Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Split personality

Debating a militant apostate is much like counseling a patient with multiple-personality disorder, where different personalities alternate. Sometimes the apostate personality surfaces while his pre-apostate personality is dormant, and vice versa. From one minute to the next, you never know which personality is going to pop out.

You can witness this pathology in Hector Avalos as he (or “they”) try to rebut TID. His apostate personality is a moral relativist, but his pre-apostate personality is a moral realist. His preapostate personality acts as if truth still matters. He’s trying to talk (or bully) Christians out of their religions convictions. But because he denies moral absolutes, he must logically deny epistemic duties. As a moral relativist, he must admit that we have no obligation to believe something just because it’s true. And this generates a dilemma for his atheism:

Such a worldview summarily forfeits the right to be taken seriously. For a worldview is not entitled to our consideration if it disenfranchises the very notion of epistemic duties. Such a position thereby disenfranchises itself from further consideration.

If a worldview rejects the possibility that true beliefs are praiseworthy, while false beliefs are blameworthy, then we have no responsibility to believe something just because it is the right thing to believe–including the worldview in question. For there’s nothing praiseworthy about believing a worldview which denies the praiseworthy character of true beliefs.

Given the dilemma he’s created for himself, it’s hardly surprising that Avalos has developed a split personality to cope with his conundrum.

If I’m an atheist, why should I give a fig about the truth except when the truth happens to coincide with my self-interest? Life is unfair. Nasty, brutish, and short. So why not be ruthlessly pragmatic? I only serve the truth if and when the truth serves me? But Hector’s residual, preapostate personality continues to value truth (as he sees it) in a godless world devoid of values.

Hector’s entitled his reply “Amateur Hour at Triablogue.”

Of course, “amateur hour” is a derogatory idiom in the pop culture. But since Hector is a moral relativist, his derogatory usage lacks any moral or emotional leverage. Yet his multiple personalities can remember what the other believes.

Apparently, it does not matter that Hays also does not have a doctorate in ethics or in modern European history, and so how is he able to evaluate arguments about these subjects? Nor does Hays seem to mind that Copan, who is the center of my critique of chapter 8 in The Christian Delusion, has no doctorate in Old Testament. Hays does not seem to mind that D’Souza lacks a doctorate in biblical studies, AND in ethics, AND in modern European history.

i) Despite his Ivy League education, Avalos doesn’t know what a tu quoque argument is. I’m not the one who played the credentials card. John Loftus, editor of TCD, played the credentials card when he flagged the contributors with doctorates, as well as puffing the credentials of the blurb writers. Therefore, it was Loftus, not me, who raised the bar. The question, then, is whether he or some of his contributors can jump over the bar he set for them.

ii) Avalos also lacks reading skills. I don’t need a degree (much less a doctorate) in modern European history to evaluate his chapter, for I didn’t even evaluate his historical claims. As I pointed out, his historical case is a red herring.

Loftus has made a noble effort to include writers with graduate degrees or doctorates.

Does the fact that he failed tell you something about the limited talent pool in militant atheism?

My work on biblical law, ethics and the Nazi Holocaust has been reviewed by other scholars, and so Hays & Co. are simply attempting to divert attention from the fact that they present no qualifications or expertise (e.g. peer reviewed writings) in these subjects whatsoever.

At one stroke, Avalos just disqualified several contributors to TCD. What peer-reviewed writings has Babinski published? What peer-reviewed writings has Tobin published?

What about the TCD itself? Was that peer reviewed? No.

We don’t even need to debunk TCD when one of its leading contributors is busy debunking TCD.

But Hays has no expertise to judge what archaeological evidence does or does not ‘corroborate’ biblical accounts of Canaanite behavior.

And the average atheist who reads TCD has no expertise to evaluate Hector’s analysis of ANE law codes. So Hector just disqualified the target audience for TCD.

Once again, we don’t even need to debunk TCD when one of its leading contributors is busy snubbing the target audience.

Hays does not appreciate these comparisons because he does not understand the nature of Copan’s arguments or my rebuttal of them…So my efforts were not so much to say that Hammurabi’s laws are morally superior in some ‘absolute’ manner…So, to refute Copan, I don’t need to prove that Feature X actually makes laws superior by some objective moral standard. I just need to prove that WHAT COPAN CALLS a superior moral feature exists in non-biblical laws. That exposes Copan’s inconsistency and moral relativism concerning the usefulness of Feature X in evaluating ethical superiority.

i) To begin with, Avalos is now introducing ex post facto caveats that he didn’t include in his original essay. For instance, he entitled his essay “Yahweh is a Moral Monster.”

