Tag Archives: atheism

science and the Imago Dei

So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19)

I’ve long held that this part of the creation story is a lovely expression of what we call science.  Things like taxonomy and zoology explicitly name the creation.  This is basic to a Christian understanding of the Imago Dei, what it means to be humans created in the Image of God.  So you could imagine my childish glee to see that even a proper atheist like Michael Ruse can lament that this seems under-appreciated.

I’m not just a historian, I’m also a philosopher. So I don’t just want to find out what happened, I want to know what we should do. And I’ve been worrying about what is the right thing to do. I think it’s deplorable that we do have this division in American society today. I think it’s deplorable that science is not seen as, if you like, the true mark that we are made in the image of God – that our ability to ferret out the nature of the world shows that we are not just grubby little primates. (from here)

Breakfast

With Damian of damian.peterson.net.nz and Ian of authorofconfusion.wordpress.com

:)

ethical being

Pardon the double negative, but it’s not for no reason that the title of philosopher, author and atheist, Dr. Erik J. Wielenberg’s article in a recent issue of the American Theological Inquiry (yes, a theological journal published an article by an atheist) is called “OBJECTIVE MORALITY AND THE NATURE OF REALITY”.  Views of morality and reality are inseparable.  Ontology is logically prior to ethics.  One’s views on ‘ought’ are based on one’s views on ‘is’. 1

My claim is this: It seems to me that atheism is characterised by a circular ontology – both quantitatively and qualitatively.

First, Atheistic Quantitative Ontology is circular in that it is self-referential. The arrow of logical explanation does not point beyond reality to an other, but turns back onto itself.  Ultimate explanation rests in nature itself and not in any other entity.  Reality as a whole (whether we call it nature, the universe or the multiverse) doesn’t need anything ‘else’ besides itself to be completely, fully and finally ‘explained’, and reality is self-caused, self-originating and self-ordered.  Sagan transposed the Judeo-Christian meaning of the name YHWH into a naturalistic key with the assertion “The universe is all that there is, all there ever was, and all that there ever will be.”  Self-existent reality is also self-explanatory.  The lid of reality is closed. 2

Second, Atheistic Qualitative Ontology (a la Wielenberg) is circular and self-referential in that it claims that basic moral value is self-explanatory, or to use langauge more proper to the field of ethics, that it needs no foundation (!!!).  Here’s some relevant excerpts from his article:

Objective morality, on this view, has no foundation external to itself. (p77, emphasis mine)

I propose, then, that objective morality rests on a foundation composed of brute ethical facts. Such ethical facts are foundational in at least two senses. First, they are ontologically foundational. By this, I mean that they have no explanation outside of themselves; no further facts make them true. Second, they are epistemologically foundational. By this, I mean that they can be known to be true in a direct way; they need not be inferred from other things that we know. (p79)

…moral properties (such as goodness) supervene or depend upon non-moral properties. Thus, if a given entity is good, it is good in virtue of or because of certain non-moral properties of that entity. Pleasure, for instance, is good because of the qualitative feel that pleasure has. Persons are valuable, and possess certain rights, because of certain capacities they have—for instance, the capacity to experience pain, and to reason. (p80)

The last quotation is particularly revealing of this qualitative ontological circularity. Pleasure is said to be ‘good’ (the most basic or foundational of qualitative, ontological judgments!) simply because of ‘the qualitative feel’ it has.  In other words, pleasure is good because it is pleasurable.  The foundation for the qualitative value is the qualitative judgment itself.  He expands on this later in the article, laying out this “brute ethical fact”:

Necessarily, any being that can reason, suffer, experience happiness, tell the difference between right and wrong, choose between right and wrong, and set goals for itself has certain rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and certain obligations, including the duty to refrain from rape (in typical circumstances).

Not only are ‘right and wrong’ (which the said being is meant to distinguish between!) undefined (which is the entire point of the wider discussion), but he also fails to explain why or how entities with ‘the capacity to experience pain, and to reason’ come to have ‘rights’ and ‘obligations’.

In summary of what became a longer post than intended:

  • Atheistic Quantitative Ontology asserts that reality “just is”
  • Atheistic Qualitative Ontology asserts that certain things are “just good”
  1. I should say before going further that not all atheists argue for ‘objective’ morality.  Many happily admit that it is subjective.  Here I’m only interacting with those atheists who, like Wielenberg, argue for objective morality. []
  2. Humble atheists will acknowledge that because proving a negative is impossible, they cannot absolutely rule out a G(g)od, but they confidently assert that reality is fully ‘explained’ (‘or at least can be in principle’ some will say) without recourse to any kind of G(g)od. []

diverse goal

…or evolutionary teleology – here – worth reading (post & comments).

This relates to the so-called ‘problem’ that if God used evolution to create (only!?) humans, then all of the extinct species were ‘wasted’.  How anthropocentric!  What was God doing, we are asked, for the over-whelming majority of the universe’s supposed 13+ billion years?

The reason this problem is not a problem is that just because God desires a particular and unique kind of relationship with humans doesn’t mean animals (extinct and non-extinct) were unwanted or that God does not delight in the existence (however fleeting by some human standard of time) of each and every creature (and let’s not forget the non living species) that has ever existed or will ever exist.

brute moral facts?

It’s not every day you see an article in a theological journal by an atheist.

