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Simon Holloway

Sorry, but I think you've jumped the gun a bit on this one. I can't imagine any atheist denying the possibility of there being a god (or gods, etc); the issue centres entirely around whether or not this god involves itself with creation, responds to prayer, guides human history, or any of the other tasks attributed to the author in the sky. It's atheism, after all, not adeism.


Hi Simon,

That's kind of you to push back a bit.

First of all, it's not a question of *ruling out.* There aren't any atheists who deny the possibility of differentiated final destinations for individuals based on ethical criteria, heaven and hell or whatnot, either. But that doesn't mean they like such ideas - though Ivan Karamazov liked the idea of hell, which seems only reasonable.

It's a question of claiming the likelihood that there is a God. Here we have a Kos-ite convinced of and delighting in the idea of intelligent creation with the joy of an 11 year old girl.

It's hard not to think of Proverbs 8 and "let the little children come to me, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven."

If this is atheism, it is not vanilla-flavored atheism.

The Kos-ite also more than hints at the idea of that we are created in the image of this creator girl. That turns Feuerbach's thesis on its head. Not a minor detail.

At this point, as a theist, the glass looks half full to me, but you rightly point out that it is half empty.

A further note. I don't think there is any way to get to a God that is numinous unless one embraces that quirk of evolutionary development evolutionary psychologists refer to as "God-proneness." Is this a bug or a feature? For Stephen Pinker, it's a bug, an example of hypertrophy. For a theist like me, it's a feature, an app. Yeah, I know the app mostly gets misused. I've noticed that about most features we have: they tend to get misused. To reuse and generalize a great coin of an American comedian: we are all app-holes. How did Jeremiah put it: our righteousness is like a filthy rag. Prayer and the providence we attribute to God included.

A further note. To the same extent that it is logical and intuitive to posit a creator, it is logical and intuitive to posit a principle of justice.

Kant thought so, and contrary to what you were taught perhaps, Kant was a theist, not a deist or a crypto-atheist. Without a principle of justice to which you can appeal in inter-subjective discourse, very counter-intuitively you are left without any grounds to posit counter-factual truths.

Kant's "moral" argument for the existence of God is circular like all such proofs are, including the argument from design, but is compelling nonetheless.

Almost all atheists I know are not Benthamites, which makes them, unless there is a tertium quid I'm unaware of, Kantian theists unawares. In particular, Kos-ites, who are moralists through and through, are theists Kant would be proud of (well that may be going a bit far). They just don't know it.

Kos-ites are also surreptitious believers in the teleological argument. Maybe you are, too, Simon. If not, whence the hope? Whence the good humor? Seriously now.

If I'm right, the Kos-ites are tritheists. God #1 is the Alpha of all that is. God #2 is the principle of justice. God #3 is the Omega of all that is. In the first instance, it's not of matter of knowing that these Gods exist. It's a matter of knowing that they should.

If only Kos-ites learned to recite the Shema, they would have a triune God that is not as robust as the biblical God, but getting there.

With Ramban, I would say the glass is about two thirds full. If Rambam is followed, still fuller.


Hi John,

I think your phrase, " If this is atheism, it is not vanilla-flavored atheism" is a fair summary. What is touted as "atheism" today in popular media only offers superficial critiques of theism and is simply silent on providing alternative answers to the great existential questions that the great faiths of today so often specialize in.

It is an interesting twist by the author to argue from the anthropic principle to chaotic inflation that there is indeed a designer and still maintains the very humanistic view that we mere mortals can somehow improve this universe. On top of this, the author recommends that the best way his readers can learn how to do this is via literature [!], science fiction at that.

In the end, I'm going to have to agree with Simon that this is a far cry from theism. It reminds me more of the deism of the likes of Voltaire or Spinoza (men who were real iconoclasts because publishing their ideas had very real and very dangerous consequences). To equate the Designer as a child with a toy and the universe as some innocent playground seems far removed from thinkers like Origen, Aquinas, Luther, Leibniz, C.S. Lewis, Barth, Tillich and Pannenberg.

I think your excitement and optimistic understanding of this article is a result of finally seeing some color and thoughtfulness in an arena that is often dominated by bland platitudes and black n' white cliches concerning the nature of faith and God. I can only imagine that as a member of the clergy, you relate so much more to someone who not only entertains the idea of a designer, but does so in a unique way that ends up contributing and adding dimensions to your faith. I can't see how the typical scientism of today has anything to offer you, what can be gained from someone who arrogantly dismisses your deeply held beliefs as mere superstitions?

I'll cease with the armchair psychologizing of you John, but I would like to add that it was Kant who ended up ruining theism for me. His ideas about the categorical imperetitive was much like an acid that dissolved the Gospels (like Matt. 5-6 and Luke 12), ate through the wisdom of Jewish sages (Pirkei Avos), and even changed the way I look at thinkers like Spinoza and Nietzsche.



Great conversation. But I think that your take on this is somehow narrow-minded. I'm not going to deny that the Kos-ite in question is full of playfulness of a kind that is sometimes thought to be absent from Jewish and Christian tradition. But I don't see this. I have no trouble bringing to mind passages from Luther, C. S. Lewis, and Barth that are just as existential and playful as the author I cite is.

I cannot, on the other hand, think of deist passages in Voltaire and Spinoza that breathe the same joy. Einstein would have provided a better analogy.

I associate deism with dourness, and theism with joy. That's an oversimplification, because Kant is very dour. That's because his God is too small. Nonetheless, I've always imagined him going to church every Sunday and hearing Matt 5-6 and Luke 12 and interpreting them as illustrations of his categorical imperative.

You seem to think of the matter as either/or. It would be nice to clear this up in terms of Kant's biography: I'm not well enough read to know. I only know that I have not found it difficult, nor have many other Christians, to read the categorical imperative in the light of the passages you cite and not just the other way around.

I'm happy to be psychologized by you. I really am. I *am* excited and optimistic about the Kos-ite's theism because it is joyful and it's easy to move from joy to wonder and belief because they are contiguous. So it's an *open* conversation.

So, if you don't mind if I psychologize you for a moment, why not read Kant and even the Kos-ite as opening up and adding dimensions to your take on the world and just possibly, its Creator?

Why are you reading Kant in the direction of subtraction rather than addition? I don't get it.

G. Kyle Essary

Could you flesh out why you think the categorical imperative serve as acid to those teachings? I'm not understanding why this would have to be the case.


Hello John!

Guilty as charged, for being narrow minded. I'm am still splashing around in the shallow end of these very deep waters.

I would not dispute that play and seriousness do not preclude each other, but I think there is a sharp contrast between the Kos-ite's thought experiments versus the serious nature of theology.

Theology matters and more often then not in it's presentations, it often dictates where a person is going in the hereafter. Barth himself opposed universalism [1] and Luther did advise Christian prisoners of war to Turkish Muslims that [2], "You are robbing and stealing your body from your master, your body that he has bought or acquired in some other way, so that it be no longer yours..." I can't help but think Luther was influenced heavily from his Pauline studies in crafting that counsel. I also do not read much playfulness in the later(1543) Luther's "On the Jews and their lies." I am not putting Luther on trial here, nor am I seeking some sort of condemnation of him. He was a man of his times like us all and I just wanted to highlight the very serious nature of theology. Playfulness seems permitted as long as it does not become heresy and I cannot imagine that Luther would see the Kos-ite as anything but demonic.

What Kant did for me was open doors when it came to questions about moral philosophy and religion. He did not see prudence as virtue like Aristotle (or Thomas Aquinas or Blaise Pascal for that matter) and I feel that he was spot on, what kind of virtue can be ascribed to charity if one does it on the pretense that they are going to be rewarded for it? In light of this, what is one to make of Christ's words in Saint Matthew 6:1 "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven" or in verse 6, "But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." [4]

I'm not sure what Kant thought about those passages. I know that he self identified as a Christian his entire life, but his Christianity was rather atypical and I'm sure he did not meet any standards of orthodoxy.

Where you and I seem to part ways is in the implications of accepting the Kos-ite's arguments. If I agree that there is a Creator, it is not a slippery slope into Theism. In fact, I think most of the hard work is getting from A:There is a creator to B: The Creator is accurately described by Theism.

To me, philosophy is just another method of inquiry, one thats dedicated to asking the right questions, just like science is about making the right observation and math/logic is about making the right deductions. When I engage in philosophy of religion, I try to ask the right questions and see what happens. So if I find Substitutionary Theory is a bad answer for the question about why Christ died, the rejection of PST isn't subtracted, but merely is the spawning point for more ideas, much like how death and life are intertwined.

1- My understanding of his work on the Epistle to the Romans

2- I plucked this from Ernst Troeltsch's Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen


4- RSV translation


Hello Kyle,

To be specific, I am referring to this:
"The practical imperative will therefore be the following: Act in such a way that you treat
humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same
time as an end and never simply as a means.” Grounding of Metaphysical Morals:36

When Christ instructs us to do action X because you'll receive reward Y, he seems to be forever tainting the motivation a Christian has for helping humanity. Treasures in heaven that neither moth nor rust corrupt.

A specific example from the Jewish Sages would take me a bit more time to dig up, but I'm sure I could find something from Midrash, Saadia Gaon or RAMBAM.



So we agree more than was evident at first blush. The best theology embodies within itself the entire range of emotional responses that are connatural to the human condition.

I still think you need to cut the Kos-ite some slack. Perhaps you’re right that Luther would have seen nothing to like about the Kos-ite’s thoughts. I don’t see how that excuses you. Especially since you have also read C. S. Lewis and I assume G. K. Chesterton, both of whom would have found pleasure, as I do, in stating the extent to which Kos-ite mythology conveys significant truths. I am in great company in my take on Kos-ite theology. Surely you will concede as much.

You bring up the wonderful topic of hate. It is easy to find examples of how believers and unbelievers have gotten hate wrong. You would think that would be cause to work hard at getting hate right, rather than pretending one can do without it. Have you read Meir Soloveichik’s “The Virtue of Hate?”

Based on a misappropriation and mis-extension of Jesus’ own words, it has become politically correct to reject other people’s hates out of hand by stigmatizing hate as such, and pretending not to have hates of one’s own.

That is possible to do if and only if one is unaware of the ways in which ethics (the good, the bad) and aesthetics (the beautiful, the ugly) depend on another. The flip side of an ethics of empathy is giocoforza an ethics of disgust. Tell me what you hate, and you have told me about your deepest ethical concerns.

I am confused by your critique of a quid pro quo understanding of virtue. What grounds does an atheist have for an understanding of virtue that is not strictly utilitarian?

Traditional Jewish and Christian ethics are a complex web of quid pro quo and non quid pro quo justifications for practicing virtue. The productive contradiction if you wish is laid out in Daniel 3:16-18, a favorite passage of African-American kerygmatic preaching.

