The Paradoxes of Atheism?!

Back in 2013 Neil Shenvi wrote an article trying to outline three things that he considers paradoxes of atheism. While the article is quite old, I think it deals directly with why I started this blog. After all, who knew that not believing in the gods could give rise to paradoxes?! It’s unfortunate that nonsense like this exists, and I want to address it. I think the main problem is that theists don’t have enough awareness of alternate explanations, and are always looking for ways to force everything into match their worldview.

According to Shenvi the following are paradoxes if you don’t believe in the gods:

  • truth-seeking
  • moral reflection
  • moral motivation

Truth Seeking

“If a truth-loving God doesn’t exist, then truth-seeking is neither intrinsically good nor morally obligatory. Therefore, paradoxically, the Christian has grounds to urge all people to seek the truth and to claim it is their moral obligation to seek the truth whereas the atheist has no grounds to urge others to seek the truth or to claim it is their moral obligation to do so.”

The first thing to come out of this is to ask the question: Do we have a moral obligation to seek the truth? It’s important to remember that reality itself doesn’t care what we believe, or how we act. Only those who have to deal with the consequences of our actions care about how we act. Since our beliefs inform our actions then what we believe has an impact on how we act. I think we do have a moral obligation to truth in the sense that if somebody wants to live around me, and I’m potentially affected by the beliefs, then I want them to believe true things, and not believe false things. I want the actions of others to be the least harmful to me that they can be.

I think it’s also important to point out that philosophy, literally the love of knowledge, arose sometime around 2600 years ago in ancient Greece. The people who first started exploring philosophy had no concept of a “truth-loving God.” It stands to reason that these first philosophers had reasons, other than their belief in the gods, as their motivation to determine truth. Why Christians think that they have a lock on truth seeking, when there were genuine truth seekers before Jesus, is beyond me. It’s not much different from the Christian who claims that science is an invention of Christianity. Christians developed science not because of their Christianity, but rather it was in spite of it, and I think the same holds true for truth seeking.

Truth seeking is ultimately an exercise in having a good understanding of likely consequences to our actions. This means that I perform actions that are likely to have desirable outcomes, and avoid actions that are likely to have undesirable outcomes. Once I understand outcomes, I can now take my values and try to make decisions that are consistent with those values. Remember, reality doesn’t care about what we think, or how we act, but other humans do, and we have to live with those people. If you don’t care what happens to you, or what the rest of us are going to do about you, then by all means, believe whatever you want.

Moral Reflection

Suffering and evil in the world is so prolific and horrendous that we instinctively avoid thinking about it to preserve our happiness. If Christianity is true, then all suffering and evil will one day be destroyed and healed. If atheism is true, suffering and evil are pointless and will never be rectified. So, paradoxically, a Christian gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while an atheist gains the emotional resources to reflect honestly on suffering only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).

This is a really poor argument, and I’d contend that it’s not much of an argument at all. If anything it points out the hypocrisy of some atheists who ignore the suffering of others around them, but this says absolutely nothing about the existence of gods. It’s simply an appeal to emotions to try and convince people that the best answer for suffering is wishful thinking, rather than ignoring reality.

There is real suffering in the world, and neither sticking your head in the ground, or any amount of wishful thinking about an afterlife, are going to do anything to reduce the amount of suffering in the world. The best way to deal with suffering is to have the best understanding of reality that we can. This allows us to understand the causes of suffering, and what can be done to stop suffering. Again, understanding and seeking of truth is the best way that we have to make real, and positive, changes in our world.

Do I do enough to reduce suffering in the world? Probably not. Do I claim to be morally perfect, and capable of stopping all suffering in the world? Definitely not. Is God perfectly moral, and capable of stopping all suffering in the world right now? Yes. Does God stop the suffering in the world? Not as far as I can tell. So why appeal to a being that doesn’t do anything to solve problems anyways? How does Christian theism actually deal with the problem of suffering? It simply doesn’t.

Moral Motivation

If Christianity is true, then all of our moral choices have tremendous, eternal significance. If atheism is true, then none of our moral choices have any eternal significance. So, paradoxically, the Christian gains the motivation to act morally by reflecting on reality (as he perceives it) while the atheist gains the motivation to act morally only by ignoring reality (as he perceives it).

This has to be one of the worst arguments for acting morally. The idea that without eternal significance to our actions that our actions are meaningless ignores the fundamental fact that our actions have real consequences now. I don’t know about Christians, but I care about what happens today, and what’s going to happen during the rest of my life. Maybe fantasies about a world of eternal bliss and paradise would be enough to make me stop caring about reality, but I’m not interested in fantasy. I’m interested in what our actions do today, and the consequences they will have for the billions of other humans, and other sentient animals, that we have to share our planet with.

I don’t need to know that my actions will have eternal consequences in order to act (or not act) in certain ways. Even if my actions only have consequences for a few seconds, I still want to act in ways that promote the well being of myself and the well being of others. This is simply a selfish policy because if I don’t give a damn about you, you’re not going to give a damn about me. I want to be alive, and having 8 billion other people not care about me isn’t conducive to me staying alive.

