Is Morality Fact or Opinion?

March 28, 2015 § 23 Comments

1425514425626Below is a discussion that developed on a friend’s Facebook comment thread surrounding a New York Times opinion piece highlighting a perceived inconsistency in how many schools teach about fact and opinion, asserting that students are being “told that there are no moral facts in one breath even as the next tells them how they ought to behave.” Marc posted an article rebutting the first article, stating that moral facts “are opinions because they are value claims” rather than objective or universal truth. Linked here are both original articles.

Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts by Justin P. McBrayer

Moral Truths and the Fact/Opinion Dichotomy by Thomas Whitley

Marc and I agreed that the ensuing debate was getting pretty lengthy, so I offered to move it here so that it might continue where it left off without further assault to our friend’s Facebook feed.


This is always a fun discussion (that’s my opinion anyway, not necessarily fact:). McBrayer’s article notes the self-defeating pitfall that all arguments for relativism fall into, and Whitley’s rebuttal is no exception. I am sure that when Whitley says that a value claim “does not express any universal truth”, this is something he hopes we will take as universally true. If he doesn’t, then there would be no point in making the statement, or any statement, because they are just subjective opinions. When Whitley says McBrayer’s view and pursuit of facts is “not the sort of work in which we should want our schools engaged”, he reveals his own moral values in what “we” (universal) “should” (morally obligated) do. Any worldview that sees no moral facts uses a moral basis for the same claim, because at the most basic level, there is a moral rightness or wrongness to how we choose to view reality. It’s convenient for secularists to deny moral facts, but we affirm their existence by the way we speak and live. We may be right or wrong about what a moral fact states, but we are keenly aware of the ontological reality of objective moral facts.

It’s even evident in the stories we dream up. Everyone agrees it’s wrong for one race to invade and destroy another race from a distant galaxy, even though their planets and evolutionary history are completely separate. Even in our fiction, we can’t imagine a world without objective and universal moral truth. When skeptics make moral judgments about what ancient cultures did, or about what God did in the Bible thousands of years ago in a different part of the world,they are imagining we all fit under the same transcendent moral umbrella.

Whitley explains the apparent “naturalized” nature of moral facts by saying that such decisions are rather based on “arbitrary (and self-serving) decisions made by social actors over a long period of time and the subsequent implementation of a policy…”. He is assuming (without observation or experimentation) that over “a long period of time” the most popular social norms became so engrained in our practice that we now view them as universal or objectively true. But if we are intellectually capable of having a philosophical discussion about how we tricked ourselves into thinking subjective opinion is objective fact, why do we still live as if moral facts exist?

Whitley’s critique of the moral value of “all men are created equal” is interesting. He calls it androcentric, but “men” here means “mankind”, not just males. He is right that the founders who asserted this moral truth based it on Biblical principals that assume a Creator. It’s important to note that our deepest convictions are always based on something we cannot prove and therefore must believe on faith. Most secularists deny this, but nonetheless can’t produce a proof for relying on the basic laws of logic other than the basic laws of logic. Ultimately it’s circular, because at the base of our beliefs, whatever they may be, there is something we can’t prove by anything greater. That’s okay though, as long as what you assume makes sense of the reality you can actually observe and test. Faith in the Creator God described in the Bible makes sense of the fact that we can’t NOT know that objective, universal moral facts exist. If we suppose that moral values evolved over time, we are left with a chicken/egg dilemma. How do we call something moral before moral standards evolved? (…/proof-of-an…/)


Mike, I’m really pleased you took this seriously. I agree it is a fun debate but that it can have serious ramifications.

I don’t think you show how “all men are created equal” is the same sort of statement as “2 plus 2 equals 4” — which I think is McBrayer’s premise. One is an opinion and one is a fact. In your last paragraph, you seem to say (in the logic sentence) that ultimately logic and, I suppose, mathematical “facts” can’t prove logic or math other than employing math and logic. Thus, faith. You’re missing, though, that ultimately, we don’t believe 2 and 2 makes 4 because we have faith, we assume 2 plus 2 equals 4 because assuming otherwise has never held to be true (empiricism) — the vast preponderance of incidents where adding two things to two things results in four things makes it absurd to act otherwise. You don’t walk through a closed wooden door for the same reason — it’s absurd based on your experience to expect that you would go through it. That is a categorically different kind of knowledge than “killing is wrong” or “all men are created equal.”


Marc, thanks for the reply! I would agree that it’s hard to see the similarities between something like 2+2=4 and “All men are created equal”. They are the same in that both have the potential to be true or false regardless of our knowledge or belief about them. 

The difference really is one is much easier to demonstrate and prove than the other. 2+2=4 can be shown by taking any 2 material objects and adding two more to get four (fingers, coins, cars, etc). Numbers are conceptual until there is something available to quantify, and we are surrounded by things to count, add, subtract, etc. This leaves little room for faith. If we didn’t have such things available, math would be very difficult to explain and you’d have a lot of skeptics doubting your faith in or opinion about the equation. Even equations on paper are only meaningful because written numbers and symbols correspond to things or events or ideas we can observe and count. When math strays away from pure numbers we may lose some followers when dealing with abstract concepts like infinity, because infinity is either impossible or literally takes forever.  But simple 2+2 can be demonstrated and at least as long as we have seen, always makes 4.

God creating anything cannot be proven, but it may still be true. Facts are defined as true regardless of perspective, and it’s also the case that I believe it to be true in my opinion. (That doesn’t make it true or factual, just noting where opinion fits in). Several reasons exist why Creation is impossible to prove: 1) It was in the past and we are not there to observe it (math is present and observable), 2) We are not God and cannot simulate/test His assignment of worth to human beings, and 3) While creation is material and present, God is spirit and therefore unfit for material testing.

Imagine an object on the far side of moon. It has definite properties and it in fact exists apart from our knowledge of it, and since we cannot get to it, we would never know it existed unless it was revealed to us somehow. Christians believe that God reveals Himself in His word. We can’t prove this so ultimately it’s faith-based belief. Hebrews 13 says that “by faith we understand…”, meaning for some things, faith must come before we can say we “know” something is true. Basic “self-evident” axioms we hold to a priori don’t require proof but we presuppose them as facts in order to prove supported beliefs.

Examples are natural and moral laws, which we call “laws” not because we wrote them. Like the law of uniformity, gravity, or cause and effect, we discovered patterns and consistencies in nature and dubbed them “laws”, because they seem to be reliable, governing, and are followed, like the laws we are familiar with in everyday life. But laws we observe everyday require a law-giver; someone writes them. Can a mindless universe that began as just matter and motion produce the laws of logic? Nothing we observe now indicates this. Why do we treat moral law (I.e. “Murder is wrong”) as if it should apply to everyone, everywhere, for all time, if it’s supposed to have evolved? Laws we create have limited jurisdictions. Why is there order and uniformity in the universe that actually allows us to predict, experiment, and make assumptions about the future based on the past if the universe is the product of chance? Even “the vast preponderance of incidents where adding two things to two things results in four” relies on an assumption that the future will be like the past, order that shouldn’t exist in a random universe. However, if the God of the Bible exists, then these laws make sense (God is logical, moral, and orderly), and our dependence on these laws makes sense.

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§ 23 Responses to Is Morality Fact or Opinion?

  • Marc says:

    Hey Mike, thought I would pick this up again. In particular, I want to respond to some of your statements in the last post. Nothing I’m going to say is original — these are long-known replies to claims about there being proof or certainty that human morality originates from somewhere outside of humanity and that it can be regarded as a “fact” of the same kind as mathematical formulas or physical phenomena. I think that’s what you claim in the first paragraph.
    I follow you through the second graph and then, in paragraph three, you say this: “God creating anything cannot be proven, but it may still be true. Facts are defined as true regardless of perspective, and it’s also the case that I believe it to be true in my opinion. (That doesn’t make it true or factual, just noting where opinion fits in).”
    I think the problem is that the word “truth” takes on different meanings depending on its use, and it’s a poor word to use for this discussion on whether morals can be considered facts. For example, a Muslim may say, “It is true that the world is round,” and also say, “Islam is the one true faith” but you wouldn’t say that “true” has the same meaning in each sentence. In the first, it is interchangeable with the word “fact.” In the second, he may assert that this also as a fact, but I think you would agree this is an error — that “true” in this sentence, means “what one should believe.” If you say, “I should be true to my heart” then “true” means another thing as well.
    I say this because I want to be sure to distinguish the concept of “moral truth” which I would define as something different than “moral fact.” which is the gist of the discussion about Common Core’s “fact versus opinion” test. For myself, I would consider “all men are created equal” a moral truth, something I believe is beneficial for society to follow as a principle. But that’s my opinion, I can’t claim it to be a “moral fact” and I can’t think of how I could prove it, or even quite properly define it. After all, the inequality of people is all too apparent.
    I can continue, but I think I’d like your thoughts on this so far.


    • Hi Marc, thanks for being willing to continue this conversation. 🙂 Words can definitely take on different meanings depending on use, and the user, and I’m glad you point that out. It’s critical to, if we can’t agree on the definition, at least come to understand what the other means by it. When I say truth, I mean “that which conforms to reality, fact, or actuality.” The difference between truth and fact is hard to pin down because many define both the same. I’ve seen definitions that introduce an epistemological factor to both; that a fact is something that is “known or believed” to be true, and that truth is something “known or believed “ to be factual. In philosophy, truth generally takes on subjectivity and malleability, whereas fact is beyond any logical dispute. But in most circles, we for all practical purposes see them as the same thing, and that’s how I understand fact and truth.

      I don’t see a meaningful difference in “truth” and “moral truth” I think because my worldview—the set of fundamental beliefs about the world used to live life and make sense of it—includes objective moral law that comes from God. In my opinion, this makes sense of how the world works, including how we all treat morality. It’s “my opinion” because it reflects what I believe but it isn’t without dispute and not everyone agrees. But wouldn’t you agree there must be truth/fact ABOUT morality, like whether or not it comes from God, that is independent of belief? Like the object on the far side of the moon that we’ve never seen—it’s there or not there regardless of what we think. In the same way, I think moral law would still exist even if all people on earth disappeared leaving no one left to hold the opinion (“opinion” itself would be gone). If I’m wrong and God or morality don’t exist, their nonexistence is still true/factual whether I’m here to believe it or not.

      I also don’t see a significant difference in the nature of the 2 hypothetical claims the Muslim makes in your analogy. Both can be considered “what one should believe.” The type of evidence available for each are different (like math vs. morality), but can still be absolutely true or false.

      In fact, there seems to be a common denominator in the 3 chief assertions you’ve made, if I can summarize them (let me know if I got them wrong):

      1. Moral truths can’t be considered facts
      2. “The earth is round” and “Islam is the one true faith” are not the same kind of truth claim
      3. All men are not created equal

      If the God described in the Bible does in fact exist, moral truths could be considered facts (morality would be rooted in the nature of God who made us in His image—Gen. 1:27—and geared our minds for moral awareness—Rom. 2:15), the earth could still be round (Isaiah 40:22; Psalm 19:4,6), there could be one religion that is true (except I would of course argue that Christian theism is exclusively true—John 14:6), and all human beings could have the same inherent value in the eyes of God, who as our Creator would ultimately determine value (not how we treat each other or situations we are born into), and all would have equal opportunity for redemption from sin (Gal. 2:6; Rom. 10:12). If I can make an assumption about your own beliefs, you don’t believe God exists. Could that presupposition steer your conclusions? I know my presupposing His existence steers mine, so I think the real question is that of His existence.

  • Marc says:

    OK, let me see if I can answer all your questions here.

    Q: “Wouldn’t you agree there must be truth/fact ABOUT morality, like whether or not it comes from God, that is independent of belief? Like the object on the far side of the moon that we’ve never seen—it’s there or not there regardless of what we think.”
    A: The existence of morals is an undeniable fact, of course, but they are of the same nature as the undeniable existence of the rules of Monopoly — rules we agree we all should follow to make our life, or that game, more satisfying. The only moral laws ever uttered have been uttered by men and women. Many, maybe most, have claimed those were revealed to them by some deity or daemon, but the rest of us never get it from the source. So it’s reported in ancient records that Zoroaster said doing good deeds increases the presence of the divine and brings us closer to the creator, which is the goal of life. But I don’t have to believe in Zoroastrianism and Ahura Mazda to hold, nonetheless, that doing good deeds is a moral rule I want my society to follow. I’ve seen ample evidence of the value of that moral throughout my life, divorced from any need to require a supernatural belief to justify it. Same thing with “all men are created equal.” Unlike some agnostics and atheists, I recognize that this assertion has its origins in Jesus Christ (it’s certainly not an Old Testament moral!), but I don’t see why it requires a belief in Christ to treasure it and want others to follow it. Science tells us all humans are of the same species — we can all breed fertile children (unlike the mule and the liger), so this moral law happily matches what modern genetics tells us. If somehow, some homo erectus “hominids” survived until today, would this apply to them? It’s a dilemma we fortunately don’t ever have to answer.
    I included your “far side of the moon” comment because I think I see the connection. Let’s say we ask a question that is something precise, something that we can reasonably expect has a discoverable answer. Let’s ask, “Is the exact center of the surface of the far side of the moon (the geometric center of the shadow) at noon CST April 15, 2016, located in a crater or not?” You can say you “believe” it’s yes, or that you “believe” it’s no, or that you believe the moon won’t exist a year from now. But without any (or very little) evidence, would any answer you give be meaningful — to be valued any more than answering it through a coin flip? Isn’t “I have no meaningful answer” the only meaningful answer?
    I use this example to pivot to the point about attributing morality to a supernatural entity — that it’s like the far side of the moon question to me, in that it’s like requiring some answer to the question of “where morals came from” despite not having enough evidence to expect any answer you give to have any claim to validity.

    OK, I’ll try to be shorter.

    Q: (well, maybe not a question) “I see no difference in the nature of the two hypothetical claims … both should be considered “what one should believe.”
    A: This surprises me and I don’t follow you. I can’t fly on a plane, sail the seas, measure seismic patterns, watch an eclipse shadow on the moon, or do many, many things I can’t even think of right now while sincerely holding the “belief” that the Earth is flat. If there is any commonly agreed upon meaning on what the words “wrong” or “incorrect” mean, then how can we not say, given the volume of evidence billions of thinking humans gather and evaluate every day, that “the Earth is flat” is anything other than a “wrong” or non-factual statement?
    I think I can safely say that neither of us acts or thinks, or is considering acting or thinking, in any way in any facet of our lives that ever considers the possibility that “Islam is the one true faith” could be a factual statement.
    Two statements about what is “true” could hardly be less alike. “The Earth is round” is a fact — no one drives from the East Coast to California thinking they might fall off the edge. “Islam is the one true faith” is an opinion that neither one of us shares or thinks really could be true or factual.