I would think that the "even if" is a great strength of theistic ethics. It provides an interpretation and justification of vicarious suffering without which family life and the life of society could not survive a day (a truth brought out with brutal clarity in Chaim Potok’s novel, My Name is Asher Lev).

Theistic ethics from one point of view are simply a systematization of baseline human understandings of right and wrong. Theistic ethics interpret human philanthropy. The atheist approach on the other hand is self-limiting in the extreme. For more on this, see this post:

This is true of atonement doctrine as well. Deliverance, expiation, vicarious punishment and vicarious suffering: these are central categories of human experience. To suggest that Jesus did not live them out fully is a form of docetism.

I'm wondering if you are not so much an atheist as a Marcionite. I don't mean that as a slur. Marcionitism was and remains Judaism and Christianity's most formidable opponent. Atheism not so much.

I see you playing off one piece of the Jewish and Christian ethical puzzle against another. I’m fine with this. It is a helpful and salutary exercise. You might try the same game with ethics under an empty sky, what you must pursue as an atheist.

No cheating, BTW, by bringing in the categorical imperative. Kant was a theist and knew he had to be one for the imperative to have a justification.

Under an empty sky, without a sky which is “over against,” how do you ground ethics in the first place?

Steve Pable

Hm-- an entertaining read, to be sure. I don't know if I'm that optismistic about the audience's readiness to hear the Gospel.

If there is a creator god in that way of thinking, the Kos-ite has little use for it, unless he or she gets to be one, too. And that becomes the purpose or meaning of life: "How can I get one of those kits for my birthday?"

You mention in the other post the "vacuousness" of the liberal Christian worldview. In some ways, I think this Kos-ite culture is at least trying to find something to fill the void. And the atheist worldview, at least as popularly articulated, seems just as bleak and pointless. So they seem to be seeking something more substantial than that, and perhaps that is at least cause for optimism.

And that's what I don't *get* about atheism in general, if followed to its logical conclusion. Nothing really matters, in the grand scheme of things. It was a weird juxtaposition for me to skim through two active posts on "Mother Jones", one regarding the question of an afterlife, and the other having to do with overpopulation.
If there is no transcendence, no purpose, what does it really matter if our species or our planet survives? It's all much ado about nothing.

There is an inconsistency it seems, in, say, a self-described atheist environmentalist, that I just can't fathom. Maybe it is the "cultural Christianity" that you reference from Dawkins. I'm not familiar with that acknowledgement. Perhaps I need to be in more dialogue with sincere and well-meaning atheists. And to live my own Christian call with more integrity and passion.


Hi Steve,

Here is the Dawkins quote:

"Prof Dawkins, who has frequently spoken out against creationism and religious fundamentalism, replied: "I'm not one of those who wants to stop Christian traditions.

This is historically a Christian country. I'm a cultural Christian in the same way many of my friends call themselves cultural Jews or cultural Muslims."

For more context, go here:

Few atheists are as candid and self-aware as Dawkins is on this score. Nor does Dawkins acknowledge the entire extent to which his approach to life, ethically and culturally, is parasitic on the Christian one.

Ethically, atheism is chameleon-like of necessity, since it does not have within itself principles on which to found an ethics.

Thus atheism is taking on a libertarian flavor more and more. Put another way, it is becoming less and less culturally Christian.

G. Kyle Essary

A libertarian atheism is impossible in theory, but a reality today. I just started Wolterstorff's Justice. Have you read it yet?



No, I haven't got to it. W's older "Reason within the Bounds of Religion" is an absolute classic, and relevant to this thread.

Perhaps atheism should not be construed as an alternative to theism, but merely as a selective via negativa, a correction around the edges.

Atheists unless they belong to a philosophical "denomination" tend to go silent when you ask them to ground their moral, aesthetic, and political judgments. It's as if they fall from heaven, which is ironic. "Progressive Christians" also seem to just know that their private judgments in these areas are correct.

Nietzsche understood the full extent of the task of constructing an alternative to theism. Attempts to translate N into practice leaves room for doubt however.



I'd like to begin with stating clearly that I do not have a neatly laid out meta-ethical schema. The best I could offer you are vague notions and ad hoc explanations at this point. On normative ethics, I've since abandoned deontological systems such as Kant's in favor of modern forms of altruistic consequentialism. Think Utilitarianism but instead of using some form of calculus to quantify how much good is done in units, a system thats based on a social contract and altruism.

I also don't believe that appeals to a theism based ethics provides much clearer alternative. Theistic philosopher Wes Morriston reformulated Plato's classic Euthyphro dilemma into something like this:

1. Either God is good because God has the properties that constitute moral goodness, or the properties are good because God has them.

2. If God is good because God has the properties that constitute moral goodness, then the moral properties are the standard of goodness -- not God.

3. If the properties are good because God has them, then the view in question is mysterious and unparsimonious -- and thus not an explanatory advance over the view that morality is grounded in property structures.

4. Therefore, either moral properties are the standard of goodness (and not God), or the view in question is mysterious and unparsimonious (and thus not a real advance over the view that morality is grounded in property structures).

So, in light of this dilemma, how do you ground ethics? I hope you don't rely on, " God says stealing is wrong, so that makes it wrong." Divine Command Theory leaves the theist as subjective as the moral relativists they so often despise. A good example would be found in Ezekiel chapter 20, when God gives the wayward Israelites bad/harmful statues as a method of punishment. What happens to those Israelites who reject God's laws because they are able to perceive the negative nature of them? Are they to be praised for being perceptive or are they to be condemned because they are disobeying God's direct commands? The sacrifice of well being found in Leviticus 3 was once a positive and joyous mitzvah in ancient Israel, but has now either lapsed or been superceded, once being a God given law of the land given to Moses at Sinai/Horeb is nothing more than a commonly skipped chapter, being subjected to creative literary devices such as metaphor and typology in attempt of eisegesis to make the text relevant to modern generations.

I just don't see how the theist has the upper hand when it comes to morality. You and I both agree that rape is objectively wrong. If pressed to give an account as to why exactly, my answer would boil down to, "It is wrong to force your affections on others, it takes away their agency and creates lasting psychological trauma." What other alternatives does the theist have? Stating that rape is objectively wrong because God will punish you brings us back to prudence. The best answer I can think of is, "God forbids rape because it unnecessary harms another person." So the theist and I are on the same page, rape is objectively wrong because it brings about unnecessary harm to another human being. Where did this objective value come from? The strength of the Euthyphro dilemma leaves the theist with the same options as the atheist.

Being a naturalist (and by default, atheist) does not tether one to a strict form of physicalism. Moderate and liberal forms of naturalism can include abstract ideas like counterfactuals and platonic forms. Perhaps Kant's tedious list of objective duties are some objective truth that's able to be deduced a priori like pure mathematics? I don't think thats cheating.

My criticism of Christian and Jewish quid pro-quo ethics is based on the observation that, if true, would rob the intrinsic value of the billions of acts of kindness that Jews and Christians have perpetuated throughout the centuries. I would like to give these unknown persons the benefit of the doubt that they were serving their fellow human beings out of a duty to certain objective moral facts, such as they are bound to help lessen the suffering of fellow children of God and not for the self serving and prudential desires to gain blessings and rewards from God. Indeed, the sermon on the mount/plain reminds me more of Sociobiology than anything else. I just don't see the son of the living God preaching a divine insurance policy to appeal to the base nature of his human creations.

When you say, "Theistic ethics from one point of view are simply a systematization of baseline human understandings of right and wrong." I can only agree. This is exactly what secular ethical theories try to do. This inspires hope in me, because it allows the atheist and theist enough common ground to collaborate on how society should conduct itself.



(Part 2)

I'm curious as to how I strike you are a Marcionite. My limited understanding of them is that they reject the Hebrew Canon but accept the Greek scriptures.

I'm also curious as to what kind of slack you wish me to cut the Kos-ite. I understand you are in some great company when it comes to your enthusiasm for the Kos-ite's beliefs, but it's a very modern company you keep. It's also rooted in ideas about tolerance that are secular in nature.

The existential topics of the human experience are of a greater interest to me than the abstract arguments about objective moral facts, ontology, and teleology. I don't want to diminish the importance of such ventures, but anyone who has spent hours and hours of doing logic homework quickly loses patience with it. Logic quickly becomes a game with statements and logical validity can easily be obtained (sound arguments are something else).

Perhaps I sound overly dismissive of the points the Kos-ite makes is because I am just as frustrated with the Kos-ite's laziness as I am with Richard Dawkin's terrible critiques of intelligent design found in The God Delusion. I think many Christians would be just as frustrated with an atheist who read Rick Warren's 'Purpose Driven Life', Lee Strobel's 'A Case for Faith' and Josh McDowell's 'Evidence That Demands a Verdict' and decided that Christianity was simply untenable.

For examples of rigorous critiques of the ideas mentioned by the kos-ite, I would offer up a paper by Philosopher and Hans Reichenbach Professor and William F. Vilas Research Professor at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Elliot Sober:

A top notch treatment of the logical validity and soundness of cosmological, ontological, teleological, and fine tuning arguments can be found in the book by late logician Jordan Sobel ' Logic and Theism' Here is a review:

But I still contend that Christianity's weakness does not come defeating these abstract arguments or presenting their atheological counterparts. Rather, it is the Christian explanation of the human experience that fails.



I appreciate your willingness to carry the conversation forward. Thanks to your latest comments, I am beginning to understand your position better. In essence, if I understand you, you can't think of compelling reasons for being a theist, but you don't claim to have a compelling alternative worked out either.

Confirmation of this seems to lie in the fact that I asked you, "How do you ground your ethics?" - and you chose to throw the question back in my direction rather than attempt to answer it yourself.

It seems that you have not yet found grounds for your ethics. Furthermore, you are willing to let your ethics be defined in terms of a social contract and altruism.

My first question to someone whose ethics have this kind of basis is: and on what grounds would you have opposed the Nazi regime if you lived in Germany at the time?

I don't think you could have. The social contract was clear as crystal. Historically speaking, furthermore, those who did oppose the regime did so based on a commitment to a very strong counter-narrative, such as, a robust confessional Christianity (Bonhoeffer, Barth, and others of die bekennende Kirche) or Marxism.

BTW, a theologian of the same school as Barth - Gogarten - emphasized in his ethical reduction of the Kingdom the same things, inter alia, that you do: social contract and altruism. He became a Nazi sympathizer.

I hasten to add that I do not believe for a moment that you, Patrick, have any Nazi sympathies. I am merely engaging in a historical analogy the likes of which has no probative value. Still.

I thought that you might be a sort of Marcionite because you seem to have strong negative reactions to particular traditional doctrines but not to others.

When non-theists expatiate along these lines, it makes me wonder what the real issues are for them.

