bookmark_borderGary Habermas Shows Why the ‘Minimal Facts’ of Jesus’ Death Can’t Establish the Resurrection

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

Gary Habermas is a New Testament scholar and philosopher of religion at Liberty University who has devoted much of his career to defending a historical case for the resurrection of Jesus. For over 30 years now, Habermas has collected and analyzed scholarly materials published on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, distilling them down to a core set of trends. His work has been cited by numerous Christian apologists, perhaps most notably in The Case for Christ and the debates and writings of William Lane Craig.
Recently, Dr. Habermas appeared on the Unbelievable radio show and podcast in dialogue with James Crossley on whether the “minimal facts” surrounding Jesus’ death support the resurrection. Crossley is an agnostic New Testament scholar at the University of Sheffield and the author of a book called Jesus and the Chaos of History. The minimal facts are intended to be general points of agreement acceptable even to skeptics, and the two criteria Habermas gives are that they be facts with multiple lines of argument supporting them, and they share in a consensus made up of the “vast majority” of New Testament scholars.
Habermas identifies 6 minimal facts in the show, which are as follows:
1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. The disciples had experiences they believed to be of the risen Jesus.
3. Some among the disciples died for their belief.
4. James, a skeptic, was converted.
5. Paul, a skeptic and persecutor of Christians, was converted.
6. The earliness of the proclamation of the risen Jesus.
One immediately noteworthy thing missing from this list is the empty tomb. To his credit, Gary concedes that the empty tomb is not a minimal fact because of the many biblical historians who dispute it. As the host, Justin, remarks, this seems contrary to what some apologists, like William Lane Craig, have attempted to cull from Dr. Habermas’ work. In his book God? A Debate between a Christian and an Atheist, co-written with Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor Craig writes: “There are at least four facts about the fate of the historical Jesus that are widely accepted by New Testament historians today.” (p. 22, italics mine) Dr. Craig then goes on to articulate some of the reasons that “most scholars” accept the empty tomb.
Of course, it could be contended that this is just another way of saying that the majority of scholars favor the empty tomb as a historical fact. However, 1/3 to 1/4 of experts dissenting from a given viewpoint is not a negligible difference. Things get even sketchier when you look at the methodology behind Dr. Habermas’2005 study and discover how that figure is calculated. The survey is not a comprehensive one of thousands of New Testament scholars, it’s a survey of select literature published in German, French and English since 1975. While Gary’s work offers important insights, he also has not released his data, despite requests for it, and the closest we get to an idea of how many sources he’s surveyed is “more than 1400” in that 2005 study of his. Break that down over 30 years and that’s a ballpark average of 46.7 studies examined per year. It’s hardly a robust amount of data from which to assess the opinions of New Testament scholarship on the whole.
This methodological problem has implications beyond the empty tomb, too, for all of the six minimal facts mentioned above, as well as any other facts that could be conjured up on the same basis. So whether Dr. Habermas wants to single out 4 facts, 6 facts, 12 facts, or his exceedingly generous 21 facts, the fatal flaw remains present in all cases. Statistical analysis is only as good as your data and the method you use to analyze that data, and a study like the one published by Dr. Habermas in a religious studies journal would not pass in an introductory level Stats class (I say this from experience). Granted, it was probably not Gary’s intent to do a rigorous statistical analysis, but the limitations of this research need to be noted when attempts are made at extrapolating certain trends from it. For more on this specific concern, see Richard Carrier’s article, Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix.
But what real use is a list of even roughly calculated minimal facts when it requires another list of supplementary philosophical assumptions in order to support the resurrection? Near the end of the discussion on the podcast, Habermas explains that the way he sees of moving from the death of Jesus and the reports of his postmortem appearances to the involvement of the supernatural is by bringing in “worldview aspects.” This is, in fact, something he notes early on in the show. Among these assumptions are conclusions about the character and identity of Jesus, and the continuation of life after death, though I would argue there are additional assumptions about the existence and nature of god. In a chapter from The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, Robert Greg Cavin outlines still more hidden assumptions in the standard resurrection story of Jesus, which is not just revivification, but has to do with Jesus being raised as a living supernatural body sometime after his death.
At one point in the episode, Dr. Habermas refers to the resurrection allegedly supported by the minimal facts as “mundane,” saying that the gospels depict the postmortem appearances as if seeing a dead friend at the supermarket, acting as normal. Yet the point by Cavin above reveals this to be naive. A mundane resurrection in that sense would be as easily dismissed as any incident of a grieving loved one hallucinating their dearly departed. There is nothing especially impressive about it. The minimal facts are where many apologists say that the resurrection differs from other allegations of resuscitation or revivification of a corpse. If the transformation of the disciples is a stand out feature of the resurrection story, it would seem to play a part in discounting the mundane nature of events as Habermas portrays it. After all, we’re often told, people might see the dead after they’re gone, but they generally don’t go to be martyred for them. If this famous image of the disciples valiantly accepting death having seen the risen lord is as true as apologists claim it is, then the resurrection simply can’t be a mundane occurrence by their own reasoning.
Does this not also say something about the exceptional kind of assumptions that are required to make a minimal facts case for the resurrection function at all? We are not talking about spotting someone in the supermarket, alive and apparently well when they’d been dead the day before. We are talking about something much less “mundane,” and it’s the reason why the case for the resurrection has been turned into an argument for the existence of god by an apologist like William Lane Craig. There is an element of the supernatural, a “worldview aspect,” as Habermas called it. It isn’t simply that Jesus appeared again to his followers, like in a daydream, it’s that he miraculously rose from the dead, in a way that his followers took as a vindication of their ideas about his teachings and his identity. It meant, for them, that god not only existed, but that he was the god represented by Jesus, and Jesus was the sort of person god not only had the power to raise back to life, but wanted to raise, did raise, and had the power and will to raise into something more than just a reanimated earthly form.
The miracle of the resurrection is the saving grace of many Christians. To Paul it gave hope for a life beyond death and for a righting of the wrongs faced in this life. Entertaining the historicity of the resurrection without the supernatural and metaphysical assumptions behind it is practically unimaginable, not only for atheists and skeptics but for believing Christians, too. This brings us to the awkward position of either asking each other to buy into our philosophical presuppositions, or leaving things at a set of bare minimal facts that is by itself incapable of showing anything except what it already contains. The minimal facts are, one might say, minimally interesting. Even if we put aside the troubling concerns with the methodology that undergirds them, they aren’t what’s really doing the work in winning minds. Rather than minimizing background assumptions and asking us to buy into some ample facts, the apologetic case for the resurrection minimizes the facts and asks us to buy into some ample assumptions.

