Compassion and self-sacrifice are completely futile on atheism because unless there is a moral payback, unless there is a return, a dividend, it makes no sense to risk your own life for another.
So said Muslim missionary, Adam Deen, in a recent “debate” with Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association, at Birkbeck University in London.
This quote will serve to confirm what some atheists (not me!) already believe about religious people, which is that if they choose to do good rather than harm, it’s not because they really care about people like we do. Rather it is to score brownie points in Heaven. They expect a “payback”, a “dividend” or, at the very least, to avoid punishment. “If we all end up dead it doesn’t matter if you behaved like Stalin,” according to Adam Deen.
Adam Deen can always be relied on for an odious, attention-grabbing quote with which to start a blog post. Having already dedicated one post to him, I had no plans to write another and was content to leave a brief comment beneath the video of the debate on youtube. I tried to leave one, then another, then another. My comments were critical but none were abusive and yet none were allowed through by the account holder, who apparently wants to bring Adam’s message to a wider audience but doesn’t want us to express an opinion on it unless it’s as sycophantic as his own.
Fine by me. I have a blog. And I’m tempted to just fill this post with quotes from Adam Deen and leave it at that but I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t heard him speak would believe they are for real. Most of what he says is so bad it’s funny.
Adam Deen can’t argue his way out of a paper bag and I have to wonder how he gets himself invited to participate in so many debates. His preference for the confrontational format is understandable; it means he can misrepresent and ignore what his opponent is saying. He wouldn’t get away with that on an internet discussion forum and that’s why he is happy to spam such places with links to his videos but he shies away from actually participating in them.
Do university Islamic Societies up and down the country think he is doing them some good? Because from where I’m sitting he seems to be actively undermining the well-intentioned work being done by the Dialogue with Islam organisation, whose aim is to “provide a bridge of understanding and discussion between the Western Intellectuals and the Muslim community in Britain.”
To illustrate what I mean, here are a few tips from the Adam Deen School of Preaching.
Note: All of these suggestions will make you look silly in the eyes of your opponents but that doesn’t matter. The object is to impress your supporters who are too stupid the understand the issues anyway.
- Adopt an imperious oratory style. This will help to make it sound as if you are saying something profoundly truthful and important, even when you’re talking shite.
- At the beginning, tell your opponent what he has to do to make his case and, at the end, declare that he has failed to do so, regardless of what he has said. (There’s no need to listen.)
- Adopt a pet saying like this one: “The question, ladies and gentlemen, is: ‘Is there an objective morality without God?” And repeat it ad nauseum. Repeat it in response to every point that is made and every question that is asked — especially any rhetorical ones you ask yourself. If you do this often enough, it will sound as if you are actually making an intelligent argument to people who don’t know what these are.
- If you can’t understand or don’t know how to answer a question or point made by the opposition, simply misrepresent the point and then repeat the pet saying you’ve already practised.
- Ignore what your opponent actually says but be sure to attribute to him arguments and opinions that he hasn’t actually expressed.
- Repeatedly mischaracterise “the atheistic perspective” and attribute to it all manner of insane ideas (you can just make these up).
- Finally, name-drop. Pepper your speech with quotes from well-known thinkers — if they are atheist thinkers, so much the better. Doing this will give the impression you have actually read their work and fully engaged with their ideas, even when you don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. A good way to get suitable quotes is to lift them from the work of other people. Google is your friend. 😉
In the most recent debate, for example, Adam Deen quotes from Richard Taylor, Michael Ruse and Paul Kurtz but leaves out the most important name, that of William Lane Craig, an evangelical Christian theologian who appears to be Adam the Muslim’s guru (don’t bother billing me for a new irony meter if yours has just exploded).
Of course, it could be pure coincidence that in the article on this page of Craig’s website, Craig uses the exact same quotes from Taylor, Ruse and Kurtz to make the same bad arguments as Deen does, as well as using a lot of the same words and phrases. In fact, there are countless examples of “uncanny” similarities between what Craig writes and what Adam Deen says.
In my previous post, I made much of the fact that Adam’s only evidence for the existence of objective moral truths is to say that,
Deep down we know they exist. We know these things are objectively morally wrong.
Funnily enough, Craig makes the exact same argument:
On the atheistic view, there’s nothing really wrong with your raping someone. Thus, without God there is no absolute right and wrong which imposes itself on our conscience. But the problem is that objective values do exist, and deep down we all know it.
I’d been wondering where Adam got his curious habit of saying “on atheism”, “on the atheistic view”, “on the atheistic perspective”, etc. Then I saw Craig does it. Perhaps it’s a weird American thing. Perhaps someone should tell Adam.
OK, back to the debate. Here are Adam’s (and Craig’s) arguments in a few nutshells:
P1. Some things always have been and always will be wrong wherever they happen and whoever does them.
P2. We know this ‘deep down’.
C. Therefore objective moral truths exist.
P1. Objective moral moral truths could only exist if God existed.
