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Thoughts on Peterson's FAIR talk and atheism

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I've been debating whether or not to write about Daniel C. Peterson's FAIR conference transcript Reflections on Secular Anti-Mormonism, which was posted at M* and at Dave's Mormon Inquiry. I want to respond because I find his article, well, wrong on multiple accounts, but recognize that nothing I say will (probably) convince anyone or do any good. Alas.

But what is it we're told to do? Endure to the end.

Allow me to make a few general comments about the Peterson article. First, it's not really about "secular anti-Mormonism"--instead, it's mostly a rehashing of traditional religious arguments against atheism. At one point I considered myself an atheist--still do, depending on definitions--so I've heard all this before and it's ridiculous from a non-religious standpoint. That is, atheism and theism have different assumptions that cloud each side. Interestingly, Peterson does talk about this, trying to make it an argument against atheism, but he doesn't seem to see that it cuts both ways:

To an agnostic or an atheist, someone who assigns a very low probability (or even none at all) to the existence of God, the existence of massive human and natural evils in this world constitutes a serious and perhaps fatal, if not merely redundant, blow against theistic belief. To someone, however, who regards the existence of a benevolent and powerful God as probable, even highly probable or certain, on other grounds, the existence of such massive evils represents merely a problem to be worked out in the light of her theistic presuppositions. Her proposed solutions will seem gratuitously ad hoc to atheistic critics, but, from within her paradigm, function much the same way as refinements to broad scientific theories function under the stimulus of new data and problems.

In fact, he says, "I confess that I find those who rejoice in atheism baffling." Which is fine, but not understanding something doesn't necessarily make it wrong or ridiculous. Likewise, wishing for a God to exist doesn't make it necessarily so.

He gives two "arguments" that deserve consideration for why atheism is "baffling." First, he finds it sad that, essentially, we live our life and then we die and it's over and that's it. Admittedly, it isn't the happiest of thoughts--but it does mirror my own. (My views aren't quite so bleak; generally, since I don't know if there is an afterlife and, if so, I don't know what it's like, then, from my frame of reference, there's no reason for it to influence my decisions.) Again, though, just because this is unappealing doesn't make it untrue--which is what Peterson seems to imply. (Of course, considering his intended audience, perhaps I should cut him some slack.)

His second argument concerns morality and atheism. These concerns, unlike the previous ones, are important. There are two sub-arguments he makes here, one that is important and one that is not. The latter concerns a view of eternal justice. Basically, he says that an afterlife is needed to right the wrongs of the world.

A neighbor and friend was stricken with multiple sclerosis in her mid-twenties and now, in her thirties, lies bedridden in a rest home. Barring some incredible medical breakthrough, this is her life. Absent hope for a life to come, this is all she will ever have to look forward to.

Sad, yes, but: meh. If I remember correctly, Kant made essentially the same argument. Although I don't recall the argument, I do remember thinking that Kant may be on to something, but not because of the appeal-to-emotions type argument that Peterson uses here. Besides, if Kant did actually make the argument, then I'm sure that there are rebuttals out there written by better men than I. But here's where he makes the important argument, quoting Dostoevsky:

Perhaps, on second thought, though, I can understand those who might see it as a liberation. "If there is no God," says Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "that means everything is permitted." Why? Because nothing matters at all; everything is meaningless.

Now, he is actually kinda right. He goes on to talk of "objective" morality and "objective" meaning. In so far as we accept his definition. Generally, objective morality' implies some sort of universal, unchangeable ethical system that does not depend on us for its existence. One concern with this kind of morality is where it comes from. Most favor a Divine Command Theory of morality, which essentially says that God makes the rules and because he's God, those are the rules and there's nothing we can do about it.

What Peterson doesn't give us is a reason to inherently support an objective moral system over a more subjective moral system. Considering his audience again, I don't think he necessarily needed to, but it's hard to take his point seriously from a non-religious standpoint without it. In fact, there are quite a few subjective moral systems that have some good points, i.e. Utilitarianism, Kantianism, etc. (Not that I agree with either one of those, but they should be taken seriously as alternatives.)

It seems to me that one of the main difference (at least in Peterson's case) between objective and subjective morality is a shift in who we are accountable to. In Peterson's objective morality, we are all held accountable for our actions before God. In (some) subjective morality, though, we must answer to 'society'. If we all do our part--which we all should--this is just as effective.

I think Peterson's talk is interesting, yes, but wrong. So very wrong. The overall tone that I'm picking up is something like "amused disbelief" that, if used in a talk by a so-called "anti-Mormon" would be roundly mocked. He doesn't treat atheism on it's own terms, which is fine, I guess, but then he shouldn't expect the non-religious to treat Mormonism on its own terms. I assure you, in fact, that I find much of Mormon thought as ridiculous as Peterson finds atheism. However, I try (sometimes I fail, sure) to discuss and interact with the Church on its own ground. And, frankly, I don't think that that's too much to ask.

