May 22, 2007

Open Letter to Bill Maher

For some reason, I've suddenly begun getting a lot of hits to the blog looking for this old letter (originally posted 3/23/05). So that visitors don't have to dig to find it, I'm bumping it up to the top of the queue. By way of an update, I should mention that there was never a reply to the letter. My apologies that the Chicago Sun-Times link is no longer active.


It's finally complete and can be found here: An Open Letter to Bill Maher

At 14 pages it's a rather ambitious project. It turns out to be too long to post as a LifeWay article, as well as the problem of its sharp polemic tone (in places anyway). I think Maher has earned himself a bit of rough handling, though, after the kinds of callous, yet shallow, statements he's been throwing at us "unenlightened," "arrogant," "childish," "weak-minded" evangelicals. Read for yourself.

I've sent it on to his HBO address and to his official website feedback form. My guess is that he won't read it, much less respond. But who knows, I may have just made a new penpal.

By the way, I took my "Maher" quotes from the following sources:
MSNBC "Scarborough Country" transcript
Chicago Sun-Times
WorldNetDaily

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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.

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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.

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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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