bookmark_borderDoes William Lane Craig Actually Believe in Evil?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

If it’s right for someone to permit some event, then his action is just right… On my view, the wrongness of an action is determined by its being forbidden by God. An action is morally permissible if it is not forbidden by God. Now obviously God didn’t forbid permitting the Haitian earthquake, so it has the right-making property of being permitted by God.

-William Lane Craig

The above quote is from a debate between Michael Tooley and William Lane Craig. In the debate, Professor Tooley focuses largely on the evidential problem of evil, which forms the context of this quote. Craig disputes Tooley’s ideas on balancing right-making and wrong-making properties to determine the overall morality of an action, instead declaring that whatever god allows is what’s right. There are no exceptions, he wants to emphasize, which he indicates by his bold remark about the 2010 Haitian earthquake being right simply because god permitted it to occur.

Let’s consider the implications of these statements. According to Craig, anything that has happened has been right for god to allow, since rightness is, by definition, whatever god allows. This doesn’t just mean the Haitian earthquake, but also includes the centuries of bloodshed known as the Crusades, the horrible tortures during the Inquisition, the terrible suffering of the Black Death, the slaughter of Native Americans, the ruthless regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot, the mass rapes committed during the Bosnian War, Hitler’s extermination of millions of Jews, the child abuse epidemic within the Catholic Church, and much, much more. It will not do to credit any of these to human will because, as Craig explains, whatever god permits is right. There is no wiggle room. To entertain that allowing these atrocities was anything but right for god would be to suggest that there are moral ambiguities or moral evils which god could commit, and Craig can’t have that.

This raises the question, then, about what evil actually means on Dr. Craig’s worldview. He says that wrong action is whatever is forbidden by god, but if god exists, he has historically allowed rape, murder, torture, child molestation, slavery, racism, sexism, cannibalism, genocide, injustice, and a litany of other ills. Is there anything that god could not or would not allow? It seems hard to imagine what he could be withholding from our world, so perhaps it’s not any of the acts themselves that he would forbid, but just a certain severity of them. God only allows the amount of evil that’s necessary for us to be free agents. Craig has claimed this in several debates.

