Atheism Atheist Morality Bible Christian Morality

Morality, Holocaust, and the Athiest

In a recent discussion on a forum, I was given a statement with regards to morality by an atheist who was arguing for subjective morality.

The statement was:

“… something is correct if the majority says it’s correct and if society chooses to enforce that rule.”

When I asked him that would he stand by the same rule, if applied to WWII Nazi Germany and the resulting Holocaust?

I was met with silence.

Am I the only one or you also think that there is something completely wrong with this statement?

In fact to be honest, it’s not only, not right, it’s not even wrong, it’s retarded.

It is retarded because it takes no measure on the intellectual level to ascertain whether the majority is correct or not. Just because you legalize something, does not make it anymore moral than you wearing red tights and a cape and believing yourself to be superman.

If you hold to subjective morality then you have to be consistent and concede that the Holocaust was not only justified, it was a moral and a good thing. Lets be clear here, you are not arguing only that morality is not objective, but passively, that subjective morality is the version which is correct. “Correct” implies that the right and the good course of action, is indeed what the majority decides.

I am sure many atheists, agnostics, anyone who views morality as subjective, are nice people who would not want their words taken to such a case as Holocaust but then sadly, this  statement logically ends there even when the people holding it don’t want it to be so.

When what is morally good, is decided by vote…then the Holocaust happens.

By John A. David

A student of theology, a bible teacher and a graphics designer. I ramble a lot about Christian faith, apologetics and atheism.

38 replies on “Morality, Holocaust, and the Athiest”

I see a flaw in man’s perception or morality
man’s perception is based on “God is good, therefore…”

now, when God instructs his army to annihilate a captured nations man, women, children. our perception of morality is crumbles.

Adam should have eaten from the tree of Life. that tree of knowledge of good and evil, is precisely driving our idea of morality.

those who do not believe in God, can come up with a million list of morals.

but God’s children walks in Faith. there is no concept of right and wrong, good or evil.

if, for applying the principle of morality, Jesus dying for the wicked man, does not makes sense.

but then, Jesus said. I am the tree of life!

so the same choice is being presented to all man today. Morality? or Jesus, the tree of life.

when in heaven, I’ll go find Adam and punch him 🙂

– grace and peace

God has anointed you for this work you do, John. Thank you and God bless you. Amazed at the Holocaust coming to your mind, as an example to give of when what is morally good is voted on.

There is another flaw in the argument that leads to the problem you found: Who gets to vote (that is, who is “society”)? Unless “society” is defined as the whole world, then this form of “morality” will always be subject to excesses such as the holocaust, and we could as easily talk of slavery, oppression of women, other genocides…

Defining “society” as all the world does not work, since the whole world has never been able to work out how to do it.

Very true indeed. And that is all one can say when he relies of subjectivity to define morals.

Someone once said, democracy is the paradise of fools…if you have fools in the majority. Sounds true here.

Nobody “votes” on the plethora of cultural conclusions we all observe every day.

Take for example, the idea of a bikini. Over time, culturally speaking, Americans have come to accept that a bikini is acceptable to wear in the summer near bodies of water. Conversely, if a woman were to wear only her undergarments (even near a body of water), it is unacceptable. There’s no substantive difference in the fabric or the clothing. In fact, if anything, most undergarments probably cover more territory than a bikini. But society goes on because we’ve deemed it appropriate. Contrast that with, say, public swimming and recreation in a Muslim country. You’re going to find something closer to this:

The only conclusion we can draw from these ideas is that we a culture accepts and what it does not ARE subjective. History itself is rife with example of what is culturally acceptable and what is not.

I also would point out that an argument could be made that pinned morality to human suffering. I am bored and don’t want to write it all out but, as Sam Harris pointed out, there’s biological reasons we don’t get all hot and bothered about the moral conditions regarding rocks. Unless we’re stoning people. Which religions have done for a long time. Okay…that was a low-blow 😉

There’s no explanation for this outside of how cultures move to deem what is appropriate and what is not. Nobody votes on this. That’s a rather elementary assessment of cultural memes.

A Bikini is a quite separate thing than lets say torturing babies for fun. Or stoning homosexuals, you would agree?

People do not actively vote on morals but they do always passively. The holocaust is a good example because people concluded it was best to go along with it. The point being, there is nothing wrong with it as long as it has an end, some benefit. The leaders at the helm are of course more responsible than others but the people who did knew and thought it was okay or well deserved, did that exactly because they believe morality to be different. At least that is what the original poster wanted to say. That if the society agrees then it is all right. My point is simple that I find it severely wrong and problematic.

