Tag Archives: ethics

Tribe A, Tribe B, and Morality: An Illustration and A Conversation

There has been a lot of discussion among non-theists regarding how to understand morality.  The subject has long been a vexing one, considering non-theism does not officially have a set of moral codes.  This has troubled them all the more considering that theists often invoke the “moral argument”; namely, that apart from a belief in God, anything goes – or, at a minimum, nothing is inherently right or wrong.  But modern atheists  have been striking back.  Sam Harris has even written a recent book on the subject, defending a god-less morality.  Generally, non-theists appeal to reason, and to cross-cultural norms that match up with one another.  But these arguments only go so far, as we’re about to see.

 An Illustration:

 Tribe A – This tribe is composed of farmers and herders.  They work hard, love their families, and keep to themselves.  Though they might have communication and trade among other tribes, they have no desire to engage them in conflict of any kind.

 Tribe B – This tribe is one of warriors.  They also work hard and love their families.  They trade and communicate with other tribes, but underlying it all is a desire to conquer them.

In the course of time, Tribe B decides to invade Tribe A, even though Tribe A has done nothing to provoke such an attack.  Tribe B levels the village, burning homes, killing the men, raping and forcing into slavery the women and children.  Tribe A is no more.

(There are many questions raised by such an event, but we will deal only with the moral aspects.)

Is what Tribe A did to Tribe B an immoral act?  If so, why?  What is the basis for condemning it?   If Tribe B’s cultural morality allows violent acts against another culture when tribal improvement is to be gained, how can one go against them without invoking a higher standard of morality?  There are only two options here for the one who condemns this act.  Either one must appeal to a transcendent code (i.e., God), or one must consider one’s own morality, or that of one’s culture, as the standard by which others are to be judged.  The former is automatically ruled out for the non-theist.  That leaves the second option.  But taking this approach is also quite problematic.  For it makes one’s own moral code the ultimate standard, making oneself or one’s culture a kind of God on earth.  The non-theist must then answer how he knows that his understanding of moral norms is the correct one.  I’m not aware of any who can do this.

The dynamics of the Tribe B situation effectively nullifies the modern atheistic approach to accounting for morality.  Neither reason, nor universal cultural norms answers the dilemmas raised.  Tribe B can merely answer: “Why should we listen to you?”  There’s not much the non-theist can say it return, but it might go something like what follows.

A Conversation:

Non-theist: What your tribe did to Tribe A was terrible.  I condemn it in the strongest terms.

Tribe B: We don’t agree. Who says it’s wrong anyway?  You?

Non-theist: It’s wrong to kill people and steal things.  Everybody knows that!

Tribe B: We don’t agree.  We have rules for our own tribe that keeps us functioning, but these others tribes . . . we don’t know them, and we care nothing for them.  So if they have things we need, we take them and dispose of the people.  Simple.

Non-theist: How callous!  How can you not see the immorality of killing innocent people!

Tribe B: We’ll ask again: Who says?  We have our cultural norms and you have yours.  Ours allows us to attack other tribes; yours obviously doesn’t.  Our tribe doesn’t give a hoot what other tribes think about morality.  Your culture seems to like imposing your tribal norms on other tribes.  What a strange culture you must live in.

Non-theist: One reason I say it’s wrong is because I don’t want my society to be attacked by barbaric tribes like yours!

Tribe B: So you really don’t care about Tribe A either, do you?  You’re just afraid for your own safety, right?

Non-theist: No, that’s not what I’m saying.  Yes, I don’t want us to be attacked.  But I also believe that attacking any tribe is wrong.

Tribe B: Then give us a reason why it’s wrong.  Your opinion, or your society’s opinion doesn’t matter to us.  Give us a good, solid, reason (opinions and feelings not allowed) why we shouldn’t attack other tribes.

Non-theist: Okay, for one thing, most other tribes agree with us that it is wrong to kill.  Tribes across cultures, across centuries, have concurred.

Tribe B: You are incorrect.  There are – and have been – many, many tribes just like us that condemn killing in their own society, but have no qualms with killing other societies.  Your view only makes sense within a tribe, not tribe to tribe.  Also, even if what you say were true, it doesn’t make our acts good or bad.  It’s still just an opinion, albeit one held by a lot of people – but still just a one viewpoint against another.

Non-theist: Well . . . this kind of behavior is bad for society.

Tribe B: Not for ours.  Tribe A, yeah, but like we said, we didn’t know them and cared nothing for them.

Non-theist: But this kind of violence will lead to a more violent society in yours also.  Violent acts, even against people you don’t know, creates a violent mindset that will likely lead to chaos is your society also.

