May 10, 2007

Presuppositional Kung Fu

The late presuppositional apologist Greg Bahnsen used to teach that the best way to handle an attack was not to dodge the bullets, but to disarm the attackers. Applying this to dialog and debate with non-Christians, this meant that one was to force the opponent to live consistently with his own worldview and not allow him to reach beyond it for concepts to justify his attacks and objections — to remove the weapons to which he is not rationally entitled.

In the case of atheism, these weapons would include such things as fixed laws of logic, objective morality, timeless values, human dignity, and freewill. In order to level certain objections, an unbeliever is generally dependent upon ideas such as these to make sense of his objection. For this reason, the objection itself is secondary to the very assumptions upon which it depends, and it is first incumbent upon the objector to make sense of those assumptions before his case can be considered coherent.

I recently ran across a blog with a community of atheist contributors who spent much energy in voicing their opinions on certain moral issues, particularly things which they viewed as "evil" and "immoral" as practiced by Christians or as documented in the Bible. One post particularly caught my attention, since it expressed the strong moral conviction that slavery is wrong and that the Bible, in (allegedly) advocating the practice, is to be considered immoral by association.

The natural instinct of many Christians (and a couple of responders fell in to this) is to exegete and clarify the texts, or to launch in to an explanation of God's overall purposes for certain biblical events. But Bahnsen's advice would be to eschew the moral complaint and go straight after the moral presuppositions, one of which is that there is such a thing as objective morality by which we might judge slavery wrong or consider events in Scripture as immoral.

Here is my attempt to answer this atheist using Bahnsen's recommended approach. His replies are offset in blockquotes.


Slavery is “obviously evil” and “definitely wrong.” The Bible is “notoriously immoral.”

These kinds of statements imply a belief in objective morality, i.e., that something like slavery is wrong for all time and in all cultures. Is there a moral standard that stands outside of time and place being appealed to here, or is this simply a matter of personal or cultural preference?

Well, I think some things like slavery are wrong no matter where or when they take place, so, according to your definition, I do have objective moral standards. They just happen to be inspired by reason and compassion, not religion.

Others have historically and geographically used their “reason” to come to other conclusions than you in this and many other matters. And they place their compassions elsewhere or have it not at all. Reason and compassion do no work without guiding principles and objectives. You may as well tell me you get to El Dorado “by horse.”

What are these transcendent principals of morality to which you appeal to say that all others are simply mistaken, and how is it that you have managed to discover them where many have failed? And I wonder what other moral truths are hidden within the treasury that you are robbing to pay this debt.

I am not trumpeting myself as some kind of master philosopher or guru, or saying that I have cornered the market on virtue. If this is the impression I have given, I sincerely apologize. I am convinced, however, that slavery has always been an affront to the timeless values of human dignity and freedom. If you wish a more detailed explanation of my reasoning in this or other issues, read my other posts, and then, by all means, please ask.

I’m not reading anything in to your comments here and in other posts (and the comments of the other non-theists here) other than that there is a very strong implication of moral objectivism being exercised. All your judgments, social positions, and moral outrages depend upon some ethical grounding. You don’t have to be a master philosopher to identify where this originates in your own case.

There either is an objective moral law that stands outside of time and culture, or morality is merely a product of the human mind. You seem to be inclined toward the former, in practice, though I’m sure you can see how problematic that is for atheism. On the other hand, grounding morality upon human convention removes the fixed nature of all moral positions. Humans change, cultures change, preferences change, and individuals are unique. Making morality a human invention boils down to a matter of personal and cultural “preference.” You may think that we are making progress in fine-tuning our cultural conventions (by way of “reason”), but that is merely another admission that there are true and right objective standards toward which we can make progress.

I know that certain moral positions are just so obvious to you that it seems academic to justify them, but the very question is why we should have these incorrigible moral intuitions, where they come from, and why we “ought” to bow to them. Many atheistic philosophers, in fact, reject moral objectivism because they understand the problems I raise here. Most people, however, are blind to this issue, borrow moral capital from the theistic worldview, and merrily condemn injustices and champion their moral causes. In practice, they are just as dogmatic as any religionist that they condemn for holding to moral values with which they disagree.

