Russell and Duenes

Dallas Willard: Tell Us How To Be Good

with 5 comments

Having taught Christian apologetics now for some time, I’m well familiar with most attempts to debunk Christianity, particular those coming from the “New Atheists” such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the like. Yet these men are only the most public manifestation of the godless naturalism that pervades our entire culture, particularly our educational institutions. Having done away with the alleged “superstition” of religion in favor of scientific materialism (i.e., naturalism), we materialists would nevertheless like to retain some sense of right and wrong. Hitchens et al thunder away with moral pronouncements against the wickedness and hypocrisy of Christians, and our universities have become veritable re-education camps against racism, sexism, genocide, and a whole host of other wrongs. But we should like to know from whence these moral standards come, if not from God. As Dallas Willard has pointed out, in his difficult yet critical lecture, Naturalism’s Incapacity to Capture Good Will, naturalism must give us more than just promises to explain everything in the universe, including morality. What naturalism must provide is twofold.

First, it must give us a basis for morality. As Willard says,

Naturalism as a world view lives today on promises. “We are going to show how all personal phenomena, including the moral, emerges from the chemistry (brain, DNA) of the human body.” And, of course, the actual sciences (specific investigative practices) have made many wonderful discoveries and inventions. But after 300 years or so of promises to “explain everything,” the grand promises become a little tiresome, and the strain begins to show. And anyway, nothing in actual practice by scientists going about their work depends upon the grand promises–which can and do force sensible people to say things that have nothing to do with sense or science. A justifiably well regarded worker in the field of cosmology was heard to say at this conference: “It all begins in a state of absolute nothing, which makes a quantum transition to something very small, and then ‘inflation’ sets in….” What which?

Second, and more importantly, naturalism will have to give us guidance as to how one might become a “good” person. In other words, what are the laws, precepts, commands, traditions by which we may become good and not evil? How, given naturalism, does the human will become formed such that the will of the individual inclines toward the good in any given circumstance? Willard argues that naturalism cannot produce this, but should he be wrong, and naturalism can, in fact, produce this, where is it? He writes,

The challenge to Naturalism is, therefore, not just to come up with a convincing theory of the moral life (an analysis of moral concepts, utterances and so forth). If what I have said is true, Naturalism will not be able to do that. But suppose it could. Its work would not be done, but would hardly have begun. It would still have to create a moral culture by which people could live. It would still have the task of providing a body of moral understanding by which ordinary as well as extra-ordinary human beings could direct their own lives. Naturalism has always promised to do this through its leading spokespersons, and continues to do so today–through individuals such as Professor Larry Arnhart (Darwinian Natural Right, etc.) We wish them well. Theirs is a tremendously important undertaking. But they have much to do. Let them do it. (emphasis mine)

This “body of moral understanding” is the very thing that naturalism has not produced, and it is why our educational and cultural institutions are in tatters. And when we look to the naturalist atheists for moral understanding, we get ideas that are clearly not up to the task. For example, Sam Harris recommends that we become moral people by knowing “better and worse ways to seek happiness in this world” (Letter to a Christian Nation, 23) or by “invoking the power of ritual” and “marking those transitions in every human life that demand profundity – birth, marriage, death” (ibid., 88). Can naturalism explain why anything, anything at all, “demands profundity?” Surely this must be a fiction in a universe where all that exists is “stuff” which is here for a nanosecond and then decomposes into more and different stuff. From Hitchens we get assertions about “human solidarity” and the brotherhood of mankind, and from P.Z. Myers, we’re told that “greater science literacy” and “more and more science” (see Expelled: The Movie) will lead to the good society, where Christianity has been relegated to the same status as knitting: something fun to do on the weekends and nothing more. To this, Willard responds,

