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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label moral relativism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label moral relativism. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Left is Intent on Making Us Less Human

One of the more famous stories in sports originates in Berkeley, California. The 1929 U.C. Berkeley football team had made its way to the famed Rose Bowl, playing for the championship against Georgia Tech. In the second quarter, while the game was still scoreless, Berkeley center Roy Riegels scooped up a fumble, bounced off a blocker, and ran 66 yards towards his own end zone. He would have crossed the goal line if it hadn't been for his teammate Benny Lom who chased after him and got him to change direction on the one yard line.1 The incident would become one of the most famous in Rose Bowl history.

When Reigels was running with the ball, he obviously thought he was going to be a hero. "Wrong Way" Riegels did become the stuff of legends, but not for the reason he had in mind. Today, I see a similar pattern with the Leftist movement in the United States. Especially in the last decade, the Left have been gaining ground on the cultural gridiron, scoring again and again what they believe are victories for human progress. They even have favored the label Progressives over the earlier Liberals as descriptive of their desires. However, I think th label is completely wrong. What they advocate does not advance the progress and dignity of humanity at all.

Rationality as the Essence of Man

What is the essence of man? Aristotle held that rationality is essential to being human. In his Metaphysics he explains rationality is something different than a skill, such as the ability to be musical. Some people have musical talent and some don't. But rational deliberation—the ability to take some set of facts and draw a proper conclusion from them—is a uniquely human capacity. Animals work off of their biological urges and appetites, not reason. That's why if you are visiting a friend's home and his dog tries to become intimate with your leg, you don't wonder why the dog didn't figure out that the mechanics of procreation wouldn't work that way; they must include the participation of a female dog. Animals cannot reason abstractly. The dog simply is seeking to satisfy his appetites.

It is enough that the animal feels the urge in order for it to act upon that urge. Humans recognize the need to train their pets to act differently, so they can associate a different action in the animal for the urge it feels. However, humans are not supposed to be slaves to our urges. We are not to react to our appetites without regard to consequences. It is our rationality that governs our actions and even if the feeling is new, we expect one to not simply act upon it without reflecting on what the result of those actions would be.

Arguing for Our Appetites

For centuries the concept of strengthening our rationality to govern our appetites has been the hallmark of civil society. Today the progressive agenda turns that idea on its head. For example, the LGBT community advanced by the Left today claims we should identify an entire segment of humanity by their sexual predilections. But certainly this is encouraging human beings to be defined by their appetites and not their rationality. Why should we label people by how they receive sexual pleasure as if that's the primary component of what makes them human? Sexual urges are in the appetites category. It seems to assume that such appetites are uncontrollable and must be satiated.

When one considers transgenderism, the case becomes worse. Not only do the self-identified progressives demand we believe a person who is suffering from gender dysphoria has no recourse but to live as the opposite sex, but they ask us against all reason to believe that biology is so malleable that some outward surgical changes are all that's necessary for that biology to be erased and replaced. Worse, there is sufficient data to show such reassignment surgeries are not medically efficacious as suicide rates for post-transition patients equal those of patients who hadn't had the surgery.

Where's the Reason?

Other examples from the Left can be brought to bear. There is no reason in the pro-abortion movement ever more desperately denying the established fact that a fetus is an unborn human being. Progressive college students now seek to silence any views that oppose their own in the name of tolerance. And universities that long ago threw away any restrictions on sexual promiscuity now are scratching their heads about what they themselves describe as a culture of rape on campuses.

In all these areas and more, any dispassionate observer should see the result of these movements isn't less appetite and more reason, but the reverse. Instead of progress we are getting regress. We are sliding back into a more animalistic approach where anyone's particular feeling must be met, sanctioned, and even cheered without regard to consequence.

How will humanity fare when all of this is said and done? Wrong Way Reigels was stopped before he crossed the goal line. However, he brought the ball close enough that Georgia Tech blocked a punt for a safety on the next play, ultimately allowing them to win the game 8-7. If we don't turn around soon, we may revert to a barbarism not seen since before the Christian era. That would really be a loss for the ages.


1. 09, August. "Wrong-Way Run Finally Turns Out." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 09 Aug. 1991. Web. 11 July 2016.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Star Wars, Super Heroes, and How Relativism Doesn't Satisfy

Today is October 21, 2015, known as "Back to the Future Day" in pop culture circles. In Back to the Future II, today is the pivotal point where Marty travels to the future, Biff steals the time machine, and the entire course of history is changed where the villain becomes triumphant. Marty must restore the timeline so the good guy wins and evil is vanquished.

Another popular movie franchise is also on everyone's lips this week as the last trailer for the seventh installment of the Star Wars saga has been released. I found it interesting that people were lining up and crowding movie theaters to see the trailer for the film! People have already bought tickets to a showing that's two months away. The Avengers and other comic book hero films are similarly popular. All one has to do is look at the top all-time box office grosses to see how superheroes and genre films like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings are massively successful. What's causing all the attraction to these kinds of films?

A Rising Culture of Moral Ambiguity

One reason why my curiosity was piqued at the popularity of these films is their very simple portrayal of good and evil. Star Wars and comic hero films draw very clear lines between good and evil. The characters may have some inner struggles, but they aren't an anti-hero like the television series Dexter or Breaking Bad. Those characters have become more popular as they reflect the moral relativism held by so many people, especially the younger generation. As the television site Flow notes:

Dexter possesses a key element common to a lion's share of the series that critics, fans and scholars laud as contemporary quality television: a central character that is, at best, morally ambiguous and, at worst, either so pathologically self-centered or self-contained that his/her actions stretch our common lexicon for one who has "emotional baggage" that often ends with blood (and lots of it); in other words, "amoral" or "immoral" don't seem quite fit the discursive bill.1

Clearly, the belief that morality is relative is increasing. It is the default position on college campuses today, and students are so entrenched in it they would rather say rape is OK than admit that there are objective values and duties to which we all must conform. The clear good/evil distinction seems out of place in such a world, so why are films that reflect is so incredibly popular, especially with the youth?

How to Kill a Dragon

I think the answer is a simple one. Moral relativism may sound great, but inside most people there's a nagging suspicion that it isn't true. People long for good to triumph and evil to be vanquished. Underneath it all they really want there to be a right and a wrong, a good and an evil, and they want to be able to identify which is which. Hero movies meet this need.

G.K. Chesterton famously observed:
Fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.2
We used to tell myths of knights and dragons to communicate the idea of good conquering evil and right overpowering wrong. I know of no parent who reads such stories to their children any longer. While our film experiences let us escape in the wonder of a world that is morally clear and encourages us to slay our own dragons, our television choices week after week paint in all greys and show how self-justification can be leveraged to help us do what we want, just like Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II. The only question is which timeline will remain as part of our future?