But apparently this is now to be read with the implicit disclaimer that while Yahweh is still a moral monster, he isn’t morally monstrous in “some absolute manner.”

ii) Assuming that Paul Copan is inconsistent, why should a moral relativist like Avalos care about consistency? It’s not as if consistency is an epistemic virtue. Not from the standpoint of a moral relativist.

iii) Avalos also made statements like “basing a moral system on unverifiable supernatural beings only creates more violence and endangers our species” (233).

But apparently this is now to be read with the implicit disclaimer that such allegedly violent and dangerous consequence isn’t bad in “some absolute manner.”

Likewise, he says “if the word ‘moral‘ describes the set of practices that accord with our values, and if our highest value is life, then it is always immoral to trade real human lives for something that does not exist or cannot be verified to exist” (233).

But apparently this is now to be read with the implicit disclaimer that while it is always immoral to trade human lives for something that doesn’t exist or can’t be verified, it isn’t immoral in “some absolute manner.” I’d add that how something can “always” be immoral without being immoral in some “absolute” manner is intriguing.

And again: “Treating workers like the master did [Mt 20:1-16] is an injustice” (217).

But not unjust in “some absolute manner.”

And again: “To excuse the plain horror of infanticide…” (224).

But not horrific in “some absolute manner.”

But this only shows that Hays completely misunderstood my argument, especially since Hays also noted this statement of mine (Infidel Delusion, p. 110): “Avalos says, ‘As an atheist, I don‘t deny that I am a moral relativist. Rather, my aim is to expose the fact that Christians are also moral relativists’”

Perhaps the most repeated claim by Triablogges is that one cannot judge morality unless one uses objective standards. For example, Hays declares (Infidel Delusion, p. 110):Finally, as a necessary precondition to demonstrate that Yahweh is morally monstrous, Avalos must be able to evaluate OT ethics (or NT ethics, for that matter) by reference to some objective moral [standard].

So, if I conclude that Christians are moral relativists, then clearly I am saying that CHRISTIANS ALSO CANNOT EVALUATE ETHICS BY REFERENCE TO SOME OBJECTIVE MORAL STANDARD.

However, Triabloggers cannot seem to recognize that there is a difference between CLAIMING to have objective moral standards and those standards actually existing. Indeed, Triabloggers offer no evidence that there are such things as “objective moral standards” beyond their own say-so or the say-so of biblical authors.

So, my argument is not necessarily: “Yahweh is monstrous according to objective standard X.” Rather, my argument is better represented as: “IF you regard Action X as morally evil, then Yahweh also endorses/accepts Action X.”

Misunderstanding the claims of relativist ethics also makes Triabloggers think they have triumphed by showing some sort of self-referential incoherence within moral relativism.

i) Notice the bait-and-switch. I pointed out that, as a moral relativist, Avalos has no right to render value judgments about OT ethics (or NT ethics).

How does Avalos attempt to rebut that claim? By claiming that Christians are in the same boat. But even if Christians were also moral relativists, that wouldn’t succeed in showing that secular moral relativists are justified in rendering value judgments. At best, that would disqualify both parties. Shifting the issue to Christians does nothing to invalidate the charge against atheism.

ii) Avalos is now admitting that his title was deceptive. What he really meant is that Yahweh is not a moral monster according to objective moral norms. But I somehow think that lacks the punch of the original title.

iii) I didn’t make a case for moral absolutes since the onus was not on me to vindicate that thesis. I simply evaluated Hector’s performance on his own terms. And if we measure his performance by his own yardstick, he comes up short.

I already showed in the same chapter that all supposedly “objective moral standards” are actually tautologies such as: “X is objectively evil because X is objectively evil.” You cannot rationally differentiate this from its opposite: “X is not objectively evil because X is not objectively evil.” I had already explained that adding God does not change that at all. For example:

A. “X is evil because God says X is evil” dissolves into:
B. “Whatever God says is evil should regarded as evil because whatever
God says is evil should be regarded as evil.”

Those circularities do not constitute proof that there are objective morals because I can show how they all dissolve into tautologies.

Thus, all Triabloggers are doing is precisely this: “I value what God says because I value what God says.” But did they prove that this should be an objective moral standard?

i) I can’t help noticing that Avalos doesn’t actually quote any of us to that effect.

ii) The circularity is bogus since that’s a caricature of what I believe. Something is not evil just because God says it’s evil. If God says something is evil, then that ensures the truth of the statement. But that is not what makes it evil.