“Or stoning homosexuals, you would agree?”

Precisely! The bikini analogy wasn’t intended to be an exhaustive explanation of moral nature. Rather, it is an illustration as to how various groups and cultures arrive at collective conclusions. But, there’s another important factor. (I touched on it in a previous comment and it ties the loose end of your Holocaust example.)

What is the substantive difference between these (hypothetically) culturally accepted ideas:

1) Bikinis may be worn in public in the summer near water. Undergarments may not.
2) Homosexuals are sinful and should be stoned.
3) Torturing babies instills the reality of the world into those who do it and should be promoted for awareness.

Clearly, there is unsolicited human suffering involved in the latter two ideas. The former does not involve suffering whatsoever. This is a demonstration of inborn, natural, human empathy towards other humans. But back to your point of the post:

“That if the society agrees then it is all right. My point is simple that I find it severely wrong and problematic.”

I agree. This idea is retarded. For one, the person attempting to argue against moral objectivism seems to have been unwittingly setting up an other-than-religion based system of moral objectivism. That is, the absolute trump card of cultural acceptance.

I think the bikini example is a wonderful one, and one that illustrates a key point. We have to look at why the bikini was ever thought to be inappropriate, and if those moral precepts still hold true today. The objection to a bikini – or underwear, for that matter – is propriety and modesty. Both propriety and modesty are still values that the majority of people hold in high regard. Our attachment to those values has not changed; rather, our understanding of what constitutes a violation of them has changed over time.

This is not necessarily a good thing. It is clear that as exposure to something becomes more common and accepted, its effect is lessened. This is true for medicine, drugs… and lust. Men continue to be titillated by exposure to a woman’s body, and as bathing attire has become more and more revealing, this has not changed. However, as we become more accustomed to seeing so much, we become hungry for more. Why is the porn industry so successful, and why does it continually produce more and more wicked material? Our appetites cannot be sated.

The counter argument could be that in Tahiti, women always wear less than in the United States, for example. That does not mean that those women are less modest, and that culture obviously has a different standard of propriety. However, there is still – in that culture, as in all cultures – a standard. Modesty is the absolute morality, the cultural differences in how that absolute is standardized is what is relative. It is a common application of the straw man argument: the claim is not that standards are the same across all anthropological boundaries, but that the morality that is the foundation is universal and absolute.

Thanks for the post! People that subscribe to relativity get very defensive and angry with the Holocaust example, and it is the one most often used. However, it is the perfect example of taking a thought to its logical end. The argument that morality is relative is an absolute statement, to begin with. In addition, we actually know better. The Holocaust is used as an example because we all realize that there is something wrong with it. There are some things that we know are absolutely wrong – and have always been wrong – and yet we do not accept those as absolutes.

Relative moral standards are only relative when they involve someone else – we are never relative about morality that affects ourselves.

Yes, you are right. Though I have seen atheists who would count “men of science” to actually decide who gets to vote. Some atheists confuse this charge as being, that the Holocaust was never voted on by the society but the point is, as long as they were okay with it, as long as the higher order agreed to define morality as something which deeply contradicts with our sense of good, then either you have to be redefine your own moral compass or point out what is wrong. Majority in power, especially when that majority consist of immoral men like Hitler and his group of demented supporters, is bound to screw things up.

I bring up Holocaust because that is one of best examples of subjective morality gone wrong. The point is not if by subjective morality you can screw up, the point is, its all subjective, just your opinion, and if a majority happen to cling to it then the result is devastating.

I have seen plenty of atheists who are very moral people, many even by living through moral relativism, are at heart good people. They almost tell me, we can do every moral act you can do. In fact the late Hitchens used to say the same thing. But even he failed to acknowledge that the point is not that you can duplicate any moral act but what makes your opinion better than any other to begin with. If you subscribe to subjective morality than that is all that you get with the package. Its not that you are nice person but what makes you think that your opinion has any special value to it than another.

I am not angry about the Holocaust example!

…because it isn’t a very good one.

The Holocaust isn’t an example of subjective morality gone wrong. It’s an example of an extreme ideology carried out on a massive power scale. For further examples, see The Inquisition, The Crusades, and modern Muslim extremism.

It is a good example because it unveils the core of the issue which is, that it is alright to kill or exterminate others because you are superior in race. It reeks of subjective morality. The Golden rule fails here completely. There is a reason we know the holocaust was wrong. That if a country decides, as a majority consensus than legal becomes moral. Nazi Germany did exactly that.

