Michael Shermer: God,Morality & Ice Cream

Welcome to Defender’s Voice. I am Paul Kattupalli. Thank you for watching this program today. Defender’s Voice is about talking to individuals who challenge our ideas. Recently I talked to Professor Michael Shermer. It was a fascinating conversation, we talked about free speech, Jordan Peterson, meaning of life and morality. We talked about God and morality. I argued that we need God to have a coherent moral system. He argues we don’t need God to have a moral system. Science and reason will do the job. 

     A brief introduction, Michael Shermer is the founder of the Skeptics Society. He is the editor-in-chief of Skeptic magazine; He is a professor at Chapman University. He wrote many best selling books. He told me that he was once a fundamentalist Christian but later became a skeptic and atheist. He is a very nice person. As I often say, I challenge only ideas, not individuals who hold them. You can watch our full interview on our website, www.doctorpaul.org

     At one point, we talked about the debate between William Lane Craig and Shelly Kagan. Mr.Craig, a Christian apologist argues that morality needs a moral law giver and moral accountability. Shelly Kagan gave a rebuttal to that argument. Forget about moral accountability, just think about the victim now. That is enough to be moral now. Let us listen. Click on this link to listen. https://youtu.be/6_ca1HwP4W4

   You heard Mr.Shermer saying ‘It matters to the victim now. His family. It matters to us’. Morality is about victims. Think about the victims, then you will discover morality. Then he asked me, do you agree?’ I told him, ‘Without God, morality becomes like ice cream’. Without God, morality becomes like ice cream. When I said those words, I could see an irritable expression on Mr.Shermer’s face. That is understandable. Whether we are Christians or atheists or people of other religions, we all believe that moral values should be universal and objective. In Christianity, morality is our discovery. But, in naturalism, morality is our invention. We did not receive it from God. We did not receive it from a moral law giver. We made it for our own needs. So, it is like ice cream. We invented it for our needs and for our pleasure. We can create 100 different kinds of ice cream. chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, blueberry, blackberry,butterscotch, bubble gum,banana…you name it. 

    In the same way, there is no reason to stick to one moral system. You can create a moral system which takes victims into consideration. You can also create a moral system which takes perpetrators into consideration. You can create a moral system with racial integration; you can also create a moral system with racial segregation. You can create a moral system in which you can choose whatever sexual orientation you desire, You can also create a moral system in which that is not an option. I like chocolate ice cream. I can say, Chocolate ice cream is the best ice cream in the world. That’s a perfectly logical statement because I liked it. There is no external reference frame to ice cream. Whatever you like is the best ice cream in the world. Without God, there can be no external moral reference frame. Whatever moral system you like is the best moral system in the world. 

     The Chinese government has imprisoned more than a million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps. If morality is an invention, you cannot criticize the Chinese government. You can say, ‘We the atheists in America believe in Darwinism. Nature gave us these moral values.’ You put your values in a box, and you wrote, ‘Morality, made in the USA’. You sent the box to China. Now, Chinese follow our morality. How should the Chinese respond? The Chinese would say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. We are officially an atheist nation. We can create our own moral system and values in China. You invented your morality and will invent our morality’. 

    Mr.Shermer said, ‘In fact, we have been converging towards this kind of universal morality about universal human rights, that is why everyone is critical of Chinese government because of their violations of civil rights’ That is not true. Everyone is not critical of Chinese government! The Uyghurs are Muslims. But no Muslim nation or Arab nation condemned China because you don’t mess with Chinese President. The Western response is also not monolithic. John Bolton wrote a book entitled The Room Where It Happened. He was the National Security Advisor for President Trump  from 2018 to 2019. He wrote that President Trump told Chinese President Xi that he “should go ahead with building the camps, which he thought was exactly the right thing to do….” “which meant we could cross repression of the Uighurs off our list of possible reasons to sanction China, at least as long as trade negotiations continued”. 

    Allegedly, President Trump told President Xi building concentration camps is exactly the right thing to do. As long as trade negotiations continued, don’t worry about Uighurs and their civil rights. To be fair to Trump, he was not alone, he was not the first one or would not be the last one to think like that. What is the ‘the right thing to do’? It depends on who you ask and their values. Presidents, Prime Ministers would rather prefer good trade relations than worrying about the oppression of a minority group in a distant land. 