1. "Darkly Dreaming Of Dexter: If Loving Him Is Wrong I Don't Want To Be Right." Flow. Department of Radio-Television-Film, University of Texas at Austin., July 2007. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
2. Chesterton, G. K. Tremendous Trifles. Project Gutemberg. 5 Jan. 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Contradiction of Preaching Morality as Cultural

One of the runaway concepts plaguing society today is the denial of moral duties and values as objective external things. Most people assume morality is fluid and right and wrong are nothing in themselves except a reflection of the likes or dislikes of a certain people at a certain point in time. Thus, while some cultures would have regarded homosexual acts wrong in their day, they were simply voicing their dislike for it while in our own time acceptance has made the act wrong no longer.

Usually people who explain away moral precepts in this manner are trying to accomplish two things: they seek to lift the restrictions that traditional moral values demands of them while demonstrating that we live in a more enlightened age, not beholden to rules that were crafted in a less progressive time. Their message is that it isn't good to stay locked in the backwards thinking of the past.

But this is exactly where their problem lies. If their view of morality as merely the outward voicing of likes or dislikes a specific culture holds is true, it destroys not only the wrongness of what we wish weren't wrong; it destroys the very idea that we must progress to a new way of thinking about morality at all.

G. K. Chesterton noted the trend well in his book Orthodoxy. He observed:
We often hear it said, for instance, "What is right in one age is wrong in another." This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard? Nietzsche started a nonsensical idea that men had once sought as good what we now call evil; if it were so, we could not talk of surpassing or even falling short of them. How can you overtake Jones if you walk in the other direction? You cannot discuss whether one people has succeeded more in being miserable than another succeeded in being happy. It would be like discussing whether Milton was more puritanical than a pig is fat.1
Chesterton is right here. The idea of assuming right and wrong change with preferences means that right and wrong don't really exist at all. One society can never be better than another, only different. That means the person who wishes to fight for the civil rights of an oppressed group isn't right in taking on that crusade, he or she isn't advancing the society in so doing, because there is no place to advance. He is only moving it sideways.

The concept of better or worse can only make sense when an outside frame of reference is used. By relativizing moral values to societal preferences, the fame of reference no longer exists. Therefore the very goal of the moral relativist is undercut, demonstrating their "new way of thinking" is simply confusion.


1. Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Print. 63.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Danger in Abandoning Moral Principles

In their drive toward what they perceive as modern freedom, the cultural elites of today have hastened to jettison that smacks even remotely of traditional constraints upon society. While the most extreme form of such abandon is the postmodern believe that all truth is created by the individual, others simply hold that it is moral truths that, like the play-doh of their youth, can be shaped to their liking. Such abandon does not come without cost.

Os Guinness warns of one prevalent danger within the pages of his book Time for Truth. Guinness cautions that when objective truths are denied, we don’t become more civil, but less so. The New Guard that doesn't allow disagreeable views is not more free than the Old Guard; it is more savage, forcing others to kowtow to the people in power. Guinness writes:
What of those people who do not hold to traditional or biblical assumptions of truth but who care about society and their place in it? The response here might appear harder, and even in the view of some, impossible. But in fact there are two powerful arguments for the importance of a high view of truth, even for those who do not believe in it. The first of the two is negative in nature: Without truth we are all vulnerable to manipulation.

The promise of postmodernism at first sight is a brave new world of freedom. "Truth is dead; knowledge is power," the exuberant cheerleaders tell us. We must all therefore debunk the knowledge-claims confronting us and reach for the prize—freedom from the dominations constraining us. What could be simpler and more appealing?

There is only one snag. What happens when we succeed in cutting away truth-claims to expose the web of power games only to find we have less power than the players we face? If truth is dead, right and wrong are neither, and all that remains is the will to power, then the conclusion is simple: Might makes right. Logic is only a power conspiracy. Victory goes to the strong and the weak go to the wall.1
While Guinness has a fully developed postmodernism in view, I think his conclusions follow even for the more limited form of moral relativism. As Christian moral principles become more and more estranged from the popular view, we will see more people in power such as judges, bludgeon them to think correctly on issues such as homosexual marriage or abortion. To abandon our convictions on these is dangerous as we stand to lose far more than the traditional point of view, we may lose the ability to be civil at all.


1. Guinness, Oz. "Time for Truth – Chapters 4-5" Christian Apologetics Past and Present (Volume 2, From 1500): A Primary Source Reader. William Edgar, K. Scott Oliphint, Eds. Crossway. Kindle Edition. 641.
Image courtesy Quinn Dombrowski and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.0 License.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

How Modern Desire for Virtue Corrupts Virtue

One of the conceits of our society is the assumption culture has become more caring and compassionate than was the case in previous eras. Those who advocate for a secular viewpoint of live and let live believe that it is the restrictions Christianity imposed upon actions that caused people to be less kind and caring and our more detached approach is better.

While I understand that many people really believe promoting things like same-sex marriages and single-mother IVF are being more kind and compassionate, the reality is such actions have serious consequences to the institution of marriage, to children, and to society as a whole. In his classic book Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton nails the dilemma, writing:
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.1
The recent Pew Survey shows this exact trend. Young people think they can be virtuous independent of a holistic belief system. This is one place we need to begin in our apologetic to a new generation.


1. Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Image, 1959. Print. 26.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What Do We Mean by Morality?

It's quite popular today to believe that morality is not something that stands above all of humanity but that moral laws are themselves created by humans. Consistent Christians should deny this view; the Bible teaches that moral duties come from God and are therefore objective and not relative to an individual or to a culture. Yet, most people don't have a good understanding of what we even mean by morality or what is necessary for certain values and duties to be considered moral at all.

In this video clip, Lenny reviews three specific components that must be accounted for in any moral framework: how do moral obligations obtain, does the person have real moral freedom, and is there a genuine responsibility that attaches the obligation to the person in question. Any theory of morality that is missing one of these components cannot explain morality in any meaningful way.

Photo by Joe Mabel (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Atheism, Ethics, and Immorality

In my time of interacting with atheists, the problem of moral grounding comes up over and over again. Most atheists believe they are good, yet they cannot anchor their goodness in God. In fact, the UK Huffington Post featured a story on notable British atheists and where they find their morality. Many were asked if atheists were as moral as people of faith. The answers were pretty unanimously "yes." Julian Hubbert said, "I'm always perplexed by those who believe that in order to have a moral code it is necessary to have a religious belief - it seems to me astonishing that people would have to look up what is morally right and wrong." Richard Dawkins made the claim, "Atheists can be just as moral as religious people. And I think there is some reason to expect a statistical tendency for atheists to be more moral."1

But the question becomes more complex when they are asked how one discovers moral duties. Comedian David Baddiel said, "I have only one principle, not even a moral one, really. Which is: to be as true as possible, both to myself and to some notion of objective reality, all the time." He's right there; such a code may be used as justification for all kinds of immoral behaviors. Polly Toynbee asserts that "everyone is born with an inbuilt moral purpose. It springs from mankind's evolution as a social being, acting collaboratively, with altruism and good of the community hard-wired."2 I don't believe that matches reality at all. Certainly, as a newspaper columnist, Toynbee must read the papers and know the ongoing selfishness and violence people inflict upon each other every day.

