Category Errors and Other Problems

When we think about the types of assertions Christians make when they talk about the Judeo-Christian narrative, how are we to understand those assertions?  When Christians speak of “God”, in Trinity, what exactly are they referring to?  Is this God sort of like a Superman on a distant planet called “heaven”?  Is this God a “force” like gravity?

Eric Reitan addresses this issue in his book “Is God aDelusion?”  He notes the analogy that people like Dawkins and others draw when they compare belief in God to belief in Santa Claus or other fictional characters.  He writes:

“The main point I want to make in this chapter is that Dawkins and Stenger are just wrong about this.  When it comes to God, absence of scientific evidence is simply not a reason for disbelief because belief in God is different in kind from belief in Santa, orbiting chinaware, or space lobsters.”

He then goes on to show that these are philosophical category errors (different in kind) made by people who, clearly, have no idea what Christian theologians and philosophers are asserting when they speak of God or transcendence (and maybe it would be a good idea to understand what is being said if these are the very assertions that have one’s panties in a bunch!–just saying).  They seem to think Christians mean that God is some literal old man with a beard throwing lightning bolts around as he rocks in some chair floating above the earth.  I’m reminded of the Soviet cosmonaut, the first man in space, who told the world he had not seen God “up there” anywhere.  Really?  Okay, thanks for that…??  

God is not some “thing” or “object” like something else we are familiar with.  To argue against something no one is asserting is rather pointless.  God is, rather, the reason you can read this right now—the reason anything exists at all.  Science cannot “prove” the very thing that makes science possible and to ask the question is sort of missing the point.  It assumes too much.  For instance, it assumes that only one way of knowing (modern/western/scientific/empirical) could actually contain and position “God” which would be to presume a space of superiority over such a being.  If you as the observer can “look down” upon God, as it were, or bracket “God” wherein the observer is in control of the exchange and viewing/detection, then it couldn’t be “God”—as by definition, the observer would now be “God” or at least an equal.  Second, it assumes that God is a physical object or force.  Both presumptions completely miss the boat.  All they do is send one on a fool’s errand.  Like Godel’s incompleteness theorem, we find the being “God” cannot be captured by simple deduction or a tracing backwards.  There is always a remainder that the system itself cannot account for, but must exist, for the system to even makes sense or exist.  Or, it would be like someone going to see the new movie Les Miserables, watching until the very end, and then asking, “Where was the mercy—I didn’t see it?”  “I don’t get it, what was the movie about?”  Such questions reveal an embarrassing immaturity.  It is something we would expect a 12- year-old to ask.  It is the same when one walks into a serious conversation regarding philosophical/theological- ontological issues (conversations held over centuries by brilliant people) and asks why belief in God or transcendence shouldn’t fall into the same category as belief in Santa Clause.  It just doesn’t follow given the nature, depth and scope of the conversation.  It doesn’t make one inflammatory, clever, or even disrespectful to ask such a question.  It just makes one ignorant.

It is no different with Jesus.  We know he was a historical person (One can look here if still suffering from a sort of flat-earth belief that he was not).  We know he was killed by the state.  We know a movement began shortly after his death started by those who had followed him before his death and then claimed to have encountered him in some fashion after his burial.  We know that these men who went into hiding before his death, no doubt fearful for their own lives given their association with this man, now branded a criminal, afterwards began to proclaim boldly that Jesus was alive.  And all of them died by the hands of that same state for those beliefs.  Just as an aside, wouldn’t it have just been easier for the greatest power in the world at that time to simply produce the body and bury (pun intended) the whole movement?  And if the disciples had somehow stolen the body, which is highly unlikely since the burial spot was guarded by Roman soldiers (the Navy SEALS of their day) so that very thing wouldn’t happen, why did not a single disciple crack under torture and simply tell where the body was?  Remember, these people weren’t hardened terrorists/criminals—they were your next door neighbor.  They were Joe Six-Pack.  Let me get this straight, each and every one died under torture or imprisonment to protect what they knew to be a lie—a premeditated hoax?  Okay, right, that is a reasonable and logical possibility.  How silly of me.

Anyway, we also know that at some point this rag-tag band—this uneducated collection of fishermen—and others of low cultural status (like women and the poor)—and the narrative they shared, became the dominant narrative of Western Europe and birthed what we now call Western Civilization (which includes modern science by the way).  No small feat, that.  This tiny group and the narrative they embodied changed the world and we—like it or not—live in that world.  Sorry new-atheist but the world you wake up in every day is a world created by a narrative wholly other than your own.  Every time you write the date and year, you mark the fact you live in a world created by a narrative you believe false.  And yet, you still compare belief in God to belief in Santa Clause?  Is anyone seriously that shallow or historically clueless? 

None of us have a time machine.  Unless one is a Dan Brown disciple and believes in conspiracy theories, chances are most reputable historians have it pretty much correct.  There is no way to “prove” empirically/scientifically (or beyond the tools available to historians and archeologists—which are not strictly “empirical”) that these events (the life of Jesus) did not or could not have happened the way it is commonly understood.  And within that history, the only way one could say that certain events didn’t (or couldn’t) have happened as reported and accepted (the resurrection for instance) is if he a-priori asserts a belief that the material is all that exists, which is simply to beg the question (which is 99.9% of “new” atheist reasoning it would appear).  Knowing about natural laws and how things generally work means nothing as to what is possible no matter what else we might know regarding what is probable or what is routine.  It then simply becomes an open question and a question that has to be considered in the context of the rest of the narrative and history.  It is the historian, the philosopher, and the theologian and their tools that then need address such questions, not those stuck in a discredited 19th Century philosophical dogma called logical positivism/empiricism or other variants. 

More importantly, we have the results of that history.  If someone has comparable results from similar stories or events in history, then make your case please.  And consider the results and the differences.  No one has ever stepped forward and said their life was deeply and significantly changed by Santa Clause or leprechauns (and if they have, they are now in therapy or hidden in the attic).  No one.  Zero.  And as to Fairies, spaghetti monsters, and other fictional characters, where are their temples?  Where are their libraries and universities devoted to the study of their narratives?  Where are their martyrs?  Where are their Martin Luther Kings?  Where are their Bachs?  Where are their Rembrandts?  Where are their Miltons?  Where are their hospitals and orphanages?    Where are their laws and values, literally written into nations’ constitutions, codes, and laws?  Indeed, where are their civilizations and cultures?  We readily believe our Presidents when they say they believe in God.  If they were to say they seriously believed in the tooth fairy, we would not allow them near the nuclear “button” and they would be removed from office.  If one cannot see the distance between the two “beliefs” and the reasons for our culture’s response to one over the other, the difference, then what are we to say?  Again, none of this is to say that such makes Christianity true.  It is simply to point out that comparing such to a belief in Santa Clause reveals an amazing immaturity along with an astounding historical, cultural, and philosophical ignorance.       

The “fact” remains that no culture or history stands before us as a result (the only empirical evidence—such as it is—we have, and that truly matters in questions like this one) of belief in leprechauns or fairies.  It is only in that arena (cultural artifacts—deep turns of history—significant impact) that we can come close to having something called “evidence” as to questions of a historical nature.  As to the Christian narrative and related historical events, volumes line libraries and entire departments in the best universities in the world gather brilliant men and women to grapple with the questions related to that narrative and events and have for centuries.  Why?  Because of their profound, deep, and significant relation to every area of knowledge and culture in Western history and even world history.  The distance between those events, their gravity, and their significance, makes exceedingly clear (or should!) that trying to compare such with a belief in Santa Claus or other fictional character is something only a rather dim-witted freshman philosophy major could dream up.      

So whether it is philosophical category errors or questions of history, a strictly empirical, logical- positivist, scientific inquiry, into questions of this nature, is ridiculous and meaningless.  The tools do not apply.  It would be like a fireman showing up to fight a fire with an ice pick.  That is why, for the most part, atheists are always participating in some other conversation, but rarely the one at hand.  If one reads the word “God” in a serious conversation and then begins to argue against some object in space or some dude in a rocking chair, and asking for the “evidence” for such, then, well, good luck with that.  That person is having a conversation with himself.

