There's been another round in the never-ending battle between believers and nonbelievers. P.Z. Myers aimed some pointed barbs at Rabbi Avi Shafran, who has resurrected the old argument that morality comes from God. In short, atheists are capable of most any atrocity because they do not, by definition, “fear God.” This is a wonderfully straightforward and simple argument. It is also simple-minded.
We've all see Shafran's argument before. It keeps popping up in various guises, most of them pretty transparent. I was reminded of a particularly cloying example that appeared in the pages of a Central California newspaper at the end of 2004. A student at Fresno State University had submitted a letter to the editor of his hometown paper. I was in the area for a visit to my parents for the Christmas holiday. Thus I was privileged to read the following closely reasoned essay (the reference to PG near the end relates to a local nonbeliever who writes frequently to the newspaper):
A look at atheism using logicSee, this is what book-learning can do to you!
As I am currently typing this letter, siting [sic] in the computer lab at Fresno State and with the fall semester now over for me, I have come to learn a lot of new things in life.
One of the biggest lessons came from one of the most difficult philosophy classes on campus called ethical theory. I learned that it is meaningless for an atheist to claim to be moral without some interacting force, namely a loving God.
I have also come to learn that the Ten Commandments are the basis for human morality without having destruction in society. The last part of the Ten Commandments are boiled down to Jesus's words that we should love our enemy as ourselves.
As a student in Professor W's philosophy of religion class, I found it amazing that Christians are the only group professing these standard morals for society, and these Ten Commandments were not only kept with the advent of the new covenant but simplified by our savior Jesus Christ.
Taking ethical theory has taught me that to claim to be a moral atheist is as meaningless as it gets as there is no intervening force that makes it solid what philosophers call “analytic a priory” [sic]), since morals are determined by human reasoning alone. And as I have learned there are many cultures that approve of sexual and physical abuse, and even murder by their own reasoning.
No one has to be believe [sic] in a loving God, but the main lesson has been told, which to claim to be moral without a belief in God is meaningless.
Philosophically, there are three logical proofs for God's existence. One is the theological argument or the great design theory which is commonly appealed to by many people. Another is the cosmological argument which was appealed to the other day, which is there is no uncaused cause.
Lastly, I want to comment on the problem of evil, and the name calling by some atheists. If everything was perfect then we could not have free will, since our happiness would always be determined. By having evil we come to repent our sins. If one still does not choose to believe in God or they are pluralists like [Professor] W, then having evil lets us work for something in life.
But let me mind the atheist again. They have no morals whatsoever when they claim to have it since their morality has no solid support. Secondly, it is wrong to be putting down one's faith-based belief, and this is a very evil activity, although it looks like PG (don't get me wrong—Christians are sometimes guilty) has calmed down in the past couple of months. He still needs to be corrected.
As a professor myself, I could not resist getting a little didactic on Shawn's ass. Here's the body of my letter, published a few days later:
Shawn says, more than once, that he has now learned that “to claim to be moral without a belief in God is meaningless.” Apparently he now believes that the nonbelievers in his neighborhood are kept from heinous behavior through mere laziness or perhaps fear of the police power of the state. How fortunate for us all. But isn't more logical to believe that agnostics and atheists share with believers a preference for a well-ordered and moral society?As it says in the Good Book (I mean Shakespeare, of course), “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
Shawn also claims to have learned that only Christians espouse the philosophy that “we should love our enemy as ourselves.” Although it is good to hear that Shawn presumably wholeheartedly loves nonbelievers, I doubt that his professors at Fresno State taught him that the golden rule is unique to Christianity. Even the simplest Google search reveals that the golden rule is honored in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and other religions. Confucius, for example, said “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.” It's worth noting that both Confucius and Buddha predate Jesus.
By the use of rigorous logic, Shawn concludes that “If everything was perfect then we could not have free will, since our happiness would always be determined.” This simplistic equation of perfection with determinism suggests that in a perfect world Shawn would not be able to choose what to have for dinner, since only the perfect choice would be possible. A more interesting consequence comes from the fact duly recorded in the Bible that Adam and Eve had free will. The power of free will was given to them by their Creator, so it follows that God created an imperfect world. Shawn may want to talk to God about that.
I presume Shawn is in the early stages of his education at Fresno State, so there is still hope for him. He can take some nice classes in logic from the math department and round it out with comparative religion from the philosophy department. In the meantime, a little Christian humility can keep him from beating his breast in public like the Pharisee in Luke 18.