However, it’s difficult to make a persuasive case for this when looking at some of the atrocities of history, particularly the ones I’ve already elaborated on. It also implies that god has some puzzling priorities. Is free will that worth it to god that he would allow six million Jews to die in Nazi Germany? Add to that the deaths from the other mentioned atrocities, as well as additional unmentioned ones, and the death toll climbs staggeringly high. There are over 774,000 words in the Bible. In order for god to give us free will, more than ten times that number of human beings have had to suffer and die in agonizingly cruel and reprehensible ways. Craig encourages us to trust our intuitions about the existence of objective moral values, yet we’re supposed to suppress them when they tell us that there is too much pain and evil in this world for a perfectly good god to be running things.

It could be argued that prioritizing free will over the prevention of suffering and evil is itself an evil. In fact, we recognize something like this when we prevent our children from doing things that would be otherwise harmful to themselves or to others. We stop them from exercising their free will, while we simultaneously teach them why what they want to do is wrong, so that some day when they mature, they will hopefully make better decisions. We don’t just talk the talk, we make them walk the walk, too, if we are responsible parents. Until they mature, they won’t appreciate the wide array of complex issues in the moral sphere. Now, if god exists, and if his grasp on morality is far more perfect than ours, why would he not be like the understanding parent who guides her children in more than just words, knowing that they don’t see what she sees?

When responding to the problem of evil in his debates, Dr. Craig very often raises the possibility of unknown reasons god might have for allowing the existence of some evils. The atheist, he challenges, must prove that god can have no such reasons in order to claim that there are unnecessary evils, and of course Craig doesn’t think this can be done, since we are all limited in our capacity for knowledge. It could very well be that there is nothing god would not allow, and that therefore there is no such thing as evil for god. In a sense, this looks like what Craig believes. He might say god could not contradict his own nature, but if his nature already allows for acts of rape, murder, torture, child abuse, etc., what reason is there to think that anything could contradict god’s nature?

William Lane Craig is a Divine Command Theorist. He believes, as he’s explained in numerous debates, that god’s nature is good, and that his commands flow from his nature. But, like I just stated, things like rape, murder, torture, child abuse, and so forth, are apparently consistent with god’s nature. After all, if god permits something, it must be right for god. To say these things are inconsistent with the divine nature would be to say that they would not be allowed by god. However, they certainly have happened in our history and continue to happen. So now the troubling question. If god’s nature is consistent with these heinous acts – if he has permitted them to take place – why would we think he might not command us to commit any of them? If Dr. Craig is right about god only allowing the minimal amount of evil for free will to exist, and having hidden reasons for allowing apparently unnecessary evils, and historically having permitted only that which is right for him to permit, then what stands in the way of god commanding us to commit acts of rape, murder, or child abuse, if they will fulfill some godly purpose?

Craig is known for sometimes quoting Dostoevsky – “without god, everything is permitted” (this quote is not exactly accurate, though). But here we start to see that it’s actually Dr. Craig’s worldview that seems to permit everything. In fact, even the apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 10:23 – “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable” (NAS). Paul encouraged the believers of his day to eat meat sacrificed to idols, because they knew idols were just wood and stone. But if eating the meat might cause a fellow believer to stumble, Paul said, you should not do it. In other words, if your conscience is clear before god, everything is permitted… just don’t lead others into temptation. Paul’s opinion on circumcision is very similar; fine for some, bad for others.

Another quote Craig is well known for presenting in debates is from Michael Ruse. Without god, “ethics is illusory,” Bill cries emphatically to his opponents. On th
e contrary, though, it would seem that with all the unbelievably hurtful and immoral acts god has permitted down the course of history, ethics is inescapably illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview. God’s nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil, and his commands, flowing from that nature, come with no guarantee of being any different. If we’re to believe the traditional account of the fall of Lucifer, god even allowed the emergence and continued existence of Satan, the embodiment of pure evil. With so ambiguous a nature, there is literally no reason to think god would never command any act that we would normally regard as evil. 

This is why William Lane Craig’s excuses fail when he attempts to distinguish between what theists believe about god’s nature being good and how Divine Command Theory is often understood as positing that good is whatever god commands. On either account, goodness has no normative force, no distinctive essence. God will be just as good to allow someone to feed the starving emaciated children of Haiti as he will be to allow the Duvaliers and others to exterminate them in the cruelest ways. God will be just as good to command the feeding of five thousand as he will be to command the genocide of entire peoples (Deut. 2:34, Joshua 6:21, 1 Samuel 15:2-3). On Craig’s view, there is to be no real distinction between these extremes that the overwhelming majority of us would recognize in clear terms of right and wrong. So long as god has prescribed or permitted them, none of it should be called evil. 

