Is the New Atheism Reasonable?

Last night I presented the talk ‘Is the New Atheism Reasonable?’ at Thinking Matters Tauranga.  It was split into two parts – the first was a bit of worldview and epistemology and the second more social commentary and history to refute the New Atheist claim that Christianity is somehow bloodthirsty.

To start my presentation, I looked at the question of Agnosticism and identified the two types: Soft Agnosticism and Hard Agnosticism.

Soft Agnosticism is the claim that “I don’t know, because I haven’t made up my mind yet” – a claim which is a simple admission of ignorance, and as such is a subjective claim that cannot be argued with.

Hard Agnosticism on the other hand is the claim that “I don’t know, because it’s not possible to know”, a common claim in our relativistic culture, seen as the most ‘tolerant’ view by those who hold tolerance up as the greatest good, and is typically used as an escape route to shut down a  conversation about God.

I pointed out that Hard Agnosticism is actually an objective knowledge claim that requires justification in the same way the theist and atheist worldviews do.  After all, they aren’t claiming “I don’t know because I don’t think it’s possible for ME to know”, but rather “I don’t know because, it’s not possible for ANYONE to know”– clearly an objective claim to knowledge which must be logically defended and justified – rather than used to passively avoid the subject altogether.

In the second part of my talk I addressed the most common charge that the ‘New Atheists’ make, the idea that religion in general, and Christianity in particular it is more than simply foolish, it’s also dangerous.

Take this quote from Sam Harris:

“If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”

And another one from Richard Dawkins:

“Regarding the accusations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, deplorable and disgusting as those abuses are, they are not as harmful to the children as the grievous mental harm in bringing up the child Catholic in the first place”

I pointed out that the logical conclusion of the above – if true – is to either make paedophilia legal, or make raising your children catholic illegal – and punishable by a longer prison sentence than paedophilia currently entails.

I then addressed the specific claim that Christianity was a perpetrator of witch hunts, crusades and wars across the ages – and refuted the claim by looking in more depth at four key points:

1) Christianity cannot be held responsible when people do un-Christian things

If you join weightwatchers and you do the opposite of what the program requires, and pack on the weight, is it fair to blame weightwatchers for your problems?  The problem if religious violence in the name of God isn’t God’s responsibility, its the responsibility of those who disobey Him.

2) The crimes themselves have been exaggerated

The actual numbers needlessly killed in the Salem witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition and the Crusades is not as high as the numbers the New Atheists claim.

3) The greatest evil in the world actually comes from those who deny God’s existence

Dennis Prager said:

“In this [20th] century alone, more innocent people have been murdered, tortured, and enslaved by secular ideologies such as nazism and communism than by all religions in history.”

The simple fact of history is that the greatest evil has always resulted from denial of God, not pursuit of Him.  It doesn’t result from people zealous for God, it results when people are convinced there is no God to whom they must answer to (at least this has been true so far in history, we have yet to see how far fundamentalist Islam will go).

4) Christianity’s real record of goodness and influence throughout the history of the world

I listed off a number of significant contributions made by Christianity over the last 2000 years that we simply take for granted today, such as the value of human life, freedom and dignity for Women, our education system, the formation of science, the opposition to slavery, the formation of health care, and the numerous acts of mercy preformed by missionaries who serve quietly, unnamed and unnoticed throughout the world.

45 turned up and overall I enjoyed the night (chatted to others afterwards until midnight!) and was pleased with the feedback I got.  Please feel free to post comments, corrections or criticisms below – I’d love to get more feedback!

36 replies
  1. John Hayes
    John Hayes says:

    A very lucid presentation which effectively demonstrated that the New Atheists are unreasonable in claiming that Christianity in particular is dangerous. The section on agnosticism, while interesting, was not relevant to the topic.

  2. John Norsworthy
    John Norsworthy says:

    Very clear
    I really appreciate the non-academic approach because people can relate

    Your power point was brilliant – it made it clear – large print readable simple
    If I do a presentation sometime can I get you to do my powerpoint?

  3. Robin Boom
    Robin Boom says:

    Rodney

    I think your overview was very well presented and it was easy to grasp all of the points you made, and I found myself agreeing with most of what was said.

    Although many of the arguments these New Atheists make are extreme and unbalanced, there is also the extremely unbalanced arguments often presented by fundamentalist Christians, and maybe these New Atheists are just at the other end of the spectrum, so they tend to rile us a little more. In his God Delusion book, Dawkins makes a very unapolologetic derision of God with his opening of chapter 2.. I quote:

    ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestiliential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’.