Marcion's objections to the God of the Bible were moral in character. I thought for a moment yours are, too. I still wonder. BTW, if it were the case that your objections are precisely of that kind, I would consider you a comrade-in-arms though of another tribe.

The book of Job, along with the protest psalms in the Psalter and elsewhere in Scripture, are like a red thread for me. That red thread is a theodicy-free zone that nonetheless holds on to God in the face of perspective-conditioned overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There I stand.

Which brings us to Euthyphro's dilemma. Marcion thought he knew what properties constitute moral goodness. He identified God with them, noted that the God of the Bible was not like that, and therefore demoted said god, except that he liked certain things in Paul as he understood them, and held on to those.

If you hold that the formulation of the dilemma covers all the bases, don't you have to conclude that Marcion was rather dense to have believed in God though he (1) defined God according to his understanding of moral goodness which nonetheless is at odds with (2) the notion of morality grounded in property structures?

I think the dilemma ignores a number of extant modes of grounding an ethics.

I understand why philosophers like this dilemma but I am, long before I am an analytical philosophy, a historian of religion and philosophy. So I take the dilemma to be a false one. It only gets worse if you ask yourself, and how does Buddhism found its ethics? Or perhaps you wish to claim that everyone out there is incoherent except for the one who poses this particular dilemma.

Color me skeptical.

BTW, I will leave to one side your attempt to follow the logic of Ezek 20. I often see analytically trained philosophers reading theopolitical rhetoric insensitively, which is what I think you are doing here. You press the text for logic in the same way that you would press a peer-reviewed article in analytical philosophy for logic. That's not right. A text like Ezek 20 is close to poetry to the extent that its discourse is full of gaps and leaps in logic. It would take a great deal of work to try to reconstruct its logic according to the conventions of an analytical philosopher.

I'll take a shot at answering the question I asked you but you chose not to answer, "How do you ground your ethics?" in an upcoming comment. This is fun, Patrick. If you think I'm not doing you comments justice, just say so. I am, of necessity, hacking a path through rather dense underbrush.


Also, I'm going to leave Kos-ite mythology (I'm using the word "mythology" in Bruce Lincoln's sense: ideology in narrative form) behind. I still cotton to it within limits, but I don't have energy enough to defend it *and* my own point of view in a court of law before a jury of analytical philosophers, which, it seems, you are asking me to do.

Regardless, I'm looking forward to turning the tables on my erstwhile judge, jury, and prosecuting attorney. Nothing like a little courtroom drama.

Steve Pable

I was going to append some of my own comments to John's here, something about the dilemma along the lines of: "The difficulty in the premises as stated is that the Christian professes not that God 'has' those qualities, but that God IS those perfect moral qualities."

But then all I could think about was this classic tidbit from an old Sylvester cartoon, featuring Spike and Chester:

"How about beatin' up an atheist? Would you like that, Spike, huh? Would you like that? Spike?"

(not saying this is about beating anyone up-- I just find that clip hilarious, and that's about how I see my intellect in relation to the heavyweights who slug it out on these conversations. Honestly, I'm looking forward to reading the dialogue, and I thank you both for letting me take a ringside seat. Or a seat in the gallery, if you prefer John's image.)

Levity aside, I do have a hard time conceiving of an atheist ethic that is not either subjective, utilitarian, or founded (with no credit given) upon a Christian worldview. One of the few authors I've read peripherally on this topic, Mark Shea, refers to it as trying to arrive at a Transcendent Ought from a Materialist Is. But I don't know if that's his original phrase.



Here goes. You are free to reply, "something is rotten in Denmark," but at least by me saying that you already know exactly where I am going.

I plead mercy before my judge, jury, and executioner.

Faced with the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma, I grab them both knowing well that I will spike both hands on the sharp points. My hands are bloody, but I won't let go.

I hold to the view that whether God is good or not is a confession of faith (when the answer is yes) or a protest of faith (when the answer is no). If that is the case, the E-dilemma is not a well-formed yes/no question. A person of faith can and will address God and implore God on the assumption that, as guarantor of justice and fountainhead of compassion, God will not abandon him, but, in another situation, will address God with the words, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"

That is the rock and a hard place between which a theist lives.

My hands are spiked on the horns of the dilemma. Finish me off. I plead guilty. Kill me now rather than require me to pretend that the existential quandaries I am familiar with as a God-believing human being can be resolved by choosing between the horns of the posed dilemma.

But I have a question: on what grounds of epistemological and moral certainty, O judge, jury, and executioner, do you pose the E-dilemma and require people to choose?

I hold to both horns of the dilemma.

(1) I believe that God is good because God has the properties that constitute moral goodness; indeed, I believe that God is goodness, and when the facts before me contradict that, I am in God's face with the expectation of an existential or eschatological resolution, not a logical resolution.

(2) At the same time, I hold that whether God appears to be good or not in a particular moment and from a particular perspective, what God tells me is good, is good indeed.

(1) and (2) stand in tension with another. Responsible ethical choices take place within that force field of tension. Sometimes the tension is unbearable, as in Genesis 22, where God puts Abraham to the test. Altruism can and does put people before unbearable choices, in which they sacrifice one thing, however precious, for the sake of keeping another thing, more precious still.

Furthermore, belief in God’s goodness is not always distinguishable from hope, protest, or a combination thereof. Thus Paul, faced with the thorn in his flesh - epilepsy which caused him to have uncontrollable seizures? How embarrassing that the physician could not heal himself - comes to the conclusion, without letting go of either hope or protest, that God's strength would be perfected in that weakness.

A-theistic ethics, on the other hand, is difficult to distinguish from a form of therapy. It dispenses medicine, anything from aspirin to morphine, with the view to minimizing pain. It cannot but lead to a chameleon-like style of ethics because, all other things being equal, it takes the path of least resistance. It turns Plato on his head. Plato knew of two dimensions, the phenomenal and noumenal, allowed the latter to stand "over against" the phenomenal, and thus heard commands to be obeyed.

I stand with Plato, even if his version of command theory frightens me more than your immanent ethics. He was surely right in the sense that the state in general is premised on command theory, not just Plato’s Republic. Unless an atheist is also an anarchist (just another form of tyranny anyway), an atheist is also an unconfessed beneficiary of command theory.

I see no evidence for the view that immanentism can put in play a robust counterfactual ethics able to stand up to overwhelming and sometimes invincible evil. It is not up to the struggle. It lacks, to speak scripturally, "the armor of God" (Ephesians 6). The atheist is naked in the world. It is no wonder that atheism is a boutique product.

If I were to explore matters further, it would be along the lines of showing that biblical command ethics, in the prophetic mode, are inherently "weak" and "ineffectual," whereas command ethics in the style of the Republic and all totalitarian systems since, are "strong," "effectual," and also, a form of absolute terror. This is laid out with astonishing clarity by Martin Buber in his famous essay, “Plato and Isaiah.”


Steve, thanks for your remarks. If you like to throw peanuts from the gallery, I like mine roasted and salted.


Hi John,

Thanks for the compelling arguments (and the flair!). You've given me plenty to respond to, but I wanted to deal first and foremost with your Nazi challenge and see if I can satisfy you there on that front.

The question tho, seems on clear:
" My first question to someone whose ethics have this kind of basis is: and on what grounds would you have opposed the Nazi regime if you lived in Germany at the time?"

Do you wish me to flesh out my ethics and show my justifications of them, and explain why they are better then Nazis?


Some loose ends.

(1) You continue, as I see it, to read the Sermon on the Mount and Jewish and Christian ethics in general against the grain. In his ethics of discipleship, Jesus makes a long series of truth claims and a long series of predictions. You seem to argue that if Jesus' predictions are true, for example, that if it is true that a disciple takes up his cross and follows him loses the whole world but gains his soul, that that cheapens somehow what discipleship is about.

I think that's perverse. But more than that, how does your own social contract + altruism ethics escape your line of attack? Please explain.

(2) I'm confident, as you are, that theists and non-theists can develop, within a social contract, a number of ethical envelopes based on one or the other of the horns of the e-dilemma.

Command theory comes in through the back door via appeal to the social contract, and even gets enforced by the police state.

Altruism can be defined, though dumbed down dramatically, from a Christian or Jewish point, by the "self-evident" properties of good.

So we are off and running. I'm particularly pleased that you are willing to allow me to be a theist in the public square. An improvement over Rawls if I remember correctly.

I am a Christian, of course, for the reason you don't see: Christ and the Christian experience, the witness of the Old and New Testament account for things, and more things, better than the alternatives.

Patrick, that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. I feel that you know that, but that there are specific things about the Jewish and Christian take on "the more" that you cannot accept.

If so, let's talk about those. If so, you are not an atheologian so much as a wannabe theologian. You just want a theology that is not stupid, that you can actually assent to, body, mind, and spirit.

BTW, I would love to have coffee or beer with you sometime. Bring a copy of Strobel or McDowell along if you like, and we can have fun punching holes in the argumentation. It is *so* easy. Kierkegaard and Pascal are not so easy to dismiss. Nor is Walter Benjamin, or Terry Eagleton. Just examples at random.



Fine and dandy. As for my question: on what grounds would you have opposed the Nazi regime if you lived in Germany at the time?

I'm hoping for an argument from your corner that will convince me that on the basis of a social contract + altruism ethic, you will have reason enough to put up a fight against a duly elected regime with the consensus of the majority behind it, a regime that has its own strong definition of consensus-based altruism.

It is not clear to me how you can invoke something transcendental to, and over against, the stated grounds of your ethical project. It's sound like another rabbit out a hat. A-theologians are great magicians if you ask me; I'm sure I'm not the first to point that out.

You are familiar with Carl Schmitt, I imagine. So there are lots of subtleties here.

But my question is more existential. If I am one of a crew like that in which Bonhoeffer took part in, and I am committed to doing something illegal to take out a person of extraordinary evil, can I contact you and enlist your support?

I would think you are forced by your own ethical principles to make a cost-benefit analysis and, unless you thought the assassination project had excellent chances of success, you would decline to participate.

I don't see how your style of ethics can launch action on the basis of an "even if" per Daniel 3 which I've already referred to. Another way to put it: the plot of the Lord of the Rings collapses on your ethics.

Just want to know who I can call in a revolutionary situation should the occasion arise.


The material John quoted from Kos included:
Once we’ve established that this universe is most probably an artificial construct,

I know I don't keep up on Nature and Science, but I hadn't even heard through the grapevine that this had been established! If it's meant as a future-hypothetical, then I'd want to ask: What, in principle, might be accepted as satisfactorily establishing such a thing as a least hypothesis? (No, the "coincidental" numbers don't do it. There is only one chance in billions that I would be me instead of someone else, I am.)