And there is a reason that most atheists will never deal with these failures or the one I noted in an earlier post regarding the meaning of “faith”.  To do so would remove the only “reasons”-so called, they have for believing that God’s existence is impossible.  If they ever come to grips with their philosophical category errors, problems understanding history, seeming unwillingness to try and understand basic philosophy/theology, and abject failure to understand the limitations of science, then it would dawn on them that their “belief” their “faith” is entirely a matter of choice and will, of disposition and sensibility, and is no more predicated ONLY upon “facts” and “evidence” than IS belief in God.  None of us are compelled to interpret “read” the facts and evidence (including history) by some sheer, neutral, objective, and obvious logic or reason (both being contextually located and conditioned by underlying philosophies and theologies in the first place!) wherein we are force by the obviousness of that logic and reason alone to confess belief or unbelief—or even agnosticism.  The facts and evidence, including our scrutiny of history, could be argued either way- for belief or unbelief.  And that is why (whether it is the Christian fundamentalist or secular fundamentalist) when someone says they are just following the “evidence” and (by-the-way) it must lead us to their conclusion—we should ignore such simplistic nonsense.     

Does all this mean that facts and evidence and the best historical research are not necessary or meaningless (I can still hear that coming)?  Of course not.  If that is all one heard in reading the preceding, then go back and read it again.  You are dead wrong.  Again, what I’m stressing here is that once we recognize we are always-and-already interpreting the research and the facts and the evidence—and after the process of interpreting the facts, evidence, and the best historical research—we must still choose.  We must still articulate what we think all this evidence, research, and our own subjective responses to it all might mean.  We must still put all of it in a comprehensive matrix of holistic sense.  We must interpret it all, in community, and individually.  We must exercise our will at some point.  And, we make decisions using our whole selves, minds and hearts.  We make decisions from a context, from a space, from a place, always and already situated.  There is so much more going on in our decision making than some simplistic surface appeal to “evidence.”  Especially when the question is not “Why is the fire hot?” but rather, “Why is there anything at all including fire?”  And again, if one cannot see the gulf and distance between those two questions and the tools necessary to attempt answers, then one is in the wrong conversation.

In all this, we can choose to believe that at the heart of everything is a primordial and infinite peace and love to which all creation longs, desires, and tends (The Judeo-Christian narrative), or we can believe that at the heart of everything is a primordial void, an abyss, a meaningless merciless accidental confluence of matter-in-motion, without purpose, embedded in amoral laws of survival alone.  In other words, we can choose heaven or hell.  Going back again to Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert from Les Miserables—the “evidence” is clear that there is a law against theft and we have caught a person who has broken that law.  Valjean is guilty.  That is a “fact.”  Valjean and Javert see the same “evidence.”  They are both aware of the same “facts.”  However, they both choose to “see” and interpret the “evidence” and the “facts” differently (and thus respond differently—thus the objective/subjective nature).  And so it is with us.  Your choice.

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48 Responses to Category Errors and Other Problems

  1. RonH says:

    Oh, you're gonna catch it for this one. 😉

    There are no reasons to believe in Santa Claus, fairies, or celestial teapots, which is why nobody does except young children intentionally “misled” by adults. (Incidentally, this is precisely why Dawkins & Co. insist on drawing the comparison: to imply that religious believers are all silly misled children.)

    On the contrary, there are very good reasons for believing in God. Belief in God accounts for consciousness and all the wonderful things that go along with it: love, beauty, justice, morality, will, etc. Given God, matter and the natural world is a product of consciousness… Consciousness is foundational, and everything else comes from it.

    On naturalism, matter becomes foundational. Consciousness is simply a product of matter, if it exists at all. Love, beauty, justice et al are “real” only to the extent that the observed electrochemical reactions which comprise them are real. Now that we know those reactions are an evolutionary accident, there is no compelling reason to give credence to them if we don't wish to (which wish is itself just an electrochemical reaction…). Sam Harris thinks “good” is seeking the welfare of conscious creatures. Stalin thinks “good” is destroying anyone who opposes his desires. On pure naturalism, these cannot be but equivalent and it is irrational to say one is “right” and the other is “wrong”. (Naturalists do tend to say Stalin is “bad”, and for that I'm thankful — but they're still irrational to do so.)

    The idea that consciousness is authoritative over matter makes possible the idea that love, beauty, justice, will, and morality are Really Real Things(tm). There's still a lot of work to do before we can adjudicate Harris vs. Stalin, but at least knowing there's an answer gives us a starting point. Naturalism just denies the question.

    So, yeah, I think there are good reasons to believe in God.


  2. Darrell says:

    Hello RonH,

    Trust me, I've been catching it for years! I agree with everything you say here. And I don’t believe I said anywhere that there weren’t any good reasons to believe in God. Obviously I think there are. In fact, all that I pointed out regarding Christianity's cultural foot-print I think gives good reasons for belief in the God of that narrative. My greater point however was that ultimately both the theist and the atheist believe what they do by faith (remember, “faith” as I have described it—which doesn’t mean “in spite of” or without evidence or reasons).

    For instance, Burk and other atheists are well aware of the reasons you give above for belief in God. And yet, they are not convinced. That is why the fundamentalist argument over “evidence” or reasons rarely changes anyone’s mind. I’m sure Burk could tell you why your reasons above are wrong. Would I agree with him? Of course not, but such exchanges usually go nowhere.

    Just to state it again, we all live by faith when it comes to questions of this nature. Javert had very good reasons to believe that Valjean was guilty of theft and breaking parole. If we reduce everything to such, then we end up making the same mistake as Javert.

    There are indeed very good reasons for believing in God. But, is such enough to change our hearts and minds?


  3. Hi Darrell

    Thanks for the extensive and thoughtful essay which puts your case very well. As somebody who has been known to ask in what way belief in God differs from belief in, say, Leprachauns, I guess I'm one of the ignorant ones? Quite possibly, but I'm not entirely convinced it's as naive a question as all that. Essentially, such a question is no more than an attempt to draw out as clearly as possible the basis for belief. Yes, we understand full well you believe in God and not in leprachauns, and that there is an important difference for you, but the interesting thing for folk like me is to wonder where that difference lies, and here you offer some possibilities.

    One difference you are leaning on heavily here is the resulting historical heft of the narrative. I think that's valid, we can reasonably conclude that a narrative that has such an impact upon art, politics, sense of self etc touches upon something fundamental and important. By this standard, however, we are forced to admit Taoism, Islam, and certainly the philosophical foundations of classical Greece, into the mix. We might say, by examining historical impact, that the Christian God is real in the same way that Allah, or at a stretch, Zeus, is real (the relationship between Zeus and Plato being at least similar to the relationship between Christ and Science, perhaps?) Is this what you intend, or are you attempting to show that the historical record makes CHrist's divinity more real? That's a tougher challenge, I think.

    I'm not somebody who argues that there is no historical record for Jesus' existence. I think both that he existed, acted and spoke in a way that is roughly captured by the historical record, and that his followers were greatly moved by him, indeed as you note, giving their lives as a response. But again, if we equate passion of belief with truth, we run into any number of co-examples, from cool-aid to kamikazee, and this is the agnostic's dilemma, how to admit a line of reasoning in one case, while not applying it to others. We mention Santa not because we think belief in God is like a belief in Santa, but because, in parsing the categories, it appears we admit far more than the Christian God into the equation.

    And, as ever, faith is not inevitable. Agnosticism is the alternative.

    There is a deeper challenge you are presenting however, and Ron echoes it. It is the argument that states, without assuming God, we are unable to assign meaning to right and wrong, or love or mercy etc. I suspect, however, that this one hinges on a slightly friendly definition of meaning. I live surrounded by things I find deeply meaningful, and most of the time have little trouble sorting the admirable from the obnoxious, and yet none of this is grounded in spiritual belief. Although I often hear the assertion that this is irrational, I've never seen the reasoning laid out to back it up. So, if anyone has the time/inclination, I'd be grateful.



