Friday, February 1, 2013

The Culpability of Unbelief

I've spent a lot of time defending arguments for God's existence, especially those of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition.  In fact, Romans 1:19-20 states, "what may be known about God is plain to [humanity], because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

But, what about atheists who sincerely seek God without finding him?  I do not suggest that all atheists are liars, but it is possible for a person to unintentionally suppress their knowledge of God.  I would point to the universal knowledge of God by appealing to the uniformity of nature, among other things.  Plantinga goes so far as to say that atheism is the result of a cognitive disfunction, but I'm not ready to make such a bold assertion.

Instead, I like how Daniel Howard-Snyder sums up one of the theistic responses: "Some critics appeal to implicit belief.  The idea is that since God is the Good (or, God's moral goodness is His most salient feature), pursuit of the Good is, in fact, pursuit of God, even if one does not recognize it as such." (Daniel Howard-Snyder, "Hiddenness of God," Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Second Edition, MacMillan, 2006.)

This leads us to the moral argument.  Think of it this way:

1. The universe is dynamic. (Premise)

2. The laws of logic and morality are immutable. (Premise)

3. Therefore, the laws of logic and morality transcend the universe. (Premise)

Is this an argument for God's existence?  I'll let everyone decide for themselves.


  1. ""Some critics appeal to implicit belief. The idea is that since God is the Good (or, God's moral goodness is His most salient feature), pursuit of the Good is, in fact, pursuit of God, even if one does not recognize it as such.""

    Among the Redeemed will be some who were pagans ... and some who were 'atheists'. At the same time, there will be none among the Redeemed who do not acknowledge and worship Christ as Lord.

  2. Let's take a hypothetical law "everything is dynamic". This law is immutable, yet the outcome of this law is not.
    So, even if we regard a law as merely descriptive of material reality, saying that a dynamic system can only be described by a dynamic law seems a non-sequitur.

    As for being culpable or not, if I "unintentionally suppress my knowledge of God" then I am not culpable.
    The only way to say that atheists are culpable is to actually call them liars.

    Claiming that atheists are culpable and deserve not to be redeemed is really an insult. I am convinced, however, that most people who claim this unintentionally suppress their common sense. In the case of Plantinga it is probably intentional, though.

  3. Unless you deny that the laws of logic and morality are objective, then of course it's not the case that everything is dynamic. As for culpability, Ilion alludes to what is called the doctrine of invincible ignorance (except he doesn't call it by that name). Walter, if you really are seeking the Good, then you're seeking God. I know you don't accept this claim, but my post's intended audience accepts the paradigm of God as the Good. Don't take that as an accusation. The root word for "goodness" means "like God."

    I'm not sure Plantinga is saying atheists are culpable for their unbelief, at least not in all instances. After all, if he's right about atheism being the result of a cognitive disfunction, then that's not the atheist's fault.

  4. It does not matter whether everything is dynamic or not, what matters is that even if everything were dynamic, this could be described by an immutable law, which means your argument is a non-sequitur

    Regardless of whether Plantinga thinks atheists are culpable or not, calling atheism the result of a cognitive disfunction is a deliberate insult.

    And the root-word for "goodness" has nothing whotsoever to do with "like God". That's a textbook example of pseudo -etymology.

  5. The word "good" is derived from the Old English, "gōd." Sound familiar?

    How exactly does your example make the argument a non sequitur? If something is immutable, then it's not dynamic (by definition). Whatever that immutable something is, the conclusion necessarily follows.

    Maybe calling atheism the result of a cognitive disfunction is an insult. I'm not the one saying it is. Of course, truth isn't always flattering. Nevertheless, even if I agreed with Plantinga, I wouldn't go around saying it.

  6. I have a question for you, Walter. You can choose to answer however you wish and you won't hear any objection from me. You've stated that the laws of nature are necessary (with some chance thrown in, to be more precise). What this means is that Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation is not only true, but necessarily true. If this is the case, then aren't the laws of nature also immutable? It seems to me that your commitment to some form of necessity is a backhanded compliment to the argument for an Unmoved Mover.

  7. FYI , the very fact that two words sound similar does not mean they are related in any way. That's exactly the mistake pseudo-etymology makes. According to scientific etymology the word "God "and the word "good" are derived from two different Indo-european words. If you want the details, just say so, and I will explain it to you. I am not claiming to be an expert, but I do have a master degree in Germanic languages.
    Anyway, even if they were related, that would not do anything to prove your argument.

