In recent years the major atheist talking heads have resorted to a variety of logical fallacies to support their arguments or to tear down theism. A recent example came from a debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig at Notre Dame on the question “Are the foundations of moral values natural or supernatural?”. During a rebuttal section Harris said:
Ok given all the good—all that this God of yours does not accomplish in the lives of others, given, given the, the misery that’s being imposed on some helpless child at this instant, this kind of faith is obscene. Ok, to think in this way is to fail to reason honestly, or to care sufficiently about the suffering of other human beings. And if God is good and loving and just and kind, and he wanted to guide us morally with a book, why give us a book that supports slavery? Why give us a book that admonishes us to kill people for imaginary crimes, like witchcraft. Now, of course, there is a way of not taking these questions to heart, ok. According to Dr. Craig’s Divine Command theory, God is not bound by moral duties; God doesn’t have to be good. Whatever he commands is good, so when he commands that the Israelites to slaughter the Amalekites, that behavior becomes intrinsically good because he commanded it.
This is but a small excerpt. Here he is merely arguing that if God exists, then He is a monster. His goal was to argue that science and naturalism alone can give us moral imperatives. Craig’s was to argue that if God exists, then moral imperatives exist. Certainly in the rest of the debate Harris talks about how he thinks science can answer these questions (albeit unconvincingly and certainly not conclusively) but here he is throwing a bunch of “red herrings” at us.
- A good God wouldn’t let children suffer (Worth discussing separately. If held at face value it doesn’t directly contradict Craig’s argument but does present issues worth discussing).
- He wouldn’t support slavery (again worth discussing separately and intended to waste Craig’s response time; as noted in this guest blog on the Washington Post…
Christianity has in fact been history’s major force for the freeing of slaves. Immediate abolition was realistically impossible in New Testament times: The Romans would have treated it as insurrection, and the inevitable bloodshed to follow it would have produced greater evil than would have been alleviated by abolition. The injunction to “obey” was thus temporary and contextual. It was also tempered with instructions to masters to treat slaves reasonably, as fellow human beings [Chuck added emphasis]. Eventually slavery “virtually disappeared” from Europe under Christianity’s influence, as social historian Rodney Stark stated in “For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery”
Harris then brings up the Divine Command theory and claims that it allows God to not be good all the time. In fact, the essence of the theory is that goodness is an inherent part of God’s nature. Following from that, good acts are good because they echo God’s nature.
This provides a third option to the question that is thought to corner theists, namely:
Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?
Allegedly, these are the only two possibilities and each raises issues for theists. But when we understand that moral goodness comes from the standard of God’s nature the issue is much more clear. As this post on Rational Faith Online explains:
When asked if doing something like torturing toddlers would be obligatory if God commanded it…you are being asked an incoherent question, like asking “Would a married bachelor be faithful to his wife?” It’s a logically incoherent question because there is no such thing as a married bachelor, so it doesn’t make sense to ask about how a married bachelor (a logical impossibility) would behave.
So Harris throws in a false dilemma after a bunch of red herrings. Isn’t this fun to wade through? (By the way the issue of the Amalekites has certainly been covered in other discussions but he ignores them.) It’s intended to be a slog to distract from the issue: Harris does not present a coherent model for morality based strictly on naturalism, he merely presents hope that one will be found. The closest he gets to presenting a model is here:
Ok, what about well-being? Well, the well-being of conscious creatures, and the, and the link between that and morality, may seem open to doubt, but it shouldn’t. Ok, here’s the only assumption you have to make. Imagine a universe in which every conscious creatures suffers as much as it possibly can, for as long as it can. Ok, I call this “the worst possible misery for everyone”. Ok, the worst possible misery for everyone is bad. Ok, if, if, if the word “bad” applies anywhere, it applies here. Now, if you think the worst possible misery for everyone isn’t bad, or maybe it has a silver lining, or maybe there’s something worse, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And what’s more, I’m pretty sure you don’t know what you’re talking about either.
The—what I’m saying is, the minimum standard of moral goodness is to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. If we should do anything in this universe, if we ought to do anything, if we have a moral duty to do anything, it’s to avoid the worst possible misery for everyone. And the moment you admit this, you admit that, that, that all other possible states of the universe are better than the worst possible misery for everyone. You have the worst possible misery for everyone over here, and all these other constellation of experiences arrayed out here, and because the experience of conscious creatures is dependent in some way on the laws of nature, there will be right and wrong ways to move along this continuum. It will be possible to think that you’re avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone—–and to fail. You can be wrong in your beliefs about how to navigate this space.
One major problem with this is that it only covers the minimum. Don’t do anything that would cause the worst possible misery for everyone in the universe! I don’t know about you, but those decisions don’t happen in my life very often. (Funnily enough, they happen in video game universes all the time with Mass Effect 3 being a recent example) He claims that there is a continuum that starts from this point but never really explains it. For instance, he goes into describing “well-being” but never explains what it really means in a materialistic context. Utilitarianism has real issues and he barely scratches the surface.
It’s worth reading through the transcript of the debate to see where the two sides are coming from. Sadly, or perhaps expectedly, we see atheists resort to these non-logical tactics on a regular basis.