The Craig-Nielsen Debate:
God, Morality and Evil

Dr. Nielsen's Opening Statement


Iím rather perplexed about how to go about this. The way that Dr. Craig defines the problem that we should worry about tonight is very different than the way I would--and not because Iím an atheist and heís a Christian believer, but we come at the problem from very, very different perspectives independently of that.

Problem of Evil

Dr. Craig, in looking at my writings (and I appreciate that he holds them in such high esteem), might have reflected on the fact that I never discuss the problem of evil, or, if I do, only incidentally. I never remember discussing it in detail. And the reason I donít is because, unlike many, many atheists, and unlike Dr. Craig, Iíve never thought that the problem of evil is the greatest obstacle to belief in God. I think of some of the independent reasons or proofs for believing in God--either by way of revelation or accepting certain things on faith--that Plantinga or somebody else comes up with (though I wasnít particularly convinced of Dr. Craigís treatment of these problems), that you can juggle around the premises, modifying them in one way or another. As the great logician Quine says, by modifying certain premises of a great inconsistency or alleged inconsistency in certain ways, you can usually avoid this inconsistency.

From the Middle Ages on down, Christian theologians have found ways for dissolving both the probabilistic and logical problems of evil in the world which are to various degrees satisfactory and not totally implausible. For me, there isnít a problem of the solution to evil. Evil, as Dr. Craig said, is there, unavoidable, inescapable. The question is how you fight it, how you minimize it, how you struggle against it. For the atheist, there isnít such a thing as the problem of evil. There is just evil in the world that we struggle against endlessly, and thatís it.

Moral Values Without God

My problem, and perhaps this is where we do begin to meet, is that you can in a perfectly reasonable way give a conception of objective values. I donít know what "absolute values" means, but the sense of "objective, justifiable, reasonable moral values" can be given quite independently of any understanding of God or belief in God or the like. Now Craig didnít care about this problem, but many Christians--particularly fideistic Christians--do. Many Christians are much more perplexed about knowing the existence of God or proving the existence of God. They are very suspicious, and I think there are good reasons for this. There is a strong and widespread tendency (I think of Kierkegaard or Haman or Pascal) both among the intelligentsia and other people to believe that in a world without God, nothing matters. (Itís the Nietzsche thing.) In a world without God, everything is permitted; our lives will be fragmented and pointless. Our morality itself will be pointless. We canít know that anything is good or bad. And so they feel pressed to postulate the existence of God in order to solve this problem.

What I want to say to those of you who are skeptical about the existence of God is that you don't need any of that. You can make perfectly good sense of your lives and of your moral beliefs without belief in God. Maybe God exists; maybe he does not. Maybe we can prove that he exists; maybe we canít. I donít think we can. I donít even think the concept of God is very coherent, for itís not anthropomorphic. But maybe Iím wrong about that. Iíll give you all of this for the evening. Iíll grant that you can prove the existence of God--something I donít believe for a moment. Iíll give you the fact that the concept of God is coherent. What I want to try to convince you of is that God or no God, you can make sense of your lives without belief in God.

Now, as Iíve said, some people believe that if God is dead, nothing matters, and our lives will be fragmented. I know that some--indeed, many--people believe that. But that some people believe that in some cultures does not mean that it is necessary. We know, for example, that there are some old and distinguished religions unlike Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--for example, Buddhism--with many adherents who have neither God nor worship. Yet Buddhists, as far as I can see, have been able to make sense of their lives and find a sense of objective value. Even within our culture, while many people feel that they cannot make sense of their lives without God, many like myself do. They are not only intelligentsia but ordinary people in various cultures. In Canada and the United States, people get very hung up about God. In Iceland and Denmark people find this very peculiar. (It has something to do with the level of wealth and education of the society.) You may feel you cannot make sense of your life without God, but a lot of people do.