Assuming Self-Interest

As I've spoken to atheists, many of them have told me that they would deny absolute morality but they are ethical in how they live. One of our guest atheist speakers stated that he felt ethics was a much more interesting topic that morality. When questioned about the objectivity of their morality, other atheists tried to shift the discussion to ethics as well. But that won't help. Ethics is setting a standard of how morality plays out in various situations. So, to be ethical in business for example, one must not defraud another. How is that different from the biblical command "Thou shalt not lie?" It simply isn't.

I think many people assume since ethics is mostly spoken of in instances of organized interaction like business, people assume it protects them from the cheat, while morality prohibits them from doing things like being sexually promiscuous. Yet, ethics still encompasses an "ought": one ought to behave this way and not that way. And that's the trouble. Oughts are the language of morality.

Attaching Obligation

As I've written before, anytime there is an ought, it implies that the person being told to follow the ought is under obligation to do so. Simply because a man walks onto a court with a ball, we cannot tell what way he ought to handle that ball. If he is playing volleyball, there is a rule penalizing him for letting the ball fall to the ground whereas that rule makes no sense in basketball. The rule isn't binding on him.

Similarly, the atheist isn't bound by the Christian moral command to not lie; he isn't playing that ballgame. It would be completely logical for the atheist to ask, "Who says? Why should I live by your standards in this area. I choose to play a different game." His being true to himself may simply be expressed in making a lot of money.

The obligation question is a key one and I think many atheists realize that it brings up some difficult problems in their worldview. I don't believe most atheists are seeking to cheat people or are more dishonest than anyone else. But one must wonder, what rules are obligatory to follow if there is no rulebook, no referee, and you don't even know if you're playing the same game as the other person?


1. Ridley, Louise. "Famous Atheists Tell Us Where They Get Their Values From." The Huffington Post UK. AOL (UK) Limited, 27 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Mar. 2015.
2. Ridley, 2014.

Image provided by Orietta.sberla is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Contradiction of the Tolerance Brigade

Imagine the sacrifice that's involved in becoming a vegetarian. Certainly, such a decision comes at some significant sacrifice. You would have to renounce your ham and sausage breakfast sandwiches and learn to enjoy different types of meals. And you'd have to be more selective when eating out as your choices will be more limited. You would have to clean out your kitchen of meat products or meat-derived sauces and flavorings. You would need to learn a whole new way of preparing food.

So, in order to be better prepared for the vegetarian lifestyle, you decide to enroll in a vegetarian culinary course at the local college. Here, they promise to help all vegetarians learn ways to prepare well-balanced and healthy meals that fit their chosen lifestyle. Yet, after you arrive, you notice that some chefs are teaching their students the different seasoning choices for trout, salmon, or halibut. Another is discussing how to make chicken tacos while a third is demonstrating the proper temperature to cook a steak!

You first complain to your fellow students, but you're told you're judgmental and intolerant. "But, this is supposed to be a vegetarian cooking course," you say. They answer, "We stand with teachers in rejecting culinary clauses that impede their freedom, including the right to choose what to use when preparing a meal." I would imagine that after all your personal sacrifice and hard work, this would not only be offensive to you, but you would walk into the office and demand your money back!

Sacrificing Morality in the Name of Morality

The same thing is happening right now in San Francisco. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco has set forth a set of rules for all instructors of primary and secondary Roman Catholic educational institutions in the San Francisco archdiocese that was adopted in the fall of 2015. It includes certain moral actions, such as teachers should affirm and believe in the churches teaching on chastity, and "only in marriage between man and woman that the intimacy of sexual union" is allowed while extra-marital relationships, including homosexual relationships are defined by the church as "gravely evil."1

None of this should be surprising, as these are well known beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, people are protesting the statement, rallying under the hatshtag #teachacceptance. They have asked for volunteers, stating:
We believe that the students and employees at our schools deserve to go to work and attend classes free of fear and discrimination. In addition, the Archbishop has mandated that all faculty and staff be reclassified as "ministers," which will leave them without workplace protection.

We affirm and believe in the value of diversity of thought within our Church. We also affirm and believe in the value of diversity and inclusion within the halls of our school. It is unconscionable that any employee or student should fear discrimination.2
Their Facebook group, Support SF Teachers, even organized a rally to protest these changes to the schools' handbook. They write "We stand with teachers and faculty working in the San Francisco Archdiocese in rejecting morality clauses that impede their freedom, including the right to choose who to love and marry and how to plan a family." Basically, they want it all; they want to be called Roman Catholic while opposing some of the most fundamental moral standards held throughout the church's history.

What's Left to Distinguish?

So, can you call someone who dines on T-bone steak every Saturday night a vegetarian? Just because I have oatmeal for breakfast each morning, it isn't enough for others to consider me a vegan. Why would groups like the Support SF Teachers demand the acceptance and tolerance of values antithetical to those that define the Roman Catholic Church? Because they just want to call themselves Catholic?

The rife contradiction in this isn't even lost on the left. has never been a destination to find conservative thought, yet, Slate's William Saletan recently wrote an article about the ridiculousness of those demanding the church change its position.3 Saletan nails it when he states:
The protesters are confused. They reject morality clauses but call the archbishop's behavior sinful, shameful, and wrong. They belong to a church but seem to think it shouldn't forbid anything. They insist that no one can be judged, except for issuing judgments that contradict their own. They can't explain or even acknowledge the moral differences between homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. The nonsense of nonjudgmentalism has turned their brains to mush. It's clouding their ability to think and speak clearly about society's mistakes—and their own.
I agree. How is one to define the distinctives of any faith if none of those distinctives are allowed? Such an approach isn't tolerance, its ridiculousness. Vegetarians are vegetarians because they don't eat meat. If you want to teach how to cook a steak, don't apply at a vegetarian cooking school. Likewise, believers are believers because they follow the tenets of their faith. If you want to be morally promiscuous, don't apply at a school where they demand that you act morally responsible. Today's demand for tolerance makes as much sense as a vegetarian owning a butcher shop.


