Sunday, January 6, 2008

"Introduction" and "The Justification of Negative Atheism"


Dr. Martin begins his philosophical justification of atheism by making an appeal to atheism as being a much more prominently held belief than is often admitted. He also notes that atheists are often looked down on while its proponents are nearly invisible in America. He offers these as reasons for writing this book. Of course the climate has changed a bit since 1990 when this book was published, and today atheism is much more "in," but I think that his claims still hold some truth, and I think that it is a noble cause on his part to attempt to make this justification. In the Introduction Martin attempts to defend atheism against some common criticisms leveled against it—that atheism is false, that atheists are immoral, and that atheism leads to meaninglessness. The first of these he passes on discussing here since this is the purpose of this book. The second and third he makes his arguments against here since he will not address them further in the rest of this work. In concluding the introduction, Martin spells out his overall purpose for the book. He wishes to: 1) provide good reasons for being an atheist; 2) show that atheism is justifiable and belief in God is not; and 3) make counterarguments to the new analytical arguments for God. I will come back to these three purposes when I conclude my series. In Chapter 1, Martin sets forth some preliminary considerations prior to making his case for negative atheism—the argument for atheism from the failure of the reasons for theism. In the second part of his book he will try to make a positive case for atheism.

*Note: Because of the introductory nature of this section of the book the presentation was quite choppy and incomplete. I do not find fault with the author, I realize that he was probably just bringing attention to the fact that he recognizes that such problems are present and wanted to swiftly address them. Whole volumes could be written on these topics. Therefore, I will do my best to summarize, but in doing so I must leave some information out. For those of you reading with me, if you think that I have erred in my analysis, please let me know where and in what way. My hope is that the rest of the book and my appraisal will be able to be clearer.

Summary of Martin's Claims

Martin's first defense of atheism in the Introduction is the defense against the claim that "atheists are immoral." He points out how people who were atheists were automatically considered to be criminals in past times and that such unwarranted beliefs are often held by believers today. He proceeds to ask the question: "Is there any reason to suppose that religious belief and morality are intimately related?" According to Martin, some theists say that belief in God is necessary for having a high moral character. Other theists weaken the claim a bit and claim that belief in God makes it more probable that one will have a high moral character. In light of these claims, Martin offers as counterexamples: 1) that there are moral atheists; and 2) that there is evidence that seems to show that religious belief has little effect on criminal record. In doing so Martin claims to show that religious belief and morality are not intimately related. Martin next attempts to answer the objection that "atheists do not have any justification for being moral." He proposes that an act for an atheist can be considered moral according to one of many different, though possible, methods. Some of these are the "no-egocentric-term-analysis," the "unique justification analysis," and "methodological ethical absolutism." Of course, Martin is sure to point out that these methods don't necessarily result in absolute agreement since human beings have limited factual knowledge. After explaining the systems by which an atheist is supposed to be able to justify objective moral statements, Martin proceeds to critique a theistic position regarding morality, Divine Command Theory. He points out that there are "modal problems" regarding this theory where God may command one moral act in one possible world and the opposite in another. He also acknowledges many epistemological problems such as: 1) how to determine which commands are from God considering the fact that there are many conflicting "sources" of commands (Bible, Koran, etc…); 2) how to determine the meaning of conflicting interpretations of commands (thou shall not kill or murder?); and 3) how to deal with questionable commands (divorce). Finally, Martin notes some conceptual problems such as the dilemma of a non-spatial, non-temporal being being involved in a speech act. Thus, at the conclusion of this section on morality and atheism, Martin concludes that a theist will have to explain how the theories that he puts forward for ethical absolutism fail as well as answer the problems with their system.

The next "misconception" that Martin attempts to clear up is that atheism leads to meaninglessness. He begins by pointing out that terms such as "purpose" and "meaning" are ambiguous, and hence it is difficult to even understand what is mean by "meaningless." If meaning relates to duration, Martin points out that atheism doesn't necessarily count out the immortality of the soul or a "cosmic plan of salvation." Nonetheless, even if these conclusions are rejected by a naturalistic atheist, Martin says that undesirable conclusions don't determine that the premise of atheism is false. After pointing this out, Martin goes back to the ambiguity of the word "purpose." He admits that if this is taken to signify some "creative purpose" then it is true that life according to atheism is purposeless. However, if "purpose" signifies "having a reason" then atheism can allow for many purposes in life. In fact, these purposes may actually be somewhat objective since they can be compared and evaluated regarding which may be more justifiable. Next, Martin critiques arguments from prominent atheists Camus and Nagel asserting that life is absurd. Finally, he attempts to defend the idea that atheism can allow for "value" in life by asserting that "value" is based on desire. He then points out the flaw in the idea that value be evaluated according to duration. Finally, he critiques Bertrand Russell's transitory argument.

