Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Atheism and Morality

    What do atheists think about morality? Many would say, nothing in particular. Atheism is nothing more than lack of belief in a deity. It implies nothing about anything else, so they say. The claim, however, deserves to be examined closely.
    What do atheists think? We can take as our authority on the subject Mr. Dan Barker. A former evangelical preacher turned atheist, he is now the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the largest organization of atheists and agnostics in America. During his Christian days he attended Azusa Pacific College, a Christian institution of higher learning located in California, and worked for a number of years as an evangelist and Christian musician. Since becoming an atheist he and his first wife (who remains a committed Christian) divorced, and he married Annie Laurie Gaylor, the other co-president of the Foundation and the daughter of Anne Gayor, who is herself a distinguished atheist. Mr. Barker travels widely and frequently engages in public debates with leading Christian apologists. His book, godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists, comes with the enthusiastic endorsements of such well-known figures as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.
Thus Mr. Barker is uniquely positioned to discuss both sides of the issue.

    The book is both entertaining and informative. Mr. Barker tells us a great deal about contemporary atheism. He explains to us, for instance, the meaning of the word "atheist": "It turns out that atheism means much less than I had thought. It is merely the lack of theism. It is not a philosophy of life and it offers no values. It predicts nothing of morality or motives" (p. 97). He goes on to say that even though atheism, per se, implies nothing about morality, most atheists do, in fact, "want to go beyond zero" and "embrace a positive philosophy such as humanism, feminism or another naturalistic ethical system. Or, they will promote charity, philanthropy, learning, science, beauty, art – all those human activities that enhance life." But he is careful to add, "But to be an atheist, you don't need any positive philosophy at all or need to be a good person. You are an atheist if you lack a belief in a god" (Ibid.).
    Make no mistake about it, Mr. Barker reassures us that most atheists are indeed good people. "Since leaving fundamentalism I have noticed that contrary to what I used to preach, most atheists seem to be deeply concerned with human values" (p. 99). But how do they reconcile this deep concern with their non-belief in God? What is the basis for their ethics? Mr. Barker tells us "We atheists find our basis for morality in nature" (p. 213). He says "Most atheists think moral values are real, but that does not mean that they are 'objective' . . . Most atheists think that values, though not objective things in themselves, can be objectively justified by reference to the real world. Our actions have consequences, and these consequences can be objectively measured" (p. 213).
    Mr. Barker goes on to qualify this statement somewhat: "Although most atheists accept the importance of morality, this is not conceding that morality exists in the universe – that it is a cosmic object waiting to be discovered. The word 'morality' is just a label for a concept, and concepts exist only in minds" (p. 214). But this involves Mr. Barker in a contradiction. Do values refer to something in the real world, or do they only exist in the mind? Do they describe objective reality or do they not?
    How, then, can Mr. Barker objectively justify values "by reference to the real world"? He claims that it is because "actions have consequences, and the consequences can be objectively measured." But the devil, as they say, is in the details. First of all, how does he conceive of "the real world"? He tells us: "'Nature' . . . means something. Darwinism shows us that all living organisms are the result of a natural evolutionary process. We have been fashioned by the laws of nature" (p. 219). He then proceeds to explain how evolution works: "It is design by extinction, but the way a changing environment automatically disallows organisms that happen not to be adapted, leaving the 'fittest' behind, if any" (Ibid.). Perhaps global warming is nature's way of "automatically disallowing" the human race as "not adapted"! But to continue: "We are not above nature. We are not just a part of nature. We are nature. We are natural creatures in a natural environment" (p. 220).
    One would think that any "naturalistic ethical system" would lead straight to Social Darwinism. But then Mr. Barker tells us, "Humanists think we should do good for goodness' sake, not for the selfish prospect or reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment" (p. 220). We are relieved that Mr. Barker wishes to extricate himself from the law of the jungle, but we fear that he has taken an irrational leap of faith here. Why would any rational, thinking human being, being persuaded that Mr. Barker's description of nature is accurate, not want to pursue good "for the selfish prospect of reaping individual rewards or avoiding punishment"? After all, on Mr. Barker's scheme of things, isn't life all about preserving self?
    Mr. Barker practically admits that atheists have no rational basis for the kind of altruism that he advocates. Describing the good deeds that atheists actually do perform, he says "Whatever the moral motivation may be it likely originates in a mind that is deeply concerned with fairness and compassion, love for real human beings and concern for this world, not merely a rational approach to truth that rejects arguments for a supernatural being" (p. 100). He tells us that "To be moral, atheists have access to the simple tools of reason and kindness. There is no cosmic code book directing our actions" (p. 214). Quite remarkably he tries to argue that "Compassion is, after all, a characteristic of being human . . . We are not corrupt, evil creatures" (p. 216). But just previously he had said, "Jefferson may have been wrong to call compassion an 'instinct' because many appear not to have it – it seems optional" (p. 215). So what is Mr. Barker's answer to them? Aside from the criminal justice system he says that we "can choose to actively exhort others to join us in expressing our innate feelings of altruism and compassion" (p. 216). Ah, once a preacher always a preacher! The only problem here is that it is hard to see how Mr. Barker can exhort anyone to a life of virtue if there is no real, objective, universally binding rule of conduct and there is an immediate benefit to be gained by being selfish.
    It is undoubtedly true, as Mr. Barker tells us, that most atheists want to embrace "a positive philosophy such as humanism, feminism or another naturalistic ethical system." The problem is that they can do so only by not applying "a rational approach to truth that rejects arguments for a supernatural being." In the final analysis humanism and feminism rest on no surer foundation than Christianity. If one is fantasy and self-delusion then they all are. And an "naturalistic ethical system" involves the difficulty of deducing an "ought" from an "is." My dog does not engage in moral ratiocination; he simply pounces on the prey.
    In the end there is no morality apart from God.

