Ligon Duncan on the Non-Negotiables of the Gospel

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  • Monday, May 12, 2008

    The Implications of Consistent Atheism

    As has been noted several times throughout this blog, atheism is a philosophy that cannot sustain itself, but must borrow from other worldviews in order for it's proponents to even function. This point was brought to light in a recent New York Times article criticizing Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which claimed that the movie failed to take into consideration the difference between “Scientific Darwinism” and “Social Darwinism”. What the article failed to do, however, is explain how one could hold to “Scientific Darwinism” and logically reject “Social Darwinism”.

    Peter Singer is one of the few atheists who nearly tries to live what he believes, yet I would dare say that even most atheists would find his views on human life objectionable. Here are a few goodies expressed by Singer, from Dinesh D'Souza’s article Atheism and Child Murder.

    On how mothers should be permitted to kill their offspring until the age of 28 days: "My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of twenty-eight days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others."

    On why abortion is less morally significant than killing a rat: "Rats are indisputably more aware of their surroundings, and more able to respond in purposeful and complex ways to things they like or dislike, than a fetus at ten or even thirty-two weeks gestation."

    On why pigs, chickens and fish have more rights to life than unborn humans: "The calf, the pig, and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy, while if we make the comparison with a fetus of less than three months, a fish would show more signs of consciousness."

    On why infants aren't normal human beings with rights to life and liberty: "Characteristics like rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness...make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings."

    You can watch Dinesh D'Souza Debate Peter Singer at Biola University.

    Whatever one thinks of Peter Singer’s radical belief system, at least he is consistent (to a certain point).


    sorceror said...

    Well, if you want some reasons why neo-Darwinian evolution doesn't imply 'social Darwinism', you could start here...

    Puritan Lad said...


    Nothing new in this article. Basically an admission that morality is conventional, and those who cooperate are better off then those who do not. Nowhere does he ever account for "free will" (other than assume it's in the brain), nor does he express why one individual should be forced to subject himself to the majority rule concerning morality. A few questions should clear this up....

    1.) Can apes behave immorally? Why or why not?

    2.) Can a society (Nazi Germany) behave immorally? Why or why not?

    Samuel Skinner said...

    I'll give sorceror some help.

    Free will does not exist.

    Morality has to be voluntary. If it isn't, than it isn't morality- it is obedience.

    Individuals shouldn't necesarily follow the majority rule. If they find something immoral they should discover the reasoning behind. If it is actually immoral, than they shouldn't do it.

    Yes, apes can behave immoraly. They are capable of betrayl for instance.

    A society can't act immorally. A society can't act at all. A society is simply a collection of people. The accepted morality of a socity can be immoral however.

    Samuel Skinner said...

    Note that I don't endorse with the morality sorceror advocates. I don't know what it is.

    Puritan Lad said...

    Samuel, let's start here...

    First, you wrote...
    "Free will does not exist."

    This has many ramifications, but how do you square that with your second statement...

    "Morality has to be voluntary. If it isn't, than it isn't morality- it is obedience."

    How can morality be voluntary if free will does not exist? In the world of atheism, morality must be genetic, no?

    Finally, what should we do about immoral apes? Why is the act of betrayal wrong for apes?

    Samuel Skinner said...

    Free will is quite simply simply the dumbest idea ever invented. Why? Because your actions are determined either by nature, nature or chance. There is no magical element that changes this. Even if we had souls, we would not have free will- it would simply be nature in a new coat.

    Morality is making a choice. We can still make choices even if our actions are predetermined- what I was refering to was that doing actions under the threat of force is not morality. Even if every action can be plottedout we still make choices- WE don't know how everything will go!

    Morality is not genetic. We share the same genes people did a thousand years ago- and we are profoundly different.

    In a secular view, morality is not obeying divine commandments. It is about doing the right thing because you want to.

    Puritan Lad said...

    You'll be surprised to find that I don't entirely disagree with you in the area of "free will". I guess you are a "Reformed Atheist"?

    However, you still haven't given me a clear definition of morality, other than "doing the right thing because you want to". What is the "right thing" and how do we determine that? What if we don't want to do the right thing? Why should we?

    Furthermore, I hold that no person really does the right thing because he wants to. If anything, he does the right thing in order to be praised by others, or to avoid some negative consequence. Man is naturally bent toward doing the wrong thing, and even the right things he does is usually out of a self-centered motive.

    If we have no free will (in even a limited sense) as you claim, then moral teaching, imploring someone to live right, or even having an online debate, are all useless enterprises. We are what we are, and cannot change. So here is where you have some explaining to do.

