Living Out Our Beliefs

*Posted by Joe Wooddell

This morning I had an interesting conversation with a self-professed atheist that most people would say is kind and considerate. We were talking about presuppositions or attitudes people have, and how those presuppositions or attitudes show up (or not) in our actions. We agreed that it’s one thing to say we believe something, it’s another thing to follow through and act on those professed beliefs. James 2:18 says “show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” The actions show what we really believe. I say I trust God, but then I worry. I say I believe I should be a good steward of God’s blessings, but then I waste money or time. I confessed to the atheist that I don’t always live out what I say I believe, but I’m constantly trying to improve. The atheist said she’s been impressed by religious people actually living out their faith. “It is impressive,” I replied, “but what’s interesting to me is that I typically don’t see atheists live out their views.”

As Dostoyevsky said a century-and-a-half ago, if God doesn’t exist all things are permissible. He’s right, of course. If there’s no God, then there are no immaterial, ethical absolutes. My atheist friend refers to herself as “spiritual,” but we didn’t have time to discuss what that means. Presumably it means something like we’re all part of ‘god,’ or kindness is a virtue, or there’s more to life than what we see. But if all this is true and there’s no personal God different from us, then whatever exists is all part of nature. Nature is all there is. There’s no super-natural, nothing outside the box of nature (to quote Ron Nash). But if nature is all there is (whether that nature is merely physical or also includes the ‘spiritual’), then there’s no significant difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’ there’s no compelling reason to prefer one to the other, no way to tell whether ‘the dark side of the force’ is in any sense better than its alternative. So while my friend is impressed by religious people who live out their faith, I am eternally grateful that most atheists don’t live out their views consistently. If they did, there would be no telling what random weirdness and evil I might run into, much more than I currently experience. As it is, most atheists are not living what they say they believe. Thankfully, instead, they are living on residual ethics borrowed from the Judeo-Christian worldview.

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18 Responses to Living Out Our Beliefs

  1. “then there’s no significant difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong,’”

    Sure there is. There’s a particular difference if your actions are impacting others. And it would be those others to whom the difference means the most.

    “As it is, most atheists are not living what they say they believe.”

    Sure I do. I just don’t believe what you think I believe.

    • Joe Wooddell says:

      Thank you so much for the comment. Let me try to clarify. If there’s no supernatural, then everything is inside the box of nature, everything is part of nature, everything is natural. But if this is the case, then the only thing that determines right and wrong is what each individual decides for himself. But if this is the case, then there’s really no objective or absolute right and wrong; rather, right and wrong are merely relative to the individual or the culture or goup. In such a case, it makes no sense to say “my view is ‘better’ than yours” in a moral sense. All that would mean is that I ‘prefer’ my view to yours, because my view . . . (fill in the blank: helps people, causes human flourishing, etc.). But whatever you fill in the blank with is just your personal (or group) preference. It’s not based on anything outside nature.

      I actually had a student at a state school be brutally honest with me about this one time; he was, in my view, consistent (and as such in one sense more respectable than those who deny the supernatural but who also say there is absolute right and wrong). I asked him if I punched him in the nose for no reason would that be wrong. He said no, but he would hit me back. When I asked why, he responded that he doesn’t like being hit in the nose. As an atheist Nietzsche was honest and consistent on this point as well when he said: “what is decisive against Christianity is no longer our reason but our taste.” I’m glad most atheists are not consistent. I’m glad they believe in right and wrong, and that their view of right and wrong at its core basically agrees with mine many times. But they have no reason to believe this way, and if they are truly atheists, then they have every reason not to believe this way. So I’m glad they’re inconsistent. Hope this makes sense. I welcome your response.

      • “I asked him if I punched him in the nose for no reason”

        The important question here is, why would you punch someone in the nose for no reason? If you have no reason for something, why do it?

        My morality depends on harm and benefit, which we can determine through the scientific method. Some actions bring harm, some bring benefit. Some are more beneficial or more harmful than others. And some are neither harmful or beneficial.