Without these being answered, everything afterward is a philosophical exercise. Nothing against philosophical exercise, but they should be clearly labeled, like MSG or tobacco products.


What kind of tobacco? LOL. Puff the Magic Dragon.

Brooke, you raise an interesting point, and I don't know for sure what the Kos-ite had in mind when he talked about numbers that suggest design. I can only describe what I read into it. So, here goes my story, here goes my song.

My physics teacher in high school was a nuclear engineer. He was an atheist but he couldn't help noticing how us kids got all animated in talking about God and faith and science. So he piled into the discussion with a remarkably candid observation.

He prefaced his comments by saying he was an atheist (I think for reasons of personal tragedy, like losing the love of his life in an accident or to sickness; this, BTW, is the reason historians say Darwin lost his faith, or found his faith reduced to a basket case of what it once was).

But then our teacher said he was in awe of the fact that the law of gravity came out to be perfectly symmetrical numerically, no matter how often things were re-measured, with ever more accurate instruments.

[He was referring to this: any particle in the universe attracts any other particle with a force that is proportional to the product of the masses of the two particles and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. It's the *square* that is a whole number, without any fraction, no matter how precisely measured.]

In short he was telling us he found a reason to postulate an Engineer, even if he didn't and couldn't, because he couldn't bear to attribute to that engineer the tragedy he had endured.

Physical reality hangs together beautifully as my physics teacher taught it. He worshiped the "ground" (to use Tillich's term) on which he walked as an engineer. It is not too much to say that he was worshipful about his subject matter, as in Psalm 8. It was the moral underpinnings of the universe that made no sense to him. That was the rub.

Since then I have known many scientists who are entranced by the way the world works, that aspect of the world they study. IMO they worship "the unknown God" behind it all, so much so that they recoil at the thought of associating that God with the God spoken of, say, in the Bible, tribal totem that he is.

One can sense this in some of Einstein's comments. Of course E is all over the place, kind of like our Kos-ite friend, blowing bubbles as it were.

There are plenty of scientists who believe in intelligent design. They just don't believe in Intelligent Design. They think it's a compelling working hypothesis, even though they don't need it to carry on with their research. It just kind of hangs there in the deep background.

Paul Davies is the example I remember reading decades ago. There are many more. A John Polkinghorne book or two is required reading for courses in seminaries like Princeton.


Hi John,

My physics teacher in high school was a nuclear engineer.

You'll know (I hope) that I offer this without intending any offense, but some attention has been paid to the apparent fact that most of the few scientists who believe in ID Creationism (nb: yes, the capitalized form, but with relevance to any lower-case weaker ID) are engineers. It's usually called, "The Salem Hypothesis" (Wikipedia link). Here, an engineer looks at the phenomenon. TFK compares this to a claim that engineers are over-represented among other extremist groups.

I keep meaning to talk this over with my siblings and siblings-in-law who are engineers, but when we see each other at holidays, it's mostly all about the kids.

I should have added in my first comment: I'm totally with you on the kid-with-a-kit choice, out of those offered.



Without wishing to undermine the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (I think it is a compelling teaching), it is nonetheless true that Gen 1:1-3 chooses to begin the story of creation at the point in which God already has a kit to work with, composed of three out of four of the primal elements: earth, wind, and water, with the fourth, light=fire, "worded" into existence. (Though God is a "we" in Gen 1, theogony is left out, too.) Gen 1:1-3 does in fact conceive of creation with a kit. It resembles the big bang theory with its "Let there be light!" - but it is also different again.

Interesting take on engineers. One of my frequent commenters, Looney, is an engineer. Here's hoping he will get right back in your face. Engineers do not always take kindly to such criticism. It's fun to watch. The cognitive integrity of engineers deserves to be called into question now and then. Theologians are under suspicion rather often. Analytical philosophers were definitively deflated by Wittgenstein. Let's spread the suspicion around a bit.

The dean of New College at the University of Toronto when I was a student liked to challenge the engineers by pointing out to them that they were valued most of all, not in a liberal democracy, but in Marxism-Leninism (Lenin who famously said, "electricity is socialism").

I wish I could remember the title. A biologist from the Midwest wrote a very fine book about biology in which, at a certain point, he imagines the Biologist behind it all. She turns out to be a gorgeous red-head who drives a sky-blue sports car. That sounds about right to me, but then, I love to think of the world in terms of the biosphere, alongside of astrophysics, geology, inorganic chemistry, and beyond.


Hello John,

I guess I'll begin with the loose ends first.

I don't think I do a disservice the to the text of Ezekiel 20. I know Ezekiel was a prophet in exile, fighting hard for his people not to simply let go of their national identity in the wake of defeat and dispersion. Trying to some how bring an explanation forward of why the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants appeared to have failed and explaining why past kings had failed to live up to the standards of P and D (except of course Josiah and to a lesser extent Hezekiah).

I don't try to chain the Jew or Christian to a strict literalism of the text in this case, but merely offer it up as a thought experiment. I've heard/read many a time a Christian remark, "God would never tell someone to do something evil!" I offer up Ezekiel 20 as just such an example. It's an ancient's reasoning at work and it doesn't have to contain a historical truth to have value, but surely it contains a theological truth? Wouldn't a P'shat reading clearly indicate that God did indeed give bad laws as a form of punishment?

To the historian, it becomes evident that God's law is as subjective and malleable as any secular law and that the spirit of understanding seems more in tune with socio-economic factors than guidance from on high. Martin Luther could not conceive of a earthly kingdom that did not have slaves but his theological progenies find the practice abhorrent, Mormon Prophets having sudden changes of heart about polygamy and blacks, Evangelicals in the early 1900's were stoutly against inter-racial marriage and thought divorce could only happen in extreme circumstances, now welcome racial diversity and crusade for 'traditional marriage' while ignoring the blatant State sanction of divorce and remarriage with no restrictions, something that Jesus himself actually spoke against. How popular is it today for Americans to claim the constitution was founded on
Judeo-Christian values, but seem oblivious to the fact that in the West, democracy's infancy began in Athens and was only taken up as a cause célèbre by Christians over a thousand years later, when it suited them politically to do so?

I don't want to sound like I'm ranting about the Christian faith. I actually approve of all the changes I mentioned above and I'm glad that the faith can change with the seasons and welcome in new ideas and work it into their belief systems. But the irony is a bit much for this Atheist to bear at times, when the Christian speaks to me about values as if they are some how cemented in time and are unchanging. Modern notions of justice scarcely existed 200 years ago and were unknown 600 years back. Even now John, I can see you reaching for Psalms, ready to flourish a poetic counter example using literary and exegetical methods that would have gotten you banned from the pulpit and run out of a rural Wisconsin hamlet a mere 150 years ago. If there is anyone who can be charged with ethical and moral relativism, it is the modern Christian.

Make no mistake, the Christian position can be one of dignity and Theism is not always an unreasonable position to take, I just feel there are better answers to be had.


To begin with, I will need to revisit Euthyphro's dilemma. I don't present it as a kind of spade and brandish it as a conversation stopper. It is a classic problem, that has survived in the Western tradition because working on it's solution fuels progress in thought. The dilemma is far from false, but tailored to the individual of traditional theism and the various confessional faiths under that umbrella term. You are correct that this dilemma does not apply to the Eastern faiths, nor does it apply to Naturalists either. Of course, similar dilemmas can be posed to those systems with a bit of tinkering. No thought system, religion, philosophy, world view, or what have you is not without it's own sets of dilemmas and paradoxes.

It goes without saying that the presence of a dilemma or paradox is not a reason for one abandon their faith or philosophy. If that was the case, none of us would adhere to anything. To steal a few lines from Tennyson's 'In Memoriam':

There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.

In the spirit of Tennyson, I think you grab hold of Euthyphro's horns in your dramatic fashion and act as if you have been thrown to some viscous beast in a Roman arena. Taking your wounds, you defiantly look to your Roman persecutor and in the spirit of Daniel 3 you ask, "So what?" I half expect you desire me to say, "You now violate the principle of non-contradiction, the argument is invalid and must be discarded."

If you wish to paint me as an aggressive analytic philosopher (whatever that is) cum prosecutor, I would ask that you see me more as a Pharisee than the Roman prosecutor who's employing rhetoric to press the advantage. You are the Disciple picking the grain on the Sabbath and I've come to confront you about it and I do not like the justification you give.

I'd like to quote Mr.Pable because he makes a grand point, "The difficulty in the premises as stated is that the Christian professes not that God 'has' those qualities, but that God IS those perfect moral qualities." This is precisely the kind of idea the dilemma is supposed to question. I don't wish to single out Mr. Pable here, but he is a spectator in the fields outside Jerusalem come to watch a disputation between Disciple and Pharisee and the point he made is very common. In the spirit of Isaiah's God, " Let us reason together."

As the good Pharisee, I'll rely on the legalistic methods of 'analytic' philosophy (a form of Pilpul if you like) and put forward that to say a thing,person, or being has a nature is to say they have a set of properties. These properties are the being in every possible world in which the being exists. In the case of God, his properties are love, justice, anger, forgiveness, etc, etc. For God, these are his properties in every kind of possible world that could exist.

If the Disciple who is my opposite in this discussion seeks to ground his ethics and morality in God, he keeps grounding ethics in the properties themselves. What the Disciple fails to acknowledge is that it is those very properties who are doing the work in moral value theories and not the existence of God himself. One could argue that these properties like justice and love could not exist without God, but that is in effect saying, " God could not exist without God." A better (and less tautological) way of saying that is "God exists by definition." But that brings us to the ontological argument and far away from moral philosophy.

The great Christian philosopher William Alston takes this line of thinking to it's conclusion in his work Divine Nature and Human Language:

"I would invite one who finds it arbitrary to invoke God as the supreme standard of goodness to explain why this is more arbitrary than the invocation of a supreme general principle. "

The late Dr. Alston is right in my humble opinion. If invoking God as a ground for your ethical and moral beliefs is merely arbitrary (and it is) is there some other way to get these principles of goodness that is less arbitrary? That's a tall order for the a-theologian or Philosopher to fill, but that only serves my overall point.

The point of this exercise with Euthyphro's dilemma was to show that the Theist does not have a privileged position when it comes to ethical and moral theories. The fortress they have built on this moral superiority is founded on sand and not granite.


So where does an Atheist morality come from? I can only answer this tentatively because I'm not intimately familiar with all the latest arguments and topics in contemporary meta-ethical theory and probably could not give a substantive response to someone more read in this area of Moral Philosophy.

I am what's called a Moral Realist. I think objective moral facts exist and are apart of our natural universe. I believe this to be true, because in our language we can say things like, "Rape is wrong." This is a moral sentence and it's making a moral judgement. I believe, for this sentence to mean anything, it has to at least have the possibility of being true. The alternatives seem to say that moral language and moral judgements are either meaningless or always false, both are alternatives that seem less plausible and counter intuitive.

