I checked with Reg before posting this, but if any mods feel it's contrary to house rules, I understand if it needs to be deleted.

I've been a member here for more than a year, though I don't post often. I mostly read the "Sunday School" links, but I've appreciated the thoughtful and civil conversation the few times I've jumped into a thread with a Christian perspective. I'm a part-time Christian blogger and podcaster, and I've wanted for some time to do a debate/discussion video series with folks coming from different perspectives. Sort of a "2am at college"-style informal debate where both sides can respectfully discuss disagreements. I finally have time to put something like that together and TA came to mind because of the quality of discussion here.

I want to invite anyone who is interested to join me in a recorded debate/discussion via Skype which I would then post to YouTube. I'd also post the link here for discussion, if anyone wanted. Ideally, the video would include a split-screen webcam view of both of us, since that's more interesting to watch, but it's fine if you would rather stay anonymous.

The format I have in mind is that we pick a general topic and each come up with a couple questions to get the conversation started. We share the questions ahead of time so it's not gotcha stuff. Then we schedule a Skype call and talk about your questions and then mine, or vice versa. Some topics might work better with a different format -- I'm not wedded to that exact approach. 

Here's my YouTube channel, though it doesn't have much there at this point. If you are interested in this, let me know at david@davidvogel.net. My blog is at davidvogel.net. (I share it for informational rather than self-promotional purposes, as I'm pretty sure none of you will be interested in becoming regular readers. :-) [Though I do welcome constructive criticism.])

Possible topic ideas:

* Christian vs. atheist understanding of morality
* Evidence for God's existence
* Historicity of the Bible
* Possibility of miracles
* Anything else you want to talk about

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"1. Why should I care what my society thinks is right?

2. Can a society ever be wrong? Is female genital mutilation fine if I'm from a culture where it's accepted?"

Because society's morals (most of which have become laws) have developed based on a myriad of different events and people's reactions to them and their efforts to live together within that society. It's like asking why we should think that a plane designed by someone who has read and studied engineering and aerodynamics would be any better than one designed by me or you. The wealth of experience and knowledge and trial and error captured in those books represents our best chance of an optimal outcome.

Can society get it wrong? Of course. Why, if you can believe it, until fairly recently in our history it was considered by the majority of society for it to be immoral for a man to express his love for another man. Thankfully as societies evolve so do our morals and it is now (at least in Britain) generally considered moral for a man to love another man. How do we know which is objectively right? We don't. But I know which society I would rather live in.

Simon, I think your answer for why society's opinion matters is excellent. I agree that that's the best reason to listen to what society deems right. However, I think you gloss over the idea that society can "get it wrong" too easily. Could you clarify what you mean by "get it wrong"? If a society accepts FGM, is your only critique that "I know which society I would rather live in"? Personally, I would rather live in a place where the temperature was nice and the food was good, but my objection to FGM runs rather deeper than that---and I'm quite certain yours does too, but I'm curious how you would explain that. 

If a society accepted FGM, would you say that is wrong in some way that's deeper than "I know which society I would rather live in"? If so, how and why? 

Note: With a theistic idea of objective moral law, I can say that a society (including my own, and including me) can get something wrong by holding a view which is opposed to what is objectively right. What I'm interested in is how you would judge that a society got something wrong. 

My objection to FGM runs deeper than that of weather and food because the consequences are more severe. Bad weather may lead to annoyance and mild discomfort whereas FGM has far more serious risks attached to it. It's about, as usual, evidence and reason. If research demonstrated that there were no negatives associated with FGM and the child was not upset or suffered any negative psychological consequences from the action then I would not consider it immoral, just strange. It would be benign.

I understand what you're saying about an objective moral law. If indeed there was one everything would be so simple because we could just consult this law whenever complex moral problems arise. A common scenario I use is the following:
Imagine an elderly couple where the husband has been ill for sometime and his wife has spent every day by his bedside. One night when she goes home the man's condition suddenly worsens and he suffers great pain and psychological torment before dying. The next day she is devastated and asks the attending orderly whether he suffered. Should the orderly tell a lie and tell her he died peacefully in his sleep?
It is written on my heart to lie in this situation but it might be written on someone else's to tell the truth (obviously sugar-coating it). There is nothing in scripture to help us out in this particular situation. Where do we access the objective moral law that will tell us what is right or wrong?

Simon, yes, evidence and reason can tell us that FGM carries serious risks for children, but why should I care? You and I both care (and should care, probably more than we do), because we are both moral creatures. But my question is why I should care, according to your lights, that something harms someone else? Does a lion feel guilty when he chomps a gazelle? Or another male lion's cub? What makes people different? 

This is a tough point to make because I realize we both know innately that harming another person is wrong. To reiterate, my question is how you can explain that within a totally naturalistic/materialist world. 

If indeed there was one everything would be so simple because we could just consult this law whenever complex moral problems arise.

