Re: [asa] Expelled

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Sun Apr 27 2008 - 21:20:24 EDT

Merv said: The Christian who over-elevates morality to a central status of
differentiation between believer and atheist does, I think, find his
argument severely weakened.

I respond: I think Merv's right if the question is "who is behaving
better." But the real question is bigger than that -- where do we get this
notion of "better?" The Christian / Jewish / Muslim response ultimately is
that we get the idea of "better" from the fact of God who is good, who
created us to live in fellowship with him, and who revealed his law to us.
Depending on one's particular tradition within the Abrahamic faiths, some
amount of "natural law" or "reason" can be added here as well.

We might like to say that the atheist has no basis at all for making
judgments about "better." If all is matter, time, and chance, what meaning
does a word like "better" carry? But to be fair, there are at least a few
responses here. One is that of the hard materialist: "better" is just a
word we use for social/emotional adaptations that help us survive, and
there's no real way to get "outside" of our nature. Another is that of the
"soft" materialist: the human mind is capable of transcending its own
nature, so "better" is a word we use for collective judgments about what
works best to provide the most happiness to the most people. "Happiness" is
not a moral term; it just means generally feeling good. I think most
thoughtful atheistic ethics are some version of this sort of welfare

We can push back here and ask "who sez" about the merits of welfare
consequentialism. The answer depends on the atheist's cultural tradition.
In the West, the answer generally is "we the people." In the East, the
answer often is "the government" (in communist countries). Either way,
there are no "absolutes," but there are judgments of social groups that are
enforced by more or less consensual exercises of power. So, at the end of
the day, the theist grounds her ethics in God; the atheist grounds her
ethics in consequentialism and social contract.

We can, I think, argue that the theistic position ultimately is more
coherent and more deeply satisfying; but it's by no means a simple slam
dunk. Curiously, among most theists in the West, this tends to lead to the
same result: individual liberties, democracy, and markets; and among
theists in the East, particularly in the Islamic countries, theistic ethics
tend towards central control.

On Sun, Apr 27, 2008 at 8:33 PM, Merv <> wrote:

> PvM wrote:
> > And what does this gain us? Knowing that there is something we may
> > never know during our lifetimes? One may turn around and argue that
> > atheists are not constrained by a quest for searching for this elusive
> > standard of morality and therefor can apply more appropriate standards
> > when outlining standards for morality.
> > What is so problematic about atheists not having access to a 'standard
> > of morality' when Christians lack a similar clarity? In both cases it
> > comes down to us defining our standards of morality. In the end we all
> > work from subjective standards, whether or not we believe there is a
> > Higher Being who has His own set of standards.
> >
> For the Christian, the Scriptural basis is everything, even if we don't
> (or maybe refuse) to always see it clearly. Here is what I find to be the
> more puzzling question: Why DO atheists adhere to the morality that they
> do have? Obviously they don't just (as a class, anyway) throw all social
> mores to the wind. They do accept societal conditioning and restraints on
> their behavior, if only for self-interest. I blush, from shame, if I'm
> caught doing or saying something shameful. Does an atheist feel shame.
> I'm going to bet many of them do. Probably because they were socialized to
> (they would say). The difference is, for them shame is a pathology that
> links them to a prudish religious past they are trying to lose. To the
> Christian, shame is a (usually helpful) motivator to make right choices in
> the first place.
> I wonder: If it were somehow discovered in some impossible "knock
> everybody down" revelation that no supreme being exists (or the supreme
> being that does exist appears one day to announce He is tired of us, he is
> leaving forever, and we should just do as we will...) then I wonder who
> would become the more dangerous class of people to be around on this planet?
> Atheists (who never believed or cared about God anyway, but just adopted
> whatever social mores they thought appropriate?) or Christians (who very
> much see the only legitimate grounding for morality as being in God). Of
> course, a good reason why Christians would "fall apart" without God is that
> we tend to be among those who most realize our need for him. "...not many
> of you were wise according to the world..." The pridefully self-sufficient
> do have the hardest time go through the eye of the needle. So it may go
> without saying that without God, the weakest collapse first. So I don't
> think it too far off to suggest that the Christians, along with all the
> theistic religions as a class would possibly become the nastiest in a hurry.
> Dawkins suggests something like this (one of the few things of interest in
> God Delusion), and this argument would be a good one except for its one
> glaring flaw: It's blissfully hypothetical. (thank God above.)
> But it does leave us with the non-hypothetical question: Whose morality
> is superior? Those who know God is watching and derive their guilt from
> that? Or those who simply adopt their morality from the society around
> them? (& Christians can legitimately belong to both sets). I'm pretty
> sure, though, that even the Dawkins' of the world "adopt" some sense of
> morality from somewhere, despite denying any absolute basis for it. He
> virtually says as much. The Christian who over-elevates morality to a
> central status of differentiation between believer and atheist does, I
> think, find his argument severely weakened.
> --Merv
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David W. Opderbeck
Associate Professor of Law
Seton Hall University Law School
Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology
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Received on Sun Apr 27 21:21:41 2008

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