The inquisition, crusades and other extremism is all wrong based on the same principle too. Just because enough people vote on something does not make it any more right than you preferring chocolate and all the rest of the world favouring vanilla. It never changes the inherent nature of anything it is addressing except your choice and preference.

Quickly, there are good biological reasons for altruistic behavior in the human species. It is thought (at least so far) that humans adapted quickly to group survival instead of individual family-unit survival. This was due to the division of labor, etc.

There’s also evidence of altruism in nature. For further reading, I would recommend Sam Harris’ book “The Moral Landscape.”

Andrew, I am aware of this kind of research, and have been for quite a while. What I have questions about are the following: Altruistic behaviour may well be an evolutionary advantage, but is it correct to call it “moral”? That is, what makes it right and other behaviours wrong, as opposed to just “better for the species” or ” worse for the species”?

To put it another way: Why is the species more valid than the individual? If I do what is best for me, at the expense of other individuals or even of the whole species, why is that “wrong”? Is it just a “might makes right” argument?

Well, that ‘rub’ goes both ways. There are devout Christians on the African continent hunting down ‘witches’ and killing them, burning them alive and all manner of immoral action against them. Lets also not forget that Hitler used the church and god to motivate the country to do as they did. He in fact said he was doing god’s work.

This really puts a chink in the objective/subjective morality discussion. Hitler acted more or less just like Joshua and claimed also to be doing the work of the god of Abraham. The RCC did everything but name him a saint. Where does that leave the question of morality?

Nowhere, because we can see that Hitler even when he believes otherwise is wrong. How do you know that? the same way I know that Christians hunting witches is wrong. Even if the people doing these acts saw themselves different, we know better. Because we objectively know that this is wrong. Where does that objectivity come from, is another debate, not for this occasion. But we all agree that there are things which are just wrong, and should never be done, no matter who thinks otherwise. The church can be corrupt and wrong, that is not news. Hitler can say all his life he is a Christian, but he is wrong. The same way the atheist who posted the original statement thinks he is right on his conclusion on subjective morals but it isn’t because by logic it contradicts the very foundation of logic and reason.

Two opposing truths can not be both true at the same time. Stealing is wrong and stealing is not wrong can not be both true at the same time. You say stealing is right I say no, we can both be wrong, but we can both be right at the same time. That is the problem with subjective morality, if all you have done is learnt your way how to be moral in a given environment than it is not different than another person raised in another culture and thinks the same for his. Only one can be right if both culture hold opposite morals on a given issue, or both can be wrong but both can’t be right.

The problem right here is not where objectivity derives from, you and I have obviously very different approaches to that. But on the given statement with regards to morals, I disagree flat out because it’s stupid. Subjective morality is a sinking ship. It is at the core nothing but your personal opinion and preference. Why should not the other human who thinks otherwise be granted the same liberty. But when you do that you get contradictory statements.

Morality is always subjective.
Morality is always context sensitive.

“I know that Christians hunting witches is wrong”

Exodus 22:18
King James Version (KJV)
18 Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Stealing is wrong.

What do you call it when we take the eggs away from a hen?
What exactly do you call the campaign that Joshua lead?

In the first instance you chose your subjective morality over the objective values from the Christian holy text. In the second you forget that context changes everything with regard to morality.

You might say it’s wrong to shoot a man dead – unless he was busy trying to kill your child. Thou shalt not murder unless god tells you to. Hitler says he was doing god’s work?

Actually, you have not made a case for anything. Just waffled. In your last reply you only state what you won’t defend… and completely ignored all the other points. I take this as capitulation on your side and that you have no rebuttal. Nicely done sir.

Well, I can’t please everyone, right? So chill, if what I wrote doesn’t make sense to you, it does to a lot of other people.

Why should I defend what I don’t hold to? Give me one reason to do that. Let me ask you would it be fair if I ask you to defend Stalin, for exterminating millions of people of faith. Would you like to do that?

Actually, I am going to ask you to tell me what is your qualification on interpreting the Bible, since you tried to establish that in a reply to AJ. The problem is, you have a seriously distorted view of scholarship. The same way, as the reading of Dawkin’s “the selfish gene” does not make you an expert in evolutionary zoology or reading Hawking’s “the Grand design” makes you an expert in cosmology and astronomy; also then, reading the Bible, even extensively does not make you an expert in Biblical scholarship.

