A Definitive Diagnosis

I received a comment in response to my last post from someone who says he is an atheist who believes in absolutes and went on to define absolute good and making oneself happy, often by making others happy. My response is to ask where one gets an absolute truth if they do not believe in God but hold to a naturalistic worldview. Who defines that happiness is the ultimate goal of man?

The following is a passage from Ravi Zacharias’ The Real Face of Atheism. This is a book I have greatly appreciated as I’ve gone through it (and am now nearing the conclusion). The section is entitled A Definitive Diagnosis.

‘The Christian answer is a strong counterperspective to naturalism – and rightly so, for it challenges human beings in their claim to absolute autonomy. As G.K. Chesterton observed, “We do now want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

The atheist makes two very serious mistakes in his starting point for moral discussion: first, what morality is, and second, what purpose morality serves. He asserts that he can, by the power of unaided reason, arrive at the nature of morality and at a satisfactory moral law. So natural is the capacity of the mind, says Kant in his Groundwork on Ethics, that a person can turn away from a direct encounter with Christ, and, independent of Christ’s influence, be able to reason through to the right conclusions. In The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch has a perfect response to this Kantian belief:

How recognizable, how familiar to us, is the man so beautifully portrayed in the Groundwork, who confronted even with Christ turns away to consider the judgment of his own conscience and to hear the voice of his own reason… This man is with us still, free, independent, lovely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy. The ‘raison d’etre’ [‘reason to be’] of this attractive but misleading creature is not far to seek. He is the offspring of the age of science, confidently rational, and yet increasingly aware of his alienation from the material universe which his discoveries reveal… his alienation is without cure… It is not such a long step from Kant to Nietzsche to existentialism, and the Anglo-Saxon ethical doctrines which is some ways closely resemble it… In fact, Kant’s man had already received a glorious incarnation nearly a century earlier in the work of Milton: his proper name is Lucifer.

To be precise, this man is not post-scientific or incarnated for the first time in Milton’s work. In fact, we meet him in the Garden of Eden, where he arrogated to himself the godlike characteristic of defining good and evil, and doing so apart from God. This reality is at the heart of the Christian argument for morality. It asserts not only the inevitable sense of alienation within any belief that places man as the measure of all things; it also defines what it means to be immoral. The word is “pride,” “hubris” – an autonomy that will its independence from God. Knowledge and education in the hands of one who claims no higher accountability or authority than one’s own individuality is power in the hands of a fool. The English poet Alexander Pope said:

Of all the causes which conspire to blind
Man’s erring judgment, and misguided mind;
What the weak head with strongest bias rules; –
Is pride, the never-failing vice of fools.

The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was only half right when he said, during his voyage to England and Ireland:

The French want no one to be their superior. The English want inferiors. The French man constantly raises his eyes above him with anxiety. The English man lowers his beneath him with satisfaction. On either side it is pride, but understood in a different way.

The problem is not with the French or the English. It is with all mankind. None of us likes authority. It all began in the first days of creation, when the first man and woman refused to allow God to be God, and wanted to be God themselves. Thus, sin entered the world through the rejection of God and the choice for autonomy and self-will. Men and women became the authors of their own moral law, and murder showed itself in the first family, followed by the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The fall was a fact, and is a fact. All of the vociferous arguments from Huxley and others will never quench the fire of rebellion that rages in the heart of humanity. Malcolm Muggeridge has astutely observed that the depravity of man is at once the most unpopular of all dogmas, but the most empirically verifiable. Humankind has denied God, and in that vertical rebellion begins our lostness. Society is not jeopardized as much as individuals themselves.’

(Zacharias, Ravi. The Real Face of Atheism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004. 129-131).

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7 Responses to A Definitive Diagnosis

  1. lifelessonsfromwriting says:

    The atheist makes two very serious mistakes in his starting point for moral discussion: first, what morality is, and second, what purpose morality serves. He asserts that he can, by the power of unaided reason, arrive at the nature of morality and at a satisfactory moral law. So natural is the capacity of the mind, says Kant in his Groundwork on Ethics, that a person can turn away from a direct encounter with Christ, and, independent of Christ’s influence, be able to reason through to the right conclusions. In The Sovereignty of Good, Iris Murdoch has a perfect response to this Kantian belief:

    You’ve got it backwards here. Religious people assume that morality is something imposed from without (by God, generally) rather than formulated from within.

    There is no objective morality that exists as some force or idea, floating around out in the Universe, just as there is no ‘objective truth’ (whatever that even means). To the religious mode, ‘morality’ is something that exists in some form and must be discovered, or else something that was handed down from on high by God.

    Christianity warns against humanity ‘pretending to be God’ or assuming that we can regulate ourselves, and in the process does our species a massive disservice. We are not perfect, nor will we ever be, but neither do we need a cosmic parent to hold our hands as we make our way through life. We’re on our own out here, and we’d do well to realize that as a group. The hand of God did not raise us from the dirt, and it’s not going to stop us from eventual destruction if we’re stupid.

    I want to emphasis that: the idea that morality is not objective and that humanity is the master of its own destiny is not something atheists and humanists believe because it seems like a nice idea; if it was, we’d find a way to shoehorn an afterlife in there somewhere. Neither should the religious be allowed to get away with the tired, weak ‘they’re afraid of judgement’. We derive our beliefs from reason and evidence, not from what is most comforting to us.

  2. I agree with you that what we believe should be based on what is true, not just what “is most comforting to us.” Far too many “religious people” (as you call them) live this way, completely oblivious to the fact that their worldview is illogical and incoherent.