    Q: The three assertions.
    A: 1. “Moral truths can’t be considered facts” Yes, but I’ll go further. I don’t see how “true” or “false” are defensible ways to describe morals. Desirable or undesirable, yes …. chaotic vs. stable, OK …. realistic vs. unattainable, yes and an important distinction (humans can only be human) … good vs. bad, sure. But morals are judged worthy of acceptance by the people in the societies where they operate, and they don’t seem to need to be the same morals for different societies to survive and grow. Indians thought the caste system worked pretty well for thousands of years. Romans had slaves and fed Christians to the lions and lasted a thousand years. Were those a moral truths because their societies flourished?
    2. Already addressed this.
    3. “All men are not created equal” No. As I mentioned before, I think that this is a great and beautiful idea and should be understood in the context where it appears, the U.S. Constitution. This is a legal document and “all men are created equal” is a legal guideline for what follows: that America should be founded on a principle of equal rights under the law. That’s not how British law operated and certainly not how any country with a nobility operated. It’s a statement that asserts that, in America, there won’t be two or more sets of laws for different classes of people. That’s a moral assertion that we believe makes a more just and desirable society. I agree with that, and I am happy that non-Americans are increasingly accepting that, too. But it’s not a demonstrable fact. The Chinese, for instance, seem to me to regard the government-citizen relationship as a reflection of the parent-child relationship, not as a rule by peers. That’s their moral truth for a society: that the family structure must be reflected in society’s institutions, with elites (parents) free to guide and govern as they see fit and everyone else (children) accepting that their individual ideas about their lives aren’t as important as working in harmony to achieve the goals of the elites. The elites know better than them what is best for all. There’s nothing “factual” to a Chinese-cultured person about the statement “all men are created equal,” though they certainly wouldn’t question the truth of the Earth’s roundness these days.

    As for beliefs, I don’t currently believe in a god, gods or religion, though obviously the overwhelming prevalence of people believing in “something” supernatural in this world would make it foolish not to always be open to the possibility. I’ve talked with a couple people who have had vivid, personal experiences that left them certain God was real, manifest, and a personal presence. Who am I to say these are illusions or brain chemistry imbalances? But that hasn’t happened to me. I only ask that, according to the “moral truth” of fairness, my lack of a revelatory experience be respected and imbued with as much meaning as the experiences of the “touched” or “enlightened.” In other words, if God exists, I ask that you consider the conclusion that my lack of faith is God’s present intention.


    • Marc,

      You are right in that we don’t have to believe in the source of moral law to recognize and follow (if we choose) it, just as we don’t have to know or like or necessarily even believe in civil lawmakers or legislative processes in order to recognize the law of the land. If what the Bible says is true—”…when they instinctively do what the Law requires…though they don’t have the Law…They show the proof of the Law written on their hearts, and their consciences affirm it.” (Rom. 2:14-15)—it’s something we can’t not know, regardless of what we decide about the source. If everyone has moral law “written on their hearts” then it makes sense that we all would have moral ideas, and if we are flawed and sinful creatures, it also makes sense that there will be some widespread confusion about their origin or how we are to follow the laws. If moral law were from God then it would indeed transcend cultures and time. Granted, societies group together and refine moral sensibilities into laws that fit their culture, but the fact that every culture in some way, sometimes passively in thoughtful judgements, sometimes aggressively through force, projects their morality on other cultures affirms that moral law is bigger than we can predict on naturalism. We all have our opinions about what communist countries or ISIS are doing that is absolutely and universally immoral. And we make moral judgments about past cultures far removed from ours, which doesn’t make sense if we really understand morality as a cultural construct. Even broadening this jurisdiction to the human race at large doesn’t explain why we project moral values to past cultures or when people morally evaluate their concept of God. The concept of moral evolution can’t get us to why we do this, or really why we can’t NOT do it.

      When you talk about “no meaningful answer”, aren’t you really saying that the answer has no meaning for you based on what you believe about the importance of the question? A crater either exists at a certain time and place on the moon or it doesn’t (that’s the truth or fact about it), but it’s hard to see why that crater being there would be meaningful, unless a missing spacecraft happened to be inside it, or it had some relevance to us in some way. Christians see objective morality as meaningful because if what the Bible says is true, “all have sinned and fall short” (Rom. 3:23) of that moral law, which is God’s standard, and it separates us from the relationship He had created in the beginning (Gen. 1-2). If God is truly righteous then He must also be just and judge sin, which is an offense against Him. It’s also meaningful because we are not without hope, as God sent His Son to pay our penalty (John 3:16), something we could never do, so that through repentance and faith in Him that relationship is permanently restored.

      If belief” is “acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists”, or “trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something” (standard definitions I found online), I see no problem with saying that a round earth is “what one should believe.” It’s easily proven for the many reasons you suggested, assuming our senses are accurately reflecting reality. Also, men and machines have taken photos of the earth from space. It’s easy to prove because of the nature of what we’re trying to prove; earth is here and now and it’s physically testable. But would belief in a flat earth still be flat-out wrong or non-factual if the earth were inhabited by only one man who was unable to travel to the horizon or into space? Of course! To him the world would look flat, but he would be just as wrong as anyone today who believed that. His perspective affects his conclusions, not the objective truth or facts.

      Worldview perspective influences our perception of truth. You’re absolutely right in saying that neither of us would say “Islam is the one true faith”, because neither of us are Muslim. 🙂 But know that “billions of thinking humans” in Islam’s history who happened to be Muslim were/are convinced that Islam is true and factual to the exclusion of all other beliefs. Currently that’s 23% of the world by most estimates. Another big chunk is convinced that Christianity is true and factual, because it’s based on history, things that we believe actually happened. Add to that thousands of other belief systems, including your own, whose followers are convinced that their worldview is the one true one. Our worldview represents our deepest convictions, which are a priori assumptions that can’t be proven, requiring faith. None are as provable as “the earth is round”, but all are absolutely either true or false. It’s possible we are all wrong about our worldview, so from a purely intellectual approach the best we can do is determine what makes the most sense of the world.

      True and false are defensible ways of describing morals because there are always moral acts we would say are truly right or wrong. I don’t think a culture’s flourishing or prosperity is an indicator of moral rightness; that’s either too pragmatic (we can murder and not get caught) or too karma-ish (God doesn’t necessarily work that way). Even though many societies don’t treat humans equally, possibly because they value things like power over equality, I think you would agree that they SHOULD value people equally. I think any moral system can be distilled down to true and false, which is what would ultimately make anything “desirable or undesirable…chaotic vs. stable…realistic vs. unattainable…good vs. bad.” But this is again because I see moral law ultimately grounded in the nature of God. I have to think that’s the real crux of the debate. Morality overall seems to mean something beyond individuals or cultures, and Christian theism best explains that. It also account for any ideas of worth or equality in people. We give preference to, say, a crisp dollar bill over a wrinkled one, or over four noisy quarters, but in fact they are all equal in value because that value doesn’t come from us.

      Romans 1:20 makes it clear that the natural revelation of creation leaves no excuse for not having general knowledge of a Creator, in addition to what we can’t not know about morality. But people generally don’t come to faith in Christ through philosophical reasoning, not without something personal like you say you haven’t had. While God is sovereign, and I have no real expectation of converting you, I hope you’re wrong about God intending your lack of faith. 🙂 “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Thanks again for your reply!

  • Marc says:

    Hey Mike, took a break for a couple of days and thought I would continue.
    Your last post contained a number of statements that I admit I didn’t follow, or contained assumptions that I wouldn’t see as necessary. In the first paragraph, you again turn to this idea that you perceive moral law as supernatural in origin, even though different societies have different morals. We can’t just be making it up ourselves. I don’t see why not and, if anything, what you’re saying reminds me of a book I’m sure you know that has this incredible reputation but I always find disappointing when I try to read it. That would be C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity.”
    I’ve had more than one person recommend this as a simple way to show why society’s morals can only be explained by the presence of some outside entity without invoking a need for a “leap of faith.” But the whole book builds on this erroneous notion of the perception of “ought.” He insists, as you do, that there is no way we can perceive a natural explanation of a knowledge of right and wrong, that these concepts must be something introduced into mankind from the outside because there’s no rational argument to be made for a right or a wrong action or belief.
    But this never made sense to me and didn’t seem to describe how people really feel and act. If you desire to do something that you would also say you “ought not” to do, it seems obvious that what is blocking you from taking that action is a countering desire to avoid the consequences of that action. And the consequences of that could be loss of self-worth, even if you think you could get away with it. Your self-esteem is a powerful behavioral control. Man is basically a social animal, we know this from comparison to our closest animal relatives, and has a need to conform to a common rule and regard her or himself as part of the group (most anyway).
    But what those common rules are change as conditions change. Morals, to me, are learned from other people, decided on by other people, and change as societies change. In societies where survival was a constant struggle, a ban on homosexuality would seem a good way to ensure the highest proportion of mating couples. Now with overpopulation and pressure on scarce resources, there’s not a need for more procreation and, consequently, banning homosexuality is seen by most people in the Christian world today as immoral. Military societies surrounded by enemies emphasized martial values, agrarian societies emphasized cooperation, societies like early America that had lots of land to explore valued individualism as an incentive to explore and develop the land. Individualism is frowned upon in closely-knit Asian communities where living in close proximity demands more collective action. All these are easily understood as purely human responses to varying human conditions, no need to posit a deity to explain it all. I mean you can, but I don’t see why it’s necessary. Even carnivores that live by killing don’t tear each other to pieces. A hyena pack lives according to structured societal rules, how is that not morality? I guess in that sense, I would agree morality is a concept apart from humans, but only because many higher animals clearly live moral lives.
    And putting God in the morality picture doesn’t really explain anything, because you just say, “Well, how does God know what’s right and wrong?” And related to this, and you said this before — how could the created universe hold together and operate under the same physical laws without a guiding intelligence? But a first-grader knows the answer to that — who made God? If you just say, well there’s this God that’s responsible for everything, you really haven’t said anything that’s meaningful. You can see that I could reply that, well yes, I have an explanation for that. My explanation is that there’s a “God-creator” entity that created God. Problem solved — that’s the true supernatural being you should worship. Absurd to you, but that’s because you believe in the Christian God for other reasons. And logically, why not postulate a whole host of God-creators, backward. Why not postulate that the Universe was created by two gods, or 200,000? Why is a single God, once removed from the reality of the universe, any more satisfying an explanation?
    Without more information, it’s a moot point. We perceive that there’s a universe and we try to explain it as best we can with the tools we have. If there’s a super-intelligence, or 200,000 of them, hiding behind it all, fine, but how the creator(s) of 100 billion galaxies 13 billion years ago is logically related to an entity that cares whether you’re at church on Sunday seems to need some explaining.

    This conversation started about issues on a fact vs. opinion test. In that light, what am I to make of this statement? —
    “If belief” is “acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists”, or “trust, faith, or confidence in someone or something” (standard definitions I found online), I see no problem with saying that a round earth is “what one should believe.””
    Look, if to you “the earth is round” is a belief, and “the earth is flat” is a belief, and “I have two eyes” is a belief and “this exchange is taking place in the year 2015” is a belief, and that there are really no facts or opinions, only beliefs, then you’ve lost me there. You may see that as Christian thought, but I see the abyss, a head game where any sort of knowledge is true and false, as fashion goes, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster really does exist if I can convince enough people to believe it. Not for me.

    • Marc,

      When you say “different societies have different morals” you mean “morals” to be our interpretation of fundamental moral law. Fundamental moral law is something you say doesn’t exist, so I understand why this must be the limit to your articulation of morality. Christians, and I would guess most theists, see a distinction between “morals” and “moral law”. Different people apply moral law differently (also different cultures, different eras, but basically it’s down to individuals and free will), but a decision on how the law should apply to me is the same as deciding whether or not to drive according to the speed limit. The law is still there regardless of how I interpret it or if I choose to ignore it altogether. The “common rules” that change as conditions change are not moral law, but our interpretation based on how we see the law serving our interests. You limit morality to human preference based on consequences (pragmatism) and this is where you would need to stop on atheism or agnosticism. I think what makes CS Lewis and in fact any theist recognize universal moral law is the fact that everyone lives as if they recognize SOME kind of law that obligates them, NOT that we should all be in total agreement on what the laws are or what they say for us to do.

      I’ve never met or read anything from a theist who didn’t accept moral objectivism, and I’ve never met or read anything from a non-theist who did accept it, or they do but offer explanations other than God. Belief in God is obviously the determining factor. I wonder if you’d be able to step far enough into Christianity to see how moral law rooted in the nature of God (which is what the Bible teaches) affects everything else. When you say “putting God in the morality picture doesn’t really explain anything”, you’re not actually doing that. You’re still trying to explain things from a perspective that already presupposes no God. I’m not asking you to convert to Christianity here, but you can’t say the Christian worldview is internally inconsistent if you’re still standing in an atheistic worldview. You gotta at least pretend. 🙂

      Christian theism is rooted in the same truth revealed in Scripture, which describes God as eternal. Now when you ask “who made God?” it’s a false dilemma. You’re assuming a different god (a created one) than what Christianity teaches. Christians don’t postulate that 2 or 200,000 gods created the universe simply because that isn’t Christianity either. When you ask why cultures change views on sexual ethics (or whatever) over time, it still makes sense on Christianity, because we live in a world fallen to sin (Gen. 3) and the Bible tells us people will do exactly that (2 Tim. 4:3). The Bible makes sense of imperfect people having varied concepts of truth. And if Christianity is true, we are not at liberty to take unlimited liberties in interpreting Scripture. If Christianity is true, then the Bible is God’s word, and God doesn’t change. If Christianity is true, we should not be surprised that we make moral judgments (“they ought to have X” or “shouldn’t X”) on other people and situations where there can be no consequences or circumstances that affect us, as we do with the past, and as some do with God. If Christianity is true, then the God who created the universe created it so that we would discover Him through it (as countless have) and He would care about us enough to free us from our own sin and rejection of Him, because that is exactly the kind of personal, loving and just God that the Bible describes.

      If I do my best to step into atheism and pretend that there is no God, or that we don’t need to assume one to get things to square, I can’t get things to square. First of all, on atheism, I can’t get nature out of nature without something supernatural (“super” meaning outside of), and that seems like a question to deal with before we talk about what’s IN nature (like morality, or order, or uniformity, or intelligence). From a universe that began as matter and motion, we somehow have laws of reason/rules of thought that we need in place before we can reason (meaning we didn’t invent them), and that doesn’t square with how we use logic. This is only a snapshot of the origins dilemma presented by atheistic thought.

      Honestly, it’s pretty tough to step into an opposing worldview; convictions run deep!

