Russell and Duenes

Classic Atheist answer

with 6 comments

I’ve been listening to “The Great Debate” between the late Greg Bahnsen (Christian), and Gordon Stein (Atheist). It is utterly fantastic, and I highly commend it, especially if you want to engage your mind. At the end of their debate, they fielded questions from the moderator. The following question was put to Stein, with Bahnsen rebutting. This is a real doozy!

Moderator: The next question will be directed to you, Dr. Stein. And the question reads as follows: According to your definition and basis for evil, why was Hitler’s Germany wrong or was it? Note: Jews and others were defined as non-persons, so their happiness doesn’t really count. Once again, according to your definition and basis for evil, why was Hitler’s Germany wrong, or was it?

Stein: Well, Germany is part of the Western European tradition, its not deepest Africa, or some place or Mars. They have the same Judeo-Christian background and basically the same connection with the rest of the developed world, so therefore the standards of morality that have been worked our as consensuses of that society apply to them, too. They can’t arbitrarily, Hitler can’t arbitrarily, say “Well, I’m not going by the consensuses that genocide is evil or wrong. I’m just going to change it and make it right.” He has not the prerogative to do that; neither does the German society as a whole because it is still apart of a larger society, which you might call a western society. So, even though morality is a consensus of an entire civilization, he cannot just arbitrarily do that, so what he did is evil and wrong.

Bahnsen: Dr. Stein continues to beg the most important questions that are brought up. He tells us that Hitler’s Germany was wrong because Hitler or the German people didn’t have the right to break out of the consensus of Western civilization. Why not? Why is there any moral obligation upon Hitler and the German people to live up to the past tradition of Western morality. In an atheist universe there is no answer to that question. He gives the answer, but it is totally arbitrary.



HT: The American Vision


Written by Michael Duenes

November 21, 2009 at 7:51 am

Posted in Duenes, Philosophy

6 Responses

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  1. Mike,

    Obviously, I’m not an atheist, but I can think of better answers to the question. Three came to mind just now.

    1. Kant’s answer. Imagine that every world leader, or country, was free to commit genocide. That would obviously create problems for everyone. Therefore, since we all have to live together in the world, it makes sense to say genocide is out of bounds.

    2. John Stuart Mill’s answer. It’s not utilitarian. Again, it’s pretty obvious that such actions unchecked will be bad for us all. We need to construct pragmatic moral boundaries for the good of society, and they can be made pragmatically.

    3. This isn’t really an answer to the question, but an observation. Societies seem to develop codes of morality through a process. Hitler setback the process. If you believe society is evolving, then you would oppose despots and anarchists who want to crash the system. Throughout the world and history you can see that societies generally moved toward agreement on certain moral principles, e.g., Don’t murder, Don’t steal, etc. Similar principles were codifed in the 10 Commandments, the Code of Hammurabi, and in China (I assume) and other far reaching places. Granted some societies have practiced genocide, human sacrifice, and many other atrocities, but the exception proves the rule. As societies have come into interaction with each other, they have tended toward increasingly similar moral codes (so we have fewer and fewer instances of cannibalism, slavery, genocide, etc.). This process perspective would account for aberrations and setbacks. If Christianity is the source of morality, then you would think more Christianity would equal more morality. But some of the worst moral setbacks have come from so-called Christian societies. Germany was supposedly a Christianized nation, likewise Rwanda. Despite the Christian legacy of the USA, I could list the sins of this country in a way that would make Sodom and Gomorrah look like Cub Scout camp. Actually, the first time I ever saw a Playboy Mag was at Boy Scout camp…


    November 22, 2009 at 1:57 am

    • Andy – The point of the post was to show an atheist trying, badly, to avoid the clear conclusion that, given an atheistic world, there can be no objective morality. Even in your analysis, using Kantian or Mill-ian utilitarianism (which I’m not sure you’ve accurately represented), you would still be left with societal conventions, something which falls entirely short of moral “oughts” that would be prescriptive for all people everywhere. And that’s the point. Atheists want objective morals, objective logic and objective reason; but none of these can exist in a truly atheistic universe. What Bahnsen and I are trying to do is to give Christians confidence in pressing these points in the public square. So take racism, for example. Non-Christians will say that racism is a horrible evil that we should oppose, and Christians will usually agree. But Christians need to stop agreeing. We need to start saying, in a multitude of ways, “Given your non-biblical worldview, how in the world can there even be something like racism, and how can it be objectively wrong? By what standard do you say that racism is wrong? Is this standard encumbent upon everyone? How do you know?”

      As far as whether Christian morality would make one better, that would be wrong. Morality doesn’t make anyone better. The gospel does. Christianity IS the source of morality, and the most basic foundation of that morality is to turn one’s life over to Jesus in repentance and faith. People who actually do this will live better lives than those who don’t.



      November 22, 2009 at 9:23 am

  2. I wonder if an atheist would really argue for objective morals. I don’t know. It makes more sense to me that an atheist would be satisfied with provisionally objective (but evolving) moral conventions.

    This type of reasoning might perplex a fad-ish atheist who is still relying on a heritage of Christian morality, as you say, but a more thoughtful person might feel irritated and accuse you of a (gasp) false dichotomy. What would Hitchens or Harris say?

    I’m not surprised if I get Kant or Mills wrong. That’s what I remember from that one class my freshman year of college.


    November 22, 2009 at 10:11 am

    • Hitchens argues for some kind of “human solidarity” (his exact words). But essentially, he has no answer. He just keeps saying that atheists are as moral, if not more moral than Christians. But what needs to be answered is the question of “by what standard.” Most atheists argue as you state, but then they want to thunder against hypocrisy and every manner of moral evil. They write checks with Christian capital, and well they should. No atheist is ever totally consistent, though some come close. Ernest Hemingway comes to mind, and he blew his brains out.



      November 23, 2009 at 2:11 am

  3. Something I saw today that I thought you would find interesting. It’s quite long, but it’s an atheist’s summary of the classical reasons to believe in God with detailed comments and rebuttals. She deals with the question of the source of morality somewhere down the list.


    December 1, 2009 at 3:06 am

    • I might read it, but here’s the thing. An atheist cannot consistently give ANY arguments for anything, because if atheism is true, there’s no such thing as arguments. There is only chemicals and molecules moving around in a physical world. Nothing that is non-physical, like arguments, can possibly exist. This is the strongest argument for theism, and it is one which atheists will own up to. They talk about laws of science and morality and religious hypocrisy and blah, blah, blah, as if any of these things is possible in a godless, physicalist universe.



      December 2, 2009 at 4:49 pm

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