You’ve likely heard it before, a self-identified secular humanist*, skeptic, and/or atheist tells you that their personal morality is based on whether an action is empathetic or provides maximum well-being. I’ve had these discussions before, but during a recent online conversation when I pressed back on an atheist making his case – I pointed out that it was arbitrary for the atheist to define “goodness as empathetic”. That atheist responded to me:
The definitions we attach to words are arbitrary…Why can’t “cat” mean “an energy drink.” It could…but it doesn’t. This doesn’t mean calling my house pet a cat is inconsistent or irrationaly
To answer this, some basic groundwork needs to be done in explanation…
To be clear, atheism has no grounding for intelligibility at all, let alone the philosophical ability to make judgments or distinctions. To see why, you can view the reasons here.
But for purposes of this discussion, I will grant the God-denier the ability to make intelligent distinctions.
The definition they supplied for “good” was “helping others“. I’ve heard other God-deniers say that good is “empathy” or “whatever promotes well-being”. I consider all of those synonymous, so I’ll address them as one below.
There are at least 3 levels of arbitrariness from the atheist perspective in defining goodness as “helping others”.
Firstly, goodness could have been defined as any other ideal. Just saying that “helping others is good” is arbitrary. “Goodness” could just as easily have been defined as:
- Whatever promotes fitness
- Whatever preserves history
- Whatever benefits frogs
- Whatever helps Democrats
- Whatever smells pleasant
- Whatever Oprah says
Secondly, who are the others they are talking about? To whom should empathy be given? Should “helpfulness” be termed good if it is applied to a specific person, or a specific group of people, or to a particular cause (environmentalism, veganism, BLM…)? What if being helpful to 1 person is detrimental to another person? What if the 1 person to which helpfulness is offered is the 45th president? Might someone consider helping the originator of MAGA as bad instead of good? What if being helpful to one group is destructive of another group? What if being helpful to a particular cause/person/group leads to the extinction of a species? Why would goodness not be helping and promoting the well-being of the most fit creatures on earth: bacteria? Arbitrariness abounds for the skeptic, but there’s more…
The final reason that the atheist definition of goodness is arbitrary is that there are multiple metrics for measuring well-being. Which metric should be used to define good as well-being? Should we measure the well-being based on economic, hedonistic, pragmatic, physiological, psychological, spiritual or evolutionary metrics? “Helping others” in one of these categories will necessarily deprive help in at least one of the other categories. Besides that, who gets to decide what is TRULY helpful within each metric? For example, if I were going to help someone economically, I might give them all the money they would ever need and someone might call that good. But the recipient might spend the money on destructive things or waste the money by donating to the (insert evil political entity here) party, which might lead someone else to call my beneficence bad. Arbitrariness!
In contrast, defining a cat as a “4 legged pet” is not arbitrary in the same way. Sure, the initial word “cat” being applied to a 4 legged pet might have been chosen in place of any other word that was not in use to describe something else, but “cat” is not an abstract standard. Atheists cannot rationally conjure up an “ought” from an “is”.
Arbitrariness in defining “good” is not the only problem for the atheist. Defining good as empathetic, helping others, or promoting well-being is also inconsistent with their other assumptions and irrational based on their theory of knowledge.
Key assumptions for the skeptic is that unguided/impartial/purposeless forces (natural selection acting on random mutations) brought about the tree of life. Those creatures that produce the most offspring are said to be the most fit. Those creatures that are unfit are culled from the gene pool. Difficulties, harms and other selection pressures provide stimulus for creatures to produce/perpetuate novel traits. So it would necessarily be inconsistent to deem helpfulness/empathy as good, when protecting a creature from difficulty/SelectionPressure limits their ability to evolve.