Only what god forbids is wrong. But when he forbids the same acts he has otherwise allowed, we see the uselessness of such a framework. Morality is reduced to a matter of “do as I say, not as I do”. As previously stated, even if we suppose god has hidden reasons for commanding what he does, the fact that his nature is consistent with allowing every conceivable evil makes it fairly dubious that all those reasons are justifying reasons. Particularly in the case of animal suffering, there seems to be an evil that is without justification. Apologists often assert that god allows human suffering to bring us closer to him, but animals do not participate in relationships with god, according to Christian doctrine. Their suffering, then, would seem to be unnecessary.

There is something that appears insufficient to me about this distinction between what god allows and forbids, too. Philosophers and ethicists test the strength of their moral theories by holding them up to our moral experience and moral intuitions. I don’t think any of us can argue that we perceive certain actions as being right and certain actions as being wrong. There are grey areas, to be sure, but we can also distinguish between many different acts and form judgments accordingly. In other words, good moral theories have some capability to predict or elaborate what actions will be right or wrong in hypothetical scenarios. Dr. Craig’s Divine Command Theory lacks this capability, in my opinion. It cannot judge an action even when all of its consequences and causes are taken into account. The only time it will be able to make a judgment is when that additional information exists: does god will the action or does he forbid it? Scripture can be no help, since god has willed and forbidden murder at various times, for example, and – to bring things back around to where we started – history also records the terrible things god has permitted.

In conclusion, I’m not convinced that William Lane Craig actually believes in evil, despite his insistence that he does. At best, it must be a pale vestige of what he demands of the atheist – a bizarre sort of wrongness that rests on the nature of a morally ambiguous being that has historically contradicted our most basic moral intuitions. What can it mean to call rape evil under Craig’s view of morality? It can’t mean that god’s nature is inconsistent with rape, because he has allowed it for centuries, and god cannot permit what is wrong. It can’t mean that god disapproves of rape, because it is consistent with his nature. The most it can apparently mean is “god says no to rape in this instance”. Why this instance? Why say no at all? Perhaps he has some hidden reason. Or perhaps the hidden truth is that ethics is illusory on Dr. Craig’s worldview.

bookmark_borderCraig, Koons, and Divine Command Theory

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

In a recent episode of the Reasonable Faith podcast, William Lane Craig offers his thoughts on a 2012 paper by Jeremy Koons, Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? Koons’ paper is another in a growing number of critiques aimed at the divine command meta-ethics advocated by figures like Craig, Robert Adams, and William Alston. Though a simple sort of divine command theory (DCT) received a devastating blow centuries ago from the famous Euthyphro dilemma put forward in Plato, modern defenders have adapted the DCT to resist the challenge presented by the dilemma. If good actions are merely those in accordance with god’s commands, then goodness is arbitrary, since god could command anything and it would be good. However, Alston and others who adopt a modified DCT argue against this arbitrariness on the basis of the perfectly good nature of god. God could no more command infanticide, they say, than he could make a rock too heavy for himself to lift, because it would be in contradiction to his nature as god.
Does this move work? Craig believes it exposes the Euthyphro as a false dilemma, presenting a third option that is not identical to the other two options. Yet adding a third possibility to a dilemma does not necessarily mean the challenge underlying it is broken. It could rather indicate that we actually face a trilemma, which could be just as problematic as the original dilemma. This, I think, is where Professor Koon’s paper is of real value. The question behind it is whether or not this move of DCT works any better than the two options typically posed by the Euthyphro. Craig firmly contends that it is better, but his arguments don’t seem to warrant such conviction.
One of Craig’s main criticisms is that Koons sets up a new dilemma that is just as flawed as the original. He says:
What he will ask now is: are these properties like loving-kindness, impartiality, generosity good because God possesses them or does God possess them because they are good? He imagines this as a dilemma. It seems to me there is no dilemma there at all. The divine command theorist, and Alston in particular, is very clear. These properties are good because God possesses them.
No doubt, this is what theological non-voluntarists like Craig, Adams, and Alston want to assert. But in his paper, Koons provides a puzzling quote from Alston that almost seems to suggest the opposite:
Note that on this view we are not debarred from saying what is supremely good about God. God is not good, qua bare particular or undifferentiated thisness. God is good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on.
Craig seems to interpret the attention Koons gives to this quote as an accusation of contradiction. I don’t think is what Koons is getting at, though, especially since he clarifies shortly thereafter that “Alston’s particularism requires that God’s goodness be logically prior to the goodness of the moral virtues. And we will see that this view is incoherent”. It looks more like Koons is spelling out where he intends to direct his critique, and he directs it precisely where it should be directed, according to Craig.
All the same, Craig tries to resolve the apparent conflict by reference to the distinction Koons draws between explanations-why and explanations-what. Koons uses the contra-factual example of how even if the electron’s negative charge were a brute fact that could not be further explained, it would still be possible to explain what a negative charge is. Thus, explanations-why may run out, but it need not mean there can be no explanation-what. Coming off of this distinction, Craig attempts to argue that this is exactly what divine command theorists like Alston are saying:

When you get to God you’ve reached the metaphysical and moral ultimate, the explanatory stopping point. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explain what goodness is or wherein the goodness of God consists. As Alston says, you can still explain to people that God is loving, kind, merciful, generous, and so forth.

You can keep asking why the good is good, but eventually a stopping point must be reached, for theists and atheists alike. But, says Bill, you can continue to talk about what the good is in relation to the characteristics of god. However, this is where Professor Koons really has a bone to pick with DCT.
Koons observes that when the divine command theorist poses this explanation-what – that god is, per Alston, “good by virtue of being loving, just, merciful and so on” – this reverses the order of explanation employed by defenders of DCT that gets them to knowledge of the goodness of god. Usually, one thinks of god’s characteristics to derive the conclusion that he is the supreme good. It’s because god is loving, just, merciful, and so on that he is perfectly good. Proponents of DCT argue the opposite, that we start by intuiting that god just is all-good, and then derive the goodness of his characteristics from there. The problem with this is that it leaves astoundingly little content to the goodness of god. How do we conclude that god is good before knowing anything about who he is?Craig proceeds to call for a necessary distinction between moral semantics and moral ontology. DCT, he says, is not a semantic theory or a theory of the meaning of ethical sentences, but is rather about the ontological grounding of moral values. Koons has made a category mistake, Bill asserts, because insisting on the meaninglessness or unintelligibility of the good is not a successful way to refute a theory concerned with moral ontology.
It’s well known that Robert Adams once took DCT to be a theory of meaning, but the sharp divide Craig often wishes to draw between moral semantics and moral ontology is something to which not all ethicists commit. Particularly when it comes to theistic meta-ethics, it seems that semantics and ontology are more bound up than modern defenders of DCT will admit. In his 2004 paper, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command Metaethics, Stephen Maitzen objects strongly to this sharp distinction on both religious tradition and logical grounds:
According to a tradition whose philosophical expression dates at least to Anselm, God exists of metaphysical necessity, i.e., in all possible worlds, and he possesses his intrinsic properties not accidentally but essentially. Moreover, even atheists have acknowledged the good rea­sons for thinking that if God exists then he exists (and possesses the same intrinsic properties) in all possible worlds; indeed, some atheists, such as J.N. Findlay, base their alleged disproofs of God’s existence on the plausible assumption that God exists necessarily if he exists at all. If these Ansel­mian assumptions are correct, then all of the following sentences have the same truth-conditions:(S1) ‘God exists.’
(S2) ‘God is omniscient.’
(S3) ‘God is omnipotent.’
(S4) ‘God is morally good. ‘
Since S4 is an ethical sentence, an attribution of a moral property to an ob ject, it belongs to the domain of sentences DCM [Divine Command Metaethics] needs to explain. If DCM gives only the truth-conditions, and not also the meaning, of S4, then it tells us nothing about S4 that is not just as true of the other three, presumably non-ethical, sentences. What is worse, if DCM gives only the truth-condi­tions of S4, then some entirely non-metaethical theory – a theory, say, giving the truth-conditions for attributions of omniscience – would tell us all that DCM tells us about that ethical sentence, in which case it is hard to see what would make DCM a metaethical theory, at least with respect to the moral attributes of God. So DCM had better concern not just the truth-conditions of ethical sentences but also their meaning.
 Here we see more of the vacuousness of god’s goodness under DCT. As Koons seems to be driving at, Maitzen argues that divine command meta-ethics can only be trivial in what it accomplishes. If we begin by intuiting the goodness of god, establishing the goodness of any other characteristics of god from that basis looks bleak indeed. The goodness of god would not necessarily mean all god’s attributes are good-making. Is immateriality good because god has it? What about timelessness? Omniscience? These attributes seem non-moral, yet it doesn’t appear that one has any means for distinguishing between them and the allegedly good-making attributes of god. On DCT, we just are not able to talk sensibly of the good-making properties of god, or of how those properties ground moral values.
To an extent, Craig wants to bite the bullet here. Goodness, he explains in the podcast, “is one of these primitives that really ultimately can’t be defined.” This is addressed by Koons in his paper, though, when he notes that this view, which comes from G.E. Moore, “merely meant that one could not analytically reduce the Good to other non-normative or non-moral concepts.” The good is not absolutely inexplicable, but it cannot be neatly reduced in terms of definition to a non-moral proposition. So, the question remains of how effectively Craig, Alston, and Adams have accounted for the goodness of god in their theory, and whether their account is better than any of the competing accounts.It’s interesting to note how tempting it seems to be for theists to explain the goodness of god in light of god’s particular characteristics. Near the end of the podcast, Craig identifies why he thinks god is a plausible explanatory ultimate for a moral theory. God, he says, is “worthy of worship.” But why is this anymore indicative of god’s perfect goodness than is his immaterial nature, his omnipresence, etc? It would not be far-fetched for one to make the case that worship has a moral component to it, let alone what it means to be worthy of worship. So is it perhaps that Craig and Alston are intuiting the goodness of god from his good-making properties, their denials notwithstanding? It certainly looks like a more sensible way of conceiving of the goodness of god than what modern DCT advocates claim to be doing. The alternative essentially seems to rest entirely on the mere assertion of belief that god is good. Who would fault anyone for needing more than that to devote as intimate an act as worship to another being?
Craig, The Euthyphro Dilemma Once Again, (Jan 4, 2015).
Koons, Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro? European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 4/1 (Spring 2012), pp. 177-195.
Maitzen, A Semantic Attack on Divine-Command MetaethicsSophia Vol. 43, No. 2 (Oct 2004).