Moral facts exist in the same way numbers exist, totally in the abstract but also apart of the universe. And like numbers, we can use rudimentary moral facts to build moral systems in the same way axioms build Euclidean geometry. And just like how there exists non-Euclidean geometry, there can exist any number of moral systems.

Not all moral systems are made equal of course, some are far better than others. One way to judge these systems is based on what goals want to be achieved. One thing we humans have in common with our pre-biotic ancestors is the need to reproduce and flourish. Not only do we want to be able to flourish, we want to exist in the most comfortable way until we are able to pass on our DNA and expire. Quality of life counts for us humans, and the moral axiom, "Rape is a just action." will not contribute much to a stable existence. It may allow for a limited chance to flourish, but it is ultimately limited.

Not all moral facts are arrived at a priori, and moral facts must continue to be affirmed by induction. For example, we can arrive at the moral axiom, "It is always wrong to beat your child as a form of punishment" and it can be strongly confirmed by developmental studies that show children who are abused have a greater risk of being a dysfunctional member of society, which in turn, affects out ability to flourish as a society.

Once moral facts have been established in an ontology, how do we transition from an abstract and intangible concept into a plausible form of government? Since we are fallible creatures who do get things wrong all the time, we'd need a system that's constantly open to revision and can receive input from all quarters, no matter how small. To me, the most plausible method is via a social contract that people choose to live under, that allows for freedom of thought and expression and it constantly open to revision as new knowledge is acquired.

So could I have found plausible grounds to resist the Nazi party? I would think the question would be an obvious and empathetic, "YES!" I can think of numerous examples where the Third Reich grossly violates me own moral system and I would be duty bound to resist it, just as I felt duty bound to participate in OIF/OEF.

You cribbed Shakespeare to make a point against me and I'd like to finish in kind:

To gild refined gold
To paint the lily
To throw perfume on the violet
John, I think you're just being silly.


I'd also like to answer more forcefully your call to action with a breif biography....

When I was 15 I had an encounter that would spark my interest in literature, philosophy, history, and religion at the Minnesota state fair. I think it was at some booth for a political party where I fell into a long conversation with a man who self identified as an 'Objectivivest' and after about an excited two hour conversation he left me with two slim tomes to get me started. One was Ayn Rand's, "The Virtue of Selfishness" and the other was H. L. Mencken's translation of the Anti-Christ.

I think it's safe to say my intellectual journey began in absolute poverty, I had become a disciple of Objectivism and thought that the entire sum of Neitzsche's philosophy could be found in "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" and "The Will to Power" (Stating that openly in any respectable Philosophy program is grounds for dismissal!). I got involved with those popular and juvenile Atheist movements, where we saw all religion as a mental disease, God was a mere fairytale that was on the same playing field as Santa Claus. We had become inoculated against the disease of religion by the virtue of reason alone and we had to bring true enlightenment to the masses under the sway of the evil God delusion.

Looking back at those years I always cringe. Being apart of a lame and unoriginal counter-culture movement and a very literal example of a rebel without a clue could have very condemned me a to uncontemplative life, banging out angry screeds against religion in tortured English on some blog. What changed everything for me was 9-11.

Back then, I believed that the free society was the just society and I still do, but for very different reasons. I decided that I was tired of talking about ideals and I wanted to start living them, so I enlisted into the United States Army and quickly became personally involved with the War on Terror.

I served for a little over 5 years as a Infantryman. I was in Iraq during the first year of the invasion, hunting Saddam (I was in country when they captured him) and even found myself in Fallujah looking for the new emerging leader of Al-Queda in Iraq, Abu al-Zarqawi. I even escorted prisoners to the now infamous Abu Gharib before that hideous scandal broke out. The day I left Iraq was the fateful day that 4 men from Blackwater were drug from their SUVs, killed and their mutilated corpses hung up for display in Fallujah. I wasn't home for 8 months before I was called to Afghanistan to support the country's first free elections and spent my time in remote location near the Pakistan boarder in late 2004. I was back in Iraq a few years later, I was in country again when Saddam was executed for high crimes against humanity, I participated in the "Surge" under General Petraeus and spent time in the Diyala river valley, becoming intimately involved with the people there.

The reason I'm telling you all of this John, is not for reasons of chest beating or for accolades. It's the story of a young, naive kid who felt the pull to be something more than a ideologue. Under the influence of a ill-conceived philosophy that was utterly unchristian, that kid put himself into dangerous situations half of a world away in countries that most Americans could not even point out on a map. Like the mental slaves of Lenin, Stalin and Mao who threw themselves into certain death for a greater purpose that reviled God and religion or the Japanese Kamikaze pilots who wrote poems about the sweet bliss of oblivion, before flying into U.S. Ships.

That same zeal that causes a Muslim to blow himself up on a Israeli bus or a Christian to gun down an abortion doctor while he is serving as an usher in church can infect the Atheist as well. Fanaticism, zeal and unwavering conviction are not attributes of religion alone and your challenge to me about the call to action either confuses me or strikes me as something that is rather obvious in the historical and personal sense.

It was on those (sometimes) long deployments that I began to read widely and I became confronted with existential Problems of Evil, Pain and Suffering. I really learned what true poverty was, wrestled with the apparent absurdity of life and learned what it means to be human. It was also the time I began my conversation with Christianity and Judaism in earnest. The conversation hasn't stopped, but it's one that has lead to my rejection of both faiths as a plausible explanation and even comforting narrative of humanity's history,condition, or future.

I would love to continue the conversation with you and in person I must insist on abstaining from beer or coffee (for myself at least) as my personal ethic doesn't allow for the consumption of the former and the taste of the latter isn't all that pleasant for me. I do however, find that heaping plates of good Italian food are just as conducive to the conversation as anything else.



You may be in luck with the good Italian food. Should you be in the vicinity, our household at dinnertime runs on the old principle, "aggiungi un posto a tavola!" It is of course better to call ahead if you want to make sure that the better chef of the house is on for the noon or evening meal.

You've got quite a story behind you and here's hoping that you have quite a story ahead of you, in which you continue your Auseinandersetzung with the Jewish and Christian confessions of faith. You've rejected the way of the Torah at least once and the way of the Cross at least twice, but who knows, maybe three's the charm.

A few remarks. This is how I see the moral realism of the kind you adhere to. It's an instinctual approach, for which you construct reasons post hoc, with greater or lesser success. Even if you have yet to find appropriate reasons, you hold on to your moral instincts. I don't see you building an ethics from the ground up.

You may prefer to offer post hoc consequentialist and/or utilitarian reasons as opposed to reasons based on natural law for your instincts, but I don't see you changing your mind about right and wrong because you can't come up with such reasons. If I have misrepresented your project, please say so.

It would be different if you described your journey in terms of a "twice-born" narrative, to use Jamesian terminology (taken up again recently, and with fine effect, by Charles Taylor). But you don't.

I just don't think moral realism as defined by your gut gets you very far. Your answer to my question about resistance to the Nazi regime illustrates the problem. Previously you said that your ethics were based on a social contract + altruism. Without explanation you abandon that framework faced with the Nazi regime, and go with your infallible gut. I see two problems here. (1) Somehow the moral realism of most Germans failed at the time, and for you to claim that yours would not have, you have to claim intrinsic moral superiority to the majority of the members of your ex hypothesi polity of reference. That's a tall order, and in any case, leaves the social contract in tatters. (2) The principles that underlie your altruism appear borrowed from a version of moral idealism. On this view, it is sometimes appropriate to oppose an enemy, and if necessary, kill him, out of love (is that right word? on what basis does a moral realist "love" apart from bonds of affiliation determined on grounds quite other than moral realism?) for a third party. Ambrose, a key figure of the first centuries of the Christian church, states the grounds for this approach:

fortitude which in war preserves the country from the barbarians, or helps the infirm at home, or defends one's neighbor's from robbers, is full of justice. . . . He who does not repel an injury done to his fellow, if he is able to do so, is as much at fault as he who commits the injury.

In precisely these circumstances, you seem to be fine with the "even if" principle as well. Thus you will oppose a dire enemy for the sake of a great enough good even if the odds at succeeding are miserable. In this case, your gut and your stated non-deontological approach have nothing in common.

As Steven D. Smith puts it in his excellent new book (The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse: it will make you think three times about going down the road you have taken), you are smuggling. I'm glad you are.

But I will tell you it's a lot more freeing to have the grounds on which one's ethics are founded out in the open. It even opens up the possibility of worship, an interesting inclination of humankind, one that isn't that foreign to you, since you knew it well in your youth (Rand and Nietzsche were of course religious about their atheism). But now you have taught yourself to be embarrassed about your youthful enthusiasm. Honestly, I'm sorry to hear that.

It's nice to see you, as I see it, concede my point on the E-dilemma. The point I wanted to make I hammed up in an exaggerated way. You make it more quietly. It is perfectly fine, you now say, for a believer to hold on to both horns of the dilemma. You just wanted to suggest that the theist has no unshakable high ground of logic from which she can peer down on atheologians. I concur. However, as a theist I would still claim that an atheologian is in a poor position to construct an ethics the reasons of which cohere. That is not my reason for being a theist. It's just an observation, and I wish it wasn't true.


A brief question, to be referred to as my Kantian question: I associate a priori morality with Kant. Given the a priori nature of moral claims, Kant makes a moral argument for the existence of God. Kant is being consistent. You are not. What gives?

With your earlier rejection of deontology, I thought you were going down the road that leads to John Stuart Mill and beyond.


A few loose ends.

I think you are clear on the fact that Jewish and Christian ethics participate in the vagaries of history and culture to the same extent as any other ethical framework.

That's excellent; I try to get fellow Christians to be just as clear about that as you are. It leads to humility, which, I'm sure you will agree, is sorely lacking among Christians of our generation.

But from there you seem to go on to make stronger claims, as if there is no identifiable core of moral claims to the Jewish and Christian traditions, respectively. That is a bridge too far.

You also don't seem to allow for the need communities with fairly stable ethical systems have to make tactical and strategic retrenchments, not to mention tactical and strategic preemptive strikes, according to the constraints of a given situation. For the rest, I think we are going to see more neo-traditionalism among Jews and Christians in the near-term, and less "progressivism." Progressivism seems to have run out of steam in many ways. It is on the defensive.


On Ezekiel 20, and how to exegete the things believers and people in general say.

Rather than engaging in a thought experiment around Ezek 20, it is I think more helpful to elucidate the fact that it accurately describes the phenomenology of sickness unto death.

