An Atheist Argument

How can God fail in goodness if goodness is whatever anybody wants? How can He be accused of allowing a massacre to take place, if the human beings who are massacred have no intrinsic value?

Welcome to article 6 of a weekly series on the formation journey of Br. Josh, MIC, a second-year seminarian at the Marian House of Studies in Steubenville, Ohio. It is the continuation of Br. Josh's previous column, "Novice Notes." Watch for a new column every Friday.

By Br. Josh, MIC 

Professor Harold sat on his desk across from his classroom of Franciscan University students. He is a tall, elderly gentleman who taught Ethics for many years, to student group after student group.

I was sitting in my typical spot, second or front row, on the right. I got into the habit of settling into that spot while pursuing my Associate degree in English at Golden West and then my Literary Journalism BA at UCI. 

There were 20 to 30 young men and women in the classroom, and one of my fellow graduates from novitiate, Br. David, sat nearby. 

Ethical Relativism
We were talking about ethical relativism, the view that all “good and beautiful” is in the eye of the beholder. According to this outlook on life, there’s no objective moral standard by which one person’s ideas can be judged superior or inferior to another’s ideas. We all make up our own ethics, so no one’s view is “better” or “worse” than another person’s. 

“Can anyone seriously say that Mother Teresa had no moral superiority to Hitler?” Professor Harold asked the classroom. 

The discussion was focusing in on the difference between objective intrinsic value and subjective satisfaction. 

Professor Harold was now going to reel out a line of argument for the reality of objective, intrinsic value, that things have value in themselves regardless of whether or not people are “feeling it.” 

Talking the reverse
“It’s usually easier to show the objective reality of good and beautiful things by talking about the reverse, the ugly,” Professor Harold told us. “Let’s look at some examples of things we have to admit are no ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than anyone else’s view, if there’s no objective standard of goodness. 

“A Pharisaical attitude,” he began his list. “Someone who thinks he’s better than everyone around him, and who even will persecute a good person because that person’s words take away from his own glory. Can we say an attitude like this is not objectively bad?

“An egoist,” he said, next — in other words, a narcissist. “Someone who is constantly selfish, absorbed in his or her own interests, not caring about anyone else.” 

Or, only caring about others superficially. “Can we say that this kind of mentality is no better or worse than someone who truly cares about others and tries to benefit their welfare?” 

In a world where it’s all relative, the self-centered narcissist and the compassionate humanitarian are on the same level, coming up with their own values and acting on them, and neither is doing “better” or “worse” than the other. 

The Holocaust
Eventually, Professor Harold brought up the Holocaust. At that moment, I raised my hand.

“Ah!” Professor Harold exclaimed animatedly, pointing to me at once and permitting me to speak. “You’re going to defend the relativist!”

A small smile crossed my lips. “You’re getting to know me too well,” I replied. 

I frequently take a contradictory or devil’s advocate position, not just in class but in numerous life situations — and I sometimes get into trouble, doing that! 

[Although there are many ethical relativists who stand for freedom and tolerance, with all the inconsistencies that this carries, I was thinking about what could be called "The Atheistic Argument": The Holocaust.].

“But actually, no,” I had to admit. “You mentioned the Holocaust. It occurs to me that one of the major arguments against the existence of a good God is that such a God can’t have permitted something so horrible as the Holocaust. However, the moral relativist can’t use this argument, because it depends on the intrinsic value of human beings in order to work.”

If there is no good except what in the eye of the beholder, the same is true of evil. The Holocaust could be said to be “evil to me” but obviously it was not evil “to the Nazis who perpetrated it.” 

If the Nazis won the war and killed everyone on Earth who disagreed with them, the Holocaust would be evil to no one, so not bad at all. That’s a consequence of ethical relativism.

How can God fail in goodness if goodness is whatever anybody wants? How can He be accused of allowing a massacre to take place, if the human beings who are massacred have no intrinsic value? 

Double-edged sword
“I think you’re right,” Professor Harold affirmed. “The Holocaust is the best argument against the existence of a good God that I know. However, it’s a dangerous one for the atheist to use because it’s a double-edged sword; it cuts both ways. For it does rest on the fact that humans have intrinsic value, and one can philosophically proceed from there to show that God exists.”

For me, this conversation was an eye-opener. I was very familiar with this atheistic argument, but now I was realizing how heavily it leans on intrinsic human value. An atheist could still technically get around this by framing his argument as, “if there was an objective standard of goodness, and if people had intrinsic value, your good God fails.” However, in a deep sense, the atheist’s powerful emotional reaction against the Holocaust and against God would remain invalidated and stripped of dignity. 

Without intrinsic human value, people don’t really matter, and the Holocaust is not a tragedy, it is just an event. 

A religious sister who visited Auschwitz once told me, “It is humanity’s wound.” 

The guts of humanity cry out that we have value. 

Next entry: "The Wisdom of Play."
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