bookmark_borderKai Nielsen on Natural Law and Divine Command Theory

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

It’s common to hear theists make the claim that there cannot be a moral law without a moral law-giver. C.S. Lewis, Ravi Zacharias, and several other prominent defenders of the Christian faith have given voice to this position in their writings and lectures. The association of religion with morality goes back a long ways in history, at least as far as Plato, but the most notable articulator of it in Christian thought is perhaps Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century friar and theologian. Aquinas’ view that morality must be grounded in god has been influential in both Catholic and Protestant circles and is reflected in two traditions known as natural law theory and divine command theory.The Canadian philosopher Kai Nielsen critiques both traditions in an essay featured in his book Atheism & Philosophy. On natural law theory – the view that we come to an understanding of the good through reason, in accordance with the “eternal law” of god – Professor Nielsen raises four main objections.
1. Natural law suffers from the same problems of justification as other moral theories. Nielsen writes:
For such a certain knowledge of good and evil, we require moral principles that can be seen to be self-evident to us or natural moral laws of whose truths we can be certain. But since natural moral laws are only self-evident in themselves (assuming we know what that means) and since it is God’s reason and not man’s that is the source of the moral law, we poor mortals can have no rational certitude that the precepts claimed to be natural laws are really natural laws. [p. 201]
2. Natural law begs the question with regard to what human beings are made for, or what they are in their essential nature – that is, creations of a god. Nielsen notes that this is a background assumption for which science has offered no support. Even if some day we discover that there are, in fact, certain characteristics held in common by all human beings, it does not follow that these must be in place for us to be properly called humans.
3. Proponents of natural law theory contend that conflicts and confusions on what things are good stem from a corruption of our natural inclinations due to sin or to ‘dark habits’. As Nielsen points out, though, we can rightly wonder what criteria are used to determine when a habit is dark or sinful. “What actually happens,” he observes, “is that those moral beliefs that are incompatible with Catholic doctrine, and as a result are called corrupt and sinful, are simply arbitrarily labeled as ‘unnatural’ and ‘abnormal.'” This shifts the focus from natural law conceptions to some other criteria allegedly rejected by natural law theorists, such as our own personal assessments of human nature or a statistical judgment of what is humanly ‘natural’, bringing us again to the question of what makes any of our natural inclinations right versus corrupt.
4. Natural law fallaciously attempts to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ Again, from Nielsen:

To discover what our natural inclinations are is simply to discover a fact about ourselves; to discover what purposes we have is simply to discover another fact about ourselves, but that we ought to have these inclinations or purposes or that it is desirable that we have them does not follow from statements asserting that people have such and such inclinations or purposes. These statements can very well be true but no moral or normative conclusions follow from them.