Sin is a sickness, a sort of virulent cancer. We live in an obsessively therapeutic culture, such that we are socialized into thinking of our failures as addictions (which they are), not as sins (which they also are: they are experienced as transgressions of a moral order, however much we try to deny it; in short, objective and subjective guilt are part of the equation). In the Jewish and Christian frameworks it is openly, even stridently both, and to top it off, God is credited with tripping up the guilty and punishing them with a slide into further and sometimes inexorable error.

Bad laws are only one, easily documentable means by which God is reported to bring societies to hang themselves. Bad predictions (lying prophecy in the Bible; perhaps you remember the account in 1 Kgs 22) are another.

To repeat, the ground of these realities is attributed to God in strict monotheism, which leads to tensions of the kind I already outlined around the E-dilemma.

In Ezek 14 and 20, a very strict monotheism is in play, with the need for the nation to hit absolute bottom (as we say in therapeutic language), and for God to push in that direction, embraced with rhetorical ferocity. If you ask me, it's quite compelling.

Whereas Christians who say, "God would never tell someone to do something evil!" are being superficial. God has plenty of uses for evil according to the Bible - for a stipulated greater good. Furthermore, God *requires* us to "do something evil" in particular ways, with different strategies depending on the domain in question.

On the interpersonal level, we are asked to resist evil with good, but this is, objectively considered, a way of doing evil to ourselves (Romans 12; no wonder it is spoken of as "self-sacrifice" - how easily we forget the true meaning of words).

On the level of constituted authority (government, parent, employer), we are to do evil - that is, harm people - in order to protect the community (Romans 13, 1 Peter 2-3; etc.)

But you understand that. You also understand the tremendous difficulties in doing evil, to oneself or others, "right." You are a vet after all.

Never underestimate the ability of believers to make superficial assertions. At this point, your knowledge of the Bible is head and shoulders above the average Christian. I'm hoping that your moral instincts will encourage you to gently correct rather than mock in cases like these.


I think you might want to explore the implications of this statement of yours:

"I believed that the free society was the just society and I still do."

That is an admission that you have a pre-existent metanarrative you believe in. It gives shape to your ethics and provides you with final causes (teloses) and a deontology. It is useless to pretend otherwise.

If I'm right about this, you have been avoiding the subject of greatest interest: what mythology stands at the base of your ethical decisions.

You have critiqued my mythology; I don't think I can be faulted for asking you to pull out the rabbits from your hat more exhaustively, so that I can critique yours.

You have been pretending not to have a mythology, not to be a theologian, not to be a magician, but I don't think that pretense stands up to scrutiny.

My theory as to why people like to present themselves as atheologians though they aren't: they think of their theology as a selective via negativa the content of which they can exhaust in critique of other theologies.

But that does not square with the facts. Freedom and justice and even society are all concepts that cannot be given content apart from mythology (ideology in narrative form).

As soon as F and J and S give rise to a deontology, they function as God. Durkheim after all was only describing a truism when he claimed that society = God. That God is freedom and justice are also commonplaces. We're back to reversibility and the E-dilemma. But, as I think you admit, the dilemma cuts both ways.

Really, the only question is: what is true myth? Ultimately, what is *the* true myth. People like J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and G. K. Chesterton were clear-eyed about this and identified true myth with the Christian narrative (if you want you can pose the E-dilemma all over again, but I think it gets old).

The Christian narrative is not without its problems, but seriously, I don't see how any of the purportedly atheological narratives out there are more compelling.

Max Weber spoke of modernity as founded on a disenchantment of the world. That has proven to be quite false if viewed historically. Call it Friedrich Schleiermacher's revenge.

But there is one place in which disenchanted. secular discourse has taken tenacious root: the academy, combined, of course, with the setting up of new idols in need of propitiation.

So the disenchantment is far from complete. Insofar as the disenchantment is thorough, Weber referred to modernity as an "iron cage."

Is life in the iron cage really that satisfying? I don't see it.

Steve Pable

Wow. To both of you, thank you for SUBSTANCE in the wasteland that usually characterizes this sort of exchange.

Patrick, I think perhaps the greatest poverty, culturally speaking, is our evolution into a society of rebels without a clue, condemning ourselves to uncontemplative lives. Socrates has our number on that one.

Do you have any thoughts on how to jar people out of our complacent stupor? I could go on with my rhetorical diagnosis of the ills of our time, but I think it's the comfort (which you rightly cite as one of our human aspirations) and concomitant apathy that keep us from even considering the questions you and John are discussing here.

So can you record your conversations over dinner to be shared with us later? ;)



I may have worn Patrick out. Or perhaps he just needs a plate of lasagna to revive him. Thanks for your kind words.


Hi John,

Thanks for the kind words, they are much appreciated, as is the conversation (Ditto Steve). Sorry about the delay, but we are between semesters here and the weather has been gorgeous. Trying to surface for some air before getting back to the grindstone this summer.

I also think John, that you and I have been talking past each other a bit. To me it appears that you think when I'm faced with an evil like the Nazi regime, I abandon my social contract and go with my gut which creates a conflict. I think you are making a bit of a categorical mistake (not a serious one mind you).

Questions about what exactly are morals, if they exist, where did they come from, how can they be perceived, are questions in the realm of 'Meta-ethics'. The ontological, metaphysical, and epistemic issues are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. While these consideration are important in constructing a viable world view, they are not needed to figure out how people should be acting today.

Questions about how we should be acting and governing ourselves today is the realm of 'Normative ethics'. Ethical systems that are deontological (like Kant) or consequentialist (like Bentham) fall under this term. These systems don't rely on Meta-ethics to be effective and practical in their implementation, they are simply a means to the end of running a society. Likewise, neither deontological or consequentialist must rely on a certain type of Meta-ethic, all that requires to link the two spheres is a mind sufficiently clever enough to do so.

I think moral axioms are natural and abstract ideas that exist in the natural universe. Much like numbers, these axioms are mental constructs we use to help define and understand the way the universe just is. The number one really doesn't exist in a physical form anywhere, it's just a very solid idea that we use to understand what we see.

Humans evolved emotions and language to better grasp and communicate these axioms and organize ourselves into the flourishing societies we have today. I think it's a undisputable observation that the morals we humans hold dear today often directly contribute to a stronger, safer, and more prosperous society. I don't think it's by hapstance that various versions of the 'Golden Rule' have come about independently in various civilizations.

Now, various kinds of moral axioms exist and like there can be different geometries, there can be different moral systems. Not all axioms are created equal, some are far worse than others. And similar to how Classical Physics works just dandy for many observations, it ultimately breaks down on the Quantum level, so too can some moral axioms work just fine for a primitive society, they can break down as human culture advances.

Humans simply don't posses an infallible way to put together an axiomatic moral system that every person would strictly adhere to. Our nature doesn't work quite like that (yet, anyway's). Humans constantly make mistakes, wrong guesses and bad judgements in the Natural Sciences and it's a similar situation in the Moral "Sciences". Mistakes are made, observed and corrections happen (sometimes, slowly). At the present state, humans are not logical creatures, we are not rational nor irrational, we are psychological creatures.

So how do we go about constructing a good moral system? Collaboration from a diverse group of people. If a Atheist, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu and Wiccan can all agree on the moral principle of X, given their wildly divergent Meta-ethical systems it would seem that the moral principle X seems sound. After a time, lets say Sociological and Psychological studies conclude that moral principle X is connected to a positive rise in health and happiness to the society as a whole. This confirmation by opposing world-views and observation strengthens the case that moral principle X is good and we ought to do it.

The only practical model that allows for a forum to debate and discuss moral principles, implement accepted principles, observe the effect these principles have on society as whole, and to maintain,modify or discard principles as the situation warrants is one based on a Social Contract. Social Contracts are not infallible oracles and just like ecclesiastical hierarchies, philosophical societies, and economic think tanks, they make mistakes and fail. The strength and flexibility of that contract is going to determine if it can survive or not.

In the case of Nazi Germany, the Social Contract goes awry and you feel my system breaks down. I could not disagree more, when the means of normative ethics are destroyed or severely challenged, the Meta-ethical foundations are not called into question. In times of emergency, our intuition is our internal moral compass that we can use to make moral judgements. This compass isn't infallible, like any of the tools natural selection has given us, it's limited in it's capacity.

I don't think you could avoid any utilitarian thinking either my friend. Had you been a German citizen in 1943 and you were asked to partake in a mission that would likely kill Hitler but also likely kill you, would you automatically agree to do so because of the existence of a Divine Law, an ethics grounded in the highest transcendence? Of course not, you would think about your wife and children, you would ask yourself if you are ready to leave them behind, ponder how they would get along without you, how would you say goodbye? Could you leave your family and congregation behind in such troubling and uncertain times? You would weigh the pros and cons before committing yourself to such a fatal action. Would this rather utilitarian method of trying to determine the greatest good for family and Nation leave your transcendent ethics in tatters? I should think not.

But you and I discussing an event from history with great privilege. You and I are far removed from Nazi Germany both geographically and temporally and probably know a great deal more about the consequences of Nazi Germany than any German in the 30s could have predicted. Hitler did not rise to power with public promises of genocide and world war. It is far to easy today for one to say, " I would have resisted Hitler from the start!" because we know the tragic consequences.


As to your Kantian question I can only offer wild speculation. Kant saw the conflict between prudence of choosing happiness and choosing virtue that leads to misery. To bring balance between happiness and virtue, Kant saw the immortality of the soul and God as necessary components in achieving that balance. You also have to keep in mind the era in which Kant lived. It was an era where Newtonian mechanics and Aristotelian Metaphysics dominated thinking at the time and neither framework can really support a concept of Atheism with any force. In my opinion, without the modern concepts of Biological, Chemical and Cosmological evolution, it would be very hard to conceive of an Atheistic world view.

I must also strenuously disagree with you that concept about the necessity of Freedom is an admission to some grand meta-narrative. Constructing a theomachy may have worked for the likes of Homer, Marx, of Freud, but I must reject the venture as being far to arrogant in nature. When someone claims to be one of the elect and offers to show you a the hidden gods that connect a series of unrelated and unimportant events together into one master interpretive matrix, odds say you are speaking with a false prophet.

You seem to be hinting at the larger question of, "Whats the purpose of it all?" In my inevitable meetings with Campus Crusade for Christ, that is often the first question I'm asked. The answer is simple and doesn't require the grand narrative or theomachy to ascribe meaning into our lives, which ultimately fail to bring about any real answers to the question.

The answer I always give is that life gives life meaning. The richness of our lives is dependent on our passions and how we pursue them. If it's true that we are all going to end up in heaven or hell, why does every single person put an inordinate amount of time and worry into their careers, health, sex life, family relations, money, our understanding of the world, education, doctrines, etc, etc. We are all slaves to Mammon in this regard and to deny that is to deny the life you've been living.

