Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Atheist Delusion

William Lane Craig is a philosopher in the tradition of the ancient Greek Socrates. He believes that philosophical ideas, particularly religious ones, should be debated in the public square rather than confined to academic cloisters. Consequently, he finds himself frequently invited to debate prominent atheists in public forums.

He recently engaged Dr. Louise Antony, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachussetts, on a topic that gets a lot of print here at Viewpoint: "Is God Necessary for Morality?" Craig reflects on the debate here.

One of the exchanges he mentions had to do with a problem first raised by Epicurus over 2000 years ago and frequently cited by skeptics ever since. Here's Craig's summary of it:

In her opening speech .... [Dr. Antony] went on the offensive and argued that moral values cannot depend on God .... Her argument was an old, familiar one: either something is good because God wills it or else God wills something because it is good. The first alternative is unacceptable, since it makes what is good (or evil) arbitrary, and the second alternative implies that the good is independent of God. So moral values cannot depend on God.

David Berlinski presents this same argument in his otherwise enjoyable Devil's Delusion. Berlinski claims that there are three possible answers to the question of what sanctions our moral sentiments - God, logic, and nothing. Berlinski claims that all three are inadequate. He's right about the last two but not about the first. His mistake is to think that if morality derives from God's will then if God's will were to change what's wrong today - rape, murder, and cruelty - could all be right tomorrow. The problem with this is that morality doesn't derive from God's will but rather from His nature. His will simply reflects His nature and His nature is unchanging.

Craig responds to Antony in similar fashion:

In my second speech I immediately dispatched this false dilemma by explaining a third alternative: God wills something because He is good. This is the classical theistic position: God's nature determines what is good (so the good is not independent of God) and His nature necessarily expresses itself toward us in the form of His commandments (so that they are not arbitrary).

The atheist just cannot circumvent the fact that if atheism is true moral obligation is an illusion and nothing is more absurd than an atheist delivering himself of moral opinions and judgments, which, of course, many of them do with amusing regularity. This is what might be called the atheist delusion.

Craig challenges Antony with this very point:

In my opening speech I presented three challenges to any atheist who, like Prof. Antony, wants to cling to objective morality in the absence of God. (1) If there is no God, what is the basis for objective moral values? In particular, what is the basis for the value of human beings? (2) If there is no God, what is the basis of objective moral duties? Who or what imposes these obligations and prohibitions upon us? (3) If there is no God, what is the basis of moral accountability? Since all human life ends in death, morality becomes vain, since our fate is unrelated to our moral behavior. I knew that Dr. Antony, though an atheist, believes in objective morality, so what I was challenging her to give was some positive account of how morality is objective in the absence of God.

Apparently, Dr. Antony declined to respond to those challenges, but that's not surprising. There's really nothing she could have said by way of reply. You can read more on the debate at the link.


The Winner

Larry Wright's cartoon tells a strange story. The media which fawned all over Senator Clinton when she first announced her candidacy and which staunchly defended her and her wayward hubby throughout the nineties despite their numerous crimes, misdemeanors, malfeasances and peccadilloes, has now, like a middle aged man undergoing a mid-life crisis, tossed Hillary aside for a younger, sexier political novice.

It's bad enough that she has suffered this treatment from her husband but to suffer it now at the hands of a fickle press who has left her for a candidate she probably regards as a political bimbo must be almost unendurable.

Another ironic thing about the narrative of this primary is that Hillary may well wind up with a higher popular vote total than Obama if Michigan and Florida are counted. She has won almost all of the big states and would possibly have more appeal to moderate Republicans and independents than Obama would once his views are fully vetted. Yet the Democrats seem determined to go with a virtual novice, a complete unknown.

Fortunately for them their opponent is John McCain who is himself determined to do whatever he can to alienate his Republican base.