THE ARGUMENT FOR GOD BEING THE BASIS FOR OBJECTIVE MORAL VALUES AND DUTIES: PART I
As I have listened to multiple exit stories from people who have left the LDS church, one of the things I have noticed is that when their LDS beliefs leave, usually their belief in Jesus and God do as well. I have wondered why this is.
The idea of “natural theology” is alien to most members of the LDS faith. Natural theology is theology that one can discover through nature, philosophy, reason, and science. This is in contrast to the more familiar “revealed theology” which is theology that one can only discover through revelation (e.g., “Jesus is the Son of God”). Perhaps it is the idea of Natural Theology to which Paul is speaking in his letter to the Romans chapter 1 verse 20: “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse.”
Natural theology is something I recently discovered and find very compelling. It first came to my attention as I was listening to some very scholarly debates on the DebateGod.org podcasts. As I listened to these debates, I became increasingly interested in the arguments presented, specifically by Dr. William Lane Craig. This led me to additional readings about natural theology and more podcasts from Dr. Craig.
Mormons are well equipped in defending their faith against other Christians; however, we are not so well prepared in defending our faith against the rising tide of secularism. I see secularism slowly sneaking in and taking away some of our members. This, I hypothesize, is because so much of our theology is based on revealed theology. I would propose that if Mormon Christians became acquainted with the arguments presented in natural theology, it might curb the advancement of secularism within our faith. If people did still decide to leave the faith, maybe natural theology would allow them to at least hang on to a belief in God.
I will openly admit that in this case I have what Krister Stendahl called “holy envy” for Evangelical Christians. That is to say, I see in their faith something I admire and wish we as Mormon Christians could, in some way, reflect in our own religious tradition. They are way ahead of us in regards to engaging secularism. (Krister Stendahl (21 April 1921 – 15 April 2008) was a Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar, and Church of Sweden Bishop of Stockholm. He also served as Dean of Harvard Divinity School)
The following is a lesson I am in the middle of teaching to my youth Sunday school class here in Medford (it will take a few Sundays to complete). My hope is that they will be able to present their faith in God as being rational. Perhaps the arguments that I present to them will also help bolster their future faith as they will undoubtedly have to wrestle with their place inside or outside of their faith tradition.
All theists are under an injunction to present reasons for their belief in God. The Apostle Peter speaks to this in his First General Epistle chapter 3 verse 15: “….and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you….” The phrase that is translated in the King James Version as “give an answer” comes from the Greek word “apologia” which translated into English means “apology.” The word apology, in this sense, does not mean to admit remorse for having wronged someone. Rather it means offering a defense for one’s (usually religious) beliefs.
Because of the length of this essay, it will be presented as three posts. Let me be clear, this is not an apology for the existence of the anthropomorphic God as taught in LDS theology. It is not an apology for the existence of the Christian God. The argument is, that if objective morals exist, they must be grounded in God.
All of the materials presented here have come from podcast debates, classes, interviews with Dr. William Lane Craig, and my personal readings.
The Moral Argument for the Existence of God: Part I
What is the best foundation for objective moral values and duties? What grounds them? What makes certain actions objectively good or evil – right or wrong? Do objective moral values even exist?
First, we must clarify the argument. The moral argument, in its simplest form is, that if God exists, then we have a firm foundation for objective moral values and duties; if God does not exist, then we do not have a sound foundation for objective moral values and duties. It must be clear that the argument is not whether God does or doesn’t exist. Maybe the atheists are right, but if God does not exist, then they cannot argue that objective morals and values do exist. That is the argument.
The Christian must be careful not to confuse moral epistemology with moral ontology. Moral ontology looks at what the basis in reality is for objective morals and duties, and moral epistemology looks at how we come to know moral duties and values. The claim is not that we have to have a belief in God in order to discover what objective moral values and duties there are (epistemology). As a Christian, one can be open to any manner of coming to know moral values and duties. Good parenting and even society itself can bring one to learn what is objectively moral. The issue is the ontological question: What is the basis in reality for the existence of objective moral values and duties?
In order to address the question, a clear understanding of the term “objective moral values” is critical. What exactly does one mean by objective moral values? It is to say that there are morals that are binding and valid independent of opinion. An example of this is the following:
To say the holocaust was objectively evil is to say that it was evil even though the Nazis who carried it out thought it was good. And it would still have been evil even if the Nazis had won World War II and succeeded in brainwashing or exterminating everyone that disagreed with them so that everybody thought the holocaust was good.