Of course by expert I do not mean someone who is aggressively christian but someone who is qualified to handle these texts in their entirety, with learnt hermenutics and many other philosophical studies which are bound to directly affect the understanding of these texts.

You can argue that the simple pulpit preacher does not go into this much trouble to read his bible so why should I take an exception to you? The thing is anyone can pick up the English bible, reading it 8 times cover to cover and think they know it, is fine by me but as soon as they set foot on critical analysis, they face a challenge of scholarship which has evolved over 2000 years has plenty to offer and is quite solid in its foundations. You are good for the former reasoning because that is hardly challenging, meaning your view of the Bible. In that respect your opinion is no more greater or worse than the average christian believer or preacher who makes up God as he sees fit in his own mind but is that a scholarly take on the text itself? No, because it is not following any discipline seriously.

“if what I wrote doesn’t make sense to you, it does to a lot of other people. ”
Just because it could subjectively make sense to them, does not mean it objectively, logically, actually makes sense. Just in the way you’re arguing that things being “okay” with a majority does not automatically make them moral.

I can’t reply to the comment below for some reason, but this was the original comment anyway, so I’ll deal. I don’t believe that we would have any objection to killing witches if they were truly out there casting evil spells, killing people, etc. The morality has not changed: we simply do not think that there are witches out there doing these things. It is our understanding that has changed, not the morality. Additionally, having a sister who is a missionary in Africa, I feel certain I would have heard if there were “devout Christians on the African continent hunting down ‘witches’ and killing them, burning them alive and all manner of immoral action against them,” as you have claimed. When and where is this occurring?

There is a long history of people manipulating people through things that are important to them, be it religion, money, or their families. This is a human wickedness issue, not a Christianity issue. As for Joshua, it would serve people very well to actually read the book – and maybe even a commentary or two – to understand the point of what went on there, rather than merely listening to Dawkins and Harris on such points. Why were the Canaanites subject to God’s wrath? Why were the Israelites used as the tool for it? What happened to Israel itself when it became wicked? You cannot take the story out of its context, and then attempt to spin it into an argument that is based on a misinterpretation of the text.

Finally, as far as stealing, murder, etc. it is important to define what we are talking about. When John says “stealing,” I believe he is referring to wrongfully appropriating another’s property in a fashion that clearly violates the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. You cannot use the term “murder” interchangeably with “kill,” at least without letting people know at the outset. This is not relativistic, this is an improper application of philological rules and traditions.
I can’t reply to the comment

You’ll forgive me for thinking you confused. ***line deleted***. It takes 10 seconds to find the information about persecution of ‘witches’ on the African continent and it is being lead by Christians. From there it seems rather pointless to address the rest of your pointless argument… but I shall persevere.

I don’t look to atheists for my judgement of Joshua… I’m fully capable of interpreting you hotly text for myself. It is completely open interpretation as there are about 30,000 Christian sects which all seem to interpret it differently. You’ll have to show your credentials before I think your particular interpretation is better than mine. I happen to think my interpretation is quite fine, ***line deleted***. You assert without reason that your imagined god’s opinion is morally right. so all manor of evil done in his name is justified. You, sir, are incapable of intellectual discourse if you maintain such positions.

Finally you go on to qualify the act of theft and make it subjective rather than an objective activity. This is exactly what I said. Morality is subjective. Thanks for proving my point. You have done nothing to support your own position and instead have only supported mine. This is awfully nice of you.

P.S Myathiestlife, keep the personal attacks to yourself.

“It is well known that when a debate cannot be won by reasoning, controversialists are prone to descend to personal abuse. If arguments are lacking, mud is a good substitute.” – John Stott

I appreciate that you hold firm to your beliefs, but I think more than a google search is necessary to prove that Christians are hunting and killing witches across the African continent, much the same as more than in inkling of an idea is required to make the claim the atheists are also amoralists.

Additionally, you have completely missed my entire point, which is that our attitudes are subjective, not the underlying morals, and refusing to accept the varying degrees of a particular act has nothing to do with a philosophical or moral conclusion. There is a difference between manslaughter and murder. There is a lesser difference between borrowing and stealing, when the length of time increases beyond a particular point. Everything is not black and white, and yet you seem to want to have both shades of grey and stark contrast, depending on which suits your needs at the moment.

The blog is called “The Critical Eye,” which envisions lines of critical thought, whether we agree with them or not. You would do well to look critically at the arguments placed before you, and then respond in kind with similarly constructed arguments that bolster your view in the eyes of others. There are many examples of how this is done, some in this very comment stream from sympathizers to your worldview.