Heaven gives no more meaning to our lives in this world. Any attempt by a narrative or theomachy to imbibe meaning into this existence is going to require an endless chain of justifications. At best, the myth of the afterlife can give us hope, but much like the hope inspired by Lenin or Trotsky for the eventual climax of Man's Utopia, it's a false hope.


Hi Steve,

I think people need a paradox dose of more confidence and humility.

People need humility so they can accept the valid points others can make. Things get so polarized that neither side is willing to concede ground because the common wisdom seems to be give an inch and lose everything. Things quickly turn into a game of who can sound more witty and confident while making fun of the other side.

This causes people to become more insular as they wrap themselves and their world view in a rug of false bravado and total assurance where there is none to be had. Atheists end up reading only books by Atheist authors on the subject of faith and religion and Christians seek out the Apologist who can confidently explain to them what the other side believes and why they are wrong.

Thankfully, this doesn't happen in academic Philosophy of Religion. For example, Atheist Philosopher J.L Mackie wrote a formulation of the Logical Problem of Evil that many thought nailed the coffin shut on Theism. Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga came along and gave a rather clever and robust Free Will Defense that clearly answered Mackie's argument (Mackie himself openly stated that) and it burden shifted back onto the Atheists to present a Logical Problem of Evil that is immune to Plantinga's Free Will Defense. That's a hot topic and contested goal by young Philosophers, who's gonna be the first to present the rigorous slam dunk and 'make his bones' in the profession. All of this is done with good spirits (most of the time anyways) and never becomes the nasty and vapid contest it so often plays out as on Youtube and blogs.

That's where confidence comes into play. To concede a point, to discard a bad argument, is not the admission of total defeat. This happens in politics way to often, to the point now that most political discourse is just mindless cheerleading. Look at what it's done to public understanding of science. Now instead of having any kind of normal discussion about Evolution or Climate Control, it's turned into American liberals calling American conservatives anti-science (most often it's other slurs) and as reaction to that, conservatives start calling either topics Pseudo-Science and everything becomes so polarized no one is going to give any ground.


Hi Patrick,

It has been an enjoyable conversation. I'm not sure, however, if we can make more progress than we already have.

I think our differences are evident, and they are stark. I delight in the Christian narrative for a host of reasons. It gives meaning to life in a way that is not tautological as I find yours: "life gives meaning to life."

The Christian narrative, just like the Jewish narrative, serves as a meta-ethics which does not replace utilitarian concerns but opens up a space of freedom to go beyond them.

The Jewish and Christian narratives go a fair distance toward making sense of facets of human experience, Stephen Pinker's imponderables. It opens up paths of framing questions in productive ways. It embraces humanity's "God-proneness," an example of hypertrophy from the point of view of evolutionary biology, rather than reject it as you do.

Your own stance, on the other hand, can only be described as a kind of intellectual and spiritual resignation. Not only do you set all theology from Augustine to Barth and all philosophy from Plato to Kant to Levinas and Taubes and Zizek to one side as so much sinking sand, you never claim to have anything more than sinking sand to stand on yourself.

Your choice to sink in the sand you do is "natural," I won't deny that. But it is even more natural to believe, for example, in an afterlife. Archaeological discoveries demonstrate they have been around since Paleolithic times. Tell people there is no such thing, and the belief rears its beautiful head all over again.

Let me imagine a conversation of yours with Christopher Reeve. You would have to say, "I know you had an out-of-body experience, and in consequence thereof, became a theist, but let me tell you, you are making an unwarranted inference." Not only that, you would have to say, "You have a false hope."

Well fine, but you know what? It is more natural and reasonable to suggest that, as people from Paleolithic times to Christopher Reeve, though raised not to believe in an afterlife, have understood, the afterlife is a very solid idea, clearly so if there is a God, as solid and useful as the idea of the number one.

The number one, as you rightly point out, is a mental construct we use to understand what we see. Yet it corresponds to things out there. So does, according to an extremely "natural" point of view, the afterlife.

You know about the human need to construct a viable world view, but you want world-views to no longer inform ethics. You say:

"The ontological, metaphysical, and epistemic issues are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. While these consideration are important in constructing a viable world view, they are not needed to figure out how people should be acting today."

I can only ask in reply: is it really true that atheism leads inexorably to such anti-intellectualism? I have sometimes thought so. You give me further grounds for so thinking.

It reminds me of a famous part of Bertrand Russell's biography. It concerns the demise of the first of Russell’s four marriages. He was out riding his bicycle one fine day in 1901 when, as he puts it, he “suddenly realized he no longer loved his wife.” Being a logician and a philosopher — you say what you think — he went home and told her. A divorce inexorably followed.

There is a flippancy about Russell's approach to ethics in the concrete that seems now to carry over in his latter-day progeny to a flippancy about meta-ethics.

As soon as an analytical post-metaphysical philosopher like you wants to say something important from an ethical point of view, you not only sound like a theologian; you are a theologian, if only an anti-theologian (your preferred persona in this conversation).

A nice example of how this works in practice is cited by Stephen D. Smith in his book, The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, to which I've already referred. Ronald Dworkin, a member of your tribe, said the following in the context of the debate about euthansia.

"We believe that a successful human life has a certain natural course. It starts in mere biological development - conception, fetal development, and infancy - but it then extends into childhood, adolescence, and adult life . . . It ends, after a normal life span, in a natural death." Dworkin goes on to say that the termination of life at any stage before "natural death" is "a kind of cosmic shame."

Three cheers for Dworkin. On that same basis - natural law in the classical framework - it makes sense to speak of abortion as a cosmic shame, not just suicide "before one's time." Not that Dworkin understood that. But note that Dworkin is forced to argue from what "is" - human lives often do in fact follow a typical course - to an "ought" - as if Dworkin never read Hume.

And you, Patrick, cannot argue otherwise either. You cannot but commit this most basic error in reasoning.

As far as I'm concerned, you have inadvertently made a case for the necessity of a meta-ethics if the goal is to have a reasonable, not merely "natural," ethics.


I'm off to guide a tour to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Milwaukee. But before I do, a word about "the endless chain of justifications" argument against theism.

First of all, it is not an endless chain. The chain of reasoning typical of theism is characterized by circularity and recursivity. But this makes it like all other examples of reasoning, not unlike them.

For the rest, that is exactly what I want, an "examined life" and a "reasonable world view." It is ironic I would say that a current school of philosophy wants to disassociate ethics from meta-ethics. I might understand it as a ploy to "get along" in a pluralistic society, though this doesn't work either. But is it a stance worthy of a philosopher? I would think not.

What does it say when philosophers come to the same conclusion as someone like Stephen Pinker does, such that all the subjects philosophers are normally occupied themselves with have become imponderables, undecidables, unusables?

At least there is some fire in such philosphers' bellies when taking on theists. That gives me hope.


John, when you said, "As far as I'm concerned, you have inadvertently made a case for the necessity of a meta-ethics if the goal is to have a reasonable, not merely 'natural,' ethics." I laughed out loud because that was exactly the kind of case I wanted to make, so I'll consider that mission accomplished.

When you say, "It is ironic I would say that a current school of philosophy wants to disassociate ethics from meta-ethics. I might understand it as a ploy to "get along" in a pluralistic society, though this doesn't work either. But is it a stance worthy of a philosopher? I would think not. " You are correct.

It is a ploy to get along in a pluralistic society and one that I would use to provide a forum for vigorous discussion. I hope I haven't advocated anything that makes Meta-ethics sound superfluous. Let me give an example:

I think it's morally wrong to use abortion as a method of birth control. You would agree with this statement, even if the routes we take are divergent. In a private setting, like the dinner table, you would take issue with my methods, but at the voter's booth, you just care how I'm going to cast my vote, if it's by anti-intellectual, vacuous blather it doesn't matter, because that blather ends up serving the greater good.

You need to look at the categories of meta and normative ethics the same way you look at higher and lower criticisms in Biblical studies. In the broad view, both go together hand in hand, but they are separate areas of study that people can specialize in. Could I attack your methods of Textual criticism with arguments from Form criticism?

But I think you and I agree, we've probably reached the limits of this topic that can be played out in the comments section of this blog. There is just one more observation I'd like to make. I wouldn't be so hasty in calling something 'anti-intellectual' that you don't fully understand. You may not 'get it' when it comes to the various form of Naturalism and you are well entitled to critique it till the proverbial cows come home, but don't mistake your lack of understanding for the poverty of ideas from your opponents.

Marilynne Robinson is to me, is what the Jesus Mythicist is to you. I imagine Dworkin has read Hume and I'm confident he could explain how he gets 'ought' from 'is.' I know I can.


Thanks, Patrick, for a genuine and unpredictable conversation.

I hope you won't be too surprised if I say I care very little about how you vote. The only really ardent wish I have is that someday, you will hear yourself addressed by the following words, "Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

When a philosopher, a lover of insight, hears those words addressed to her, and embraces them, it changes everything. That monism, that sense in which the many is anchored in the one, that particular solution to the problem of the one and the many, makes all things new.

A theist will continue to vote Democrat or continue to vote Republican. Whatever. The point is another. She will see everything we have talked about in a new light.

It is *not only* subjective experience, the self, free will, conceptual meaning, knowledge, and morality (Pinker's list of imponderables, undecide-ables, unusables) that fall into place in the context of Deut 6:4. Not only!

It is *also* the case that the undeclared tri-theism on which Kos-itism rests: God #1, the Alpha of all that is; God #2 the principle of justice; God #3, the Omega of all, are, throughout the biblical witness, united in this one Lord.

They cohere in a particularly vibrant and "unstable" solution in the narrative (the account of a fantasy to you, the account of an event which reveals the deep structure of history to me) of Jesus prophet, priest, and king, put to death, but risen.

You were clear from the start that you are in search of a meta-ethics, not in possession of one. I like the bravado of your last line, that you can explain how you get your "ought's" of choice from your "is's" of choice.

Even though you haven't.

Even though Dworkin (correct me if I'm wrong) never explained matters either. His "cosmic shame" comes literally out of nowhere, a rabbit trick of which any magician would be proud.

At some point, and for you, naturalism becomes Naturalism, just as for other philosophers (Michael Behe), intelligent design becomes Intelligent Design.

That is, I admit, a nasty comparison, and doesn't do you nor Behe justice. It's just that I see you switching back and forth from claiming way too much for your -ism, and way too little to make it attractive philosophically.

It's possible, I submit, to think through what we've learned and realize its openness to an old, old story. Marilynne Robinson put it well:

"Matter condenses. Stars live out their generations. Then, very late, ... a shaped stick, a jug, a cuneiform tablet ... appear on a tiny, teetery, lopsided planet, and they demand wholly new vocabularies of description for reality at every scale. ... concepts like agency and intention, words like creation, that would query the great universe itself. ... [Enough to suggest] the possibility that our species is more than an optimized ape, that something terrible and glorious befell us, a change gradualism could not predict."