    You claim that "Morality is not genetic...It is about doing the right thing because you want to." In the world of atheism, if morality is not genetic, then what in "nature" predetermines our actions, since you acknowledge a lack of free will. I'm not sure what philosophy you hold to, but in the world of naturalistic atheism, what else controls us outside of our owm biochemistry?

    Finally, do you agree or disagree with Peter Singer on baby murder? Why or why not?

    sorceror said...

    Regarding 'free will', you can look here, towards the end.

    To answer your questions:

    1) Kind of, but not the way humans can be moral. Many animals can be trained to use a vocal language, but it's not clear that any animal actually grasps grammar, the difference between "me give ball" and "give me ball". Similarly, apes and chimps can be trained to play tic-tac-toe, sometimes even checkers - but chess seems beyond them. In the moral realm, chimps seem to have a rudimentary sense of fairness, but that has limitations.

    To the limited extent that they can recognize moral situations, they can behave morally.

    2) That depends on what you mean by 'a society'. If you mean as if the whole group were one individual, then no - except figuratively.

    But I think you mean your question in the sense of, "If a whole bunch of people do something wrong, is it still wrong?" The answer is yes. 'Society' doesn't set moral standards any more than 'society' can dictate what the best chess strategies are. Society and culture can influence how well people recognize and implement morals (sometimes in terrible ways), but it can't change what morals are.

    That's not to say that the 'state of the art' in morals can't change, of course. As new things are discovered, the 'best strategy' can change. Chess strategy in the 19th century was quite different from 20th century chess, because new gambits and new ways of looking at the game had been found.

    Puritan Lad said...


    Let me be more specific with the Question. Jane Goodall’s original studies of apes show that they participate in “warfare," "gang attacks," "killing and cannibalism". An article in Discovery Magazine shows that chimps exhibit “disturbingly high levels of battering, rape, sexual harassment, and murder”.

    Are these apes acting immorally? What should be done about them? Should we treat them the same way as we do humans who commit such acts? Why or why not?

    See Of Apes and Men

    sorceror said...

    More study would be needed to see if they are really acting immorally. It's not clear how much moral awareness primates have - we know it's dramatically less than in humans, but there does appear to be some awareness of at least some moral principles.

    We don't have to treat them the way we do humans, because they aren't human and can't live up to human moral standards, any more than they can understand Shakespeare or play chess. When they're in captivity, we owe them decent care and whatever moral guidance they can accept. A zookeeper should try to train the apes in their care not to kill or rape each other, for example.

    Our capacity for language and for moral awareness - for cooperation in long-term projects for mutual benefit, instead of short-term gratification - is what makes us uniquely human. No animal comes close. Chimps and apes (and a few other animals, like maybe dolphins) are in the foothills of mountains we've summitted, to borrow a phrase from Daniel Dennett.

    Puritan Lad said...

    "More study would be needed to see if they are really acting immorally. It's not clear how much moral awareness primates have - we know it's dramatically less than in humans, but there does appear to be some awareness of at least some moral principles."

    What is "moral awareness" and how do we account for it? What "moral principals" are they aware of? Are you in agreement with the previous article that you posted, that morality is merely conventional (despite it's deceptive title)?

    "A zookeeper should try to train the apes in their care not to kill or rape each other, for example."


    "cooperation in long-term projects for mutual benefit, instead of short-term gratification"

    Why should one be concerned for mutual benefit instead of short-term gratification?

    sorceror said...

    Sorry, I thought it was clear - I'm the author of the article I originally linked to.

    And morality isn't conventional - at least, in the sense you mean. Some conventions have an impact on morals - like driving on the right side of the road. Objectively, it doesn't matter which side of the road is chosen by convention - the U.K. does fine the other way - but once that's chosen, driving on the wrong side of the road (whichever that may be) puts yourself and others at risk.

    But a whole bunch of morality is not conventional. E.g. not stealing, not initiating violence, bearing false witness, etc. Those are the kinds of things you need to have any kind of functioning society at all.

    As to why one should be concerned with "mutual benefit instead of short-term gratification", there's whole "benefit" thing, whether or not it's mutual. We cooperate in long-term projects because the alternative is running naked in the woods fighting over scraps of food. As you yourself said, "those who cooperate are better off then those who do not".

    Do you want to be worse off?

    Puritan Lad said...

    I don't believe that morality is conventional. It comes from God alone. In your worldview, however, you have no choice but to make morality conventional. This is clear from both your article and your posts here. It was you, in your article, who suggested that "those who cooperate are better off then those who do not". This is both presumptuous and irrelevant.