Natural law is often invoked in defense of Catholic doctrines, particularly when it comes to the Church’s positions on homosexuality and birth control. But what of the Protestant alternative? Unsurprisingly, Nielsen doesn’t think divine command theory – the view that good is what god commands, as god is himself the highest good – fares any better.

…a radically Reformationist ethic, divorcing itself from natural moral law conceptions, breaks down because something’s being commanded cannot eo ipso make something good. Jews and Christians think it can because they take God to be good and to be a being who always wills what is good. ‘God is good’ no doubt has the status of a tautology in Christian thought, but if so ‘God is good’ still is not a statement of identity and we must first understand what ‘good’ means (including what criteria it has) before we can properly use ‘God is good’ and ‘God is Perfectly Good.’

To treat the statement ‘god is good’ as an expression of identity would be to commit what G.E. Moore labeled the naturalistic fallacy. While this fallacy is often tossed about in criticisms of naturalistic ethics, there seems to be disappointingly little attention paid to the chapter on “Metaphysical Ethics” in the Principia Ethica, where Moore explains how it also applies to ethics founded on metaphysical truths, i.e. the existence of a god. Some theistic thinkers have taken this problem into account and argue that though good and god are not technically synonymous, there is nonetheless some relation between the two.
As Nielsen points out, however, this still leaves us without an understanding of what ‘good’ means. Even in tautological statements like ‘Wives are women’ and ‘Triangles are three-sided’, we know what women are and we know what it means to be three-sided. If ‘god is good’ is not an expression of identity, if it is not guilty of the naturalistic fallacy, then how are we to understand, much less believe, what is being asserted when we don’t understand what ‘good’ means? Nielsen puts it forcefully: “Morality does not presuppose religion; religion presupposes morality.”


bookmark_borderIt Takes More Faith to Be an Atheist Than to Believe in God?