    As a Christian apologist, I too am pretty uncomfortable with some of the things in the Old Testament in particular, and prefer to focus on Jesus and New Testament theology, and leave old Testament for Jewish apologists to try and justify, including the literal interpretation of the first few chapters of Genesis.

    In apologetics, our mandate I think it to give the non-believer enough evidence for God’s existence to open the closed door of his heart or mind enough so that the Holy Spirit can come in and hit them through experiential reality. A man with an experience is never at the mercy of a man with an argument. If someone can be argued into believing in God or Jesus, he can just as easily be argued out of belief, whereas a genuine spiritual encounter with God, ruins the non-believer for life, because they can no longer hide behind ignorance.

    One final comment Rodney regarding your argument for restoring the equality of women is that in the New Testament there is still a prejudice seen in Paul in not allowing women to speak in meetings or ‘usurp authority’ over a man, and that they were to be in submission etc. Paul grew up in a society which was strictly patriarchal, and this influence is seen in his letters, whereas Jesus stressed that in heaven there is neither male nor female. I’ve again felt a little uneasy with the notion that just because a baby is born with a couple of testicles instead of a couple of ovaries, it has greater authority in God’s Kingdom. Even in the case of Jesus, when the Syrophonecian woman came requesting healing for her child Jesus response was to say that it wasn’t fit to give the children’s food to dogs. She was both a woman, and a heathen, and Jesus comments were very belittling to her, yet she herself stooped even lower and responded that even dogs can lick crumbs from under the table, and with that Jesus said her request would be granted. I wonder whether Jesus would have made the same derisory comment to a Syrophonecian man.

  4. Rodney
    Rodney says:

    Robin: Thanks for your feedback.

    Regarding the equality of women and the apparent prejudice in Pauls writings (a controversial subject at the best of times – so not one I want to get too deep into here), it may be worth clarifying my point by making a distinction between two things:

    1) The roles given to men and women which, by their God given nature, make men and women clearly UNEQUAL within those roles (I am not equal to my wife with regards to nurturing our children, for example).

    And 2) the idea, common in ancient cultures, that women were inferior to men in their intrinsic value.

    That men and women are both created in the image of God, and therefore are equally and infinitely valuable in the eyes of God, is an idea that the early Church rightly promoted, resulting in women being elevated to equal value and therefore subject to equal protection.

    However this is a different issue to the question of cultural and gender specific role-based inequality which I think is still valid within the bounds of those roles. I think it can be argued that Paul’s writings might fall into the first category above – rather than the second. Just a thought…

  5. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    I appreciate your blog Rodney and would certainly have enjoyed the night if I could be there. I love the transformation of Christ which changes our view from self-centric to other-centric and the corresponding value that this imparts to others. Good job on the Christian examples of goodness. Keep sharing.

  6. Johnson
    Johnson says:

    Dear Rodney

    This is the first time I read a post by you. It is great to know the fellow apologists who post on this blog. I am based in India.

    I enjoyed this summary — enjoyed it very much. Wish I could attend your lecture.

    I then addressed the specific claim that Christianity was a perpetrator of witch hunts, crusades and wars across the ages – and refuted the claim by looking in more depth at four key points:

    If you have any detailed writing on this subject then I would love to read it.

    with greetings from India — Johnson C. Philip

  7. J. Lemer
    J. Lemer says:

    thanks Rodney for your article,
    could you please refer me to some material containing reliable estimates of death tolls incurred by european catholic inquisition/witch hunt that you mention you dealt with in your presentation? Just in case you knew without having to search anywhere. Thanks
    greetings

  8. Rodney
    Rodney says:

    The section on agnosticism, while interesting, was not relevant to the topic.

    John: You are right – the first part didn’t tie into the topic very well. The core topic was prepared and delivered as a sermon last year so was only 30-40 minutes long. I needed to pad the talk out it out with something, and what I call “mushy relativism” is something I think worth looking deeper into.

    If you have any detailed writing on this subject then I would love to read it.

    Johnson: Thanks for your encouragement.

    The core source of my material was the book How Christianity Changed the World by Alvin Schmidt. There is also a good paper titled Christianity’s Real Record by Greg Koukl at Stand to Reason: http://www.str.org

    I enjoy following your posts here – keep up the good work!

