.
On lack of evidence for X and positive evidence against X:
I gave the example of an invisible ghost and a purple ghost and said that while I simply lack belief in the invisible ghost due to lack of evidence:
I don't believe there is a glowing purple ghost in the room with me because if there was I would see it. Thus, I have specific evidence that no such being is in my room, in addition to the above considerations.
Your reply implied that by evidence I meant certain proof and also raised a number of possible reasons for why I might not see such a ghost. This misses the point, which is that there is a difference between lack of belief due to lack of credible evidence (which may reasonably support a working assumption that X does not exist) and positive disbelief due to specific evidence against X.
Do you truly see no difference between an invisible ghost and a (large, unhiding, standing right in front of my apparently functioning eyes) purple ghost? (Extras added so we can stay on the point rather than getting sidetracked by hypotheticals about why I might not see the ghost.)
On the Law of the Excluded Middle
>Chad4: Yes, but within the "do not believe" category there
>can still be more than one coherent possibility. Just as the
>law of excluded middle says that you either consider me your
>best friend or you don't...but within "Chad is not my best
>friend" there is still room for "Chad's a friend" and "Chad's
>a big jerkface".
>Matt4: We are arguing semantics here. It is true that you
>are not my best friend. However, the statement "Chad's a
>friend" is a different statement than "Chad is not my best
>friend." The law of excluded middle applies to each and each
>subcategory is a statement to which the law of excluded middle
>can equally apply.
Of course it is a different statement. However, “Chad is a friend” is one of many true statements belonging to the set of statements for which “Chad is my best friend” is false. Similarly, if we apply the LEM to the statement, “I believe that God exists” what’s left in the set of sentences for which the first is false is much broader than you are willing to admit. It includes:
“I have sufficient evidence that God does not exist to call God disproven,”
“I’m really unsure about whether God exists,”
“I see no evidence either way but given the extraordinary nature of the claim consider it unlikely,” and
“I see no evidence either way but given the extraordinary nature of the claim consider it extremely unlikely.”
You are simply abusing the Law of Excluded Middle. You want it to say that anyone who says "False" to the statement, “I believe God exists” must say “True” to the statement, “I believe God does not exist”. This is simply incorrect, and not how the law works. Of the four positions above, each of which would answer “False” to “I believe God exists,” the first would answer “true” to “I believe God does not exist” the second would answer “false” and the third and fourth might go either way, depending on how semantically uptight they were.
Does lack of belief imply denial of God?
>Chad4: This may be the source of some of our confusion then.
>I categorize Martians (and gods) as nonexistent too, but only
>as a working assumption based on a lack of any reason to
>believe they exist. That is quite different than my
>categorization of the statement "Chad's wife did not give
>birth to their daughter Jade" as false, since I have quite
>reliable evidence to the contrary (having been there at the
>Matt4: You just said that you categorize God as nonexistent.
>This means that you believe God does not exist.
No, and this is one of the areas where I question your good faith. Not only are you ignoring pretty much everything I have said that puts this in context, it also seems clear that having agreed that "lack of belief in God" was a valid part of the definition of atheism you are repeatedly asserting that it is not – or, more specifically, that “lack of belief” is really identical to “active disbelief”.
I lack belief in God(s) because I see little to no reason to think that God(s) exist. I know that I exist but I can conceive of countless possible explanations for why I exist. The Christian God is one of them, but only one...and seems no more plausible to me than any of a dozen I could imagine during a walk around the pond near my home.
By the way, I don’t currently have positive belief in any theory of origins of existence itself. This will be relevant when we get to your presupposition that I’m a philosophical naturalist.
>However, above you categorize God ias nonexistent. This is an
>active and willful decision on your part to assert that God
>does not exist. If this is not true, then please explain to
>me how your categorization of God as nonexistent does not
>qualify as an active and willful decision to assert that God
>does not exist.
If you had read what I wrote, you could answer this for yourself. I characterize God as non-existent as a working assumption, as I do with any and all extraordinary claims for which I see insufficient evidence. This is virtually the definition of atheism we agreed to and yet, having accepted that definition, you refuse to accept it.
