The Raving Theist

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February 12, 2006 | 13 Comments

In a letter to the editor, Anne Klaeysen of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island responds to last week’s God Squad column on whether morality is a good thing without God:

Once again, in the Feb. 4 column, the God Squad has taken a narrow view toward ethics, not only by insisting that the source of ethics is a supernatural deity and implying that only those who hold a theistic faith can live a moral life, but by presuming that “moral atheists” have an “inner idea of absolute truth” that is equivalent to God [“If there is no God, are morals and ethics still a good thing?”, Faith, Feb. 4].

As leader of the Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island who holds a doctorate of ministry degree from Hebrew Union College, I must take exception. Not all religions are based on revelation from a supernatural deity; nor does belief in God necessarily lead to moral behavior. Indeed, far more evil has been done — and continues to be done –in the name of God than not.

An early Ethical Humanist leader, John Lovejoy Elliott, who founded the Hudson Guild Settlement House, among many other social action projects, once said, “I have known good people who believed in God. I have known good people who didn’t believe in God. But I have never known good people who didn’t believe in people.”

It is time for the God Squad to believe in people and for Newsday to offer its readers an alternative to such a limited view of humanity.

My one problem with all this is that Klaeysen herself has an inner idea of absolute truth that tells her that she’s right and the Squad’s wrong. If she’s rejecting the notion of absolute truth, she’s in no position to criticize the Squad. If she believes in absolute truth, but simply doesn’t think it’s equivalent to or requires a God, she should lay out her position so we can see why the Squad is wrong.


13 Responses to “Alternatives”

  1. Q the Enchanter
    February 12th, 2006 @ 2:02 pm

    She isn’t necessarily denying an “absolute truth” so much as she’s denying an absolute truth that is “equivalent to God.” (Also, acknowledging an absolute truth or truth-constraining independent reality isn’t the same thing as claiming epistemic access to it.)

  2. glenstonecottage
    February 12th, 2006 @ 8:17 pm

    Klaeysen herself has an inner idea of absolute truth that tells her that she’s right and the Squad’s wrong.

    Well, I agree with Ms. Klaeysen that the Squad is wrong, and I certainly don’t claim any “inner idea of absolute truth”.

  3. a different tim
    February 13th, 2006 @ 10:34 am

    You going theist, RA? She can certainly say the squad is wrong because the claims they make are demonstrably false. She doesn’t necessarily have to offer an absolute moral claim of her own to do this.

  4. Anonymous
    February 13th, 2006 @ 11:08 am

    If there is an absolute truth, we could not know it. Anyone who claims they do is a threat.

  5. severalspecies
    February 13th, 2006 @ 1:24 pm


    You used to be a sharp-eyed antagonist towards ‘theist’ thinking, but the last two posts….something has clouded your thinking.

    Are you baiting us? ADT’s question is a valid one, are you going theist on us?

    By all this I mean that you seem to have gotten sloppy in your thinking, fallen into a sort of either/or fallacy mode. In the “Feminine Critique” post you seem to forget that while a particular value system may be the best for most, it doesn’t automatically make other value systems wrong. And in this post, well,… the first four comments seem to say it better than I can. Your thinking is clouded.

  6. Rocketman
    February 13th, 2006 @ 2:59 pm

    Perhaps he has been a theist all along. Perhaps this blog is some insidiously clever trap put in palce to have aus all in the same place so at some future time the RA can engage in some uncontravertable arguements as to the truth of gods existance and will–in one fell swoop–convert us all to god belief—

    Ladies and Gentlemen–i have exceeded my paranoia quotient for today and now need to sleep.

    Thank you.

  7. The Raving Atheist
    February 13th, 2006 @ 5:31 pm

    My position, which is an absolute truth, is that (1) there is no God and (2) therefore moral systems do not require a God. It also so happens that my inner idea of absolute truth on these issues corresponds with the plain old truth.

    Klaeysen, on the other hand, asserts that there are no absolute truths as they relate to moral systems. That being the case, she can’t claim — as she apparently does — that the Squad is “wrong” in claiming that moral truths derive from God. Her position (if that’s what it is) involves a contradiction. And plainly Klaeysen does believe in absolute moral truths because she thinks that the Guild Settlement House and other social action projects are “good” and not “bad,” she talks about “good” people, and she says some god belief does not lead to “moral behavior.” If morality is relative, she can’t make such judgments.

