Monday, June 27, 2011

Dialogue with an Atheist

From a comment thread below. Brian is in green. My original is in black. My response is in red..

You don't want an ethic to be completely static either.”

If you say that now, why did you earlier say denigrate an ethic that can “change at any time?” It sounds like you are trying to have it both ways. Are you trying to find some middle ground there, and perhaps favor an ethic that is sometimes static and sometimes fluid? Please feel free to elaborate on how much an ideal ethic should be one versus the other.

I am not sure why this is hard to understand. Science has the concept of a truth that you are trying to find. That truth changes but those changes don’t simply ignore what has been shown experimentally before. So can it change? Yes. Does that means existing truth might somehow stop being true tomorrow? No. Any new theory has to explain and predict experimental results better than the previous one. So there in limited framework in which change can take place.
The same is true with Catholicism. It never discards sacred tradition. But there is always a possibility for a deeper and better understanding of what God is revealing. Some of it is very solid and some is still quite mysterious. Everything can be improved on. But you can’t just ignore your previous data. So tradition can grow and change but you can’t just change it as an individual. Even the church can’t change it in a way that simply declares previous tradition to be wrong.

“Sometimes people can be made to see they are not being moral even by their own standards. They sometimes do change for the better. But when it get hard the option to just say the standard is the problem is going to be tempting. The point is nothing prevents them from doing that”

That is wrong. They may have intellectual honesty and a desire to be consistent and unbiased, and if so then that would stop them from engaging in a behavior that is hypocritical, biased, and exhibiting a double standard. The goal then, as stated before, is for the rest of us to encourage people to be honest, consistent, and reflective of their ethical principles and how they apply them. The more people there are in the world that are ignorant of their own behavior, engaging in hypocrisies and double standards and without caring that they are doing so, the worse it will be for the rest of us.
The first thing that jumps out is you seem to have an absolute moral standard here. Being consistent and unbiased is good. Being hypocritical, biased, and having a double standard is bad. Is that your subjective standard or is that objective? That is, does it apply just to you or does it apply to everyone? If it is just you then why go around encouraging others to be that way? It might feel wrong for you but who says it feels wrong for the next guy?

Think about your own personal ethical history. Have you ever changed your mind on some ethical position? Reflecting back on your original position, why did you hold it? What reasons would you have cited back then? What caused you to later change your position? What was the flaw in your earlier stance? If you look hard enough I think you will find that there was an inconsistency in your worldview that you became aware of, where you espoused some moral principle but then had the realization that your position on this other issue was in violation of that same moral principle. Sometimes our brain can live with inconsistencies and double standards (via cognitive dissonance and various biases) and sometimes it cannot, compelling us to change something. If more people can become more self-aware and less controlled by their biases, then people will on the whole adopt worldviews and ethics that are more consistent, reducing the amount of double standards that are in play when making choices.
My biggest moral changes came when I learned something about God. How much He cares about the poor. How much He cares about sexual purity. How much He cares about sacraments. I don’t think my previous position was inconsistent as much as it was ignorant. In Christianity the moral standard is not a principle but a Person. So knowing the Person better will change your positions.

“This is why we need to get God's revelation right. Osama Bin Laden, or now his successor, can and does say "Kill the Jews" just as well as Hitler says it. They definitely claim it is God's will. They are simply wrong.”

How do you know they are wrong? God wiped out entire races and species in the OT, and also punishes some people for all eternity after they live out their lives here on Earth. There is ample precedent for God being extremely violent to humans. You may respond by trying to justify God’s actions in such cases, but note that that would implicitly acknowledge that God did and does such things. Whenever apologists are presented with examples of the Christian god’s violent and genocidal behavior, some will deny that God does such things. Others will admit that God does such things, but then try to justify it. So far it looks like you are going the first route, but that is not entirely clear.

Perhaps God again had some reason now to command a genocide, and also chose to reveal it directly only to certain individuals (remember also that God works in “mysterious ways” to us).
This is why it is important not only to be religious but to get religion right. Just like bad science does not help humanity, bad religion does not either. But can we tell the true religion from the falsehood? I think we can. We use the same principles of reason we always use. Look at Jesus and look at Mohammad. Who do you believe? Which story agrees with the evidence? If you skip that step you will get nonsense but that is not just true for religion. You need to think.
As far as murder goes, God did command people to kill others in the Old Testament. God’s relationship with man has been developing and has gone through several major covenants. So the command to kill whole people groups is not something that is part of the current covenant. There is a progression. We are past that time now.

“If there is no transcendent morality why do we care if people are honest, reflective or consistent?”

Because those people use their morality to make choices, and some of those choices have consequences for me and others that I care about. So, I have a vested interest in the choices that other people make, and how they make them.
Sounds like you are imposing your morality on me. The consequences or moral choices are often at the heart of disagreement. So saying I can be honest, reflective and consistent in determining consequences and you can’t ends up in the same place as might makes right. Besides that, I don’t think you are being honest, reflective and consistent. If you were you would admit you are defining a transcendent moral truth here.
“He knows you better than you know yourself and loves you more than you could love yourself. So why not listen to Him?”

Assumes many facts not in evidence. It is also a mammoth-sized conversation on its own, and for now I do not want to derail from the main topic.
You were the one characterizing Christianity as “an ethical system that is extremely hyper-authoritarian in nature.” I was just pointing out that it is not so. A father can have authority and not crush his son’s spirit. God does that with us.
“I don't think recognizing that someone knows more than you makes you a non-thinker.”

Nor did I ever say it did, or would I. My point was not even about the amount of KNOWLEDGE such a being possesses. It was about the nature of its INVOLVEMENT in our lives. What I actually was saying was that under a Christian objective ethical system, your proper role is to be obedient to God’s will, to obey God’s moral standards. God is not merely a being that knows more than us. It is a being that is also commanding us what to do. Not obeying those commandments is a sin.

I am not sure what your problem here is. Is it that obedience is always wrong because it is obedience? Even if God’s will is consistent with who you are and what will make you truly happy? Even if obedience is going to be better for you and for others than doing things your own way? Is there something inherent in obedience to God that is immoral? I agree there is something about it that rubs us the wrong way. That is why being holy is such a struggle every day. But there is nothing wrong with a relationship where God leads us and we follow.
“God does not tell you ever detail of what you are to do every day. That would make it quite oppressive.”

Methinks you are beginning to understand. :)
We are never controlled. It is always a love relationship and love is always a free choice.

“There are many occasions where you have to use your mind.”

How is that possible under Christianity? How can we ever know what we should do, without just being told what to do by the Christian God? Are you saying we have the ability to use our own judgments, our own values, our own feelings, our own opinions, and our own thoughts to make decisions about what we should or should not do?

Welcome to ethical subjectivism.

The point is we need to work to bring our own judgments, values, feelings, and opinions into line with God. We must use our own. God will not tell us what to do every step of the way. But we must form our conscience so we can make choices like He would want us to make them. But not just because it is what He would want. It is because it is a higher, freer, better way to think. We are becoming more like God but also more like our true self. The way He created us, in His image but still an individual. It is sin that makes us all the same. It is sin that takes away our ability to think and choose. It is redemption that gives that back to us.

This response will be my last one on this topic on this site, as I generally prefer to not get engaged in back-and-forth exchanges on blogs particularly. If you want to continue I would be happy to do so, but in a different venue. I am a member at the atheist-oriented FRDB:

Freeratio (dot) org
Thanks for the reply. I would not mind continuing. I don’t have a ton of time. Jumping onto an atheist site where it will be 47 people against me would be fun but I just can’t spend that much time right now. If you can think of a place where I could interact with at most 2 or 3 atheists and link to it from my blog that might be attractive.
but if there is some other place you prefer I may be willing as well. Time is short for me at the moment too, so my responses may have some delay.



All the best to you Brian. I will pray for you. You are very intelligent and charitable. It is a pleasure dialoging with you., God bless.


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