     So, Michael Shermer claims that he condemns the oppression of Uyghurs, but his own President is not with him on this matter. My point is, we can have diverse, often conflicting opinions on every matter under the sun. You cannot say this is universal. I asked him, ‘Who made them universal?. If people from Germany, England, and the United States agree on certain values, they are Western values at the best, they cannot be universal values. There is a false assumption in that notion because the West does not have one set of values. We’ve seen allegedly President Trump does not believe what Mr.Shermer believes. The West has antisemitic ideologies, racial supremacy ideologies, pacifist ideologies, non-pacifist ideologies, pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-life, pro-choice..all sorts of ideologies. The West gave us Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, racial segregationists like George Wallace, Lester Maddox. So, we don’t have one set of Western values. 

    You cannot say ‘my values should be universal’. To this point,Mr.Shermer replied with a passage from his book. Recently he came out with his book titled, Giving The Devil His Due. Finally, intellectual humility requires me to admit that it is possible that my entire program may be, in Ellis’ words, “sociologically based – it is that of a WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) culture – taken for granted by those living in such cultures,but not necessarily by others. People brought up in Eastern cultures are likely to make the opposite assumption.” Sure, future scientists may one day discover that humans do not have an instinct to survive and flourish, that most people do not want freedom, autonomy, and prosperity, that women want to be lorded over by men, that animals enjoy being tortured, killed, and eaten, that some people like being enslaved, and that large populations of people don’t object to being liquidated in gas chambers. But I doubt it.Through science and reason, we have followed a path of discovery that has led more people in more places to lead better lives and enjoy more moral rights, respect, and consideration. The Is-Ought fallacy is a red herring. Mr. Hume: Tear. Down. This. Wall.” 

    Mr.Shermer says, I doubt humans would ever want slavery, torture,inequality, and gas chambers. That sounds convincing but it is not the reality of the world we live in. As I speak, millions of people are living in slavery, torture, inequality and concentration camps. Why? Because we do not think for all human beings. Our selfishness makes us to value our own desires and priorities. Then he says, “Through science and reason, we have followed a path of discovery that has led more people in more places to lead better lives and enjoy more moral rights, respect, and consideration.” 

     Science and reason do not give us human rights. In fact, Chinese government uses sophisticated technologies like artificial intelligence and facial recognition to maintain its oppressive methods. Human rights are about values. Reason does not tell you what you should value. Mr.Shermer then says, “The Is-Ought fallacy is a red herring. Mr. Hume: Tear. Down. This. Wall.” 

     ‘Is-Ought Fallacy’ came to us from David Hume, a Scottish philosopher.David Hume was a skeptic just like Mr.Shermer. Hume was intellectually honest that ‘is-ought’ wall cannot be climbed using a naturalistic ladder. You cannot use naturalism to climb this wall. Hume famously said,‘It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger’ You might say, ‘Mr.Hume, choose the world, that is 7 billion people…sacrifice your finger’. Hume replies, ‘I don’t think so’. I would rather go by my emotions.’ Can emotions give us moral values? Not really. Imagine you and your friend  went to a jungle. A cow is grazing the grass on a green field. Then a tiger approached this cow. The tiger is going to eat this cow. The cow is non-violent, it never harms any one. It eats grass, and gives milk. The tiger is violent, it rarely gets its meals without inflicting violence. It does not donate any milk. The cow is not moral for being non-violent and generous, the tiger is not immoral for being violent and selfish. Nature made both the cow and the tiger through blind processes. 

     You might sympathize with the cow, your friend might admire the tiger. Your emotional attachment is with the cow, your friend’s emotional attachment is with the tiger. You and your friend will leave that jungle with conflicting emotions. Whose emotions are moral? Neither. In Darwinism, you are a human animal with certain emotions. Your friend is a human animal with his own emotions. You cannot build a moral framework based on your emotions. 

     Mr.Shermer says, ‘Is-ought is a red herring’. Now, what is a red herring? A red herring is a logical fallacy. It occurs when something is introduced to an argument that distracts from the relevant issue.It consists in diverting attention from the real issue by focusing instead on an issue having only a surface relevance to the first. For example, Monica broke up with her boyfriend. She went to her mother and said: “I’m so hurt that Todd broke up with me, Mom.” Her mother replied: “Monica, just think of all the starving children in Africa, honey. Your problems will seem pretty insignificant then.”