      Someone smart said something to the effect that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” which I think well demonstrates the difference between the two. Opinions (and beliefs) belong to people, facts (or truth) exist apart from people. So I haven’t said “there are really no facts or opinions, only beliefs”, but that we have beliefs/opinions about things that may or may not be true/factual. Sorry if I haven’t been clearer on that (am I getting clearer?:)


  • Marc says:

    Hi Mike,
    Yes, I think you are being clearer, so let me try to be as well, because it I am not yet recognizing what I actually think in what you say you think I’m saying.
    In the first paragraph, you try to distinguish between “moral law” and “morals.” I’d like you to revisit that because I’m don’t think I’m sure of your distinction. I’m using “moral law” — perhaps lazily — to mean “morals” in general, sort of interchangeably. If you have more precise definitions of these terms that are meaningful to you, let me know so I can better explain myself. Otherwise, I would say that is a difference between me and C.S. Lewis and yourself in that I don’t see how having a set of societal morals is anything more mysterious than humans realizing, independent of a deity, that agreeing on a set of behaviors to follow is in everyone’s interest, just based on the condition we find ourselves in, our inborn need for food, sleep, sex and avoiding death, for starters. As I stated before, it seems, by observation, to differ only in complexity but not in essence from behaviors we see in higher animal societies.
    In the second paragraph, I want to clear up two points. First, you say I’m “trying to explain things from a perspective that presupposes no God.” No, that’s not right. I’m not presupposing no God, rather I’m “declining to assume” there is a God. A huge, essential difference to me and one I was trying to illustrate with the dark side of the moon question — the futility of answering unanswerable questions. I make no claim on believing or not believing there is a supernatural origin of of morals, only that I don’t see how believing in one explains anything better. What I know is that all human societies have morals. Some of them are pretty universal (don’t murder, but with lots of exceptions, don’t rape, with some exceptions), and some differ everywhere (gender relations, private property, believer-state relations). That some morals are more common likely is because some morals are more likely to prolong societies, just based on how humans are. Maybe there were societies that thought rampant murder was A-OK, but they didn’t last too long because everyone was quickly dead. No supernatural deity needed to explain why. Also, I don’t think the problem is the Christian worldview is internally inconsistent, just that it can’t justifiably be considered fact (thus “all men are created equal” is an opinion, as the test rightly claims).
    We run into the same problem in the third paragraph. You say, “Now when you ask “who made God?” it’s a false dilemma. You’re assuming a different god (a created one) than what Christianity teaches.” Again, I’m not assuming any God or God-creator. Yes, I realize Christianity teaches that God is eternal, and that the universe was created by Him. But if one doesn’t accept Christianity, then mere existence doesn’t seem to an argument for it. That’s my point. The assumption I’ve read many Christians make is this: that the mere fact that the universe exists, is comprehensible and discoverable and seems to behave by non-random, discernible laws shows that “something” has to exist that made/makes this happen. Therefore, voila! the God of the Bible. But like C.S. Lewis, they don’t consider the obvious alternate explanations:
    1. Self-creation of universe (sum of all matter/energy is God)
    2. Creation just “is” — no creator or creator is essentially non-knowable
    3. Multiple creators of universe
    4. Creators no long exist/perished/absorbed by creation
    5. Infinite or unknowable procession of all-powerful gods creating subsequent gods that led finally to our universe.
    At which point, I go, “Far side of the moon.” Science can measure the interstellar gases and galaxies and describe what happened backward pretty close to the start, but beyond that, it’s “FSOTM” The essential takeaway: creation does not imply a creator.
    I know, you don’t, can’t see it that way. I’m not asking you to. I can only tell you to the best of my ability, based solely on what I’ve seen, heard, read and remembered, why it doesn’t follow for me. It’s much more satisfying to be able to recognize when a question is an FSOTM question, and realize you don’t have to spend another precious second trying to answer decide which answer you have to accept.
    So per your last paragraph, say you’re the teacher and your student marks the “all men are created question” as an “opinion.” Do you mark it wrong? Why or why not?

    • Marc,

      To further flesh out the distinction I see between these two: By “moral law” I mean objective morality. By objective I mean as it is used in philosophy, referring to existence apart from perception. As such it does not change with our feelings, interpretations or prejudice. Christians see objective morality as an extension of God’s immutable nature, and we are aware of it because we are made “in the image” of God (Gen. 1:27) who wrote it “on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15) so to speak. In other words, our brains are wired to intuitively recognize it. By contrast, society’s “morals” are our perception, feelings, interpretations of the objective morality we all know about.

      I think we demonstrate an understanding of a wider jurisdiction of morality in many ways that I’ve tried to explain. For you, it’s rooted “in everyone’s interest”, or motivators like a sense of self-worth, happiness, avoiding consequences, belonging to a group, or staying alive long enough to pass on our genes. But all these things are motivators because we evaluate them as “good”, and we aren’t forced to. It’s a moral evaluation. Some people by choice do things that lower self-esteem, or don’t want to have children, or prefer to be alone, or opt for suicide because they decide life is not worth living. Survival and community are good things, but they seem to be rooted in an even deeper moral principal than “agreeing on a set of behaviors to follow [which] is in everyone’s interest.” That “best interest” is also requires a moral evaluation (What makes it “best”?).

      “That some morals are more common likely is because some morals are more likely to prolong societies.” It’s also true that in our society we have BOTH lawmakers who make laws they believe are good for society AND citizens who generally perceive that laws are good for society. So it’s possible that with moral law there is BOTH an overarching source for moral law AND moral agents who act based on our perception of what the laws are. Law in general, whether divine or civil, is (or should be) meant for the good of the governed.

      Regarding “maybe there were societies that thought rampant murder was A-OK, but they didn’t last too long because everyone was quickly dead.”: When we read about violent societies in history, we don’t say they were wrong because their behavior led to their eventual demise. We say they were wrong because murder (or rape or child sacrifice or whatever their deviancy was) is simply wrong. Evil isn’t evil because it’s impractical, it’s simply evil. We know better.

      Now where you say in essence that what we see is what we should expect if there is no God, I could also say that what we see is what we should expect if the God in the Bible did exist. If that God exists, we would have human beings created in the image of a God who is the embodiment of truth, love, justice, goodness, consistency, order, reason, logic, who communicates, values relationships, relates personally, has emotions, values life, etc. so that we, in limited ways because we are human, reflect God’s attributes and way of thinking. We should also expect a common Designer to create common traits in humans and animals in terms of physiology and behavior, but as a special creation, man would be given a soul and spirit an awareness of inner self and God far beyond that of animals. We should expect to have the assumption that human life has inherent value, which is the starting point behind the “good” in survival of the species, doing the least harm, loving and respecting others, etc. But we can actually make sense out of self-worth and human dignity because God created us and we are a limited reflection of Him. All 59 elements that make up humans are also found in topsoil, because “God formed man from the dust of the ground” (Gen. 2:7), but on Naturalism we are just accidentally arranged molecules, and as such should have no more inherent value than dirt. And of course we should expect to have this kind of discussion about morality.

      Questions about why we have value, or why we seem to project our moral ideas on others, or determining a first cause of morality, logic and reason, or the universe in general, which do not make sense on atheism, are ironically the same questions that don’t seem to be important for atheists to answer. You say these are “far side of the moon” questions, but you’re assuming there is nothing important to explore there. If the Bible is true, it would be true apart from anyone’s belief or willingness to explore it, and it would still have eternal implications for everyone.

      I’m not clear on the difference between “presupposing no God” and “declining to assume there is a God”, or how “I don’t see how believing in one explains anything better” is “no claim on believing or not believing”. Declining to assume sounds like a more passive position, or that your default starting position is atheism and there’s been no act of rejection. Christians believe that a general knowledge of God is intuitive and obvious from the world around us, and unbelievers actually “suppress” it (Rom. 1:18). But regardless, even a conscious decision to reject an idea is a belief.

      You’re absolutely right that mere existence of the universe doesn’t seem to be an argument for it being God’s universe. I think when Lewis and other apologists for the Christian faith point to a universe with apparent design, order, intelligibility, laws, etc. they are relying on more than that (general revelation) to make a case for the God of the Bible; they are also relying on the Bible’s revelation. None of the 5 “alternate explanations” you’ve posited coincide with it. There may very well be some bad apologists out there that leave the Bible out, but I wouldn’t.

      Re: “you’re the teacher and your student marks the ‘all men are created [equal]’ question as an ‘opinion.’ Do you mark it wrong? Why or why not?”, I think that question would be better for an essay than a quiz. 🙂 Technically, it is an opinion. As I’ve said, opinions belong to people, “a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.” The things we have opinions about can be true or false, or we may have no real knowledge and still render an opinion. This is a separate discussion than the one we’ve been having about whether moral facts exist.


  • Marc says:

    Hey Mike,
    I think your explanation in the first paragraph clears up my question. It is very similar to Plato’s Theory of Forms, and may explicitly be that. I assume you know your Plato and his influence on Augustine. Can’t say I agree, I don’t see the evidence for it, but it does provide an explanation of sorts to the question, “How can we imagine things we know we can’t perceive?”
    Second paragraph seems to ask, how can I say that I and others judge morals as “good” without some outer objective standard? “Good” is not a measure like a dimension, so how do you measure moral good? Certainly I would agree that most people say, “I’ve been told God says this is good” which creates a majority that believes in morals based on religion. But what objective, outside-of-mere-existence moral law are we talking about? Burning heathens? Not lending money with interest? Slavery? The genocide of the Canaanites? Forced conversions? I’ve tried to refrain from criticizing Christianity specifically, but for a religion that claims to provide an objective unchanging moral law, that sure has changed wildly over the years. Plato, and even Jesus’ followers, could live in a world where maybe they could believe that there was a discernible moral law that had pretty much always been the same, but two millennia later, I can’t see how you could say that. What you call immutable, outside-of-humanity moral law seems to have changed quite a bit in 2000 years. Or is it that we have a better understanding of God’s moral law today than did Jesus’ followers? Again, I find it hard to dispute that humans are only human and they have specific needs that are tied to their biological existence. Some morals, or “ways we generally agree to do things” we’ve learned through trial-and-error, seem to be what in the year 2015 we think will make the world a better place to live. Some would say this is moral progress, but if it is, it’s the kind of progress that isn’t pre-ordained but the result of our knowing the history of successes and failures that make us better informed today. Humans have been doing this for a while, so maybe we’re finally getting it right, just like baking a cake. Again, I don’t say for certain that there isn’t some divine presence behind it all, only that the lack of a divine presence doesn’t present, to me, a problem in understanding how morals arose or why they have many similarities across cultures.
    In your fourth paragraph, it’s important to make the distinction that ordinary citizen-on-equal-citizen murder was rarely, if ever permitted in human societies. Same with rape. Child sacrifice, was, sadly seen as morally defensible by the followers of Moloch. No disputing its evilness, but unfortunately the people had been convinced by their priests, (not their stone-masons by the way), that this horrible sacrifice was needed for the greater good. And never underestimate how fear and the threat of ostracism warps people’s humanity in these matters. Reminds me of a great insightful quote from one of my favorite writers, Bertrand Russell, about this, “Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he is asked to die is an unworthy one. Obloquy is, to most men, more painful than death; that is the reason why, in times of collective excitement, so few men venture to dissent from the prevailing opinion. No Carthaginian denied Moloch, because to do so would have required more courage than was required to face death in battle.”
    As for your next few paragraphs, just substitute “Allah” and “Koran” for “God” and “Bible” and you could make that same argument. You seem to want to make the argument that Christianity and non-Christianity are opposing beliefs. But absence of a belief is not a belief, and this is why I think you are confused by the difference between “presupposing no God” — which I define as a belief — and “declining to assume there is a God” which is to not take a position on the question. Let me use an analogy to illustrate.
    So five of us go out for sushi, only I’ve stupidly eaten already, so I’m just going to get a glass of wine and skip dinner. So you, Mike, get tuna, Cersei gets a salmon, Tyrion gets snapper and Jaime gets an assortment. So four of us get sushi and I don’t. Four sushi plates. Only let’s call your sushi “Christianity,” let’s call Cersei’s salmon “Judaism,” let’s call Tyrion’s snapper “Islam,” and Jaime’s assortment is “Hinduism.” What you keep saying, to me, it seems, is that I’m actually eating sushi, too, the “Non-believer” sushi, even though there’s none on my plate, and I don’t even have a plate. And further, you insist that, in reality, I ordered and have been served the “Not-salmon” sushi, even though, following that logic, I could just as easily call it the “Not-snapper” sushi. Do you see how illogical that is to me?
    Now, as the philosopher William James points out, you can be an agnostic and still go to church and live your life in the manner of a believer, though you still lack faith. I think many practicing Christians do this, in sort of a Pascal’s Wager justification. And if by presupposing, you mean that if you don’t pray, say, that’s still a decision not to pray. Then, yes, I see where, in practice, “presupposing” is the same as “not assuming” in that I still have to make a choice whether to consciously live a life according to Christian (or Judaism, etc.) principles — separately from the fact that I don’t believe. But again, I see as obvious that a more fundamental difference still exists between people who get some sort of sushi and those who don’t. And I oppose as against reason and logic and everyday experience the idea that “no sushi” is just one other form of sushi. Maybe people who think this should do a job and get paid a salary of “no money” and see how satisfying that is.
    Finally, if “all men are created equal” is an opinion, then what’s your beef with Whitley or the test?

    • Mi Marc,

      “It is very similar to Plato’s Theory of Forms…” Yes, it does seem very much like what he was getting at. I believe Mere Christianity also had a bit about how we have ideas and desires (food, sex, God) ultimately because things exist to fulfill those desires. The fact that we seem to hold as most important non-material forms like love, truth, and various virtues seems to support Plato’s theory.

      To your question “what objective, outside-of-mere-existence moral law[s] are we talking about?”, I would say the Ten Commandments very well reflect moral principals that come from the nature of God (a deeper root than even “God says”), but as a revelation to us through Moses, they were articulated in a human context. More basically, they are “forms” in God’s nature like love, truth, justice, righteousness. “Burning heathens…lending money… slavery” etc are for the most part attempted out-workings of moral principals by mankind, not the moral principals themselves. We often get that part wrong —often because we confuse DEscription with PREscription in the Bible, or take passages out of context, or just don’t read it at all. People have different ideas of what love, truth, justice, righteousness, etc. should be, and THAT is what has “changed wildly over the years”. People change, God doesn’t.

      “Never underestimate how fear and the threat of ostracism warps people’s humanity in these matters.” That is something to consider. Islam for example was and still is often spread using coercion by the sword. Christianity, however, spread in spite of fear and ostracism. Early Christians held to their convictions in the face of both obloquy (had to look that one up!) AND threats on their lives, as are many contemporary Christians in predominantly Muslim countries who “venture to dissent from the prevailing opinion.” Many religions are imposed, but fear isn’t a suitable explanation for the rise of orthodox Christianity. Christians know that we are sinners saved from God’s wrath because Christ took our place on the cross, and His righteousness is imputed onto those who place their faith in Him. We live life out of gratitude for the love and grace we’ve been shown by God as redeemed sinners. I don’t hold onto these beliefs out of fear or threat of ostracism, and I don’t know any other Christians who do either. We believe it because we think it’s objectively true. As far as William James’ assessment, I would agree there are self-identifying nominal “Christians” who live like agnostics, but genuine believers are known by fruitful living (Matt. 7:16).

      “…just substitute ‘Allah’ and ‘Koran’ for ‘God’ and ‘Bible’ and you could make that same argument”. You could make the same argument, but it would fall flat. Christianity is internally consistent and Islam is not (I present this argument here: Allah as presented in the Qur’an contradicts himself and does not make sense of the world we observe and experience.

      I think I do understand how you view non-belief, but let me suggest that in your sushi scenario, the reason you did not order dinner with the rest of us was because you had already just had dinner somewhere else. It’s not that you are not interested in or don’t recognize your fundamental need for food, but that you were already full. So what did you eat? Hunger is a void that even in analogy we can’t imagine a reason for “not-salmon” that doesn’t involve being filled with something else. Was this just a flaw in the analogy (no analogy is perfect)? Or do we really all take for granted the active ingestion of some kind of belief, maybe just at a different time or place than others, so we think that we are doing something other than believing? (Note: I would never order tuna. 😉

      My contention with Whitley’s argument is not that moral opinions exist; I don’t think it stops there as he seems to. We can have any opinion we like, but we can’t have our own facts because things are objectively true/false, good/bad, right/wrong regardless of our opinion. Whitley thinks moral discussion must be dealt with as either opinion or fact (a false dichotomy), I assume because he has a prior commitment to some other worldview and is of the opinion that God-given moral law does not exist (he also ate before he came).