        I act based on what I value. I value health and happiness…and thus would want to avoid getting punched in the nose. The best way to avoid that? Not punching other people in the nose and encouraging a culture that agrees with me.

        Humans are surprisingly similar. Very few people decide to be violent ‘just because’.

        And I find basing my morality on a rational understanding of harm and benefit is much more consistent, and more reliable, than doing what any particular scripture or person says I should.

      • Joe Wooddell says:

        (To NotAScientist’s 11:50 comment: Since there’s no “reply” button under your latest response/question, I’ll put it here and hope it ends up under yours in the right place.)

        Good point. I could just as easily have said “punched him in the nose because I didn’t like his nose,” or “because he smelled bad,” or whatever reason I wished, none of which has anything to do with him having harmed me me.

        But to your point of harm and benefit: your morality depends on harm and benefit. Okay, but why is harm bad and benefit good? Presumably you mean harm to you or some member of the human race/species. But why is human flourishing (or your own personal flourishing) a “good” thing? If cancer eats up your bones it’s bad for you, right? (I realize cancer itself is not a thing, so to speak, but for the sake of argument . . .) But what about the cancer (or whatever virus or bacteria you wish to substitute here)? Why couldn’t we just as easily say I prefer that cancer flourish, even if it means the demise of humanity? True, you can generally determine scientifically whether something is physically harmful or not, but you can’t determine scientifically why “harm” (to you or the human race or to whatever) is “bad” or “evil.” Again, it’s just your preference. If there’s no supernatural, then there’s no way to adjudicate between preferences (including not being harmed) as right or wrong. Rather, it ends up being about nothing more than your personal taste.

  2. “Why couldn’t we just as easily say I prefer that cancer flourish, even if it means the demise of humanity?”

    You could? But why would you? What would be your reasoning?

    Forgive me, but your argument seems full of hypotheticals that don’t make much sense to me.

    Humans, like all living things, have a desire to live, thrive and reproduce. It’s in our genes. Without it, the species wouldn’t exist today. There are certainly situations in which a person can reason themselves into sacrificing themself, and there is the occasional person who has a death wish or some other condition that makes them want to commit suicide. But in general, most of the time, humans want to survive.

    So unless you can come up with a good reason why your hypothetical person would want cancer to flourish, my only real response would be ‘that’s silly of them, isn’t it?’

    “Again, it’s just your preference.”

    It’s not just preference. It’s the logical conclusion based on values that I personally have that are almost universal. Where they differ is where we debate or, unfortunately, go to war, as is obvious because the world isn’t completely peaceful.

    “Rather, it ends up being about nothing more than your personal taste.”

    As opposed to the taste of a book written a few thousand years ago?

    I understand you believe that book to either have been written by or inspired by a deity. That being said, I’m of the opinion that slavery (for one example) is wrong. Your scriptures don’t say the same thing. I’m of the opinion that any killing of another human being that isn’t in self defense is wrong. Your scriptures don’t say the same thing.

    So, even if it was ‘just my preference’, it still looks superior to what you are claiming to have.

    • Joe Wooddell says:

      I think you’re changing the subject, and haven’t given me an argument for why survival is inherently moral. Your only point seems to be: “most people want to survive,” or “survival makes more sense than non-survival.” But you’re still not giving me any absolute moral or ethical reason to prefer survival to non-survival on your naturalistic worldview. If nature is all that exists, then things just are. There’s no true right or wrong. The only reason you can give is something like “your view just seems silly to me,” while my response to you is: You have no argument to show how your view is inherently ethical or moral. That’s what I want to know. How is your view ethical and someone’s who disagrees with you unethical? If nature is all that exists, then natural things are just bumping into each other and here we are. And I simply don’t find that to be the case. You mentioned logic. Here’s a way to approach it logically:

      (Premise 1) If naturalism is true, then there’s no absolute right or wrong.
      Your view says (Premise 2) naturalism is true.
      But if you’re right, then (Conclusion) there’s no absolute right or wrong.
      (This is a simple example of “modus ponens.”)