Comparing Different World Views
When looking at how one obtains knowledge (epistemology), the naturalist/atheist will sometimes rely on the following different world views and philosophies:
1. Modernism: You can only believe what you can detect with your senses. Scholars abandoned this mode of obtaining knowledge years ago.
2. Verificationism: A statement or question is only legitimate or meaningful if there is some way to determine whether the statement is true or false, or what the answer to the question is. Notoriously, verificationism was used to label religious, metaphysical, aesthetic, and ethical sentences as meaningless. Verificationism need not be a position about meaning; it could simply be the position that unverifiable sentences are defective in some way that is similar to how false sentences and meaningless sentences are defective. We can compare verificationism with empiricism.
3. Empiricism: Our ideas are either simple sense-perceptions or compilations and mixtures of these basic sense-perceptions. Within this empiricist view, there does not seem to be any way for an idea to get into our heads without being connected to our perceptions. Philosophical empiricists hold no knowledge to be properly inferred or deduced unless it is derived from one’s sense-based experience. Empiricism, in the philosophy of science, emphasizes evidence, especially as discovered in experiment. A central concept in science and the scientific method is that it must be empirically based on the evidence of the senses. Thus, a statement is only true if it can be verified through the senses. Regardless of the nuance of verificationism and empiricism, both are self-refuting and were only popular during the early 20th century. Why are they both self-refuting? Let’s see if the following statement can be verified through our five senses: “Verificationism/empiricism is true.” No, it cannot. It is therefore self-refuting. It seems almost intuitive that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience.
4. Post-modernism: Everything is subjective and open to interpretation. We live in a post-modern society, but almost no one is a post-modernist. Post-modernism is also self-refuting. Think of the following statement: “It is absolutely true that there are no absolute truths.” Once again, this is self-refuting.
C.S. Lewis points out the weakness of the post-modern world view in the opening chapter of Mere Christianity:
“Every one has heard people quarreling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: “How’d you like it if anyone did the same to you?”—”That’s my seat, I was there first”—”Leave him alone, he isn’t doing you any harm”— “Why should you shove in first?”—”Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine”—”Come on, you promised.” People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.
“Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man’s behavior does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behavior which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: ”To hell with your standard.” Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does, there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise.
“It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule of fair play or decent behavior or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarreling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.
“Now this Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature. Nowadays, when we talk of the “laws of nature” we usually mean things like gravitation, or heredity, or the laws of chemistry. But when the older thinkers called the Law of Right and Wrong “the Law of Nature,” they really meant the Law of Human Nature. The idea was that, just as all bodies are governed by the law of gravitation and organisms by biological laws, so the creature called man also had his law—with this great difference, that a body could not choose whether it obeyed the law of gravitation or not, but a man could choose either to obey the Law of Human Nature or to disobey it.”
My next post will deal more explicitly with the foundation upon which objective moral values and duties are based. It will also deal with the fallacy of the naturalistic explanation for objective morals
at the beginning of your post you commented that “one of the things I have noticed is that when their LDS beliefs leave, usually their belief in Jesus and God do as well.” That statement got me thinking about what happens within someone when they leave the church. I have made the observation over the years that when someone is an active member of the church and then decide to start being rebelious that they typically take it to the extreme…almost as if to say that the only way to forget about the testimony they once had is to push the envelope and try and drive the spirit as far away as possible. When you mention that their belief in Jesus and God leave as well, do you think that the belief actually leaves or do you think that they have to try and negotiate around having had a testimony and the only way to do that and feel ok with their decision is to push that belief in God and Jesus as far away as possible? I have a testimony of the gospel. I have served a mission, taught the gospel, baptized people, etc…and I think if i were to ever separate myself from the church I would have to push as far away as possible to try and separate myself from the testimony that I have.
I think people get into trouble when they deal in absolutes or black and white scenarios. The world and any organization is far from black and white. So when something finds it’s way into the gray, their absolute world is crushed and anything associated with that gets tossed out.
On the other hand, doesn’t the church itself portray things as absolute black or white? When something taught as absolute truth from God turns out to be more of a grey area, people tend to become disillusioned. “Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground.” – Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Page 188
I agree with you somewhat. There is more grey. This is especially true when we are talking about actual people. Beyond that, I am not going to comment as this post isn’t an apology for Mormonism.