  4. Hi Ron

    I wonder if you're not being a little harsh on naturalism here. Naturalism doesn't necessarily deny the Harirs vs Stalin question, so much as couch it in different terms.

    So, for example (although I'm not strictly speaking a naturalist)I speak not of right and wrong in absolute terms, but rather in terms of behavours or stances that I find personally to be desirable or not. Does this action speak to the sort of world I most dearly wish to live in? So as the theist works towards an external moral truth, I look inward.

    My moral optimism is then built upon the hopeful belief that we have within our nature a capacity to yearn for a world in which personal fulfilment is possible (this being part of my personal desire) and the 'goodness' I see in others every day fuels this hope.

    And yes, I will of course come across others with competing sets of desires, the Stalins, if you like. And like you, I suspect, I feel compelled to oppose them. You, because you believe they are wrong, I, because I don't desire to live in a world dominated by their values.

    This is but the roughest outline of the approach, and if you're interested you can challenge it and perhaps betwene us we'll be able it flesh it out a little. My main is that in this way one can embrace moral decisions without irrationality, even whilst holding to naturalism. We end up with a different notion of right and wrong, but a workable notion nonetheless.



  5. Darrell says:

    Thanks Bernard,

    I agree that whether it is cultural impact or the zealousness of followers that neither “proves” nor make an airtight case for the truth of a narrative. Again, there is nothing that “proves” or makes an air-tight perfect case for either theism of atheism.

    I still am not convinced that agnosticism is not a faith, but I leave that for another day.

    I don’t really think I was speaking much to the question of how we ground “goodness” in this post. I think Ron brings it up as a good reason for belief in God (and I think it to be a good reason too). Again, my post was not about good reasons for belief. It was about not embarrassing one’s self in comparing belief in God to Santa Claus and that an appeal “only” to evidence is pointless in a discussion like this one. So, I will let Ron speak to the grounding of ethics, although I may and try to post something in that area in the future.


  6. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    Happy 2013!

    You've got me truly mystified here. Didn't Jesus get born from a virgin, raise some dead people, and rise from the dead himself and float off? Aren't you expecting his physical return, oh, any day now? Doesn't god exist, and doesn't that physical existence explain all other physical existence?

    Being.. “the reason anything exists at all.” Well, does it itself exist or not? Does it have specific effects, or is it an equation? Is it deism that you are driving at? Your story of the resurrection then implies that god is not only responsible for “everything”, but also for very specific violations of natural law as we understand it, which only happen when careful people aren't looking. I see… but then I am mystified by the above grandness of god which is not supposed to dabble in tawdry -physical- effects that are detectable by those horrible scientists.

    I don't think the skeptic is assuming any “space of superiority” either. We do not occupy any space of superiority over the galaxy or the big bang.. we just want reasons and evidence for why you think something exists for which there are no particular reasons, other than the rather wan reason of “everything!”, plus a big helping of myth.

    Sadly, it does very much fall into the same category as Santa Claus, for all your wriggling attempts to undefine the concept. But call me ignorant.. that is fine too.


    Let me also address your drumbeat of Christianity “birthing” western civilization. That civilization was doing exceedingly well thank you very much prior to Christianity's advent. It was certainly rough around the edges, but the birthing process you refer to sent the cart truly into the ditch. Where it was stuck for a good half-millennium before various contervailing forces of resurrected learning, imported from Byzantium, the Muslim world, and painstakingly dredged out of the centuries of Christian obscurantism, finally restored a world with some semblence of rationality. I.e. our modern world.


    “Knowing about natural laws and how things generally work means nothing as to what is possible no matter what else we might know regarding what is probable or what is routine.”

    Huh? Again, I am mystified. Is the thought tangled, or its expression?

    “Again, what I’m stressing here is that once we recognize we are always-and-already interpreting the research and the facts and the evidence—and after the process of interpreting the facts, evidence, and the best historical research—we must still choose.”

    And choosing to not believe in a wildly improbable story which you fully know is larded with large amounts of myth … is perhaps the prudent path.

    But, if you wish to throw open the gates of all the prisons, and issue a general decree of mercy, I would again urge some skepticism.


  7. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    On naturalism, all intuitions of meaning, morality, etc are products of blind evolution and the significance we attach to them is largely illusory. Acting in accordance with them is the natural thing to do; however they're little more than subjective preferences. As such, it is irrational to expect other people to behave consistently with your own subjective preferences. It's perfectly natural for you to say “I think killing others to advance my own desires is distasteful”, if that is how you feel. And if that's all you mean when you say “I think killing others to advance my own desires is wrong“, then I suppose you aren't saying anything irrational. But if you say “I think killing others to advance my own desires is wrong and you shouldn't do it” without providing objective evidence for your claim, then you are being irrational. I have yet to see Naturalism provide the kind of evidence you'll need. I've read a few popular attempts (such as Harris or Shermer — if you've got other suggestions, I'm open to them), but they all do it by sneaking in other assumptions which they can't establish on Naturalism, and thus aren't on any more solid epistemological ground than theists. In other words — to Darrell's point — they're making assertions on faith.

    On naturalism alone, was Stalin “evil”? He employed his energies in ensuring his own survival and advancing his desires. There are even those who would say that in doing so he was also advancing the survival of his “tribe”. There is no way I'm aware of to establish scientifically that Stalin ought not to have done what he did. Thus, for a naturalist to say Stalin was evil/wrong/bad would seem to me to be irrational. Stalin was merely acting in accordance with his nature and subjective preferences. A naturalist, on his own assumptions, is not in a position to sit in judgment on anyone else's preferences. The most he can do is impose his preference that others not impose their preferences on him. I cannot see how all of human experience fails to collapse down into mere will to power.

    I simply don't see how this notion scales. I don't think you can build a society on it. If consciousness is simply the result of electrochemical processes which have arisen through chance, then Dennett is right and evolution really is the universal acid — and it'll eat straight through civilization.

    You say, My moral optimism is then built upon the hopeful belief that we have within our nature a capacity to yearn for a world in which personal fulfilment is possible (this being part of my personal desire) and the 'goodness' I see in others every day fuels this hope.

    This might be worth unpacking a bit. It appears at first glance to be dangerously approaching a faith claim, not at all derivable from science. What is “personal fulfillment”? Is this what Stalin was pursuing? What is “goodness”, and how are you defining it scientifically?

    Now, we all agree that human experience consists of essentials like morality, love, justice, beauty, etc. Darrell keeps arguing (and I concur) that you can't get to all those things from Naturalism… you've got to make some other kind of assumption — basically, a faith claim. Christianity does not deny this. You and Burk do, but I suspect that is wishful thinking. Your agnosticism I think provides you with more consistency than Burk demonstrates… but in many ways I think it's less workable. When you encounter competing desires, on what grounds do you justify your opposition to them? Are there any beliefs worth dying for? If so, can you justify that belief only on naturalism? If not, then are you not making a faith claim?


  8. RonH says:

    Hi, Darrell…

    My comment wasn't meant to suggest you were saying you didn't have reasons for believing in God. Far from it! I was just adding further criticism of the atheist canard that belief in God isn't any different from belief in Santa & Co.

    And you are absolutely right about the insufficiency of reason alone to ground us in those things which are most important to our humanity. Javert was unable to come to grips with this, and it destroyed him. (I'm assuming the recent film doesn't depart from the story on this vital point… Haven't seen it yet.) And of course this point is also made beautifully by Chesterton in the chapter from which your sidebar quote is taken.


  9. RonH says:

    Hey, Burk…

    So civilization was trucking along nicely until Christianity derailed it, and it didn't get back on track until rationality was rescued from the nassssty Christianssss?

    Dude, that is such a wheels-off ridiculous reading of history that you're gonna owe me a new keyboard if I can't get all the water I sprayed on it dried out.