    Suppose I'm walking behind Bill Gates when I see him accidentally drop a $1000. Should I tell him about it, or pick it up and keep it. If I do the former, how does that benefit anyone? For Bill, that's merely pocket change. However, if I choose to keep the money, I am better off personally, and Bill hardly misses it.

    Back to the subject of my original post, Social Darwinism certainly has more long term benefits in a secular world. Wouldn't everyone be better of if there were no handicapped, poor, or elderly? You see, Social Darwinism has, as it's goal, a long term benefit for humanity. Society would function much better without the weak among us.

    Note, I'm not saying that you agree with this. I'm glad that you, like most unbelievers, find such a notion appalling. The problem, however, is that you have no logical reason to reject Social Darwinism. Your rejection is purely conventional. You want a moral standard to impose upon society, but you have been unable to validate one in your worldview. You wrote, "Society and culture can influence how well people recognize and implement morals (sometimes in terrible ways), but it can't change what morals are." Yet you still haven't told us what morals are? Even if you establish a standard that you feel best benefits society in the long term, you have not been able to explain why any one individual should be forced to comply with that standard. Your explanation holds no water. You suggested that it is "because the alternative is running naked in the woods fighting over scraps of food". Not so. Social Darwinism certainly would not result in this.

    You have shown yourself to recognize a knowledge of right and wrong. I hold that it has nothing to do with "genetics" or "nature", but is instead a productive of the Divine. Even though you reject God's law, you "by nature do what the law requires". (Romans 2:14). But doing so without acknowledging the Divine lawgiver is useless. Not only have you failed to establish the moral standard by which you wish society to function, but you have no real remedy for your own failings of that law. I would suggest that the only remedy can be found in Christ, and that you should run to Him.

    sorceror said...

    Um... I argued in that article very specifically, and I thought with logic, why eugenics and other 'Social Darwinist' ideas are wrong. (The section titled "Genetic Moral Engineering", maybe you missed it...)

    As to returning $1000 to Bill Gates... well, aside from the network effects of general trustworthiness, I'd think that being friends with Bill Gates would be a longer-term benefit than a paltry $1K. So long as we're throwing hypotheticals around, y'know.

    Sure, cheating is tempting in short-term interactions. But that's not sustainable, long-term. Look at the societies where corruption is endemic, and compare them to societies where it's controlled and discouraged. Which ones are better off? Which ones would you like to live in?

    I suggest you reread the article - I did say what morals are: strategies. You seem to be unable to conceive them in any other way than as 'commandments', and that may be impacting your ability to get the point.

    And, of course, your position doesn't address any of the problems with "divine command theory" that was pointed out there.

    Puritan Lad said...


    I plan to repond to your article, in detail, in a separate post. Hopefully, I'll get to it this weekend as it is supposed to be raining.

    Samuel Skinner said...

    Morality can't come from God- he is immoral.

    Puritan Lad said...


    Would you like to expound on that? What moral standard are you using to judge God by?

    Or is this merely your opinion? If so, why should God be concerned with what you think?

    Please give me a logical argument, not an emotional one.

    Samuel Skinner said...

    First off you have been brainwashed by your own propaganda- stating God is immoral is NOT an emotional argument.

    Lets see... first God creates life and then punishes it for no reason. He inflicts pain, suffering and death because... his creation disobeyed him. Even though he knew it would do that.

    Heck- this applies to all Gods- they all create life that suffers, lives short painful lives and sometimes dies horribly. It is immoral to create that. It is even more so to not fix it.

    Moral standard? How about pain, suffering and death are bad and moral actions are ones taken to minimize them and increase, happiness, pleasure and life?

    Did I miss anything? I would think all this is obvious. And please, don't give me the "God uses a different standard". Where I live we call such a stand relativism.

    Puritan Lad said...


    As expected, you have failed to explain how anything your wrote is "immoral". God Himself defines morality, and anything He does is, by definition, moral.

    If God so chooses, He could wipe out every human on the planet and send them straight to Hell, and be totally justified in doing so.

    So try again and explain how God is immoral, and please be objective rather then opinionated.

    Samuel Skinner said...

    Read it and understand. Or not.

    August said...

    Euthrypo from that bastion of sound scholarship...Wikipedia.

    Anyway, the dilemma, and the subsequent refutation, fails because the premises are false.

    It assumes that God confers meaning and value on life arbitrarily, or He does so because it already has meaning and value independently of Him.

    Both of those are false.

    Christianity holds that human life has value and purpose because humans are intended to reflect God's very nature. So the value and purpose of human life, and therefore God's moral actions towards man, are neither arbitrary nor independent, but grounded in God's nature.

    Anyway, repeating the oft-refuted dilemma has not in any way answered the question asked of you before.

    On what basis, or by what authority, do you state that God is immoral?