  • Marc says:

    Hey Mike,

    You’re still asserting that there is some distinct moral law that exists apart from human minds that nonetheless directs our thoughts towards human behavior. I have the same issue with this as with the “God created creation” assertion — it doesn’t really explain anything, it just posits an extraneous cause for something (morals, creation) without explaining how the cause came to be. If you don’t a priori accept Christianity for other reasons, the mere existence of creation or morals doesn’t logically require a Christian God, or any god.
    You bring up the Commandments as examples of “moral principles that come from the nature of God.” So let’s go through all 10, (though there’s some disagreement on how many there are):
    1. “I am the lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me.” — doesn’t seem like a moral law to me, just an assertion of authority. Curiously, it reads to me to posit that other gods exist, and that the Hebrew God is merely the top one.
    2. “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.” Don’t make idols of God, presumably because they don’t work, but again, not a moral law, not any instruction on how we should treat each other.
    3. “Thou shalt not take the the name of the Lord thy God in vain” Most people would say this means you’re not to invoke God to curse or damn people or yell “Jesus Christ!” when you’re mad. A moral law, I guess, but this seems to be kind of a minor thing to worry about. What does God really want here?
    4. “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.” OK, treat Sunday as a religion day, I guess. Again, for great moral laws to guide the societies of mankind, this really seems trivial.
    5. “Honor thy father and mother” It takes until number five to get what I would consider a bona fide moral law. OK, honoring your parents is a pretty universal ethic among human societies, so you can say that’s because the Christian God is true, but no non-Christian would consider that evidence.
    6. “Thou shalt not murder” Yep. But let’s not pretend God is a pacifist either, since before the stone tablets are even cold, God is ordering the Israelites to kill the Levites. And I get it, if God orders you to kill people, even if it’s every last Canaanite including their newborn babies, that’s not “murder” because God says it’s righteous. And if you can’t hear God yourself, that’s no excuse, because if His earthly representative say it’s OK to stick the sword in the kid, then that’s what you have must morally do. The peaceful Pueblo and Toltec civilizations were far more moral on this commandment that the Israelites.
    7. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” Or, don’t break the vows you made with your significant other. Pretty good, and also pretty commonly followed worldwide. Note that this wasn’t initially interpreted to ban polygamy, which would seem to be a destabilizing force on societies (unless paired with polyandry, which rarely seemed to happen). Would have been helpful if that were clearer.
    8. “Thou shalt not steal” Again, a pretty decent moral law, and one that’s widely accepted in societies far from Christianity’s sphere of influence. Of course, if you haven’t instituted the idea of private property, like some Native American cultures, this one made no sense, so I guess it’s a “thumbs-up” for capitalism.
    9. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor” Not “Thou shalt not lie,” don’t but falsely accuse your neighbor of a crime, I guess. The clause “against thy neighbor” is interesting, in that it seems to suggest that false accusations are OK if you don’t know the person. I mean you could mean it to apply to anyone, but why add that clause? You don’t say, “thou shalt not steal from thy neighbor.” A curious qualification to me, and one that invites trouble.
    10. “Thou shall not covet that which is thy neighbor’s” Hey, a thought crime! You can think about boiling your neigbhor alive, but don’t dare desire his new Persian carpet? I get it, try not to desire things that aren’t yours. But the Israelites are always wanting things that aren’t theirs, including the land of Canaan. Confusing.
    And note not one of these can remotely be interpreted as banning slavery, prohibiting brutality toward your spouse, encouraging free speech, encouraging industriousness, developing your skills, being gentle to children, prohibiting rape (except if she’s your neighbor’s wife, I guess), being generous to others, sharing with the poor, and probably others I’m not thinking of right now. Maybe some of these are mentioned elsewhere, but not here, at the supposed moral foundation of humanity. But keeping Sunday holy and not making idols to other gods — those make the cut?

    Sorry, I’ve refrained from criticizing Christianity specifically before, out of respect. But you have repeatedly cherry-picked quotes from the Bible as if they are logical answers to my objections, but they all sort of say some version of “God exists and He made things like they are.” It’s no explanation.
    And then, in your last reply, you make an assertion about Christianity which is truly puzzling and deserves an extended response. In opposing Christianity to Islam, you say, “Islam for example was and still is often spread using coercion by the sword. Christianity, however, spread in spite of fear and ostracism.”
    First off, Mohammed and his followers certainly were persecuted — many were martyred — and Mecca soon became inhospitable for him and his followers, thus the “Hejira” to Medina. Islam, too, spread in spite of fear and ostracism, as did, I would imagine, most every religion. Was Islam later and today “spread by the sword?” Absolutely, and in that, they followed the path well-paved by the Christians. It took longer, but that’s because the Jews and Christians were a minority in the Roman Empire. Mohammed converted the dominant people in Arabia. But once Constantine converts, it’s grab the sword and start converting! Mohammed merely followed in the footsteps of Constantine and Justinian, two emperors who spread Christianity by conquest. There would be many after — Pepin, Charlemagne, the Crusaders, The Knights Templar, El Cid, Cortez, Pizzaro, the European powers in Africa. And then, there are the out-and-out homicidal maniacs like Vlad Dracul, Torquemada, Catherine de Medici, the Salem witch burners, King Leopold of Belgium, etc., leading right up to the Roman Catholic Adolf Hitler leading a nation of German Lutherans in the massacre of millions of Jews, Gypsies and others, all with the passive, and sometime active, support of the church. I’m sure you will say they all misinterpreted their Bibles, but that’s what’s said by Muslims today about Islamic fanatics. I ask, instead, how can Christians and Muslims plausibly claim their faiths are of any use in supporting morality and decency when they are so demonstrably impotent in stopping even the grossest immoralities?

    Religion, and particularly the monotheistic faiths, seem all too often to me to be the source of great immoralities in people. I agree, it’s not always there in the actual tenets, but I think it happens because religion encourages what I call (to use a Christian term) a great sin. This sin is curiously absent from any standard listing of the Seven Deadly Sins but it belongs there — it is the great Eighth Sin. And that great sin is credulity. Religions don’t condemn credulity because they depend on it. Many good priests have no problem with it, as long as it leads to the “right faith.” But if there’s a great moral law I would like to see become more widely accepted, it’s to reject credulity as you would reject gluttony or sloth or jealousy. I am pretty convinced, from what I have learned in life, that credulity, particularly when partnered with fear, is the real cause of most evil in this world, and is certainly the reason good people are convinced to do evil.
    I’d like to talk more about this, with more examples, but I’m done for the night. Somewhat of a Jeremiad, I guess, so my apologies.


    • Hi Marc,

      Anyone can happily drink a glass of water and deny the ocean, or enjoy a hamburger and say “there are no cows”. The sources of food and water are pretty obvious and available to most, but many say God is pretty obvious and available. As long as the food we need keeps coming, knowing the source or how it gets to us “doesn’t explain anything.” I am positing a cause for the universe—not an extraneous one, but a necessary cause—and the infinite Creator God that the Bible describes seems to fit whatever cause would be necessary to create what we observe. If God is infinite, then He doesn’t Himself require a cause, as He did not “come to be”. What doesn’t seem to fit here is some type of infinite regress of creators, or why the two ideas don’t seem to be equally insupportable to you. Your assumption that any theoretical God must have a cause (and presumably that cause have a cause, and so on) seems to indicate that you’re willing to accept the idea of some type of eternal chain of causes, but not one eternal cause. Why is that? If my understanding of your “non-belief” is correct, why would you be concerned if “it doesn’t explain anything”? Does a position of non-belief look for an ultimate explanation?

      Responses to your analysis of the Ten Commandments:

      1. God’s commandment to “have no other gods before” Him was given in light of man’s tendency to seek other “man-made gods of wood and stone” (Deut. 4:28, Is. 37:19), not an acknowledgement of other real gods. We are made to worship, but in our sin we can fabricate gods of whatever we like (statues, ancestors, stars, ourselves, etc), and be found “worshipping the creation rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25).

      2. Points back to #1 but with specificity, no idols and no images of God Himself. Any image we can make out of wood or whatever is so far from an adequate representation of God that it’s just wrong. God has given us enough representation in His word and work in creation.

      3. If God exists, using his name in vain (for nothing, or trivial things, like a cuss word) isn’t right.

      4. Sabbath rest isn’t about Sunday or religiosity; God modeled a day of rest in creation so we would see the value in taking a break. When we are willing to rest we demonstrate that we are willing to give up control and trust God. Plus, we are made to function in cycles that are about a week in length. Work 7 days without a rest/recharge and it begins to take a toll.

      The first four commandments were “not any instruction on how we should treat each other” because they are about how we should treat God—that tends to be meaningful for theists. The latter six relate to man and his neighbor. Jesus (who “did not come to abolish [the law] but to fulfill” it, Matt. 5:17) summed up the entire law in basically two commands: loving God and loving our neighbor (Matt. 22:40, Mark 12:30-31).

      5. You are correct in saying non-Christians don’t consider the Bible evidence that we should honor our parents. But without a proper grounding of morality we’re really just talking about preferences, though somehow they are widely considered “bona fide” and “universal.”

      6. Murder is killing without justification. If God exists and created life, He alone has the right to give and take it. In the case of Israelites who turned against God (3,000 Levites) and the Canaanites, who were actually on a course to destroy themselves through moral debasement, subjecting their children to cultic prostitution and sacrificing them to Baal, their destruction was God’s judgment. Sin affects everyone, even innocent bystanders, but it’s not our place to call down or enact His judgment. God’s revelation to Israel and plan for them was unique, which is plain from a straightforward reading of the Old Testament; put plainly, the Bible does not instruct us to kill and there is no indication that the events it records were meant to be copied, regardless of what any “earthly representative” might claim. Also, If God exists and created the world, He owns the world, including the land of Canaan, which He had planned and promised for Israel (Gen. 17:8). If we don’t accept God’s sovereignty, we’re like ants at a picnic trying to claim a sandwich (enough food analogies here? :).

      7. The adultery command is clear in light of the rest of scripture (how all scripture should be viewed): God’s design for marriage and sexuality was revealed in Genesis 2:24, affirmed by Jesus in Matt. 19 and Mark 10, and any sexual relations outside of marriage was and is adultery.

      8. Taking something that isn’t yours is stealing, even if it lead to capitalism. Even good things can have bad origins. A sinful world is sadly full of such paradoxes. Re: “‘Thou shalt not steal’ Again, a pretty decent moral law, and one that’s widely accepted in societies far from Christianity’s sphere of influence.”: The ten commandments weren’t revealed in the context of “Christianity”, but long before. And if God exists and has created us with a sense of morality, “thou shalt not steal” was written on the heart (Rom. 2:15) long before that.

      9. “Bearing false witness” includes lying, equivocating, and all forms of intentional deception. The word “neighbor” means simply another human being, not people we don’t know.

      10. This one identifies covetousness as a thought crime, absolutely. The freedom to think and speak our minds is an American freedom endowed to allow people with different worldviews to live together. It works in that context as our country’s founders, while they understood civil law to have its foundation in moral truth, didn’t envision or desire a theocracy. God is the one who knows and judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Jer. 17:10). Jesus, who says in Mat. 5:18 “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished,” still upheld the old law but added a clarification and emphasis on the intent of the heart. Hating your fellow man is akin to murder in God’s sight, and lusting after a woman that isn’t your wife is adultery. In this, all are guilty before God and convicted by our own consciences (Rom. 2:14,15), because of what we can’t NOT know about the moral law behind what we read in these and other commandments.

      When I said “the Ten Commandments very well reflect moral principals that come from the nature of God” I didn’t say they were an exhaustive picture of God’s moral nature. For that we can look to the rest of Scripture. To your examples, we know that slavery is wrong because the message of the entire Bible is aligned toward freedom and against slavery, from Israel’s freedom from bondage in Egypt (Exodus 1-11) to freedom from slavery to sin (John 8:34, Rom. 6:18-20, Gal. 5:1). Slavery was man’s idea, even the indentured servitude mostly found in the Bible. God made a concession but regulated it to protect slaves from abuse (Ex. 20:10, Deut. 15:12, Col. 3:22-25) (and when that didn’t happen in later history, it was mostly Christian abolitionists who stepped up). Brutality toward your spouse is addressed in 1 Cor. 13, Eph. 5 and Col. 3. Freedom of expression is more of an outworking of our God-given free will. Christians should propose truth, not impose it. The rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-23 was allowed to freely walk away from the truth, and the Jews mentioned by Jesus in 23:37 were also free to reject it. “Believe” is a command, but it is not to be coerced. Industriousness and skilled work is in view in God creating man to work skillfully and find satisfaction in it (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:15; Prov. 22:29; Eph. 2:10) and flourish as societies. The rest involving respect for others are absolutely covered in the instruction to “love your neighbor” (Deut. 6:5) and to “treat others as you would want to be treated” (Matt. 7:12), a principal so valued its been labeled “golden” even by secular ethicists.

      If any of the verses I’ve cited for support contradict what I’m saying, I welcome to know what and where they do, but they aren’t thoughtless cherry-picking. They demonstrate an internally consistent worldview. I don’t expect them to mean much beyond that to anyone who fundamentally rejects God, because everything else, including the authority of scripture, rests on that conclusion. If the God of the Bible exists, then these are explanatory. If He doesn’t, then there is no real meaning to anything either one of us has written—It’s all just subjective preference, and neither of us should have any desire to debate it.

      One sure way to identify a non-Christian is by their zeal to, in the name of “Christianity”, do the exact opposite of what Christianity teaches. Like Hitler, who even historians with more liberal biases tend to record, was only raised Catholic by his mother (his father was “anti-clerical”) and he effectively used Catholicism for political and marketing purposes. At heart (as revealed in his practice), he was a follower of Naziism, Social Darwinism, Atheism, and eventually became his own god (Hitlerism). No doubt there were many such abuses, many historical accounts over-estimate the degree of violence and coercion used by Constantine and others. The Crusades were a series of responses to Islamic Jihad. It was war, and in war there are always abuses and deviations from the directive usually by small factions or individuals. The Inquisition death tolls are notoriously inflated. And in any case, the validity of any belief system doesn’t lie in adherents’ success or failure to adhere to it.

      As to the sin of credulity allegedly missing from religion in general, I can only refute that in the case of Christianity by highlighting the censure of gullibility and simple-mindedness in the Bible. Proverbs in particular talks often about this type of folly: “How long will you who are simple love your simple ways?” (Prov. 1:22). Prov. 14:15 says “The simple believe anything, but the prudent give thought to their steps.” (A person’s ways, history, and habits will tell you more about their intentions than their word will.) Proverbs 7 in particular describes how the credulous “man without sense” is drawn and ruined by seduction. Prov. 9:6 says, “Stop being gullible and live. Start traveling the road to understanding.” In the New Testament also, credulousness is portrayed as a definite disadvantage (2 Tim. 3:6). Paul warns believers to “be on your guard” against deceptive theology (2 Pet. 3:17, 1 Cor. 16:13; Acts 20:31), not to be “blown here and there by every wind of teaching” (Eph. 4:14) and about fools who “will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Tim. 4:3). Jesus taught followers to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), and calls for wisdom and discernment abound.

      Yes, many people believe whatever sounds good to them, but that isn’t Christianity’s requirement. What we believe on faith (i.e. God as a appropriate source of universal, objective morality) should make sense of what doesn’t require faith to see (i.e. universal, objective morality).