In Chapter One, Dr. Martin proceeds to lay down some preliminary considerations before entering his critique of theistic arguments. First, he points out how he does not begin with the "presumption of atheism or agnosticism" as some atheists believe is the correct way of treating the issue of God's existence. He then continues to discuss the "epistemic duty" of all truth seekers. He claims that a person should not believe anything without a sufficient reason. Then, he orders "reasons," claiming that "epistemic reasons" are supreme whereas "beneficial reasons" are supplementary. He does this after pointing out how belief based on "beneficial reasons" often tends to be problematic. Finally, he critiques any Cartesian-like view of epistemology invoking "deceiving spirits" since such views lead to total skepticism and are unfalsifiable.

Agreements and What I Have Learned

I agree with much of what Martin puts forth in the Introduction and Chapter One. First, atheists should be treated with as much respect socially as anyone else. Second, atheists can be as moral as or even more moral than many, or maybe even most, believers in God. Of course, there may be other aspects to this where I may disagree, but regarding the blanket statement made by Dr. Martin I am in agreement. Third, I believe that atheists can have a high moral character if by "moral" one limits the application to earthly matters. Fourth, I agree with Martin that atheism does not directly lead to moral anarchy and that atheists can make objective moral statements. Further, I appreciate that he has offered methods for determining which statements are in fact morally true. Fifth, I think that he is right to critique divine command theory. Sixth, I agree that "purpose" and "meaning" are very ambiguous, and I also agree with his assessment of "purpose" when used to describe either a creative plan or a specific reason. Seventh, I agree that value should be determined by quality, rather than duration. Eighth, I commend him for not working from the assumption that atheism should be presumed. Ninth, I agree with his assessment of belief—it should be based on epistemic reasons first and supported with beneficial reasons since being based on beneficial reasons alone would be problematic. And finally, tenth, I agree that Cartesian doubt is misplaced and that unfalsifiable views should not be invoked as counterarguments.


Finally, I will critique this section where I think it falls short of proving its claims. I want to be sure to note that this is a critique of his arguments, not a justification for mine. If there are any places where I think he has attacked a view that is not representative of the theistic position I will merely mention so and define the stronger theistic position. First, I think that Martin is correct in noting that atheists can make absolute statements about morality and is also correct in claiming that it is at least possible to have a methodology that correctly interprets all facts in such a way as to determine what the best moral decision may be. However, these assertions are completely overlooking the actual issue that theists bring up. He never actually defines what morality is and gives a reason that one should act in a way in accordance with it. He seems to treat it as a transcendent standard without justifying this. Second, his critique of the theistic position of morality left as it is is nothing more than a straw man. Surely Dr. Martin doesn't believe that Divine Command Theory is the only theistic position regarding the justification for morality. A stronger theistic position is that which grounds morality in the nature of God, rather than in an arbitrary command or in an object that transcends God (i.e. Euthephro's dilemma). Third, the supposed epistemological problems aren't unanswerable. We can determine which commands are from God negatively by rational appraisal and positively by miraculous confirmation. We can determine which source may be from God negatively by its full correspondence to reality and positively by miraculous confirmation. Conflicting interpretations can be judged according to the evidence available. Any important disagreement that I have ever seen, such as the kill/ murder disagreement, seems to have a preferable understanding. Finally, questionable commands, such as those against divorce, are not questionable if God is all knowing and sovereign. Fourth, the conceptual problem offered by Martin doesn't consider the theory that God acts from eternity with effects in time. Fifth, and finally, at the end of the Introduction, Dr. Martin seems to be implying that he is taking some kind of high ground by not subscribing to a particular epistemological system (Correspondence, Coherence, etc.) but in doing this he just leaves us in ambiguity as to what he means when he claims that something is "true" or "false."

Of course there may be some other disagreements that I have had throughout this section of the book, but these are the most important criticisms. Again, because of the introductory nature here it is hard to fully critique his position since I don't fully have it made available to me. I look forward to the weeks to come where I will have a greater presentation of his position.

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