I have to say I find this kind of hilarious. (Perhaps in the same way that you laugh when someone suggests an atheist cannot try to be moral.) As someone who does believe in an objective moral standard, and who tries to live accordingly, I promise you I don't find it "simple." Examples like the one you gave are a perfect example of why. You've crafted an agonizing choice between two moral principles: tell the truth and love your neighbor. Having an objective moral law doesn't make that choice easy, either intellectually or emotionally, and I don't know any Christian who would expect it to. As a Christian, I would respond to such a dilemma by considering what the Bible teaches and by praying for wisdom. However, I don't see how the possibility of two moral principles conflicting in some particular situation rebuts the idea that such moral principles exist? 

"This is a tough point to make because I realize we both know innately that harming another person is wrong. To reiterate, my question is how you can explain that within a totally naturalistic/materialist world."

I would explain it by claiming that it is not innate. Now that you and I are adults and men of the world we know "in our hearts" that harming people is wrong but we had to learn that. Young children do not know that it is wrong. The way we make them understand it is wrong (when they are old enough to understand) is to explain that "hitting your sister will hurt her and make her sad. You don't like being sad. Nor does she - we love her and want her to be happy." Through the consequences of their actions children learn why we consider them wrong/immoral. Your argument about not caring unless there is an objective moral code doesn't make sense to me. We care about  lots of things that don't have an objective grounding but that doesn't nullify them. I care deeply about my children but I don't have any objective reason to do so. I still care - it is still a real thing.

"However, I don't see how the possibility of two moral principles conflicting in some particular situation rebuts the idea that such moral principles exist? "

This is a good answer. I think I understand what you are saying here. You could have two objective moral laws which in a given situation could clash with each other and therefore it is difficult to choose between them. So what you're saying is that any specific complex moral problem could fall under the purview of any number of conflicting objective moral tenets and then the individual is placed into a dilemma of how to resolve the conflict. I will have a think about this more and get back to you.

I want to thank you, David. I have shifted my position somewhat on this issue. I'll try and explain how I've been thinking about it.

Once I took part in a psychology experiment where 100s of participants were presented with lots of pairs of human faces and asked very quickly to rate which was the most attractive. Using computer wizardry the researchers then produced an average image of all the faces that had the highest rating of attractiveness from the most people. This produced an image that represented what you might call an objectively attractive face. The point is that although attractiveness is a subjective opinion there is obviously enough commonality in what our biology tells us is attractive to produce something we can call objective.

I can now concede that morals could be subject to this same idea. If we had the technical ability to extract 100s of people's moral code (what was written on their heart) and "averaged" them I can imagine it producing some objective moral tenets.

So our biology is such that maybe we are predisposed to discover these moral tenets as we grow and learn and experience. As a Christian you would presumably say that God had made us in such a way. I would say that nature had done so.

If that is so, what do you think has gone wrong in societies that, for example, practice FGM? Do you think social norms and pressure lead people away from what they know to be wrong "in their hearts"? That is not a gotcha question, I am genuinely interested.

Simon, you asked what is wrong with societies that do "bad" things, like FGM. Christian theology would explain that as an effect of the Fall. Because of our own sinful natures, we neither see nor do good the way we should. Think of it like a bunch of pennies that have seen really rough usage. Each would be worn and distorted in different ways, but ultimately there is still an original image which was there and which we can "average" back to. (I like your psychology experiment example quite a lot, though I would say the "averaging" process reveals a law imperfectly known by all, rather than principles which originate in the individuals themselves.)

I'm afraid that's where we must part company. I will have no truck with the Christian doctrine of sin. A wholly depressing idea that is a giant guilt-trip for humanity. It is without positive value in my opinion. Thank you again though for allowing me to clarify my own position.

Maybe I should start a thread about the doctrine of sin sometime and we can talk it over. :-) Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion. I respect your willingness to consider my viewpoint even while mostly disagreeing...

I like that analogy to pennies! As long as the design remains adaptable.

"I like that analogy to pennies!"

Yea, me too...All Xtians are a bunch of dirty pennies...sounds about right.

What I am saying is that a theistic worldview can explain why things are good, but I don't see how atheism can.

Ok, and what I am saying is that I do not view actions in terms of “good or bad” but in terms of “right or wrong”.

Avoiding heights or deep water or walking in fire are evolved traits in the same sense that we get “pins and needles” on our skin we cold or scared – it is literally the hairs we used to have standing on end.

There is nothing stopping me from committing rape or murder. There is no absolute moral code that tells me I can’t. It is just that I do not have any desire to. I never did. The ideas never took hold in my mind. My ethical standards do not have to enforce not engaging in those acts as a rule to follow.  I can explain why I don’t through my understanding of Evolution and enlightened and considered secular thinking that is absolutely religion and dogma free.

Here is a sense of the superiority of atheist morality I linked in Sunday School in the past (with permission from the author).

I think you are using moral concepts borrowed from theism….

Ehhh? You think your Bible is not a rehash of ideas like the Golden Rule from centuries earlier?


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