In the Basement with Catholics

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

On January 13 I participated in a debate at the Argument of the Month Club (, a men’s club devoted to Catholic apologetics. The debate was with Dr. Arthur Hippler, the Director of Religious Studies at Providence Academy, in Plymouth, on the resolution “That a supernatural authority is necessary for obligatory moral claims.” I argued for the negative.

The debate, in the basement of St. Augustine’s Church in South St. Paul, drew 370 men, half-again the size of their previous record draw. As far as I know, all but five of those in attendance were Catholic. Apparently, a lot of Catholics are curious about atheism!

Each side had a ten-minute opening statement, followed by a five-minute rebuttal, and then another five-minute response. Then each of us asked one question of the other, and after a two-minute reply, had 2-minutes for rebuttal. The moderator had a question for each of us. Finally, after a break, we took questions from the audience.

I don’t think that anyone is ever converted by attending a Christian vs. atheist debate, but I hope that I at least dispelled some widely-held misperceptions of atheists. I know that many Christians think that atheists are bitter, hostile, and have not thought through their positions. I will let the readers decide if I succeeded.

You can listen to the debate in two parts:

George Kane Debate Part 1

George Kane Debate Part 2

Following is my opening statement.

I shall offer four arguments against tonight’s resolution, to demonstrate that moral obligation does not require a supernatural authority. I intend to show that god-declared moral laws are arbitrary and capricious, cannot establish moral obligation that must be recognized from a human perspective, that it is not necessary to establish objective moral obligations, and that it assumes a premise that cannot be established.

An early challenge to tonight’s resolution was the Euthyphro dilemma. Socrates asks whether an action is good because it is beloved by the gods, or if it is beloved by the gods because it is good. If it is beloved by the gods because it is good, then moral truth is prior to the opinion of gods, and independent of it. When we try to determine if an action is good or bad, there is no reason for us to consult divine opinion. If, however, we live in a world of true divine command morality, in which actions are good only because god approves of them and bad only because god disapproves, then morality is capricious, depending only on god’s whim. And what if god were to change his mind? What if, tomorrow, god was to decide that he is tired of the seventh commandment, so that, in general, he strongly approves of stealing? People would offend god, committing a sin, if they pass up an opportunity to steal. If the only criterion for moral good is that it pleases god, anything could be good.

The narrative supporting god-declared moral obligation is that punishment for a violation is so severe, certain and permanent that it is unthinkable that anyone could choose it. But let’s consider an analogy. We all recognize that at times people have a moral obligation to disobey an unjust law. We praise, for example, Europeans who hid Jews from the Nazi occupiers. Even though they violated the law at risk of their lives, they recognized an obligation to save the lives of those suffering government oppression. Their actions were moral because they did what they should do, even though it violated the law and risked extreme personal harm.

As the god presumed in tonight’s resolution is the Christian god, it’s reasonable to look to bible stories for examples of god-decreed moral obligation. In Numbers, at Jehovah’s bidding, Moses orders the Hebrew soldiers to attack the Midianites, who worshipped another god, and to kill all of their men and boys, and every woman who has ever had knowledge of a man, and to take the virgin females as slaves for their pleasure. Jehovah approves of Moses’ orders, so these are commands given with divine authority.

But was this divinely commanded genocide the right thing for the soldiers to do? Jehovah issued a divine declaration, so the soldiers are required to commit this slaughter. Some of the soldiers in the Hebrew army were not sufficiently bloodthirsty, however, so Moses rebuked them. Perhaps they were of more modern ethical sensitivity, and concluded to themselves “I cannot do this. I have to show mercy to the defeated and the innocent.”

God in this scenario is in precisely the same position as the Nazis, commanding genocide, and asserting absolute authority to require everyone to comply. Do we not all admire and support the humanitarian Europeans who defied the Nazis and saved Jewish lives? How do we then not recognize the morality of any Hebrew soldiers who refused to participate in the genocide of the Midianites?

So although God may declare some ethical rule to be obligatory on man, from his perspective, – that is, he will punish any violation – a valid moral obligation from the human perspective may be to disobey or violate that declaration.

But if divine command ethics does not work, can there be any system of ethics that makes any claim to obligation? I’ve frequently heard the argument that if there are no rules defined by a law-giver god, then everybody is free to make his own rules. Murder, mayhem and rape will be unrestrained, and the only universal guides to conduct will be “Do what is in your selfish interest. Do the things that you like. Do whatever feels good. Whenever there is any question, the final determination will be made by the people who are most powerful.”

But in fact, we all think that such a world would not be a very nice one to live in. Morality has a very practical justification, that if everyone follows certain rules, we will all be better off. This is the idea behind the social contract. It is a social and evolutionary fact that every time people come together in a community, they undertake the norming of acceptable behaviors. Evolution does not define specific results of this behavioral norming, but it does identify for us the objective. The emotional repertoire that evolution provides us, that ensures this social behavior, was selected because it promotes the survival and flourishing of the group. It also permits us to say that the social norms established in one society are better than those in another society, because they permit the group to better flourish. Finally, it provides us with an objective tool, consequential analysis, for moral judgment. Consequential analysis is objective because actions have real, observable consequences in peoples’ lives.

A standard objection to basing moral judgments upon consequences is that we can never derive ‘should’ statements, that is, statements of ethics, from ‘is’ statements, or conditions of fact. In order to create an obligation we first must establish a value. Objective moral value can be justified in several ways that are compatible with atheism.

Recognizing that the evolutionary function of morality is to promote the survival and flourishing of our species, some conclude that the principle underlying all ethical reasoning is that we should promote the greatest total benefit to society. That is the justification for utilitarianism. That is, that one should always act to bring about the greatest balance of total benefit over harm.

Rationalists begin with the principle that all rational beings must avoid contradictions. They point out that if we kill someone, or steal from him or lie about him or commit any other harm to him, then we are by that action accepting that in certain circumstances it would be acceptable for someone to perform the same offense against me. So practical logical consistency requires moral opposition to unjustly harming others.

A very recent addition to our understanding of morality comes from neuroethics. Proponents point to evidence that some ethical values have been hard-wired into our brains by evolution. Neuroethics is developing into a new form of moral naturalism. We can add to this list other godless sources of ethical value that are consistent with atheism. An atheist may hold any of them, since atheism is not in itself an ethical system.

I stated in my introduction that tonight’s resolution presumes the existence of an unverifiable supernatural god. Atheists find the arguments for the existence of a god to be unconvincing, and therefore too insubstantial a foundation for social morality.

Sometimes we hear attempts to prove the existence of god from ethics. They go like this: “There can only be objective moral laws if there is a law-giver god. We know that there are objective, universal moral laws, because we all agree that genocide and rape are wrong. Therefore, there is a god.”

I’ve always thought that this argument is a rhetorical trap. If we deny the universality of moral laws, as we should, our opponent will feign shock: “Do you mean that you think genocide can be a good thing? Are you saying that sometimes we should commit rape?”

In truth, these things are not bad because a god declared them to be moral absolutes, but only in consequence of the harm that they cause in peoples’ lives. And I propose that this analysis of consequences, coupled with logical consistency, is the best foundation for social morality, as it will lead to a higher quality of life for everyone than relying on the moral biases of an ancient society in the guise of divine declarations.

An audio recording of the debate will soon be posted on

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