If you cannot understand that your actions will affect others, and their actions will affect you, then I don’t know what else I can tell you. It almost feels like some Christians are only moral beings because they’ve been told that if they don’t behave properly they’re going to be eternally punished. As somebody who’s been outside the Christian fold for decades, the mentality of some people seems completely foreign to me.

Why Christians think that articles, like the one I’m critiquing, are good support for their Christian views may remain a mystery for a long time. At least I will try to counter their points, and try to bring some sense back into reality. I do hope that they can at least see that we’re all connected, in some way, to everyone else, and that we need to live like we are connected if we want to survive.

The Moral Argument For God

While not as popular as other arguments, the moral argument is one that I do encounter relatively frequently, either informally with statements like “morality cannot be explained without God”, or more formally with the moral argument which goes:

1. If God does not exist then objective moral values and duties do not exist
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist
3. Therefore God does exist

It’s a fairly simple argument, but one which presents several problems, which I want to go over in this post.

Is Morality Objective?

This is really the million dollar question.  As somebody who holds to consequentialism, I hold that our moral judgements can be objective, but our moral values are ultimately subjective.  Let me try to explain using an analogy:  Suppose that I want to put a screw into a block of wood. If that is my goal then there are objectively good ways to achieve that goal, and objective poor ways to achieve that goal.  If you don’t believe me on this, try putting a screw into a block of wood with a hammer, or a paint brush, versus using a screwdriver of the correct type.  The judgement over whether some action is good at putting screws into a block of wood is objective.  The desire, or goal, to put screws into a block of wood is subjective.

If we’re talking about the values that give us the ability to form moral judgements, then I don’t see how we can be talking about something that is objective. It’s simply not possible. We desire to be healthy, and happy,  but these desires represent our subjective preference. Please note that our values being subjective does not, in any way, imply that moral values are completely arbitrary!  It’s not arbitrary that we want to survive, given that we’ve evolved, and that we have evolved as a social species, over millions of years, to work with others for survival, and that because of this we share many common moral values.  If I want to continue to survive, I really do depend on others and others depend on me.  I don’t want to put my survival into the hands of somebody who is not interested in either mine, or their own, survival.  Please don’t post anything in the comments about how subjectivity means that morality is completely arbitrary, because this is simply a non-sequitur.

What Does Morality Mean To Me

When I’m talking about morality I’m almost always talking about how we, as humans, judge human actions for their consequences with respect to human well being, and suffering. Actions which cause unnecessary suffering are generally called “evil”, and actions which promote well being are called “good.”  I believe this to be consistent with the how the vast majority of humans evaluate morality, even if they don’t consciously recognize this.

Morality Is Not Intrinsic To The Universe

When I talk to some Christians about “objective morality”, they seem to believe that there is something intrinsic about certain actions that makes them good or evil.  I don’t see how this can be the case, and it makes no sense.  It’s like they believe that genocide is wrong because there’s some ethereal force in the universe that makes it wrong.  That even if there were no humans left in the universe, genocide would still be wrong.  I can’t quite express how misguided I think this idea is.

I’m going to come out right here and state, unequivocally, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with genocide.  I do believe that genocide is wrong, but it is not intrinsically wrong, because such an idea is absurd.  The only thing that makes morality happen is our subjective desire for survival, health, and happiness.  That’s it.  Morality is not some framework built into reality, or a force that makes things right or wrong.

The First Premise Is A Non-Sequitur

The first premise of the argument gets us off on the wrong foot right at the outset.  Even if God does exist, how does that make moral values and duties objective?  How does the existence of God have the power to make our subjective values become objective, and binding?  I really don’t understand this kind of thinking, because even if God does exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.  It’s really that simple folks.  The fact that we have morality says nothing about the existence of any gods, let alone the God of Christianity.

I’d also like to point out that this problem has been known about, for over 2400 years, in the form of the Euthyphro dilemma:

Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?

If the former is true, then God is unnecessary for morality and we can appeal to whatever standard God is using.  If the latter then morality is simply arbitrary.  Attempts to split the horns by appealing to something like “God’s natural”, then we simply end up with the same kind of dilemma.

The Second Premise Is An Assertion

A one that I think is false to begin with. As I’ve stated above, moral values are not objective.  This premise is, as far as I can tell, an assertion with little to no basis in reality. Knowing what I do about Christian apologetics, this is hardly a surprise.  They’re willing to assert just about anything they can in order to try and justify their belief in God, no matter how silly it is.  After all, apologetics isn’t meant to convert those who are not Christian, but to keep those who are Christian inside the fold.

My Challenge

If you are a Christian moral realist, and you believe that moral values are actually objective, can you prove it, and not make any references to God (which would make the moral argument circular)? How do you go about this?  If so, please, tell me what it means to say that moral values are objective, and how you know this to be true.  Assuming you can do this, tell me how these “objective moral values” are only explainable by your God?