    Your argument is a non-sequitur because "the universe is dynamic" does not entail that every single aspect of the universe is dynamic. So, in a dynamic universe, there may be several immutable things without those things "transcending the universe" and one of those things may be the silmple law "the universe is dynamic". But that's all I want to say agout your argument. I do not want to be dragged in an endless discussion.

    As for Plantinga. He may well be convinced it is the truth, but if he can't prove it (and he can't) he should pursue the good instead of insulting people. That's the course you take, and it should serve as an example for all closed-minded fundamentalists.


  8. To be very short: no. Even if the Laws of nature are immutable they do not 'move' anything.
    One of these laws of nature could be (and I even think it's likely true) that potentialities can actualize themselves. So, instead of a backhanded compliment, I have to say it's more of a straightforward rejection of the UM.

  9. So, it's just a coincidence that gōd sounds a lot like God, and that guht sounds a lot like Gott? If we're going to pull the expert card, shouldn't you just agree with me on theological matters, since I'm the one with a Master's in Theological Studies? The fact is, God has been associated with the Good for as long as philosophy has been a discipline. Just read any of the Socratic dialogues and you'll see that's the case.

    To be non-dynamic is to be immutable. Physical bodies have the potentiality to change. Hence, whatever is not dynamic is not only immutable, but immaterial.

    I'm done talking about Plantinga. I can admire the man for the great work he's done. Are you as harsh on Dawkins for his claim that giving a child a religious upbringing is a form of child abuse? Plantinga's comment is nowhere near as offensive as that. The fact is, a person can be admired in spite of their flaws.

  10. Yes, Doug, that's just a coincidence, and I didn't pull the expert card, you can look it up for yourself if you want. And the fact that you have a Master in Theological studies indeed means that on matters of the brand of theology you studied, you probably know more than I do.
    And that God has been associated with the Good is true, and I have never denied that. But even that does not mean that the Good and God are related, even if God were to exist.

    I have no idea what you are trying to prove with your second paragraph, but it is completely irrelevant to anything I said. Anyway, I am not igoing to argue about that argument here.

    And FYI, yes, I am as harsh on Dawkins because it is offensive (taken in the correct context not nearly as offensive as Plantinga's comment, but nevertheless offensive). What Dawkins says is undoubtedly true for many types of religious upbringing, but he is overgeneralzing things and as a result, offending people who give their children a religious upbringing without abusing them with fear of eternal torture.
    I received a religious upbringing without that sort of abuse, BTW.
    And I have already said that there are arguments by Plantinga that I find worthwhile, even though I despise his morality, and the same holds for Dawkins.

  11. So we've established that it's a coincidence that the various words for "good" sound remarkably like God, and it's irrelevant that God has been associated with the Good for as far back as our extent writings go. Can't say I'm convinced by that. By the way, I was being ironic when I said you should just accept everything I say about theology. It's great that you have a Master's in Germanic Languages, but I won't deny the things I've read about etymological correlations. That's part of theology, too.

    I admire your candor about Dawkins's comments. For the record, I think he's a brilliant biologist. However, it's possible to be brilliant in one area and ignorant (not to be confused as an insult, but literally "lacking knowledge") in another. Plantinga's comments were made in philosophical literature. He doesn't make public pronouncements that, if taken to their logical conclusions, would entail that the state get involved. If Dawkins's statement were accepted, then the state would have no choice but to prosecute and imprison religious parents. That's why his comments were much more offensive. He's backed off of those comments since, thankfully.

  12. "For the record, I think he's a brilliant biologist."

    There is no good reason for thinking that. There never was a good reason for thinking that.

  13. Thunder and lightning have been associated with God as far as our extant writings go, so we should just accept that as a fact, I suppose?

