The testimony of mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer:
"If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime … when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing … "
Dahmer, J., Interview with Stone Phillips, Dateline NBC, 29 November 1994.
I think we might be approaching the point where the conversation is no longer fruitful, but I’ll try to reiterate a couple of points that I think you might have misunderstood. Of course we won’t agree on much of this, but I want to make sure my point of view is clear.
I’m a little mystified by this response. I conceded right off the bat that I don’t believe in “ultimate” justice. Meaning that I don’t think we have any right to expect that every person will receive “justice” for their behavior during their lives. Many people who have done harmful things will receive no punishment for their behavior. (Something that I think is actually still true under Christian atonement theology, but that’s an aside.)
Once again, I don’t understand the slide from saying there’s no “ultimate” justice to saying there is no justice at all. That’s like saying that my relationship with my wife has no meaning because one day we both will be dead and rotting in the ground. My relationship may not have “ultimate” meaning in some objective sense, but it has value to me, and to my wife. That’s awesome! Why would I not want that, persue it, and suggest others might also get fulfillment and joy out of their own similar relationships? In a similar way, just because we have no guarantee of “ultimate” justice in an absolute sense, why would I not attempt to seek it on earth? And certainly it can be achieved in limited senses.
When a murderer is punished by the state with incarceration, that is justice. It may not be perfect justice, but it is justice all the same. Just as I may not have a perfect marriage, but it is a marriage all the same, and I certainly value it. I want to be treated with fairness and justice in my own life, I recognize that to not be treated in that way would cause me to suffer, and when I see others in similar situations I can use my empathy to understand that they are also suffering. A personal value I hold is to avoid suffering and harm in the world, so I work to improve justice in society, as I’m able.
You’re correct that the fact that I value justice as an important concept is, essentially, an opinion. Some people do not care about justice, but most of us do, even if we do not always take actions consistent with that value. Humans have opinions on many things, that does not mean that those concepts are illusory. I can value pizza and promote pizza eating. That’s an opinion. But my valuing pizza doesn’t somehow imply that pizza doesn’t exist… Your insistence that without God there can be “NO justice” at all seems, frankly, bizarre. Almost like saying that if there isn’t an all-powerful pizza-valuing cosmic force, capable of creating the perfect pizza then pizza can’t exist. I don’t really get that.
I’m afraid I’m not seeing the connection from the Habakkuk story to the euthyphro dilemma (I’d encourage more reading there, I think it’s a real and difficult challenge to the moral argument for God). Again, the above statement feels like an ad-hominem attack, but I get where you’re coming from.
I’m honestly not sure how to respond to that sort of statement except to say that I really think I have seen the true nature of my sins. I spent years in a cycle of guilt and repentance for a litany of behaviors I felt were sinful. Indeed, I longed for mercy and relief from the sinful obsessions that plagued me. I never felt that I received any, and while in the Adventist church, was unable to curb behavior that I felt was sinful, despite REALLY wanting to, asking God for help daily, submitting myself and my will in the best way I knew how, and repenting of the sins.
After I began to see myself in a more holistic way, apart from the church, I was able to take responsibility for myself and my actions. Rather than focusing on an external savior, who never seemed to materialize in my life, I buckled down and did some hard work, went to therapy, and gained mastery over myself (to a degree, we’re all a work in progress right?) You’re welcome to your opinion of my morality, but it’s an odd way to approach a dialogue. All I can do in response is share my own experience. It may not be your own, but it is true, and it is not unique among Christians I have known.
My perspective that morality is essentially subjective is logically incompatible with the statement “might makes right.” If a repressive regime like the Nazi’s took over the U.S. while I was a citizen in it, that would not make them right, just as if a government that agreed with my own moral perspectives was in control, that wouldn’t make their perspectives right. That’s just what subjective morality means.