  • Marc says:

    Hi Mike,

    Let me try again to frame my argument that you comment on in the first paragraph. What I’ll do is reprint and break up your first paragraph and insert in parentheses responses as needed to clarify my position.

    Anyone can happily drink a glass of water and deny the ocean, or enjoy a hamburger and say “there are no cows”. The sources of food and water are pretty obvious and available to most, but many say God is pretty obvious and available. (Or … glass of water means ocean exists, hamburger means cow exists, all of creation means God exists, I think)

    As long as the food we need keeps coming, knowing the source or how it gets to us “doesn’t explain anything.” (Not following you here. Where our food comes from is easily discernible.)

    I am positing a cause for the universe—not an extraneous one, but a necessary cause—and the infinite Creator God that the Bible describes seems to fit whatever cause would be necessary to create what we observe. (This is, I think, the nut of your argument — that the existence of creation must logically infer the existence of a creator that is in some way not the same thing as the creation. This is a “first cause” argument, and I’m far from the first person to point out that this is possible, and far from the only explanation, only we know for sure that the universe had a beginning. Despite what Big Bang Theory describes, we don’t know beyond what the cosmological evidence tells us. We don’t know if there was a universe previous to the Big Bang, and thus we don’t know that there was a first cause. The universe may well be infinitely old.)

    If God is infinite, then He doesn’t Himself require a cause, as He did not “come to be”. (But if the universe is infinite, then it doesn’t require God. By the same token, if your argument is that a universe must have a cause then why doesn’t that equally apply to the God that created it? It’s a “special pleading” argument, in that your answer requires that I accept a different standard (i.e. God doesn’t require a cause) then the one used to refute the opposite argument (the universe requires a cause).

    What doesn’t seem to fit here is some type of infinite regress of creators, or why the two ideas don’t seem to be equally insupportable to you. (If by two ideas, you mean one God or an infinite regress of Gods, yes I do think they are equally insupportable, and equally possible, given my knowledge of what happened before the Big Bang, which is nada.)

    Your assumption that any theoretical God must have a cause (and presumably that cause have a cause, and so on) seems to indicate that you’re willing to accept the idea of some type of eternal chain of causes, but not one eternal cause. Why is that? (I acknowledge that one eternal cause for the universe is possible. I accept that it’s one of many possibilities, including the infinite regress of Gods cause, the infinitely old universe that needs no cause, the “creator is dead” universe, the multiverse, among others. I don’t see a rational reason to believe in any of them, and consequently see no reason to act in any way as if any particular one is true. When I say, “it doesn’t explain anything” I mean that quite literally — it’s not a figure of speech. Because I don’t believe in a particular faith doesn’t mean that I therefore believe in, say, an infinitely old universe — that could well be a tenet of some religion.)

    If my understanding of your “non-belief” is correct, why would you be concerned if “it doesn’t explain anything”? Does a position of non-belief look for an ultimate explanation? (That’s easy: no. But it also means you don’t discount it. You’re agnostic to it. Could be Hinduism is true, could be Islam is true, could be Taoism, could be Latter Day Saints, could be Scientology, could be Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, etc., etc., etc. As I mentioned before, I’m well aware most people believe in some sort of religion .. though most do not believe in Christianity …. so it’s rational to think there’s something to it. Just as rationally, the wide variety of religions in the world, and their tendency to be geographically based, is an argument against one being the “one true faith.”)

    The distinction I make, that I think you don’t, is that it is essential to accept that my position on religion can be changed by evidence. I can imagine many scenarios where that could happen and I’ll describe an easy one: let’s say God appears to me as He did to Moses or Jesus. That would be pretty convincing. It would certainly tip the scales to me believing it. How can I not? What if Ahura Mazda manifested itself convincingly in my mind? A Zoroastrian I would be!

    In turn, it seems to me your arguments all start with the premise that everything described in the 2,000-year-old-plus Bible is the grounding set of facts — to which all other discernable phenomena must conform. There is no possible evidence against Christianity because everything that happens is, by definition, God’s will.
    For example:
    “America is prosperous.” Hey, that shows what happens when people follow Christ. “China is becoming prosperous?” They’ll deny it, but it’s because they’re subconsciously following Christ’s way, even without being Christians. Just think how happy they’d be if they converted!
    “Muslims behead and blow up innocent people.” Isn’t that evidence Islam isn’t the true faith? “German Christians murdered millions of Jews.” Well, they weren’t really Christians during that time.
    “Muslim texts say you have to kill someone who turns from the faith.” Horrible, it shows how Islam isn’t moral. “Leviticus says you should kill homosexual men.” You’re reading that passage out of context.
    “Greek and Roman gods said some men are created greater than others.” They’re myths. Christianity teaches a higher moral. “Slavery is accepted as a normal condition in the Bible.” I’ll give your answer — God made a concession but regulated it to protect slaves from abuse.

    Really? He can create the universe and all life but He feels he should make a “concession” to the slave-owning Israelites, even though He knows it’s morally wrong? The same people who in anger he drowned in a flood and then later kills by the thousands, including the children, for worshipping a golden calf? That’s not inconsistent? But it seems like it doesn’t matter. I could point out Bible inconsistencies every single post, and maybe I will, but I know the reply already, “if God does or wants it, then by definition, it’s for the best and not inconsistent.” In the end, the argument you seem to make isn’t that a critical reading of the Bible reveals that it is consistent, but it’s that the fundamental requirement to be a Christian is to accept a priori that the Bible is consistent, even if it violates reason. Why would that be convincing to me?

    I’d like to comment on the rest of your last post later, which I really found interesting, particularly the part on credulity. But I have to hang it up now. Thanks again for your time.


    • Marc, sorry for the delayed response. Hard to catch a break these past couple weeks. 🙂

      Re: “glass of water means ocean exists, hamburger means cow exists, all of creation means God exists”

      Specifically, an adequate source must exist, yes.

      Re: “Where our food comes is easily discernible”

      Billions of people have said basically the same thing about a divine Creator. “Easily discernible” is relative to how willing we are to look, where we are beginning our search, or who/what we follow to get there. It’s possible to eat or drink and NEVER know or care where the stuff comes from.

      Re: “…the existence of creation must logically infer the existence of a creator… This is a ‘first cause’ argument, and I’m far from the first person to point out that this is possible, and far from the only explanation…”

      I’ve settled on the Biblical explanation of origins because, out of all the explanations I’ve been privy to, it is in my opinion the only adequate explanation. The Creator God described in the Bible seems exclusively sufficient for the task of creating what we can observe. Only by the most casual glance are all faiths compatible.

      You said, “…we know for sure that the universe had a beginning…” and, conversely, “…we don’t know that there was a first cause. The universe may well be infinitely old.”. But from the statements following you say an infinite universe is possible, or perhaps an infinite chain of universes (everything before the Big Bang). There have been plenty of views about the finiteness of the universe; The Steady State theory (infinite age) came about in the 20s, then The Big Bang (finite age) in the late 60s, and now some researchers are proposing a new quantum equation that eliminates the singularity and predicts an infinite universe again (Ahmed Farag Ali and Saurya Das). These are just the latest few prevailing theories. The 17th century’s Johannes Keplar argued for a finite universe, 9th-12th century cosmologists also went back and forth as many times as modern cosmologists have in less than a century.

      If the universe had a beginning, we weren’t around to see it, but I think we can logically infer some things from what we can observe now. This is one way I get from “possible” to “probable” on a specific Creator. Interestingly, and I mentioned this previously, we know that “infinity” doesn’t work in the natural/physical world. No matter how big the number we write or count to, we can always add one more to it. Even mathematically we have to use symbols (i.e. 0.333…) to, at best, move toward infinity, but never reach it. Yet we use terms like eternal, forever and infinite every day, as if we have real experience with it. But we have none, so it’s as if God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc. 3:11).

      What we do have experience of in nature, and plenty of it, is causation. Everything we observe is caused. What we don’t observe is a first cause, but we can logically infer that one must exist to cause what we can observe in nature, and that cause must logically be outside of nature to be in a position create nature. Since we don’t experience infinity within nature, it also must be outside of nature in its cause, which makes sense because the nature of infinity is that it perpetually continues, necessarily outside the boundaries of the world we experience.

      So far this only gets us to something infinite and supernatural, for which you say there are many (perhaps infinite) possibilities for whatever created nature. But it is curious to me why we would accept the ideas of infinity and non-causation in terms of origins when we never observe either in this world, absent any other revelation to the contrary. I think God’s revelation (in the Bible) of Himself as an eternal, uncaused Creator explains not only the universe and what’s in it, but why we talk about things that don’t exist in nature (infinity and non-causation) as if they really exist.

      Of course, most Christians don’t become Christians starting with the evidence. I believed very young considering very little evidence, but as an adult can see that Christianity makes sense of this world as other beliefs I have considered do not. When I consider the possibility that the God of the Bible—with His particular revelation of how He created, His moral nature, His character and way of thinking—just such a personal, intelligent, infinite Creator God fits the bill. We can come to faith as a child but leave it for some other belief as an adult, as many do, if they don’t find compelling reason to stay over and against a compelling reason to believe something else.

      So anyone can say “my position on religion can be changed by evidence,” because we all have that choice, because “compelling reason” and such things as “proof” are person-relative: Different people will find different things compelling or convincing. You say that if “God appears to me as He did to Moses or Jesus. That would be pretty convincing. It would certainly tip the scales to me believing it. How can I not?”, but I don’t think this is guaranteed. In the Bible we see God has revealed Himself in some physically visible and audible ways to people who still did not believe in Him. Jesus’ parable of the rich man and the beggar in Luke 16:19-31 describes a man separated from God for eternity, begging Abraham (Jesus was speaking to Jews) to send someone to warn his brothers of this fate. “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets (their writings); let them hear them.’ And (the condemned man) said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ (Abraham) said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” Many saw Jesus alive after His resurrection and believed (1 Cor. 15:6), but some didn’t. We often see only what we want to see, and if God were to MAKE us see Him when we don’t want to removes our free will in the matter.

      Re: “…your arguments all start with the premise that everything described in the 2,000-year-old-plus Bible is the grounding set of facts — to which all other discernable phenomena must conform.”

      I’ve argued that what we see in the Bible comports with what we observe. Not that it must, it simply does.

      Re: “There is no possible evidence against Christianity because everything that happens is, by definition, God’s will.”

      If the God of the Bible exists, then nothing happens apart from His will. This isn’t true in order to make Christianity work, it’s true because of who God is. This fairly short post is one of many that describe the different aspects of God’s will (, which are found in scripture.

      Much of what you wrote after that misrepresents Christian orthodoxy…

      Re: “”America is prosperous.” A prosperous nation is not necessarily the nation that does right; the Lord “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Mat. 5:45) All are under the curse of sin (Rom. 3:23). “Prosperity theology” is not Biblical theology.

      Re: “German Christians murdered millions of Jews”… Nazis murdered millions of Jews. There is nothing Christian about Naziism.

      Re: “‘Leviticus says you should kill homosexual men.’ You’re reading that passage out of context.” Absolutely, because it doesn’t instruct us to do that. Is it not critical to consider context?

      Re: “God made a concession but regulated it to protect slaves from abuse. Really? He can create the universe and all life but He feels he should make a ‘concession’ to the slave-owning Israelites, even though He knows it’s morally wrong?” Would you have God stop all sin and retain free will? Sometimes He leaves us to our sin and its consequences to learn from them. Slavery in those times were primarily either for the repayment of debt or involved soldiers captured in wartime who were given a life of servitude rather than death. Still, it was far less than the ideal and is never condoned by scripture. People may value masters and slaves differently, but God doesn’t (Job 31:13-15). In the OT, slaves are to be treated as hired workers (Lev. 25:39-40), given religious rights (Ex. 23:12), discouraged from being abused (Ex. 21:20, 26-27,32), special protection for women (Ex. 21:7-11), set free on the Year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:39-41), and often inherited property (Gen. 15:2-3). In the NT, Paul calls slave traders lawless (1 Tim. 1:8-10) and recognized both master and slave equal in terms of deserving respect (Eph. 6:5-9). His letter to Philemon is aimed to help him restore a relationship with his runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Philemon was to receive “both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.” (Phil. 1:16). A repeated theme of the NT is summed up in Galatians 5:1: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” God’s concession provided a backdrop and object lesson in that we can be freed from the due penalty of our sin because of Christ’s payment on our behalf.


  • Marc says:

    Hey Mike,

    I feel we are having two discussions here: One about what we can logically infer about nature and causation, and one about what the Bible says about morality and how that evidence supports it as a truer explanation than other beliefs. I think the crude way of putting it is that one is a Deist debate and one is a Theist debate. For you, there is one solution to two problems, but I believe you even said mere acceptance of a need for a “first cause” doesn’t automatically lead to Christianity.

    So I’m requesting to table the Deist discussion for now because I think we’re going in circles and have laid out our arguments. Yours, I think, says 1. Carefully observing nature leads us to the conclusion that all things that exist have causes. By extension, those must also have causes, so going back in time, therefore, there must be a first cause, or a non-caused cause (and the Big Bang Theory provides scientific evidence for this). 2. Since we can’t perceive infinity in nature but can conceive of it, that conception must have a supernatural origin. 3. Therefore, a supernatural origin must exist for both creation to be (from ever-progressing causes) and for the concept of infinity. For other reasons apart from these, you identify that supernatural infinite being as the Christian God of the Bible, but for reasons separate from these three. I want to make sure that I am correctly summarizing your position.

    And as I hope I’ve made clear, I find all of these unsupportable assumptions. 1. I don’t think we can infer anything absolute about causation, that we can always only provisionally say what is most likely to happen from a particular cause based on what we know and what we have learned to trust, always subject to change with more observation. 2. I have no reason to believe nature isn’t infinitely old or will not exist infinitely (and the converse as well, no reason to believe it isn’t finite). The Big Bang Theory is the best current explanation of what happened in the early universe up until the limit of what the theory can describe — that’s it, it’s a description, not an explanation. 3. Therefore there is no basis to conclude that a supernatural origin is necessary for infinity or creation to exist.

    So I’d like to continue the morality discussion because that was the subject of the original post. But if you feel that that’s an unfair restriction, please say so.


    • Hey Marc,

      Sorry, I may have strayed a ways from the original direction of the post on morality. I think you have fairly well summarized what I’ve said about origins, but I think the bridge from Deism to Christianity is the “other reasons apart from these”, which includes the correlation between what we observe in nature (Moral obligations, but also complexity, design, intelligence, uniformity, and a host of laws) and the God described in the Bible. I am interested in proving a particular God exists, not just some God—but isn’t God in general a prerequisite to a specific God?

      But we can certainly train closer to the question of morality. In reviewing our conversation, on 4/21, you wrote:

      “Your self-esteem is a powerful behavioral control. Man is basically a social animal, we know this from comparison to our closest animal relatives, and has a need to conform to a common rule and regard her or himself as part of the group (most anyway). But what those common rules are change as conditions change.”

      To this point, I described the difference between those common rules (which change over time and from person to person) and an underlying “moral law” that we base common rules on (which don’t change). I think absolute and objective moral law exists, you don’t see the evidence or need for it. You again affirm an naturalistic origin to “common rules” on your 2nd post on 4/21:

      “…agreeing on a set of behaviors to follow is in everyone’s interest, just based on the condition we find ourselves in, our inborn need for food, sleep, sex and avoiding death, for starters. As I stated before, it seems, by observation, to differ only in complexity but not in essence from behaviors we see in higher animal societies.”

