Home > Religion and Atheism > Yes, dear, we make it up as we go.

Yes, dear, we make it up as we go.

The problem of evil, as it applies to atheists.

I have a few thoughts in response to the following article.

A brief quote that is central to what I wish to address:

“1. For these reasons, the problem of evil is a greater challenge for the non-theist, because it reveals the extent to which they borrow the absoluteness of their moral framework from theists (Christians in particular). Any moral authority they have is borrowed.”

Mind the gap, please.

If you click through to the original article, the author mentions Ivan Karamazov. I was thinking fondly of Ivan already, before reading the original. You see, Ivan is the ideal straw man atheist. He is not, as he claims, an atheist; he is still part of the Christian moral dialectic. He still believes, strongly, in God and that all things good are identified with God. He can not, however, reconcile these beliefs with reality; as he says at one point, he would accept God’s creation, were it not for the arbitrary suffering of children. As Ivan says, he rejects the creation.

Ivan is the fallen angel; he speaks with the devil, who may or may not be a hallucination. Unlike the devil, Ivan’s attempts to do bad are primarily turned inward, on himself, eventually driving him insane. This is unresolved cognitive dissonance at its finest.

By the way, Alyosha is far more Buddhist than Christian. I’ll cover this another time.

Incidentally, Nietzsche criticized scientists and philosophers for doing the same thing: trying to justify their Christian holdover morality, when most of that morality, and the “basis” for it, are rendered moot without belief in God.

If you haven’t, please read On the Genealogy of Morals. Just take a minute… wait, never mind. I won’t hold my breath, as it’s a rather dense tome.

This should be required reading. So many silly questions in these moral debates are very, very convincingly addressed. Perhaps not perfectly accurately, but that would be missing the point.

If you read with an assumption of judgments made, you are missing the point.


So yes, Steve is correct in that atheists who claim absolute morality, as well as the ever-popular morality from nature, do so on extremely shaky ground. There are, however, other forms that do not suffer either the drawback of absolutism or pure subjectivity in the face of “evil”.

Oh, hell. Recap: evil is our opinion of how some things happen. It’s that simple. Doesn’t mean we want those things to happen, does it, just because we recognize a base level of arbitrariness? I notice that many of the greatest evils are specific to humans; they are not, then, objective or absolute, but relative expressions of humanity.

As for his criticism of “borrowed capital”, there may well be some overlap in ethics. So? We learn from each other. If it’s useful for me to help my neighbor (social capital, anyone? networking? An evolutionary drive to congregate?) and I pick up the original idea from the Bible, how does that hurt that basic ethic? If it’s all borrowed capital, how can we make any new conclusions? The Christian morality is based on the Bible; if I claim that as borrowed capital from Judaism, or maybe borrowed from other resurrection deities that existed prior to Christianity, can you justify your morality? This quickly spirals into a plea for an uncreated Creator. As I have concluded previously, it’s turtles all the way down.

Which of course, leads us to the question of where morals/ethics come from.

A turn of phrase that I’ve seen here and there is that we do not speak of objective morality, as it is usually defined.

As objectivity is usually defined. Give it a minute, we’ll get there.

The simple answer is, we make it up. Just like everything else. Look at Pratchett, in Hogfather: Death claims that the little lies (like believing in the Hogfather a.k.a. Santa) are practice for the bigger lies, like social justice, democracy, rights, etc. Show me “justice” that exists outside of human society. There is a wider variety of behavior that works, in terms of social survival, than most of us would like to admit. Some are “better” with regards to, say, allowing individual freedom and perhaps a lack of suffering, and when comparing we may find that people prefer certain social forms over others. At that point, there is a basis for comparison. And yet, look at the difficulties of paternalism and colonialism. These are very fine lines we’re walking.

Yes, morality is irrational. It’s based in emotional responses, in the necessity of survival within a context of limited resources. Good thing we evolved as a social animal, isn’t it? So that we can judge outward, compassionate, social values as moral?

The Hutus and Tutsis? We’ve been there. Shit, they were taught to kill each other by people exploiting that conflict. It’s a case of The Sneetches. We can, easily, look at it from the outside and say, that’s messed up. Why? I dunno about you, but I don’t like mass killing. Why? Because I’m human. Because my beliefs, and your beliefs, effect other people and I can make the decision that I would rather give up a bit of my own resources than let you be killed senselessly. I find that reciprocity is an extremely useful value.

Heck, that’s democracy; we give up a bit of our individual freedoms to protect our overall freedoms and those of minorities that would otherwise get steamrollered. Yes, because we’ve seen the results of theocracy. You know, the system our founding fathers came out of? Yeah, that’s a theocracy, and every time someone with a different religion came into power, the other groups got the shaft.

Those of us who care about other people can take our lessons, and learn.

And yes, it’s a fine line to decide whether a given issue is something that we should intervene in, and no, not everyone will be able to agree where to draw that line. It must be determined every time. So?

Life’s complicated.

Categories: Religion and Atheism
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