  9. Rodney
    Rodney says:

    could you please refer me to some material containing reliable estimates of death tolls

    Sorry – I prepared the bulk of this talk over a year ago and don’t recall exactly where I got the figures from. I do remember spending lots of time searching the internet for various opinions on the subject, as I wanted to get my facts as straight as possible – so there is certainly the material out there. Happy searching!

  10. Victor Relf
    Victor Relf says:

    Hi Rodney,

    Good to see so much interest. Proof that “thinking matters”.

    I enjoyed your presentation, it probably appealed to my ‘philistine’ pedujice that too much importance is given to academics. God’s revelation is not the preserve of a self replicating elite. Prominent academics, like Dawkins and others you quoted, to my mind, prove “much learning” does not necssarily lead to an understanding of truth. Thinking Matters! Thank you!

  11. Ian
    Ian says:

    I haven’t seen your presentation but your summary post suggests that in discussing the question “Is the New Atheism Reasonable?” you cover agnosticism and then tot up the good and bad actions of people that are Christian or atheistic?

    If so then I don’t really get the sense that your presentation was actually anything to do with whether or not new atheism is reasonable or not, but rather an attempt to address one particular claim of new atheists – would that be a fair summary?

  12. Johnson
    Johnson says:

    @Rodney

    Thanks Rodney for that information. I have ordered How Christianity Changed the World. I will also have a look at the STR article.

    I know how the Christians have impacted India, but now it is time to have a look at the impact worldwide.

    I look forward to more posts from you.

    Johnson C. Philip

  13. Rodney
    Rodney says:

    “I don’t really get the sense that your presentation was actually anything to do with whether or not new atheism is reasonable or not, but rather an attempt to address one particular claim of new atheists – would that be a fair summary?”

    Ian: Fair comment – the title was fixed some months ago, and so the content was refined somewhat between then and the delivery of my talk. So I agree the “Agnostic” part was somewhat off topic.

    However to say that the second part of my talk wasn’t anything to do with the reasonableness of New Atheism is odd given the claim I was addressing is one of the most popular claims of the New Atheists – and the one with which they justify the vigour with which they promote all their other ‘debunking’ claims.

  14. Ian
    Ian says:

    However to say that the second part of my talk wasn’t anything to do with the reasonableness of New Atheism is odd given the claim I was addressing is one of the most popular claims of the New Atheists

    Doesn’t that just say what I said? :) My point (and it is a minor one) was that you are discussing one aspect of new atheist claims rather than doing an evaluation of the reasonableness of new atheism as a whole (as implied by the title). No biggie, just seeking clarification.

    – and the one with which they justify the vigour with which they promote all their other ‘debunking’ claims.

    I can’t speak for all new atheists but for me the main justification for the vigor is that we think theistic claims are false. The claim you are referring to (although usually presented differently) is one of the many reasons why it matters that it is false.

  15. Rodney
    Rodney says:

    Ian: So we agree then – that’s great!

    Assuming my presentation was successful in showing that the central claim of the New Atheist is an unreasonable one, it follows that since it’s one of the many reasons why New Atheism “matters”, then follows that New Atheism (rather than just Atheism per see) is not as reasonable as it might first appear – and I achieved my objective.

    I didn’t set out to debunk Atheism as a whole. To attempt that in a one hour presentation would not be, ummm, reasonable… :)

  16. Ian
    Ian says:

    Assuming my presentation was successful in showing that the central claim of the New Atheist is an unreasonable one, …

    It isn’t the central claim nor is it even a necessary claim. Also you have misrepresented the particular claim you are trying to show is unreasonable. The basic form of the claim you (I presume) probably trying to address is best described by Stephen Weinberg who says something like: “Without religion, we’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.“. So I don’t accept your first premise.

    …it follows that since it’s one of the many reasons why New Atheism “matters”, then follows that New Atheism (rather than just Atheism per see) is not as reasonable as it might first appear – and I achieved my objective.

    Obviously since I don’t accept the first premise, everything that follows doesn’t follow… if you follow :)

    I didn’t set out to debunk Atheism as a whole. To attempt that in a one hour presentation would not be, ummm, reasonable… :)

    Nonetheless if you had tackled a central claim of new atheists and successfully cast reasonable doubt upon it, your presentation’s title and purpose would be just fine.

  17. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    You are welcome Johnson. I like Dinesh D’Souza.