Defining good as being empathetic, being helpful or promoting well-being for the atheist is also irrational on at least 2 levels. It is irrational firstly because the atheists teach that humans are the serendipitous product of stardust from a universe that is amoral, purposeless, undesigned, blind, pitiless, and indifferent – and if this is the case, why does it matter if one accidental aggregation of stardust interacts with another accidental aggregation of stardust? It is irrational to declare that one action by one collection of particles towards another collection of particles as good/evil. Secondly, it is irrational for anyone who does NOT have all knowledge of all time to declare some temporal action as good since a temporary negative could lead to tremendous positive or a short-term positive could lead to devastating negatives.
For the atheist/skeptic/SecularHumanist to define good as empathy, well-being, beneficial, or helping others is:
- When they chose a specific ideal, any other ideal could have just as easily been chosen to represent goodness
- In the midst of competing needs/wants, to whom should help/empathy be given?
- Based on which metric should help/empathy/well-being be measured (economic, moral, spiritual, physiological, hedonistic, pragmatic….)?
Inconsistent – because if the natural forces of evolution produced all of life, then choosing well-being as the primary good would be contradictory. If the skeptic assumes that the same forces which promote progress through reproductive fitness also requires that well-being be considered as of primary importance then they are blind to the contradictory assumptions. To be consistent with their assumptions of natural selection acting on random mutations to produce the most fit offspring, the skeptic would need to define goodness as whatever produced the highest fitness in creatures. Since stress/harm produces selective pressure that drives novel traits and culls the unfit, then well-being is literally the opposite of the process that brought them into existence.
- If humans are just stardust, there’s no rationale for judging one action as good/bad
- If justification for knowledge (let alone all knowledge) is not possible for the atheist, then picking 1 action as good/bad is unintelligible.
In stark contrast, Christians can make a coherent case that helping others and promoting well-being is coherent and consistent within our worldview
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to “love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength” when He references Deut 6:5. He followed up the greatest commandment with the second most important commandment when He says “The second commandment is like the first: love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus even went so far as to say “love your enemies.” With the first and greatest commandment in mind, we should love and promote well-being to people around us.
To be clear, the atheist/skeptic/humanist CAN be empathetic because they are made in the image of God. They do have the pre-programmed desire (Romans 2:15) to promote well-being to others, but as shown above, it is arbitrary, inconsistent and irrational for them when you consider their other worldview assumptions.
*It has been pointed out to me that secular humanists are not arbitrary in their choosing of limited harm (maximum well being, etc…) for their standard of goodness. This is a fair criticism as it is part of their worldview. However, because secular humanism is a godless religion without any transcendent measure AND is built upon a foundation of naturalism, there is an arbitrary and inconsistent nature to their belief that limiting hard is good. Were naturalism, the foundation of secular humanism, true, goodness nor evil could be known. Everything would just be.
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Thanks for the insight! This is extremely helpful.
Love this: “In stark contrast, Christians can make a coherent case that helping others and promoting well-being is coherent and consistent within our worldview”
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I tried to reblog this post but nothing happened when I clicked on the reblog button.
I’m not sure why that would happen. It sounds like a problem with WordPress. Thanks for trying. Maybe the problem will clear up soon
considering that goodness is arbitrary for a Christian, it’s rather amusing to see you fuss about things.
Alas, Christians can’t agree on what good and evil are. And no god to give you the divine stamp of approval. It’s also grand fun to see Christians claim knowledge isn’t possible, when it is and their religion depends on that.
Knowledge is ONLY possible because the Christian worldview is true.
Why do you feel that goodness is arbitrary for the Christian?
LOL. oh my. So do show how that works.
Since Christians don’t agree on what “sin” consists of, you all make up what you consider good and evil.
Let me ask you, A. Is killing children for no fault of their own good? How about committing genocide?
Sin is defined by what is revealed in the Bible. If someone disagrees, they are in disagreement with the Bible. So, you are incorrect to say that “goodness” to the Christian is arbitrary.
So, that I can answer your question reasonably, and since it is part of your question – how do you define “good”?
so, how many people have you killed for working on the sabbath then, A, sincen you claim that sin is not following what your god says to do in the bible?
Good: that which doesn’t hurt others and helps them in what they wish to do, their well being, etc. Again, Is killing children for no fault of their own good? How about committing genocide?
now will you try to tell me I can’t know what good is without your particular god?