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Taylor Carr republished on The Secular Outpost with permission. The original post may be found on his blog, The Godless Skeptic.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock somewhere, you’ve probably heard someone, somewhere, say at some point: “I think it takes more faith to be an atheist than to believe in god.” Maybe you’ve even said it yourself. I’ve seen this amusing little remark bandied about in too many contexts to recount here, but most recently it’s been said to me on my last YouTube video, and said in person by my girlfriend’s sister. What does it mean?There’s an image that’s drifted around the internet for quite some time now that seems to sum up exactly what people intend when they say that it takes more faith to disbelieve than it does to believe. It describes atheism as, “The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.” This is not just a gross over-simplification of the views of many atheists, it’s also riddled with strawman fallacies and confuses abiogenesis with atheism. One can easily, without inconsistency, reject the idea of a god and yet assent to the fact that we don’t know how everything came into being. Sometimes having no explanation is indeed better than clinging to a wrong one.
The general point behind the ‘more-faith-to-be-an-atheist’ remark is that atheists believe more fantastical things on less evidence than theists do; we make more and bigger assumptions. Is this true, though? To really address the issue, one would have to unpack the particular assumptions each believer thinks atheists rely upon, but we’ve already seen some indication that not all of these assumptions are fairly derived from the atheist position. Atheists of the ancient world knew nothing of the Big Bang or evolution by natural selection, yet still counted themselves non-believers for other reasons like suffering, divine hiddenness, and the various objections to the so-called arguments for god. By itself, atheism says nothing about the origin of the universe, the nature of morality, and so forth. To be an atheist is simply to not believe in gods.
Now, you might ask, ‘If you don’t know how the universe began, why are you an atheist instead of an agnostic?’ It seems to me that there is a long-running misunderstanding about these two terms. A theist is one who believes god exists. An agnostic is one who doesn’t know if god exists. An atheist is one who does not believe god exists. Here the agnostic might seem like a middle ground, but it becomes clear that this is not the case when we recognize the difference between belief and knowledge. For centuries, philosophers have understood knowledge as justified true belief, which would make knowledge a very special kind of belief. Although there are some problems with the justified true belief definition, they do not impact this distinction between knowledge and belief. You can believe something and not be justified in believing it, and you can also believe something which is not actually true. Thus, agnostic is more like a subset of theism and atheism, where an agnostic theist is someone who doesn’t know if god exists, but believes anyway, and an agnostic atheist is someone who doesn’t know if god exists, and so does not believe. Hence, I’d technically call myself an agnostic atheist.
‘But,’ you say, ‘god explains how the universe began. It takes less faith to believe that then it does to believe we came from nothing without a god.’ Recall what has just been said about belief and knowledge, though. I don’t know how the universe came about, but I do believe the god explanation is not a good explanation, largely because the concept of god has its own share of philosophical challenges and problems. This is no more an inconsistency than it is to believe in god even when you don’t know for sure if he exists. This is where the ‘more-faith-to-be-an-atheist’ charge is really stretched thin to the point of breaking, too.
Theists may see god, the Big Bang, moral values, and similar things as inextricably bound together, but these are assumptions which the atheist has no reason to grant. History has seen plenty of gods that are not creators or moral law-givers, so why assume that things like origins and moral values are even in the same ball park with theism and atheism? I make no assumptions about how the universe began, or about the nature of morality, nor do I need to in order to consistently be an atheist. My atheism is not directed at some abstract cause of the cosmos, or some vague ground of moral value; it’s directed at the concept of god, which is so much more, and has been understood as much more by many theists throughout the centuries. Who has faith in just a cause of the cosmos, or just the ground of morality?
The charge that atheism takes more faith than theism rests on a fallacy of equivocation. The faith that the Christian has in his god – faith that impels him to repent, to forgive, to love, to praise, to worship – is by no means the same as the faith that atheists are accused of having with respect to a creatorless origin, eternal matter, life from non-life, or moral value. If faith is belief based on evidence, then saying the atheist has more of it should mean the atheist has more evidence! If faith is belief in spite of evidence, is that really all that Christians mean when they say their faith gives them strength – believing in spite of the evidence gives you strength? If faith by itself is a virtue, then those who decry atheism for requiring too much faith are quite confused. If faith is only virtuous insofar as it is focused in the right direction (and god presumably lies at the end of that direction), then the equivocation is made readily apparent.
Individual atheists may have faith in many things. A scientist may take it on faith that our universe is just one among many. A philosopher may take it on faith that Leibniz’s theory of the monads accurately describes the fundamental constitution of the universe. But in what sense are these uses of “faith” at all like the theistic use of faith? I would say there is very little, if any, commonality. Multiverses and monads (according to some conceptions) would not be a new kind of thing to our experience in the way that god is a new kind of thing, existing eternally and outside of our space-time universe. If all our beliefs rest on faith, if everything is faith, as Greg Boyd suggested in a recent episode of the Unbelievable podcast, we reduce the religious concept of faith to a mere act of inference, and we muddle the concept of inference with a term that defies clarity and fecundity. This I take to be a lose-lose scenario.
On the one hand it’s tempting to respond to the more-faith-to-be-an-atheist remark with a ‘who cares’. Atheism is a claim about belief in god(s), not the beginning of the cosmos, the source of moral value, or anything else, and so the accusation of faith playing a part in other areas seems inconsequential and hardly relevant. Just because the theist endows his god with responsibility for such things does not mean they arede facto the domain of deity. On the other hand, it’s not difficult to tell that there are often ulterior motives behind the remark. It is sometimes said with a smug and mocking tone, suggesting hypocrisy and short-sightedness on the side of the non-theist. Any concession to faith, even noting the equivocation, sounds like an admission of guilt to many who simply want to pigeon-hole others and confirm their own biases.
It takes no faith to doubt the invisible, to question the intangible, to challenge the ineffable. I’m not even sure how one could begin to make sense of an argument aiming to show something so backwards. As I see it, these debates over who is burdened with the most faith in their worldview are as fruitless and conceited as debates over who is the more rational human being. If we can manage to get past such petty and unhelpful gesturing, we will find it easier to understand one another, to consider evidence and arguments in a less partial manner, and to learn a greater appreciation for our world as the complex, nuanced, and multi-layered world that it is. And this is the real sin of the more-faith-to-be-an-atheist remark: it masks its lack of substance by perpetuating the age-old us vs. them mindset. As beckoning as that may seem to our reptile brains, isn’t it about time we start to recognize that it’s only us?