    Ian gave an interesting Weinberg quote. Interesting, because without God there can be no good or evil. With that in mind, the claim that it takes religion to make a good person do evil, is partially true. A more accurate sentiment might be that it takes religion to understand, none are good.

  18. J. Lemer
    J. Lemer says:

    Rodney wrote:
    Sorry – I prepared the bulk of this talk over a year ago and don’t recall exactly where I got the figures from. I do remember spending lots of time searching the internet for various opinions on the subject, as I wanted to get my facts as straight as possible – so there is certainly the material out there. Happy searching!

    It is OK Rodney. Thanks anyway. I will do the searching.
    keep well
    J.Lemer

  19. Ian
    Ian says:

    Jonathan:

    I’ll resist responding on your point since we just closed that discussion on the other thread :)

  20. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Hi Ian. First up, apologies for the super delay. Life has a funny way of organising priorities.

    Second, I am interested in your remark and do not mind revisiting an area. I take it (based on our previous discussion) that at the base, you would boil “good” and “evil” down to little more than personal preference. Simply speaking, they are what we decide them to be. As such, a statement like the Weinberg quote is nothing other than personal preference masquerading as a universal standard. Does your point have any more substance than personal preference?

  21. Ian
    Ian says:

    I take it (based on our previous discussion) that at the base, you would boil “good” and “evil” down to little more than personal preference.

    When you use the phrase “little more than personal preference” that is to belittle the concept. I boil good and evil down to “little more than” a combination of instinctive reactions, societal rules and conformity pressures.

    Simply speaking, they are what we decide them to be.

    Far from it. Random murdering for example is considered “bad” because if prevalent as a norm then society would fail, if present in family groups then it reduces the odds of gene propagation, and also causes more harm than good. These three things (and probably others as well) represent far more than an ad hoc arbitrary decision that murder is bad.

    As such, a statement like the Weinberg quote is nothing other than personal preference masquerading as a universal standard. Does your point have any more substance than personal preference?

    Yes. lol.

  22. Rob
    Rob says:

    Robin, you wrote the following:

    “I’ve again felt a little uneasy with the notion that just because a baby is born with a couple of testicles instead of a couple of ovaries, it has greater authority in God’s Kingdom.”

    Perhaps you meant this as a throw-away comment Robin? If not, then are you really claiming that the differences between men are women are generally just a few physical parts? Seriously? Are you married? Do you have daughters?

    I think we need to derive your understanding of the roles and submission guidelines from the Bible, and not try to make the Bible fit our modern culture. We are to be counter-cultural, aren’t we?

    Re submission — remember, wives submitting to husbands is only one side of the coin.

    The other side is that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church — even dying for her!!!

    So if your wife is excused from her part of the bargain, are you therefore excused from yours?

  23. Rob
    Rob says:

    Hey Ian, I took your photo and inverted it to see what you really look like — and it worked!!!

    Seriously dude, you don’t look happy, and the fingers thing, what is that all about?

    Also, you wrote:

    Far from it. Random murdering for example is considered “bad” because if prevalent as a norm then society would fail, if present in family groups then it reduces the odds of gene propagation, and also causes more harm than good. These three things (and probably others as well) represent far more than an ad hoc arbitrary decision that murder is bad.

    Seriously Ian, I hear this argument all the time and it just seems so weak and founded on a question begging fallacy. You first assume what “bad” is, then tell us that something like “random murder” = bad.

    This seems to be radically deficient in terms of logic.

    If there is no God, how then can there be a moral law. And no moral law surely means no objective rights and wrongs. This for atheists arguing as you are, I cannot even make sense of the claim being made. It just seems totally incoherent to me.

  24. Ian
    Ian says:

    Hey Ian, I took your photo and inverted it to see what you really look like — and it worked!!!

    Seriously dude, you don’t look happy, and the fingers thing, what is that all about?

    Not a fan of the metal genre of music and its related imagery then? :)

    Seriously Ian, I hear this argument all the time and it just seems so weak and founded on a question begging fallacy. You first assume what “bad” is, then tell us that something like “random murder” = bad.

    Not at all – I never used the term “bad” in my explanation. I used failure of society, gene propagation, and the general concept of costs/benefits (perhaps poorly phrased as more harm than good). The key to my belief is that “bad” is a relative thing – take two things in the context of a society or setting and you can have a view that one is worse than the other. Take anything in pure isolation and you cannot grade its “badness”. The absolute claim is that even in pure isolation you can grade somethings “badness” and I dispute that.

