The Craig-Nielsen Debate:
God, Morality and Evil

Dr. Nielsen's First Rebuttal


Moral Values Without God

Dr. Craig says that if you use the coherentist methodology that I use (and many other moral philosophers do as well), that one ends up in moral relativism. I think thatís entirely questionable. Take the rape case. He says, "Suppose that for some extraterrestrial beings, rape was lauded by them as a desirable thing." That might possibly be. First, I want to say one thing: the morality that weíre concerned with is morality for human beings with certain natures. As the legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart said, if we grew exoskeletons, our concept of harm would shift. Iím only interested in morality for human beings as we recognize them or they could become.

Dr. Craig says, "Suppose these extraterrestrial beings, with quite different conceptions from us, came to interact with us. We regard rape as evil. (At least we say we do. I hope we do.) And they donít. What could we say?" Itís a perfect example for a coherentist argument. I could say to them (assuming they speak the same language), "Look, do you regard suffering as a bad thing? Do you regard human degradation--degradation of persons like yourselves and us humans--as a bad thing?" If they say so, I can fairly easily show them that their belief about rape being desirable is a mistaken belief using the standard methodology that Iíve shown. I can give them a very good reason, not merely a subjective reason. Suppose they say, "We donít see anything wrong with suffering. We donít see anything wrong with pain or human degradation." If they say that, then, as Wittgenstein said, I couldnít "find my feet" with such people. It would be like people in science who said they wouldnít pay attention to a properly-conducted experiment. If you've really got people who said that, there would be nothing you could say to them. But this would be equally true for the believer. Youíve got people who are entirely out of the moral ballgame, as we understand it. There is not way of reasoning with them. But because there is no way of reasoning with such extraterrestrials if they had that conception--they donít even have a conception of morality (just as the person who doesnít have a conception of science and pays no attention to a well-conducted experiment), then Craig could say, "What theyíre really asking is ĎWhy be moral?í And you, Nielsen, or any atheist canít give an answer to Ďwhy be moral?í"

Hobbes gave a very straightforward answer: if we human beings are not moral (most of the time at least), life would be "nasty, brutish, and short." It comes to just that. Morality may not pay in every instance for every individual; self-interest and morality can sometimes conflict. But if people are generally not moral, their lives would be through-and-through miserable. Itís not the only reason for being moral, but it is one reason--an extremely powerful reason. It is completely objective, and it has nothing to do with belief in God, and it doesnít rest on such a problematical conception as belief in God.

Craig says, "Dr. Nielsen, you somehow think that human beings are the only source of moral value." I donít know what the source of moral value is. I know that we human beings care about certain things; we value certain things. We can make sense of those values.

He asks, "Why do you think rape is wrong? Or why do you think if there were some catastrophe in the world, that you should help people?" Well, the answer seems to be very simple. We care about each other. We love each other. How did we come to do this? We came to do this, if weíre lucky, through our parents or certain kinds of social interaction with other human beings.

He says I confuse the order of knowing with the order of being. I think he repeatedly commits something like the genetic fallacy. I donít care how we came about these things. The point is that we do regard things like love and caring as things which are intrinsically valuable. If one tries to prove these are intrinsically valuable, one goes around in a circle. Thereís no proving them.

Another way of looking at it is this: if God didnít exist, wouldnít suffering be evil? If you believe in God, and suppose you are deceived in this belief--that there is no God, suffering is still evil; happiness and human understanding and human solidarity are still good. This shows you that you can both know these things and these would be good. They donít become good because God is good. Theyíre good in and of themselves. We can recognize these things to be good. (Or if you donít like the verb recognize because its too cognitive, we can appreciate these things to be good.) We can be more confident about this than about any arcane religious beliefs we have which are incredibly problematic when we look at the world (particularly the present-day world). There is consensus about these underlying moral conceptions. There is very little consensus about religious beliefs if you look at them across the board.

There is big dissensus among religious believers themselves. Many religious believers, unlike Drs. Craig and Plantinga, think that itís foolish to even try to prove the existence of God. They think thatís a complete mistake even though they believe in God. Some have different conceptions of God. There are different religions other than Christianity. Some, as I pointed out to you, donít even have a conception of God. There is an enormous amount of dissensus about this--and with no clear ground for clarifying who is right and who is wrong. On the other hand, the sort of "moral truisms" and the way we can use those to proceed to settle moral issues is far more objective than that.

Problem of Evil

Let me turn to the problem of evil because I didnít really talk about it. I told you I donít see why, if I didnít have some reason to believe in God, I couldnít conjure up some reason. I could finally use the first one that Craig did. "God is mysterious. His powers are beyond our powers. How could we comprehend Godís ways to man? So weíll accept evil and figure ĎGod knows the reason.í" Yes, you can do that if you have some reason to believe. But if you donít have any antecedent reason to believe and you look at the world that we see (an observation that Hume made a long time ago), you would never conclude that this world was made by the Christian God. Youíd think that some kind of imperfect apprentice-god made it if anyone made it. Itís only because you have some other reason to believe in God that you might be able to think, "The problem of evil doesnít disprove the existence of God." It doesnít if there are these other reasons. It doesnít even then because you can always talk about mystery.

One thing I saw in his positive arguments was where he said, "One of the crucial things for us is the value of the knowledge of God." Itís often said that whatís so incredibly important about knowing God and knowing his nature is that this leads us to a belief in a life of eternal bliss. I donít see anything so intrinsically valuable about knowledge of God. Itís because belief in God leads us to a chance of life everlasting that it seems desirable, and that takes us back to happiness or something very like happiness.

Let me put it this way. Perhaps God could not have avoided creating a world in which there would be evil because he needed to allow us to in some sense be free. (This was stated in the second argument.) If we werenít free, if we couldnít do evil, then we would lack an essential quality of moral being. So an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God couldnít create a world which was perfectly good. He couldnít have made man perfectly good. That assumes that only one kind of analysis of free will is correct and no analysis of compatibilism could be accepted. This is not obvious. But let that go. Even if God couldnít have made us perfect beings and still allow us to be free, why did he make us such swine? We really do perfectly terrible things in this world. How is this possible for a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good? Why so much evil? I grant you that there could be a little evil, but why so much? Then youíd fall back on the first thing--"God is utterly mysterious." Once you say that, you can avoid all argument: "His ways are not our ways." You can say that, but youíre not going to convince me or anybody who doesnít believe in the existence of God.

Secondly, what about animal suffering? What about the suffering of deformed children who have no capacity to act rightly or wrongly? They suffer incredibly. Animals suffer incredibly in this world. Why did an all-good, all-powerful God allow that? Or, moreover, why did God create human beings (or the world) at all? To worship him? That looks like a pretty egoistic reason.

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