  10. Hi Ron

    Thanks for clarifying. In essence I don't carry the notion of evil and goodness that you do, and I suspect it is that simple.

    How do I define goodness? Well, only in the sense that some values fit with my personal desire for the world to be a particular way. Nothing more than that.

    However, as I pass through this life, I note that many people share many aspects of my meta-desires. They too wish for peace, for stability, for respect and dignity for all, for opportunities to share and to serve. Their notions of goodness and mine coincide, and from this coincidence a civil society can be constructed.

    Is this belief scientific? Not particularly, although the search for common values across cultures, and evolutionary and neurological groundings for these, trikes me as a viable project, and I know it's an ongoing one.

    Now certainly, at any time one of history's villains might emerge to threaten such stability, and we who value peace and understanding will oppose them as best we can, because our personal desires, our vision for a better (self defined) world, compel us to do so. For these are very desires that provide the narrative framework in our lives, the meaning.

    Now, I won't call the tyrant wrong in the absolutist sense that you might, but I will oppose him, I hope, with similar vigour. The point is, the tyrant is no less likely to emerge in a world where we believe in absolute moral values ( could it even be that the tyrant draws fuel form this very style of certainty? I don't know). And further, the tyrant is no less likely to be opposed by people of my belief set than people of yours. So in what sense is civilisation threatened?

    I may well be misunderstanding you here.



  11. Darrell says:


    Okay, that makes more sense. I had a hard time believing you thought I was suggesting there were no good reasons for belief in God.

    Yes Ron, Burk apparently believes that those happy days before hospitals and orphanages were just great. You know, those golden years when gladiators killed for public sport and slavery was “normal.” Ah, the good old days.


  12. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    It sounds to me that on Naturalism, you and Stalin simply have a difference in personal preferences. I suspect you feel more strongly about it than that, however; and if you do, I wonder how you justify privileging your own preferences over his. (I'm also skeptical of the idea that people would be willing to die to defend their “preferences”.) It is at this divergence of preferences where things become interesting, because it is precisely at that point where laws become necessary. As far as I can tell, “basic human rights” cannot be derived from evolutionary theory (or any other material science). Rights must be conferred by someone/thing with the authority and ability to do so. In the US, our founding documents ground these rights in a Creator, and the State is obligated to recognize them because the Creator is greater than the State. Now, an unbeliever may hold that the Creator is entirely a fiction; but so long as the fiction is believed the effect remains real: the State is kept in check. If belief in the Creator fades, the State itself takes on the position of ultimate authority — and at that point I think tyranny of some form or other becomes unavoidable. I don't think there have been all that many states formed on self-consciously atheistic bases, and the ones that were haven't been terribly successful when measured in terms of individual freedom. Historically religious states that are becoming more secular often see increasing government intrusion (take, for example, the rise in the concept of “hate speech” and how it's turning increasingly into a criminal offense).

    My main claim here is that I don't see how you can establish concepts necessary for thriving, free civilization on Naturalism alone, because Naturalism cannot establish that love, beauty, justice, morality etc are in fact Real in any meaningful objective sense. If you want to include something along with Naturalism, then you're going to have to either establish its objective truth or resort to faith.


  13. Hi Ron

    You have it exactly right. I do indeed have a different view of how I woud like the world to be from any number of tyrants. And I do indeed see this as a difference of preference.

    And I agree, where preferences conflict, a mechanism for compromise is necessary. In the first instance we attempt to convince a population that it is in their own good to abide by a shared set of vaues, even if some of these values are not their own. We do this in order to provide a stable social superstructure, and so long as sufficient numbers have a preference for this, then we have a fighting chance of establishing coherence. Where this process cna not reference oral absolutes, it must instead reference human possibility. I find that rather exciting.

    How do I justify preferencing my desires over those of others? Well, I don't think mine are more right, but I think it makes a lot of personal sense to nevertheless live by them, rather than a set of preferences which don't resonate. Why would I not wish to follow a path of personal fulfillment? This strikes me as a rather odd possibility.

    I live in a society that is largely secular, and so far so good. I don't detect the trend you mention, wherein secular societies face a new set of challenges with regard to social order. The US stands as probably the most overtly religious of the western states, and if we were to measure how it does on various measures of cohesion (material inequality, life expectancy, access to health care, literacy rates, murder rates) you viewpoint isn't obviously supported.

    The other problem with establishing a society on the authority of a God is the potential for conflict when it runs up against societies whose allegiance is to a rather different God. Unless all religions converge on the same set of values, the same problem remains (a problem that disappears if all preferences converge, hence convergence, rather than external reference, is the key).

    Finally, would a person die for a preference? Yeah, I suspect so. The problem might be that you are associating the word preference with the trivial. Many die in the name of loyalty, to a person or a cause, or an idea. The stoic who says I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees, may be expressing a personal preference, as much as a moral commitment.

    As far as I can see there's nothing inconsistent in my viewpoint. But I'm open to having that exposed. Indeed I would welcome it.



  14. RonH says:

    HI, Bernard…

    Ultimately, how well naturalism works as the foundation for a society will have to be demonstrated by history. I have grave doubts, but since the trend towards unbelief in “the West” seems to be increasing I actually hope I'm wrong about that.

    You should be very careful in trying to draw comparisons between secular NZ and the “overtly religious” US. Google tells me that the population of NZ is around 4.5 million. The Dallas-Ft.Worth metropolitan area alone (where I live) has over 6 million. NZ is a tiny island nation that shares no borders with a developing country. It is impossible to accurately determine which of the US' many problems (or successes!) can be directly attributed to religious belief. There are very, very few single nations which operate on the scale of both size and heterogeneity of the US. Of those, the US arguably has the highest level of freedom and stability. The smaller and more homogenous a society is, the easier it is for people to agree on things. But what things they all agree on may affect how well their society can scale. A quick google of things like “hate speech and freedom” turns up articles like this one, which provide an example of how some modern secular governments are becoming increasingly intrusive (in response to challenges from which NZ may be blissfully free….).

    I also suspect we've got a big gap here in our respective understanding of what can be considered a “preference”.

    I would love to visit NZ some time…


  15. Darrell says:


    I would also add that regardless NZ's current posture, it is a nation with deep Christian roots and influence. It is really easy after 2000 years of the Christian narrative's influence to now look around and say, “Wow, what a coincidence, we all seem to have similar values.”


  16. Hi Ron

    I agree, the business of using national outcomes to infer the impact of things like founding theologies is fraught, and I too would caution against trying to build arguments this way. But as you raised it initially, I was in fact just trying to nod towards how very difficult such analysis becomes.

    And yes, the point about using a preference framework is that it does challenge us to think about preferences in a way we're probably not used to. I would maintain that your claims that naturalism can not sustain rational moral judgements falls down under this approach, that's all. As I say, if you see inconsistencies in the case I'm making, I'm genuinely interested.

    Thanks, as ever, for engaging with such good grace.



  17. Darrell

    As above, such analysis is fraught. In fact we're a Pacific nation with centuries of pre-Christian history. The ease with which indigenous and Christian cultures meshed is one of the more fascinating aspects of our past.



  18. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    Let me just address one tiny point.

    “Naturalism cannot establish that love, beauty, justice, morality etc are in fact Real in any meaningful objective sense. If you want to include something along with Naturalism, then you're going to have to either establish its objective truth or resort to faith. “

    There another option, between objectivity and faith. And that is subjectivity. Beauty et al. are real, and they exist subjectively, dependent on us to make them exist in our minds which are so engineered to experience them. It seems sort of dull and boring, perhaps, to just recognize what is evident, rather than building a metaphysical edifice upon them, but I think it is quite sufficient for the philosophical question.


  19. Darrell says:


    Every continent, nation, and people group have centuries of a pre-Christian history. As to your government, laws, constitutions, economy, education, the arts, and cultural norms, which narrative has had the most influence? Exactly.