1. "Statement of the High Schools of the Archdiocese of San Francisco Regarding the Teachings and Practice of the Catholic Church." Catholic San Francisco. Catholic San Francisco, 4 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
2."Volunteer Form for #TeachAcceptance." Google Docs. Support SF Teachers, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.
3.Saletan, William. "Why San Francisco Catholics Are Wrong About the Church's New Morality Clauses ." Slate. The Slate Group, LLC, 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Why Postmoderns are The Most Dangerous People

G.K. Chesterton had an amazing way of putting his finger on the state of modern society. Even in his fictional novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare he succinctly exposes the dangers of those in our society who seek to redefine traditional values. Pointing to the individuals who try to justify the tearing down of the traditional understanding of morality, truth, and meaning in the name of progress or changing with the times, (Chesterton calls these deconstructionists the "modern philosophers"), he notes that such people are the biggest threat to a lawful and civilized world:
We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession. Bigamists respect marriage, or they would not go through the highly ceremonial and even ritualistic formality of bigamy. But philosophers despise marriage as marriage. Murderers respect human life; they merely wish to attain a greater fullness of human life in themselves by the sacrifice of what seems to them to be lesser lives. But philosophers hate life itself, their own as much as other people's … The common criminal is a bad man, but at least he is, as it were, a conditional good man. He says that if only a certain obstacle be removed—say a wealthy uncle—he is then prepared to accept the universe and to praise God. He is a reformer, but not an anarchist. He wishes to cleanse the edifice, but not to destroy it. But the evil philosopher is not trying to alter things, but to annihilate them.1
Chesterton, G. K. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. Reproduced in The Essential Gilbert K. Chesterton. Radford, VA: Wilder Publications, 2007. N. pag. Print.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

How Modern Society Turns Virtue into Vice

Our culture today has lost the concept of virtue. As I've written before, colleges have placed feelings above values, and relativism above moral responsibility. Because the only thing now considered wrong is the critique of another's actions, the concept of virtue has nearly disappeared from Western society. We feign virtuousness by boasting of our tolerance and demand a society where no one's choices are called out as illegitimate. But that misunderstands the very nature of virtue.

In this short quote below, J. Budziszewski explains just what virtue is:
If I said, “The excellence of a knife is its sharpness,” you would know what I meant: sharpness is the specific quality that enables a knife not just to cut, but to cut excellently. Another word for excellence is virtue. So you would also know what I meant if I said the virtue of an eye is clearness or that the virtue of a racehorse is swiftness. Clearness is what enables an eye to see excellently, swiftness is what enables a racehorse to race excellently. Once again we have a formula. A virtue or excellence of a thing (there may be more than one) is the specific quality that enables it to perform its function or proper work excellently and so achieve its highest good.

Like our last formula, this one too can be applied to mankind. How do we know whether a particular human quality, such as courage or ruthlessness, is a virtue or not? The proper work of a human soul is using and following reason. So the quality is a virtue only if it helps it to do so excellently. For instance, one virtue is theoretical wisdom, the discipline of mind which helps us reason our way to truth while avoiding error; another is practical wisdom, the discipline of mind which helps us reason our way to good choices while avoiding evil.

But here we run into a problem. It looks at first as though the only true virtues are intellectual ones. What about moral virtues, such as courage, justice, self-control and friendliness? Isn't there a place for them? Yes, for two main reasons. To understand the first one, remember that more than one thing is active in the human soul: not only the power of reasoning itself but also the power of feeling and the power of desiring. … Just as the intellectual virtues discipline the thoughts, the moral virtues discipline the feelings and desires. An example of moral virtue that disciplines the feelings is courage, whereas an example of moral virtue that disciplines the desires is self-control.

To sum up, the main reason the intellectual virtues are not the only virtues is that different virtues are needed to put each of the different powers of the soul in rational order. The second main reason is that different virtues bring the soul into rational order in different respects.1
Virtue is lost in our society because we no longer look at the entire person and his purpose for existence. Modern culture has elevated feeling above reason; the action or critique is wrong because it makes someone feel bad or it stifles his desire. Instead, one must understand what it means to be an excellent human being, which encompasses both intellectual and moral excellence. To not approach human excellence holistically turns tolerance into a vice, not a virtue.


1 Budziszewski, J. Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1997. Print. 26-27.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Moral Laws Necessitate a Moral Lawgiver

As I showed yesterday, all people are obligated to obey a moral law. People will fight about what this law allows and what it doesn't, but that doesn't mean morality isn't objective. Certainly, we take into account certain circumstances, but the principles that ground morality remain consistent. For example, it is always immoral to inflict pain on an unwilling participant for the sole purpose of pleasuring oneself. That is true whether or not anyone else believes it to be true. It is also true all all times and for every culture. Thus, if morality exists at all, then it is universal in its scope: it applies to all humanity throughout history.

Moral laws are therefore not like physical laws, such as the law of gravity. Gravity tells us simply what is. It doesn't tell us whether falling at 9.8 m/s2 is good, bad, or neutral. Moral laws, though, do give us a standard by which we must adhere. Since moral laws are prescriptive (they tell not what one is doing but what one ought to do) and universal, they must transcend humanity. Moral laws cannot be based in physical reality but must come from a moral lawgiver.

A moral lawgiver must transcend man

Let me give you an example of why moral laws cannot be based in the properties of the psychical world. Some people argue that morality is a result of some evolutionary processes. They will usually say something like, "People began to construct a moral code because it helped them survive. As a matter of evolution, a species will survive if they don't kill each other but look out for one another, so morality really evolved." I'll hear that idea often, that there's some kind of random evolutionary process that crafted our morality. But evolution is offered as a result of natural functions in the world. If you think about nature and how it acts, things happen all the time that are both constructive and destructive, yet it makes no sense to describe natural acts as moral or immoral.

Imagine if you will a brilliant comet that orbits our solar system about once every five hundred years. For most of its orbit, it is obscured from the scientists' view, so astronomers have been in anxious anticipation to study it. Even more so, writings from the medieval period suggest that the comet is exceedingly beautiful to view even with the naked eye. As the world gathers and waits for the comet to come into view, the unthinkable happens: a random meteor happens to smash into the comet shattering it into pieces. The question I ask is, “Was the meteor wrong to destroy the comet?” Such a question seems absurd on its face. The meteor wasn't acting rightly or wrongly; it was simply a fluke of luck that the comet was destroyed. It was the outcome of random events governed by the physical laws of the universe.

If evolution is true, then the fact that humanity exists at all is just a series of random mutations that are enacted upon by natural laws of the universe. Therefore, if physical laws are all we are working within, then to claim destroying a person, many people, or even the whole world really is no different than the meteor destroying the comet. It isn't wrong; it just is what happened. But again, such an idea strikes us as wrong on its face. We know that exterminating a human life is fundamentally different than annihilating a natural body. That's because human persons have intrinsic moral value. It's why we hold the idea that slavery is wrong, even when it was legal or most people thought it was OK.

No one person is better than another. Now sure there are people better in sports, and there are people who are more powerful, more beautiful, and so on. There's a multitude of ways people are not equal, yet we believe that murdering any one of them makes you guilty of a moral wrong. It's not our judgments about them that give them their worth; it is simply the fact that they are human. We recognize that this law exists outside of ourselves, and we punish those who don't obey it.

The lawgiver must have authority over man

More than just originating outside of humanity, a moral law must be given by a lawgiver who can exercise authority over people. If a law is passed that has no penalty, then the law is deemed ineffective and quickly discarded. We have many such laws on the books today, some of which are almost comical. For example, Michigan made it illegal to serve margarine instead of butter in state institutions.1 No one in America is obligated to obey France's speeding laws if they're driving in the United States. Even if I may deem that the speed limit for the street in front of my home is too fast to drive safely and have all the facts to back me up, I can't go out and post my own sign on the roadway. I need the proper authorities to post the law, since they have the power to enforce the law. Similarly, if moral laws come from outside of man, then they must come from a source that has authority to enforce those laws.