But lo and behold, the latest issue (downloadable here freely) of American Theological Inquiry includes a ‘guest’ article by Erik J. Wielenberg called “Objective Morality and the Nature of Reality”, which is a rejoinder to a theistic critique in a former issue.  He calls his approach “non-natural, non-theistic, moral realism”.  See for yourself, but when he goes on about “brute moral facts” and doesn’t seem worried that they are without any foundation, I just don’t follow him at all (not that I think the fellow he is critiquing has it sussed either).

too sceptical

These quotes from early 20th century remind one of the “new atheism”:

“That the man Yeshua or Jesus did actually exist, is as certain as that the Buddha did actually exist: Tacitus mentions his execution in the Annals. But all the other tomfoolery about virgin birth, magic healing, apparitions and so forth is on exactly the same footing as any other mythology.”

and

“[S]trange as it may appear I am quite content to live without beleiving (sic) in a bogey who is prepared to torture me forever and ever if I should fail in coming up to an almost impossible ideal… […] “As to the immortality of the soul, though it is a fascinating theme for day-dreaming, I neither beleive nor disbeleive (sic): I simply don’t know anything at all, there is no evidence either way.”

They were written by good ole Clive Staples Lewis, to his pen pal Arthur Greeves, before he ended up becoming “the most reluctant convert in all England.” (source here)

I’ve enjoyed reading a few Lewis books recently (Miracles [which addresses nearly every new atheist argument I know, way back in ’47]; A Grief Observed; The Great Divorce; Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer).  His sceptical mind not not only assisted him in critiquing his own naturalism and eventually converting, but also helped him to meet common and difficult questions head on.

disbelief maketh not an atheist

James Chastek shows why here.

projection, polytheism & judaeo-christian ‘atheism’

One of the standard atheist charges against belief in a god (especially since Feuerbach) is that humans invent a ‘god’ who is nothing more than a ‘projection’ of their own need to believe.  The central idea is that all beliefs about ‘gods’ simply reflect what humans want or assume a ‘god’ to be like.

Quickly, I’ll say that although this would be one of the strongest challenges to theism, it is anything but a knock-down argument.  Not only does it leave entirely unchallenged the notion of a real, actual, but yet unknowable god1 with essence and qualities other than imagined or known by humans, but it also assumes that a ‘god’ would automatically be unable to reveal himself through the god-like desires and assumptions of humans2.  Nonetheless, even apart from these points much more can be observed.

First of all, we should note that the charge of ‘projection’ is precisely the charge that the biblical prophets level against the polytheistic ‘gods’ that the nations believed in.  Isaiah 44 has a deliciously illustrative example of the classic monotheistic mockery of polytheism – a kind of monotheistic ‘atheism’, if you like3.  Isaiah effectively says that these polytheistic people take a tree, cut it down, use one half to cook dinner and warm themselves, and then take the other half, carve it into the shape of an image and bow down to it as a god.  Polytheism, atheists and monotheists agree, is human projection.

Also, having noted the similarity between the critiques of both Feuerbachian atheism and monotheistic ‘atheism’, we should not the key point of departure.  Revelation.

Contrary to humans imagining or desiring their way to God, the Bible speaks of a God who reveals himself.  Romans 1 speaks of the idolatry of the Roman pantheon (resulting in the idolatrous lifestyle of gluttonous eating and indulgent sexuality – faithful worship of the idol gods of food and sex), and contrasts this with the God who is ‘plainly seen’ as creator because of the created world.  The wider New Testament presents the person of Jesus Christ as the exact, final and full revelation of God – sharpening, completing and bringing into focus everything that had ever been revealed about God.

Martin Luther has a particularly striking understanding of this.  For Luther, even reason was unreliable to gain true knowledge of God.  For Luther (following the lead of the NT authors), God was fully known in and through Jesus – and particularly through Jesus’ surprising, detestible, un-godly, weak and shameful death on the Cross.  He contrasted ‘theologians of glory’, who speak of God’s bright glory and strength, with true ‘theologians of the Cross’, who speak of God’s suffering, shame and ‘weakness’ on the Cross.

I’ve seen a video of Dawkins mocking Jesus on the Cross as small-minded and insignificant.  What he is doing, perhaps unknowingly, is agreeing in principle that God would be ‘powerful’, ‘big-minded’ and ‘significant’ as imagined by humans – and mocking Jesus for not being like that.  The New Testament writers however, knowingly proclaimed this strange, weak, local, and dying God – whose gospel sounded foolish to Greek ears and was an offensive stumbling block to the Jews.

  1. which is something most forms of theism – in different degrees – say about their god []
  2. I note that ‘assumptions’ is not a very charitable term to theism.  For example, negative theology is an immensely rational, logical and delusion-countering way of thinking about what qualities a ‘god’ must have. []
  3. Which is also seen in the creation story, where all the things listed in the 6 days of creation – sun, moon, stars, sky, earth, sea, birds, beasts, etc. – reflect the polytheistic array of ‘gods’ of the surrounding nations []

uncreated thing

Those who hold that all things (the universe/multiverse/whatever) began to exist and were created (by an ultimate Creator or First/bottom Cause), and those who hold that all things (the universe/multiverse/whatever) ‘have always existed in some form/state’ agree on (at least) one point…

…namely that there is indeed an uncreated ‘thing’ which cannot be questioned, caused, created, ‘got behind’, etc.

The former call this uncreated ‘thing’ God – and the latter call it Nature.

‘big question’ essays

Cheers to Bryson for directing me to an essay, which I discovered was one over several over at The John Templeton Foundation.

The essays are comprised answers to ‘big questions’ from a variety of perspectives – theist, atheist and agnostic.  They make for interesting reading whatever your beliefs are.

Two of the ‘big questions‘ essays were of particular interest to me: “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” and “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?“.

Some other bits which may be of interest to some readers include:

  • Does Evolution Explain Human Nature?
  • Debates between contributers to the Science/Belief essay (Christopher Hitchens v. Ken Miller; Jerome Groopman v. Michael Shermer; and Steven Pinker v. William D. Phillips).
  • A Brief interview with (physicist/cosmologist) Paul Davies concerning multiverse theory
  • assorted video content (look for it) :)