Tribe B: Who says?  We have rules against violent behavior in our society, and if they are broken, people are punished quite severely.  To be frank, we don’t have a lot of crime, and we get along rather nicely.  Is this the best you can do?  Give another reason.

Non-theist: But I just don’t really feel that killing .  .  .

Tribe B: Then feel away, but we’re done with this conversation.  You’ve convinced us of nothing!

This conversation illustrates the problems non-theists run into when speaking about ethics and morality.  Some are more honest with the implications.  Atheist professor William Provine has stated that if there is no God: “There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans.”  Few non-theists dare to be so blunt, but this is ultimately what their worldview holds.

But I’m not one to defend mere theism.  Just believing God exists doesn’t get one anywhere.  Who is God?  What is he like?  What does he want from me?  Mere theism cannot answer these questions, and so falls into many of the same moral holes as non-theism and agnosticism.  In fact, it is a form of agnosticism.  But God has not left us wondering.  He has revealed himself to us through his word, and his Son, Jesus Christ.  To say the least, what God says is of utmost importance.  He instructs us about what is right and wrong, yes, but also tells us that every person falls far short of these standards.  By the way, this would be my word to Tribe B:

“What you did was wicked in God’s sight.  He is the one who sets standards, not your tribe or any other tribe.  God has said he will judge eternally all those who kill and steal as you have done.  But he is also a God of love, and has given you a way out of this condemnation.  He has sent his one and only Son to take your punishment.  He died in your place, and yet rose again on the third day.  What you must do is trust him, turn from these immoral ways, and follow him.  Walk as he walked.”

This is why true Christianity makes so much sense.  Not only can we unequivocally state that certain behaviors are inherently wrong, we can also go further and speak of redemption and a future restoration.  It is this message that we must proclaim until Jesus returns.

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A Bane of Non-theism: Unalienable Rights

The Declaration of Independence contains these famous words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What isn’t always understood by modern ears, is the exact meaning of “unalienable” (identical in meaning to “inalienable” – used interchangeably here).  It’s not a word most Americans use every day.  The word is defined as “that which cannot be given away or taken away.”  When the Founder’s wrote of “unalienable rights” they meant that there are certain rights that cannot be taken away, namely, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality.  While individuals and governments can certainly take away these things, they cannot take away the rights to those same things.  For example, someone can take away my car by theft, but he cannot take away my rights to that car, since it’s mine.

Think about these rights for a moment.  If these ideas (life, liberty, etc.) are indeed rights, then there is a right-ness to keeping them, and a wrong-ness to taking them away.  It is wrong to unjustly take away someone’s life, for instance.  But by whose authority is it wrong?  And who decided that certain aspects of our existence were actual rights?  Such language implies – no, demands – an authority.  But who or what can bestows upon human beings rights?  Can governments?  Certainly a group of leaders can give rights by the laws they enact and then enforce.  But these are not unalienable.  They are only as good as the paper they are printed on and the remembrance of those who in power who choose to enforce them.  Given rights can be taken away, inherent rights cannot.  Humans can give rights, but cannot instill an inherent (inalienable) right.

What the Founder’s understood is that in order for there to be such a thing as an unalienable right, it must have been bestowed by the Creator.  In other words, there must be a transcendent being who created us with these rights.  In the same vein, any moral code of right and wrong, if it is to be taken as absolute, must transcend us all.  Otherwise, right and wrong, good and evil, are just opinions, varying by culture and individual.  If there is no higher authority, one who is above all human institutions, unalienable rights cannot be established.

So how is this a “bane” for non-theism?  Because they cannot affirm the most fundamental statement of the Declaration.  To accept it as true would be either hypocritical or inconsistent with their belief system.  Yet this sentence is not only one of the most famous in our nation’s history, it is also one of the most important; for it lays the foundation for the rest of the document, as well as the Constitution and Bill of Rights.  This is perhaps the primary reason non-theists have rarely been elected to the Congress, and never to the Presidency – at least those who are openly so.  Most Americans still intuitively understand what our Founding Fathers knew:  God himself gave us our rights, and there is an unspoken fear that those who do not hold the same values will be the ones who initiate the change to take away those same rights.

An important question is often raised.  Can a non-theist be a good president?  The reality is that some atheists might actually make a great Commander-in-Chief, just as many are good fathers, husbands/wives, neighbors, workers, teachers, leaders, etc.   Yet these “good” behaviors are in spite of their belief system (or lack thereof), not the result of it (And, it could be argued, their morality is largely borrowed from Christian principles – the product of growing up in a country still somewhat immersed in Judeo-Christian values).  The central issue in a country built on many freedoms is that the non-theist cannot uphold unalienable rights.  This is a huge problem, considering the country is built around a central principle: freedom.  If  non-theists cannot affirm that certain freedoms are inalienable, then how can they affirm Constitutional rights?  For sake of worldview consistency, those rights would have to be radically reinterpreted.   And that is what most Americans fear.