    If there is no God, how then can there be a moral law.

    I don’t think there is a moral law but let’s assume there is: perhaps the universe is simply built that way. I don’t see how this necessitates god.

    And no moral law surely means no objective rights and wrongs.

    Since it seems to me that “objective rights and wrongs” are synonymous with “moral law”, this is a tautology and I agree with it lol.

    This for atheists arguing as you are, I cannot even make sense of the claim being made. It just seems totally incoherent to me.

    The claim is simply that you can have a tendency towards certain types of behaviour without any set of absolute rules guiding it. In fact it would be far more surprising if we didn’t have rules than if we did.

  25. Rob
    Rob says:

    Hi Ian. Thanks 4 the responses to my comments about your comments !

    Actually, I used to be a metal fan. I guess I have just gotten too old and now enjoy more rock and lots of Bob Dylan. I have just been doing a bit of “Layla” on guitar — and quite like Jon Foreman who a friend called suicide music because it is too depressing 4 him :-)

    If I was to put on my old atheist hat Ian, I think I would agree that there could be no moral absolutes, given a materialistic-only world — and I would reject the idea that any moral law exists. I cannot see how there can be any moral law if matter, energy, space and time are all we have to work with.

    Thus it is only with my Christian hat on that I can accept that (objective) morality CAN exist.

    But you basically concede this Ian. So how do you deal with the implications of your beliefs about this?

    For example — if your wife was raped, what could your belief system say about that?

    1. The rape was wrong !

    or

    2. There is nothing objectively wrong with the rape — it’s just that I don’t like it.

    or

    3. I’m passed that. Sh*t happens. Get over it.

    I think it is easy to be a moral relativist intellectually, but much harder in real life practice. What do you think?

  26. Ian
    Ian says:

    If I was to put on my old atheist hat Ian, I think I would agree that there could be no moral absolutes, given a materialistic-only world — and I would reject the idea that any moral law exists. I cannot see how there can be any moral law if matter, energy, space and time are all we have to work with.

    I tend to agree although I’d probably word it slightly differently. Regardless, all the work is still ahead of you to show anything beyond the materialistic world actually does exist.

    Thus it is only with my Christian hat on that I can accept that (objective) morality CAN exist.

    I can easily imagine a non-Christian version of the world with absolute morals but I take your point that unless you believe, it is very hard to believe :)

    But you basically concede this Ian. So how do you deal with the implications of your beliefs about this?

    For example — if your wife was raped, what could your belief system say about that?

    I don’t have a wife but for the purposes of discussion let’s assume I do and consider your three options:

    1. The rape was wrong !

    I assume you mean here that it was objectively wrong. In other words the consequences don’t matter, it is just wrong because it’s wrong… because it’s wrong?

    No my belief system (whatever it is) would not say this.

    2. There is nothing objectively wrong with the rape — it’s just that I don’t like it.

    In a limited sense I would agree with this. However you I think you are trying to trivialise just what sits behind personal preference. This preference does not have an arbitrary or ad hoc basis – it is based on those things I talked about earlier.

    3. I’m passed that. Sh*t happens. Get over it.

    I certainly would not shrug it off which is what I assume you are hinting at here. In fact I think theists are more likely to do this with lines like “it’s god’s will”.

    I think it is easy to be a moral relativist intellectually, but much harder in real life practice. What do you think?

    Let us turn the question back on you and see. Your wife is raped, how do you respond?

    1. It is bad because it’s bad because it’s bad
    2. It is god’s will so it was meant to happen (god could have stopped it right?)
    3. Who cares, the perpetrator will go to hell and/or get justice in the end.
    4. Perhaps there are reasons why it is bad…

  27. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Thanks for the response Ian.

    When you use the phrase “little more than personal preference” that is to belittle the concept. I boil good and evil down to “little more than” a combination of instinctive reactions, societal rules and conformity pressures.

    Ah, while not meaning any disrespect, I guess what I wrote could have been taken as belittling the concept. Then again, you cannot belittle a concept that has no substance. (It is little enough already) In regard to “good” and “evil”, I certainly hold what you wrote as having no substance, so “No, I did not belittle it. I thought I gave it as much as it deserves”

    First up, there are a large number of atheists who declare that there is no real good and evil. Surely you know this. Though, I am happy to leave them and look at how you have come to use “good” as a point of argument.