  20. Hi Darrell

    I don't know which narrative has had most influence, although I suspect, like so many western nations, we've done too little to acknowledge existing values and traditions.

    Still, we're struggling to create a bi-culutural reality, where both perspectives can be respected and shared. It's a very difficult task, but to me a deeply valuable one.



  21. RonH says:

    Just a point of clarification:

    I'm not at all saying that a person who is a naturalist can't have a basis for love, beauty, morality, etc. It is frequently advanced by some Christians that such is the case, and this is evidentially wrong — every naturalist I've known valued love, beauty, morality, etc. What's more, I think asserting such a claim is rude.

    What I am asserting is that those things can't be objectively grounded in naturalism, which makes naturalism inadequate as a foundation for a society. On naturalism alone, morality cannot be more than a preference, and no person can have any rational justification for imposing their preference on another. I don't think you can get a society started on this basis, and a society otherwise started which loses its objective basis for these aspects of human existence will most likely find it impossible to avoid tyranny.

    Any naturalist who says to someone else “you shouldn't do that” is making an appeal to something. If it's science, he must offer his evidence (i.e. demonstrate scientifically that Stalin was wrong). If it's anything subjective, then — like Darrell says — he's making a faith claim.


  22. Hi Ron

    “likely find it impossible to avoid tyranny” is a big call, I would have thought. It's certianly a speculative one.

    It seems to me there are very many sound systems for weighing individual preferences that may well avoid the decline you fear. Do you have in mind examples of tyrants rising because people stoped believing in objective moral truths? Very many, it seems to me, have risen within fairly strict moral contexts.



  23. RonH says:


    It is indeed a big claim. It's hardly original with me, however.

    Tyrants arise because they don't recognize any authority above their own. They are accountable to no one because they are entirely self-justified. No period in history has seen tyranny the likes of the 20th century regimes of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, and their ilk. With the possible exception of Genghis Khan who, if we give him a handicap for technology, probably outdid all of them. Where these people were successfully opposed it wasn't by invoking different preferences, but by moral absolutes.

    Look, as I said, I'm happy to be proven wrong on this point. If atheists can create a secular utopia where human beings are free and flourishing, I'd be excited to move there. Because after all, a truly free society should have no problem with my being a Christian. I'm skeptical though.


  24. Hi Ron

    We're probably reading history a little differently here, and as we've traversed before, historical examples are unhelpfully malleable. It seems to me entirely possible that nobody on the list you've offered was any sort of relativist, but I'm not an expert on any of them. Couldn't we argue that they all considered themselves to be serving some sort of higher goal, be it the realisation of the socialist utopia or the destiny of the master race?

    And did every solider in the war really enter it because they believed in moral absolutes? Might some not have simply desired to live in a world where the likes of Hitler could not flourish? From whence comes your certainty on such a fine distinction?

    You have offered three strong claims, if I read you correctly. The first is that it is irrational for the naturalist to put their own preference ahead of others. I'd suggest the exact opposite. To put my desire not to be hit above the desire of the other to hit me strikes me, for example, as extremely rational.

    Next you surmise that a stable society can not establish itself without objective moral grounding. Against that, I argue simply that a collective desire for stability (based upon an understanding that such serves the interests of the members) is adequate, and what's more that we have evolved a number of behavioural preferences that support our existence as social creatures (from empathy, to cheat detection, to group identifying, loyalty etc) None of this guarantees future stability, but it offers an initial grounding.

    Third, the argument that such a system, without reference to moral absolutes, must fall. I'm not sure why. So long as the values required for stability are understood and promoted (and here we can learn from all our cultural traditions, including Christianity), and an educated informed, and included populace are encouraged to maintain vigilance in the name of the society they desire, the situation is no more perilous than for the absolutist society, who may one day fall to a tyrant with different (albeit similarly absolutist) values.

    Isn't there a danger of constructing a bogeyman here?



  25. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    If it doesn't work for a society, how is it going to work for a person? That doesn't make much sense. You seem to be saying something like.. we need to all settle on our societally preferred cuisine- we all need to like and eat the same objectively “best” food. The fact that other societies have settled on other cuisines makes no difference.. ours is objectively the best for us, but theirs must be objectively the best for them!

    It is a massive category error. We impose our preferences on others all the time, in rock music, and how we destroy the environment, in reality TV, etc… Government is just another venue. On naturalism, (and realistically), to say that someone else “shouldn't do that” is typically an appeal either to empathy or to long-term utility. Or to duties to the group that are part of social existence. None of this needs to be objective, other than the game theory imperatives of how groups operate.

    “If it's anything subjective, then — like Darrell says — he's making a faith claim.”

    Sorry, but it takes no particular faith to be subjective and engaged in one's social system.

    Incidentally, you might be interested to learn that Genghis Khan was a good guy in many respects. Also…


  26. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    Oh, I don't think The Tyrants were relativists at all. They knew what they wanted, and threw their entire selves into obtaining it. They recognized that there was nothing greater than their own desires. And this is entirely consistent with naturalism. You might desire to go off and stop a Tyrant. On naturalism, there is nothing greater than your desire, so you would be acting entirely consistent with naturalism also. In principle, there's no difference between the two of you. The fact that the Tyrant leaves 10 million dead and you only leave one is irrelevant. Animals kill other animals. As Sir Elton says, “it's the circle of life.”

    You're being irrational if you assume only naturalism and you claim some fundamental difference between yourself and the tyrant. On naturalism, if you think there is a distinction between you and the Tyrant, you must justify it scientifically. If you have to appeal to anything else, you are making a metaphysical claim and Darrell is correct: naturalism can't get you where you need to go, and faith of some sort is inevitably required.

    Note that we're not talking just about situations where you personally are threatened. Obviously, animals defend themselves when under attack by other animals. That's “rationally” consistent with naturalism, although one can argue that the desire to defend oneself is simply an instinct and does not require rational justification. But the tin-pot jungle dictator bent on genocide doesn't threaten New Zealand. Do you have a rational justification for stopping him or even simply saying he should be stopped rooted solely on naturalism?

    I don't think a collective desire for stability is an adequate foundation for a society. You must also define to what extent that society can go to ensure the stability, and provide justification for it. Stalin acted in the name of stability. Pol Pot even more so. In fact, “stability and safety” have been the rallying cry of a great many tyrants. If I want to board an aircraft here in the US, I will quite likely have my genitals fondled in the name of “safety and stability”. We're fighting an amorphous “We have always been at war with Eastasia” eternal conflict in the name of “safety and stability”. No, the State must be bounded by something greater than the State. But on naturalism, what is greater than the State?? (I think the infractions of the US I cite above are occurring precisely because US citizens (including — and maybe especially — religious ones) are losing sight of this very point.)

    Clearly, merely having moral absolutes is no guarantee that tyrants will not arise. But it does seem to me that having moral absolutes is necessary in order to overthrow (or prevent) a tyrant and replace him with a free society. I'm trying to think of an historical case in which unbelievers overthrew a tyrant and established a stable free society afterwards, but I'm coming up blank. I recognize that this isn't entirely fair, given that unbelief has a rather short history. But at this point I'm going to have to say that the burden of proof is on unbelievers.


  27. RonH says:

    Yes, Burk, and Mussolini did indeed make the trains run on time.

    I'm not sure the world has ever seen a more bloodthirsty and ruthless tyrant than Genghis Khan, 20th century included. His positive achievements must be weighed against the massive piles of human bodies on which he built them (sometimes quite literally). It's a difficult calculation to perform, admittedly.

    I think the rest of your comments are addressed in my last post to Bernard.


  28. Darrell says:


    “I don't know which narrative has had most influence…” Are you kidding? I know nothing about New Zealand but even I could tell you that the Christian narrative has had far greater influence there than any other in modern New Zealand history. That would be like me saying that I wasn't sure if the Christian narrative had had the same impact as Native American culture on our government, laws, culture, and values in general in present day America. Please.