You might also enjoy:
 A Scientific Basis for Morality? 
Letter to a Unitarian Minister 

Friday, February 22, 2013

No Salvation apart from Christ?

Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."
            Acts 4:12; NKJV

Van Gogh, Weeping Woman
    In her best-selling book Beyond Belief religious scholar Elaine Pagels tells of a close friend of hers who was tragically killed in a car accident at age sixteen. Ms. Pagels was attending an evangelical church at the time, and was distressed to hear that since her friend was Jewish he was not born again, and hence was doomed to hell. "Distressed and disagreeing with their interpretation – and finding no room for discussion – I realized that I was no longer at home in their world and left that church" (Beyond Belief, p. 31).
    The story is tragic, and one can readily sympathize with Ms. Pagels. Unfortunately we cannot delude ourselves here, as terrible as the truth may seem. It would be nice to imagine that all well-meaning and sincere people go to heaven when they die. But so to imagine is to lose sight of the bigger picture. As we have seen, no human being meets God's standard of righteousness, and the this is because of the dark forces that are at work in every human heart. There are many different religions and philosophies in the world, each with many earnest and sincere followers. But we must face the fact that as human beings we simply do not measure up to God's standards, and this creates a problem – a huge problem.
    As we have also seen, the answer involves an atonement of some sort, but then this raises the further question as to who is qualified to provide the atonement. And that, in turn, raises yet another problem: the atonement has to be the substitution of one life for another. But in order for it to be a genuine substitution it has to be of equivalent value to the original. If I smash up your brand new Mercedes and offer you my beat-up old Ford in return, it is hardly a fair exchange. Sacrifices of animals were made in the ancient Jewish temple in Jerusalem, but the blood of a bull or a goat can never really be the substitute for the life of a human being. Something more is needed. It must be a human life for a human life.
Van Gogh, Man Reading the Bible
    Moreover, the person being sacrificed must be perfectly innocent himself. Trading the life of one condemned criminal for that of another condemned criminal hardly satisfies the demands of justice. They both deserve to die on their own accounts. The substitute has to be innocent in order to offer his life in exchange for that of the criminal. It is for these reasons that there is only one person who is qualified to fill the role, and the person is Jesus Christ. Because He is true man He can act as the representative of the human race; and because He is true God His death is of innocent value and sufficient to cover the sins of the entire human race if need be. Moreover, because He was perfectly sinless He did not have to die for His own sins, and thus was in a position to give His life as an atonement for others. Thus He was able to do what no purely human priest or animal sacrifice could possibly do, and that was to really and truly atone for our sins.
    This is why there is no salvation apart from Christ. From the very nature of the case He is the only one who is in a position to secure salvation for us. Far from being tyrannical, for God to send His only Son into this sin-cursed world to die for our sins was an extraordinary demonstration of mercy and kindness. The person who throws a life-preserver to a drowning man is not being a tyrant; he is trying to save the man's life.
    What makes Christianity unique among the world's religions is that it offers mankind a Savior. If you think that you are a righteous person, if you think that your own good works are sufficient to merit heaven when you die, then there are other religions for you. But if you are honest with yourself, and can see some of the evil that is ingrained within human nature, if you can see that you could never stand before a righteous and holy God on the basis of your own merit, then you need a Savior. Every other religion offers a way to heaven paved with the pretense of human goodness. Christianity offers sinners salvation through a Redeemer. Let every person judge for himself what truly meets the need.