You realize that I have refuted your definition of goodness as arbitrary, inconsistent and irrational in the article above…yes? You should read the article again
It’s not my place to punish the wicked. It is under the jurisdiction of the Eternal Judge. Why do you think I should take God’s place? That’s idolatry!
To answer your question about killing children: Only the proper authorities can kill people. Courts can sentence criminals to death and they are not immoral. Regarding the killing of children in the OT, God pronounced judgment on the Canaanites for their wickedness. You must remember that God owes NOTHING to ANYONE. We are all born sinners, so the fact that anyone lives is common grace. We all share in common grace and I am so thankful because I have been constantly disobeyed the greatest commandment (Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength). Even children have broken this commandment, so no one is immune from God’s righteous judgment
If you disagree, why? What standard do you use to determine anything God commands as wrong?
As I covered in the article, it is irrational to define anything as good without God. God’s nature us the very definition of goodness
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No, you didn’t refute anything, my dear Sith.
There is no god, just a little man who has made up his god in his image.
We are not born sinners. You have this silly myth that has this god screwing up in Eden, either allowing Satan in (and not warning Adam and Eve) or not being able to keep it out. Then we have this god lie when it damns everyone per Adam and Eve’s action. He promises not to do that “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him.” Ezekiel 18. Of course your god says he does harm children for their parents sins in other places, Exodus, 20, Numbers 14, etc. So which is the lie, Sith?
And of course you try the moral argument for your god. Alas, if you have separate rules for your god and humans, poof goes objective morality.
My morals are based on empathy (yes dear, I know you whine about that), and what makes civilization work. They are wonderfully subjective and can get better. I don’t have to look to the ignorance of people 2000+ years ago who didn’t have problems with genocide, slavery and killing kids.
Your god is given different attributes of what good is by each Christian. No agreement, no god.
It doesn’t surprise me that a God-denier like you would so distort and mischaracterize the Bible, but here’s the rub: none of your mendacity helps you to solve the critical point of the article.
Atheists can be empathetic but it is arbitrary, inconsistent, and irrational when considering their worldview
If you would like to build a case to counter what I have written rather than vent your incredulity, feel free to post here. If you persist in spreading your falsehoods, I’ll delete your comments
do you think it was good when Anakin killed the younglings?
Murder is wrong. Anakin was not the rightful authority. But I love Star Wars. You should familiarize yourself with the Palpatine Theodicy. The problem of evil (or killing of children) is only a problem for atheists. It’s no problem for Christians
So, your god who also murdered children is wrong. Of course, you claim it is its right to murder. Nice subjective morality you have there, with it depending one who does an action, not the action itself. You have a morality of might equals right.
I know its no problem with Christians. You have no problem following a vicious and violent god because you are promised presents. Quite the Dark Side you have going there. Not a Jedi at all.
Murder is unlawful killing. As the Eternal Lawgiver and Judge, God cannot commit murder. I explained earlier, but perhaps you missed it. Everyone (even you) recognizes that the proper authority can give an order by which they are not bound. Here’s another example: As a parent, I told my young children not to open the door to strangers or play in the street. It’s not immoral to open the door to strangers or play in the street, but it would have been immoral for them to do it at those times. In the same way it would be wrong for me to kill children, but because God is the Creator, He has no compulsion to grant or sustain life to any of his creation. That we have life at all is amazing common grace. Rather than being mutinous, you should honor Him for the gift He has given you
Why do you feel that murder is wrong? Based on what absolute standard do you declare ANYTHING as wrong?
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As a humanist myself I can say that your conclusions (and quite a few of your assumptions) are critically flawed.
The main stumble seems to be asserting that harm is an arbitrary concept, and that there’s no sensible way to determine whether one action or decision is more or less harmful than another. The harms of things like murder, rape, slavery, torture, etc. are tangible, measurable, and well understood, and cannot sensibly be dismissed simply as opinion. To suggest there’s no objective way to determine that (say) being murdered is more harmful than being not murdered is to enter some pretty bizarre and indefensible territory, and more to the point is not borne out by evidence or what we accept as the definition of harm.