    Also, just as an aside, in your responses to Ron and I've noticed this also in your responses to Eric in the past that you take great liberty with the words “preference” and “taste.” Basically you want to use them in ways that no one else does. Whether in the academy or on the street, if we ask people if they thought that committing genocide was just a personal preference or matter of taste, I doubt 1 out of 10 would agree. Most people believe such things are evil and evil for everyone, not just whoever might happen to think so.

    There is a reason we have a vocabulary that has words like “evil” “righteous” and moral “goodness.” One of those reasons is to assert a difference between the very things you are claiming are the same. In fact the very dictionary difference between what the words mean makes this rather clear. We purposely use the word “evil” to describe the Holocaust because we recognize the DIFFERENCE between a preference and a matter of taste. We are not upset over the gang of criminals that raped the woman in India just because we have a personal preference against rape. No “taste” for it. In fact, in my view, to claim such- is an insult to the victim. All victims. We don't arrest people and jail them for life or hang them over differences of “taste.”

    So I’m not sure why we should even allow your use of those words (preference/taste) as they do not accurately capture what anyone is talking about. I shouldn't use the word “goat” if everyone is talking about a dog.

    So without begging the question in your response, why should we allow you to use words in a way that no one does in common usage and in fact go against their dictionary meaning?


  29. Hi Ron

    I doubt I have the historical background to go head to toe on what makes a tyrant. That we both have the sense most weren't relativists, that they may wlel have believed in the validity of their visions, strikes me as important, but such are the complexities of the geo-political forces involved, I think it's difficult to pursue this line far without become hopelessly trite, so I'll put this one aside.

    If we cede it is rational for the naturalist to act according to their desire not to be hit, then why can the same rationality not extend to other desires (the empathathic desire to see the hungry fed, for example). I must admit I don't begin to see what your point might be here.

    I don't make the claim about tyrants you suggest, and hence am not being irrational. I'll keep pushing this point because this accusation, levelled against naturalism, is based upon a misunderstanding and hence is unfair.

    I agree, the foundation of acknowledging one's self interest is tied up with the interests of the group is not sufficient. Neither of course is the acknowledging of objective moral truth. in both cases, as you say, the nuances and subtleties must be worked through, such is the work of applied ethics and always it is difficult.

    Your case appears to be we're still better off if we take the existence of moral truths as a starting point. I'm not sure why (after all, any truths you choose are available to us too, if we can be convinced of their practical worth, and if they have no practical worth, your case folds on this deficiency).

    It strikes me, regading your last challenge, that your own country might provide an interesting laboratory. As you note, it is hugely diverse, and religiosity varies from state to state. So too do social conditions (see the tyranny of inequality, and our tendey to accept or oppose it). The book The Spirit Level has some data on this. I suspect the findings might rather assuage some of your fears.



  30. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    I feel like we're going in circles here, and I take full responsibility for having brought the topic up in the first place and probably not doing a terribly good job of elucidating my point.

    Just to state again: A naturalist acting in accordance with his own desires isn't acting irrationally. A naturalist who wants anyone else to act in accordance with his desires is acting irrationally. This is the old problem of how you get to an “ought” from an “is”. It's not rational for the naturalist to say “You are wrong to deprive those people of life or freedom”, unless he has a scientific basis for saying it. The most he can say is “I wish you wouldn't do that.” But that will have little effect on the tyrant and is a pretty weak rallying cry when trying to muster opposition to him.

    As I've said, I don't think a society based on naturalism can scale because the most significant agreements between people simply cannot be adjudicated by science. See the article by Peter Hitchens that Darrell linked to in a more recent blog entry. A homogenous group of naturalists who all more-or-less agree on things would probably do fine, sure. But it's gonna have to stay a pretty small group.

    And, frankly, I think I've got evolution on my side too. Religious belief has obviously been selected for, and religious people do appear to be better at reproduction.

    I'll try to track down the book you mentioned. I'm perfectly willing to grant that a wealthy, equal, nonreligious society can be a more comfortable place to live than a religious one with inequality and high poverty. I've been to Sweden, and loved it. 😉 However, the causality here is not at all clear. Does wealth and equality increase because a society becomes less religious? Or is it more the case that nonbelief is a “luxury good” — easier to maintain in societies which are already wealthy and equal (not to mention highly-educated)? Has a decrease in belief ever been correlated with an increase in wealth and equality (over a sufficiently long period)? What about the other way 'round? All interesting but difficult questions… I would think it must be extremely hard to control for factors like size, immigration rates, geography, natural resources, etc.


  31. JP says:

    Hi RonH,

    Very interesting discussion you're having with Bernard but I'd like you to clarify a point. I don't think you have said as much but I take it you are not claiming that the relative success of religious or secular societies has any bearing on whether theism or naturalism (or something else) is true? I would think myself that these are two largely independent issues.

    As to the question of whether a secular society can succeed better – well, this seems to me to be an extremely difficult question and I don't pretend to know one way or the other. I must accept both possibibilities – I simply don't know. Certainly there are secular societies that succeed pretty well – NZ seems to be one, as well as my own (Québec) which recently went from a strongly Catholic society to a secular one in the span of perhaps only one generation, with no apparent harm.

    The notion of what constitutes success is also tricky and subjective. No doubt, many vastly different societies could be said to have succeeded, on their own terms.


  32. Hi Ron

    I don't think I am understanding you fully, apologies for that. I feel you must be making more of a point than is readily apparent.

    'A naturalist who wants anybody else to act according to his desires is acting irrationally?' Yet it is rational for me to want somebody not to hit me? That's a contradiction. Hence the hunger example.

    I absolutely agree, using society wide examples is extremely difficult becuase of the confounding factors (although broad trends might be suggestive). So let's leave those aside for now.

    So, aside from the irrationality argument, where I think you are running a contradiciton, there is this issue of scaling up. A belief that no group of people can agree upon a set of values unless they can ground those values in objectivity (how one decides what those objective values are appears to be conveniently overlooked).

    I disagree, because I think they can also be grounded in collective interests. So long as the group value their own potential to live fulfilling lives, and so long as they see that this potential resides in part in the group as much as the individual (and I think it clearly does. Some societies over time have been better to live in that others) then they are open to adopting any values that they believe will work.

    The system will break down when open discourse, access to information and democratic institutions breaks down, just as it will under an absolutist scenario. I don't see what the mechanism for breakdown you are proposing is.

    I'm very wary of the evolutionary argument, by the way. It is notoriously difficult to know why any particular psychological trait has been selected for, despite the just-so stories of some of the more enthusiastic evolutionary psychologists!

    So, how do you deal with the contradiction, and what is the mechanism for brekadown? These are the questions that most interest me?



  33. RonH says:

    Hi, JP…

    No, JP, I'm not claiming that the relative success of either Christianity or naturalism as a societal basis establishes truth. I suppose one could make the really weak claim that if Christianity or naturalism or whathaveyou is true, a society has a better chance of “succeeding” if based on it. But I don't see how you could establish the truth or falsity based on how “well” the society did.

    I agree with your other points as well. Ultimately, whether or not a society “succeeds” (and perhaps we could define that as remaining reasonably stable with a generally satisfied population) can only be determined by history over the long term. Historically speaking, non-religious states are a very, very recent phenomenon.

    I think there is a kind of natural selection of ideas, as with organisms. Some will survive, others won't. I'm not convinced naturalism alone has what it takes. I might be wrong. Regardless, to paraphrase an old adage, I'd rather be ruled by a wise atheist than a foolish Christian.


  34. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    The contradiction stems from my poorly-qualified point. What's rational is to not want to be hit. What's not rational to expect someone who wants to hit you to care about your preference. 😉 What's even less rational is to expect anyone to care about your preferences when their preferences don't endanger you in the first place (as with the tin-pot jungle dictator half-a-world away).