P2. Objective moral truths exist.
C. Therefore God exists.
P1. If you don’t believe in God, you can’t believe there are objective moral truths.
P2. If you can’t believe there are objective moral truths, you must see morals as just a matter of custom or personal taste. Like enjoying chocolate ice cream or driving on one side of the road rather than the other (yes, he actually says this).
C. If you see morals as simply a matter of taste, you could decide at any time that theft, rape, murder, torture and incest are perfectly OK things to do.
And it doesn’t stop there. Possibly Adam’s silliest argument is the one where he seems to be trying to deny that human beings evolved by the same process as every other member of the animal kingdom. Naturally, he doesn’t concern himself with addressing the evidence for this but instead resorts to ridiculing the notion, thereby making it appear all the more plausible and making himself look ridiculous. He argues that the animal kingdom doesn’t have a “moral paradigm”. It’s not deemed morally wrong for, say, a lioness to commit infanticide, for a cat to torture a mouse, for a shark to forcibly copulate with another shark or for a hawk to steal another hawk’s catch. These are all examples Adam has given of just how wicked those animals can be. That we humans know “deep down” that these acts are wrong distinguishes us in some deeply significant way from other animals. It is, perhaps, one of the things that makes us “special”, which is another of Adam’s favourite themes.
In the absence of God, human beings are just the accidental by-products of an evolutionary process of 13 billion years [sic]. This blind process of chance and necessity not only coughed up human beings but also amoebas, rats and guinea pigs and we don’t invest any special meaning in these creatures but we seem to invest it in human beings.
So human beings think human beings are special. Quelle surprise!
Sneering at evolution is, of course, simply an argument from personal incredulity, which adds nothing to Adam’s case for the existence of objective moral truths or for the existence of God. Let’s just sum up what Adam seems to be saying:
P1. Animals get up to all sorts of naughty things.
P2. So do human beings but, unlike animals, we know deep down that they are naughty.
C. Therefore human beings aren’t like those naughty animals. We’re special.
Get a grip, Adam!
It gets worse:
On atheism, we are qualitatively no different from a rock…we are just accidental blocks of molecules that have come together randomly so when a fighter bomber bombs an entire community and a whole community is killed, all that’s really happened on an atheistic perspective is a realignment of these molecules. There wasn’t really a girl there. All that really happened was those molecules in that place realigned. That’s all that’s really happened from an atheist perspective.
The quote above, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates how utterly deranged Adam Deen’s line of thinking is. He seems to be saying that if we don’t believe in his god then we don’t really value human life and each other as human beings. He doesn’t explain why people who do believe in his god can behave so inhumanely. When the 9/11 murderers flew their planes into the World Trade Centre, did they care about the thousands of lives they snuffed out? Did they care about the humanity of those people and their families? Did they not think them “special”? Did they not have that “deep down” feeling that what they were doing is wrong? For fuck’s sake, Adam, they got their morals from the same source as you. Get your own house in order before you sneer at a worldview that — unlike yours — doesn’t inspire people to go out and commit mass murder.
In stark contrast to Adam, Andrew Copson was articulate and made concise, intelligent arguments. I’m not sure I can do them justice but here’s what I managed to note down:
In his main argument, Andrew gives a more likely explanation for the source of morality saying:
1. There isn’t an objective morality in the sense that there are objective laws of physics. People cannot choose whether to obey the law of gravity but they can choose to do things that will harm others. If God is all powerful and benevolent why didn’t he just make morality a law of the universe so that everyone would behave decently and life would be much pleasanter. Adam ignores this point.
2. The first ethical codes were drawn up thousands of years before modern religions existed and since then there have been hundreds of religions but there is no evidence that religion has encouraged an objective morality. Adam ignores this point.
3. Our morality is shaped by the values and behaviours we grow up amongst. What has been considered right and wrong has changed over time, place and culture. Different religions have both supported and opposed certain ideas and behaviours, sometimes within the same religion at the same time in different peoples’ hands. Even today, people of the same religion or same non-religious philosophy can disagree over what is right and wrong. Adam ignores this point.
4. The evidence, therefore, suggests that moral standards are largely man-made rules that we make to govern our own behaviour and to govern it to common advantage. Adam mischaracterises this argument as ‘morals being a matter of custom like driving on the left’.
5. Evidently, human beings possess innate instincts to cooperate and share — as do other animals to whom we are closely related— and which are best explained by evolution. By invoking biology and the mechanism of natural selection, it is possible to identify the roots of morality in those instincts of cooperation and to explain the almost universal incidence in societies of certain principles such as treating others as you’d wish to be treated. Adam disregards this argument.
6. God and religion are unnecessary to explain morality. As human beings, we are different because we are conscious and can recognise moral principles and label them as such. Our moral capacity can be explained as part of our natural condition and further developed by our social decisions i.e. the principles and guidelines we develop for the good of ourselves and the wider community. Adam doesn’t understand this argument.