But now I want to turn from a sociological observation to a moral and conceptual observation. Even if you do feel that way, I want to try to begin to persuade you that you neednít feel that way. The first thing you should come to recognize is that there can be purposes in life that are perfectly intact even if there is no purpose to life. If there is no God or telos of any sort, there is no purpose to life; you werenít made for a purpose. But even if you werenít made for a purpose, you could find plenty of purposes in life, things worth doing and having and believing and struggling for. Some religious people will say, "Thatís all right for little individual small purposes, but you canít have any overarching purpose in life without belief in God. You can little, fairly trivial things, but no really deep and pervading conception of a purpose in life without God." But thatís not true. There are many atheists who have had such overarching purposes. Theyíve fought relentlessly "the plague" (to use Camusí metaphor). Theyíve sought to lessen the sum total of human suffering, of human degradation, of blighted hopes; theyíve positively sought to bring about a world with more happiness in it and more understanding of each other--more human flourishing, more human solidarity, a brotherhood and sisterhood. Theyíve sought, in short, to bring about a classless, raceless, genderless world. Those big purposesóoverarching purposes in lifeóare perfectly available to anyone who is an atheist as well as to someone who is a theist. I donít deny that believers havenít done that, but you donít need God to have either small purposes in life or an overarching purpose in life.

Someone might say, "Oh, thatís fine enough, but the atheist really doesnít have any foundation, basis, or ground for doing this, while the believer does." Well, there are two lines (neither of which Dr. Craig mentioned) that have typically been taken in trying to show that the believer has a basis that the atheist does not. The one particularly popular in Protestant circles is to say that something is good or bad depending on whether God wills, commands, or ordains it. If God commands it or ordains it, it is obligatory or good or desirable. If he forbids it, it is wrong. This is called the "divine-command theory."

The first thing to see [about this is the fact] that something is commanded doesnít make [it] good or bad. I could tell you if you were all smoking in here, "Stop smoking," or if none of you were smoking, I could say, "Light up." My command, even if I had the authority to make the command, doesnít justify the command. There has to be some independent reason for doing the command. Itís not just my commanding it that does it. So [the fact] that something is commanded doesnít make it desirable or undesirable, obligatory or non-obligatory. Someone will say, "But itís Godís commanding it that makes all the difference." Fair enough, so far. But it isnít because God is all-powerful that makes it desirable or good or bad. When God said to Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" all that God shows there is his power. But power is compatible with evil. That a being is powerful doesnít mean that you should obey that being except out of fear. It doesnít give you a moral reason to obey the being.

"But God is all-knowing; he has perfect knowledge [whereas] we do not," which is true by definition. If there is such a God, this doesnít give you any reason for doing it because perfect knowledge is compatible with perfect evil. "Well, itís because God is all-good." Now I ask you Christians, "How do you know that God is all-good?" I know you believe it, you accept it, but how do you know it? Probably, the most common answer is this: "Well, you read the Scriptures, and you see the kind of exemplar that Jesus was, his death on the cross, and so on." You forget things like "He who is not with me is against me." But you selectively read the Bible, and there are plenty of passages in which Jesus shows himself to be an incredible exemplar. But notice that to see that he is an exemplar already presupposes that you have a prior understanding of what is good and bad. Because you have an understanding of what is good and bad, you see Jesus to be a desirable exemplar. So you have an independent moral understanding and knowledge which doesnít rest on your belief in God.

Suppose somebody says, "Look, God is the perfect Good by definition." Some philosophers used to call this an analytic truth--like "Puppies are young dogs." But if you didnít know what "young" meant, you couldnít even know what "puppy" meant. If you didnít know what "good" meant, you couldnít even know what "God" meant. You have to have some understanding of "good" to judge that God is the perfect Good. So again, you need a moral criterion that is your own and doesnít come from God. It may come causally from God, but it doesnít come in a justificatory sense, which is the relevant thing in arguing about morality.

If you think this is too much logic-chopping--or quasi-logic chopping (and the thing is actually more complex than Iíve been able to show), let me give you a far more simple reason to see that belief in morality and making sense of morality is independent of belief in God. Suppose that you believe in God and that you have children; you recognize that your children depend on you, and there are certain things that you owe them--protection, care, and love. You love your children; you want to protect them and care for them. But youíre also a believer. Suppose that--for good or bad reasons--you lose your faith. Have you the slightest reason to stop loving your children, to stop caring for your children, to stop protecting your children? Not in the slightest. If you had reason to care for and love your children before, youíre going to have as much reason after youíve lost your faith. And thatís a far simpler to show how morality is quite independent of religion.

