Atheism & Morals

In 1966 the Christian philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre gave a lecture at Columbia University called “Atheism and Morals” (later published in a book titled, The Religious Significance of Atheism, Columbia University Press, 1969) which is remarkable for laying out in clear language the moral catastrophe that has befallen Western civilization over the past few centuries. MacIntyre has continued to write on the subject since, of course, but it is this lecture which I have in my hands now and will summarize.

Dostoyevsky wrote that “if God does not exist everything is permitted” [p. 31]*. MacIntyre maintains that this is mistaken and in fact turns it around, as we shall see. He tells us,

”My central thesis is the direct opposite of their view: I hold not that a loss of theistic belief produces a loss of moral belief and a change of practice, but rather that a change in the character of morality is at least partly responsible for the modern inability to accept theistic belief. That is, I wish to invert the Dostoyevskian contention about the relation between theism and morals.” [p. 38-39]*

Theism requires, MacIntyre maintains,

”a particular position with respect to morality: more specifically, if theism is to be coherent [it] must rely . . . upon an independently understood moral vocabulary. To this conclusion I now wish to add another and stronger thesis: namely that theistic practice depends upon the existence of independent moral practices.” [p. 39]*

Moral practices, he makes plain, which have ceased to be common today. But what exactly is he getting at? Continue reading

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Beyond Atheism

Atheism is only the glitter on the surface of the sea of naturalism. Has the time come for atheists to dive below the surface and explore the depths?

Let’s face it, denying God’s existence draws the attention — negatively, of course — of those who are believers. Theists see atheists — with justification — as people who tear down the beliefs of others but don’t construct anything positive of their own. And most atheists agree that atheism is strictly a negative position.

As atheists, we see our job as throwing bombs at religion and God. “Think there’s a God, huh? Then what about this — ” and we toss the problem of evil at them. [Boom!] “Oh, you think the Bible is God’s word? Eat this –” [Blam!] It’s fun, and there are certainly plently of bombs to throw. More than that, we know we’re right and we’ve got a point – in fact lots of points — that religious people really ought to pay attention to. Continue reading

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Two Types of Knowing

If the world outside of our thoughts was of the same essence as the world of our thoughts, there would be only one kind of knowing. Yet philosophers have long recognized that knowing comes in two distinct varieties. There is knowing which is innate, Plato’s forms, Kant’s analytical knowledge—and there is knowing which is acquired through the senses, empirical knowledge.

Why should there be two types of knowing? Why should that be a feature of our existence? Yet it is. This is the key, the giveaway clue, perhaps the single most important observation in all of philosophy.

If the world and our thoughts were of the same basic stuff, there would only be one type of knowing. Yet we have a different kind of knowing for the world—one which is approximate, inexact, provisional—than we have for our thoughts themselves, and that means that the world and thoughts are different in essence. The domain of our thoughts is mental in nature, with an innate conceptual/rational/analytic framework. The world outside lacks any such framework. It is non-mental, non-rational, non-knowable in its essence.

The consequences of this are simple and significant.

We expect our thoughts to be rational and meaningful because that is appropriate for thoughts; but outside of our thoughts the world is not rational or meaningful because the outside’s essence is non-mental. Consequently it makes no sense to expect the outside world (the world outside thoughts) to have characteristics that pertain to thoughts, such as meaningfulness or rationality.

It is only common sense that the world outside our thoughts must be irrational and meaningless — otherwise we would never have developed two types of knowing.

To expect or wish otherwise is to be confused.

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Mind, Matter & Divine Creation

Perhaps the greatest challenge to a naturalistic worldview is explaining consciousness. This difficulty has several aspects. How did experiencing and consciousness evolve? For that matter why would it have evolved? But more troublesome than the evolutionary question is the basic biological one. How can the brain cause sensations and subjective experiences as well as—to put it bluntly—create the mind? Many theists consider this last to be an insurmountable problem for advocates of naturalism.

The Theist’s Own Difficulty

The theist, however, faces an equivalent task. The problem of how mind and matter can interact with each other—much less one cause the other—does not disappear by adopting a supernatural worldview. In fact the difficulty the theist faces may be greater than that faced by the atheist for the simple reason that the theist is committed to a class distinction between spirit & body, mind & matter, to which the advocate of naturalism is not.

The natural scientist adopts the assumption that consciousness is some kind of physical phenomena. If it is a physical phenomena, then it should not be impossible for another physical phenomena to cause it. Understanding how this happens may still be quite difficult, but at least the relationship—between biological brain and physical phenomena of experiencing—is not conceptually impossible. (Of course, understanding how our thoughts can be “merely physical” remains a difficulty, but not an inherently unexplainable one.)

The theist, on the other hand, is committed to a fundamental distinction between matter and mind (or body & soul) that seems to make interaction between the two impossible to conceive. Continue reading

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esli Boga net — znachit, vsio pozvoleno

While attempting to track down exact wording and attribution for Dostoevsky’s famous phrase, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” — which supposedly was uttered by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, I discovered David Cortesi’s assertion that the famous quote is not to be found in English translations of The Brothers Karamazov or in any of Dostoevsky’s novels. Cortesi suspects, instead, that the famous phrase comes from Sartre, who supposedly wrote

“The existentialist…finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven….Dostoevsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted,…” —

Even Christiaan Stange’s Doetoevsky Research Station website admits the uncertainty of the quote.