You also wrongly assert that for a humanist “any ideal” can be chosen to represent goodness, but that too is wrong. As noted above, humanism rests on the principle of finding the path of least harm, and harm is observable and measurable, not simply a matter of opinion. Again to take the example of torture, the difference in harm between inflicting it and not inflicting it is quite observable, measurable, and factual, and not something one can dismiss simply as opinion.
Another wrinkle: you suggest that humans are “just stardust” and so there’s no basis for judging one action good/bad, but that doesn’t follow. (And nor do I agree that humans are “just” anything; we’re amazing and wonderful.) Much of our matter probably did originate in stars, but that fact has no bearing on how we treat each other or judge what’s right or wrong. Would you dismiss the beauty of the Mona Lisa because it’s “just” a bunch of wood and fiber and dye? 🙂
Another: you wrongly suggest knowledge isn’t possible for a non-theists, but again that’s a thoroughly baseless assertion. Our knowledge is the set of facts, information, skills, etc. that we acquire through experience and education, and both theists and non-theists are just as capable of gaining and possessing knowledge. The difference as I see it is that knowledge for a humanist stems from reason and evidence, but that’s not necessarily so for a theist whose knowledge stems at least in part from faith.
In short, your assertion that we can’t know anything without God (and in particular can’t know whether something’s likely to cause harm) doesn’t seem to be grounded in an actual evidence, and is refuted by abundant evidence of non-theists around the world doing exactly that all the time.
I’m happy to answer questions. 🙂
HB: “asserting that harm is an arbitrary concept”
That is not my case. Harm is not arbitrary. But for the naturalist to claim that “harm is bad” is arbitrary. They could just as easily say that altruism is bad or investigation is bad
HB: “You also wrongly assert that for a humanist “any ideal” can be chosen to represent goodness”
Fair enough. I can go make a correction on this. However, humanism still is built upon the assumption of naturalism, which is incompatible with empathy for the reasons explained in the article. And since humanism is built on a foundation that is godless, empathy is ultimately meaningless
HB: “we’re amazing and wonderful”
This is because Christianity is true and in spite of naturalism. Were humans the accidental aggregation of stardust, neither goodness nor evil could be known. These concepts do not evolve
HB: “you wrongly suggest knowledge isn’t possible for a non-theists”
I went back through the article and did find what you are talking about. This was inadvertent on my part and I will correct. What should have been said (and was said throughout the article) is that knowledge is unjustified by non-theists. The justification for that claim is in a separate link as it wasn’t the focus of the article.
That harm is bad isn’t arbitrary; it’s inherent in the concept of harm.
You also make several other pretty problematic claims; here are a few:
* “Naturalism is incompatible with empathy for the reasons explained in the article.”
Your explanation doesn’t work, as we’ve already discussed. For social species (like humans, other primates, etc.) empathy is advantageous and so persists. There’s a good amount of research on this if you’re interested; here’s a basic one to get you started:
* “Were humans the accidental aggregation of stardust…”
Accidental? Natural selection is quite the opposite: it’s a mechanism that specifically favors traits that aid in survival and is definitely not random.
“Knowledge is unjustified by non-theists.”
Not at all. Knowledge means an acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation, and non-theists demonstrably have that (and I would argue they have it in more reliable and evidentiary ways that theists). Claiming they don’t doesn’t make it so — and a link to a biblical blogger also doesn’t make it so. 🙂
As for justifying one’s beliefs: reason and evidence seem like superlatively good justifications, and they’re the ones that I as a humanist rely on. You may prefer to use faith as a justification for knowledge, and that’s your choice, but it’s tough to defend it as the superior or more successful basis.
HB: “empathy is advantageous and so persists”
This is again a post hoc fallacy. You’re claiming that just because something exists, it must be advantageous and that evolution must have been the cause.