Moral laws are evidence of God's existence

Since we all recognize there is a moral law to which all people are beholden, and that moral law must have its basis in a mind outside of mankind and with authority over mankind, we then reasonably conclude that there is a God. We recognize good and evil as real states. Some may argue that there's too much evil in the world for there to be a God, but that's a different point and one I've looked at before. The fact that this person recognizes that there is evil in the world actually bolsters the argument for God's existence, since he is agreeing that there is a moral framework out there and that it has its basis outside of mankind. He's granting the premises of this argument!

You see, if we can call certain things good and call certain things evil, that means that there's moral law. There's a measuring stick to put something against. Killing a baby for fun is evil. Katrina? That's evil. Charity work? Oh, no, that's good. But in each of these cases there's some standard we are comparing them against. There's a moral law. But if there's a moral law, that requires a moral lawgiver. So that means there must be a God establishing the moral law.

If evil exists, it proves that God exists simply due to the fact that morality has to come from God. It can't come from anywhere else.


1. 2011-12 Wisconsin Statutes & Annotations. Sec. 97.18.5. Wisconsin State Legislature2011. Web. 06 Oct. 2014.
Image courtesy Matt H. Wade and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Future, Cyborgs, and Satanism

The Psychology Today web site just published an article by psychologist and futurist Zoltan Istvan on "The Three Laws of Transhumanism and Artificial Intelligence" (h/t @amy_k_hall). Istvan is a big proponent of transhumanism, which basically is integrating technologies into our lives and our bodies "to acquire new capacities," both physical and mental.1 In other words, transhumanists see a day where humanity will merge with technology to create super-humans.

In his article, Istvan recounts Issac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics in his fictional story series I, Robot, which center on the idea that human life must be sustained above any robot's survival. Asimov created the three laws in order to show how mankind can be valued and protected above his own technology, even if that technology is capable of feats that would destroy their makers (think The Terminator.) But Istvan is unsatisfied with these and instead offers three laws of his own. He writes:
In general, a human will is defined by its genes, the environment, and the psychological make-up of its brain. However, a sophisticated artificial intelligence will be able to upgrade its "will." Its plasticity will know no bounds, as our brains do. In my philosophical novel The Transhumanist Wager, I put forth the idea that all humans desire to reach a state of perfect personal power—to be omnipotent in the universe. I call this a Will to Evolution. The idea is built into my Three Laws of Transhumanism, which form the essence of the book's philosophy, Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF). Here are the three laws:

1) A transhumanist must safeguard one's own existence above all else.

2) A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible—so long as one's actions do not conflict with the First Law.

3) A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe—so long as one's actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.
So, Istvan feels that for transhumans one must be self-centered and self-advancing. That shouldn't be too much of a surprise given that the transuhuman movement is all about becoming a superman (perhaps a god?) in comparison to humanity today. Still, the fact that Istvan doesn't seem to see the unworkable moral implications gives me great pause.

An Old Lie with a Shiny New Finish

In reading Istvan's three laws, I quickly saw that these were not new. In fact, they are eerily similar to a moral principle that was put forth in the early 20th century by a man who others also claimed was a visionary. The principle of "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law"2 was channeled by occultist Aleister Crowley as he wrote The Book of the Law (Liber AL vel Legis sub figura CCXX),3  the foundational book for his new religious philosophy of Thelema. Not only does this equate to Istvan's first law, but Istvan also echoes Crowley's dictum of "Love is the law, love under will" in his other two laws.  So, here we have a modern transhumanist that is recapitulating the moral philosophy of an occultist who said he received it from a spirit voice! This isn't something new; it's a lie that's very, very old. In fact, it's pretty much as old as mankind being tempted to transcend his current state of being and become like God knowing good from evil. That offer didn't work out very well for us, either.

The scary thing about all this is that Istvan cannot see how self-serving and dangerous such a moral system would actually be. Who defines what "safeguarding value in the universe" is? If omnipotence is a goal, then my existence is more valuable than another's. Is this not the fundamental principle claimed by every single act of genocidal terror that humanity has witnessed in the last 100 years? 

Ultimately, Istvan's view of the world is terrifying, not because I fear technology, but because I fear the evil in the human heart. By wanting to elevate himself above his limitations with nothing but his own desires to restrain him, he sends a message that humanity is worthy of being destroyed. Such beliefs don't elevate humanity, they debase it. Self-interest above all is animalistic. Culture and civilization is where one looks to the interests of others above one's self. This is pretty fundamental; most parents teach it to their children from the earliest ages. Accepting selfishness as a moral philosophy can only bode ill for the future of humanity.


1. Bostrom, Nick. "A History of Transhuman Thought." Academic Writing Across the Disciplines. Ed. Michael Rectenwald and Lisa Carl. New York: Pearson Longman, 2011. Section available online at
2. "The Book of the Law." Thelemapedia: The Encyclopedia of Thelema & Magick. Scarlet Woman Publishing, 27 Feb. 2007. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.
3. Crowley, Aleister. Liber AL Vel Legis Sub Figurâ CCXX. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Hermetic Library. Web. 30 Sept. 2014.
Image courtesy stephen bowler and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Epidemic of Relativism Among Christian Youth

I'm concerned. I'm deeply concerned. There's an epidemic spreading among Christian youth today that can have dangerous and perhaps even deadly consequences. What makes this more dangerous is that most parents and pastors don't even realize their kids are infected. I'm speaking of the danger of moral relativism, and how it's become rampant even within most Christian colleges and universities. Ask Christian young adults who have been active in their church or youth group if something like abortion or homosexual unions are wrong and many may say yes. But press them on if they should declare others sinful or wrong for participating in such actions and you may get a different response, one more akin to "It's wrong for me since I'm a Christian, but they aren't so it's right for them."

This idea that the only things binding on an individual is whatever his or her personal perception of morality is has become rampant among our youth today. I have a ministry partner who for the last couple of years also teaches at a conservative Christian college in Southern California. He has told me of how consistently he faces moral relativistic beliefs held by the students each year. He offered one example that is typical: he asked his students to pick a topic and defend it as a writing assignment. A young science major chose to write a defense against the use of embryonic stem cells in research, leveraging such appropriate arguments as how life begins at conception in her paper. However, when asked what the student would do if she discovered that her lab partners were using embryos in research, she replied that she couldn't tell them what to do. Their beliefs are different from hers, so she felt that she had no right to push her morality on another. While her paper read as though she was a moral absolutist, further digging showed that she was only applying that standard to herself, not others.

The Danger of Believing Relativism

This kind of thinking is how tyranny is born. If one cannot tell another his actions are evil, then they will continue until those that would dare to oppose immorality are themselves labeled as immoral. We have seen this in the criminal prosecution of Christians who simply wish to not be a part of homosexual unions. They are fined and their businesses closed down, really only acts of vengeance for nothing more than holding to a moral standard. And now, the kids we send to college hold not the belief that they cannot stand their moral ground, but that they should not stand their moral ground, because to do so is itself an immoral act!

