Secular Society: A Good Thing?

I’ve been thinking a bit about the whole ‘militant secularism’ thing recently. If you’ve missed what’s happened, you must have been living under a rock. Or, paying no attention to the news. Either way, there’s been a whole lotta bloggin’ going on about it! This is the news article which kicked it off, although also see my post on healing and the ASA. Also you can read Baroness Warsi’s comments which I think really kicked off usage of the phrase ‘militant secularism’ in the past week or two.

What I’d like to talk about today is secularism itself: it’s often portrayed as a ‘neutral ground’ where those of all faiths and none can come together and make a stable society where people’s personal beliefs can stay out of the way. Just leave your religious beliefs at home, and there’ll be no problems.

The problem with that is that I don’t see secularism as ‘neutral ground’: secularism is a belief system too. What I mean by that is, the implicit idea behind secularism is that it’s possible to rightly govern, administer justice, and act ethically without a religious reference point. In other words, in this country at least, essentially secularism is equal to atheism.

The problem with that – with respect to the governance of this (or any) country, is that I think theism in general and Christianity in particular provides the only sound, rational foundation for any kind of ethical system. As such, what the secularists or atheists want to claim – that the country would be better off if we dispensed with the religious element in leadership – is simply not true.

Let me try and explain: in atheism, you don’t have many options for morality. I’ve heard a few different explanations, including reading an interview with Richard Dawkins the other day when he explains that morality comes from the cultural ‘Zeitgeist‘ (his word) – in other words, what people think is right and wrong at the time. But the general principle is that there is nothing objectively right and wrong – in other words, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ are simply labels which we have almost arbitrarily come to define in a certain way. That definition may well change in the future.

So to take an example, in some Islamic countries I understand a woman may be stoned to death if she is caught in adultery. Is that a moral or an immoral action? It seems to be the cultural ‘Zeitgeist’; it’s the law of the land – the punishment is not hidden. In other words, I can’t see how an atheist could say, with all integrity, that that was a wrong or immoral action. Now if that’s not an immoral action… what’s to stop the same thing happening in this country (UK)?

Similarly, in this country: for a long period of time (c. 8-900 years), kings and rulers have been under the same law as everyone else. In other words, all are treated equally according to the law (in theory, at least). Why should that be so? The original reason given was Genesis 1:27 – everyone is created in the image of God, and therefore everyone deserves to be treated equally. This isn’t an obvious idea – just look at the history books, look around at the world, to see that this is not so.

I believe that something underpins morality, and that something is the Christian God. There are no two ways about it.

This is what Dorothy L. Sayers saw clearly in her essay ‘Creed or Chaos?‘ (originally from 1940, the reference to Germany is to the Nazi party):

We on our side have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole rational foundation for those values. The rulers of Germany have seen quite clearly that dogma and ethics are inextricably bound together. Having renounced the dogma, they have renounced the ethics as well—and from their point of view they are perfectly right. They have adopted an entirely different dogma, whose ethical scheme has no value for peace or truth, mercy or justice, faith or freedom; and they see no reason why they should practise a set of virtues incompatible with their dogma.

If you reduce morals to things you can rationalise – well, you can rationalise just about anything. A secular society could well lead us down a direction we don’t want to go.

This is where I want to draw back to the issue of militant secularism. Now I don’t agree with Baroness Warsi that we are facing ‘militant’ secularism (Although I do think there are a number of strident voices which want to get rid of any religious influence in the public square whatsoever, which may have muddied the waters). What is more worrying to me is ‘secularism creep’ to coin a phrase. In other words, more and more, secularism is becoming the ‘default’ position without it ever being democratically introduced.

We’ve ended up in a situation where religion is marginalised in the public square, almost without anyone ever agreeing that’s a good thing – it’s just happened because of inertia and people believing that ‘secularism is neutral’.

What I’m hoping is that all this will provoke some kind of debate about the role of religion, Christianity and secularism in our society. If the people want secularism that’s fine, that’s democracy for you – but I’d rather people were aware of what they were agreeing to rather than it just creeping in by stealth.

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36 thoughts on “Secular Society: A Good Thing?

