An average conversation with a red herring theist

This is an extension of a previous post. Both that post and this post are influenced by common arguments I’ve heard from theists who just have no clue about how to stay on topic or, perhaps, just don’t want to stay on topic. It’s easier to engage this same point (which I will post in a moment) over and over – and then ignore the given answers – than to engage more difficult points. William Dembski is guilty of that recently, providing me the final impetus for this post. So here it is:

A = Atheist

T = Theist

Atheist: So yeah, I guess to summarize, I disagree with your position on how we should approach North Korea over the next year.

Theist: Yeah, well, why does your opinion matter?

A: Huh? Well, I suppose I’ve become fairly informed on the issues and I think…

T: No, no. You’re an atheist. You have no basis for morality. So why is your opinion good?

A: That’s really a red herring. We’re discussing North Korea (our allies according to Sarah Palin).

T: Stop dodging my question.

A: So you want to change the subject?

T: You aren’t answering me!

A: Okay, I’ll just pretend like you acknowledged that you want to change the topic rather than continue to discuss North Korea. So why is my opinion good? It depends on how we want to define “good” and then it depends on how my opinion comports with that definition.

T: So how do we define good?

A: We are a social animal that has evolved a general concern for ourselves and for other members of our population, “population” initially being defined as the small group in which we lived. As with every other social animal, we developed rules for interactions. This served and serves to better the health of the group. It’s important to note that this group betterment is ultimately being done for the sake of the individual gene, but I digress.

T: So then we should all individually just do whatever it takes to survive? Then why shouldn’t I just kill you if you’re standing in my way to a better job or position in life?

A: …uh, no. No. What I’ve given you is a description of reality based upon scientific observation. Do you know the difference between a descriptive position and a normative one?

T: No.

A: Right, then. You ought to know that since you aren’t 14, but briefly: A descriptive position describes something and is not a claim of value. A normative position is a value position that says how something should or should not be.

T: I still don’t get it.

A: You should. But let’s move on.

T: Okay, so why shouldn’t I kill you if you’re in the way of that sweet new job?

A: That we evolved to best survive in a particular environment does not dictate how we ought to act now. Besides that, even if our past evolution did say how we should presently act, it would not follow that we should kill each other. We’re a social animal. Killing each other probably wouldn’t help us out individually (or as a group) in the long run.

T: So if we shouldn’t act based upon our previous evolution, then what should our basis for what is good and bad be?

A: I probably can’t give you a satisfactory answer. In fact, most of your fellow Christians will disagree with you on some points concerning what is good and what is bad, but I digress. My basis is rationality. I cannot rationally justify hurting someone in any way unless I say they can do the same to me under the same circumstances. Often I don’t want to face pain – nor do I want that for the ones I care about and love.

T: So what stops you from acting irrationally?

A: Love, empathy, self-interest, sympathy, culture, social pressures, norms, dominant values that surround me, my upbringing, assumptions, passion for science, etc. Irrationality conflicts with my personal identity. Fortunately, it also conflicts with the personal identity of many of my fellow humans.

T: Then there is no ultimate right or wrong.

A: You’re right. We have to define these terms with practical and operational considerations. If we want to say anything and everything is right (or wrong), then we’re likely to undermine our own interests (interests which may directly be our own or which may be reflections of the interests of those we care about and love).

T: So my opinion on North Korea has a basis for ultimately being right and yours does not.

A: In theory, yes. Unfortunately for you, the important question here is, ‘Is it true?’ Is it true that we have accurate information from your basis? Is it true that your basis isn’t arbitrary and capricious? Is it true that your basis even exists? In reality, you have a claim to an ultimate basis, but credible evidence has yet to be given for that ultimate basis. All you’ve done is based your opinions off the same sort of things I previously listed as my own basis, perhaps minus the rationality. Furthermore, without any valid, self-correcting method for determining what is true in religion, you only have personal, often anecdotal, and usually subjective interpretations of any given evidence. This makes your conclusions just as ultimately subjective as anyone else’s but with the key difference that many other conclusions – namely scientific ones – have a superior empirical basis. We can say those conclusions are objective within a given framework of reality, a framework most everyone except the most pedantic amateur philosopher accepts. We cannot say the same of yours.

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