    Statements like “anyone who believes in absolute truth is a threat” and “you’ve fallen into an either/or fallacy mode” also presume a belief in absolute truths. But they contradict themselves by saying, at the same time, that there are not absolute truths. So, by the sheer force of logic, they’re false. Also, the statement that “anyone who believes in absolute truth is threat” can be shown to be false on an empirical basis. For example, someone who believes, as an absolute truth, that the only moral imperative is to help others is not a threat.

    I suppose you might argue that such a person would be a threat if his idea of helping people was doing X, Y and Z, where X. Y and Z are things you consider harmful. The problem is that as soon as you identify X, Y and Z as “threats”, you’re making an absolute moral statement.

  8. Q the Enchanter
    February 13th, 2006 @ 9:05 pm

    I see your point, but I think her “nonabsoluteness” standard pertains to moral judgments, whereas you’re imposing it on a metamoral judgment. She’s talking about the possible sources of moral justification rather than the content of moral systems.

    In any case, categorical statements like hers don’t require “absolute knowledge,” just the reasonable, human-grade, fallible, defeasible type of belief we’re usually quite comfortable calling “knowledge.”

  9. Gathercole
    February 13th, 2006 @ 11:36 pm

    “The problem is that as soon as you identify X, Y and Z as “threats”, you’re making an absolute moral statement. ”

    A threat is something dangerous, or potentially dangerous. I don’t see how it has to do with morality.

    I echo the previous posters; I’ve seen some pretty rigid thinking appearing here over the past few days. It’s not necessary to have some monolithic idea of “absolute truth” to judge morality. People follow certain general rules in judging behavior as moral or immoral, but these rules often come into conflict with each other, and because of that it’s impossible to model all of them with a single principle. However, by observing that atheists often act in ways universally judged to be moral, such as telling the truth, fulfilling their obligations, etc, Anne Klaeysen can claim that atheists can be moral, without herself defining “moral” in terms of some principle of absolute truth.

  10. Anonymous
    February 14th, 2006 @ 8:08 am

    How about this then:
    I’m pretty sure I can’t know anything for sure.
    People who think that they can know something for sure, morally that is, seem to be a threat to my freedom.
    My personal behavior is motivated by subjective beliefs. My experience tells me that it seems that once someone’s belief becomes objective, that believer eventually wants me to believe, too.

  11. severalspecies
    February 14th, 2006 @ 9:29 am


    Uncle! I cry uncle!

    Like “Q”, I get your point. I guess I just didn’t see (and actually still don’t see) Klaeysen’s assertion of absolute moral truth in regards to her response to the God Squad. Remember, She is speaking towards a more general public that just doesn’t think about things like absolutes in philosophical reasoning. My own eyes still glaze over when logic rears it’s head, (probably from years of religious indoctrination, where logic is rarely if ever used) but I try to wipe them whenever that happens.

  12. Peter Sattler
    February 14th, 2006 @ 9:34 am

    Come on, RA. Just admit that you were wrong.

    You claim that Klaeysen “asserts that there are no absolute truths as they relate to moral systems.” But nowhere in her letter does she say or even imply that.

    What she says is this: “the God Squad has taken a narrow view toward ethics … by presuming that ‘moral atheists’ have an ‘inner idea of absolute truth’ that is equivalent to God.”

    Her statement does not deny the existence or logical presupposition of “absolute truth.” Rather it denies that such an “inner idea” is caused by, is proof of, or is “equivalent to” God.

    Please note Klaeysen’s use of the restrictive clause, starting with the word “that.” All she is saying is that the atheist’s inner idea of absolute truth is not of Type G. The sentence does not preclude other types. (Just as the words, “The crook stole the necklace that was on the nightstand” implies — or allows for — the existence of at least one other necklace that was somewhere else.)

    As you know, the innate Moral Sense argument is frequently trotted out to prove the reality of a divine creator. The God Squad was giving that old nag another run around the track. And Klaeysen, to her credit, was having none of it.

    So, as I see things, you have no real problem with her article. At least if you read what it says.

    Best, Peter

  13. Thorngod
    February 14th, 2006 @ 10:18 am

    If there are any “absolute truths,” no one can know what they are. This is a religious construct based on belief in a supreme being. If it can be held that a person can know or “have” an absolute truth, this notion can only refer to a strongly held conviction, and the “absolute” term is an unwarranted assumption. The only absolute datum available to any mortal is the bare awareness that something “is.” As for morality, it is necessarily subjective, but is evolved as a protective mechanism for the social group. It would be a meaningless concept in application to an individual sans fellow beings.

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