Naturalism has managed to occupy the intellectual high ground, and in the minds of many the moral high ground, in contemporary society–especially within the academy. It has put the Inquisition as well as the Moral Majority in its place. It is now the authority…So, let it lead. Not-being-superstitious-any-more will hardly serve as an adequate positive basis of moral understanding and moral development…From Spinoza to Voltaire to Condorcet to Buchner and Hackel, to Dewey and Hook, and into the present, the promise of Naturalism has been one of genuine moral enlightenment. But we cannot any longer live on promises. If Naturalism is to be taken seriously in the capacities it wishes to be taken seriously, the promissory notes have come due. Naturalism must now turn them into cash. The need now is to stand and deliver. Let concrete and abstract, individual and social, moral understanding and guidance come forth from the views of Darwin, Dawkins, Dennett, Searle, Wilson and Arnhart. Let them tell us, corporately and individually, how to become persons of good will, reliably guided by moral obligation to do what is right and honorable. This is especially relevant because the ultimate human issue back of Naturalism as a movement, and one seldom out of sight in discussions involving it, is: Who shall determine policy. But if I am anywhere close to right in my main argument, the Naturalists do not stand a chance at developing a body of knowledge to serve in concrete moral guidance. Certainly “survival” or “natural selection” will never suffice, though it has a point to make…When they do what they have promised (or anything close) we will know they can do it. (emphasis mine)

This is not just a problem for the academy. It starts much farther back, and as I’ve said numerous times on this page, this failure of naturalism is the crux of the problem with public schools. Based, as their curricula are, on materialistic naturalism, they simply have no positive moral content by which they may instruct children in the ways and means of becoming “good” people. Our public school curricula stand impotent to form students’ thoughts and wills toward virtuous living, if they can even get around to discussing virtue and vice. Of course, they do instruct in these matters, since nothing can be morally neutral in this universe of ours. But this “disappearance of moral knowledge,” as Willard calls it, has hamstrung the public schools, and so now we have to resort to the likes of anti-bullying curriculum to keep kids in line. This is nothing more than the naturalist chickens coming home to roost. And I just wonder what standards of right and wrong naturalism has for us when it comes to such bullying. My assumption is that schools will borrow standards from God, without giving him credit of course.

Willard, in his usual grace, has not shouted down the naturalists. He has, as you have read, wished them well in their endeavor. And he of all people has seen what becomes of the university once the public teaching of moral knowledge disappears. The need of the hour now is for Christians to cease allowing themselves to be ghetto-ized, banished from the public square, from the realm of knowledge, willingly herded into their “faith-based” (read, superstitious and irrational) churches and Bible study groups. What’s needed is ten-thousand Dallas Willards, thoughtful Christians, calling the naturalists’ bet, in their homes, churches, schools, universities, law schools, newspapers, and the like. As Willard says, we need to see the cash back of their promissory notes.



Written by Michael Duenes

March 24, 2011 at 6:12 am

Posted in Duenes, Philosophy, Science

5 Responses

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  1. Genesis is a myth. As myths go, it is a clever and insightful one. I’ve already explained my concept of good and evil (so won’t do it again), and it is not that much different than yours. The problem is that no one has figured out how to get human beings to be much “gooder” and less “badder” than they are all the time.

    Christianity has had 2000 years or so to bring about improvement. The results have been dubious at best. Secularism has only been seriously working on it for a few hundred years. After a few really bad starts (French Revolution, Russian Revolution, etc.), secularism, like Christianity, has settled down to mealy-mouthed mediocrity.

    Bottom line: human beings are wicked, mean, nasty predators. One on one, I would not like to take on a grizzly bear or a great white shark, but nothing is worse than a bunch of human beings (whether Christian or secular or any other ism or ian or ar) with a few weapons.

    As “Bad to the Bone” by song by George Thorogood and the Destroyers indicates, we are a wicked, wicked species.

    I make a rich woman beg
    I’ll make a good woman steal
    I’ll make an old woman blush
    And make a young girl squeal
    I wanna be yours pretty baby
    Yours and yours alone
    I’m here to tell ya honey
    That I’m bad to the bone
    Bad to the bone

    Evidently you are a musician (from your latest post), though I doubt you perform George’s song.

    Anyway, Jesus Christ is about 2,000 years overdue, and while I am not a Christian (or any other type of religious believer) I doubt we have the skill to bone ourselves.


    May 11, 2011 at 2:31 pm

    • Modesty – Do you have a background in mythology, such that you are able to identify the markers of what qualifies as “myth” and what doesn’t. Or have you just concluded – a priori – that Genesis is a myth because it doesn’t jibe with your modernist sensibilities? Have you read extensively in mythology? Or do you think your certainties about what “science” teaches necessitate Genesis being a myth? What qualifies something as “myth?”

