Taking a Stand for Relativism

Batman-vs.-Relativism-Part-4“Good and bad are simply concepts in your mind.”

I’ve long since lost count of the number of times I’ve encountered this sentiment. Obviously, I disagree with it. I’ll explain why in a later post. For now, I’m more interested in a particular fact about the people who make the claim.

No, it is not that these people are committing themselves either to open nihilism or a large amount of irrationality in their daily actions. True as that is, there’s something else that is pointed out far less often:

This statement, in the context of debates on religion, almost always comes from people who insist that they are not claiming that God does not exist.

Many atheists have put a lot of energy into defining their position as “a lack of belief in God”, rather than a belief that there is no God. Such people tend to be very insistent that they need not make a case against God’s existence. Since they aren’t claiming God doesn’t exist, so the argument goes, they needn’t support their position–that is for the theist to do.

I’m not one to argue definitions, so I’ll not comment on the validity of this one. But, under any definition, there are severe problems with this tact. Most pertinently, the claim that morality is subjective presumes that God does not exist. Such a statement should, therefore, be supported by reasons to believe that God does not exist.

Of course, the atheist in question could simply avoid making such claims. She could simply introduce moral relativism as a possibility, rather than state it outright. This would be a perfect solution, so long as she is solely interested in winning debates without regard for behaving in a logically consistent manner.

This is to say that, unless one is abdicating all right to make any statement in a moral discussion or hold any position about morals at all (even in daily life), one is going to have to take a position on God’s existence. One simply has no room to say that this or that religious moral is wrong, even in a subjective sense, until one has shown the religion in question to be false.

One’s position may be tentative, of course, but simply “not believing” isn’t enough.

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9 responses to “Taking a Stand for Relativism

  • c emerson

    You raise good questions. No time to comment, but hope to cover this topic with you one day.

  • c emerson

    Sry, forgot to click follow comments – must post to do that !

  • Atomic Mutant

    It’s quite simple: Theists claim that there is a god. Well, where is the evidence? No evidence? Then we will not accept this claim and continue not to believe. No, we don’t have to prove the opposite, because then you would have to prove that there are no invisible fairies in my back yard. Burden of proof, simple. I do not to prove that god does not exist because the absence of evidence is more than enough to assume his non-existence (albeit not enough to prove it). Of course, as god is not falsifiable (no matter what happens, someone will claim “god works in mysterious ways” and ignore the facts), there can’t be any proof its existence (or non-existence). Like fairies.

    And, if there is no evidence for god, there also is no evidence for some sort of absolute morality (even if we don’t look to closely at that horrible book called “bible”). Of course, that doesn’t mean that we cannot compare moral systems by criteria defined by us.

    • Debilis

      I personally find this position among the easiest to answer, actually:

      1. There is indeed evidence. Depending on definitions, there may or may not be empirical (i.e. scientific) evidence. But, as this isn’t a scientific subject, that shouldn’t be surprising.

      2. The post presented the case that, if one has any approach to morality at all, one has a position other than “not believing”, and therefore needs to defend that position.

      3. No one is demanding “proof”. But, as fairies (invisible or otherwise) are defined as physical things, there is indeed empirical disconfirmation of them.

      4. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The absence of evidence for gold on Pluto, for instance, is not evidence that there is no gold on Pluto.

      5. God is metaphysical. Talk of empirical falsification is to insist that we only accept those ideas which can be verified empirically.

      Of course, this very insistence is an idea that can’t be verified empirically (i.e. “What is the empirical evidence that we shouldn’t accept anything without empirical evidence?”). As such, the idea contradicts itself.

      6. Objective morality is presented as evidence for God, not the other way around.

      7. Of course we can “compare” moral systems. What we cannot do is take any kind of position at all on the issue of morality without also taking a position on God’s existence.

  • Atomic Mutant

    1) No, there is no evidence. Anecdotes don’t count as evidence, personal feelings don’t count as evidence and the writing of cult members 2000 years ago are dubious at best. Anything else you got?

    2) My approach to “absolute morality” IS “not believing”. Simple as that. Other moral systems (which do not claim to be absolute) can be defended, of course, while accepting that the universe will not care about them.

    3) No, sorry, the fairies in my backyard are invisible and made of fairy matter, which cannot be measured physically.

    4) True. It doesn’t matter, though, because absence of evidence is enough for the ASSUMPTION of absence. Perhaps you can never prove that Colonal Mustard did not kill the victim in the library with the candle stick – but if there is no evidence for it, we must assume his innocence. Perhaps we can never prove that flabultonium exists – but without any evidence, we must assume its non-existence. Perhaps we can never prove that god does not exist – but without any evidence for his existence, the sane way of thinking is to assume his non-existence.

    5) If you want to tell me that god has no influence on the world, ok. If you don’t, then you have to prove his influence.

    6) If the bible counts as “objective morality”, then, honestly, I don’t want to be considered “good”.

    7) Of course we can. Morality is from humans for humans. It can be tested by it’s effect on people, how happy it makes them, how well it keeps societies together, etc.etc. No need to include any fictional entity.

    • Debilis

      1. I didn’t claim any of these things (though the New Testament is much more respected by scholarship than you seem to think). I was referring to the number of metaphysical arguments in its favor. Some of those mentioned here are the cosmological arguments, the argument from mind, the argument from moral truth, and the self-defeating nature of materialism.

      2. If you are going to take that approach, then you need to present a case that God does not exist, as that position is neither intellectually valid nor morally conscionable unless there is good reason to think that God does not exist.

      3. In which case, you’re altering the definition of “fairie” to refer to something that isn’t what anyone I’ve ever met has ever described as a fairie. Rather, you are now talking about something more like a platonic form.

      I don’t see how arguing in favor of platonism (while giving it a silly name) is going to help you establish materialism. But, if you simply want an answer: even objects which are not material need an explanation if they are contingent (which fairies are–though you are manifestly not talking about fairies any longer). Moreover, they aren’t doing any explanatory work whatsoever.

      Neither of these objections could rightly be made of God.

      4. No, absence of evidence isn’t enough for anything other than uncertainty. We may also make a personal judgment call in addition to that, but that is not a rational principle. Nor are the examples you give relevant to a metaphysical question.

      5. I don’t claim that God doesn’t influence the world, but I do claim that this influence isn’t detectable via a microscope. God is final (teleological) cause of the universe, not the efficient cause of particular events.

      Looking for God with science is rather like Hamlet looking for Shakespeare with a telescope. It is a completely wrong method.

      6. Personally, I doubt that your personal reading of the Bible is anything like objective morality. But the Bible never enters into this discussion. Once we’ve reached the conclusion, then we can talk about which God this reveals. But this is no argument against that conclusion.

      7. This statement contradicts the idea that God exists. Therefore, if you are claiming this, you need to support your case that God does not exist. Otherwise, the position (however practically useful or emotionally satisfying it may be) is logically baseless.

    • Debilis

      Isn’t this exactly what you are doing here? Simply demanding that I “prove it”, when I’ve given specific reasons why you (no less than I) need a reason for taking your position, is not a rational approach.

      That said, I’ve also given support for my position in several posts here. While it isn’t possible to prove anything beyond all doubt, I’ve presented several reasons to think that my position is correct.

      But, so far, we’ve not seen any reason at all to accept the materialism you’re defending. As such, the evidence is entirely on the theistic side of this debate.

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