“Does a good God exist?” is the title of a debate between Christopher Hitchens and William Dembski which took place last Thursday and you can view the full video of the debate (in 3 parts) here
In the debate William Dembski argues in his opening statement (attacking Hitchens personally and focusing on arguments in his book “God Is Not Great”) that the evidence for evolution is sketchy and incomplete and that Intelligent Design offers a far better model of the world. Now, instead of dealing with this intellectually repugnant claim (evolution is a well established fact, even if there are questions of detail that remain to be answered) I’d like to focus on arguments he makes in his rebuttal, which he oddly reserved for his discussion on the goodness of God where he says, speaking about good and objective moral standards trying to define what is “good” exactly and how can we look at God using that definition and he has this to say:
“To say that God is not good must therefore mean that God has violated an objective moral standard – but since God is the source of all being and purpose any such objective moral standard cannot reside outside god. Such a standard must therefore derive from God himself, but in that case how can God violate it? God himself is the standard then.”
So, aside from guffawing at the sheer idiocy and wingnuttery emanating from this comment, let’s break it down. He is claiming:
1) Not being good means violating a moral standard
2) This moral standard is an objective one
3) God is the source of all being and purpose
4) An objective moral standard cannot exist outside God
5) It therefore derives from God
6) Since God is the standard giver he cannot violate the standard
Actually, it’s worth pointing out that for 6) he does not actually say God is the standard giver but is in fact, himself, the standard which is an untenable position as it automatically places God, who is indeed the one giving us the standard, whether directly or by inference from theology, outside of the standard. It’s obvious that this is a common creationist tactic to place God outside the remit of the argument at hand, however since the argument is that there is an objective moral standard to which everyone should be held accountable, including God, we can press the issue there.
So, 1) Not being good means violating a moral standard: well yes, this is obvious, this is how all human society functions. We create specific standards to which we require members of that society to hold to. If they violate it, they are sanctioned based on those standards. Not a controversial point.
2) This moral standard is an objective one: well, this presupposes the notion of objective morality, a concept which myself, and most other freethinkers and secularists shun. If there is such a thing as a moral standard then there is no freedom to question, no appeal, no reasoning. We end up with, as Hitchens says in the debate “a judge who allows no lawyers, no jury, no appeals.” This is inherently immoral for the whole point of morality is not to follow a standard because that is the standard but because there are persuasive arguments for doing so that benefit most, if not all, of the members of the society in question. One may well make the theist’s case that the glory of God bestowed upon the righteous is a persuasive argument for doing God’s will, however this is not moral. This is not a free choice, it is a threat “do ‘good’ or I will kill you, for eternity.”
For humans, moral standards are subjective, which is evidenced by the historical fact that the zeitgeist of moral standards has changed dramatically over the last 20,000 years, even over the last 1,000. Slavery which was once the norm (and is admittedly a well-thrashed standard to trot out in these debates, but still a salient one) is no longer accepted in our worldwide modern standards. Genocide, something practised with zeal by many a religious follower in the Bible and in history, is condemned in day and age. I could list many more, but it is an obviously uncontested point that our, highly subjective, moral standards have morphed over time, ruling out the possibility of an objective moral standard by which we are all to be beholden. Now, you may say these are all humans constructs and betray the overarching objective moral standards that have been set for us by God but then you have to ask yourself the question, why would God create a species for which the objective moral standards they should be following is only provided to them hundreds upon thousands of years after they arose on this planet…?
3) God is the source of all being and purpose: As discussed in previous posts (namely “God Exists…”) God, to my mind, exists only as a solely human construct and is not, as Dembski would have us believe, the originator of the universe, but merely the product of a brain, whose complexity allows it to form such complicated structures and conceptions, this complexity itself a product of the universe in which it finds itself. This is an empirical fact for as soon as there are no more brains left complex enough to form that concept, that which is God ceases to exist. The most that any religious person can ever make a successful case for is the possibility of a deistic ‘God’ who perhaps invoked the Big Bang but takes no more part in the affairs of our universe, could in fact have been consumed in the Big Bang itself. At the absolute most optimistic end of the scale, this could be said to a a highly improbable possibility, that cannot be disproved. The existence of a personal God who interferes in human affairs and cares who you have (consensual, informed) sex with and how is patently ridiculous and holds no water in a serious discussion. Evolution is a fact of the universe and renders God a pointless fancy of the human mind. So it would seem based upon all the evidence in front of us from Big Bang cosmology to Evolution by Natural Selection that God is far from the ‘source of all being’, that’s what the universe is for.