    Secondly, the reasons you give for good and evil are entirely subjective and mean nothing at all. Seriously, if good can change, what is good? What does it mean to say that something is good? Example: was slavery “good” when instinctive reactions, societal rules and conformity pressures decreed it to be? According to the materialist’s worldview, instinctive reactions develop, societal rules change, and conformity pressures can go anywhere. In this reality, looking at what society calls “good” may give us a picture of the society, but is says nothing at all about what could actually be “good”. Thoughts?

  28. Ian
    Ian says:

    First up, there are a large number of atheists who declare that there is no real good and evil. Surely you know this.

    I do know this and agree with it. However that doesn’t stop us from making judgements about whether we believe things are “good” or “bad” relative to each other (rather than relative to an absolute) and if there is a general tendency towards consensus then voila, we have a societal norm.

    Secondly, the reasons you give for good and evil are entirely subjective and mean nothing at all.

    Are you saying subjective things mean nothing or are you saying something else?

    Seriously, if good can change, what is good?

    Interesting question. I think I have an answer which I’ll come to in answering the rest of your comment but let me reply with: if good can’t change, what is good?

    What does it mean to say that something is good? Example: was slavery “good” when instinctive reactions, societal rules and conformity pressures decreed it to be?

    You can only really ask a question like this if you believe in the absolute wrongness of slavery. There are several questions underlying this. Do I think those that held slaves were “bad” people? I doubt they were any worse than anyone of similar stature today, they were just doing what was expected and expedient. Do I think slavery is more “bad” than paying free workers? Yes – because the alternative of paid employment is universally better for people’s wellbeing, for the economy, for society, etc. Do I think slavery is bad in and of itself? I don’t think it is possible to answer this question without context.

    According to the materialist’s worldview, instinctive reactions develop, societal rules change, and conformity pressures can go anywhere.

    Not true. There are limits to moral rules that are, if you like, natural absolutes. The murder rate cannot exceed the birth rate for very long for example. Similarly society would break down if a certain level of trust didn’t exist which rules out certain levels of rape, stealing and lying.

    It is not a case of everything goes without absolutes.

    In this reality, looking at what society calls “good” may give us a picture of the society, but is says nothing at all about what could actually be “good”. Thoughts?

    I don’t think “good” exists without the context of a society that can perceive it and judge it against other options. When you only have one option (an absolute) then moral choice is an empty thing.

  29. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    So now you have decided that “good” is an attribute of society. What is going to benefit society as a whole, is what you determine to be good? (Those other bits of instinct, societal rules and conformity only mold this “good”) Do you want to add anything to this?

  30. Ian
    Ian says:

    So now you have decided that “good” is an attribute of society.

    Not quite, what is perceived as good by an individual is a function of the society that individual is in (among other things). To say that good is an attribute is to give it an independence that I don’t think it has.

    What is going to benefit society as a whole, is what you determine to be good? (Those other bits of instinct, societal rules and conformity only mold this “good”)

    Not really – see above.

    Do you want to add anything to this?

    I’ll just note there are questions in my previous comment that remain unanswered and leave it there :)

  31. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Well Ian, after running around the garden, you have got back to what I pointed out at the start. The “good” you know is inconsequential. I tried to help you tie it to something of substance, but you have insisted that it must remain tethered to a buoy floating aimlessly in the middle of the ocean. I guess I should elaborate.

    As an initial concession, I agree that I have yet to address your questions. That has been intentional on my behalf, as I wanted to get to the bottom of what you understand “good” to be. I have been avoiding tangential thoughts in order to facilitate this endeavour. Your questions are fair enough and as you appear sincere in the asking, I expect we shall eventually get there.

    I have a paradigm of good and evil. I place particular actions and intentions into the good bucket and other into the evil bucket. Mr X lives in a different society at a different time. He too has an understanding of good and evil. His idea of good and evil is different enough to mine to be contrary. Mr X seems to think that what I hold as evil is actually good. You may tell me that this is to be expected since good is only a perception that is shaped by societal influences, instincts, conformity and other things. And here is the problem, by telling me this, you have either invalidated both of our ideas of good, or you have validated both our ideas of good. You invalidate them by noting that they are just perceptions stemming from a variety of other influences. What I hold might be different if there were different influences to shape them. Thus what I hold can not be truly correct, for it would be different under different circumstances. Good itself is reduced to something of inconsequence – I should not lean on it, it could be different given a different situation. Yet you also want to validate them by noting that we do form ideas of good and evil and since we form them, they are worth something. What I have formed as my perception of good is worth something and what Mr X has formed as his perception is also worth something. Yet the worth cannot be in what we hold the “good” to be, for our ideas of good are different. This worth that you want to assign is only in the forming of the perception, it is not in what “good” eventually becomes. What we actually hold as good is again inconsequential for conflicting ideas are both deemed valid.