Why don’t I believe in ghosts? In ESP? In alien races observing us from cloaked ships? In Odin? In reincarnation? In literal soulmates?
In every case it is the same. I consider the claim extraordinary and the evidence lacking. There is nothing obviously active or wilful about it. I did not decide to find the evidence for ghosts uncompelling. I simply find it so. I did not decide to find the evidence for ESP unconvincing. I simply find it so.
And I did not decide to find the evidence for God uncompelling. I simply find it so.
>Chad4: It seems that when we say "lack of belief" you hear
>something more like "lack of opinion" as though we are
>pretending to have no view on the subject. That's not what
>we're saying, however; rather, we are making a distinction
>between a working assumption that X does not exist (we lack
>belief in X) and a positive belief that X does not exist (we
>believe in ~X based on evidence that ~X).
>Matt4: Yes, that is going what I have been saying. At the
>risk of sounding impolite and accusatory (which I am not
>trying to be), it is my opinion that the phrase "lack of
>belief" is a strategic attempt to construct an atheist
>position that is as unassailable as possible. I also believe
>that it is inconsistent with atheistic actions. Atheists, in
>my opinion, behave more consistently with an active disbelief
>in God, rather than a passive "lack of belief."
This is an example of what I’m talking about. I state (not for the first time) quite explicitly that there is nothing “passive” about lacking belief while having a negative working assumption and you respond as though I’m claiming the opposite. (This is also, of course, another example of you attacking “lack of belief” well after agreeing that it should be part of the definition of atheism.)
As much as it would pain me to restart at the beginning, I think you have a choice to make here. Either agree that lack of belief is a valid part of the definition of atheism or else come clean that you don’t and never did consider it such. If the former, then stop undermining our agreed-upon definition. If the latter, perhaps we should abandon any discussion of morality and debate whether lack of belief is coherent or, as you seem to see it, a maneuver designed to create an unassailable position.
>Matt4: I never stated that actions only follow belief's. But
>I have been saying that actions reveal beliefs and that we can
>get a pretty accurate estimate of someone's beliefs, by
>looking at his actions.
The latter virtually implies the former. By insisting on drawing conclusions about belief from actions while ignoring other factors, you essentially eliminate those other factors.
Moreover, you come close to contradicting yourself below when you say:
>Chad4: No, I'm demonstrating that there are more possible
>explanations for level of action than simply "belief vs. lack
>of belief vs. disbelief".
>Matt4: Yes, I know that. But I am not convinced by your
This is a critical point for understanding atheism and, I suspect, will be a critical point in our discussion of morals given where you’re starting. So let me state my position as clearly as I can so that you can tell me where you agree or disagree.
A person’s actions follow from a complex interaction of many factors, including but not necessarily limited to: beliefs, “stakes” and ability to affect potential outcomes.
On the influence of theists on my life:
>Matt4: I cannot dispute what I do not know. If you say they
>have a big influence on you, then I will believe you. If you
>say they have not influenced you greatly, I will believe that
>instead. Just tell me which one it is.
I’m frankly stunned that you could even ask, but OK. Here are just a few ways that Christians have affected or continue to affect my life as a result of their beliefs:
As a child I was required to pledge allegiance to one nation, under God, although I did not believe in God. Actually, I refused this requirement, which caused me no small amount of difficulty.
There are Christians who, as a result of their religious beliefs, want my daughter’s eventual science classes to teach nonsense instead of the then-current scientific consensus.
This very moment there is a proposed amendment to the US Constitution which, if passed, will harm many people I love, and many more who I do not know but value nonetheless. This is just one area in which the life of non-heterosexual people is hurt by actions taken due to religious beliefs.
At some point during her childhood it is extremely likely that my daughter will, if she is an atheist, be told that she is going to hell.
I recognize, of course, that you may see these actions as benign, or even as positive. But from my perspective they are harmful.
What do I do as an atheist?
>Chad4: I have never tried to disprove the existence of God.
>Nor have I ever, to my knowledge, tried to deconvert a theist.
>What I do is: 1. Argue against specific arguments for God as
>invalid. 2. Attempt to help theists understand atheists and
>Matt4: So, you don't try and disprove God's existence yet you
>argue against specific arguments for God's existence? Is that
Yes. If someone offers up an unsound argument for something, I will challenge that argument. I have challenged arguments from atheists and evolutionists as well, by the way.