Come back next week and leave another response, but on our new post. If you respond to this post again, I probably won’t respond to you.
I am curious regarding your approach to the following dichotomy:
“Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true.”
-Gordon B Hinckley on PBS “Interview with Gordon B. Hinckley”
It is my understanding that revealed religion takes precedence within the mormon church. Hence the reason I left, because when the gospel is subjected to empiricism, there were simply too many inconsistencies. Of course, this may be due to “God’s ways are higher than our own” and the difficulties of understanding complex systems. But at what point do you feel it is appropriate to apply occam’s razor and say “There are too many inconsistencies, so this cannot be an accurate working model of reality”?
The quote you provided, Gordon Hinckley said more or less the same thing in General Conference at one time as well. It has made me think a lot about a few things. The main part of his quote is the word “it”. What does “it” refer to? If “it” is the institution of the LDS church, it is a weird statement. How can an institution be true? When people get up in testimony meeting and say, “I know the church is true?” I ask myself the same question. The veracity of falsity of something is usually said within the context of a proposition, not an institution. I guess what I am saying is, that I am still wrestling with that quote.
I think that with many, if not most Mormons your summation of religious epistemology is correct. Thus the impetus for the post.
I am curious for you to give me your definition of empiricism.
Occam’s (himself being a theist) razor: “”Other things being equal, a simpler explanation is better than a more complex one.” The complexities and inconsistencies come with religion and dogma. Once again, not arguing for any particular religious view.
If you respond here on this post, I probably won’t respond to you. Come back next week and write a response on the new post please.
I think as active members of the church, it is easier for us to approach the question if we assume they are sinning. This is sometimes true. However, people do leave the church and still maintain much of their Mormon culture: they don’t smoke, drink, sleep around. It is to the latter that I am mostly intrested in discussing; member that leave do to historical, theological, and social reasons.
Within Mormonism, so much of our epistemology relies on revealed theology. When what we thought was true, because it was believed to have been witnessed to us by the Holy Spirit – and then what we were taught, doesn’t necessarily pan out – one has to re-evaluate his/her epistemology. What occurs, I have found, is that the person re-defines the feelings he had, which at one time were interpreted as a witness as the Holy Ghost, as something different. They look for a naturalistic explanation. And out goes God and Jesus. Many attempt to participate in Unitariean Universilist congregations, but their theology is milk toast, and so Mormons don’t stay their very long.
I like what both of you had to say. Too many times Lds people deal in black and white and that gray area gets scary. Dr. Bushman came to the university of wyo when I was there and I remember how the info that he provided was found to shake many people’s testimonies because they had this rosey, fairytale vision of Joseph smith. Mike, could you expound a little on the part where you said if Mormon Christians would learn about natural theology that it might curb the advancement of secularism within our faith. I’m still chewing on that one
We as Mormons are still concerned over debating with other Christians, usually Evangelical Christians, whether or not we are Christian, whether or not the Book of Mormon is “adding to the Bible”, etc.
While this has been going on, secularism has slowly crept into the back door. I have heard secular arguments from ex-Mormons that are very persuasive, and all the Mormons can fall back on is his/her spiritual affirmation of the truth of Mormonism’s tenets. Peter tells us that we need to “be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meakness and fear.” The Greek from which “give an answer to” comes – is apologia. As I have heard other Christians go onto secular universities and debate people such as Christopher Hitchens, and the other three of the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, I was amazed at how their (the Christians’) arguments were so persuasive, logical – while also admitting the atheists have very strong arguments as well.
Ultimately, the truth of Christianity, and Mormonism in particular, must come through a spiritual manifestation somehow. I believe it is our duty to show our beliefs to be reasonable while recognizing that there are, for sure, things unseen which cannot be proven. I wonder though, as the “spiritual manifestations” of someone sliding out of Mormonism, or Christianity in general become re-defined, could their exit at least be slowed down (if not stopped) if they had sort of the second net of Natural Theology, to break their fall?