That’s red herring. I am hurt now because my boyfriend broke up with me; thinking about the millions of starving children does not ease my pain. That is not relevant here. Mr.Shermer says, ‘Is-Ought’ is irrelevant to moral discussion. But, you see, he is contradicting himself. While rejecting Hume’s ‘is-ought’, Mr.Shermer is erecting his own ‘is-ought’. He is telling the whole world how they ought to live. 

     Mr.Hume, tear down this wall. He wants to run away from David Hume but in reality, he is running right into Hume’s lap. Mr.Shermer said, “Even the slave masters knew that there is universal desire for freedom”. That is David Hume. You can know what is right and wrong based on your emotions. But you see, that is futile. I agree that some slave masters felt guilty about imprisoning their slaves. But that is not true about the majority. 

What was the favorite book of slave owners in the American South? Aristotle’s Politics. It was the best selling book in the ante-bellum South. In Politics, Aristotle says that slavery is natural. The great philosopher declares that slaves do not have human identity and he defines a slave as ‘a breathing piece of property’. That is what most slave owners  believed. The slaves are not human beings. They are just ‘a breathing piece of property’. They have no value. Darwin said, nature made some animals as cows, and some animals as tigers. 

     Two thousand years before Darwin, Aristotle said, ‘nature made some men as slaves, and some men as masters’. The slavery was called ‘chattle slavery’. If I can own cattle, why I can’t I own some humans? You see, that is our basic problem. If we decide on values, we will go all over the place. We give equal value to some people, some value to some others, and no value to some others. Only God can give equal value to all human beings. 

    In John chapter 8, we see our blessed Savior in Jerusalem at the Mt.Olives. A group of men dragged a woman to the presence of Jesus. They shouted, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery. The law demands that she must be stoned. What is your opinion?’ There was silence. After some time, Lord Jesus lifts his head and says, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her’ 

    On hearing those words, the Bible says, those men ‘were convicted by their own conscience’ (John 8:9 KJV). One by one, they left the scene, leaving that woman in the presence of Jesus. Jesus says to her, ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more’ We see objectivity, subjectivity, sensitivity and universality coming together in that interaction. 

    First, there is objectivity: Those men did not have objectivity. They dragged only the woman to the court and let her partner go scot free. They valued her male partner’s life, but not her life. She must die. But Jesus valued her life. Yes, the law demands that this woman must be stoned to death. Jesus satisfied the law on her behalf. On the cross, Jesus would pay for her sin. He satisfied God’s righteous law.  Jesus upheld the law, yet he showed mercy to this woman. 

2. Subjectivity: Jesus looked at them and said, ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her’. God wraps his objective laws with subjective appeal. ‘Love your neighbor as you love thyself’. In the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, Abraham Lincoln asks Stephen Douglas, 

‘Senator, what is the golden rule?’ Douglas replies, ‘Love your neighbor as you love thyself’. Lincoln looks at the senator and asks him, ‘Would you like to be a slave?’ ‘Would you like to be a slave?’ God inserted subjectivity into his objective values. 

3.Thirdly, Sensitivity: They do not have any sensitivity towards her. They wanted to stone her to death. They wanted to see her blood.  But Jesus showed her mercy. ‘I do not condemn you, go and sin no more’. He was going to shed his blood for her sins.

4.Universality: Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world’ John 8:12. Atheists can have subjectivity and sensitivity. They might claim, as Mr.Shermer did, objectivity and universality to his moral values. But there is no legitimacy in his claims. Only, Jesus, the Creator of our universe and of the human race can claim objectivity and universality to his moral values. 

Objectivity brings God

Subjectivity brings you

Sensitivity brings the sinner

Universality brings the whole world into Jesus’ moral system

God, you, I and the whole humanity meet at the cross of Christ. Only in Jesus, can objectivity, subjectivity, sensitivity and universality come together’. 

Only God can bring reason, emotions, values, and meaning of life into the moral fabric of our being. Atheism cannot do that. 

There is no basis for universal moral values in atheism. Let us come to Lord Jesus today and receive Him as our Lord and Savior.

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