Even if it is merely another fable, Robinson concludes, receptivity to that possibility at least encourages "an imagination of humankind large enough to acknowledge some small fragment of the mystery we are."

Here I stand, convinced that, on the supposition that something terrible and glorious befell us, the night sky lights up just as the poets have always claimed it does. In fact, even if I do not so suppose, the moon and the stars seem to do just that.

A classic catch 22.

But it is not just the "over-against-ness" of the night sky that nurtures doubt and belief in one fell moment (re-read Psalm 8 if this is not clear). There's more.

If something terrible and glorious befell us, the wet garden at our feet is both home and and a pointer to much more. To something, as you say, we don't fully understand.

I am not confident, Patrick, that I understand where you are coming from, even less, where you are headed, insofar as you do so apart from theistic assumptions which you studiously and relentlessly avoid, in theory if not necessarily in practice.

But I am convinced that you make theism attractive by your method of argumentation. You agree after all that you end up making a case for the necessity of a meta-ethics if the goal is to have a reasonable, not merely 'natural,' ethics.

A great irony: a theist is so much more at home in the 'natural' of the human psyche, its proneness to God and teleological reasoning, the capacity for courage and self-sacrifice, than is the atheist.

With the kicker that the theist finds, if only (only!) in faith, hope, and love (the theological virtues, rightly so-called), an "unstable solution" to the strident contradictions of nature to reason and reason to nature, in God.

I can't imagine you will fault me, or any other theist, for not wanting to give that up - our evolutionary birthright if you wish - in exchange for a mess of pottage.

Esau was a very fine hunter. He ate well. But Jacob wrestled with angels.

Steve Pable

I'll drop in here, even though I know it demolishes the symmetry of your eloquent and heartfelt "closing statements". But at least you both know I read all the way to the end!

Too often we're operating out of pre-conceived caricatures of Christian or atheist, so I particularly appreciated how the two of you made this exchange personal but not combative. Patrick, your experience with Christians (via CCC, for example) that seemingly demonstrates how we are all slaves to Mammon may indeed be a valid criticism. I wouldn't be too quick to disparage these disciples, whose evangelical impulse may be witness in itself. But regardless, it's not hard to find examples of hypocrisy to turn one off from Christianity. Likewise, I wouldn't want to lump you in with the loud-mouthed atheist whose argument in a combox is the endless "God = Santa Claus".

"Atheism" and "Christianity" both seem to have their adherents whose default mode is laziness-- intellectual, moral, spiritual, etc. And who of us isn't tempted in that direction? But there are plenty of Christians who live their beliefs with conviction, and without the cost-benefit analysis.

The Christian narrative, as I think John points out, anchors us to a meaning beyond the here and now. In your view, that meaning is manufactured. But that ennobled view of human life seems immensely richer, and is indeed "Good News", when compared to a meaning that I have to manufacture for myself. You touted the malleability of an ethical system as a virtue. But fortunately, there are fundamentals to the Gospel that are not endlessly malleable. A society based on shifting, evolving beliefs "that we can all agree on" leads to the dictatorship of relativism that Benedict XVI has written about. Another alternative is the utilitarian utopia chillingly illustrated by Lois Lowry in "The Giver". It seems that the biggest and hardest rabbit for the atheist to conjure is that sense of human purpose, individually or collectively. Where is the Good News? Who are the "heroes" of atheism that have really lived the life (whatever it is) and can serve as a model to others?

Thank you for an enriching conversation, and for your willingness to share, whether intellectually or in service to our country. And may God bless you as you move forward in your studies and beyond.


Hi Steve,

Have you read the Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman? It is the amazing story of the moral partnership of a husband and wife, atheist and Catholic, respectively, in the darkest days of Warsaw during WWII. Truth is stranger, and more beautiful, than fiction.

I don't know how God gets away with it, but he does. I you know what I mean.

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    A team blog that discusses right ways and wrong ways Scripture might help in the social construction of gender (old archive only; more recent archive, unfortunately, no longer publicly available)
  • Connected Christianity
    a place to explore what it might be like if Christians finally got the head, heart, and hands of their faith re-connected (archive)
  • Conversational Theology
    Smart and delightful comment by Ros Clarke, a Ph.D. student at the University of the Highlands and Islands, at the (virtual) Highland Theological College (archive)
  • Daily Hebrew
    For students of biblical Hebrew and the ancient Near East, by Chip Hardy, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago
  • Daniel O. McClellan
    a fine blog by the same, who is pursuing a master of arts degree in biblical studies at Trinity Western University just outside of Vancouver, BC.
  • Davar Akher
    Looking for alternative explanations: comments on things Jewish and beyond, by Simon Holloway, a PhD student in Classical Hebrew and Biblical Studies at The University of Sydney, Australia
  • Deinde
    News and Discussion by Danny Zacharias
  • Discipulus scripturae
    Nathan Stitt's place
  • Dr. Claude Mariottini
    balanced comment by a professor of Old Testament at Northern Baptist Seminary, Lombard IL
  • Dr. Platypus
    insightful comment by Darrell Pursiful, editor at Smyth & Helwys Publishing, on the New Testament faculty of Mercer University
  • Dust
    A diary of Bob MacDonald's journey through the Psalms and other holy places in the Hebrew Bible
  • Eclexia
    The heart and mind of this Bible and theology blogger sing in unison
  • Eat, Drink, and be Merry
    The journey of a grad student with a love for ancient languages at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary (archive)
  • Elizaphanian
    Rev Sam tussles with God, and limps away
  • Emerging from Babel
    Stephen investigates the potential of narrative and rhetorical criticism as a tool for expounding scripture
  • Evangelical Textual Criticism
    A group blog on NT and OT text-critical matters
  • Evedyahu
    excellent comment by Cristian Rata, Lecturer in Old Testament of Torch Trinity Graduate School of Theology, Seoul, Korea
  • Exegetica Digita
    discussion of Logos high-end syntax and discourse tools – running searches, providing the downloads (search files) and talking about what can be done and why it might matter for exegesis, by Mike Heiser
  • Exegetisk Teologi
    careful exegetical comment by Stefan Green (in Swedish)
  • Exploring Our Matrix
    Insightful reflections by James McGrath, ass't. professor of religion, Butler University
  • Faith Matters
    Mark Alter's place
  • Ferrell's Travel Blog
    comments of biblical studies, archaeology, history, and photography by a tour guide of Bible lands and professor emeritus of the Biblical Studies department at Florida College, Temple Terrace (FL)
  • Fors Clavigera
    James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, thinks out loud.
  • Friar's Fires
    an insightful blog by a pastor with a background in journalism, one of three he pens
  • Gentle Wisdom
    A fearless take on issues roiling Christendom today, by Peter Kirk, a Bible translator
  • Giluy Milta B‘alma
    by Ezra Chwat and Avraham David of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, Jewish National and Hebrew University Library, Jerusalem
  • He is Sufficient
    insightful comment on Bible translations, eschatology, and more, by Elshaddai Edwards
  • Higgaion
    by Chris Heard, Professor of Religion, Pepperdine University
  • Idle Musings of a Bookseller
    by James Spinti of Eisenbrauns
  • if i were a bell, i'd ring
    Tim Ricchiuiti’s place
  • Imaginary Grace
    Smooth, witty commentary by Angela Erisman (archive). Angela Erisman is a member of the theology faculty at Xavier University
  • James' Thoughts and Musings
    by James Pate, a doctoral student at HUC-JIR Cincinnati
  • Jewish Philosophy Place
    by Zachary (Zak) Braiterman, who teaches modern Jewish thought and philosophy in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University
  • kata ta biblia
    by Patrick George McCollough, M. Div. student, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA
  • Ketuvim
    Learned reflection from the keyboard of Jim Getz
  • Kilbabo
    Ben Johnson’s insightful blog
  • Kruse Kronicle - contemplating the intersection of work, the global economy, and Christian mission
    top quality content brought to readers by Michael W. Kruse
  • Larry Hurtado's blog
    emeritus professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology, University of Edinburgh
  • Law, Prophets, and Writings
    thoughtful blogging by William R. (Rusty) Osborne, Assistant Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies as College of the Ozarks and managing editor for Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament
  • Lingamish
    delightful fare by David Ker, Bible translator, who also lingalilngas.
  • Looney Fundamentalist
    a scientist who loves off-putting labels
  • Menachem Mendel
    A feisty blog on rabbinic literature and other Judaica by Michael Pitkowsky, Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator at the Academy for Jewish Religion and adjunct instructor at Jewish Theological Seminary (New York)
  • mu-pàd-da
    scholarly blog by C. Jay Crisostomo, grad student in ANE studies at ?
  • Narrative and Ontology
    Astoundingly thoughtful comment from Phil Sumpter, a Ph.D. student in Bible, resident in Bonn, Germany
  • New Epistles
    by Kevin Sam, M. Div. student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon SK
  • NT Weblog
    Mark Goodacre's blog, professor of New Testament, Duke University
  • Observatório Bíblico
    wide-ranging blog by Airton José da Silva, Professor de Bíblia Hebraica/Antigo Testamento na Faculdade de Teologia do CEARP de Ribeirão Preto, Brasile (in Portuguese)
  • Observatório Bíblico
    Blog sobre estudos acadêmicos da Bíblia, para Airton José da Silva, Professor de Bíblia Hebraica / Antigo Testamento na Faculdade de Teologia do CEARP de Ribeirão Preto, SP.
  • Occasional Publications
    excellent blogging by Daniel Driver, Brevard Childs' scholar extraordinaire
  • old testament passion
    Great stuff from Anthony Loke, a Methodist pastor and Old Testament lecturer in the Seminari Theoloji, Malaysia
  • Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Blog
    A weblog created for a course on the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, by James Davila (archive)
  • On the Main Line
    Mississippi Fred MacDowell's musings on Hebraica and Judaica. With a name like that you can't go wrong.
  • p.ost an evangelical theology for the age to come
    seeking to retell the biblical story in the difficult transition from the centre to the margins following the collapse of Western Christendom, by Andrew Perriman, independent New Testament scholar, currently located in Dubai
  • PaleoJudaica
    by James Davila, professor of Early Jewish Studies at the University of St. Andrews, St Andrews, Scotland. Judaism and the Bible in the news; tidbits about ancient Judaism and its context
  • Pastoral Epistles
    by Rick Brannan and friends, a conceptually unique Bible blog
  • Pen and Parchment
    Michael Patton and company don't just think outside the box. They are tearing down its walls.
  • Pisteuomen
    by Michael Halcomb, pastor-scholar from the Bluegrass State
  • Pseudo-Polymath
    by Mark Olson, an Orthodox view on things
  • Purging my soul . . . one blog at a time
    great theoblog by Sam Nunnally
  • Qumranica
    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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