And you have similar problems with the ideas of “timeless values,” “human dignity,” and “freedom” from a purely materialistic perspective. Justifying such notions has been the confounding project of atheistic philosophy for many centuries, and it is why, intellectually bankrupted by the attempt, many have surrendered in this age to a postmodern relativism. You seem not yet to have arrived there, but I believe that it is the ultimate, rational conclusion of atheism, even though it is not a livable position.

For the record, I do assert that morality is a human invention and that it can and has changed over time, often for the better. The Bible describes, for example, how it was morally acceptable at one time to put to death homosexuals, adulterers, blasphemers, fortune tellers, women who were not virgins on their wedding day, and those who worked on the Sabbath. Any sane person living in the 21st century is horrified by such outright brutality and injustice. So how do many Christians reconcile this with their concept of a loving and righteous god who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow? They dismiss it by saying those rules no longer apply, that Jesus and the New Testament somehow nullify all that nasty business in the Old. It was a different time, a different place. Yet this is exactly the kind of relativism that you and many other believers seem to find so problematic when it comes to secular philosophies.

I am perfectly aware that morality, as any other human endeavor, is imperfect, filled with personal and cultural biases and preferences. This doesn’t make it any less profound or legitimate than the so-called objective standards promoted by religious prophets and sacred texts; in fact, I think that recognizing the fact that morality is to some degree fluid and subject to improvement has led to many of the rights and standards we value so highly today.

You admit that morality is a “human invention,” but you say that it can change for the “better,” is subject to “improvement,” and can be “imperfect.” Better and improved and less than perfect according to what standard? You cannot move toward, or run afoul of, a position unless that position first exists to be approached.

If morality is just a human invention, then morality is just whatever happens to be defined by the humans in any given place and time. There would be no higher morality than that, only different morality. You could only say that your 21st Century Western morality is better out of a sense of chronological snobbery.

To say that the Hebrews, Romans, or Huns had not arrived at the “rights and standards we value” is to say one of two things: Either it says that each living individual or culture is the standard by which history is measured, which means that you shall be found wanting by your descendents even if they are little barbarians; or it is to say that at the time of these societies there was a fixed standard that lay wholly outside of humanity — indeed, outside of time — to which these persons failed to measure up.

You are faced with either affirming a transcendent moral principle, thus negating pure materialism, or you must admit that your own moral standards and sensibilities distill to arbitrary ethical preferences that compete with the preferences of other cultural groups and are only different, not better in any real sense. Your moral intuitions that have you horrified by certain behaviors are either shadows of a true divine Form (to use Plato’s model), or they are nothing more than fashionable moral reactions (like my wife’s “horror” at seeing white shoes after Labor Day). The fact that you feel so strongly about your moral positions and think of them as being so “sane” and modern does absolutely no philosophical work toward raising them above mere subjectivism.

That being said, it is difficult to know how to take any of your moral assessments of the Bible or any other issue. If you are merely emoting, then there is nothing further to discuss unless I choose to volley with my own feelings. But to unpack the theological issues that you raise against the Bible would require us to first share some common ground of understanding regarding morality, not to mention the concept of a God who has dominion over, and purposes for, humanity. Such things are complex and nuanced (would you expect a God to be otherwise?), and so long as one has a misty and minimalistic view of ethics and God’s sovereignty then one will have no comprehension or sympathy for anything I have to say.

In any case, I would certainly not concede a relativistic view of God’s moral will, as you have either received or perceived from other Christians willing to entertain your complaints. Perhaps I can hint at the common limitations of thinking in this area by pointing out that we have different expectations for our children vs. other people’s children, our children at school vs. at home, and our children as youths vs. as adults, even while our overall values and objectives remain constant.


The dialog continues, but as you might expect, this person is not moved by the argument; as he essentially refuses to recognize my point, or comment further upon it, and instead merely takes offense that I consider him too "morally and intellectually deficient" to respond to. He simply wants to sit in my tree and complain about my apples without need of acknowledgement that he must trespass to do so.

