Who Has the Basis for Morality?: The Basis of the Argument

Not Your Average Theism

Maitzen’s argument was clear from the start, he asserts in the abstract that, “morality is not common ground between theists and atheists.”(7) This is a point that must be conceded upfront before any substantial argumentation can be set forward. Maitzen insists that atheists own the ground, which he refers to as “ordinary morality” (hereafter as OM). He doesn’t seek to define OM in his paper, however, he does argue that it is consistent with OM to, “…prevent or relieve suffering when we easily can…” and that this obligation can only exist upon the condition that there is, “…no perfect being…allowing the child’s suffering to occur…”(8)

Landing Page for this series can be found here.

It is nice that Maitzen desires to pluck at the heartstrings of his reader by presenting the most dire of scenarios, but it must be asked just to what kind of theist is he appealing? 

“According to theism, there exists a supreme being, God, possessing perfect knowledge, power, and goodness. Theism thus expresses a core doctrine of monotheistic religions – including in particular Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – ostensibly subscribed to by billions of people.”

Stephen Maitzen. “Atheism and the Basis for Morality”. Published in What Makes Us Moral? ed. A. W. Musschenga and Anton van Harskamp (Springer Publishing, 2013), pp. 257–269

Not all theistic systems are equal, which is something that needs to be considered; for example: Judaism and Islam are unitarian in their theism and Christianity is trinitarian in its theism. That may seem to be a matter of splitting hairs, but philosophically these realties effect how ethics operate within each sphere. So, to attempt to lump them all into one basket without dealing with each one individually can ultimately lead to misrepresentation of one’s dealing with the issue of theodicy. This is probably the reason why Maitzen focuses his arguments against philosophers who name themselves as being Christian. Therefore any response must not come from one of probabilities, but rather certainty. 

Approaching this from a perspective of the reformed tradition of Christianity, one must ask, if Maitzen’s listed characteristics are true—that is they are accurate in their presentation—one must ask of such a God how does he come by his knowledge, what is the nature of his power, and how is goodness defined within such bounds? The reasoning behind such clarification is simple in relation to OM and (S) and (p) by defining their relationships. 

The Reformed Concept of God in Christianity

Any discussion on the nature of God in the reformed traditions of Christianity begins with what has been revealed in what it holds as authoritative, that is the Bible, for it, “…never operates with an abstract concept of God, but always describes Him as the Living God, who enters into various relations with His creatures, relations which are indicative of several different attributes.”(9) But the fact that the Bible indicates these attributes, it makes considerable effort not to emphasize one particular over another, rather demonstrating that they reside harmoniously within the Godhead.(10) How these attributes are identified and classified have varied from theologian to theologian, but they agree upon specifics: the Triune God of Christianity is ontologically simple, infinite, and immanent.(11) Therefore, for the Christian intending to begin a philosophical exercise, to somehow detach God from what he has revealed about himself, and to assume that God can be reasoned to this is the worst kind of idolatry.(12)

That is to say that, for the Christian, especially those who adhere to the reformed tradition, there is a recognition that knowledge results as an act of God. The Christian assertion is that the human mind exists to know certain things, and was created by God to accomplish the task of knowing him.(13) All knowable facts in nature exist because they have been made to be facts, and that these facts point to their Creator.(14) This means that, epistemically, Christianity is a revelational epistemology.(15) Therefore, the Christian claims that in order for (S) to assert any claim (p) in regard to OM, that they are depending upon facts made and established by God.

In order to refute this claim, it is contingent for Maitzen to demonstrate epistemic justification for (S) of (p) just to account for OM that emerge from a substrate that exists in a metaphysically purposeless and accidental way.(16)


7.  emphasis original

8.  emphasis original

9.  Louis Berkhof. Systematic Theology. GLH Publishing. Louisville, KY. 2017. p. 22

10. Ibid. p.23

11. Ibid. p.34

12.  Van Til, in unpublished notes has written, “Our methodological propositions do not bind us to a subjective analysis as such. On the contrary, our starting point at once points to special redemptive revelation. We must use the Scriptures as our source of information about our own as well as the other types of consciousness. We are not now speaking of the arguments for the principium speciale.” 

Cornelius Van Til. Reformed Epistemolgy. Van Til’s Th.M. Thesis. WTS Archives. 1925. Chapter 7.

13. Westminster Shorter Catechism Question one asks, What is the chief end of man? It answers, Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. https://prts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Shorter_Catechism.pdf

14. Cornelius Van Til. A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Volume 2. Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing. Phillipsburg, NJ. 1969. pdf.

15. Ibid.

16. Responding to a apt reflection on a terrible incident, Richard Dawkins writes, “…if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” 

Richard Dawkins. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. Weidenfield & Nicholson Publishers. London, UK. 1995. pp132-3

Maitzen’s hurdle is to demonstrate that there is some way in such a schema to complain about one outcome (hurt) over another (avoiding hurt). It is likely that such a challenge will be called “not relevant” because this is about “suffering”. Not so fast: the problem, given the presuppositions that Dawkins lays out, remains. Maitzen rejects even a basic theistic claim. “Suffering” is merely one aspect of the schema established by Dawkins.


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