I got a kick out of the first part of your discussion in which you talked about the atheists and their belief in a non existent god. It took me back to when I took a philosophy course and got into a debate with an atheist. The argument was based on what make us rational beings and he was arguing because of our “innate moral standard”. He made the claim that we are born with a standard to be good. I agree with the philosophers James and Stewart Rachels when they said that there are two moral values that we are born with. One being innately against infanticide and there was one other that I don’t remember. But I made the claim to him that if your saying there isn’t a source for our morals what keeps us from killing each other or wanting to “be good” human beings. With the exception of one native american culture we follow that ideology. If you look at animals in general…which technically we are…there is a strong force to keep us alive (survival) and to pass on our DNA. Without a set of rules or “moral compass” what is the purpose of a conscience. What keeps us from killing each other for what we want. What keeps us from raping women (or men) with no remorse. My argument would be because of a source from which our morals are given. A God perhaps.
I went back and re-read my post looking for where I discussed what you called, “the atheists and their belief in a non-existent god.” I couldn’t find it. Write back and point out where you saw me bringing this up.
I liked your description of your discussion with your atheist friend. His “innate moral standard” commuted the logical fallacy of “petitio principii” or begging the question. He assumes our “innate moral standard” is good. Upon what basis is this standard objectively good? He doesn’t seem to approach that. I would agree that we have an innate moral standard and the reason that standard is good is because it comes form God.
Why is infanticide morally wrong? Upon what basis? Regarding the whole DNA/evolution argument (which I believed you were beginning to touch on), that will be addressed in either the second or third post.
Thanks for checking it out. Write back man.
I guess you didn’t specifically make mention of atheism but “The moral argument for the existence of God in its simplest form is that if God exists” provoked the thought. Yeah the theory of infanticide came from a philosophical book I read. Its their idea but I did agree with it.
Initially I thought you were heading towards the atheist’s attempt to re-difine atheism as a non-belief as opposed to its classical definition. I am going to do a post on the fallacy of this re-definition in a few months.
This isn’t really a comment on the substance of your post, but you say that an apologia is a defense for one’s (usually religious) beliefs. I don’t know Greek, and I don’t know if you do either, but my understanding is that apologia doesn’t have such a specific meaning. It’s just any speech in defense. Socrates’s Apologia is a defense of his actions, not necessarily his beliefs. While there is mention of religious beliefs in it, that’s not why it’s an apologia.
I’m an agnostic atheist, but I don’t think everyone should be one. I think everyone should have the set of tools to decide for themselves. I’m curious how you’re teaching your students this topic. I think to engage in effective argument on this or any topic, the best thing you could do would be to teach them the foundations of logic. If they can argue effectively on any subject, they can argue effectively on this subject. If you just teach them how to argue for this subject, it’s like teaching someone how to make a bookshelf without teaching them the principles of carpentry. If something goes wrong, they won’t understand how to fix it, and it doesn’t go very far toward helping them make a chair, or a table, or a house.
Let me clarify. The word “apology”, in English, is usually used within the context of religious discourse, but is not exclusive to it. No I don’t know Greek. I own a Strong’s Concordance and have multiple Bible translations. I also listen to people and read literature from people who do know Greek. I can speak Spanish though! But barely English.
Regarding teaching logic, I agree with you. But I have maybe 30-45 minutes with these teenage boys on Sundays. I am kind of pushing the envelope with my lessons as is, since I am not teaching out of a church approved, correlated, manual.
Now some questions for you. What is your definition of an agnostic atheist? I am going to do a post on the classic definitions of the two.
Next question, how did you find our blog?
The terms ‘atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ by themselves have a dizzying number of shades of meaning, but agnostic atheist seems clearer: I don’t know if there is a God (and it may in principle be unknowable, depending on how you can obtain knowledge), so I don’t believe that there is one. The Wikipedia article on the term seems to explain it well enough.
I heard about your blog from a friend, I forget who, who takes more of an interest in theology than I do.
I am going to to do a post on atheism, agnosticism, and the attempt of some to re-define their meanings into non-propositional views.
I won’t be able to get to it for a few more months though. Here is the jest of it. If one is able to make their belief, into just a world view, then one does not have to to produce evidence for the belief; for it is a non-belief.
The difference is seen in these two statements: “I believe there is no God.” vs. “I don’t believe there is a God.” The first is classic atheism and demands evidence since it is a proposition. The second does not. Logically they are two different statements.
Swing by again. If you do, please comment on the most recent post This makes it easier for me to track new comments and allows others to see your comments too,
here is the link: