Deconversion: A Response – Part 3 (Morality)

Ha, bet y’all thought I forgot about this series!

The third video in Evid3nc3’s series on deconversion concerns morality:

Again, can’t say enough how much I appreciate the author’s honesty and transparency about his experiences.  I glanced over the video’s comments and saw one by an atheist who said this series helped him understand more why Christians can believe as they do.  The ability to lead others to empathy like that requires a level of artistry and tact to which I aspire in my own writing.  His decisions about his faith notwithstanding, I want to be like this guy someday 🙂

Nevertheless, I am beginning to sense a pattern in this fellow’s story, and it seems to manifest itself in the following sequence:

  1. The author extrapolates from his Christian faith certain expectations that are not necessarily Biblical.
  2. Those expectations are challenged or unmet.
  3. The author reasons (on his own, it seems — no mention is made to his asking for counter-opinions from trusted Christian friends or leaders) that since his expectations don’t line up with reality, neither does his belief in God.

This is a very simplistic portrait of what’s being presented, and I know it.  However, I must say this:  So far I haven’t seen anything in this fellow’s story that, to me, points to a deficiency in the Christian belief system before it points to, perhaps, the dubiousness of certain inferences made based on a narrow view of the doctrines therein.  Others may disagree, and might feel that these experiences provide a “case closed” portrayal of the unrealistic nature of the tenets of Christianity themselves — and to those, I would welcome comment and robust discussion 🙂

Now, back to the video itself:  I, of course, recommend my readers watch the video in its entirety to get the context of this discussion — but in short, the author portrays his process of disillusionment with a theistic view of morality by illustrating his introduction to the Euthyphro Dilemma, a famous meta-ethical paradox that presents a dichotomy between divine command theory (moral actions are good, my definition, simply because God commands them) and something like rationalism (where “goodness” in a moral sense is something that exists independently and against which actions are judged moral or immoral through the use of reason).  By rejecting the divine command hypothesis on grounds that it renders the concept of “goodness” meaningless, he found himself left with a universe where morality must be something separate from God, attainable through reason alone.  Though the video ended rather abruptly at this point (I would very much have liked the author to spend more time developing these concepts and their effects on his deconversion experience specifically), I think the audience is expected to infer that this is incompatible with Christianity — i.e., if God has to reference something outside of Himself in order to make valid moral commands, then is He not then ultimately supreme?  Would He not, then, be God after all?

So, what do we think of this scenario?  Is it a false dilemma?  Or are there really no other options?

Let me pose it as an illustration by applying the same dichotomy to the concept of “thought”.  Right now, I am thinking.  (Some might beg to differ, but please bear with me for the sake of the illustration.)  That means that I am formulating thoughts.  I’m a rational creature — it’s what I do.  Now, let’s think about those thoughts themselves, and ask ourselves this question:  Are they “thoughts” because I am thinking them, or am I limited only to thinking about things that satisfy some external definition of what a “thought” is?  This creates somewhat of a similar dichotomy to one illustrated in the Euthypho Dilemma:  Does the nature and substance of a “thought” originate in and emanate from my own mind, or is it an external construct to which my mind must conform when it thinks?

Those who would be uncomfortable with my brain’s unbounded ability to think whatever “thoughts” it can arbitrarily come up with might be tempted to reject (as the author did) the first horn of the dilemma, and go for the second.  However, this latter scenario (i.e. that my brain only thinks things that conform to some external definition of a “thought”) seems rather nonsensical, even silly, don’t you think?  For one thing, “thought” is a bit of a fuzzy concept — trying to treat it as a “thing” that exists apart from my mind leads to some tricky business.  A thought’s non-physical nature makes it hard to put under the microscope, to come up with a universally-accepted list of characteristics and attributes that would allow us to categorize and define exactly what a thought is and what it isn’t.  Plus, even if we could, could anyone really make a case that the brain, before it thinks something, consults some extra-cranial standard to make sure that what it thinks is, in fact, a “thought”?  It’s nonsense!

In any case, it seems much more natural and useful to think of a thought as something that comes from my inherent process of thinking than to try to treat thoughts as “things” in their own right.  In other words, by nature I am a rational creature — thus, formulating thoughts is just something I do.  It’s inextricably tied to my rational nature:  If I can think it, then it’s a thought by definition.  We need not worry about my brain’s ability to “think” something that is not a “thought” — it doesn’t make any sense.

When we grasp this concept, I think we get closer to what God’s relationship with morality is probably like. The Bible says that God is good (Psalm 31:19Psalm 34:8Psalm 119:68Romans 8:28) — goodness, in fact, find its complete identity and fulfillment in the person of God.  Thus, “goodness” (the touchstone by which actions are judged as morally good or morally bad) is not external to God at all, but is built into His very nature — and He gives commands that conform to the “moral good” because it is in His nature to do so.  To do otherwise would be to act against His own nature, which is something else the Bible makes clear that He cannot do (Numbers 23:19Psalm 92:15Romans 3:4Titus 1:2James 1:17-18).

So, instead of morality (or goodness) being either something that is created by what God says or something that exists apart from God, might not there be a third option?  Namely, that goodness (and, thus, the definition of moral action) is something inherent in God’s nature  — and thus morality is a by-product of God’s nature of goodness, just as thought is a by-product of our nature of rationality.  Just as a mind cannot formulate something that is not a thought, neither can God do or command anything that is not, ultimately, good.  The dichotomy, thus, dissipates — it yields, in fact, somewhat of a combination of the two scenarios.

Now, I can imagine the issues that my atheist readers might raise with this model of morality.  However, I think the Euthypho Dilemma can show us some interesting things about the naturalist’s model of morality:  In the illustration, a choice is presented where the standard of morality (i.e. goodness) is either founded in God, or exists as an independent, objective force.  Under naturalism, neither can be true — which begs the question:  From where does morality gain any power to authoritatively dictate what I, as an individual, ought or ought not to do?  Rationalism fails, because it depends on “goodness” existing as an objective standard apart from our own rational thought — and it cannot, under naturalism or materialism; social contract fails, at least as a sole theory — unless we want to define things like slavery and genocide as “good” simply because there are societies that allow such things, or unless we want to usurp the individual’s autonomy and assert, instead, a totalitarian state; moral relativism fails for reasons similar to social contract, plus there’s nothing that would make it authoritative; etc.  I feel that we are running out of options when it comes to arriving at anything like an objective (or even a legitimately authoritative) system of morality under naturalism or materialism.  If this is the case, then on what grounds could anyone complain that what God does or commands, as reported in the Bible, is immoral?

Let the discussions start!  It’s always the best part — even I get tired of hearing myself speak most of the time 😛

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8 comments

  1. Hi Seth, I’d like to bite on this one.

    I have heard the idea of goodness being built into God’s very nature before, and while I think that is true, I don’t think it can solve the Euthyphro Dilemma. We can still ask could God’s character have been different? If we say yes, than morality is still arbitrary (good is God), but if we say no, then we are still saying God conforms to what is good (God is good).

    I don’t have a difficulty with that. Take this parallel. Can God make 1 + 1 = 45 or make Modus Ponens invalid? I don’t think so. Those things are simply true, God knows they are true, just as we do. But God isn’t any the less powerful for that – in fact he would not be God if he didn’t know that.

    So I see no difficulty with saying that God condemns murder because it is bad, just as he knows that 1 + 1 = 2.

    So why do we need God for morality? Well we can work out mathematics ourselves, for our cognitive faculties are capable of that. But it is clear that our moral faculties are far less developed, and it is all to easy to have wrong moral ideas or fail to live up to them. God deals with this in these ways (I believe):

    1. He can tell us what is right and wrong with complete authority.
    2. He can help us through the power of the Holy Spirit to behave better.
    3. He can forgive us and restore us when we stuff up.
    4. He promises that one day justice will be done and wrong put to right.

    No-one else, no other belief, can do those things.

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    1. I could be wrong here, but I’m thinking your question, “could God’s character have been different?” is incoherent in the same way as asking if God can create a rock too heavy for him to lift. God by definition is, in part, a being that is perfect in goodness. So your question is akin to asking, “Can God not be God?”.

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      1. Hi Caroline, nice to “meet” you.

        Yes, maybe you’re right. But the thought remains, that defining good as God’s character doesn’t resolve the dilemma. You say “God by definition is, in part, a being that is perfect in goodness”, but this seems to me to hint at the idea that perfect goodness is a concept and God can be described that way – which makes morality separate from God, which some theists find troubling. I just don’t think Seth’s approach resolves that.

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    2. Hello Eric! Believe it or not, I’m excited to have found something that you and I disagree on! 😉

      I’m siding with Caroline on this one — if God’s nature were different, then He wouldn’t be God. To postulate an entity that fits the role of God and yet is different from God is, to me, essentially the same as saying that God as He exists is not altogether perfect, does not represent the pinnacle of perfection. I’m not willing to bend my mind that far.

      So, if God’s nature were different such that He wasn’t good, then He wouldn’t be God. In any case, what standard would be able to exist apart from God that would embody goodness if it did not come, ultimately, from Him? In which case either God would not be supreme (because something exists outside His nature), or we have a god who violates his own nature (by creating “goodness” when it’s not in his nature). Both scenarios are nonsensical.

      The same goes for the rules of logic: If 1+1=2 and modus ponens is true, it is because the system of logic and mathematics was created from God and comes from God’s nature of order. It does us no good to go on imagining another kind of god who has constructed a different kind of logic or mathematics — for one thing, I have no authority to say whether there isn’t such a system that could have existed; and secondly, to do so puts us in the same boat as toying with God’s good nature. The laws of logic — just like the standard of goodness — is a part of God’s nature and emanates from Him. They must, otherwise they could not exist — unless you’re comfortable with the idea of a system of logic and a standard of goodness that pre-exists God. I am not comfortable with this at all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Seth!

    After watching the video, the person’s relating a personal experience regarding his own deconversion. He’s talking about his own beliefs, and how he became disillusioned with them. Religion and beliefs are deeply personal, and I don’t think he’s trying to say all Christians believed as he believed.

    What is critical to grasp is that he had religious beliefs, he doubted those beliefs, and from that doubt he abandoned his belief in the divine. It doesn’t matter if his beliefs are shared with every Christian ever. All that matters is that he had a belief, that belief came under doubt, and from there he concluded that he had no support for his belief in the divine.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hello mate! Long time no see — glad to see you back 🙂

      You’re right, and I address this in my introduction to this series. Sorry for not making my position more clear in this particular installment — my goal is not to undermine in any way this fellow’s story, I just felt compelled to offer my own point of view on it. I welcome the same critical look at my own story — which corresponds exactly, by the way, with the outline you present for his: I had a belief (in naturalism), that belief came under doubt, and from there I concluded that I had no support for my disbelief in the divine.

      Thanks for weighing in!

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