 

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Answering Christopher Hitchens’ Challenge – Part 2

“Here is my challenge . . . name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any[one] think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first — I have been asking it for some time — awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.” Christopher Hitchens, “An Athiest Responds” found here.

Christopher Hitchens

In a previous post, the first challenge was answered.   Though Hitchens clearly sees no need for an answer to the second, there are aspects to it that must be fleshed out.

Challenge Two: Is there a wicked statement or evil action performed by a Christian precisely because of religious faith?

If “religious person” is substituted for “Christian” the answer is indeed obvious, for some religions have as their core teaching some ideas that are repulsive to most people, and which, if acted upon, can make for a rather unpleasant environment.  But let me state again, I’m not an apologist for religion, per se, but rather the historic Christian faith.  Additionally, it is true even with Christians that at times we do things out of religious zeal that ends up being wrong.  Hitchens would be right on that charge.  But he actually proves the Bible’s point on this.  It is not from scriptural commands that we do evil, but because we choose to ignore those commands that evil is done.  Therefore what I would argue is this: there is no wicked statement or evil action performed by a Christian precisely because of a biblical command to do so.

In this challenge Hitchens assume both parties are in complete agreement.  It seems obvious to all that religion has done all kinds of heinous things in the name of God.  But here I want to make a couple of arguments.  First, we must distinguish what God has said and commanded from what man has said and commanded.  Second, Hitchens himself is appealing to a moral law in his use of terms such as “wicked” and “evil.”  If he has a foundation for his moral code, he needs to state it, otherwise it’s just his opinion.

Skeptics such as Hitchens cite two examples that prove to them that Christianity is evil.  One is that Christian history is replete with examples of the church gone wild, killing heretics, burning witches, etc.  Two, the OT is full of Israel’s genocide of whole people groups, as well as commands against women and slaves that make them second class.  These are common arguments made time and time again on message boards and in the media.  Let’s look at both charges.

The church has done much evil.

By now everyone has heard of the horrors committed by the church, such as the inquisition, burning of witches, oppression of women, the crusades, and imperialist missions.  If you didn’t learn of these in school, you’ve surely heard them repeated on TV, radio, and internet message boards.  It’s as if these are the ultimate evils committed in human history.

Well, let me first say that much of the outrage is justified.  The church has perpetrated its share of evil during the centuries.  But my argument is that these atrocities are in direct contradiction of the Bible’s clear teaching.  Therefore, though it can be accurately stated that religion caused evil, it is not correct to say that the Bible has caused evil.

Jesus himself said: “My kingdom is not of this world.  If my kingdom were of this world my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.”  “If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”    “If someone strikes you on the left cheek, turn your other cheek.”  Paul wrote: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”  And Peter wrote: “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (John 18:36, Matt. 5:38,44; Rom. 12:20, 1 Pet. 3:9 ESV).  We see that there is not the slightest hint in the NT that Christians should harm anyone, let alone those who oppose them.  Rather, these verses teach us to be gentle and peaceable to everyone, including our enemies.

Illustration: Stop Sign

If someone barrels through a stop sign and strikes another vehicle, killing other passengers, do we blame the stop sign, or the person who disregarded the sign?  Now suppose this driver had been a staunch advocate of stop signs.  Does this affect our view of the stop sign’s innocence?  Of course not.  The driver, who proves himself a hypocrite in his disobedience, is to blame, and not the command itself.

In the same way the Bible is full of good instructions, many of which have been disobeyed, much to the church’s shame.  But it would be an error to blame the Bible itself for this; rather the rogues who ignore the clear instructions-even when done in God’s name-are to blame, since they are not relying upon the scriptures, but their own flawed wisdom.

The OT is full of evil acts.

The OT is another favorite whipping boy of the atheist and skeptics of all sorts.  A whole slew of verses are said to demonstrate that the God of the OT was some kind of evil tyrant, killing innocent people and commanding bizarre and unnecessary rituals.  To someone like Hitchens, this is ample proof that religion – and biblical religion at that—indeed causes evil.

Several things need be said here.  First, it must be pointed out (and it’s simply amazing to me how few get this) that these commands to the Israelites are not general commands for all time.  In other words, Christians today would be in serious error to assume that God desires them to carry out the same killings and rituals demanded of the Israelites.  This needs pointed out, because it’s often alleged that Christians want to instill OT law back into society, and this (rightly so) causes great fear and anger among non-Christians.  Yes, there are some who think this way, but the vast majority want nothing to do with such an idea.