Christians of all people should know that sin is sin regardless of whether one believes it to be or not. If moral precepts are true, then they are binding on all of humanity. Imagine if Nazi Germany was to have won World War II and Hitler was successful in his genocide of the Jewish people. Now, imagine 2014 in such an alternate timeline where every last soul on earth believes that Hitler was the savior of humanity for carrying out such a feat. Would that make it right? Could it ever be right simply because of popular consensus? Of course not!

Where's the Church?

The problem of moral relativism isn't going to go away, especially since the secular culture thrives on it. It is the one way everyone can do what is right in his own eyes and not feel bad about him or herself. Rather, we as the Church need to be doing more to help our young people see that moral relativism isn't merely a non-Christian position. It is in fact a contradiction to the Christian worldview. I think one way to do that is to make sure you have regularly scheduled "hard questions" nights in your youth ministry where kids can ask questions that they face in school. You may want to do this once a month, with each month designated on a certain topic. One month may be about premarital sex, while the next is euthanasia, and a third talking about the legalization of mind-altering drugs.

Youth pastors shouldn't be pushovers here, either, Make sure you investigate the nature of the kids' questions and ask more questions yourself. Have the kids role play as if they were discussing this with an unbelieving student or even perhaps a hostile professor so they hear real objections and they learn how to respond in different circumstances. Have your group go through good books on apologetics and cultural issues, or pass out articles that make the case for natural marriage or why the embryo is just as valuable as any other human being. Talk about why moral relativism itself fails.

The Christian church needs to take this epidemic seriously. Kids not will simply "catch" the Christian worldview from their parent's action and example. We must talk with them about these things, and we need to start right now. To wait any longer could be deadly.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why Isn't the Skeptic Skeptical About His Morality?

Many times when I'm in a conversation with an atheist or a skeptic, they will bring up some disaster or evil act as a way to prove that God doesn't exist. A couple of years ago, I received a letter from one that proves fairly typical:
I have been trying to figure out why God created the hurricanes that devastated the gulf coast, the tsunami in Asia & allowed the devastation that occurred in N.Y. in his name on 9/11. Why did god murder all those innocent people? What could have gotten him so pissed off to commit genocide? Has he been talking to Hitler or Idi Amin again?

I do not believe in God, but I do believe man has the potential to be God-like in his kindness & generosity. After all, god was created in man's image. Perhaps that is why god is evil!!
The letter writer does touch on issues of the problem of evil that Christian thinkers have taken very seriously over the history of the faith. I've written on it many times as well, and I won't rehash those thoughts here. However, there are some presuppositions that this questions rests upon that should also be examined.

From where do you get your understanding of right and wrong?

While the last paragraph on my correspondent comes off snarky, the basic question of "How could a loving God allow X" seems to presuppose that the questioner can see right and wrong clearly, and is therefore able to judge the "X" action as good or bad. So, my first question would be "How do you know that the morality by which you are calling God out because He created a world in which hurricanes or earthquakes exist is the right morality? By what standard are you judging God?"

In order for good and evil to make sense, there must be an objective moral standard to which all people are obligated. Where did the skeptic's understanding of morality come from? Because he or she is questioning the existence of God, and God is the standard of right and wrong, that one must ask, "then where does your standard of morality come from?"

How do you know your morality is superior?

The second question I would have to an atheist or a skeptic is simply, "How do you know your moral judgment more correct than God's when judging God's motives?" You see, when ascribing evil to God, one claims a morally superior position. But that's a pretty tough position for humans to take. Especially since no human being has ever been consistent in his or her own moral understanding. We change our minds on morality all the time! Think about this: have you ever previously thought that something was permissible that you now believe is wrong? Have you ever decided that something you thought was wrong is now Ok?

I'm not even talking about being inconsistent within one's view, although that happens a lot. An inconsistency is when you believe lying or stealing is wrong, but you fudge your taxes or maybe take some pens from the office and justify your actions in some way. What I mean is real shifts in the way we understand moral duties. Perhaps someone previously felt that any medical testing on animals was wrong, but as they've aged they changed their position on that issue. The morality of allowing homosexual unions has seen great shifts in thinking just in the last five years. Perhaps in another decade it will change again, who knows? Regardless of what position one takes, the fact is that our moral framework is not something to rest on. It shifts too frequently.

Therefore, when someone tells me that he or she cannot believe in God because of the evil in the world today, I have to ask, "You're a skeptic. You seem to be pretty convinced, based on your mortality, of God's non-existence. But how come you aren't more skeptical of your own morality?" It seems to me that the morality by which one concludes God doesn't exist is much more tenuous. Perhaps the skeptic's skepticism should start there.


Image courtesy Brian Costin via Flickr. Licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Monday, August 04, 2014

Would Rape Be Moral If God Commanded It?

Last week, I recounted a time speaking with an atheist woman on the campus at UC Berkeley who said that rape would be OK if the person doing so truly believed he was right. It showed the folly of those who held to moral relativism. The post spurred a comment by Mark, who asked, "If the man had been commanded by God to perform the rape, would it then be a moral act?"

While Mark's question seems to offer a twist on the concept of grounding morality in God, the objection itself is not a new one. In fact, we know it's been around for at least 2,300 years because the Greek philosopher Plato set it forth in one of his dialogues, where the protagonist Socrates asks Euthyphro basically "Is God good because he follows some intrinsic goodness independent of Him, or is good whatever God declares to be good?"

Euthyphro's dilemma is famous because both options have disastrous consequences. If there's some independent concept of goodness, then even God is obligated to be good. But what or how does one then discover that concept? What grounds it? And how can God be God if He must obey laws like the rest of us? Doesn't this make God a little less omnipotent? But if we take the other option, that good is simply whatever God says is good, it makes good and bad pretty arbitrary. God could conceivably do what Mark asks (command that rape is now a good thing) and sins become virtues while virtues turn to sins. What kind of morality is that?

Splitting the Horns of Euthyphro's Dilemma

Christians have not been unaware of Euthyphro's dilemma. God's relationship with morality has been written about extensively by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and others. However, the solution to this dilemma is not as hard as one may think. The answer lies in the fact that there are more than the two choices that Plato laid out in his original dialogue. Christian theology teaches that God has certain intrinsic properties within Himself, such as love. Love cannot exist without a person to express it and when the Bible says "God is love" it communicates that it is a fundamental part of God's nature to love. Similarly, goodness is something that flows from the nature of God Himself. When we talk about doing what is right or wrong, we are comparing our actions to those that God would naturally approve or disapprove of us performing.

For an example of actions flow from nature, we can look to ourselves. Human beings are naturally linguistic creatures; we think in terms of language. If I asked you to plan your evening in your mind right now, you would invariably use words as you thought about your options. We don't think in only pictures but we use words and sentences, even if we aren't communicating our thoughts to someone else. Language is part of human nature and it simply flows from us. To try and violate this nature is pretty much impossible, because there is no other way to think about abstract ideas like morality.