For instance, sodomy is evil because God designed human nature to function in a certain way. Sodomy represents a violation of the way in which we were made to function. That’s not dissolvable into a mere tautology.

And who made up the rule that the only type morality has to be objective or absolute?

Indeed, it’s quite possible to substitute arbitrary social mores in lieu of moral absolutes. For instance, suppose we pass a law enacting the summary execution of all Hispanic apostates with Harvard degrees? Who made up the rule that we can’t do that?

That is why it is also absurd to say that relative morality = no morality. Relativists simply have a different definition of morality: ‘Moral actions are those that accord with our individual and group interests and values.’

i) Well, that’s certainly a “different” definition of morality. But if that’s the case, then why is Avalos so touchy about the link between Nazis and atheists? Why not admit the link, but say there’s nothing invidious about that comparison, for the Final Solution was in accord with the collective interests and values of the Nazis? The Nazis simply have a different definition of morality. Indeed, their definition dovetails quite nicely with Hector’s definition. So why spend a whole chapter trying to distance atheism from Nazism?

ii) Moreover, ethics must often deal with tensions between self-interest and the common good. The lifeboat scenario is a textbook example. In case of conflict, which takes precedence? Should we share the food and water? Or should I murder the passengers to make the supplies last longer for me?

Given that definition, my argument is that we create needless problems for our own safety and well-being when we base a moral system on unverifiable causes and consequences as opposed to verifiable causes and consequences.

But why should we cherish our own safety and well-being? Notice how Avalos begs the key question.

In Case A, I cannot verify that Allah exists and said anything.

What makes Avalos think the existence of Allah is unverifiable? It doesn’t seem hard to come up with hypothetical conditions in which one could verify his existence, or his speech-acts–if, indeed, he did exist, or spoke to you. Supposed he rearranged the stars to spell out: “Allah exists!”

When it was pointed out that Muslims could also appeal to Allah to kill, Steve Hays tells us (Infidel Delusion, p. 115):”That doesn‘t mean Allah has the prerogative to issue these directives. Whether a deity has the right to tell us what to do depends on the nature of the deity, and our obligations, if any, to the deity.”

And just who is going to decide which deity has the prerogative to issue those directives?

That question is ambiguous. Does he mean, who has the power to decide? Or who has the right to decide?

Are these not human judgments?

I already dealt with that objection. Notice how Avalos doges my counterargument, then repeats himself. This is what I actually said:

“Needless to say, that‘s a terribly shortsighted argument. For it fails to consider the fact that what ultimately lies behind a human judgment is the agency of God. Yes, we make value judgments. But what (or who) makes us make value judgments? All Nielsen and Avalos have done is to kick the can down the street. But from a Biblical standpoint, the God of Christianity is ultimately responsible for Christian judgments about himself. (Indeed, he‘s also responsible for the value judgment of unbelievers, to their deserved detriment.) Therefore, that argument fails to present a genuine alternative to the ultimacy of God in the process of moral valuation.”

And Avalos has no comeback.

All Hays is saying is: ‘I believe Allah does not have Right X because I believe that Allah does not have Right X.

But that’s not what I said. Indeed, it’s clear from what he himself quoted that this is not what I said. I said, “Whether a deity has the right to tell us what to do depends on the nature of the deity, and our obligations, if any, to the deity.”

That’s scarcely reducible to “I believe Allah does not have Right X because I believe that Allah does not have Right X.”

Such reasoning was repeated when I pointed out that any god in the ancient near East could accompany laws with a formula such as: “I am Shamash” (analogous to “I am Yahweh” in biblical law).

That’s a deliberate misstatement of the introductory “formula” in Biblical law. What we have instead are introductory formulae like the following: “"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:2); “"Say this to the people of Israel, 'The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you” (Exod 3:15).

So this isn’t reducible to: “Do what I say because I said it!” Rather, the Israelites are duty-bound to Yahweh out of gratitude for his goodness to them and their forebears. In addition, Exodus is prefaced by Genesis, which identifies Yahweh as the Creator of the world.

Isn’t Avalos supposed to be an OT scholar? Why is it necessary to explain this to him?

Hays, however, seems to just assume his god exists (Infidel Delusion 115): “We could say Shamash is the true god if it‘s true to say that Shamash is the true God. But unless Shamash is truly the true God, so what?”