But apparently the phrase does occur in the novel’s original Russian Continue reading

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Christian ‘BattleCry’ to save America’s Soul

Sunsara Taylor reports on a recent BattleCry rally of 17,000 young people in Philadelphia. BattleCry is Ron Luce’s effort to engage young Christians in order to return the United States to “Christian” values. Taylor reports,

‘A featured speaker, Franklin Graham, who delivered George Bush’s first inaugural prayer, was introduced. . . .

The “heart” of Graham’s speech was a call for holy war. He preached about the “battle for souls of men and women from North to South, East to West, over the entire earth.” There is, he declared, “No way to God but through Jesus Christ.”‘

Franklin Graham and Ron Luce seem to be off the same religious block as Charles Stanley, head of the First Baptist Church in Atlanta and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who declared in a sermon that “God is in favor of war” during the propaganda run-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Continue reading

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Implicit Associations Testing

We are often unaware of the implicit associations or unconscious biases we carry around. Scientists Mahzarin Banaji, Tony Greenwald & Brian Nosek believe they may have found a test for identifying such implicit biases.

It is well known that people don’t always ‘speak their minds’, and it is suspected that people don’t always ‘know their minds’. Understanding such divergences is important to scientific psychology.

“This web site presents a method that demonstrates the conscious-unconscious divergences much more convincingly than has been possible with previous methods. This new method is called the Implicit Association Test, or IAT for short.”

You can take their tests here (if you dare). If interested, you can also volunteer to take part in Project Implicit.

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Doctors Complain about Health Lies

Now that conservative Christians have gained control over the Federal and some State governments, doctors are complaining about “unreliable” and in some cases entirely false information showing up on government websites and in sex education programs. So reports an article in Glamour magazine titled “The new lies about women’s health” by Brian Alexander. Glamour’s own investigation found “blatantly false anticondom information” on both state & Federal websites. According to the article,

“radical conservative activists have used fudged and sometimes flatly false data to persuade the government to promote their agenda of abstinence until marriage. The fallout: Young women now read false data on government websites, learn bogus information in federally funded sex-education programs and struggle to get safe, legal contraceptives.”

Perhaps even more shocking are efforts by the anti-sex crowd to prevent release of Merck’s new vaccine Gardasil, which protects women from cervical cancer. Why? Because it would take away one of their (misleading) arguments against condoms: namely, that condom use doesn’t protect against HPV and that HPV causes cervical cancer.

“The public should be outraged at this misrepresentation of facts for political reasons,” says Dr. Holmes. “This really reveals the true agenda for those who have argued that the reason for not promoting condoms is to protect girls against HPV.” If you truly cared about HPV prevention, his reasoning goes, you’d be thrilled at the advent of a vaccine to save women’s lives. “It really illustrates that the opposition to condoms has nothing to do with protecting women and girls,” he says, “but everything to do with opposition to discussion of sexual health.”

“The new lies about women’s health” by Brian Alexander, Glamour, Apr 3, 2006

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1,000,000 Rupees for Dan Brown’s head

Catholics in India are so upset with the movie version of The Da Vinci Code, that some are going beyond just trying to get the movie banned in India. According to Ecumenical News,  Nicolas Almeida, a Catholic from Mumbai India, has offered 1.1 million Rupees (about $25,000) for anyone who can bring him Dan Brown’s head. Dan Brown is the author of The Da Vinci Code. The Vatican does not endorse Almeida’s head bounty.

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Losing Sacred Stories

Over the past decade most major daily newspapers added a religious section. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) calls theirs “Faith & Values”. Its primary goal seems to be defending the faith — or at least the various faiths — of the newspaper’s readers. Last month the AJC even used that phrase for its lead article: “Defending the Faith” by John Blake.*

“Millions of Christians read the Easter story through the lens of faith,”* the author tells us. This is supposed to be a good thing. Problem is, Blake continues, popular culture is interfering with that faith by presenting alternate mythologies about Jesus: The Da Vinci Code, The Jesus Papers, Misquoting Jesus: the Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, and to top it off now scholars have discovered the long-lost Gospel of Judas according to the May issue of National Geographic.

It’s enough to prompt Bob Hodgson with the American Bible Society (he’s actually dean of the Nida Institute for Biblical Scholarship with ABS) to complain, “we’re losing control of our sacred stories.”*

But Bob, it’s your own fault for insisting that your sacred stories are historically true — for that means that they are not “your” stories but everyone’s. Stick with Christianity’s sacred stories as just that: mythologies belonging to Christianity alone, and Christians have some emotional right to claim proprietorship. But once you insist on historical truth for your myths that right dissipates. History belongs to us all, even if only to be mythologized anew, as a book like The Da Vinci Code attempts to do.

So Hodgson and other Christians need to make a choice: is Jesus a sacred story belonging to the Christian religion, or is Jesus historical and therefore a story which belongs to everyone?

And if you choose the latter, remember: history is no respecter of mythology.

* John Blake, “Defending the Faith”, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 15, 2006, Faith & Values section, page 1

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