  1. Anything “militant” sound dangerous to me. There are factions of atheism that desire the complete abolition of all religions. And there are many “Christians” that manipulate the Gospel message to satisfy their own selfish desires.

    Great message Phil.
    Vince

    • Thanks for the reminder Vince – you’re right, militant anything is a bad thing, and there are plenty of examples of militant Christians too. Humility is a good quality in everyone 🙂

      Thanks for the encouragement, Phill

    • Hi Wayne

      It was a comment by Baroness Warsi – I’ve edited the post now to make it clearer! I’m sorry for not making it clearer originally.

      Thanks, Phill

    • Ah, thanks for clarifying 😉

      Yes, the ‘militant secularism’ is old news – but people are still talking about it, and I am very slow! Thanks for the comment 🙂

    • To be honest I think the best thing we can do right now is just to raise this kind of debate and get people thinking about it. If we can convince people that they don’t want a secular society, or at least that a secular society isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, that’s half the battle.

      I think the worst thing that could happen is if we just become a secular nation without anyone realising it!

  2. Isn’t it Islamic law, which is by definition religious, that states a woman may be stoned to death if she commits adultery? How moral is a god that demands that?

    Moreover, isn’t it only God that is allowed to judge us? Didn’t Jesus say something about how only the sinless man can cast the first stone?

    • “How moral is a god that demands that?”

      My point was, on what basis do you – as an atheist – say that it is immoral? What gives you a platform by which you can judge other people’s morals systems?

      “Moreover, isn’t it only God that is allowed to judge us? Didn’t Jesus say something about how only the sinless man can cast the first stone?”

      Not sure what your point is here, with respect to what I was saying?

  3. Dear Phill,
    Eventually, believers are going to be forced to recognize that there is no fellowship between themselves and the irreligious. At that point, they will have to become obedient to 2 Cor. 6:14 – 7:1.
    When they begin to form sanctuary communities where the New Testament commandments are demonstrated night and day, those unclean people left outside will it and glorify God.

    • Hi,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation of 2 Cor 6. For a start I’m not sure it would in any way be able to fulfil the great commission.

      Also I don’t think it attributes anything to the idea of common grace – the idea that grace is evident in the lives of believers and unbelievers alike.

  4. Are you saying that because a *religious* law says it’s ok for an adulterous woman to be stoned, it’s morally fine, as long as you’re operating in the same belief system?

    Sorry, I think I missed a sentence out!

    My point was that morality is used for judging people as good or bad, but God said only he’s allowed to do the judging, not us. Also, Jesus said that we can only judge if we’re sinless (the stones and the throwing of the first one).


    As to whether an action is good or not, to try to answer your question (with a question), is an action good because God says it is good or because it is in inherently good?

    • “Are you saying that because a *religious* law says it’s ok for an adulterous woman to be stoned, it’s morally fine, as long as you’re operating in the same belief system?”

      I’m saying that, as I see it, an atheist would be unable to come to any other conclusion.

      My understanding is that atheists want empiric, scientific, rational evidence for pretty much everything. So show me empirically, rationally and scientifically why it is that you believe stoning someone caught in adultery is immoral. You could also say something similar about love, for example: does love exist, or is it just a label we give to a set of chemical reactions?

      Again, my understanding is that an atheist would *have* to say that love is just (a) a societal construct; (b) a label we have come to assign to a group of chemical reactions in our bodies.

      So in some respects I’d be right to say that love was nothing more than what Hollywood describe it as – spending your life trying to find the perfect man / woman, finding them, and then ditching them a few years later when that particular feeling fades. Given the enduring popularity of the Rom Com and the number of divorces happening, that is essentially how I think most people see love. And I believe an atheist would essentially have to say that is love, because there is nothing higher to appeal to.

      “As to whether an action is good or not, to try to answer your question (with a question), is an action good because God says it is good or because it is in inherently good?”

      I’d say both/and. I think God is the definition of good. I’d also say that explains why we have a concept of good/bad, because we are made in God’s image and as such have that quality.