      But I could just as easily argue:
      (Premise 1) If naturalism is true, then there’s no absolute right and wrong.
      But (Premise 2′) there is absolute right and wrong (for example, torturing babies for fun is objectively, absolutely wrong in every possible world).
      Therefore, (Conclusion’) naturalism is NOT true.
      (This is a simple example of “modus tollens.”)

      I simply want to know how it’s possible for there to be objective, absolute morality if naturalism is true. I can’t see how. I see that most people share the preference for survival, but that mere fact doesn’t prove survival is objectively, absolutely moral or ethical. Neither science nor naturalism can tell us what’s right or wrong. They can only describe what they observe.

      • I don’t think survival is necessarily moral or immoral. It just happens to be a nearly universal human value, and from that value and others like it we can determine what our morals are.

        “There’s no true right or wrong.”

        True to who?

        I have certain values, that I hold for a combination of biological, social and personal reasons. Based on those values, there is a true right or wrong. If you don’t share my values, then we can’t really have an intelligent discussion about morality, because we’d just be talking past each other.

        “How is your view ethical and someone’s who disagrees with you unethical?”

        That depends on what we’re talking about, and again, what we value.

        For example…two hypothetical people both say that they value life.

        Person number 1’s view is to live and let live, help others when she can, and promote kindness and respect.

        Person number 2’s view is to run around punching people in the nose, stealing their belongings, and killing anyone who tries to stop her.

        Which is ethical and which is unethical? Which is ‘right’ and which is ‘wrong’?

        Well, again, I think we have to look at the values. Through observation and testing, we can determine which of the actions being taken are more likely to uphold the values.

        Even if there is no absolute morality, that doesn’t mean that you can’t judge moralities against each other. There is no absolute best chess move, but there are certainly chess moves that are better than others, and we are able to determine that.

        “(for example, torturing babies for fun is objectively, absolutely wrong in every possible world).”

        I think it’s dishonest to call that absolute. Not because I disagree with you, but because there are a lot of different parts.

        Saying ‘torturing is wrong’ would be absolute. Because the action is torture. When you bring in the reasons for employing the torture (for fun) or the people being tortured (babies) you’re making this a situational morality. And again, I agree that torturing babies for fun is immoral. But torturing a murderer for information about the whereabouts of his still living victims? That might not be immoral.

        Saying ‘killing is wrong’ would be absolute. But saying ‘only murder is wrong’ is not, because it is taking the action (killing someone) and saying that in only some circumstances is it wrong, or completely wrong. Which is not absolute at all.

        “I simply want to know how it’s possible for there to be objective, absolute morality if naturalism is true. I can’t see how.”

        There may not be.

        But again, that doesn’t mean we’re lost in the dark. We can still determine what actions are better or worse based off of what we value. Or, at least, I can. I imagine that you can as well. And it appears that even the writers of the Bible did this, though I disagree with some of their conclusions.

      • Joe Wooddell says:

        I still think the only thing you’re saying is: it’s moral/ethical because I value it (or because lots and lots of people value it). What I’m saying is: I value it because it’s moral. And your valuing it has only to do with instrumental value, while mine has to do with inherent value. On your naturalistic worldview, there is no such thing as inherent value; there can’t be; things just are. On my view, certain things are moral, ethical, or to be valued, because such is consistent with the nature and/or word of a Perfect Being. On your view, value is created. On mine, value is discovered or revealed.

  3. David Niederkorn says:

    Not a Scientist:

    So you are suggesting that you and the Bible share a value system that both of you assert? In other words, (1) Wooddell is wrong to say there is no basis for your morality because your moral base is your value system which consists, for example, of the desire for life. As a life-valuing human, you are able to determine morality; and (2) similarly, the Bible values life and therefore establishes a value system based on this value.
    If this is right, then I suppose, at least on this point, you and the Bible are both making the same assertion: that life is valuable and that based on the value of life an ethic can be formed.
    The naturalist argument, as I understand it here, actually strikes me as reasonable, at least as far as I have taken it above. But I see two problems here: (1) You probably are not too happy to find yourself so nearly aligned with Scripture, but maybe not; and (2) Wooddell is probably going to say the Bible has a better basis for its assertion than naturalism does. In other words, you and the Bible are right, only the Bible is valid because it asserts God as a premise, whereas your argument for morality merely asserts man’s desire.
    Stated differently, here is the bigger problem for the naturalist: the Bible forms a valid argument but the naturalist does not. Granted, the Bible (maybe) requires faith, thus I will not insist it forms a sound argument; but, the naturalist argument, as stated throughout this post, is not a valid argument: it begs the question. The naturalist seems to say I have morals because I have values. But what are morals other than values? The naturalist asserts his value as support for his value – the Bible asserts God as support for its value.