Monday, February 18, 2013


    So far we have discussed the problem of evil and the nature of divine justice. But whether we realize it or not, we face a terrifying dilemma. For if God is just and we are sinners, it therefore follows that in the Day of Judgment we will inevitably be pronounced guilty and be doomed to eternal punishment. Is there any possible way out?
    The answer is "yes," and that is, in fact, what the gospel is all about. The apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans that there is a way to be considered righteous in God's sight that is not based on our own ability to keep the law. "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed. . ." (Rom. 3:21; NKJV), ". . . even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe" (v. 22). How can this be? How can there be a righteousness "apart from the law"? Paul goes on to explain: we are "justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood . . ." (vv. 24,25).
    It is significant that Paul uses two words here to describe the death of Christ: "redemption" and "propitiation." "Redemption" involves the payment of a price to secure the freedom of a slave, captive or prisoner. Here we are seen as captives or slaves, and Christ has secured our freedom by paying a ransom, in this case His own blood. The price having been paid, we are set free.
    "Propitiation" is an atoning sacrifice that turns away the wrath of an offended Deity Some theologians have questioned the appropriateness of this idea, and have suggested instead that the underlying Greek word be translated "expiation." (RSV; the NRSV renders it "a sacrifice of atonement." God, they say, should not be thought of as an angry Deity who needs placating. But the fact of the matter is that Paul began his discussion of salvation by referring specifically to God's wrath: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men . . ." (1:18), and then went on to describe the Last Judgment as the "day of wrath" in which "indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish" will be meted out to sinners (2:5,8,9). God is not a disinterested bystander in the ongoing catastrophe of human life. The context of atonement is definitely His anger at sin. Thus the most natural way to interpret the word used in 3:25 is "propitiation."
The Expulsion from Eden
    But people still ask the question, "Why is it necessary for God to sacrifice His own Son in order to forgive our sins"? To answer that question we must go back to the very beginning, to the time of creation. Genesis 2 tells how God created Adam and Eve, and place them in the Garden of Eden. He then told them, "of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen. 2:16,17). Our first parents disobeyed, and as a result a curse was placed upon them. God told Adam, "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread / Till you return to the ground, ? for out of it you were taken; / For dust you are, / And to dust you shall return" (Gen. 3:19). As Paul summed it up, "Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and then spread to all men, because all sinned – " (Rom. 5:12). Thus death is part of the curse which God pronounced on us because of our sin.
    Thus either we have to pay for our own sins, or someone else will have to do it for us, taking our penalty as our substitute and dying in our place. This was vividly brought out in the Old Testament, when sacrifices were offered in the temple in Jerusalem. The climax of the sacrificial system was the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when one goat was killed as a sin offering and its blood sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant kept in the Temple's innermost chamber ("The Holy of Holies"), and hands were placed on the head of another goat (the "scapegoat"), the sins of the people were confessed, and the goat was sent away. The point of it all was this: "For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul" (Lev. 17:11). In other words, someone must die in order to fulfill the curse. And in order for one person to go free someone else must act as his substitute. The question is, who?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What Is the Answer to Sin?