>Chad4: Hopefully I've shown that while stronger beliefs can
>lead to stronger actions, higher stakes can also lead to
>stronger actions. "Does God exist" is a high-stakes question
>at the level of human interaction.
>Matt4: Of course, I argue this all the time with people. I
>tell them they better take the issue of God very seriously
>because eternity is a long time to be wrong.
This is another example of you essentially ignoring what I’ve written and responding to something different. My point is that the question “Does God exist” is a high-stakes question at the level of human interaction. In other words, it is a high-stakes question because Christians and Muslims and other theists are trying to impose what they see as the consequences of their beliefs on other people.
Your reply ignores this critical point.
Chad4: Thus, at first you said that you didn't actively believe there to be no Martians but simply didn't believe there were any. According to you, this explains why you don't expend energy either defending your non-belief or promoting it. But now you say that you categorize the existence of Martians as false.
Matt4: I think you missed a qualifying statement in the above paragraph: "if I actively believed there were no Martians..." I think that it answers your objection.
If you read your original post on Martians and your subsequent post there is a clear contradiction between them. However, this is a sideline.
On ad hominems:
This is a subtle point, but worth being aware of. The ad hom fallacy usually refers to insults or attacks on character, but it applies equally to “arguments” that focus on the person rather than the position. Every time one departs from the facts of a position and speculate as to why the other person holds the position, one is committing the fallacy.
Looking at the above example, if I address why I believe you answer to be inadequate, that is valid. But suppose I go on to say, “It seems to me that you deliberately refuse to acknowledge that theists impact the lives on non-theists because this would explain why atheists engage in the question and would thus weaken your claim that our actions must be explained by an active belief in the non-existence of God.” In that case I would not be attacking your position but you – and doing so in a way that allows no rebuttal.
>Matt4: Great. Me too. Since we have discussed atheism as it
>relates to belief, disbelief, actions, lack of belief, etc.,
>perhaps it is time to discuss morality in relationship to the
>atheistic position. Therefore, at this point I think it is
>worth discussing the tenets of atheism since a person's
>morality is necessarily related to beliefs and beliefs are
>often based on tenets. I know that you have beliefs about
>morality and that you are an atheist. Therefore, there will
>be a relationship between your morality and your atheism.
Perhaps, but only in the sense that there is a relationship between my morality and my non-belief in reincarnation, my non-belief in the Tao, and my non-belief in Karma.
My morality derives from my values – i.e. from what I do believe. While my beliefs are all consistent with my atheism, I suspect that you greatly overestimate the extent to which they are determined by it.
>Matt4: You admitted that atheism is a position. Good. I do
>not see how you can hold an intellectual position without
>there being principles inherent in that position.
With respect to atheism, the basic principle is that extraordinary claims should be assumed false unless and until there is sufficiently compelling evidence supporting them.
I do not see any moral consequences to this principle, although you may differ.
Maybe I am
>reading too much into it, but I propose that as an atheist,
>you have certain "presuppositions": 1) Disbelief in God,
Since, as noted, we’ve agreed that “lack of belief ordisbelief” qualifies, this is not necessarily the case. Nor do I think it best describes my own beliefs. It is certainly not a presupposition.
>No absolute moral code or source for absolute moral code
I do believe that the phrase “objective moral code” is about as meaningful as “objective standard of beauty” or “objective value”. However, some atheists do believe in objective moral codes. Also please note that even if I came to believe in God I would not believe in objective morals, any more than I would start believing in square circles.
(I’m deliberately replacing “absolute” with “objective” since I don’t actually know anyone who doesn’t believe in absolute morals…including those of us who think morals are subjective.)
>materialistic naturalism (that all things in the universe can
>and will ultimately be explained via natural physical,
>chemical, energy laws, etc.),
Not at all. Again, I am forced to ask why you went to such lengths to reach and agree upon a definition when it seems clear that you have no interest in sticking to it.
and 4) denial of the
Also no. I neither affirm nor deny the supernatural. Moreover, I’m not even sure that “supernatural” is a coherent concept. If something interacts with the natural world, it is natural in every meaningful sense. See, for example, the excellent essay, “A bias towards naturalism?” on www.talkdesign.org. If something has no interaction with the natural world, then it is like His Supreme Indifference – a thing that might exist but that we can do nothing but speculate about.