  4. “What I’m saying is: I value it because it’s moral.”

    No. You’re saying you value it because you think it’s moral. And you think it’s moral either because someone told you or because you read it in a book. Which doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t moral, but I’d feel better if you did more than that to get your morals.

    Now, to David.

    “If this is right, then I suppose, at least on this point, you and the Bible are both making the same assertion: that life is valuable and that based on the value of life an ethic can be formed.”

    Correct. I am of the opinion that the Bible, in some ways, doesn’t go about it properly.

    “(1) You probably are not too happy to find yourself so nearly aligned with Scripture, but maybe not”

    I don’t particularly care either way. Religion, as it seems to me, was created by people. People get some things right and some things wrong. I’ve never been of the opinion that everything a religion teaches is automatically wrong just because some of it is wrong.

    “But what are morals other than values?”

    You got the set-up wrong. But it seems to be an issue of language more than anything else.

    My morality is based off of my values. My morality is how I act. My values are why I act. They work in concert, but they aren’t the same thing.

    “The naturalist asserts his value as support for his value – the Bible asserts God as support for its value.”

    As the naturalist doesn’t believe that God exists, from our side, the Bible’s argument is incredibly weaker.

    • David Niederkorn says:

      “As the naturalist doesn’t believe that God exists, from our side, the Bible’s argument is incredibly weaker.”

      May I presume you are acknowledging that the Christian argument is “valid”?
      Such an admission does not make you a Christian, it makes you a logician.
      The reason I say “presume” is that you did not address my stating that the Christian argument is valid, and instead you advanced to the analysis of its soundness.
      If you acknowledge the soundness of the Christian argument that might make you a Christian, so let’s don’t go there! But please do address this: If the God of the Bible exists then Christianity is true, yes? If He does not exist then Christianity is false, yes? If you agree, then it strikes me that you are acknowledging the validity of the Christian argument.
      This was really all I was trying to say, forgive me for being so long-winded in my earlier comments. I hope we can agree that, sound or not (i.e., correct or not) the Christian argument is at minimum logically valid (i.e., if the premises are correct then the conclusion is correct).
      Also, thanks for a great dialogue thus far.

      • I would surrender my time to a quick look at the Euthyphro dilemma. I don’t find the Christian argument to be valid, I merely was pointing out a different way in which one could view the Christian argument as weaker.

        “the Christian argument is at minimum logically valid (i.e., if the premises are correct then the conclusion is correct).”

        Perhaps…but so what? I can make a logically valid argument that I’m the Pope, but it doesn’t make the argument true.

    • Joe Wooddell says:

      It’s much more than that someone told me or that I read it in a book. It’s that I take it to be reasonable that a perfect being exists. But that’s not the main point. The main point is that one may reasonably begin with the notion that absolute morality exists, and on that basis reason toward the conclusion that naturalism is false. (See my “modus ponens / modus tollens” examples above.) Put simply: if absolute morality exists, then naturalism is false; and I can’t deny the antecedent (absolute morality exists), so I’m forced to the conclusion that naturalism is false.

  5. David Niederkorn says:

    You just said the Christian argument is not valid, then you said perhaps it is! Then you ask so what? Please, don’t basic rules of argumentation demand one to acknowledge when the other is correct?

    Which is it: Is Christianity a valid argument or not?

    Again: If there is a God, then Christianity is “sound,” and if there is not a God, then it is not “sound.” (1) Do you agree or do you not? (2) Does this indicate that Christianity forms a “valid” argument?