David, the Psalmist -- Asking Forgiveness

   We have been considering the problem of human evil, with a brief detour through the subjects of abortion, capitalism, and the nature of morality in general. Today we ask the question, what is God's response to the problem of evil?
    Sometimes people will ask, "Why can't God just forgive us, the way a human parent would forgive his child?" Others object, "Why would a good and loving God allow evil to exist in the world?" There is, in fact, a moral dilemma here, and this dilemma is reflected in the Old Testament. On the one hand there is a whole class of psalms called "imprecatory" psalms, in which the psalmist calls down the wrath of God upon his enemies. For example, in Psalm 35 we hear David praying, "Let those be brought to shame and brought to dishonor / Who seek after my life; / Let those be turned back and brought to confusion / Who plot my hurt? (v. 4; NKJV). On the other hand there is another whole class of psalms called "penitential" psalms, in which the psalmist asks for forgiveness for his own sins. Thus, for example, in Psalm 38 David pleads, "O Lord, do not rebuke me in your wrath, / Nor chasten me in Your hot displeasure!" (v. 1).
    We might well stand back in utter amazement and wonder how David could be so hypocritical. But David is reflecting on his own experience. When we are the victims, we naturally want justice. The nature of evil is all too obvious. "For without cause they have hidden their net for me in a pit, / Which they have dug without cause for my life" (Ps. 35:7). Something inside of us tells us that evil is wrong. But, when we have been the perpetrators of evil, and we know that we have done something that was wrong, we cry out for relief from the crushing sense of guilt. "For my iniquities have gone over my head; / Like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me" (Ps. 38:4).
    How, then, to resolve the dilemma? First of all, the Bible is very that God is just, and that someday there will be a day of reckoning. This day is still off in the future, which means that in the meantime good and evil exist side-by-side. Why does God delay justice? The delay is a mark of His benevolence towards us. He tolerates evil in the short run in order to give us the opportunity to repent. "Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?" (Rom. 2:4).
    Although the day of reckoning may be far off in the future, it will nevertheless come, and when it does come God's justice will be sure and true. God "will render to each one according to his deeds" (v. 6; possibly quoting either Psalm 62:12 or Prov. 24:12). Everyone will get exactly what he deserves – those who strove after righteousness will receive eternal life (vv. 7,10), but "to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish . . . " (vv. 8,9). And then Paul notes, "For there is no partiality with God" (v. 11).
    God must punish sin. To take an extreme example, what is God likely to have said to Hitler when the latter appeared before Him upon his suicide in 1945? "Boys will be boys, and we all make mistakes"? Hardly. But where does one draw the line? God is just and justice will be done. "For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. / He shall judge the world with righteousness, / And the peoples with His truth" (Ps. 96:13).

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Good Without God?