>Matt4: I propose (with possible future modifications) that
>morality within the atheist system is subjective, and because
>it is subjective, truth, right, and wrong, are all relative.
There is no such thing as “the atheist system”. There are various forms of humanism. There is the golden rule. There is Kant’s moral imperative. There are undefined moral systems derived from values. There are taoist concepts of harmony and the way. An individual atheist may subscribe to one of these systems, or to some other system.
Moreover, some of these systems believe in moral absolutes. They simply don’t derive them from the commands of a specific being.
>Because there are no moral absolutes, and because atheist
>morality is subjective, atheists are free to alter their moral
>behavior depending on the circumstances and whatever desires
>suit them at the time.
Absolute nonsense, even ignoring the fact that some atheists hold to what they believe are absolute morals. I believe that all moral systems derive from our values. I know that mine do. My values do grow and change modestly over long periods of time, but I cannot suddenly decide to change them.
Example: Not long ago, I spent the night at the house of an attractive friend while in California. She is single and quite interested in me. Specifically, if I wanted to have sex with her, she would be very willing. According to your logic, I should be able to “turn off” the value I place on fidelity to my wife, honesty, and my wife’s happiness (which would be put at risk if I were to cheat since she might find out) and have an affair.
I could not and cannot…and the idea that I should be able to do so because my values are subjective shows a severe lack of understanding of what “subjective” means. (It does not mean “weak and flimsy”.)
(Notice, I did not say that all of
>them will.) Therefore, there is nothing to prevent an atheist
>from lying, as an example, if the situation warrants it. (I
>am not talking about highly exceptional situations like hiding
>Jews in Nazi Germany - to lie there is still a sin and another
If the situation warrants it? What does that mean? If it warrants it from a moral perspective (as with the Nazi example), then of course the atheist’s morals won’t prevent him from lying. Indeed, they might require it! The same would be true for many Christians.
If by “the situation warrants it” you mean that it serves the interests of the individual but goes against his/her moral code, then the values that underly that moral code are still there.
Since I like to put flesh and blood on ideas,
>let's take the CARM discussion boards as an example. There
>are rules for the boards to which all of us are supposed to
>keep. (Of course, I do not expect absolute perfection. There
>is grace on these boards. Also, application of those rules
>cannot be perfectly consistent either.) Given that the
>atheists, by signing up, agree to uphold those rules, then
>shouldn't we expect the atheists to adhere by them? ("should"
>implies moral obligation)
The word “should” is meaningless on its own. It has meaning only in the context of a standard. There are several standards that could apply here, such as:
Societal norms: If you agree to follow the rules of a club or society, you should follow them. If you can’t follow them, you should leave.
Chad’s moral system: happens to include the above, assuming the society is not so harmful that opposing it justifies extraordinary measures. (Just to clarify, CARM doesn’t come close to this, but if someone joined the KKK with the intent of undermining it I wouldn’t necessarily consider their actions immoral.)
God’s moral system: seems pretty clear that lying is not a good thing.
Now there could certainly be an atheist whose moral code does not see violating CARM’s rules (after agreeing to abide by them) as morally bad. If so, then violating the rules would be:
Bad by the standard of societal norms, bad by the standard of my moral system, bad by the standard of God’s moral system and not-bad by his moral system.
I assume that you think that there is an objective basis for saying that one of these moral codes is superior to all others (and indeed morally binding on all), but I don’t agree.
But what if the atheists don't like
>the rules, and for whatever reason, choose to violate them at
>different times? Are they wrong for doing that? (I'm asking
They would be wrong by my moral standards. They might not be wrong by their own. People do, after all, disagree as to what is moral. (Even Christians disagree substantially over what is moral.)
If they are wrong, why are they wrong since morality is
>subjective. (I'm asking you.) If they are not wrong, why not?
They are wrong by my moral standards for the reasons given above.
