A Review of Chapter 13 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 13, “Christianity Does Not Provide the Basis for Morality”, is written by David Eller.  According to Eller, “the characteristic feature of religion is the claim that there are nonhuman and superhuman agents in the world, lacking some of the ‘qualia’ of humans (like bodies or mortality) but possessing the most important one — mind or personality or intention.  This ‘religious perspective,’ if you will, humanizes the world or, more critically, socializes the world, because these nonhuman religious agents (like a god) not only can be spoken with but also must be spoken with.  They are understood by members of the religion to be a real and inescapable part of their social world” (p. 350).  Eller’s definition of morality is more difficult to pin down.  It appears to be something like the following:  morality is a social process of behavioral appraisal that guides the conduct and alters the behavior or attitudes of members of a social group.  Morality refers back to a set of rules and may differ from group to group.  Eller makes the obvious point that different social groups have their own moral opinions.  He also notes that some non-human species have some precursors to morality.

I patiently waited as I read through the chapter for the author to make an interesting pro-atheism or anti-Christianity point.  Unfortunately, his main point seems to be nothing more than that Christianity is not the only basis for morality.  He comes across as a moral relativist and thus seems completely uninterested in what makes something good or why we should be moral.  In other words, he confirms the fears of many a theist who believes that atheists have no objective foundation for their moral beliefs (personally, I think it is possible for an atheist to hold that objective morality exists).  On the last page of the chapter Eller states that human morality would be better off without religion.   What he means by “better off” is anyone’s guess.  Anyone trying to make atheism palatable, especially to people who believe in objective morality, should present a secular objective ethical theory.  I suspect many theists who read this chapter, whether Christian or not, will come away thinking atheism looks worse than it did before they started reading the chapter.


5 thoughts on “A Review of Chapter 13 of The Christian Delusion

  1. “He comes across as a moral relativist and thus seems completely uninterested in what makes something good or why we should be moral.”

    That is unfortunate, if true. Though that does sound like Eller.

    “(personally, I think it is possible for an atheist to hold that objective morality exists).”

    Interesting. Though I have to ask what you mean by “objective morality exists?” There’s the version of “ideas that best correspond to fulfilling human desires most efficiently exist as computational products in a bio-mechanical brain” and then there’s the other version where Platonic realism tries to be married to metaphysical naturalism in some inexplicable way.


  2. I think you misunderstand Eller’s approach. Eller is an anthropologist. As such he is interested in observing and describing man’s activities. His discipline is a descriptive one not a presecriptive one. In his text, Introducing Anthropology of Religion, he points out that his job is not to say which human practice is better than another but to simply analyze the behavior, attempt to understand why it is done and classify it among the behaviors of other cultures.

    His whole point in the chapter is that morality is an invention of the culture in which it is found, just as much as language, religious beliefs, and so on are inventions of the culture. Of course each culture thinks their ways are “better” (ethnocentrism) and will often tie their moral codes to some divine authority in order to objectify them.

  3. Ben, by objective morality I mean a definition of good and evil that is universal and not solely dependent on the opinions of one person or one social group. The best secular ethical theory I have come across is desirism.

    Ken, I’m not sure what relevance an anthropological account of morality has in a book intended to show that Christianity is a delusion, unless the point is that all moral systems are subjective and therefore Christian morality is also subjective. But that position undercuts other chapters in the book that rely on real immorality existing to make their point.

  4. Wow, we are remarkably on the same page on both your points (though my moral theory is a hybrid between Fyfe’s desirism and Richard Carrier’s “goal theory”).

    I spent a lot of time this morning trying to explain to Ken and Loftus that Eller’s relativism undercut the chapters on the argument from evil, but they’re both trying to play it both ways incoherently.

    Sucks to be them. Well it sucks to be me too, because atheists in my camp have to put up with the obvious reactions that chapters and books like this are going to get as a natural result of getting the basics wrong. *shrug* They’ll listen eventually. Maybe. hehe


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