This past Monday two campus organizations, Christian Faculty Forum & Atheists, Agnostics, and Freethinkers Student Association, collaborated to sponsor a public debate on the question of Morality. The panel was composed of one representative from each group, Mr. Allen for the Christian Faculty Forum and Dr. Estes for the AAFSA, and focused on three questions formulated by the groups (paraphrasing):
1. What is the difference b/w religious morality/secular morality?
2. How is moral law determined?
3. Is there an incentive for morality?
Rather than report a “word-by-word” runthrough of the debate, I wanted to comment on a few points.
Mr. Allen’s approach and arguments were as expected to any redeemed member of the elect (oops, did I really use that word?), founding the Christian’s definition and obligation to morality on the commands of God as shown in the Bible. For if man tries to define morality without the intervention of a higher being who resides outside of our physical and spiritual bounds, what will he use as a measuring stick?
Dr. Estes, on the other hand, had some very interesting, and unconventional, things to say concerning her position as a “nontheist”, although the way she expressed those beliefs ultimately revealed more about her worldview than her actual words. Some main points of Dr. Estes’ arguments were (again, as close to quoting as possible, but may contain some paraphrasing):
1. There are no differences between secular and religious morality insomuch as both are determined from the conscience, plus some “spiritual texts” as in the case of the “theist”.
2. Morality does not have a theoretical basis (in contrast to the law of self-contradiction). The only basis for morality is our conscience. However, our conscience only provides general principles, the specifics of which must be determined through personal reflection.
3. These general principles of morality are: Good Life, Utility or General Happiness, & Categorical Imperative (morally right actions respect the freedoms of others; morally wrong actions disrespect or constrain the freedoms of others).
(However, these general principles are not all-encompassing; additional concepts such as “no other gods before me” may be included by the individual.)
4. The only incentive for morality is the feeling that the right thing should be done “for its own sake”.
Mr. Allen did a fairly competent job pointing out the many fallacies in Dr. Estes’ thinking (yes, this is where I take a side). The main thread running through all his refutations was the lack of evidence or basis for Dr. Estes’ claims. Again and again, Mr. Allen asked Dr. Estes what was the basis for her beliefs. For instance, on what is man supposed to reflect in order to “flesh-out” the moral inclinations he feels on his conscience? Further, how can the conscience even be considered trustworthy? When the nontheist reflects inwardly, he rejects any outside standard, so he is free to determine his own form of morality, his own form of truth.
Dr. Estes admitted several times throughout the evening that man is fallible and is capable of making errors in moral judgement. Dr. Allen then made the great point that if man is fallible, how can we trust our “inward reflections” to determine moral law? When a secularist falls short of his own personal moral code, what is he falling short of but merely his opinion? And if it is merely his opinion, the nontheist can just as easily “re-reflect” so as to redefine the “morality” of his actions.
Mr. Allen laid out the foundation of the Christian’s moral code. Man is fallible and his conscience, while still a provider of guilt, cannot be fully trusted because of the consequences of the Fall (he also mentioned the possibility of “searing one’s conscience”). Therefore, morality must originate from a super-human entity, one that is essentially infallible, inerrant, and omniscient – that is God. There are three ways in which the moral law is revealed to man: as a creation of God, every man is born with an innate sense of right and wrong, God has written the law on our hearts, and God provided the Bible as a guide. Two things that hinder our understanding of morality are our fallen sin nature and man’s limited knowledge and abilities. Mr. Allen brought up the superb examples laid out by Lewis concerning man’s innate sense that there is a moral law higher than himself: Cultures may disagree on how many wives a man can have, but they all agree that no man should have whatever woman he wants whenever he wants; Cultures may disagree on the distribution of goods, but they all agree that no man should take from his neighbor whatever he wants whenever he wants. Mr. Allen also added the example that no sane man would allow for the “moral conviction” that torturing babiesis fun, etc.
The closing statements were amazingly telling (as direct quotes as possible):
Dr. Estes: I keep hearing the question “on what do I base my beliefs?”. I don’t understand the question, bcause a belief is by definition unbased (emphasis added). The source of our conscience is a mystery, so, therefore, must be the source of our belief – which in turn is the basis for our knowledge. I know my beliefs are baseless, because I say all beliefs are baseless. It doesn’t matter who first articulated moral laws (God, Aristotle, Plato, etc.), but rather we make serious reflection by our fallible consciences in order to determine what we should do. We are “reflective people of conscience”.
Mr. Allen: The moral code is noble. It comes from a higher being, and that is comforting and directing. It gives us an expectation of our fellow man’s behaviour. It provides a hope (and might I add the beginning of the path to realizing one’s need for a redeemer, since our keeping of the moral law is a horrible failure). The secularist’s arguments are all sound without substance.
(Author’s note: For those of you in Rio Linda, do you realize what Dr. Estes is claiming? It is the fallacy of Circular Reasoning:
1. We can only discover the moral law by personal reflection.
2. But man, and therefore his personal reflections, are flawed and can make mistakes in moral judgement.
3. Therefore, we should conduct personal reflection in order to correctly decipher the moral law.
What is your take of this rather hurried summary?)