If we applied your claim to other parts of social species, we can show your assertion to be absurd: “Rape/lying/homosexuality/murder/fraud is advantageous and so persists” “Governmental corruption is advantageous and so persists”
Those claims are as absurd as your claim that just because altruism is observed, it must be advantageous and evolution must have done it
HB: “Natural selection is quite the opposite: it’s a mechanism that specifically favors traits”
Natural selection is descriptive – not prescriptive. It’s not truly a mechanism like gravity or magnetism. It’s simply a term that describes the general dying out of the unfit. You’ll notice too that you only *inferred* that I was talking solely about NS when I exposed the true beliefs of the naturalist (accidental aggregation of stardust). You brought natural selection into this – not me. Remember, the primary assumption of the naturalist is that the cosmos, which is amoral, purposeless, blind, pitiless & indifferent, and that part of the cosmos came alive, and then some parts of those living particles became self aware, and then some of those parts began demanding justice…all with no guidance, reason, or intent…in other words accidental. But even if we do consider NS as a term that describes what is seen, the Neo-Darwinian synthesis hypothesizes that the raw material for evolution is random mutation. If we take your assertion at face value that NS is not accidental, you must still content with the bigger picture that the cosmos has provided no purpose and combining it with accidental mutations, the whole process must be seen to be ultimately accidental. Therefore humans are simply accidental aggregations of stardust in the naturalistic framework. It’s inescapable.
Notice that I did not say non-theists are unacquainted with facts. The claim is that non-theists cannot JUSTIFY knowledge. If you’d like more information about epistemology (theory of knowledge) and why only Christianity provides a justified foundation for knowledge see
* “You’re claiming that just because something exists, it must be advantageous and that evolution must have been the cause.”
No, I’m not. Traits sometimes occur that are deleterious. They exist, but they don’t tend to *persist* because of natural selection. In the case of social behaviors in general, and altruism in particular, we observe these persisting in a range of successful social species, from ants up to humans. It’s therefor reasonable to assume that it conveys an advantage, particularly when naturalists are quite capable of explaining the advantage that such behaviors can grant, as any quick search will show. If (as it seems) you’re claiming that one particular natural behavior is somehow exempted from the effects of natural selection, then the burden is on you to show that that’s so — and so far you have not.
* “Rape/lying/homosexuality/murder/fraud is advantageous and so persists”
I never said those are advantageous. You seem to be suggesting that if some behaviors are advantageous, then all behaviors are… but that’s silly and not supported by reason or evidence.
* “The claim is that non-theists cannot JUSTIFY knowledge”
And that claim isn’t one that you’ve proven, nor is there any good reason to think you could. Please understand that “justification” is not the same as “supernatural justification”, and that there’s no agreed-upon basis for insisting that only supernatural/transcendental justifications have merit. Also, having scanned the links you shared, they seem to use the same circular reasoning that you do in this regard, with mistaken premises that presupposed belief in the conclusion, and in no way prove your assertion.
* * *
Enjoyable though our repartee has been, I think there’s probably not much point in continuing on past this point since a) I’m increasingly spending my time just correcting your false strawman assertions of what you think I believe but don’t, and b) your reasoning always seems to lead ultimately back to supernatural assumptions which are necessarily based in faith rather than evidence, and so cannot be sensibly addressed in a debate that (IMHO) would be more usefully argued strictly on reason and evidence.
Take care, and thanks for the conversation. 👋
HB: “reasonable to assume”
That’s all you’ve got – assumptions – but those assumptions are NOT reasonable because reasoning requires God. You’ve been unable to damage my case because your foundation
HB: “that claim isn’t one that you’ve proven”
That claims is beyond the scope of this post, but I pointed you to articles that prove this claim beyond doubt. If you failed to read them or understand them, this is not the place for you to proclaim my failure.
HB: “Enjoyable though our repartee has been”
It has indeed been an interesting repartee, and I can understand that since you have no justified foundation on which to stand that you would retreat. You have utterly failed to address the actual argument made the in article but have instead attacked a caricature. God bless
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