As language flows from human nature, so goodness flows from God's nature, and it would be impossible for Him to violate His nature. Because of this, we see the question Mark asked becomes nonsensical. To ask if rape would be a moral act if God commanded it makes as much sense as to ask whether God could make a rock so big that He couldn't lift it. God simply would never command rape to be moral. We can therefore split the horns of Euthyphro's dilemma and provide a third option.

By grounding moral attributes in God's nature, we achieve two things: 1) moral attributes are objective, they don't change because God' nature doesn't change and 2) God isn't somehow obligated to follow an independent law, but He follows the law within Himself. Thus, objective moral values make sense and we can know that the good is just that.

Photo courtesy Emmanuel Huybrechts via the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 generic license.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When an Atheist Says it's OK to Rape Her Sister

I couldn't believe my ears. Did she really just say that? I was standing in front of a young woman and her sister on the University of California, Berkeley campus. A friend and I had engaged her in a conversation about objective morality and here she was saying it wasn't even objectively wrong if a person wanted to rape her sister—and she was saying this right in front of her!

Let me give you the whole story. As part of our apologetics missions trips, we go to places like the Berkeley campus, engage people in conversation, and share Christianity. If Christian students learn how to defend their beliefs in a place like this, they will have no problem doing so in their own colleges.

On this trip, I saw a young woman holding a campaign sign for her friend who was running for student council, and I struck up a conversation. We began with simple questions such as "Do you believe in absolute right and wrong?" She replied that right and wrong are relative to the individual. I asked, "But you're campaigning for your friend. By campaigning, you are implying that he would do a better job representing students than the other candidates. Doesn't that imply a concept of right and wrong?" She quickly deferred, stating that the reason she was helping him is simply because he had helped her in the past. He asked her to help, and so she is doing so. There's no admission of an objective right or wrong in this.

I pressed on, "What about absolute morality? Are there not certain things that are always wrong?"

"No," she said. "I hold to certain values because of my culture and what works for her, but there is no absolute standard for all people."

"So stealing isn't wrong? If something of yours I stolen, you wouldn't think the person is wrong that did it?"

"It's wrong for me to steal, but another person may need to."

I'm familiar with such dodges. It's easy to try and justify certain circumstances where a crime like stealing can be used to wiggle out of an uncomfortable situation. Therefore, I pushed for a more black and white example. "What about something like rape? Isn't that always wrong? If a man came up to your sister and grabbed here, and he fully believed that he had the right to take her. He felt convinced that he should be able to force sex upon her, wouldn't it still be wrong for that man to rape your sister? You wouldn't try to stop him?"

She simply replied "Well, I guess if he truly believed he had the right, then it wouldn't be wrong for him."

Calling out ridiculousness

As you can imagine, her sister wasn't very comfortable at that response, yet she stayed silent through the exchange. Here's the point, though. This girl was intelligent. She had been indoctrinated with a relativist view of morality and she didn't want to abandon her views. As I've written in the past, it is really hard to change a belief. In our discussion, she was not willing to give up on her relativism no matter what I said. Even in the rape example, she had to admit that rape can be OK if she was going to save face. I've had similar experiences with other topics, such as people trying to justify homosexuality even when their position leads to incongruities like the permissibility of incest or bestiality.

Sometimes, Christians who wind up in a discussion that takes such a turn throw up their hands in frustration. They simply don't know what to do next! How do you argue with that?

Here's my solution: call their bluff. A lot of people see these kinds of talks like a chess match. You make a move and they counter with a move of their own. The woman above was trying to remain consistent, but she was doing so because to her the entire conversation was in the abstract. The best thing to do is to break that mindset and bring it back to reality.

Upon her reply, I looked her straight in the eye and said, "You're lying. There's no way that if a man was really attacking your sister you would excuse it. You'd be screaming your head off calling for police or anyone to come and help because you really believe that rape is wrong. While you have an intellectual argument for the opposite, in real life you would never let that happen. There are people who truly believe that what's right is whatever is right for them. We call the sociopaths and we lock them up because they are a danger to society. Right now, in our discussion, you're simply trying to win the argument, but you're doing so at a tremendous cost to the truth. I am truly scared if you really believe that something like rape has any permissible circumstances."

At all times I kept the conversation civil and never yelled or pointed a finger. I did make my final statement with some level of authority. She didn't agree with me, though. She maintained that this is what she believed so I thanked her for her time and walked on.

You may believe such interactions are wasted, but they are not. That woman will continue to think about that conversation and what she said. (Her sister probably wanted to have a conversation with her, too!) But God can use small things like this to provoke people to reexamine their position. Changing beliefs takes time and one must have patience even when the other person's position shows a contradiction.As you go to defend your faith with others, don't let silly statement get a pass. The statement that rape can sometimes be OK is an outrageous statement to make. Imagine any newspaper or politician announcing such a thing. Outrageous statements need to be met with an appropriate amount of incredulity. Be courteous and respectful, but don't accept them in these conversations any more than you would anywhere else. Ideas have consequences; don't allow for their abuse.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Moral Grounding and Confederate Money

Sometimes abstract ideas are hard to communicate. The moral grounding problem, for instance, can be easily misunderstood. When arguing for God's existence, many Christians will point out that God is necessary for objective morals and duties to exist. Since morals and duties are real (torturing babies for the fun of it is truly wrong always), one can therefore conclude that God exists. This argument turns on the concept of moral grounding, that is that in order for values and duties to be considered moral, they must be objective and therefore be anchored in something higher than humanity.

Whenever I have discussed this point, atheists usually misunderstand my position. They will normally respond with "How can you say that atheists are immoral because they don't believe in God? I'm a very moral person and I know all my atheist friends are moral, too." However, I've not claimed that atheists are immoral. I know several atheists who are indeed very moral individuals. So, in order to help clarify the idea of moral grounding, I'd like to use an analogy.

After the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Confederacy was eager to show themselves as an independent government. That means they had to have an elected leader (Jefferson Davis), a representative congress, and they needed to have some form of currency so that the government and its citizens could do business. Thus, they began to print Confederate currency in the same month as the start of the Civil War: April 1861. The Confederacy printed about $1.7 billion in paper bills.1 However, in that time currency was normally understood to be redeemable for some hard asset, like gold or silver.2 Since precious metals were hard to come by, the Confederacy's currency wasn't backed by any hard asset. The notes were basically a promise to pay after the war was completed. Because there was no hard asset to back the currency, it devalued rapidly and by 1864 was considered practically worthless, even though the Confederacy was still in existence.3

Now, I'm sure the Confederate States had some very good economists in their colleges and businesses. They understood finance, trade, and supply and demand. However, their skill as economists mean nothing if they are plying their trade with Confederate bills. It isn't that they cannot recognize value it's that they basis of their currency is not grounded in anything outside their own system. Confederate money wasn't based on gold, which offered an objective and definitive value. It was based on whatever number the Confederate society chose to print on the bill. Because there was no objective standard, the currency became worthless.