      Actually, your concept of good and evil is radically different than mine, because my concept of evil is anything which denigrate, denies, marrs, blunts, distorts, or otherwise tarnishes the glory and magnificence of God. But this cannot possibly be your concept of evil. You think of evil simply on the horizontal level: What humans do to each other. I understand that evil is rooted in high rebellion against our Creator God, and because of this rebellion, we commit crimes against each other.

      I believe Jesus has figured out a way to make men “gooder,” as you put it, but it requires repentance and faith and His life-giving Spirit within us. And there are people who have put Jesus’ way of life to the test and found it to be true in their experience. I’d like to think I’m among them.

      Actually, I would want to say that the legacy of Christians (not the religion called “Christianity”) is considerably better than secularism. Indeed, secularism has only achieved apparent success because it has borrowed Christian capital. Secularists are like jobless sons with their rich father’s credit card buying drinks for the house, but as one author has pointed out, the checks are starting to bounce. Indeed, the religion called Christianity has settled down to far worse that “mediocrity.” But Jesus didn’t come to bring another religion. He came to transform his disciples into new kinds of people. And for those who have eyes to see, He has done this in countless lives over the last 2000 years. I’d love to develop this theme at greater length. There’s no point in being triumphalist. Christianity has many sins for which to answer; but there’s also no reason to blind ourselves to the lives that have been truly transformed in inexplicable ways by the power of the Christian gospel over the centuries, in all arenas of life.

      But again, I would point out that you are measuring “bad” by some kind of standard, and I’d just like to know what it is. You may not like the Bible’s standard. You may think it untrue, but it claims to give us an objective moral standard. If you are not going to borrow from it, then please tell me from what standard you ARE borrowing to make your strong pronouncements about the “badness” of human beings. To my mind, if evolution is true and we are just souped up lemurs, then all talk about badness is illusory. We are just doing our thing as we pass on our genes, giving in to various bodily instincts and desires which can be neither good nor bad.

      I’m not a huge fan of George Thorogood, but I love his voice. I’m a classic rock kind of guy, and honestly, my voice is closer to Thorogood’s and Joe Jackson’s.


      russell and duenes

      May 11, 2011 at 9:57 pm

  2. I am glad you are finding the energy and time to keep up with me. I am short of time at the moment, so I will just briefly note that the world is supposed to end on May 21. Just as the world’s end has been predicted many times before. Perhaps that’s a hint to what a mythology is. Very little (if anything) it says can be tested or evaluated in any empirical way.

    Modesty Press

    May 12, 2011 at 1:12 pm

    • Picking out the “May 21st” notion and then extrapolating it to the millions of Christians on the planet who don’t believe in such date-setting seems to be a straw man to me.


      russell and duenes

      May 13, 2011 at 3:04 pm

  3. Human beings are the only animals (possible and trivial exception whales) able to engage in abstract thinking and to understsnd we are going to die.

    We don’t find this very acceptable.

    I suppose instead of describing Christianity as a “myth,” I could describe it as a “virtuous swindle.” Virtuous in that it often inspires people to behave well and to be comforted.

    In most scams, people are promised something that is never delivered. The people making the promises are sometimes punished.

    In Christianity, we are told, “After your physical body dies, your ‘soul’ [something that can never be detected or measured] will go to a place called ‘Heaven’ (a place no living person has ever seen] where your virtuous behavior (‘good works’] or your belief [willingness to be ‘born again’ / accept ‘Christ’s sacrifice’] will be rewarded by ‘eternal life’ and an undestanding of the purpose of it all.”

    No one ever returns to complain that none of this was ever delivered as promised.

    Myth? Scam? Both? Take your pick.

    It’s even ambiguous whether anyone is “harmed.” If you spend your life believing in something that proves not to be true–when you die, you don’t ever know that you didn’t get what you “paid” [if you tithed] or spent your life striving for [if you spent time preaching and converting].

    If that made you happy, or at least more consoled, and perhaps you helped someone else out, was it worth it that you believed in what I am pretty sure (of course, it’s just my opinion, I don’t deny that)?

    When I was a child, my favorite “fairy tale,” was the “Emperor’s New Clothes.” I’ve never seen religion as “dressed” in anything but dubious wishful thinking.

    Some scientists believe religious belief is to some degree based on genetics. Is their a religion gene? Do I lack it? What kind of a God would let people be born without the capacity to worship Him?


    May 12, 2011 at 1:40 pm

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