    And I do not know whether Dawkins is a brilliant biologist or not. Fact is: he gave his opinion on (some forms of) religious education, and, although as i said, I feel he is overgeneralizing, he has a point. Some religious parents, or rather the leaders of some religious groups, should be punished for certain types of religious education. Crimes cannot ne exccused because some people believe some entity in the sky wants them to commit them. And the only reason why you find Plantinga's comments less offensive is because he happens to have made them in philosophical literature. His words have been spread far beyond this literature, Doug, and AFAIK, but correct me if I am wrong, Plantinga has not backed off of those comments, Anyway, thye are still used by fundamentalists for the sole purpose of insulting people who happen not to share their particluar superstition. And if Platinga's comments were taken to their logical conclusions, I would be sent to a mental institution, or worse, I would be burned at the stake.

  14. Thunder and lightning should absolutely be associated with God, their maker. More importantly, though, we're talking about etymology, and there's a likeness between the words "good" and "God" in various languages.

    I don't know if Dawkins is a brilliant biologist, either. My point was mainly that one can be very knowledgeable in one area, yet ignorant in another. If Plantinga's comments were taken to their logical conclusion, you would be neither committed nor executed. People are only committed to an institution if they are a physical danger to themselves or others.

    I can't imagine what would be criminal about the religious groups you're talking about, and I'd rather not ask.

  15. My point is that no matter how many thousands of years people have been believing something does in no way mean it is true. What's important is whether there are good arguments for a certain belief. And of course you believe there are and I don't., and your are entitled to your belief, but please use relevant arguments.
    If, despite the fact that scientific etymology says there is no etymological connection between "good" and "God" you choose to believe the similarities are too obvious to be a coincidence, then, as far as I am concerned, you can claim that God's providence in some mysterious way made that so, but please, do not abuse the efforts of countless liguists for theological reasons. Just face the fact that in some cases, what your theology professors have told you is simply wrong.

    And are you really so confident that some religious fanatics won't take Plantinga (et al.) 's comments seriously and decide that atheists are a physical danger to society? Even the Pope considers atheism one of the greatest dangers of our times. So, forgive me, but when I hear those fundamentalist's comments, I do not feel too comfortable at all.

    And what exactly gives religious groups the right to impose their beliefs on the state and on people who have different beliefs?

    And if you truly cannot imagine what would be criminal about those religious groups, then I suggest you just take a look at the world and leave your religious prejudice behind just for a brief moment.

    Just this: do you really think that whatever some athiest says about certain religious groups, no matter how insulting or condesceding is in any way a match to threatening people with eternal torture? Are you really OK with this reign of terror?

  16. Notice I never claimed that something is true just because it's been believed for thousands of years. What I said was that the use of certain terms have correlations with one another and that these terms have been agreed upon for thousands of years. Definitions are distinct from arguments, so I'm in no way abusing linguistics.

    I'm sure there are some fanatics who will find a way to twist anything. Heck, Mark David Chapman used The Catcher in the Rye as justification for murdering John Lennon. That doesn't mean we should blame J.D. Salinger.

    I don't believe religious groups have the right to impose their beliefs on the state. I fully believe in religious freedom. Your comments are beginning to come out of left field. Finally, I think you have the wrong idea about hell. This is understandable and unfortunately very common. Now, how in the world did we start talking about all this other stuff?

  17. Maybe an analogy would help. What would you say about someone who knows that not providing a child with a vaccine puts the child at risk of various diseases, and then chooses not to vaccinate the child? Wouldn't this be wrong? Now, wouldn't it be much worse for someone who knows about hell to not warn people about the mental anguish of being separated from God, the locus of all good things, for eternity?

  18. Not providing a child with a vaccine is wrong. I am sure you are aware, though, that there are religious groups who, for religious reasons, do just that.
    And the analogy does not work. We know vaccines work, so comparing those to imaginary places like hell is simply irrelevant.
    Do you have any sort of idea what kind of mental anguish the irrational fear of hell has caused (and unfortunately is still causing)?
    That's the point Dawkins was making and I fully agree with him on this.

    As for "the wrong idea about hell" , my idea about hell is that it does not exist. Even if God existed, hell would be impossible. What I am talking about is not the way some Catholics describe hell (as some sort of "self-chosen state of separation from God") but the way hell is still described in other Christian circles ( including Catholics, I might add) as a place of eternal torture. That may be a wrong idea, but it is very common among Christians. With all sorts of unfortunate results.

    But anyway, I am glad that you agree that if e.g. the state decides to legalize same-sex marriage, the Catholic Church should not impose upon the state the belief that this is wrong.