Moral principles work the same way. A person can have a very skilled and nuanced understanding of morality and truly be a good moral person, just like our skilled economist or businessman. But if you are trying to say that moral values themselves should be followed, then there must be something beyond the agreement of men saying so. If not, morality collapses into relativism. And as we saw with the Confederate dollar, it can quickly become completely worthless.


1. "The Story of Confederate Currency." Virtual Gettysburg. Accessed 4/9/2014
2. Bordo, Michael D. "Gold Standard." The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. Accessed 4/9/2014
3. "Confederate States of America dollar." Wikipedia. Accessed 4/9/2014

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Breaking News May Break Your Heart: Tales from the Front Lines in the Culture Wars

This week has been an explosion in news items for those who care about the Christian faith and the culture. The most important religious freedom case in at least a generation (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby) was argued before the Supreme Court early in the week. Then the evangelical relief organization World Vision announced that they would be revising their employee policy to allow hiring of same sex couples who had a Christian cleric officiate a wedding ceremony. (Yesterday, World Vision reversed that decision.) Finally, a story broke in the UK about how British hospitals were using the remains of aborted and miscarried babies to generate heat for those same hospitals. And that was just through Wednesday.

As someone engaged in apologetics ministry, the clash between worldviews is part of my calling. I hope to communicate a reasoned Christian viewpoint on ethical and cultural issues that have theological implications to an unbelieving world. Most people today assume morality is a relative concept and religion is simply a private belief that shouldn't affect one's public interests.

As you may expect, the news has given me a busy week. But it gave me something else, too. It gave me a very heavy heart, which was a bit unexpected. I feel weary, weary not only in the added engagements but also weary that a moral framework that would have been so clearly understood just a few decades ago are now lost in the fog of this modern age. It scares me that people cannot connect the revulsion they experience when reading about using fetuses as fuel to the marginalization of an unborn child in the rhetoric of pro-abortionists. It scares me because I know that the marginalization of natural marriage will lead to further dangers down the road. Frankly, our slide towards Gomorrah is simply breaking my heart.

But maybe that's the thing. In my morning devotions, I always pray that God would change my heart to be more like the heart of Jesus. I think this is a fairly common prayer among Christians. What I didn't expect is such a change would cause pain. When looking over Jerusalem before His triumphal entry, Jesus wept over the city that would soon turn against Him. He didn't cry for His suffering and He didn't rejoice in the judgment that it would face in the coming years. It didn't cause Him to be angry; it caused Him to grieve. An unexpected consequence of having one's heart be conformed to Christ is to not only feel more love, but to feel more pain. When sin grieves us, we have a more proper understanding of what sin truly is.

I had a prominent apologist friend who was once being slammed by various critics for what he had written. I have been in that position, too. Especially online, there are critics who can get nasty and personal. They may even verbally attack your family, which happened to me in one instance. My friend, clearly anguished, asked "Why can't God give me a thicker skin to do work like this?" But I don't think God wants to do that. A thick-skinned apologist would be a dangerous thing, using arguments as clubs. I think God wants us to be tender-hearted to both the travesty of an evaporating moral standard and to those who would criticize us for taking a moral stand.  Like Jeremiah, we should warn with fervency, but all the while with tears in our eyes. Only then can the Gospel be shown to be what it truly is: the power of Christ to accomplish salvation in the hardened hearts of the unsaved. Jesus wept, then moved forward. Let us do so, too.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Swallowing the Poison of Moral Relativism

As society continues down the path of moral relativism, the principles we rely on to live our daily lives become more and more muddled. Because there are no real boundaries, we lose focus on where we should approach boldly and where we should approach cautiously. Because there is no yardstick for good and evil, we now begin to call evil "good" and good "evil," just as the Bible warned.1 The relativist becomes detached from reality and misidentifies what was supposed to protect us as being "restrictive" and what was supposed to help, encourage, or teach us as something oppressive.

Sexual promiscuity is a good example here. God's original plan was to keep sexual relationships reserved for a husband and wife after marriage. But many deem such standards as a repressive approach to a natural feeling. Of course, the natural consequences of such actions, such as sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy, soon follow. So rather than treating the cause of the problem and tying to demonstrate that sex should only be practiced within the commitment of the marriage relationship, most schools are now dropping an abstinence-based philosophy and adopting a "comprehensive" sex education curriculum that at its core seeks to reduce the unwanted consequences of premarital sexual behavior.2 Even though humanity for millennia have understood that loose sexual practices lead to pregnancy, disease, and emotional injury, our modern society seeks actions without repercussions.

Relativist claim: "Don't push your beliefs on me!"

Of course, such an approach is never consistently applied. No one is a relativist when it comes to prescription medication, for example. When receiving medicine from a pharmacist, I read the label carefully to see just how much I should take and when. I never think, "The doctor prescribed an antibiotic for my infection, but he's just trapped in his own biases, so I think I'll take some morphine instead." No, we rely on the training and expertise of the doctor, who knows that certain medicines have one outcome and others have a different outcome. If you seek to take only what feels good instead of what is good for you, you will end up in worse condition than when you started.

One aspect of moral restraints is that they function to protect us from overdosing on our cravings. Yet, the relativist objects to such normative rules for society by shouting, "Don't push your beliefs on me! You have no right to force me to accept your beliefs." The Christian can simply respond to this by asking, "Are you saying it's wrong to think that a personally held moral view should be applied to another? But isn't that a view that you personally hold? I mean if something is wrong, then it's a moral value. So, why are you trying to push that on me?"

Relativism offers up conflicting rules. Relativists seek freedom from traditional moral laws and are offended if anyone else tries to point out the fact that their actions have dire consequences. They believe a "healthy" morality is one that is right for them, yet they would never take such an approach with their physical health. But as we see with the rise in pregnancies out of wedlock, climbing STD rates, abortion, and ever younger children engaged in sexual activity, their actions are having dire consequences. Even the relativist becomes an absolutist when it comes to medical treatment! To believe that moral decisions are consequence-free is to swallow poison instead of medicine, and it is making our society very sick.


1. Isaiah 5:20
2. The state of California, with the largest student population in the U.S., is a good example of this standard. The legal requirements for sexual education in California public schools comes from The California Department of Education, who published The California Comprehensive Sexual Health and HIV/AIDS Prevention Education Act (Education Code [EC] sections 51930-51939). They write that the Act "has two primary purposes:
  • To provide a pupil with the knowledge and skills necessary to protect his or her sexual and reproductive health from unintended pregnancy and STDs;
  • To encourage a pupil to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender roles, sexual orientation, dating, marriage, and family
The statute goes on to say "Abstinence shall be taught within the context of HIV/AIDS prevention education (EC 51934 (3), however, abstinence-only education is not permitted in California public schools" (emphasis theirs).
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