As usual, Avalos can’t follow the argument. He asked “Why couldn‘t we say that Shamash is the true god, and then judge biblical law with how it accords with Shamash‘s law?’ (222).”

Yet that’s an existential proposition. So the conclusion is only as good as the premise. We could judge biblical law by how it accords with Shamash’s law if and only if Shamash exists, but Yahweh does not. Since Avalos himself denies the existence of Shamash, that appeal can’t very well ground the law of Shamash.

I didn’t assume anything one way or the other. I’m merely dealing with the internal logic of his question. But Avalos is too illogical to grasp his own question.

But we can apply Hays’ argument to Yahweh: “Anyone could say Yahweh is the true god if it’s true to say Yahweh is the true God. But unless Yahweh is truly the true God, so what?” The problem, of course, is that Hays cannot grasp that BOTH the Yahweh and Shamash worshipper can say the same thing, and it does not make it true.

I never said that claiming something makes it true. That is Hector’s oft-repeated caricature of his opponents. He keeps burning a straw man as if he won the argument by the amount of smoke he generated.

It’s strictly Hays’ human judgment no matter which God he thinks is authorized to do anything. Thus, Hays only proves the point that he is a moral relativist insofar as whatever he thinks is right is what he then ascribes to the deity he favors on the basis of moral criteria he preselected. He cannot show that any morality is coming from outside of his own judgments.

i) Notice, once again, that Avalos is simply rehashing the same objection he raised in the original essay, even though I specifically responded to that very objection. Avalos doesn’t have a second act. He shot his wad the first time around.

ii) Avalos also has a completely idiosyncratic definition of moral relativism. Moral relativism doesn’t mean that human beings can’t render value judgments. Rather, we apply a standard which is not a made-made standard.

On a more empirical and historical level, Triablogue’s brand of supposedly objective ethics have been shown to be completely contradictory. After all, the following have been advocated AND opposed by those who say they believe in God or objective ethics:

A. Genocide
B. Rape
C. Homosexuality
D. Adultery
E. Infanticide
F. Biocide (Noah’s Flood)

Two basic problems:

i) Hector’s criticism is fallacious. The existence of objective moral norms doesn’t entail unanimity in practice. A man may think adultery is wrong, but still succumb to temptation in the heat of the moment. And he may even rationalize his sin.

ii) Hector is also equivocating. At a minimum, he would need to distinguish between “believers” who affirm the authority of Scripture, and “believers” who deny the authority of Scripture.

But how does Hays know how many generations God has in mind for human existence? After all, if God decided to end the world tomorrow, would Hays say: “God, you can’t do that because there are still future generations to be saved”?

And the reverse can also be true: Future generations might be damned even more if allowed to be born. After all, does Hays show the same concern for generations that were born before Christ’s salvation arrived? Doesn’t God care about all those generations who perished unsaved before Christ? And how did Hays specifically calculate the proportion of saved to damned in his soteriology?

What Avalos has now done is to modify his original argument by adding some hypothetical caveats. But if he reserves the right to do that, then I’m at liberty to modify my original counterargument with hypothetical caveats which stalemate his hypothetical caveats.

Remember, his original argument was predicated on Copan’s presumption of infant salvation. But if he’s going to introduce various hypotheticals that becloud the outcome, then that undercuts his original argument. For given all these imponderables, abortion would not be justifiable on pragmatic/utilitarian grounds (even if we took that standard for granted).

1. Do you think killing infants is always wrong? Yes or No?

i) God does no wrong by taking the life of an infant.

ii) There are also situations in which, no matter what you do, some innocent blood will be shed. Should we bomb part of a Syrian city that’s producing a biochem weapon which will be used to wipe out London, even though bombing that part of the city will kill some babies belonging to the resident scientists? Short answer: that might be permissible or even obligatory.

But that’s entirely consonant with moral absolutes. Not all obligations are equally obligatory. There are higher and lower obligations. In case of conflict, higher obligations supersede lower obligations.


  1. Avalos has an amazing double standard mentality. In his book "Fighting Words" he calls for the "elimination of religion from human life".

    Those are his words, and he is not joking. I once asked him at an Atheist Convention that was held in Kansas City a while back what he would do if certain people refused to accept that "elimination"?

    He said they would have to be "educated" to accept it.

    I said, like they did in the old Soviet Union?

    At that point I was "escorted off the platform". LOL!

  2. "Isn’t Avalos supposed to be an OT scholar? Why is it necessary to explain this to him?"

    φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν

    I think that about sums it up.