Matt’s Human Morality
Matt Dillhunty (president of the Atheist Community of Austin, co-host of “Non-Prophets Radio“, and “The Atheist Experience”) recently debated Father Hans Jacobse (an Antiochian Orthodox Priest) at The University of Maryland on 16th November. Full video of the event can be found here (although only 6 of the 9 videos have been posted online as this article is published).
As I watched this highly anticipated debate numerous counter points came to mind, and while I am sure Matt would have done a fine job of addressing them all given sufficient time, and the comment section of the Atheist Experience web site is running amok, I thought it might be beneficial to raise them here.
I will not be addressing Matt’s points because, well, I have nothing to add to them, nor can I find any items of disagreement. I suppose that means he “must be right” (to get that joke, you might have to listen to our interview with Matt earlier this year).
So on to Father Hans Jacobse’s commentary. What follows are direct quotes made by Father Jacobse during the debate. I hope they are accurate and maintain the context well enough to avoid being accused of straw mans, misquoting, and taken things “out of context” – but I suspect these thing will happen anyway.
The following quotes all come from the following video:
1:00 “Atheism properly understood allows for no objective existence of anything non material – not made from matter. Philosophical materialism is the philosophical ground of atheism.” – Father Hans Jacobse
So right out of the blocks Hans is operating under a false definition of atheism. Atheism is the skeptical response to theistic propositions – we do not accept the claims a god exists due to insufficient or inadequate evidence. This does not exclude the possibility of ethereal realms beyond the physical, although evidence for these also seem to be lacking. All atheists I have ever spoken to are methodological (not philosophical) materialism.
1:58 “I would argue as an historian that atheism cannot exist except in a Christian society.” – Father Hans Jacobse
This statement is in stark contrast to clear instructions within the Bible, the history of the Christian Church, and the mere fact people all across the globe reject the notions of gods. I guess Christians ignore passages like this:
“If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods, whom you and your fathers have not known, gods of any other nations, near at hand or far away, from one end of the earth to the other: do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you. You shall stone him to death, because he sought to lead you astray from the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. And all Israel, hearing of this, shall fear and never do such evil as this in your midst.” - (Deuteronomy 13:7-12 NAB)
However, historically the Catholic Church (the only Christian faith worth speaking of for centuries) presided over inquisition to uncover and punish heretics. By coincidence, Jerry Coyne (author of the fabulous book “Why Evolution is True”) posted a few of the torture devices used during the Inquisition in Cartagena, which lasted just over 200 years.
It seems for the best part of 2,000 years Christianity suppressed disbelief through a system of ruthless torture and fear.
2:14 “Does atheism acknowledge the independent existence of the transcendent?” – Father Hans Jacobse
Atheism itself says nothing about the transcendent. In fact, it says nothing about anything other than “I do not believe your god claims are valid.” If you want to convince skeptical people of your claims, then the burden of proof is yours to meet. In the 200 decades since Jesus walked the Earth our religious organisations have routinely failed to meet this challenge.
5:00 “From the view that one holds to transcendent causes then, which would be me, and in my case the God of Abraham within he framework of Orthodox Christianity, that a definition of reality cannot be reduced to matter alone. That matter is not the source of what defines and shapes our ideas of meaning, aesthetics, justice, and so forth.” – Father Hans Jacobse
Hans is making an interesting claim here, but it’s pointless without evidence to back it up. I assume he might consider meaning, aesthetics, and justice evidence of the transcendent without realising the circular logic in which he finds himself. Nevertheless, I believe we can build systems of meaning, aesthetics, justice without appealing to the transcendent. All that is required are conscious beings capable of making value judgements – and don’t forget, there seems to be no reason to suggest consciousness is not simply an emergent property of the brain.
5:53 “They [atheists] get offended when I state that their moral views are derived from the categories and grammar of the Christian moral tradition. And necessarily so because Christianity has shaped what we know of Western culture.” – Father Hans Jacobse
I will ignore the killing of heretics, atheists, non-believers, witches, and other enemies of the Church to concentrate of slavery for a moment. The Bible is clear on the issue of slavery. It informs you how much you should pay for them, how to properly beat them and what to do should they die from said beatings, how to pass them on to descendants, etc. These passages were used to support the vile trade in human ownership and suffering, even as Martin Luther King delivered his iconic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Sure King used Biblical passages to support his anti-slavery stance, but what good is the “good book” if it can be used to support both sides? It seems moral views on slavery (and many other issues) are brought to the book, rather than arise out of it.
6:12 “If an atheist says (for example) that ‘killing is wrong’ that he is not drawing from the first principles of his philosophy – he is borrowing from the precepts first delivered in the texts of Christian scripture.” – Father Hans Jacobse
Like this one?
“But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.” Jesus, Luke 19:27
6:20 “The narrative of Moses descending from the Mount, which indicates to us that precept, although it is given to us through the mouth of Moses … has a source and origin in the God of Moses. Which is to say it has a transcendent source of origin, something beyond molecules that made of Moses, or even the molecules of the texts that gives us the story.” – Father Hans Jacobse
I am having trouble distilling Father Jacobse’s logic here. I am unable to discern a method to tell “transcendently inspired” speech from the mouths of individuals from simply the minds of individuals. How could we possibly separate these two groups apart?
Moreover, texts are made of matter and words are produced by physical voice boxes vibrating physical molecules in the air, which wind up vibrating the surface of the receivers ear drum to be converted into bio-electric nerve signals to be interpreted by the matrix of neurones within the brain. Where is the transcendent in this equation?
6:58 “One could also argue that non-Christian cultures also recognised that killing was wrong, and I would agree with this point. There is no disputing that, but there is not that Christianity has an exclusive claim on moral truths (they don’t), but that other religions still recognise what I consider an elementary fact of the universe – man cannot live by bread alone, which is to say that man is more than the molecules which shape his body.” – Father Hans Jacobse
This is simply a bald faced assertion for which the good Father has provided no evidence whatsoever. As Christopher Hitchens said in his great book “God is NOT Great”:
“That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” – Christopher Hitchens
Back to Father Hans Jacobse:
7:50 “I believe that truth is a category of existence – a transcendent category of existence. That is to say that truth exists independent of any comprehension that I may have of it.” – Father Hans Jacobse
Strangely, I find myself ending part one of this dissection kind of agreeing with Father Jacobse. Truth, if defined as the “true” nature of reality (including any transcendent parts) exists regardless of our awareness, comprehension, or understanding of it. There are truths regarding reality we have not yet uncovered, and there may well be believes we current hold as true which will ultimately resolve to the utterly false. The key point is how we should go about discerning what this truth really is.
On one hand we have empirical study, observation, logic, deduction, correlation, causation, and the verification of predictive models. On the other we have the transcendent word revealed. I know which one I am backing.