Debate: The Source of Human Morality (Opening Statement)

A debate between Fr. Hans Jacobse of the American Orthodox Institute and Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience held November 16, 2010 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).

Watch the videos of the debate.

I want to thank the Orthodox Christian Fellowship and the Secular Student Alliance of UMBC for their invitation to debate this evening. I am looking forward to a healthy and vigorous debate that is not only academically interesting, but I think is one of the central questions of our age.

We live in what some people call a post-Christian or post-modern society — an assessment I generally agree with, but like most sweeping claims it can mean different things to different people. It’s prudent then that we define our terms.

The question we are discussion this evening is: Can there be morality without God? I argue no, it is not possible. But before giving you my reasons, let me rephrase the question more in line with atheist presuppositions.

Atheism, properly understood, allows for no objective existence for anything non-material, not made of matter. Materialism is the philosophical ground of atheism, a point that anyone familiar with more than the surface character of the atheist argument will recognize as true.

As such, it should be noted that atheism is a relatively recent cultural phenomenon, at least the variety we will speak of this evening and which Mr. Dillahunty, if his website is any indication, confirms. And it is recent phenomenon because philosophical materialism as a cultural movement (some people call it scientific rationalism or naturalism) is relatively recent.

So in the interest of clarifying the question let me ask it this way: Does atheism acknowledge the independent existence of the transcendent, of any being or even principle apart from matter, apart from that which can be quantified using the tools of science? The answer — if the atheist is true to his principles — must be no.

Does this mean that an atheist is inherently immoral? Of course not. There are plenty of moral atheists. It does mean however, that the atheist, despite his embrace of moral principles and sometimes even his passionate defense of them, can draw his morality from nothing deeper than private belief or social convention. No transcend referent; no authority beyond his conviction about why some actions are right over other ones exists. His dependence on philosophical materialism does not allow it.

From the point of view of someone who holds to transcendent causes, who believes as I do that a definition of reality cannot be reduced to matter alone; that matter is not the source of what directs and shapes our ideas of meaning, aesthetics, justice and so forth, the atheist may indeed hold moral view congruent with my own. In fact, he might even be more moral than I am. Nevertheless, the moral value he places on one act over another is necessarily derivate, which is to say drawn from a view about the operations of man and society outside of the atheism in which he operates.

Atheists take umbrage at this statement and I can understand why they do. They get offended when I state that their moral views are derived from the categories and grammar of the Christian moral tradition. If the atheist says for example, that killing is wrong, then he is not drawing from the first principles of his materialist philosophy, but from the precept first delivered in the text of Christian scripture, from the narrative of Moses descending the mountain. And, as the story says, this precept has a transcendent source and origin, derived from something more than the molecules that made up Moses or, if you will, the molecules that make up the text that gives us the story of Moses.

One could argue of course that non-Christian cultures also recognize that killing is wrong and I agree with this point. But the point here is not that Christianity has an exclusive claim on moral truth (it doesn’t), but that even the other religions still recognize what I call a brute fact of human existence: Man cannot live by bread alone. Another way of saying this is that man is more than the molecules that shape his body. These religions, like Christianity, reject the materialist claim that all that exists is matter; that only quantifiable objects are real.

One final point, and one that I don’t think can ever be reconciled with the atheist view is this: I believe that truth is a category of existence – a transcendent category of existence – that exists even apart from my comprehension or understanding of it. I may think that I know what is true, in fact I might even really know what is true — but my belief does not bring that truth into being. In other words, truth exists independent of whether or not I believe it just as light exists independent of my ability to see light. True, if I am blind to light it has no effect on me. I can’t see things. The light however, still exists.

I am not sure how the atheist can assert the existence of any enduring truth. The best he can do I think is assert that truth has a pragmatic character. Truth just happens to be what most people believe is right or wrong. The atheist is correct in asserting that truth has a pragmatic character, but he is also bound to this definition. For the atheist truth, and thus morality, can never escape the confines of this relativism. He remains imprisoned to the shifting winds of the day.

Date posted: December 10, 2010