    Please just acknowledge with no qualifications that Christianity is a “valid” argument.

    • grampawoody says:

      To NotAScientist:
      After following this blog, I will make some observations. You have the notion that there is no point in conversing if someone’s view differs from yours; yet you continue to argue your side while degrading the opposing view. If you could offer valid arguments, there might be a reason to acknowledge your presumed superior attitude. There is a form of dissertation that is designed for the sole purpose of degrading an opponent as an exercise of one’s supposed superior intellect. It leaves no room for understanding – only arguing.
      I surmise that you have an aversion to Christians and the Bible; else why would you bother to enter the discussion. You prefer to argue with no desire to resolve anything except to display animosity toward a belief that irritates you personally. I and others are capable of the same; and I say this without repentance. The ability to over talk, degrade and confuse is a preferred form of debate to belittle, debase and silence the opposition.
      You say your desire to survive is responsible for the values that form your moral standards. This is not possible. Animals have a survival instinct without values or moral standards; though I might argue that my dog has both and is infinitely more compassionate than humans. A baby doesn’t know how to survive much less have a value system by which to form any moral judgment. These are learned traits; and they depend on the predominant schools of influence in one’s life. This is why the various schools of influence strive to make adherents or disciples of particular ideologies. Your arguments would be of no value to a closed mind; and I would presume to say that you would capitulate, or defer, to an opposing view if your life were at stake. I say this for a reason that will manifest itself in due course to occur in our lifetime. In other words, are you willing to die for your beliefs? Are you willing to give your life to that end? Is what you believe so strong that it cannot be shaken?
      I really don’t care what you believe. I should; but I don’t. I should because I call myself a Christian. But, as you can see, I am exactly the sort of Christian you would delight in using as an example of why Christians are idiots and hypocrites. And that doesn’t bother me; because I’ve spent a lifetime watching the world (and America especially) march straight to Hell. But then, if you don’t believe in Hell, you have nothing to fear.
      That brings me to an oft mentioned point. If there is no God, no Christ, no Heaven, and no Hell – what is life worth? There is no justification for doing anything except to gratify one’s self. And that is essentially what we are doing today. We can talk an issue to death for our own edification or we can ignore each other only to come to blows at a later date. I don’t have to convince you of anything; and I won’t try. You choose to believe what is in your heart for now. But, I can tell you this – there is a way to look at the Bible and know things that even a scientific mind would be hard pressed to refute.

  6. Pingback: Nihilism: Really? | For Christ and Culture

  7. John Rigler says:

    I am an atheist and certainly have a morality that I have created on my own. I have taken into consideration laws, social norms, my own compassion and intuition, and even religion. I think someone else here has already tried to make the argument that this possible. Richard Dawkins ( in fact all of the ‘new atheists’ ) speaks quite eloquently on the subject as well. It seems to me that the issue here is a more fundamental one. We are having a discussion with almost two different languages. Atheists talk about what is logical in a sort of scientific way. Christians seem to not be specifically anti-scientific, but are simply starting with an ‘a priori’ sense of logic and then building on top of it in an almost mathematical way. It is almost as if you have a quadratic equation filled with Biblical truths than you just fiddle with a bit. It is the whole ‘where from comes the source of your morality’ argument. You also seem fond of complicated labels. To me it simply feels like clever debate tools can be equated to reality with winning the debate as a sort of mathematical God-proof.

    • Joe Wooddell says:

      At the risk of repeating myself ad nauseum, let me just say: My original point is that atheists have no basis for their morality. As you admit above, atheists’ morality is just a hodge-podge of what feels right for each individual atheist. Also, part of my original point was to say that even though they have no basis for their morality, I’m grateful that atheists don’t live this out consistently. Their atheism allows an “anything goes” sort of “morality.” Thankfully, however, they usually act like there is, in fact, some basis for morality. Whether they realize it or not, this is the image of God and natural law working within them, even though they are “lost” (i.e., without a relationship with Christ). Read C. S. Lewis’s books “Mere Christianity” and “Miracles” and it should make perfect sense. Thanks for commenting.

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