    In this mishmash idea of “good”, what you have not allowed is for one person to say that what I hold as good is correct and what you hold as good is incorrect. You have allowed a person to say, what I hold as good is correct for me and what you hold as good is correct for you. It may mean something for me, but it is of no consequence for someone who wants something different. This of course, places good on a par to taste and my condemnation of your differing taste is unjustified.

    What I find is that you are embarking on a mission of telling people that what their taste is wrong. This is unjustified. Your worldview has no grounds for such an action. When you try to make a point based on what good is – “Without religion, we’d have good people doing good things, and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.” – you have left the bounds of your worldview and appealed to a standard that you know nothing of. Over there they like to eat this food, I don’t like to eat that food so they are wrong! Unless you actually know what absolute good is, you have no basis to tell other people that their good is wrong. If you want to make such statements, then validate what you know is good! Saying that there really is no good or evil is such a self-refutation as has ever existed.

    It is a result of your pre-commitment to materialism. Your commitment requires you to reduce good and evil to nothing more than preferences and perception. To fit “good” into your worldview, which you hold as an axiom, destroys what good and evil actually are. You have taken truth and called it fancy.

    Shall we look at your questions now?

  32. Ian
    Ian says:

    For some reason my post isn’t submitting so I am not sure what to do – maybe it went to spam for length or something?

  33. Ian
    Ian says:

    (another attempt to post – i refined this further but lost the refined version)

    I have a paradigm of good and evil. I place particular actions and intentions into the good bucket and other into the evil bucket.

    I’m not sure if this is a failure of analogy or me being overly pedantic but does this mean you see each action as either good or evil (i.e. a binary system) or is the analogy hiding a continuum of “goodness” and “evilness”?

    _________________________________________________________

    Rather than responding point by point I’ll try and address the one missing point I think I noticed in your discussion and see where that leaves us. Feel free to pull me back to any particular point you don’t feel I have addressed.

    It seems to me that you think there is no real purpose to judging the “goodness” or “evilness” of something other than just judging (and perhaps related to some divine judgment).

    However I see judgments as having a very specific purpose. They are decision aiding tools – or the mechanism by which I make decisions. In order to make a well formed decision I need to consider an awful lot of different things. I should consider how it will affect me in the future, how it will affect other parties involved or outside the process, how it will affect society in general, and the implications to various agents.

    There is no way I can consider all of those things for every single decision I make so I need shortcuts. These come from a number of sources including society (which needs, or at least thinks it needs, most of its members to follow certain rules), genetics (things that have been naturally selected to encourage gene propagation), and of course personal experience. These shortcuts make decision making possible within reasonable periods of time. There is no point in taking 3 weeks to decide what to have for dinner!

    So when I make a decision about something, I use my current views of what is good and what isn’t to help me make that decision. This is the only purpose (so far as I can tell) for making any kind of judgment whatsoever. The main exceptions are when a family or societal norm is violated when we tend to think that another person has done a bad thing and may condone punishment for that act but even then it is decision-related.

    Now this view of goodness and badness only works if the majority of a society holds similar views and on the whole societies seem to do just that so there is no problem there.

    Now I do get your point about Weinberg’s quote and perhaps, in light of this discussion, it could perhaps be better phrased as something like:

    Societally normal people will do societally acceptable things and societally abnormal people will do societally unacceptable things, but for societally normal people to do societally unacceptable things, that takes religion.

    I’m not entirely sure I have the wording exactly right there but you get the idea. Also it seems valid that since the religion is part of society that individual cannot really be considered evil directly and actually that is partly the point of the original quote I think.

  34. Ghy
    Ghy says:

    Not sure about the atheist/ hihchtiker link but sometimes i think it could have been a prediction (more than 1984 ever was). Is the world turning into one full of telephone sanitizers?Don’t think to much Thomas when you reread them, just enjoy some great writing!

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