    However, you have fallen into the problem of making objective statements while claiming objectivity doesn’t exist. How do you come up with proper reasoning if objective truth does not exist?

    Secondly, while you assessment of “religious people” as a whole may be largely true, it is not true of biblical Christianity. This is what sets Christianity apart – God changes the believer from the inside out. Christian morality is not based on doing “good things” as religious acts to somehow gain salvation. The moral spoken of in the quotation is that which is given from God but is planted in the soul of man. Thus it does have inward roots, not merely an imposition by some unknown deity.

    Man cannot fully regulate themselves apart from God because there is no absolute truth to be found apart from the Absolute. Thus you go on claiming there is no objectivity but still try to justify the objectivity of your belief. Morality is not an abstract force but something that is based on truth and reality.

    You have actually proven the point of the quotation. You want to make your own decisions instead of being told by God how you ought to be living.

  3. lifelessonsfromwriting says:

    Could you explain how my beliefs, arrived at through subject reasoning, are ‘objective’?

  4. Even in using subjective reasoning you are declaring your view to be true in an objective and absolute sense. “There is no such thing as objective morality” is an objective statement. If it were not the law of non-contradiction would be violated because you would be saying “Objective morality does not exist for me” at the same time as saying “Objective morality may exist for you.” If objective morality exists in my view it also exists in you, because my view is that absolute objective morality exists, even for you (despite your denial of it). Both statements cannot be true. Thus even your statement is objective in that it declares something to be true.

  5. lifelessonsfromwriting says:

    No, it says that I believe something to be true, not that I believe it to be objectively true.

    Similarly, I said that you can believe that objective morality exists, not that I believe that that makes it exist. I just wasn’t aware that such cumbersome qualifiers were necessary.

    In your second post, you stated that ‘God changes the believer’. This is a fairly common claim by the religious, but they generally don’t back it up with anything. Why should I take a statement like that seriously?

  6. I guess qualifiers are usually necessary to be sure we know what each other is talking about. I still think it is logically inconsistent to say something is only subjectively true without contradicting oneself with objective statements.

    Anyways, your question about taking “God changes people” serious is a good one. I again want to point out that this type of change is a uniquely Christian idea, not merely “religious.” I have written elsewhere on the authority of Scripture and how we can be confident that the Bible is accurate both historically (i.e. the documents we have today are nearly identical to the way they were originally written down) and theologically (i.e. the claims of the Bible correspond with reality). (For questions of the authority of Scripture see here and the subsequent 6 or 7 posts). I can also give you a more detailed explanation here if you like.

  7. lifelessonsfromwriting says:

    I don’t see any reason to take stories of God ‘changing people’ as more than their own faith changing them. There’s no doubt that faith is a powerful force for change or action in people, but that doesn’t mean that God is literally doing anything to them (or that he exists in the first place). Tribal religions often have rituals where people go into ‘spiritual states’ or perform tasks supposedly impossible under normal circumstances. Should we assume that they’re really channeling spirits?

    Even if the documents of the Bible are identical now to the way they were when they were originally written, that doesn’t automatically mean that they’re accurate. An ancient document stating that the Earth is filled with honey isn’t accurate just because it’s been passed down for hundreds of years unaltered.

    Also, your five posts on why we should trust the veracity of the Bible aren’t what I’d call watertight scholarship. For example, you talk about Homer’s Illiad and Oddysey in terms of us knowing that he wrote them, yet there is no historical consensus that Homer even existed in the first place; it’s far more likely that both stories were amalgamations of centuries or oral tradition, meaning that there’s no such thing as a definitive ‘original’ written version (and in fact, the earlier fragments of these poems would likely date back to before writing was even used).

    It’s generally accepted that what we have today is different from the oral poems and even the first written accounts that would have existed more than a thousand years ago, and that’s before the issue of translation is even brought up.

    With the Bible, many of the books or songs or letters weren’t even originally intended to be compiled together into a single work. Unless you invoke some sort of Divine guidance, I fail to see how you can assume that all of disparate sources could come together to form a book with no mistakes, errors, or outright falsehoods.

    In the third article, you don’t mention at all that there are no accounts of Jesus, his miracles or his death from contemporary sources (ie accounts of people who actually lived at the same time as him). You also didn’t mention that several of the Gospels share material with each other, to such an extent that their authorship is widely disputed. ‘Who wrote wheat and when’ in the Bible is far from an easy question to answer, and that’s without even taking into account those books and sources which, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the ‘official Gospel’.

    The Biblical contradictions section isn’t without problems either. For one thing, you only mention one contradiction. For another, you don’t mention the Old Testament at all.

    Actually, that’s a problem throughout. As difficult as it is to claim that the NT is absolutely accurate, it’s far more difficult to reconcile the OT with reality. We know that the Earth wasn’t created in seven days, that humans certainly didn’t exist at the same time as every other species that’s ever lived, that a worldwide flood occured, and that humanity is not descended from two people. There is no way to escape the fact that the OT is wildly at odds with reality.

    Should we take it that these earlier sections of the Bible are mere metaphor, then? And if they are, why should we assume that the rest of the Bible, including the NT, is accurate – particularly when it concerns miraculous events with shaky evidence, at best. If God didn’t create the Earth in seven days and didn’t form Adam from the ground, who’s to say that he brought Jesus back from the dead? We know that the former didn’t happen, and we really have no evidence for the latter. Why should I believe it? And if I do believe it, why not also believe that Castor and Pollux, the Gemini twins, helped Rome in its early history? Why not believe that the early Romans used signs from the Gods to guide them in the foundation of their city? After all, they were certainly successful enough – the gods could well have been watching over them.

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