Second, regarding the killing of life, how can God command such a thing?  Doesn’t this prove that the Bible is full of evil?  This is indeed a hard question, one that theologians and pastors have wrestled with for centuries.  But it can be answered.  We must first realize that God is the author of all life, and he is the sustainer of all things.  As the creator, he has complete rights over his creation to do what he wants.  Remember that God already takes life through old age, disease, accidents, murder and suicide, war, hunger, etc.  If God decided to remove lives through the sword of Israel, how is this worse than if those same lives had been drowned in a flood?

Third, atheists such as Hitchens must appeal to an ethical norm, a higher moral law, in order to discredit the Bible and Christianity.  The problem is that atheism does not allow for a transcendent moral code that can define for all people what is right or what is wrong.  All ethics must be either culturally defined or individually determined.  Often it’s both.  But if either cultural or personal in nature, how is it appropriate to pass moral judgment on another without making a specific culture’s view, or one’s own view, the standard by which others are judged?  This is what I call “the bane of atheism.”  Much more can be explored on this topic and I hope to do a post soon on this topic.

In our examination of Christopher Hitchens’ challenges we find his logic to be flawed.  First, he misunderstands Christian theology and ‘cherry picks’ from Christian history.  Like a politician, he plays to the crowd by exaggerating perceived flaws, then emphasizing them, then condemning it all as dangerous nonsense that should be avoided.  Yet most all biblical and historical scholars understand that both belief and history is complex and must be understood in its own context.  Hitchens simply does not see his error in this – or maybe he does.

Second, Hitchens  fails to see that his worldview cannot supply a moral code to condemn anyone.  This second point cannot be overemphasized.  It is his opinion that Christianity is full of evil and is bad for society.  But he must answer how his view is any better than anyone else’s.  Hitchens cannot do this, so his challenges end up being doomed from the outset.

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Answering Christopher Hitchens’ Challenge – Part 1

“Here is my challenge . . . name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any[one] think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first — I have been asking it for some time — awaits a convincing reply. By what right, then, do the faithful assume this irritating mantle of righteousness? They have as much to apologize for as to explain.” Christopher Hitchens, “An Athiest Responds” found here.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, columnist and staunch atheist who never met a debate he didn’t like, has issued  two challenges to the religious believer.  Asserting that religion produces no more righteous acts than atheism, Hitchens also maintains quite confidently that religious faith often lead to evil acts.  It is interesting that he seems to think the second question is self-evident.  However, both questions need answered.  In this post, I hope to answer the first challenge.

Challenge One: Name one ethical statement or action that a Christian could do that an atheist could not also do.

( I’ve rephrased the statement slightly by using the term “Christian” for “believer” and “atheist” for “nonbeliever.”  This is no way changes the challenge, but helps narrow and clarify it.  Since I don’t believe all religions are true- let alone lead to God- I can only defend the Christian faith, which I hold to be completely true.  I use the term “atheist” since Mr. Hitchens himself is one and this is the worldview he defends.)

It is imperative to first understand that Christian theology does not assert that nonbelievers cannot be ethical or moral in speech and deeds.  In fact, we expect them to.  Otherwise, the world would be a rather miserable place, much worse than it is.  Theologians call this common grace.  Every person has a moral code imbedded in his/her heart, which is why even the most ardent atheist will perform philanthropic deeds, even when there’s no apparent personal gain.

But can unbelievers do every moral deed that a Christian can do?  In order to answer this question Hitchens and the Christian must have an agreed upon moral code.  Otherwise, the whole challenge is a nonstarter.  It seems that he’s asking the question in such a way that it is the Christian system of morals that is in view.  In other words the question could read: “is there any ethical act that you hold dear as a Christian that cannot also be done by a non-Christian?”

The answer to this revised question is “yes.”  I’ll give two ethical actions performed by Christians that an atheist would not do: prayer and evangelism.  In prayer the Christian can beseech God on behalf of others.  In evangelism, the Christian shares information that leads people to eternal life.  Since atheists neither believe in God, nor in humanity’s need for salvation, they cannot perform either deed without being hypocritical.  This in effect answers the question, so long as it is Christian morals in view.

Hitchens would certainly object to such acts being ethical.  But if he objects, he himself must become the definer of the ethics to be performed.   And if he gets to decide, then of course the atheist is going to perform his idea of ethical deeds.  Yet if this is how he intends the question, the first challenge is found to be fixed, and thus completely bogus.

Therefore, Hitchens’ challenge one fails.  For if Christian morals are in view, the answer is affirmative.  But if Hitchens’ ethics are in view, the whole challenge is a sham.

In the next post, the second challenge will be examined.

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