Couple things…

First, you completely ignored the science of morality; a burgeoning discipline within evolutionary biology and neuroscience that has found reasons for morality wired within our genetic code. The research is by no means exhaustive but it at least deserves some consideration.

Second, the usual conversation regarding objective vs. subjective morality predictably misses the point. Why must I conclude that the Holocaust was “good” because of moral relativism? How could that possibly constitute a logical conclusion?

Worse, Christians routinely behave as if they possess some sort of moral high-ground on the matter. I’ve yet to hear an apologist actually define the nature of their supposed moral objectivity. Are you born with it? Is it revealed by the holy spirit or god in some manner? Is it inferred by reading the Bible? The Bible certainly can’t be considered the final word on good morality in the 21st century. So WHERE, may I ask, does this set of moral goods and bads come from?

The idea of moral objectivity is an ambiguous one at best, and an untenable position in the face of modern scientific research and discussion on the matter.

(It doesn’t surprise me, in the least, that theists must be patently terrified of such research. As we continue to discover that our behavior is wired by natural processes, and not a fantastical being, where does that leave the belief?)

Though I can give you an example of how one supporter of subjective morality actually tried to convince me how stealing was not wrong. When I said because the thing belonged to someone else. You know what he said, “lets define ownership”. I do not have to go that deep into crack reasoning when I can see where it leads.

The Bible claims only that the laws of God are written on our hearts (Romans 2:15). The idea that morality is the result of evolution is placing a supernatural event into a framework of anti-supernaturalism. A non-moral process, by which moral precepts arise, is the creation of something above and beyond nature (not to mention our nature) from nothing: creation ex nihilo. That is by definition supernatural. This is the same issue that is applied to the origin of life, consciousness, beauty, love, etc. Attempts to attribute these things to evolution have failed spectacularly, the protests of the New Atheists notwithstanding. It is precisely the subjectivity of beauty, love, and the enjoyment of the arts that deters attempts to justify them biologically and psychologically.

I would have to ask, however, why the Bible cannot be considered an authority on morality in the 21st century. The universally accepted moral law is the Golden Rule, which is one of the two laws (and the only dealing with human relationship) that Jesus claimed were most important.

I try to keep up with all the latest done in the field. But to best put it, we still have a lot to learn. I am nowhere saying that I am morally superior, neither I am saying Christians have a monopoly on morality. I am also not saying that people can not be moral without God, Christ or the Bible, in fact even the Bible says people can be completely moral without God.

The ontological question about objectivity deserves a separate space and time. I am really not interested in writing about it right now. But considering my main point about subjectivity I do not think its all that important. Subjectivity is severely flawed that is all that I can say.

P.S, just wanted to say that don’t get me wrong I certainly do not think that the question of objective vs subjective is settled, I don’t think it is, not for me too. But I do know this, subjective morality simply sucks, one can not be consistent with it and still evades the charge of double standard and hypocrisy. Until we learn more, I have simply not seen any good logic for subjective morality.

I appreciate this honest response. My favorite people are the doubters, those who have the guts to say they don’t know (because I certainly don’t!).

I am curious though, John, for you personally…why believe? You seem to be pretty up to speed on matters of biology and physics, and likely politics too. Most Christians view science as an affront to their beliefs. So, why do you believe?

Hey there Andrew, I believe this might make a good post addressing the various reasonings that convince me as to why I believe. I will try to write it as soon as possible.

Hope all is well by you. 🙂

I think your statement that NAZI Germany provides an insight into how subjective morality can be problematic is quite convincing.

However, this does not do away with the problems of having a set in stone definition of morality. At the time of the bible, few questioned the morality of slavery, or even genocide. These were just facts of life, albeit unpleasant facts of life.

These days, this kind of behavior is morally reprehensible. Therefore, morality has shifted. Perhaps in 50 years from now, if we can manufacture artificial meat, we will think that the generations before were barbarians for raising animals just for slaughter when we could have just eaten veggies and tofu 🙂

Therefore, the answer must lie somewhere in the middle, not at either extreme.

Thank you for your thoughts. I certainly do not think that the ontological problem of morality is solved, only that subjective morals, morals voted upon and agreed to by some and not others tend to be only contradictory. It can not be relied on.

Anyway, thanks and welcome to the discussion.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, feel free to leave a comment. Thank you.

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