      When higher animals kill each other, as these chimps are doing (, is it in essence murder (killing without moral justification)? What do you think of this WSJ article from Wednesday about the consideration that chimps and humans should have equal rights? (


  • Marc says:

    Hi Mike,

    My apologies for the long delay, as life intruded a bit and I didn’t seem able to find time to return to the conversation.
    OK, I think we are back to the morality question and you bring up a good challenge to my contention that I see no need to posit some extraneous supernatural source to explain how human societies decide how they behave. A naturalistic explanation, if you will. Sure, most societies claim that morality has some sort of divine source. I think where you and I agree is that all but one of these “divine source” claims for basic morality can be dismissed as unsupported beliefs, even though millions hold each of them to be a valid explanation. The only dispute is that you hold one of these claims, the Christian explanation, to be true, while I hold it to be as evidence-free as any other.
    Saying that humans need some outside provider for moral behavior assumes we couldn’t just do it ourselves. To me, that’s sort of like those “ancient astronauts” explanations of archeological wonders that were popular in the 1970s — the Nazca lines or the Egyptian pyramids or the Mayan walls couldn’t possibly have been built by ordinary shmoes figuring it out on their own. They must have had supernatural help — you know, the benevolent space aliens who showed them how to make right angles and moved the stones with their spaceship tractor beams. To me, the “divine source” for morality is the same argument, in that it assumes the people just can’t figure rules out for themselves. And just like the God-created universe argument, it’s just asserting the existence of something without evidence in order to explain something that doesn’t need explaining.
    I say, as you point out, that you can see evidence of social rules that seem like moral laws in higher animals, so our morality just seems like a more sophisticated version of what already exists in plenty of species elsewhere. Anyone who owns a dog or even a cat can easily see that they are adept at reading our behavior, and vice versa, and they can be taught to act in ways that might be counter to their immediate desire. Isn’t that acting morally?
    You bring up the chimp examples and ask, is the killing in the video murder, … can it be judged as a moral failing? And the second, should chimps have equal rights? The first answer is you need more information. Were the chimps starving? Was a territorial dispute that got out of hand? The video really lacks an explanation of what led up to it. Nonetheless, I think it’s interesting that we both can look at it and (along with the commenters) be disgusted by the actions of the chimps. It shows that we recognize the strong similarity in our behavior. Otherwise, what is the basis of our disgust? Amoebas eating each other wouldn’t elicit the same reaction.
    As for equal rights, no, I don’t agree. Chimps and humans are closely related but they are not the same. Though we share 96 percent of the same genes, its important to understand that a significant part of that remaining 4 percent involves how our brains are constructed. Since our rights and morals are a product of our brains, it would follow that they shouldn’t have human rights. Nonetheless, I support the “humane” treatment of higher animals, including chimps, based on their high intelligence and closeness to humans, and I think that’s a common enough conclusion, and one that makes moral sense.
    As an aside, it’s telling to me that the Bible doesn’t mention the existence of the great apes. It’s no mystery to me, as it was written by Middle Eastern people who would have had no possible experience with them. But one would have thought some mention of the man-like beasts that existed in this world and how we should regard them would have been helpful. For a book that supposedly reveals the truth of the existence of the Christian God, often what’s not in the book that you think would logically be there is as questionable as what it contains.


  • Hi Marc, no worries at all about the delay. Life is definitely allowed to intrude. 🙂

    I think theists in general see a divine source for morality, but as you have highlighted there are differences, and I accept Christianity’s view and reject other theistic religions. I do think however, that where many theistic religions are very similar is how they understand morality. Islam, as a popular example, amidst the vast differences in theology, sees the nature of morality very much the same as Christianity ( Moral law is objective, unchanging, binary in the sense of good and evil, intuitive to every human being via the conscience, and somehow comes from God, although Muslims reject the Christian understanding of “Imago Dei” and say that man “is encouraged to strive to acquire the characteristics implied by some of the attributes and names of Allah (God).” ( So I’m not clear on how Islam says we get our “innate” moral sense, other than we strive for it. Striving seems to be the keystone of Islam, what we do with that morality is where much of the theological disparity happens with Islam and Christianity. The Bible teaches that despite man’s striving we fall short of God’s moral standard, and Christ provides the way to righteousness, not by our efforts, but His. Islam, like every other religion except Christianity, teaches that we can somehow get there with our own efforts. So there are many different ways to categorize belief systems. You put all theistic religions in the category of divine moral systems and set naturalistic beliefs apart as a smaller set based on a man-made moral system. Christians generally categorize beliefs that depend on God (moral rightness is by grace through faith) and those that depend on human endeavor (moral rightness comes from on our own efforts). And of course, if we “just do it ourselves”, it’s pretty easy to meet our own moral standards. 🙂 I think we all emphasize the categories that seem to us to set our belief apart from the rest. Broadly, I think beliefs can and should also be categorized by what makes the most sense of our experiences, which I think we’re both trying to do.

    I think our experience shows us that we are striving for a moral standard that is consistently higher than the ones we choose for ourselves, because to us morality is always big enough to impose or try and hold others to, if not by force, in our minds. So to say it is “ours” just doesn’t fit with how we seem to live. If moral values are human convention, we’ve tricked ourselves, because we all speak and live with the expectation that our moral senses are universally true, but in reality this intuition represents our own rules, ingrained and reinforced by evolution through habit and the influence of others. I just think if we are intelligent enough to ask these type of questions about the nature of morality, we ought to have abandoned that pattern of living (living as if moral law is objective and universal) long ago.

    The ancient astronaut hypothesis is basically a secular version of a “God of the gaps” theory. Proponents of either one are however on the fringe and don’t represent mainstream belief about origins (as long as we’re comparing it to theistic understanding of morality), and they are simply not credible academically or theologically. For one, we can rationalize why a God is necessary, and also, the ratio to gaps (low) and religion (high) is the opposite of its predictions.

    But why couldn’t the same kind of question be applied to a naturalistic belief about the origin of morality? I could likewise say that positing some type of moral evolution, that ultimately “we do it ourselves”, doesn’t help to answer the question, and it seems like something atheists insert because they don’t like theistic explanations. I think the history of man on earth began with a clear revelation and an understanding of God and creation using man’s God-given sense of reason. Our current universe is what we would expect if all that was true, so why do we need to suggest that matter and energy of unknown origin, possibly an eternal state, somehow formed itself into an ordered universe with apparent laws and uniformity and conditions allowing our existence, and proteins of unknown origin forming increasingly complex cells and novel structures and functions, somehow developing, against known natural laws, into irreducibly complex life, the highest order of which exhibits vast intelligence and self-awareness and moral obligation, and perhaps most mysteriously of all, despite the “lack of evidence”, a persistent notion that there is a God? Why do we need a replacement theory to the one that most people intuitively hold, that there is a moral standard we are called to higher than our own? Could it be that the impetus for such a belief is that a world without lasting moral responsibility means we ultimately don’t have to answer to anyone? I can’t speak for you or anyone else in that, but I think this is why a lot of people reject theism in general. Most religions having you working for your salvation, hoping to measure up to a holy and perfect God. Christianity does start with bad news, that we all fall hopelessly short, but ends with good news of God’s offer of forgiveness and redemption through Christ. I think these are equally fair questions to put to naturalism. If the Bible’s history is true, “since the creation of the world”, humanity began with belief in God and some of us “suppressed the truth” (Rom. 1:18-20). You are assuming that morality exists because of naturalistic explanations and that we don’t need a theistic one. I am assuming that the Bible is true and its morality is God-given, and that we don’t need naturalistic explanations.

    A couple clarifications on what I think of evidence, as I think I’ve said prior (maybe I didn’t):

    As far as naturalistic explanations go, I would call evolution an “evidence-free” claim, except that I don’t think “evidence-free” is accurate. We all see the same evidence, but our own worldview tells us how to interpret the evidence. More accurately, I would say that the evidence doesn’t seem to support evolution as an explanation of, among many things, morality. For example:
    1. Humans had a beginning.
    2. Humans are moral beings, performing moral good.
    3. A first morally good act performed by humans must have existed.
    4. The first morally good act was morally good by a pre-existing standard.
    5. Therefore, moral good must have existed before the first human moral act.

    The very nature of the things we are discussing, ultimate origins of things, is that it isn’t supported by evidence. If God exists, then there is nothing greater or more foundational exists to “prove” Him. It’s similar to a secular understanding of natural law-like systems like morality or logic; we weren’t around to see it begin, and every choice we make is based on logical and illogical, or right and wrong, so we have nothing more fundamental to support it with (God is not in the picture as a cause or source, so logic and morality appear as axiomatic). If living morally is “good” because community and survival and passing on your genes are “good”, then living morally is “good” because it’s “good.” If using reason is “logical” because those same benefits are “logical”, then using reason is “logical” because it’s “logical”. Defending any ultimate conviction is circular and everyone resorts to faith. I think when you say “the God-created universe argument” is “just asserting something without evidence” you’re looking for something on the far side of an ultimate conviction—but something “ultimate” doesn’t allow that; it’s ontologically maxed out. I’m looking on this side, where our current experience is, to show how faith in the God of the Bible makes sense of it. It’s faith first, then understanding (Heb. 11:3). I think that many have a hard time thinking about that approach to understanding, but then again, everyone uses a faith-first approach to their own deepest beliefs. It’s just a matter of where we are putting our faith.

    The way we categorize things differently shows up in how you assess the morality of animals (and the naturalistic worldview that encourages the classification of “higher animals”). You see morality in humans and animals as a matter of degree, but even some secular analyses say “Only humans have morality, not animals” (Helene Guldberg Ph.D. in Psychology Today: She notes about the author of The Moral Lives of Animals, “Peterson proposes a functional definition of morality: ‘The function of morality, or the moral organ, is to negotiate the inherent serious conflict between self and others’, he claims. But humans and animals negotiate ‘conflict’ by fundamentally different means.” As an evolutionist, she maintains that ours are “socially created values and codes of conduct”, but I would agree it is a matter of kind or category, and this squares with man being a special creation. Similarities in some animal design and instinctual behaviors to man’s also squares with God as the common designer of all life. It makes sense that designs would be repeated in places and that animals would be programmed with negotiable behaviors that allow them to survive and thrive in the same world as humans. But only humans have, as far as we have been able to observe, an inherent spirituality, a religious nature that spurns us to pursue some form of transcendental truth. Only humans appear to be aware of our own imminent death—not just when being cornered by a predator, but when in perfect health we contemplate life’s big questions. While all animals communicate, only humans have unique intellectual, cultural, and sophisticated abilities to communicate (verbal and written), use abstract reasoning, make propositions, arguments and inferences, and talk about abstractions, philosophy, coherence, principals, and truth. We imagine and aspire. Humans have a unique cognizance of time—we study the past and apply its principals to the present, and anticipate the future, constrained by time but think about eternity (which we’ve never experienced). Animals do not create or contemplate art. And of course, even apes do not show that they make moral judgments about other animals. “Not even the cleverest ape could be conditioned to be angry upon seeing one animal steal food from another.” (Dr. Jerome Kagan, Three Seductive Ideas) “There are no non-human animal models for human pride, shame, and guilt.” (Shweder, R.A. 1999. Humans Really Are Different. Science 283: 798.) Out of all living things on earth, we seem uniquely suited to relate to God, I believe, by design.

    The reason I think we cringe when we see animal violence is that we see the similarities in behavior, and also design (some apes look very human), and tend to anthropomorphize, so you’re right in that sense. Additionally, we have an intuitive sense of God-given justice and order and stewardship over creation. Even animal predation is something that God did not intend for His original creation, but is the result of a fallen world, so Christians know it’s a sad consequence of man’s sin. But thinking rationally we all know we don’t interfere with animals killing each other because we know the difference. We aren’t going about trying to help apes write laws, recruit police, and create a judicial system for them because they are of a completely different category, and “morals” do not apply to them.

    Re: “the Bible doesn’t mention the existence of great apes”, this is 1 Kings 10:22: “The king [Solomon] had a fleet of trading ships at sea along with the ships of Hiram. Once every three years it returned, carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons.” I wouldn’t expect to see a description of apes as “man-like” in the Bible because Scripture teaches a distinction between man as a special creation apart from the animals.

    Re: “Since our rights and morals are a product of our brains, it would follow that [apes] shouldn’t have human rights. Nonetheless, I support the “humane” treatment of higher animals, including chimps, based on their high intelligence and closeness to humans, and I think that’s a common enough conclusion, and one that makes moral sense.”

    If moral regard is based on intelligence and human-like behavior, should we treat newborn babies, uneducated adults, or people with severe mental impairments (who are much less intelligent and behave very differently than, say, a Harvard graduate) less humanely?

    Have a great weekend!

  • Marc says:

    Hi Mike,

    Interesting week in the USA as our opposing views on the source of moral law took center stage in the news this week. More on that later, because I want to comment on what you wrote last.
    I don’t have an issue with your first two paragraphs until you come to this line: “You put all theistic religions in the category of divine moral systems and set naturalistic beliefs apart as a smaller set based on a man-made moral system.” I don’t know what naturalistic beliefs are. I only say that I don’t see a need to assume there is any need of a supernatural guide for humans to make moral laws. I tried the sushi/no sushi analogy before to explain this, but let me try another one. There are you and I on this thread exchanging views. That’s two of us in this conversation, not one, not three. You may believe God, Jesus, Gabriel and Satan are all in on this, too, choosing our words and guiding our thoughts, so maybe you believe that, really, there are more than two people in this conversation. But to me, I read your comments and I read my comments and I count two people. That’s not a “naturalistic belief” of two people in this conversation, that’s just one plus one equals two.
    And that’s my point with moral laws or any laws made by people. I just see people making rules. Sure many of them, probably most, say they are inspired by God, Allah, the Buddha, Satan, Ahura Mazda, whomever. But we agree that just saying you are divinely inspired doesn’t make it true. I just take that to what I consider to be the logical conclusion. No space aliens, no Zeus, no Ra, no Marduk, no Wotan, no Allah and no Jesus necessary. Moral law is what it always has been, people making the rules for people. It’s just us.
    And the evidence that it’s only us is that morals change quite a bit when societies change (I won’t say “evolve” because I don’t see that that’s necessarily true). In our own country, only 200 years ago, slavery was moral but women participating in politics wasn’t. Children working in mines — fine. Children having civil rights — please. This is the same country only 200 years ago. How can the morals of a starving desert tribe 3,000 years ago half a world away have much bearing on how we should live our lives now? My goodness, if you want to know how and where and when to sacrifice a sheep, then you can’t beat the Bible — in that way, it may indeed be the word of God. But sheesh, if abortion is such a core Christian concern today, for instance, wouldn’t you think God could have dropped a couple of the endless altar passages and fit in a few more words about this?
    As for the part on evolution, I am saddened to see the same old tired discomfort shown against evolution, and I will admit that the widespread Christian opposition to one of the great scientific discoveries of the past 200 years is one of the strongest bits of evidence to me that Christianity can’t be true. Let me go down this list of things you say can’t be explained by evolution to clear things up, I hope:
    1. Humans had a beginning. Not only are we discovering more about our origins every year, but our ability to read the DNA code for everyone has opened up an important new tool of discovery for us. A fascinating story that we’ve only begun to discover.
    2. Humans are moral beings, performing moral good. That would be a matter more of archaeology, as we can make only so many justified inferences about what the morals of early humans were. One fascinating find though: the bones of a very frail, disease-ridden disables old man from about 500,000 years ago. The fact that he lived so long meant that even then, before modern humans existed, human groups cared for the elderly and sick. So, hey, we were moral before we were men!
    3. A first morally good act performed by humans must have existed. True, but trivially true. Would it have even been recognized as such? Again, assuming compassion originated in humans, and why would we assume that?
    4. The first morally good act was morally good by a pre-existing standard. Assumes too much. It’s just as plausible to me that acts we consider moral were done more or less randomly and later, when their effects were understood, did people get the idea that this is how we always should act. So Og saved Grunx from getting stepped on by a mammoth, maybe for the thrill of it, but Grunx remembers and saves him from a sabertooth a year later. Suddenly, because we’re brainy, Og thinks “wow, what if we always try to save everyone?” Voila — morals.
    5. Therefore, moral good must have existed before the first human moral act. Putting the cart before the horse there. Again, seems much more plausible to me, and doesn’t require the intervention of a moral God, that we committed moral acts long before we came up with a concept that there was some sort of outside-of-ourselves “good.” Moral laws explained what we had been doing “naturally” all along, long before we were human. Similarly, animals and humans have had reflexes, presumably, since before humans were here, but we only had a concept for “reflexes” much later and it became meaningful only when discovered nerves and how they worked.
    Look, I used to wonder why so many Christians have an issue with the Theory of Natural Selection, when they have no issue with the Theory of Gravitation, or the Atomic Theory, or the Big Bang Theory, or the Continental Drift Theory, or the Heliocentric Theory, or the Theory of Relativity (and I could go on and on). I mean, on a purely aesthetic level, doesn’t a 4.5 billion-year-old Earth, followed by a 3.5 million-year-old history of life, that explodes in diversity with the invention of sex 550 million years ago, produces endless bizarre species, undergoes repeated catastrophic extinctions (from fire rocks raining down from the sky, no less!), all leading up to the present world with ourselves as intimately a part of the story as everything else — and all known because it’s preserved in the rocks, not just in one place and one time, but for generations and generations of people from now into the future, all over the world, who dig it up and figure the story out one shovelful at a time — Mike, isn’t that a history and a story of mankind worthy of a God? Not, sadly, the cheesy, half-thought-out blind guess in Genesis, where it’s all over in six days and then quickly forgotten to focus on the continual tortures of poor mankind. And of course, there’s no mention in Genesis of the epic mind-numbing vastness of space. No mention that the Sun is the same thing as those other points of light in the sky (that would have been helpful), no mention that there are as many stars in the sky as grains of sand on the Earth (a child can understand this, so don’t say the Israelites couldn’t).
    However, what evolution and modern cosmology does do is to make us utterly conscious of our insignificance in the vast scheme. And that’s what, I believe (I really mean it here), is the problem for so many — it’s not doubting that God could do it, but it’s the fear, and I mean to use that particular word, the fear that we aren’t the apple of God’s eye, the constant focus of God’s attention. Christianity insists we are the stars of the center stage in the universe’s grand production, the reason it all exists. But evolution and the vastness of the cosmos are the uncomfortable reminders that maybe we are deluding ourselves, that we’re just playing the walk-on parts or, worse, we’re just the stage props.
    So, anyway, the Supreme Court said same-sex marriage will be the law of the land. You and I, I’m sure, have drawn different conclusions on the morality of this. As you can guess, I think it’s a great moral victory for our country. Christianity’s millennium-long support for the inhuman persecution of homosexuals is, for me, another strong argument that, regardless of whether moral law has a divine origin, Christianity can’t plausibly be its wellspring. I’m sure you see this differently and I’m curious to hear how. As mentioned before, the Bible seems to give slavery a pass, just as long as it’s not too “torturous,” but is pretty unambiguous about homosexuality being a non-starter. So the Bible seems to say homosexuality is worse than slavery. Is this still a Christian belief?

    Take care,

    • Hi Marc!

      In saying “You put all theistic religions in the category of divine moral systems and set naturalistic beliefs apart as a smaller set based on a man-made moral system,” I mean that’s where you see a divide, although I’m sure you don’t readily refer to your own views as Naturalism. Naturalism teaches that nature is all there is, so I suppose a Naturalist would not consider other categories (You’ve said you consider the supernatural possible but don’t see the evidence or the need). All I was trying to do is suggest categories of belief.

      I think I see how you’d like to apply your analogy of seeing just two contributors to this thread, but I’m not clear how that relates to your claim to non-belief that you attempted in your sushi analogy. Now, if we’re talking about the information sources of our individual viewpoints, there’s no way you could say it is just you or I involved in the conversation. While I don’t say that God is entering his own comments in the thread, I say that I get my information from the Bible, as well as other sources, online or in books, lessons I’ve learned, past observations I recall or that I’ve recorded in my own blog—but you would have to concede a dependence on other sources and experiences also. We only see each other writing things about moral law, but you know this is more than just “people making rules”. If it’s another way of saying you don’t see what I see, well I think that goes both ways too. 🙂

      This is why the previous track on morality went to origins. If you don’t believe there’s a God, or some Being remarkably like God, then moral law HAS to be retrofitted to human preference. As I’ve explained before, “morals change quite a bit when societies change” is actually our interpretations of moral law changing because WE change our desires and our goals. I don’t think you’re able to see this because you’re committed to the idea that morality amounts to simply “people making up rules.” 200 years ago, “slavery was moral” really means that a lot of people decided it was acceptable to keep slaves. But 200 years ago, the same Bible we have now sat on slave traders’ shelves, probably untouched, that carried God’s desire for freedom and value of all human life instead of making any provision for the kind of chattel slavery that was part of America’s early history. And 200 years ago, there were plenty of Christians who knew that and held the same view of slavery as they do today. Abolitionists fought against slavery on Christian principals, and they were widely hated for decades up the point of the civil war. Does that mean that abolitionists were morally wrong when they were counter-culture and morally right now? Nobody is required to bypass the Skeptics Annotated version and actually read the Bible with a modicum of openness, but if they did, they might see that moral law doesn’t come from “a starving desert tribe 3,000 years ago” and that the reason it has a “bearing on how we should live our lives now” is that by our moral failure we see we need Christ’s redemption. A Bible word search for “abortion” or “gay marriage” won’t get you answers of course because those terms didn’t exist, but the value of human life (Gen.9:6; Ex.20:13) at all stages of development (Jer.1:5; Ps.139) and the clear and exclusive design God has for marriage (Gen.2:24; Mat.19:4; Mk.10:6) is all right there in print.

      Re: “1. Humans had a beginning. Not only are we discovering more about our origins every year, but our ability to read the DNA code for everyone has opened up an important new tool of discovery for us. A fascinating story that we’ve only begun to discover.”

      We seem to agree that “humans had a beginning” (my premise 1) and that our declaration of certain acts as “moral” had a beginning (my premise 4). Sorry, I shouldn’t have restricted moral development to “humans” because I think you got hung up on that a bit in 2, 3 and 4. When I assume that humans performed the first moral act, I’m meaning not only what we might describe as modern humans, but any evolutionary ancestor of humans that would be cognitively able to morally reason to which we could hypothetically trace “our” moral history. Now where you say that plausibly our first acts of kindness “were more or less done randomly and later, when their effects were understood, did people get the idea that this is how we always should act,” I’m assuming you mean by “random” or something done “for the thrill of it”, decisions that don’t require moral consideration. I know we don’t commonly understand instinct or “reflexes” the same as morals. I’m talking about the first time we, or our ancestors, did something for the good of another. If Gronx saves Og from the sabertooth tiger and doesn’t consider the morality of the act, he wouldn’t have been acting morally at the time of the rescue. It would not have been until later, at the time of the discovery that his saving act so was “good”, that Gronx could be considered morally aware. Sometime we became aware of the concept of “good” or “bad”. If “moral laws explained what we had been doing ‘naturally’ all along, long before we were human,” then logically there must have been a point in time where we went from thinking/doing “naturally” to thinking/doing “morally.” At that point in time, there was the concept of “good” (and resisting “bad”) that was suddenly an obligation to us. This is what can’t be reconciled with the idea of moral convention or moral evolution. Whether we made up the rules or they came from elsewhere, we do indeed follow them. So unless we discovered the rules, we had to have been following them the instant we invented them, and those two conditions are mutually exclusive and therefore absurd (conclusion 5).

      Re: “I used to wonder why so many Christians have an issue with the Theory of Natural Selection”, they don’t. We believe (and observe) that NS works within the confines of “kinds” (Genesis 1, 6, 7), limited by the genetic information God gave plants, animals and people that allows biological adaptation to the environment. We observe variety and life adapting within certain limits based on information already present in the genome that is sorted or lost over successive generations. NS is part of the modern synthesis of Evolution, but NS ≠ Evolution. The creation account in Genesis comports with what we observe: NS accounting for genetic variation. What it doesn’t comport with is NS as a mechanism for macro-evolution, or mutations pushing life across taxonomic ranks resulting in completely new kinds of animals and plants, and no surprise, we do not and have never observed this in nature. Speciation is not evolution either, because dogs stay dogs, salamanders stay salamanders, and oaks stay oaks.
      Re: “…or the Big Bang Theory”, we kind of have a problem with this too, depending on how you define it. God’s creation of the universe seems to have been an expansion according to Genesis 1:8, perhaps much like BBT, but the text doesn’t require it because the details aren’t there.

      I agree though, that “on a purely aesthetic level”, a Naturalistic theory of origins is pretty fantastic—but so is a creation that “declares the glory of the Lord.” (Ps.19:1) Grandeur and awe are not absent. I guess beauty really must be in the eye of the beholder. 🙂 But in any case we aren’t talking about pure aesthetics. I think it should square rationally with what we observe now, and a universe that has order, intelligence, reason, complexity, morality coming from a God with the same qualities, does. Even if we made up such a God, why wouldn’t Naturalists try to come up with a theory that makes sense of how the universe actually is? And (I don’t think you addressed this question), why shouldn’t I be able to put Naturalism to the same test as you put Christianity? Christian Theism seems to be all we need to explain the universe. Why do we need to insert something like Evolution? We don’t really see evidence for it that can’t also support creationism, and it doesn’t add anything.

      Re: “no mention in Genesis of the epic mind-numbing vastness of space”, do the stars that God placed “in the expanse of the heavens to give light” (Gen.1:14) not qualify as a description of vastness? Were you expecting something more poetic in a part of the narrative that was not written as poetry? Stars were created at the same time as the sun (because the sun is a star too, re: “No mention that the Sun is the same thing as those other points of light in the sky”) as well as other bodies in space (like the moon). And there’s “no mention that there are as many stars in the sky as grains of sand”, except for God’s promise to multiply Abraham’s offspring using pretty much that exact comparison, except equating them both as an illustration of the number of his descendants: “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” (Gen.22:17).

      Christians don’t live in “fear that we aren’t the apple of God’s eye, the constant focus of God’s attention” because the Bible gives us a correct understanding, if we read it, of our standing with Him. God’s creation was good (Gen.1:31), but subsequently spoiled by our sin (Gen.3). God still loves His people (Ps. 86:15), but cannot tolerate our sin (Ps. 5:4), so He sent His Son to pay the price to separate us from our sin (John 3:16; Rom. 5:8). The Bible reveals that we are the object of God’s affection, but leaves no room for arrogance. We are not God, never were, and all have sinned and fall short of His moral standard (Rom. 3:23). That’s why we need Jesus, “for Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Pet. 3:18). There is a difference between humility and self-depracation. In light of Christianity, the vastness and complexity and beauty of creation tells us not that we are nothing, but that we are something. We are God’s creation with whom He desires to be, not because He needs us, but because God extending the offer, despite our rejection of Him, for us to enjoy Him forever is consistent with His self-giving nature.

      Five judges redefining marriage for us Friday was no surprise. For Christians, nothing really has changed (except we can expect an amping up of challenges to the religious freedom this country was founded for, and soon). Marriage is still ontologically the union of a man and a woman, and we understand that moral virtue doesn’t change when the day flips from Thursday to Friday; courts can’t alter the nature of fundamental truth. Christians following scripture (which does not call for the persecution of any human being) will continue to speak the truth in love despite the consequences. Paul, in 1 Cor. 6:9-11, reminds Christians about those who are sexually immoral, idolators, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, abusers, cheaters, that “such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ…” (1 Cor. 6:11) In the eyes of God, sin is sin, and we are all condemned without Christ.


  • Marc says:

    Hey Mike,

    I see you’ve been on vacation a while so I left the conversation for a bit. I’d like to pick it back up again, even though this is way, way down in the threads for God & Neighbor by this time.

    Reading over the beginning of your comments, again I’m struck by the caveats about the “two people in the conversation” example that I was providing. You seem unwilling to accept this and I’m not sure why. This really seems to be a sticking point and I want to return to it because I think it bears on the whole discussion.

    I say atheism is not a belief. Atheism is the lack of belief in a supernatural being or beings and that is something different than another belief. Going without dinner is not a meal, the lack of smell is not a sense. There is no hobby called “not whittling.” Beethoven’s 14th Symphony really does not exist: it’s not his “Unwritten Symphony No. 5.” Now you can believe, without any evidence, that Beethoven somehow wrote five more symphonies and we just haven’t found them. That’s a different thing. But the “atheism is a belief” assertion to me is as illogical as saying we have to include Beethoven’s “unwritten” symphonies among his works.

    As you say, we are all dependent on our sources, but when we enter a conversation, the sources are not participants in the conversation. There are only two of us on this thread. Someone may believe some other entity is also guiding my thoughts and/or yours, but that is a supernatural supposition without evidence.

    You say that the existence of the Christian God shouldn’t imply the existence of other supernatural beings. None other are needed to understand the Christian concept. At the same time, you say the existence of creation must imply the existence of a creator that is separate from the creation; that it is a logical conclusion one must make to explain the universe. And so we circle back to the central logical problem I have with your two assertions: 1. the universe exists and therefore needs a separate entity responsible for its existence — it can’t logically “just be here.” 2. God exists as that explanation for creation but God doesn’t Himself require an explanation for His own existence. God can logically “just be here.” To me, this is a clear double standard, having your cake and eating it, as it were.

    Moving on, you have a long third paragraph on the question of slavery I brought up and I want to treat it fairly. Despite, as I pointed out, the Bible’s equivocation and curious timidity on slavery, you say, fairly and correctly, that abolitionists were inspired by the Bible to fight against slavery. So were Dr. King and the Civil Rights activists 100 years later. But you also say, without justification I might add, that “200 years ago, the same Bible we have now sat on slave traders’ shelves, probably untouched.” You don’t know this. We certainly know the leaders of the South during the Civil War and on to the present day, along with the vast bulk of its citizens, were Christian, just like in the North. That’s the issue, everybody back then quoted the Bible to support their position, and the Bible was only too happy to provide for all sides.