Suppose someone still presses me: "What sort of ground for objective moral values do you have? Itís not so much what we mean by objective moral values, but what kind of ground we could have for claiming them. How do you prove or establish that something is good or bad, right or wrong?" That is a problem that is equally a problem for the believer and the non-believer. The divine-command theory wonít work. Now the other theory that is used, mostly in Catholic and Anglican circles (but not exclusively), is to appeal to "the natural moral law." The natural moral law is something which is presumably implanted in our hearts. Now Iím perfectly prepared to say that, although I donít think itís a law or that it emanates from God or is exceptionless, there are lots of moral truisms. I donít disparage them by calling them moral truisms. [They are] things like "unnecessary suffering is a bad thing"; "rape is bad," "keeping your promises is good"; "integrity is good"; "truth is something to be valued." Things of this sort, which I call moral truisms, have often been thought to be part of the moral law. They are as available to me or to any atheist as they are to the believer. Now what you do in the way of justifying them is to start with these moral truisms; you can be more confident of correctness or, if you will, the truth{7} of these moral utterances; [that is,] they are justified. They are more justified than any skeptical philosophical theory--J. L. Mackieís or anyone elseís that would lead you to question them. What you do in the way of justification is what the philosopher Rawls calls trying to get your moral beliefs into "wide-perfective equilibrium." You start with these moral truisms--the things you are most confident in--and stick them together with everything else you know about the world (e.g., about human nature, about society), with every bit of knowledge you have; and you get a coherent pattern. [Then] you get this coherent pattern; you get a kind of inter-subjective agreement about this as we do (or least it is arguable that we do).

Mackie treats the problem of objective values as some kind of ontological question. It neednít be an ontological question. Itís a question about whether certain moral values are rationally acceptable. Thatís the crucial question--just like the crucial question is not about the meaning of truth (Tarski settled that--or if not Tarski, Davidson, to talk technical jargon for a moment), but how you justify certain claims to be true, and you justify them roughly in this coherentist pattern. You do this exactly with moral values as any other kind of values. And moral values are as objective, as far as I can see, as scientific conceptions and are justified in much the same way. There is no reason whatsoever to have a deep kind of nihilistic skepticism. Nietzsche is good fun when youíre an adolescent, but thereís no reason to think that without God somehow nihilism is nearing our door. Thatís pure romanticism; thatís atheism taking in religionís dirty linen (and a lot of atheists do that). Not all atheists are subjectivists like Ruse or like Mackie; some are, but many of them are not.

So Iíve indicated to you a way that you can make sense of your moral lives and give a foundation that is a coherentist foundation for moral values quite independently of the existence of God, whether or not God exists.

Immortality

Suppose someone says to me, "But one thing, Nielsen, if youíre an atheist, one of the things you are going to be is a denier of immortality.{8} If at the end, death is your [ultimate] lot, then doesnít this undermine all of our values?" No, I say--just the reverse. If something like love between people is important, that it comes to the end with our death makes that love all the more important because it is finite, because it comes to an end. The same thing is true about happiness or the very achievement of your projects and the like. So it would be nice if there were some reason to believe in our immortality. As far as I can see, there isnít the slightest reason to believe in immortality.

So I believe that you can give a sense of objective values without invoking God. And if you can operate with a simpler conception, then operate with a simpler conception. Donít multiply conceptions or entities beyond need.

Endnotes

{7}I donít like to use the word "truth" with respect to ethics for purely technical reasons, but it has a perfectly harmless sense if you say that moral utterances are true. Itís just that I donít want talk about any kind of correspondence that nobody understands--particularly with regard to moral and mathematical utterances.

{8}Now that isnít strictly true; one famous atheist believed in immortality--J.M.E. McTaggart. But I think itís a rather silly notion one way or the other. Most atheists without exception donít believe in immorality.

[ Previous | Table of Contents | Next ]