      My question to you is, as an atheist, you’ve removed God from the picture. Rationally speaking, then, how do you justify ANYTHING being ‘inherently good’? By even using the phrase you’re assuming there are categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, which as an atheist I don’t think you can do. I’m not trying to be snarky here, I just honestly don’t see how a strictly naturalist view of the world would lead you to say that there are objective (or inherent) categories of good and bad.

      • “I’m saying that, as I see it, an atheist would be unable to come to any other conclusion.”

        Can you explain that, please? Is it a yes or a no? What conclusion do you, as a theist, come to?

        “Again, my understanding is that an atheist would *have* to say that love is just (a) a societal construct; (b) a label we have come to assign to a group of chemical reactions in our bodies.”

        I’d say the love of a couple towards each other is just chemical reactions. Mother love is a manifestation of the survival instinct and the instinct to see one’s genes passed on; that sort of thing. And I don’t see what’s so bad about it being so.

        “I’d say both/and. I think God is the definition of good. I’d also say that explains why we have a concept of good/bad, because we are made in God’s image and as such have that quality.”

        So if what God approves of is good and what he doesn’t approve of is bad, then if God approves of raping and pillaging but not of giving to charity, then raping and pillaging is good and giving to charity is bad, right?

        What does it *mean* for God to be good? For God to be the definition of good?

        “By even using the phrase you’re assuming there are categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, which as an atheist I don’t think you can do.”

        I think atheists can assume good and bad. We can say that something is good if it benefits the planet or mankind and bad if it doesn’t; something is good if it helps us get on with each other and bad if it doesn’t. For example, if I killed Mrs Phil, you’d be rather peeved, to put it mildly, so I’d know I’d done something bad. If I made her a nice cake, she’d be happy, so I’d know I’d done something good (unless she was watching her waistline, which she doesn’t need to do, of course).

        Raping and pillaging don’t help the planet or mankind and it doesn’t help us get on with one another, so it’s bad. Giving to charities does help the planet or mankind, so it is good.

        I’d also like to think that people don’t need the promise of eternal reward or eternal punishment to condition our behaviour. It means nothing we do is ever truly altruistic; we’ve always got one eye one the prize, as it were.

        • “Can you explain that, please? Is it a yes or a no? What conclusion do you, as a theist, come to?”

          What I mean is, as an atheist you would have to conclude stoning someone in another country, according to their law, was morally permissible. There is no higher authority or universal standard to appeal to.

          As a Christian I can say that there is a moral standard which transcends societal and national boundaries, so I could say that it was an immoral act.

          “I’d say the love of a couple towards each other is just chemical reactions. Mother love is a manifestation of the survival instinct and the instinct to see one’s genes passed on; that sort of thing. And I don’t see what’s so bad about it being so.”

          What I’m getting at is, if love is just chemical reactions – what happens if those chemical reactions cease? Let’s stay if my chemical reactions cease with respects to Mrs Phil – should we get divorced? Would that be love? I’m just saying I think there is a standard of ‘love’ above and beyond what Hollywood portray, and it’s more than just an arbitrary label we’ve assigned to a certain set of human actions.

          “What does it *mean* for God to be good? For God to be the definition of good?”

          I think it means we can only call things good or bad because of God. We only know what good is because of what God is, and the fact that he has given us a moral sense (created in his image). God is the standard of good – the only standard of good – to which we Christians can appeal.

          “I think atheists can assume good and bad. We can say that something is good if it benefits the planet or mankind and bad if it doesn’t; something is good if it helps us get on with each other and bad if it doesn’t.”

          I think your argument is circular. Firstly, you are assuming categories of ‘benefiting’ or ‘harming’ (they are loaded words). Think about it – where do we get those categories from? Are they objective categories? Benefiting by definition means something that is good, but where does that come from? Harming by definition means something bad. In other words, I think you are essentially using ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to define good and bad.

          For example, what is intrinsically good about “helping us get on with each other”? You’re making a value judgement there. One could make a plausible, rational argument for actually letting the weaker humans die out. In fact you could make a plausible, rational case for being incredibly ambitious and trampling on everyone else to become successful, for in Darwinism the fittest survive – therefore that’s what we should do.

          The other thing is, if our morals are purely a product of evolutionary naturalism – then there is no guarantee they won’t change. You mentioned God defining good in some other way. Well, with morals as atheism defines them, there is absolutely no guarantee that one day raping and pillaging of some description won’t be considered moral.

          “I’d also like to think that people don’t need the promise of eternal reward or eternal punishment to condition our behaviour. It means nothing we do is ever truly altruistic; we’ve always got one eye one the prize, as it were.”

          Hold on a second. I’ve heard atheists describe how morals evolve before, and they always run into a problem with altruism. It just doesn’t fit the mould: how can something which is NOT beneficial to an individual have evolved in a Darwinian system? The main explanation I’ve heard is that in some ways it *does* benefit the individual, indirectly.

          But then, what they are positing is that altruistic acts are essentially selfish acts. You can’t have it both ways. Either there is something intrinsically good about an altruistic act, which means that objective good exists; or naturalistic Darwinism is true and an altruistic act is actually a selfish act in disguise.

          • “What I mean is, as an atheist you would have to conclude stoning someone in another country, according to their law, was morally permissible. There is no higher authority or universal standard to appeal to.”

            Seriously? I’d like to think that humans were capable of being able to work out for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong, rather than being so (I’m going to sound insulting here, for which I apologise) ignorant that they have to be told by some “higher authority”.

            “Let’s stay if my chemical reactions cease with respects to Mrs Phil – should we get divorced?”

            However you define love, if you stop loving Mrs Phil, you’re breaking your wedding vows (you promised to love her till death do you part, right?). Whether you get a divorce or not is up to you; it’s not my place to say.

            “In other words, I think you are essentially using ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to define good and bad.”

            No. I’m defining actions that result in positive emotions good and actions that result in negative emotions bad.

            If people get on with each other, positive emotions result. Therefore, getting on with each other is good. If we fight with each other, negative emotions result. Therefore, fighting with each other is bad.

            “In fact you could make a plausible, rational case for being incredibly ambitious and trampling on everyone else to become successful, for in Darwinism the fittest survive – therefore that’s what we should do.”

            No. The “fittest” in Darwinism refers to the fittest for that environment, the most apt. It’s frequently misunderstood to mean fittest as in strongest, healthiest. It’s no use being extremely muscular and therefore requiring a lot of protein in your diet if all there is to eat is leafy plants, for example.

            “Well, with morals as atheism defines them, there is absolutely no guarantee that one day raping and pillaging of some description won’t be considered moral.”

            The same can be said for Christianity. Wasn’t one of Jesus’ objectives to update the Old Testament? Including the morals.

            “Either there is something intrinsically good about an altruistic act, which means that objective good exists; or naturalistic Darwinism is true and an altruistic act is actually a selfish act in disguise.”

            Exactly my point: altruism is ultimately selfish. I’m open about the fact that I give blood, not to help others, but because I like the feeling I get from knowing I’ve saved a life (the discomfort from the needles is short-lived compared to that).

          • “I’d like to think that humans were capable of being able to work out for themselves what’s right and what’s wrong, rather than being so ignorant that they have to be told by some “higher authority”.”

            Exactly my point. Those Islamic countries as nation states have worked out by themselves that it’s OK to stone a woman caught in adultery. On what basis do you say that it’s immoral?

            The second thing is, the Christian can say that we “know” what’s right and what’s wrong only because God has created us with that knowledge. What I’m asking you to do is justify why we have that knowledge from a naturalistic perspective.

            “However you define love, if you stop loving Mrs Phil, you’re breaking your wedding vows”

            So you’re saying I get a choice in the matter? So love is more than just a chemical reaction?

            “No. I’m defining actions that result in positive emotions good and actions that result in negative emotions bad.”

            So, you are using a circular argument then? 😉 Sorry, couldn’t resist. Define ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, and why they should be called as such. I’m not playing a semantics game here, I’m honestly asking how from a strictly naturalistic view of the world those categories can be said to exist in an objective way.

            Remember that we are all basically biological and chemical machines, ‘happiness’ is just a label for the state of that machine at any given time; ‘sadness’ similarly.

            The other thing is, different people will define ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ differently. Is it negative, for example, to discipline a child, or punish someone for breaking a law? Anything that starts off with ‘positive feelings = good, negative feelings = bad’ is pretty soon going to run into conflicts between what different people want, and you’re going to have to make a value judgement on those.

            Also, even if we accept the premise that ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ as categories actually exist, in your view what would you say to someone who didn’t want to live like that, given a naturalistic worldview? Douglas Wilson posed a question to Christopher Hitchens which I think is relevant:

            Take the vilest atheist you ever heard of. Imagine yourself sitting at his bedside shortly before he passes away. He says, following Sinatra, “I did it my way.” And then he adds, chuckling, “Got away with it too.” In our thought experiment, the one rule is that you must say something to him, and whatever you say, it must flow directly from your shared atheism—and it must challenge the morality of his choices. What can you possibly say? He did get away with it. There is a great deal of injustice behind him, which he perpetrated, and no justice in front of him. You have no basis for saying anything to him other than to point to your own set of personal prejudices and preferences. You mention this to him, and he shrugs. “Tomayto, tomahto.”

            (from here, which is well worth reading).

            In other words, even if we concede that there is some kind of moral system in the world, there is no obligation to follow it. You can’t turn an is into an ought It’s more of a moral guideline, really – these are the morals here, but hey! – take ’em or leave ’em.

            What I’m getting at is that the world you describe doesn’t seem to fit with the world we perceive. I think we perceive the world with things like happiness, love, good, bad, evil actually existing – they’re not just labels. And I can’t see how anyone could get to that from a naturalistic view of the world (i.e. if naturalism was true the world wouldn’t look like it does). Consequently I think Christianity is the only view of the world which makes any sense, because it explains those things.

            “The same can be said for Christianity. Wasn’t one of Jesus’ objectives to update the Old Testament? Including the morals.”

            No, it wasn’t. The morals don’t change. “Love God and love your neighbour” are the greatest commandments of the Old and New testaments. They haven’t changed.

            “Exactly my point: altruism is ultimately selfish. I’m open about the fact that I give blood, not to help others, but because I like the feeling I get from knowing I’ve saved a life (the discomfort from the needles is short-lived compared to that).”

            I’m sorry, I must have misunderstood. I thought you were criticising Christianity for saying that no altruistic act is truly altruistic. Which is basically what you’ve just said here of atheism, so at the very least by your own admission both are equal on that front.

            Incidentally, I disagree that Christianity leads to no true altruism. I think Christians are supposed to do “good things” because they are good in and of themselves. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). There are benefits but that’s not the reason for doing good things.

          • You said as a Christian stoning an adulterer is an immoral act. But what about what the bible says about punishing adulterers? Are these verses from the NIV Bible moral acts?

            Exodus 20:14 “You shall not commit adultery.”

            Deuteronomy 22:22 “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die.”

            Leviticus 20:10 “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.”

            Proverbs 6:32 “But a man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself.”

            Leviticus 21:9 “And the daughter of any priest, if she profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.”

            Deuteronomy 25:11-12 “If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she reaches out and seizes him by his private parts, you shall cut off her hand. Show her no pity.”

          • Jeff, I can’t reply directly to you so apologies for that, if you post a top-level comment you’ll get notified of replies.

            “You said as a Christian stoning an adulterer is an immoral act. But what about what the bible says about punishing adulterers? Are these verses from the NIV Bible moral acts?”

            I didn’t say it was a moral or an immoral act… I just said, on what basis do atheists say it’s an immoral (or moral) act?

            Those verses you quote from the Mosaic law were given to a specific people at a specific time for a specific purpose.

  5. The problem with secularism is that either it operates in a moral void or someone has to decide what is morally acceptable. This person or institution can then hold power over society. Take a look at regimes like North Korea, albeit an extreme example, and you see what happens when a moral framework is created by humans

  6. Dear Phil,
    Peter tells us that men turn us into merchandise using moulded/feigned words. A word is made pliable by removing its definition.
    Grace is one of the words people use as if it has no real definition. However, Paul tells us that grace teaches us that, denying worldly lusts and ungodliness, we ought to live righteously, soberly, and godly in this present world.
    With that definition in mind, it would be the consumate demonstration of grace to create Christian districts in every town where men can move and live out the commandments that came to us through the apostles from the Lord Jesus.
    This is the only way we can keep the command to do good to all men especially the household of faith. So, to me, the best we can do for those who are lost is to set up communities proximal to theirs that are, actually, embassies that operate according to the law of Christ like the heavenly Jerusalem does.
    When men see us perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord, they will glorify our Father in heaven.

  7. Pandemonium,
    Even if love is nothing but a chemical reaction, it is still in the class of things that drives a bullet out of a gun.
    A chemical reaction inside a context which, if activated, can change the world in miserable ways must be regulated.
    Gasoline engines run on chemical reactions. Put ’em in cars and reckless people can use ’em to make miserable changes in the world.
    Sexual energy can make a family into mighty tribe. It can, also, spread disease, vengefulness, desperation, children without guidance, and poverty.
    Because of the power to spread pain when chemical reactions are mishandled by people, penalties for mishandling them must be in place to make sure the pain caused by mishandling power does not increase to the point that society is rendered unsustainable.

      • Dear Phil,

        An interesting piece, but I’d like to point out a few misconceptions you appear to hold. First, you seem to conflate ‘secularism’ with ‘atheism’, these terms are not interchangable, the atheist doesn’t believe in God, the secularist doesn’t believe that controversial concepts of the Good ought to be brought into public debate. Therefore it is entirely possible to be a religious secularist. Indeed, secularism has its roots in Christianity. Of course, we can accept that people’s reasons will invariably stem from their concepts of the Good, their religious outlook, etc, but the secularist argues that they must provide persuasive reasons to behave in particular ways which are acceptable to most reasonable people rather than resorting to claiming this is wrong because it says so in my preferred religious text.

        This brings me to my second point, you argue that there is no morality without God, as an atheist I find this (commonplace) argument wrong-headed. There are many atheists who are deeply moral and who do not ground their morality in relativism (what is right is what my culture says is right), we ground our morality in the consequences that our actions have, whether they improve the lives of those around us or whether they are harmful. Therefore, stoning an adulterous woman to death is wrong because it is harmful both to the woman and the society of which she is part.

        Finally, you mention that you have an issue with the idea that secularism is neutral but it appears you have made the mistake of thinking that secularism must, therefore, be some kind of (to use Nagel’s term) ‘view from nowhere’, this is erroneous. Apart from the fact that an entirely neutral position is impossible, it is also important to note that there is a difference between neutrality in justification and neutrality in outcome; secularism is neutral in justification because it entails that no one world-view can be privileged ahead of others in the political sphere. However, this has the effect of pushing certain comprehensive doctrines out of public discourse because those who hold them seek to impose their beliefs on to society as a whole and this isn’t acceptable.

        As a secularist, I respect your right to hold Christian beliefs, but I firmly believe that you do not have a right to impose them upon me through the law or in the political sphere. Any reasons given here must be acceptable to all.

        • Hi

          Thanks for commenting and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. To respond to your points:

          In terms of conflating secularism and atheism, I know that ideologically speaking they are different, but I’m saying on a pragmatic level they’re the same thing. I think the problem that Christianity has with secularism is the same that it has with atheism: there is no neutral common ground on which to stand where we can objectively decide what its wrong and right. So for the purposes of this blog post I treated them equally.

          “we ground our morality in the consequences that our actions have, whether they improve the lives of those around us or whether they are harmful”

          Here you are assuming inherent categories of “improving” and “harmful”, i.e. I think you are begging the question. What in naturalism would lead you to believe that certain actions were good and others harmful? If we’re all ‘moist robots’ (to borrow Scott Adam’s phrase) what does it really matter?

          If we’re all robots as well I don’t think that would give you grounds for saying that we’re actually having a rational conversation, as ‘rational’ as a concept could not exist. But let’s not go down that road for the moment.

          Also, I think even if what you say is true, you cannot make an ought from an is. In other words, certain things may appear to us to be ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’ but there is nothing in the world to say you should do it. And lots of people don’t. Let’s say you see someone walking down the street, shouting names at people and generally being nasty. You say to him, “Hey, that’s immoral!” He says, “So?” What could you reply to him to make him obey your particular version of morality?

  8. ‘ “However you define love, if you stop loving Mrs Phil, you’re breaking your wedding vows”

    So you’re saying I get a choice in the matter? So love is more than just a chemical reaction?’

    I see now how much you twist and interpret simple sentences. Reasoning against that is like reasoning with a drunk. Therefore, I’m not going to. Instead, I shall ask you a question.

    How do you know God is good?

    • Hiya

      I’m really sorry to come across as twisting and interpreting simple sentences. My point was that if matter is all there is, there is no sense in which we can say we have ‘free will’. Ultimately everything we do is determined by cause and effect, neurons firing in response to events and our particular chemical make-up, going all the way back to the original (and highly controversial) creation of the universe.

      What you said about love implied that I have a choice in the matter. But what you said before is that love is a chemical reaction in our bodies / brains etc. So in what sense can you say that love is a choice, and say that love is a chemical reaction at the same time? I’m honestly not trying to twist your words 🙂

      The whole thing that I’m getting at is an answer to your question: how do I know that God is good? And how do I know that Christianity is true?

      There are a lot of reasons – I believe because I trust the Bible, I believe because in my own life that is my experience. I think one of the major reasons is that the Christian view of the world is the only one which has any explanatory power for me.

      We started off talking about morals. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that naturalism has given us morals. Why, then, do people do ‘bad’ things? Why is there evil in the world? why, indeed, do we sometimes fail to live up to our OWN moral standards? I’m sure you have days when you cause negative feelings in people and not positive ones. The reason I can say that confidently is because we’re human, and that’s what humans do.

      Why is that? I think this is where atheism has to scratch its head and talk about education, or living conditions, or the like. But if history has taught us anything it’s that anyone from any level of education and any level of society can do bad things. Look at the MPs expenses scandal, look at the riots last year – the first people convicted of looting were (if I remember rightly) a primary school teacher and a graphic designer: not the stereotypical ‘disaffected youngster’ which some people seemed to think it was. In other words, people do immoral stuff all the time, if the temptation is there and they think they can get away with it.

      As an atheist I don’t think anything you can say will really explain that. But the Christian explanation makes perfect sense of it: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). Mankind has a predilection to sin, a predilection to do evil. Which explains so much of what people actually do, including myself.

      I also think similarly with e.g. love. Why is there a concept of love out there which is more than just a feeling or chemical reaction? Because ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8, 16). Also, ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.’ (1 John 3:16). In other words, not only is God love, and has created us in his image, but he has given us a supreme example of what ‘love’ looks like.

      Also, even, rational thinking: how is it that we can call the natural processes going on in our brains ‘rational thinking’? I think it’s because there is a rational God, again, who has created us in his image.

      My contention is that atheists are happy to look at the world and demand rational, empirical, scientific evidence for everything in existence. But when it comes to actually living and experiencing life, they are more than happy to rest on a Christian foundation (even if not consciously). It seems that atheists often accuse Christians of having a worldview which is inconsistent makes little intellectual sense. What I’m trying to do is show that atheism has much more explaining to do.

  9. Hi Phill, apologies as I thought from what you said here below you were saying as a Christian you could say stoning is an immoral act:

    //”What I mean is, as an atheist you would have to conclude stoning someone in another country, according to their law, was morally permissible. There is no higher authority or universal standard to appeal to.

    As a Christian I can say that there is a moral standard which transcends societal and national boundaries, so I could say that it was an immoral act.”//

    The verses I gave from the bible command just as harsh acts as stoning to adulterers which could be argued as immoral, but I see you said those verses are no longer applied today.

    Cheers.

    • Ah, sorry Jeff, I couldn’t see exactly which post I was replying to. I did say that, and I do think stoning is an immoral act today, by the way.

      Thanks,
      Phill

  10. […] Given that I’m on a roll of offensiveness with my previous post on marriage, I thought I’d see if I can break a record of the number of people I can offend in one week by blogging about ethics. This term at college, we’ve started a course on ethics, and we spent the first week or two looking at how ethical systems are defined. While it’s still fresh in my memory, I’d like to think about how this might apply to ‘godless’ ethics, of which I have already touched on before. […]

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