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At 5/10/2007 8:01 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Hmm, perhaps you should invite this blogger here to defend their view. I think your position is based on a false dichotomy. We have been round this block before of course. Fancy another lap?

At 5/11/2007 1:40 PM, Blogger Vman said...

thank you for the comments, unfortunately, I've taken the easy way out and given up intellectual discussion for vaguely good satire, in other words, my soap box is currently retired, emerging occasionally for AP Lang essays and I'm on the edge of becoming a new atheist and am currently doing a research paper on it, Richard Dawkins is very inspiring. and your passion and intelligence are evident now more than ever, way to go.

At 5/11/2007 5:52 PM, Blogger SLW said...

I'd like to see Mr. Atheist get serendipitously konked on the head by a falling macintosh and be inspired to see the gravity of his situation. Look what it did for Newton. It may not be a likely scenario, but God has been known to turn his most strident opponents into his most stalwart allies. Humor aside, even though this is only a strawman argument, I think was very helpful (and would especially be so to a budding apologist) in seeing the utter futlity of arguing morals from an atheistic perspective.

At 5/11/2007 9:58 PM, Blogger Paul said...


I'm still continuing the exchange with this person on his own blog, so it's not necessary for him to come here to continue, though I'm sure he'd enjoy your capable support. I've also been posting my comments with an explicit link back to this blog, so the initiative is his to press the dialog. I'm unclear on where I've offered a false dichotomy. Please elaborate.


I was afraid we had seen the last of you, which is a shame because you show signs of talent. I only wish it wasn't in the service of nihilism. In case my opinion carries any weight with you, I find the representatives of the "new atheism" (e.g., Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins) to be philosophically adolescent and just factually myopic in many cases. They've even managed to rub many of their secular peers the wrong way (if not completely embarrassing them). I have higher hopes for you Vaman.

By the way, Vman's comments are in relation to a comment I posted on his WordPress blog. I think I'll repeat it on his blogspot site, which I see has changed.


You're right; there have been very many high-profile atheists turn to the "dark side." But I would suggest that no one is simply born a Christian to begin with anyway. I'm not sure you meant to say "strawman argument." Perhaps something more like, "academic exercise." "Strawman" would be something like if I argued that because he was an atheist then he was a completely immoral person with no concern for polite and lawful behavior. Interestingly, many atheists take this to be what we mean when we argue that they have no grounding for morality. Psio is thankfully beyond this knee-jerk reaction, though. He's also one of the few atheists I've seen try to argue for an objective morality. However, I'm getting the sense that the popular relativism of the 20th Century is past its climax. Perhaps the strident and philosophically apathetic "new atheism" to which Vman refers is the new spirit of the age. They'd sooner shout you down and call you wicked (with whit an panache) than try to relativize your beliefs into irrelevance.

At 5/12/2007 3:35 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I'm unclear on where I've offered a false dichotomy. Please elaborate.

Is there a moral standard that stands outside of time and place being appealed to here, or is this simply a matter of personal or cultural preference?
Since, I would say the answer is 'neither'. The reason is, as you noted, I think that there are objective elements to morality. It is not the case that a culture can just 'decide' upon any set of moral values and inculcate them into the populace, morality just doesn't work that way. There is a sandy shore between the sea of relativism and the rocks of dogma.

At 5/13/2007 9:05 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Ooh, I like that metaphor!

I'm not saying that relativism means that you arbitrarily pick your moral position and run with that. I'm saying that without a transcendent source of morality, then moral values are just whatever humans imagine them to be, no matter why they think any given value makes sense, and they can, have, and will change with time and place. And even if every human in the world agrees with your proposed moral system (which will never happen), there can always be one who comes along and says, "You can take your values and shove them," and you will have no meaningful reply but to exercise some form of social scorn because they don't follow the fashion.

Perhaps this question could be helpful: If we discovered a sentient alien race, would you expect them to adhere to the same moral standards as us? Would you think them evil if they were all united in the practice of eating their unwanted children and treating their women like cattle?