    Good Without God: What a Billion Nonrelgious People Do Believe
    Greg M. Epstein
    Harper, 2010
    239 pp; pb


    Is it possible to be an atheist and still be a good person? Greg Epstein certainly thinks so. Mr. Epstein is the Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and his book is an attempt to explain how it is possible for someone to be an atheist and yet uphold human values at the same time. He is intelligent, widely read, and displays, if we may say so, a "pastoral" regard for his fellow human beings. Mr. Epstein himself clearly practices what he preaches.
    Mr. Epstein makes it clear at the outset that he is an atheist and accepts evolution as an established fact. He also accepts the logical implication of this: evolution is an unguided process, and therefore "true nobility for us lies in being honest about being able to discern no purpose given to human beings by the Big Bang . . . The only purposes we've ever been able to understand are the purposes we have created and chosen" (p. 9). Moreover there are no objective moral standards: "Our morality is based on human needs and social contracts, and these things are not perfectly, eternally objective" (p. 35). He then follows this train of thought to its logical conclusion: "And if no morality is timeless and eternal, then we will never be able to fool ourselves into thinking that there is one set of easy and obvious answers to questions about euthanasia, abortion, capital punishment, or other such issues." (p. 36).
    What Mr. Epstein offers in its stead as an ethical system is a form of Utilitarianism. He does struggle a bit in Chapter 3 trying to define "the good," saying that "happiness" is an inadequate standard. He finally settles on "the dignity of mutual concern and connection" and "self-fulfillment through service to humanity's highest ideals" as "more than enough reason to be good without God" (p. 103).
    In a sense what Mr. Epstein has done is to provide a rational justification for the way most people make ethical decisions. They absorb certain values through their culture, largely through their parents and teachers, they live within a given legal system, and they try to earn and maintain the goodwill of their fellows. In short, they try to operate on the basis of enlightened self-interest. They realize that no man is an island, and that no one can achieve happiness as an individual unless he works cooperatively with the broader society.
    Mr. Epstein is certainly to be admired for his passionate commitment to human values and ideals. Yet we are afraid that his enterprise is fraught with difficulties. He tells us at one point that Humanists "are committed to treating each other as having inherent worth and dignity" (p. 34 – this is actually a quote from the Humanist Manifesto – III – cf. p. 224). But if we are the products of a blind, purposeless process of evolution, what "inherent worth and dignity" do we possess? Human beings are just one of millions of species that inhabit the planet. Mr. Epstein tries to answer the question, but we think unconvincingly. If our morality is "based on human needs and social contracts," we can assign worth and dignity to other human beings, but they do not possess these qualities inherently. Qualitatively we are not different from dogs or trees. In and of ourselves we are mere accidents of nature.
    Moreover, if there is no objective moral code, it is hard to see how there can be "human rights." Mr. Epstein cites Alan Dershowitz in support of the idea that human rights evolve from human experience – that an egregious wrong gives rise to the notion of an opposing right.
    But absent an objective moral code there is nothing in the reality of things that says we have a "right" to anything. Either there is a real difference between right and wrong or there is not. And if there is not, why shouldn't a person harm someone else, if he thinks that by so doing he can advance his own self-interest? People lie, cheat and steal all the time. Even "enlightened self-interest" is still self-interest. Doesn't it come down to a shrewd calculation of what we can get away with? And in the struggle for survival doesn't might, in the final analysis, make right? What if Germany had won World War II? What might the moral lesson then have been?
    Mr. Epstein cites, as one of his reasons for rejecting the Divine Command Theory of morality, the inability of religious leaders to agree as to what the Deity has commanded. Yet might this not apply with equal force to Humanism? In the last chapter of his book Mr. Epstein describes how difficult it is for Humanists to reach a consensus or even to organize effectively, comparing it to herding cats. He tells us that he and his fellow Humanists "value the messy, painstaking process of bringing a group of individuals to an evolving, overlapping consensus" (p. 222), and assures us that there no "one set of easy and obvious answers" (p. 36). In other words, Humanism has done no better at providing answers than has traditional religion.
    We fear, then, that Mr. Epstein has led us into the Great Dismal Swamp of moral confusion. The reader is probably less certain about morality after reading his book than he was before. There is, however, a way out of the swamp. It is the light of God's Word.

Related blog posts:
A Scientific Basis for Morality? 
Letter to a Unitarian Minister 
The Case for Moral Absolutes