You might object to that perspective for theological or ontological reasons, but from a practical viewpoint, I don’t actually see any difference between my perspective and yours. If someone disagrees with you morally, let’s just say the Nazis again (this is the internet after all…), how would you persuade them they were wrong? You could appeal to God, but unless you already have the shared value “morality comes from Yahweh as revealed in the Bible, and we should all obey” I don’t think you’ll get too far. Even if they DO have that value, which many Nazis DID, they might disagree with you on your interpretation of scripture. Indeed, there are many parts of the Hebrew Bible that could certainly be taken to imply that things like slavery and genocide can be RIGHT when it is God’s will. If a member of the Nazi party believed they were doing God’s will, what could you say? I suspect you, like me, would eventually take up arms along with the majority of humans who DO value human life and see Jews as humans. Practically, I don’t really see a relevant difference. We all have moral opinions about a host of issues. I will insist on mine, and you will insist on yours. I suspect in our case 90% of our values will overlap. Most humans do broadly value similar things, so I will work with those who agree with me to act on those shared values.
Oh boy, find some cosmologists and say that. We’ll probably just end up trading authorities on this, but suffice to say that at the very least cosmologists will tell you the jury is still very much out on this. And that’s all I’m saying. Be careful of making the fundamentalist’s mistake of always looking for certainty. I am not saying that we certainly know one way or another, I’m saying that the universe might have had a beginning and it might not have. That’s all we need to say as an objection to this proposition. For some fascinating back and forth on this here’s a really excellent debate between my favorite apologist Bill Craig and my favorite cosmologist Sean Carroll. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wqKObSeim2w
Again, there is NOT a beginning admitted by all. And it is exactly the fact that we don’t have a unified theory of quantum gravity that makes it impossible for us to answer this question with any degree of confidence. There is an absolute limit to how close to the Big Bang we can probe under current theories. And there are certainly other possible universes. Again, a great talk from Sean Carroll on this if you’re interested in more technical background: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ew_cNONhhKI (One simple example of a consistent universe is at the 10:00 mark.)
I think we agree on that! Most people do indeed tend toward theism, just as most people tend toward credulity and “promiscuous teleology.” The more we learn about the world through empirical methods, the more we have found that “common sense” is not an accurate predictor of what is true about the universe. In fact, we have a long history of being very, very wrong.
This will take us into Biblical historical criticism and that’s a pretty big topic. Put briefly, I’d suggest looking into the generally accepted historical evidence for the late date of Daniel’s authorship. Maybe you have, but in that case you probably already know that most scholars don’t have much difficulty with these kinds of prophecies, and, in fact, I think that Adventists make some fundamental errors of interpretation when it comes to Biblical prophecies generally and apocalyptic material specifically. As an alternative that I think makes better historical sense, you might look at a “preterist” approach.
Sorry, lots of links in this one. But if any of this is interesting to you there’s lots to dig into! Thanks again for the chance to dialogue. Even if we disagree I’m certain we both share a desire to increase justice and reduce suffering in this world, and we can definitely work together toward those goals! All the best.
Yup, that’s pretty much a Nietzscheian view. There are always going to be people who only behave in pro-social ways if they feel they are obliged to by some enforcer or other. That’s why we have human laws to try to maintain order. But that’s certainly not the case for everyone. Do you think that if you discovered, somehow, with 99% certainty, that no god existed, you would suddenly become violent and immoral? I doubt it. My view is that people are people. We’re a conflicting blend of values and desires, selfishness and altruism. As a species, we are neither fundamentally evil nor fundamentally good. Although I’m relatively young, I’ve spent many years traveling and working internationally and have seen a lot of humanity–both good and bad. People may react in all sorts of ways to the belief that humans are essentially animals, and that we have no ordained, external, purpose in the cosmos. Some might use it as an excuse to indulge carnal or violent impulses. As part of a society, I want to create laws and systems to curb those people’s behavior and, when possible, take steps to re-orient their values.
I think the basic principal behind the claim you’re implicitly making is that people, or at least some people, need an authority to enforce moral behavior. I think that for both Christians and non-theists alike this is not ideal. There are certainly some folks in the pew that are conforming to moral behavior for essentially selfish or prudential reasons. They may wish to avoid eternal damnation and suffering, for instance. Or even just avoid eternal sleep and gain eternal reward. I think most Christians would seek to disciple those people into a more ethically grounded motivation for their behavior. Instead of grounding moral behavior in fear or selfishness, Christians speak of a loving relationship with God, and maintaining ethical behavior because of the motivation of love and empathy for our fellow man. That’s great! Without God, we in the shared moral community become the only “authority” to enforce moral behavior. And in a similar way, I would seek to curb unethical behavior that hurts others, while also educating people in empathy, compassion, and the joy of living selfless lives.