    It could be rational to feed the hungry in your local surroundings… Altruism and reciprocity can be good for survival. I don't see how naturalism gives you any reason to care for hungry people thousands of miles away from you, or object when they're being slaughtered by their local dictator. (Now, I suspect you do indeed think it is reasonable to care about these people. I would be interested to know how you justify it on naturalism alone (if you even do, and if you don't, my point isn't really applicable, is it? 😉 .)

    On the objective values thing: I'm not at all overlooking (conveniently or otherwise) the difficulty of what objective values to choose. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean we can simply avoid doing it, as naturalists are attempting to do. Your idea of “collective interests” is fraught with difficulty itself: what constitutes a “fulfilling life”? What do we do when people have radically divergent ideas of what “fulfilling” means? How does a society protect the minority from the “tyranny of the majority”? On naturalism, the State is absolute.

    I hear what you're saying, and it sounds good on paper. I just don't think it'll work. The successful secular states today have become so only recently, and it remains to be seen how long they'll last. I'm unaware of any state consciously based on non-theistic principles that has led to a free society. But I freely admit that this is speculation on my part based on my limited reading of history. I'm wide open to considering other evidence.


  35. Hi Ron

    I do think it is reasonable for me to care about other people, and that one can get here on naturalism alone. Here's how it works. Let us accept that it is reasonable to act in one's own interests. So, it is reasonable to try to avoid being hit. Why, because being in a world where I'm not hit is something I personally find much more pleasant and fulfilling than being in one where I am.

    Now, I personally feel much happier when others are well and happy than when they are suffering and sad. This is a result of my capacity for empathy, and the narratives I have inherited and developed. In this sense, there is an essential truth in religious narratives, to serve another is to serve oneself.

    Hence, just as I wish to avoid being hit, I wish to avoid others suffering, because it makes me sad to see it, and makes me feel exceedingly good to help out (which is what motivates me to give to charity, for example). There you are, justified on naturalism alone.

    Now, why should the assailant care about my preferences? They don't, unless I can convince them that they too stand to gain from peace breaking out between us. Such is the cost of living in a society. (And under absolutism, the assailant who doesn't share your particular values, no matter how objective you consider them, doesn't care either. So the challenge is the same.)

    Yes, the notion of collective interest is extremely difficult, as is your alternative. Each of the questions you pose is open to direct translation – what do we mean by goodness? What do we do when people's notion of goodness diverges? It's the identical problem, which is why it interests me that you think the secular society faces a special set of challenges.

    I do understand that you think there are extra problems facing the secular society, but I'm still digging away to discover what these are. I'll understand if you tire of my exploration. IN the meantime it's refreshing to be able converse across the trenches, so to speak. Fulfilling even.



  36. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron-

    “I'm unaware of any state consciously based on non-theistic principles that has led to a free society.”

    Well, the US stands as an example. The principles enunciated all through the federalist papers and constitution are utterly non-theistic. The bit of theistic window dressing in the declaration of independence one can take or leave. And the founders were on balance, deists of various sorts, few of them Christian in any contemporary sense.

    Which is not to say that Christian influences and values were no present at all, but that they were consciously thrust to the background during this enlightenment project.


  37. RonH says:

    Hi, Bernard…

    While concern for the suffering of those immediately around you has a survival advantage, concern for others beyond that circle does not. Your instincts did not evolve in a world where awareness of remote suffering was possible, so they cannot distinguish between suffering which is relevant and suffering which isn't. We know this now, so it doesn't make sense to feel empathy for those outside your immediate circle. In fact, attempting to do something about remote suffering will be costly and possibly risky, and thus will likely only be disadvantageous to you. Acting on your instincts at cost with no real benefit is irrational.

    Belief — faith — drives societies to do the big, hard things. To see the long view. Those things can be bad, true, but they can be good as well. Naturalism provides no reason to extend beyond the self and those immediately around, and provides a pretty good justification for ignoring instincts that urge otherwise.

    Societies need a narrative beyond “You are an accidental mammal whose objective is to survive and reproduce.” I don't see how a consistent naturalism gets us much past that.


  38. RonH says:

    Hi, Burk…

    I believe you're wrong about that. The linchpin of the American Revolution was that men were endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. These rights existed, came from an authority superior to the British State, were used as the justification for rebellion against a tyrant, and could not be abrogated even by the new State they were establishing. Setting aside the religious views of the founders themselves (which is an open question), the general population of the colonies was quite religious — predominantly Christian. I think the whole thing would have failed otherwise.

    (And, ironically, it's that whole “separation of church and state” bit for which you have to blame our nation's current “religiosity”. Had we established a corrupt State church like the rest of Europe, it most likely would have atrophied as theirs have and we'd now all be living in the secular paradise they are. In the absence of a “church monopoly”, competition became possible. And where you have competition, you have innovation and natural selection…)

    I believe the non-theistic Enlightenment project you are thinking of was the French Revolution of 1789 — inspired by the American one but with less religious mumbo-jumbo.

    Then again, I did specifically add the criteria “that has led to a free society”…


  39. RonH says:

    Oh, check out Darrell's latest post. Hey, Burk, you should run your “Enlightenment project” idea by him…


  40. Hi Ron

    The key point with regard to natural selection, as I'm sure you know, is that it is non-purposeful. Organisms do not seek to be the best reproducers or survivors, this doesn't sit over the process as some overarching goal. Rather, variations in reproductive success are the sorting mechanisms by which change occurs in genetic distributions. And that is all. A statistical process by which some mutations spread through the genetic population, and some don't. To think of it as designing organisms whose rational purpose is to survive and reproduce is to misread the theory, (and many do).

    We can not speak meaningfully of an organism acting rationally or irrationally with respect to evolution's greater project, because under naturalism there is no greater project, simple as that.

    So, if we claim that in order to be consistent, the non-theist must act in accordance with a non-existent reproductive imperative, then absolutely. Guilty as charged. By this irrational definition of rationality, I am supremely irrational, and proud of it.

    My claim, however, is that the naturalist can derive a set of ethical standards that are rational in exactly the sense that the theist's are rational. That is, they fall consistently from the premises of that world view. Remember, the naturalist does not claim that there is no meaning or purpose in the world, but rather that we humans create meaning and purpose, both individually and collectively. We are the creature that tells stories, and from these stories fall our sense of meaning.

    So, if my self-created sense of purpose is to live a life of maximal fulfillment, then that is entirely consistent with a naturalist outlook (not that I myself am a naturalist, but I do think you're being mighty unfair on them).



  41. JP says:

    Hi RonH,

    Thanks for your answer. Concerning moral absolutes, perhaps you could also clarify a point I'm not too sure about. Take any example of an action you would qualify as wrong (say the old favourite, torturing children for fun). Why do you say it is wrong?

    I don't think you can simply argue that, “it so happens that this is an absolute moral fact”. This would be just restating your statement in another form. I don't expect either that you would argue from authority (of a sacred text, or whatever).

    If you argue from first principles, then we can ask the same of them: why are these principles true? Would you then argue that they are self-evident, that it's enough that you have a deep (intuitive?) conviction that they are true? But then, how can you justify giving so much credit to our own intuition?

    I'd like your take on this. I'm genuinely puzzled by this question.


  42. Burk Braun says:

    Hi, Ron- Re Darrell's latest post, its reviewed book is described on its Amazon page as “Highly readable and an intellectual landmark in Catholic ecclesiastical history”

    I am sure it would be very enlightening!

    Negative liberty is indeed far from the whole story. Our founders were way beyond that, which makes the whole gun “rights” position from the NRA such a sham, and your/Darrell's argument here a straw man. Secularism and naturalism are not automatically wedded to a negative-only vision of the community, as, again, our secular founding demonstrates. They indeed successfully suppressed the religious conflicts of Europe that had so corroded the public sphere. The federalist papers are where the real foundations of our government are laid out and they are relentless historical and secular.

    And the French revolution, for all its faults was a significant advance in human history, resumed after the Napoleonic (and Catholic restoration) hiatus of ~ 50 years, in the second and later republics.