At 5/14/2007 9:03 AM, Blogger SLW said...

How can one who is both an atheist and an evolutionist avoid the need to also rely upon some sort of social Darwinism to explain the development of morality? How can morality NOT be seen to be subject to the same vicissitudes as the creature through which it's channeled?

At 5/14/2007 6:06 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I'm not saying that relativism means that you arbitrarily pick your moral position and run with that. I'm saying that without a transcendent source of morality, then moral values are just whatever humans imagine them to be, no matter why they think any given value makes sense, and they can, have, and will change with time and place.
But this seeks to reintroduce the very thing you have just said that you are not saying, by the side door! The whole point is that the design space for ethics, within which human imagination can operate, is not without parameters imposed by the nature of the universe. This is inescapable. Not that the theist view is immune from the problem of morality changing with time and place of course. Just look at the changes in ethics over the last millenium. How many women were burned crushed or hanged because it was interpreted that we should not suffer a witch to live? That injunction was stamped with Biblical authority of course.

and you will have no meaningful reply but to exercise some form of social scorn because they don't follow the fashion.

I don't think that's true. We can say happiness is better than misery, dignity is better than humiliation and life is better than death. We can say it is bad that people suffer and to think that any of this needs backup from above is to get things backwards. To trivialise this as 'fashion' misses the point completely. As people living together we try to work out the right balance between many competing factors, values and concerns. We are not perfect and this changes over time and in different places. So do traffic regulations. Does this mean that no ways of regulating traffic are any better than others? I think not.

If we discovered a sentient alien race, would you expect them to adhere to the same moral standards as us? Would you think them evil if they were all united in the practice of eating their unwanted children and treating their women like cattle?

Would they have discovered/invented the ellipse? Or perhaps an analogue that models reality for them? If they process reality in a similar way then I think it is likely. If they are a cooperative species then they will also have developed analogous ethical principles. However, you are right to suggest that their solutions might be abhorrant to us. How should we respond to such an encounter? Should we say that the creator of the entire universe says such and such? Would we squirm just a little bit if they asked how we knew? 'What are "goat skins?"' asks the translation machine...

At 5/14/2007 6:09 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

How can morality NOT be seen to be subject to the same vicissitudes as the creature through which it's channeled?

That's rather like beliefs then.

At 5/15/2007 4:24 PM, Blogger Paul said...


Only time for a quick question right now: If you could distill your primary moral criteria down to its barest essence, what would you say that is?

At 5/16/2007 7:01 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I don't think I can. I do think empathy goes a long way though. If I happened upon you and you had a piano on your foot and it was hurting you I would help. This is not a criterion though. We need reason and thought to overcome the arbitrary elements that contribute to empathy. However, in the end, without empathy, criteria are unlikely to be enough.

At 6/26/2007 7:22 AM, Blogger stoxusa said...

What do you say to the South Central thug who takes advantage of that piano on your foot and robs you? "You're wrong!"? If he knocks your brains out, then you would posthumously say, "he hasn't discovered the ellipsis." I'll quote Leon Trotsky (was he an atheist?): "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." circa 1917. I'll bet you never realized what a good South Central thug Leon Trotsky was.

At 6/26/2007 6:23 PM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

Whereas, if I said to the 'South Central thug': "God is watching you know!", everything would be fine, right?

At 6/26/2007 8:50 PM, Blogger Paul said...

You are suggesting that silence or simpering are superior? However, the question is, is it true that God is watching; and the fact that such appeals have actually been found to work are an interesting testimony to deep conscience. (I will share two real-life examples if necessary.)

At 6/27/2007 2:45 AM, Blogger Psiomniac said...

I'm suggesting that in either case, as the scenario was put, you would get robbed. There might be ways to answer the question of whether religious belief has a net positive or negative effect on behaviour. I don't think your examples will do that though. Also, even if it were found to have such an effect this would be separate from the issue of whether religious belief refers to states of affairs in the universe.


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