7. To say that something is man-made does not imply that it is artificial or purely a matter of personal taste. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are man-made concepts, the need to periodically take in food is natural. To say that morality is based partly in biology and partly in society cannot be said to be as artificial or changeable as what side of the road we drive on. Adam ignores this point.
Andrew’s second argument focusses on whether “ideas of gods are useful to us” and here he raises the Euthyphro Dilemma as well as directing a few questions at Adam, which Adam, unsurprisingly, ignores. These include:
Why are some people born without moral capacities?
Why do moral standards change so much over time?
Why have religions sanctioned great harms and why have believers in God done great harm?
Finally, whatever the truth about morality the fact remains that we — human beings — have to choose what to do. That being the case, what is the difference in practice between an objective morality and a man-made one?
I made the same point at the end of my previous post about Adam and, as I have reason to believe he did read my last post, he has no excuse for ignoring it but he does, as he ignores all the others questions from Andrew. In fact, Adam Deen starts his rebuttal by denying two thirds of Andrew’s opening speech thus,
Rather than provide positive arguments that morality is real, Andrew went on the offensive with the Euthyphro Dilemma,
Yes, really. Adam says that. Evidently he totally switched off for two thirds of the time that Andrew was speaking and didn’t take in a word until Andrew got to the bit that Adam was waiting for — the Euthyphro Dilemma — probably because he read in my previous post that I’ve not yet seen him address it. This time he addressed it using the usual theist response that it’s a false dilemma because there’s a third possibility. Adam puts it like this,
God is Good. He is the paradigm of goodness and the duties and values are part of his nature.
(William Lane Craig, on the other hand, asserts that, “God’s moral nature is the paradigm of goodness; what is good or bad is determined by conformity or lack thereof to His nature.” Spot the difference? No, neither did I.)
Adam also accuses Andrew of conflating moral ontology with epistemiology which is pretty much what Craig says here.
As Andrew points out, this response does not answer the dilemma. If God is the paradigm of goodness then whatever God says must be good so if God says to kill, then killing must be a moral act. (There’s quite a good essay on this stuff here.)
But why doesn’t Adam Deen engage with all the things Andrew says? Why does he ignore two thirds of Andrew’s speech, compelling Andrew to keep repeating the same points still to be ignored or misunderstood (wilfully, in my opinion)? Watching the video, it soon becomes obvious that Adam Deen isn’t able to get on the same page as Andrew and vice versa. Andrew is telling it like it is and Adam is telling it as he would like it to be. When Adam talks about objective morality, he repeatedly refers to things that are generally held to be morally repugnant: killing, torture, rape, child abuse, the holocaust, etc, and declaring such things to be objectively morally wrong. In doing so he sets up a kind of virility test against which to measure just how moral “the atheist perspective” really is. And of course, it fails miserably.
In Adam’s view, if you aren’t prepared to nail your colours to the mast and declare child abuse, say, to be objectively morally wrong, then you are effectively saying that it is OK in certain circumstances. Therefore, however decent and moral we seem, at heart we are no better than child abusers. Of course, we are not saying that child abuse (or rape, torture, murder, etc) is OK in certain circumstances. What we are saying is that other people in other times and places think about things differently.
One particularly stupid question from the floor after the debate was directed at Andrew Copson:
Pederasty was the custom in ancient Athens. God forbids pederasty so a theist wouldn’t participate but what would stop an atheist from doing so?
Naturally, Andrew — who graduated from Oxford with a first in Ancient and Modern History — was quick to point out that in fact pederasty was inspired by the religion of the time. The first pederasts were the Greek gods.
It’s hard to imagine a better illustration of how ideas of right and wrong change but Adam Deen and his friends just can’t seem to grasp how this undermines the notion that moral standards are objective and transcend time and place. Nor do they appreciate that believing that morality evolved and is further shaped by culture does not imply only half-hearted disapproval of acts of brutality. I have absolutely no problem asserting that sexually abusing children is wrong, it always has been and it always will be. It’s not wrong because any god says it’s wrong. It’s wrong because it’s cruel and hurts and damages children. The fact that I recognise that people in the past thought differently is not to say that I think people now or in the future might be able to justify abusing children.
I can say with equal conviction that sexual activity between two single consenting adults — activity that both enjoy and hurts nobody else — is not wrong, never has been, never will be. But I am speaking as a humanist whose morals are based not on the enshrinement in various scriptures of the “deep down” feelings and prejudices of the likes of Adam Deen and William Lane Craig but on a genuine compassion for humanity.
I suspect that’s something Adam Deen will never be able to understand.
Edited to add:
By the way, the video has been edited to look as if Adam Deen has the final word. The actual order of the debate was that Adam started it, they had three turns each and Andrew finished it. But it’s pretty obvious from the video that they changed the order about and Andrew has since confirmed this. I’m not saying that trying to deceive viewers in this way is objectively morally wrong but it is kind of ironic. Do they even know what ‘integrity’ means?
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