(I have to point out here that Dembski claims that evolution can refuted by looking at such things as the Pre-Cambrian ‘explosion,’ gaps in the fossil record and other ‘issues’ he sees in evolution, however as Richard Dawkins is fond of saying (and rightly so) even if we didn’t have a single fossil to go on DNA and the evidence of genetics tells us that evolution is a fact and is taking place all over the world every single day with every single successive generation of bacteria. I also have to point out that Dembski moronically responds to Christopher Hitchens mention of the ‘evolution’ of eyes in the Salamanders living in a cave in South America whereby they evolved to lose their eyes as they were no longer necessary, and in fact detrimental in that environment, leaving only an apparent vestigial remnant of the place where there would have been an eye socket which is no longer there. Dembski mind-numbingly claims that this is not evidence in favour evolution as this would simply be a case of the Salamander turning off a couple of genes to remove the eyes. I’m sorry Dembski but if you’ve learned anything from your apparent study of Evolution and the fact the your father was a biologist it should be stunningly obvious to you that losing a pair of eyes and filling in the eye sockets is NOT simply a case of “turning off some genes.” If this is the kind of understanding he possesses of Evolution then it is no wonder that he believes in Creationism.)
As for purpose (my previous post “The True Difference” which links to a debate on purpose in the universe) purpose is a thing of the human mind, much like God. A useful model within the human brain for conceptualising the world around us, specifically, in the case of human purpose, a way of modelling the desires that arise from within our brains pushing us to find contentment and what we would call ‘purpose in life.’
4) An objective moral standard cannot exist outside God: well actually, it’s written into the definition. An objective moral standard is one which is immutable and permanent, unchanging and always applicable. I could write you an objective moral standard right now and it would be a moral standard that cannot be questioned, reasoned with or changed. If I were to do something as repugnant as enshrine in eternity an objective moral standard, it would be the Golden Rule. In itself not a repugnant standard but the very fact that it could not be questioned, changed or appealed makes it repugnant. I highly recommend to anyone doubting that we can get by, quite successfully, as a species with an entirely subjective moral standard go read Sam Harris’ latest book “The Moral Landscape.”
5) It therefore derives from God: well since I’ve just proved that anyone can come up with an objective moral standard, this argument is null and void, though it is worth noting that the concept of the Christian God (it’s worth repeating: a capricious, malevolent bully) leads directly to an objective moral standard. One which most right-thinking people would disregard as the product of an entirely selfish and (subjectively) immoral being.
6) Since God is the standard giver he cannot violate the standard: as I mentioned earlier, this isn’t exactly what Dembski says, but to argue what Dembski argues is to be found guilty of intellectual dishonesty and that’s not something I’m willing to subject myself to. In order to answer this question, making the assumption that we are trying to hold God accountable to the letter of his own law, we have to first answer the question: can God commit murder? If we accept the theistic position that God is present in our world and is complicit in events around the world, such as war, famine and natural disasters. If a human could willingly cause an earthquake and this resulted in the direct deaths of people due to the earthquake, we would say that he was responsible for death and would be guilty of murder. Can we say the same of God? Well, in order to be intellectually consistent we have to say that God causing an earthquake which results in the direct death of people would be called murder. Well, if you say that God cannot be found guilty of murder since he is not subject to his own law you have automatically turned your apparent objective moral standard (of which God is the apparent source) into a subjective moral standard. You are now saying “well these laws are only applicable in certain cases (namely humans)” which has made them entirely subjective. If you instead argue, as you rightly should, yes God would be guilty of murder here then God has become subject to his own laws and has violated them, for one of his laws states “thou shalt not commit murder” and, what do you know, God committed murder.
Even in the case of normal laws and moral standards, which are the product of social consensus, if the standard could not be violated by the standard giver, which would be individual members of society, well then we would have an entirely useless moral standard that was both inviolable and unenforceable.
Dembski and other Creationists like him tend to place God outside of the remit of the argument at hand. Dembski claims that God is not subject to his own standards (and by extension, I can only assume, our standards) and so must automatically be good, however, despite the falsity of this claim, this would only render God in a grey area between good or bad since we would be unable to render a determination of his goodness or badness based on his standards due to his imperviousness to them. Others like to claim that God exists outside of the universe and so is not subject to it’s laws, laws which he apparently put in place. As a position it is both false and dishonest to try and place the object of discussion outside the remit of the arguments being put forward by your opposition but susceptible to your own.
In conclusion I’d like to summarise by saying that it is highly improbable for a theistic God to exist based on the evidence of cosmology and evolution. If a God happened to exist who is not a deistic one, then he cannot be good based on any set of moral standards least of all his own as he would be found guilty of murder and genocide on a scale barely imaginable by the human brain. Furthermore, God itself exists merely as a concept and so is not an entity that can be subjected to moral standards as it is not an agent in the real world, despite it’s reach where believers are concerned who may act in the name of that concept.
I highly recommend you watch the debate in full, which you can find here, as there are many great comments from Hitchens. I will say he doesn’t engage Dembski on all of his hare-brained points, but the ones he does engage on, he knocks out of the park, in my estimation.