>(I'm asking you.) If you, Chad, were to condemn the actions of
>an atheist who purposely broke the board rules, what right
>would you have in condemning that atheist since that atheist
>has a subjective moral standard, as you do? (I'm asking you.)
You are asking me what objective justification I have for a subjective moral view. Obviously the answer is none. But who says I need an objective right to say that I consider someone’s actions immoral?
> You would have no moral right to impose your moral standard
>on him (or her). Thus, you could not morally/rationally
>condemn the actions of atheists who purposely break the rules.
False, as explained above.
> If you were to say that the atheist who agreed to abide by
>the rules is wrong because he broke his agreement, then you
>are establishing an absolute moral standard; namely, that you
>should keep your word.
Yes, the standard is absolute – and also subjective. That is, I hold it based on my values, and all values are subjective by their very nature.
But then again, if the atheist wants
>to break his word because he has a subjective moral standard,
>who's to say he's right or wrong? You?
Me, you, and everyone else. On a practical level, if we condemn his actions he will face consequences…and it will not matter a whit if we condemn them on a subjective or (allegedly) objective basis.
He is free to abide
>by or not abide by the rules and no one has the right to tell
>him otherwise -- from an atheistic perspective, that is. What
>do you think of this?
I hope I’ve made it clear what I think of this. I think it’s nonsense.
>Matt4: Furthermore, if we were to find that atheists were
>repeatedly breaking the rules, apparently on purpose, then it
>would be evidence that they are not trustworthy.
Substitue the word “Christians” for atheists in that sentence. Then substitute the word “Blacks”. Then try “men” and “women”. There’s a pattern.
If a person repeatedly breaks the rules, it would be evidence that they cannot be trusted not to break the rules. One might also take it as evidence that they cannot be trusted in general.
>are representing atheism
Excuse me? Can you name one single poster on CARM who claims to represent atheism?
, and since actions predominately
>follow from beliefs, would it not be fair to conclude that the
>atheists who break the rules, are doing so ultimately because
>of atheistic principles which includes no moral absolutes?
No, it would not. As discussed above, this whole line of assumption is fallacious.
You are making a classic error of assuming that because your answer to the question, “Does the Christian God exist?” is the dominant determinant for your moral code, my answer to that question is the dominant determinant for mine…and the same for other atheists. Speaking for myself, I can assure you that this isn’t true.
My morals stem from my values and my beliefs about, among other things, people, joy, growth, integrity. My values and beliefs differ from those of HRG, of paignman, of limana, etc., etc. and thus my morals differ from theirs as well.
>(Remember, if you don't have absolute morals, then you must
>have subjective ones.)
Replace “absolute” with “objective” and I agree, but in any case you have yet to show either that “objective moral” is a coherent term or that such objective morals are superior to subjective ones.
>Matt4: Therefore, ultimately, in my opinion, there can be no
>logical moral absoluteness in atheism and this undermines the
>ethical credibility of the atheism as a position and weakens
>the philosophical credibility of atheists who adhere to a
>non-absolute moral standard, but promote, by necessity, moral
Packed full of false assumptions. Your assertion that there can be no moral absolutes in atheism is a bit rich considering the philosophical history of several such systems. Your assertion that our ethical credibility is undermined is either just your opinion (and I doubt anyone here is surprised that you are less trustful of atheists than of Christians) or an unsupported assertion. Why not look at some actual statistics? Do atheists divorce more often? Lie more often? Can you in fact demonstrate that there is any substance behind your rhetoric?
>Matt4: Finally, please let me make some clarifications. I am
>not saying that all atheists are by default moral relativists,
>nor am I saying that all atheists are morally handicapped.
Big of you.
>believe that there are many atheists who are extremely
>trustworthy, and morally astute. I am trying to focus on the
>logical relationship of morality as it relates to the position
>known as atheism and its necessarily relativistic moral
I think you should show more care with using the terms absolute/relative and objective/subjective.
And, recognize that there are atheists who asserts
>moral absolutes. But, I would argue with them that they are
>doing so illogically -- perhaps another discussion on that
I agree that their assertion of objective morals is unsound – because the very concept is a contradiction. It does not stop being a contradiction even if God exists.
I look forward to your reply.
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