    It seems appropriate to quote Lincoln here, who read the Bible often, describing this conundrum with amazing eloquence in his Second Inaugural Address: “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” That, to me, is an astonishing statement by the leader of one of those sides. He doesn’t say, as he well could, “Well, we all say we’re Christians, but God Himself is either for slavery or he’s not, and I think the way the war’s going, we can see now what God really thinks.” And that would be totally justifiable and in line with what you said … that in the end, the result of the war shows that the anti-slavery folks just understood what God meant better than the pro-slavery folks. And though Lincoln thinks that, too, the incredible thing is that even at that moment of triumph as the leader of the anti-slave side, he has to admit that even then he isn’t sure. His humility is really amazing. You can’t ever be sure of God’s intentions, he says, even when you think you’re right. And certainly Lincoln does think he’s right, as he says later, by claiming that it is in line with what the Bible has written that such a terrible scourge as slavery would require a terrible war to overcome it.

    In this way, I greatly admire Lincoln for not shying away from the hard questions that slavery and the Civil War raise about Christianity, even though he doesn’t take the logical step I would take that, if the slavers and anti-slavers are both reading their Bibles for support, then maybe the Bible shouldn’t be used as a moral guide. Something similar happened recently here and I wonder if you saw it. Obama spoke a eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims of the Charleston shootings. And Obama gave a pretty boldly Christian speech, particularly when, as Lincoln does, trying to discern God’s will in the commission of an evil act (around the 15-minute mark).

    But of course, this is the same guy who, despite going to church every Sunday all his adult life, plenty of Christians today still think is a closet Muslim. Amazing.

    You included some interesting quotes from the Bible about the vastness of the universe. It figures I’d be quoting the Bible in trying to disprove the Bible! Hah. It’s undeniable that it’s the most important book of Western Civilization. Still, the quotes are poetical rather than scientific, and there’s still nothing in the Bible about astronomy that wouldn’t be observed by a reasonably intelligent person back then. In other words, no “divine” revelations, just guesswork and a layman’s observation to me.

    I am not sure, in your sixth paragraph, what question I’m not addressing, in putting Naturalism to the same test as Christianity. Let me know a little more about what you mean there.

    However, I am amused by the conclusion that a theory of evolution isn’t needed because “Christian Theism seems to be all we need to explain the universe.” An answer that explains everything really explains nothing — case in point: I now present my true belief: the Flying Spaghetti Monster! The airborne pasta-and-meatball entity is solely responsible for all creation. You, Mike, cannot ever hope to disprove this. Seriously, try, but you are doomed to fail. No other religions are needed. Belief in FSM’s existence is all we need to explain everything. It is incontestable, which is why it must be true!

    On a serious note, we’ve dug up billions of fossils worldwide, and pretty intensely for almost 200 years, and have a pretty coherent picture now of how and when life on Earth changed through the eons. That’s a big deal and a huge scientific achievement. Humans and dinosaurs … not around at the same time. You can say this is useless, unnecessary knowledge, but I’d bet you would be in a small minority. And if that’s the case, that believing in Christianity means I have to also accept that paleontology is really unworthy of my time, I would count that as another argument against believing in Christianity.

    In light of the slavery discussion, I wonder today about its similarity to the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage. As with slavery, people who read the Bible today differ on what it says about homosexuality or, at least, how it should affect our laws. As Lincoln said, it it is strange that people who pray to the same God are on both sides of a debate like this, but ultimately, Christians can’t be confident they know the judgment of God. Sure five judges made the decision, but three were Christians, along with both Jews. And the 5-4 split was reflective of the nation as a whole. Would that more decisions matched popular will as closely.

    Let me be frank at the risk of being impolite. I think the acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual marriage is, in the year 2015, a moral necessity. I think the opposition to it is immoral. If this opposition is rooted in Christianity, then Christianity is preaching and advocating immorality.

    In the desert, 3,000 years ago, slavery might have been OK and might have been an improvement on killing captured enemies outright. That changed. Opposition to homosexuality might have been made necessary by the high death rates, including high delivery deaths, and the overall difficulty of life, which mandated that the continued production of children be given the highest possible support in society. I don’t know — I wasn’t there, but it’s a reasonable guess. We find in ancient Greek and Roman societies that when the standard of living rose and survival wasn’t the be-all and end-all of 99 percent of the population, a coincidental acceptance of homosexuality followed.

    Similarly, the reasons that homosexuality might have been opposed for practical reasons don’t seem to exist today (you may differ on this). We know that people don’t choose to be homosexual and we know that the number of people in this world is starting to really put a strain on its resources. We no longer need people with homosexual orientations to grit their teeth, close their eyes and make more babies with people they aren’t attracted to. We have enough people ready and willing to make babies and they are all living longer and healthier lives. So there are no more practical reasons to deny homosexual partnerships and marriage contracts, only moral ones, morals derived from religious texts. I say those texts are inappropriate for today’s world and following their beliefs is harmful to millions who are homosexual and to millions more who, like me, have family members and friends who are homosexual.

    As you say, the Bible is pretty clear about its opposition to homosexuality, so one is left with a conundrum. Do you just shrug and accept that God created homosexuals, gave them the capacity to love, and then forbid them from ever expressing it and consummating it on pain of eternal torment? So…”Sorry, sucks to be you, Mr. and Ms. Homosexual-Oriented” and that’s it? For me, this acceptance is a natural change in morality that is consistent with the profound changes and ways of living in today’s world. Conditions change, so morals change. For all we know, homosexuality was a natural and accepted behavior in ancient societies that became unnaturally perverted, and I mean to use that word specifically, by the desperate circumstances of a desert tribe whose survival guide somehow became “The Guide” for all conditions and times.

    Wow, that ended up being long. Sorry.


    • Hey Marc, good to hear from you again. It’s been a busy month with a couple trips, a garage sale, and co-teaching a 2 night class, but I’m grateful for a reprieve to get back to this. 🙂

      Happy to discuss your analogies. When you say “atheism is not a belief”, I pointed out that your analogy of not having dinner with the group didn’t support this, because the reason you offered for not having dinner at the same time and place as the rest of us, probably without thinking too much about the reason, was because you ”already ate”. The point being, we can say “I’m not eating” (or “I’m don’t have a belief”) but the reason you’re not is because you’re full from having dinner somewhere else (or you believe something else). There is no true void of belief. If you and I both were asked how we thought the universe came to be, I would say that I believe God created it as the Bible says. You would offer one of the explanations you’ve already given me, because you’re open to many explanations: “It may be eternal”, or “Naturalistic processes”, or “The Big Bang.” The fact that you are not settled completely on one particular creation process doesn’t mean you don’t believe something about it. There are aspects of God’s creative process I am agnostic about, but as a category I believe in divine ex nihilo creation. As a category you believe in a creation involving some type of natural process, even though there are aspects of it you are also agnostic about.

      “The lack of smell” isn’t just “not-a-sense”; it’s something. It’s called Anosmia, and lots of people believe in it. 🙂 I don’t see how counting symphonies that Beethoven didn’t write and which don’t exist as similar to believing in God. Christians believe God exists because He has revealed Himself to mankind through nature (Rom. 1:20-21), our conscience (Rom. 2:14-15), Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-3) and the Bible (2 Tim. 3:16). Billions of people haven’t claimed anything like that about Beethoven’s unwritten symphonies.

      The popular conflation of God and the Flying Spaghetti Monster suffers from the same fallacy, because the FSM has no explanatory power. It has made no claims for its own existence, left no clues, and made no attempt to reveal itself. If there were scriptures about or were claimed to be inspired by FSM to explore that could survive rigorous textual criticism as the Bible does, then it would be worth pursuing. Or if much of the world’s intuition pointed toward the existence of FSM that were clarified by its writings or revelations, then it might be worth pursuing. But as it is, FSM is simply a device meant to convey that all divine invocations are the same by ignoring or making no effort to connect their orthodoxy to reality.

      I know you believe God is also without evidence or explanatory power, and that’s been a big part of this debate. We’re looking at the same evidence, just interpreting it differently based on what we already assume (by faith) about the world. To me, seeing the universe and missing the need for God is very similar to seeing only a computer and ignoring the need for a programmer. Computers require programming to exist. If someone then offered a description of a programmer who had certain characteristics and properties sufficient to make the computer we’re looking at, then the existence of that programmer, though unseen (say he lives/works in California) has explanatory power, whereas other programmers wouldn’t fit the bill (for example, they only do Windows, and we’re looking at a Mac).

      Now it’s easy to put too much weight on evidence. As I’ve said before, the most important things that you yourself believe in, you do not commit to by evidence. Take what we call the Law of Thought, for example, the law of identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middle that serve as the basis for all logical reasoning. Such self-evident first principals are a priori assumptions that nobody can prove or disprove because there is nothing more fundamental by which to prove or disprove them. They are self-evident (“just there”) and generally accepted on faith. Is the Law of Thought eternal? We know from common experience that laws do not come from mindlessness. They always come from minds. Did WE write the Law of Thought? Wikipedia doesn’t cover that. If we wrote it, how did we write it without presuming the Law of Thought and its principals in the first place? It’s circular. We can say we don’t know and the laws are just there, but then you’re exhibiting blind faith belief in something you named but can’t see, trust but can’t prove, follow but can’t explain. Christianity moves the ultimate belief one step further; we trust the Law of Thought but believe these laws extend from a God who uses logic and created us in His image so we would think the same way. We can’t see God, prove God, or explain His eternality, but our faith in Him explains the Law of Thought (which we rely on every day for every decision we make) and other such preconditions of intelligibility. We have a reason to believe, but only after setting our sight on God, which must be done on faith. THEN stuff makes sense. If we set our sights on the Flying Spaghetti Monster, that doesn’t make sense of anything else.

      What I am wondering still about putting Naturalism to the same test as Christianity, is why accepting Naturalism by faith (because that’s what we have to do) is a better course than accepting Christian Theism by faith. Both are propositions about the past to explain the present that we were not there to witness and cannot disprove. If both offer an explanation for the stuff we can see around us now and experience about ourselves, and to each of us the other’s worldview doesn’t seem to add anything to the mix, why is Naturalism better? Hopefully what I’m asking makes sense.

      I understand your problem with why God is the only thing allowed to be eternal. It is a rather an extraordinary claim that’s often called special pleading. In short, we say God is “just there” because He says He is there. He claims to be eternal and the creator of everything we can see (Gen. 1:1, Psalm 90:2, John 1:1, Rom. 1:20). You’re open to something being eternal, so “special pleading” shouldn’t be a problem since the possibility of eternality could justify the exception. The universe doesn’t make the claim that it’s eternal. Granted, the universe doesn’t have a mind in order to make claims, but that’s one clue that the universe isn’t anything like God. We can’t prove God by anything greater than God (nor can we prove an eternal universe by anything greater), so what do we gain by believing the claims of Scripture, the intuition most have about nature requiring a Creator, the personification of God in the man Jesus, or what our conscience seems to tell us, as evidence? Because doing so makes sense of what we can see for starters. “By faith we understand…” (Heb. 11:3) There’s absolutely no justification for any fundamental belief before we have faith. But afterwards, we can see that the eternal and infinite God described in the Bible explains intelligence, logic, morality, uniformity, order, and our properly basic assumptions, whereas a mindless universe, eternal or temporal, does not. Maybe instead of God, we trust, by faith, that somewhere in this eternal universe, there exists an eternal mind we’ve yet to discover that is capable of doing what Christians say God is responsible for. Why would that be a better answer than God? Christians don’t claim to have made up a God. We claim that He has revealed Himself to us in a way that first requires faith, giving us just enough “evidence” to see Him if we are willing to but not enough if we aren’t willing.

      Maybe I’m still missing something you are trying to say about the “two people in the conversation” illustration. You seem to agree that each of us can have sources that guide what we say, and that we do (you’ve quoted Lincoln, Bertrand Russell, C.S. Lewis and others, and can credit much of your knowledge from education and life experiences, the wisdom of others, etc.). Whether the guidance is from a supernatural source or not is irrelevant as far as I can see. If I’m using information from the Bible, that’s not necessarily evidence that it has a supernatural origin, but if it explains well what we’re talking about, then that may be evidence that it’s true and reliable.

      You make a good point that I errantly assumed that slave traders had Bibles but probably didn’t read them. You’re right, I don’t know that for sure. But by their conclusions I might assume they didn’t properly understand the Bible if they had tried to read it. We can’t take a page out of the middle of a novel and expect to know what’s going on in the story. Likewise, it’s bad exegesis to take select passages that record slave ownership in the Bible out of context. Someone bent on kidnapping peaceful people from their homelands, separating families, abusing and selling them for profit will find justification somewhere. Lincoln correctly observed that people have differing and even contrasting opinions about what the Bible says. He was also correct in his ultimate conclusion that the Bible did not support slavery. But if Lincoln’s “next logical step” as you said should have been to discard the Bible because of differing opinions, he would have had to throw the Constitution in the same pile. We would have to reject every document or doctrine ever written if universal agreement over them was required for them to be reliable or authoritative. We already know people are inconsistent. To make a case against the Bible you need find inconsistency in the Bible, not its followers.

      When you say that the acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage in 2015 has become a moral necessity, you’re talking about pragmatics and personal preferences, not morality. But I think this is part and parcel of your view of morality as the most popular interpretation of right and wrong vs. grounding it in an unchanging standard. If something is morally right when it’s popular but suddenly immoral when it isn’t, or if marriage is one thing in 2014 and something else in 2015, we really can’t ground truth in anything. If group acceptance somehow changes the rightness or wrongness of something, then individual acceptance should change it too, which means homosexual behavior (or gluttony, cheating, integrity, murder, assault, compassion…) can be right for John and wrong for Jane. The fact that we are having this debate shows we both know better. “The reasons homosexuality might have been opposed for practical reasons” are not what makes certain behavior right or wrong.

      What IS actually changing is human consensus toward sexual autonomy. Not that personal freedom is inherently a bad thing, but the pursuit of every kind of desire that seems practical is. Boundaries are intended to protect. It’s now, quite suddenly, considered “harmful” to exclude same-sex couples the right to “marry”, or refuse to make the cake for the reception. Sexual expression has gradually become more important, at least in American culture, than the freedom to express religious faith it was founded upon, and “religious liberty” is fast becoming synonymous with “bigotry”. Disagreeing with or refusing to celebrate the progress of the new sexual revolution somehow amounts to “hatred” as if it has anything in common with Civil Rights era struggles. Personal autonomy has always been the root of rebellion in sinners (myself included) who imagine themselves independent of their Creator (Gen. 11:4, Isaiah 53:6), some form of wanting something that isn’t ours. That really hasn’t changed much throughout history.

      It’s shameful how many have treated gays, including those who do it in the name of religion. I can honestly say I love and respect you despite our vastly different worldviews. ( We are all deserving of love and respect as human beings made in God’s image and for whom Christ died to separate us from the just penalty of our sins, so of course love doesn’t mean condoning every behavior (any parent knows this). I think we intuitively have a sense that we live in a good world gone bad and that all human beings are worthy of redemption. If we can’t ground self-worth and human dignity in something beside personal preference, it’s all up for negotiation.

      I think mine was a tiny bit longer. Thanks again, and I hope you’ve enjoyed your summer!


  • David says:

    hey Marc ,if killing people is wrong is not a moral fact but only a moral opinion ,then a: how is it commonly accepted that people go to jail for it and sometimes even forfeit their own lives for it and b: why can people be found not guilty by reason of insanity of murder,because they do not understand that killing is wrong,which implies that if you are sane then you acknowledge that it is a part of objective reality that killing is wrong,thus it is accepted as a fact that killing is wrong not as an opinion! By the way , I am NOT religious,but you do not have to believe in myths or even God to know moral facts can and do exist!

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