Monday, January 7, 2013

Pathetic Little Straw Man

I find it interesting to see what people share on Facebook when it comes to hostility towards Christianity.  It's not just that their arguments against Christianity lack any semblance of reason and logic.  It's also the case that the Christianity they attack has very little to do with what Christianity teaches.  I don't know if it merely reflects their ignorance or whether it indicates a dishonest "quote mining" in order to make Christianity look bad, but either way, one does not refute Christianity through an uninformed misrepresentation of what it teaches.

The current piece of bad reasoning running around Facebook is a quote from a blogger named Amanda Marcotte which a Facebook group has been sharing:

Atheist are routinely asked how people will know not to rape and murder without religion telling them not to do it, especially a religion that backs up the orders with threats of hell. Believers, listen to me carefully when I say this: When you use this argument, you terrify atheists. We hear you saying that the only thing standing between you and Ted Bundy is a flimsy belief in a supernatural being made up by pre-literate people trying to figure out where the rain came from. This is not very reassuring if you’re trying to argue from a position of moral superiority.

What we see here is a straw man argument.  This is not what Christianity argues.  What Christian philosophers have said is that with no moral absolutes, anything is permissible (I've dealt with the illogic of the claim that there are no moral absolutes in an earlier article).  It then challenges the person who rejects the fact that values come from a source above us to explain how moral norms can be binding.

Morality can come from one of the following:

  1. Something above the human level (such as God and Natural Law)
  2. Something at the human level (such as society)
  3. Something below the human level (such as instinct)

The problem is, if morality does not come from something above us, it really cannot bind.  If morality comes from society, then it is people who follow what values society holds that are good and those who oppose societal values are bad.  This means that in a society which embraces segregation, Bull Connor was a moral person and Martin Luther King Jr. was an immoral person.  If we get our values from society, then to condemn the values of another society merely becomes a case of "pushing your values on others."

But the opposite is true.  We recognize that often it is the moral person who challenges the values of society, and that some societies behave in an immoral manner.  We could not condemn the values of the Third Reich or apartheid era South Africa unless moral values come from outside society.

Likewise that it comes from instinct does not work.  Sometimes morality tells us to do something which goes against the instinct, such as dying rather than to do what one thinks is wrong.  Instinct guides us towards satisfying physical needs, but sometimes we need to suppress instincts for a greater good, for example suppressing one's survival instinct by putting oneself at risk to save another.

So the point that Ms. Marcotte misrepresents is actually the demand to justify the source of morality if one denies the existence of God.  Since neither instinct nor society can explain binding moral values, if one wants to claim binding moral values and deny the existence of God such a person has to give an explanation for something above the human level which can demand we follow these moral values.

Informed Christians don't deny that atheists can have proper moral values.  The existence of an atheist who seeks to do what is right is no challenge to Christian belief.  What the Christian notes is the atheist is being foolish in insisting on those moral norms they personally follow while ignoring those they disagree with instead of investigating why these norms are binding to begin with.

The atheist who refuses to consider a source above humanity in considering moral obligations is being as reasonable as a person who refuses to consider matter as a factor in the study of physics.

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