So, on a more personal note: I've talked about this before. It upsets me when people call me immoral just because I'm not religious. It happens more than you might think. Call me cynical, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happens here before too long.

6 Responses to “Thoughts on Peterson's FAIR talk and atheism”

  1. Blogger D-Train 


    You're dead on here. This is not a one-time occurrence. Mormons make a cottage industry out of setting up and knocking down straw men. As you note, Peterson doesn't even knock down the straw man that he concocts. This is the kind of thing that makes no sense at all. The only point that makes any sense in what he said is the bit about rejoicing in atheism. Those atheists that I do know that rejoice in it tend to do so because of the "liberation" from societal mores, while accepting relativism as a value in and of itself. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

    I wish people on these blogs would just stop talking about that hurricane. I'm still worried about what will be in the sacrament meeting talks on Sunday, but I somehow assumed that gross impropriety and a complete unwillingness to be sensitive to the needs of those whose lives have been ripped apart would be limited to real life Mormons. Dang, guess I was wrong. Not that everyone has been so insensitive, but this has been treated as just another talking point, just another football, in a way that I find disgusting.

    As far as the Peterson issue goes, he's defending wickets that got bowled years ago. Hundreds, in fact. To my knowledge, there aren't many Christians, LDS or otherwise, that try to get to the existence of God through a logical or reason-based analysis without leaving a part for faith. Why can't we just be honest about that? Defend yourself against misrepresentations. Defend the internal validity of your system of belief and, if you wish, show flaws in the internal validity of the systems endorsed by others. But, for heaven's sake, don't take a value that you hold dear, presume it to be a supreme value, and use the value itself as "clear evidence" that the instruments that you have chosen to implement that value are not only true, but so obviously so that if you can't see it, you're still living in the trees.

    Sometimes it's real frustrating that I think this church is true.

  2. Blogger lchan 

    If there is no God," says Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov, "that means everything is permitted."

    I disagree with this. Although I believe in God, I agree with Sartre that if there is no God, then we are still accountable for our actions. How is it less of a sin (or whatever word you want to use) to kill someone or hurt someone? With no "eternal perspective" these kinds of wrongs could be seen as more egregious, not less. If there is no God, there is no one to somehow make things right or hand out any kind of justice.

    Great post. I actually have to get off the computer, but hopefully I'll have time over the weekend to re-read this and respond more.

  3. Blogger Stephen 

    Had no idea you were an athiest.

    Just wandered in looking at LDS blogs.

  4. Blogger Lager Jager 

    I think sometimes people who argue that the existence of God can be logically proven use the idea that revelation is just another form of evidence from which logical conclusions can be drawn. I think that this evidentiary use of revelation is much more reasonable in a logical context once someone is already converted. In any case, even if the action taken upon the evidence of revelation is logical, the assumptions that someone has to make about the nature of the world to get to that point really are not.

  5. Blogger Clark Goble 

    Is this all really a strawman? After all he's mainly just following Nietzsche and Dostoevsky.

    Certainly I agree with the conclusion that wanting something or something seeming good don't make it right. But I think one could at a minimum follow an atheist like Voltaire who points out the social utility of such beliefs. (Even if it is a slave morality, in Nietzsche's view)

    But the real issue I think he gets at is what grounds the behaviors we engage in. I think there the atheist has a harder time. The theist could convince say a rapist why it is in their own best interests to not rape. The atheist might be able to explain the good without God, but they have no real reason to explain why any individual should care about the good.

    Put an other way, if death is the end, why shouldn't I act as if the whole universe ends at my death? And if that is so, exactly what, beyond my own desires, limits my actions?

    Once again, the atheist certainly can simply say, truth may be very destructive. Nietzsche certainly does, calling himself dynamite. But there seems something wrong if we can't, for instance, explain rationally why the Nazis who used Nietzsche were wrong to do so. (Wrong from their perspective of an exercise of their will to power as opposed to everyone else)

    Put an other way, how do we defend human rights in an atheist system? Certainly many atheists try. And while they can give compelling models, such as variants on consequentialism, I've never found them terribly persuasive in terms of leading one who is rational to adopt them. Rather they tend to make the best sense from a community rather than individual perspective.

  6. Blogger Clark Goble 

    IChan, certainly one can adopt either a Sartrean, Nietzschean or Heideggarian sense of responsibility as an atheist. It doesn't follow that this leads to the implications of responsibility that we'd find tasteful. Why can't someone murder, fully accept their responsibility for this, and yet not consider it wrong?

    Responsibility seems to function different if there is never an accounting of our responsibility that we give to others ultimately. Our fellow citizens might require an accounting of our responsibility, but we can simply see them as mere impediments to the exercise of our power. I don't see that Sartre can offer many excuses to Nietzsche on this level.

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