  43. Darrell says:


    What straw-man argument? There is no doubt that there were deists among the founding fathers. However, within the total population and as to the consensus at that time- it was most obviously a belief in the Christian narrative. It certainly wasn't in philosophical naturalism. Let's not forget that the soft deists of that time were hardly philosophical naturalists. Even the deists and those who would be considered at the time the most “progressive” leaders were hardly atheists or naturalists. And that, if I hear Ron correctly, is the point. There is no evidence anywhere that a population or even a cadre of leaders who are firmly committed to philosophical naturalism has ever produced anything positive in civil society (or even produced a civil culture to begin with) like the Christian narrative. As anyone who is familiar with “Democracy in America” by Alexis de Tocqueville knows, the Christian narrative was firmly in place in the mind of the people and most (if not all) of their leaders, especially at the local level. For goodness sake, the main source of learning to read in America in our public schools for decades and decades after 1776 was the Bible. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth were all started by churches to train clergy and missionaries. One could go on and on. Regardless the personal beliefs of some of the founders, the consensus of the people at every level of society was completely infused, guided, and influenced by the Christian narrative. Such is not a straw-man argument—it is historical fact unless all our historians are frauds.

    To the question why couldn’t philosophical naturalism produce such a civil culture, all I know is that it hasn’t. As to why anyone thinks it could, all such talk is pure speculation. We have a historical record. One argument has history on its side; the other argument (Burk’s-Bernard's) has no history and is based on pure imagination as to the effects—if the question is: Was the West and America’s founding based, influenced, and grounded (for good or for ill) upon the Christian narrative, in the sense of in the minds of the people and many of their leaders.


  44. Darrell says:


    You seem to assume that “secular” cultures just arise out of nowhere. It is easy to look around now and say, “Wow, everyone seems to have the same western liberal values as I do—what a coincidence—,” after the Christian narrative did all the heavy lifting and influenced the people and institutions before you for decades if not centuries. I am reminded of the rich 3rd and 4th generation of children of pioneers who carved out empires who then sit around in an opulent mansion, sunning by the pool, as they look over and congratulate one another on their good fortune and hard work.

    Again, you can speculate until you are blue in the face about why you think philosophical naturalism (which is not the same as simply saying “secular”)can replicate or produce the same values or even produce a civil state or culture, but the fact remains that it hasn't anywhere or at any time.


  45. RonH says:

    Hullo, gents…

    Once again, I'm starting to awkwardly feel like the fellow running a juggling act on the back row of the magic show. This blog is for interacting with Darrell's ideas more than mine, and I have perhaps been too provocative for someone else's living room. I'll try to be more conscientious of that in the future. So perhaps this should be my last post on the thread. I've enjoyed the vigorous discussion. I have a few final responses below; then I'll leave you fellows with the last words on this thread, and I'll stop hogging Darrell's mic.

    Bernard: Perhaps you're right, and my claims about naturalist irrationality were overreaching. I will provisionally concede that a naturalist can derive a set of ethical standards consistent with that world view's premises. But it seems to me that on naturalism alone, any ethical standard can be just as consistent, and naturalism provides no mechanism for adjudicating between them (the claim so frequently made at competing theistic standards). Science has yet to prove that dictators should not commit genocide, or that torturing a few children every now and then causes any real harm. Humans tell stories and in doing so create meaning and purpose… But implicit in naturalism is the claim that none of those stories are really true (as it defines truth). I think that for a story to underlay a society successfully, it must be believed. A story that everyone knows isn't true might be a fine basis for a fan club, but I don't think it can do the heavy lifting required to build a civilization. (Agnosticism might fall prey to this same problem, I suppose.) I realize this is an objective claim which I am not in a position to prove (though I think one can find circumstantial evidence), so I hardly expect to convince you of it. On the bright side, I'm not completely certain of it myself and feel obligated to continue challenging it. As always, I admire the clarity of your thought and the graciousness with which it is shared. You have the soul of a true teacher.



  46. RonH says:


    JP: I've had the discussion on how to adjudicate between intuitions with Bernard elsewhere, and am not inclined to revisit it at this time. My views about the value of human life and freedom are rooted in the nature of humans as being in the image of God, the consciousness which preceeds and is foundational to the material world. This is of course a metaphysical claim, and, no, I don't have any scientific evidence for it. I don't know that naturalism can produce any scientific evidence for the value of human life either, frankly. What is the evidence that children shouldn't be tortured? (Is there a Godwin's Law for paedo-torture?) You may say that you don't need evidence for such an intuitive belief, but I don't think it's as self-evident as you suggest. Child-torture is not that difficult to come by in history, unfortunately. Leaving infants (particularly girls) outside of town to die of exposure was an accepted practice in the Roman world (not to be outlawed until the empire was “Christianized”). Killing baby girls based on their gender still occurs today, in fact. These are not religiously motivated actions either, but pragmatic ones. Does your revulsion at the idea really come from evolution, or from growing up in a society based on Christian absolutes? If paedo-torture started to come back into vogue in a naturalist utopia, what reasoning would you use to convince people to oppose it?

    I think it is entirely possible for individual naturalists living on intuitions birthed in a Christian matrix to behave morally (and even admirably). I'm skeptical that naturalism, on its own, could bootstrap a society that any of us here would be happy living in.

    Burk: Sorry, man, but ever since your “Christianity knocked civilization off the rails” quip I've had a hard time taking your views on history seriously.

    Cheers, all…



  47. Darrell says:


    I think another point to make here as far as how we ground ethics is that, for all practical purposes the Enlightenment Project is over. In the academy, the question, at least since Alistair Macintyre’s book “After Virtue” came out has been “What do we do now?” The growing consensus is that the Enlightenment Project, the “classical liberal” project has run its course and is out of resources to ground ethics and the common good. Many believe that this is partly because it was parasitic and could only ride on the back of the Christian narrative. As it then began to cut off the very branch holding it up, we now find ourselves in a sort of free-fall. This is again part of the modern/post-modern divide. My goodness, even Peter Singer has recognize this problem and has now begun to talk about grounding ethics in an objective fashion.

    There is a reason one no longer runs into “deists” and there is a reason no one talks about the “Enlightenment” as being a player in serious philosophical, political, and cultural conversations—it is talked about in mostly a historical way now. The height of the cultural influence and power of the Enlightenment was during the 18th and 19th Centuries. As far as the 19th Century, while there were glimpses of redemption and good, the century could also be described as a grave yard. After the Holocaust, the idea that we were “progressing” and that science and technology would save us began (shocker) to wane and the Enlightenment Project has never recovered from the blow dealt by the 19th Century.

    Much of this conversation is sort of moot in that regard and playing catch-up.


  48. Hi guys

    Thanks for the conversation. I hope, at this point, we understand each other better. I certainly do.

    And, obvious perhaps, but worth noting, let us not lose sight of the fact that all of us in this conversation are pursuing very similar goals, the construction and maintenance of a society where the human potential may flourish, in all its glorious forms. And the core vlaues we refer back to are also, I would guess, tremendously similar (and hence, to me, admirable).

    I think it is tremendously hard to avoid the tribalistic instinct to claim, 'we do this better than the other side.' (If only we didn't have Christians, the world would be more tolerant and flexible, if we ever lost our Christian foundation, we'd be off to hell in a hand cart.) Yes, history can be skilfully managed to support these views, but less so, perhaps, to illuminate them.

    Darrell, I absolutely recognise the contribution various religious narratives have made to the great project of peaceful co-habitation. To overlook the importance of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism et al in providing us with a smorgasboard of aspiration and example would be crass.

    And now, as the world continues to twist and turn in so many unpredictable ways, non-theist thinkers and doers are making some quite beautiful contributions.

    A point I think JP may have been nodding at strikes me as vital. No matter where we believe our foundations lie, none of it is fixed, all in the end is an exploration of our essential natures, and of the nature of the social structures we have created. Is there not much to be said for seeing this not as a set of competing solutions, so much as a shared endeavour?



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