    And for your information:I do belong to the "left field" and I am proud of it.
    In Europe, "left" does not have the diabolic connotations it seems to have in the US.

  19. Now we're talking about same-sex marriage? Haha I'm sure you're aware that there are secular arguments against it, and restrictions on marriage in general don't require religious tenets.

    When you say the analogy doesn't work because hell doesn't exist, that's a textbook case of question-begging. In any case, we're not debating the existence of hell. The fact that some religious groups won't allow vaccines is just as wrong as secularists who wish to impose state atheism.

    You've basically described my view of hell as a "self-chosen state of separation from God." I don't see any need to go further into this. There's a reason Dawkins decided to back away from his statements, and it's for the reason you gave - namely, that he overgeneralized.

    Finally, you're liberal. Okay, but these terms often mean different things in Europe than they do in the U.S. A conservative in Europe would probably be considered a moderate in the U.S., and it's for economical, and not social, reasons.

  20. Doug

    I am sure you are aware that there are secular arguments against just about everything. Anyway, what I was referring to was imposing the religious belief that this is wrong upon a state that decides to lift a certain kind of restrictions on marriage.
    And I am not claiming that the analogy does not work because hell does not exist but because, whereas there is conclsuive evindence that vaccines work, there is no conclsuive evidence for the existence of hell, not even if theism isn't true. And what argument do you actually have against people who believe that vaccines get you into hell. That those people happen to believe in the wrong type of God?

    And I do not know whether your view of hell is " a self-chosen state of separation from God", I know that this view is popular among present-day Catholics, but I do not knwo what exactly your view is.

    And I know Dawkins decided to back away from his statements, but my question is: did Plantinga do the same thing? Not that I am aware of, but if he didn't, that would make Daxwkins much more opne- minded than Plantinga, wouldn't it?

    And, in European terms, I am a social-democrat, not a liberal, but I know these terms have different meanings in the U.S.

    But anyway, If you are serious about trying to find common ground between atheists and theist, why don't we all just try to pursue the good? In that case, the difference between atheism and theism isn't all that relevant anymore, at least not in this context.


  21. My view of hell is that it is a willing separation from the love of God, and not a place God forces people into to be tortured by fire and brimstone. I do believe we have good arguments for the existence of hell, but this is neither the time nor the place to raise them. As for Plantinga, we've already gone over this. Plantinga's comments, if taken to their logical conclusions, would not result in anyone being locked away. Dawkins's comments, on the other hand, certainly do have those implications.

    I am serious about finding common ground between theists and atheists, and I'm glad you and I can agree that a lot of things are good and others bad. However, you have to understand that I don't believe atheism is a good thing. Atheists can do good things, but it is in spite of their atheism, and not because of it.

  22. Indeed, when an 'atheist' (*) behaves morally, it is always in spite of his professed atheism -- his behavior is inconsistent with his assertion about the fundamental nature of reality. At the same time, when an 'atheist' expects (**) moral behavior from others toward himself, he is being not merely inconsistent, but hypocritical.

    (*) the quote marks around the word are because there are passing few actual atheists in this world ... thank God.

    (**) I don't mean 'expects' in a passive sense of "just takes for granted", but in a more active sense of "demands".

  23. Doug

    I know what your view on hell is, and I am not arguing that this view of hell causes mental anguish. So, don't be afraid, if ever I became the world leader, I would not send you to prison.
    And for your information: I do believe that theism can be a good thing, especially for people who lack the ability to do good for its onw sake and as a consequence need an incentive in the form of a reward or a punishment. Don't get me wrong: I am not saying you are one of them, but as an atheist, at least that kind of utter selfishness isn't a motive for being good. That does not mean, of course, that atheists cannot have selfish reasons.


    Even if it were true that an atheist can only behave morally in spite of his atheism (and that is demonstrably false), claiming that his behaviour is inconsistent with his atheism is not only one of the worst non-sequiturs I have ever read, but it is also a very dangerous thing to say. I sincerelly hope you are not one of the scaringly large percentage of theists who think that if they ever discovered that there was no God, would go around raping and murdering. That attitude only shows how basically amoral a lot of theists actually are.

    And FYI, yes I actively demand moral behaviour towards me and toward everybody else, from you and from other people and, although you seerm to deny me the right to do so, I expect you to demand the same of me.