The Secularist Dilemma: No God, No Truth

Choosing between two options is only rational if you think the choice you make is better than the alternative. But one option can be better than another only if good and bad exist, and good and bad can exist only if God exists. Secularism, by denying God, destroys the basis for rationality in choices.

This became clear to me after a conversation I had with someone close to me earlier today. We were discussing birth control and I said that I think it is bad. He said he thinks it is good because it stops overpopulation, which I don’t even believe in.

The discussion turned to the value of people, which, if I understood him right, he seemed to base on their material value. I think he brought up the example of stupid people in poverty. He argued that stupid people in poverty, or people who only try to game the welfare system, shouldn’t be allowed to breed – at least that’s what I understood him to say. I hope he doesn’t really think that.

I told him that I thought that was horrifying and that it reflected something that I think is common and awful among secularists: a tendency to value people based on their economic usefulness. He didn’t seem to think there was anything wrong with that.

I told him that it sounded to me like what Hitler did, except that, if I understood my conversation partner correctly, he thought he could more correctly identify undesirables than Hitler did. And I asked him whether he thought it would be okay to put stupid poor people in genocide camps.

He said, if I remember correctly, that he didn’t think that was okay, but they could be prevented from having more than two children, because all they do is put a drain on resources. I told him that, in my view, if you see those people as having intrinsic value, you can offer to help them out of poverty or offer to educate them to stop their being stupid, and it is worth the effort.

His response, if I remember correctly, was that you won’t save enough of them, and so it is not worth it from an economic perspective. I told him that I thought it was evil to view people that way, and he responded, if I remember correctly, that he thought it was realistic.

When thinking back on our conversation, I think there is a very powerful way to show that his view is not realistic, and I think I began to point it out at this point in our conversation.

I said that if you view people that way, it does not motivate you to help them, or do anything morally good for them. Instead, if it benefits you, you can just treat them as trash or mere means to get ahead. And his response, the words of which I can’t remember, suggested to me that he thought that was true.

I gave three examples: robbing, lying, or killing would, on his view, seem to be no problem, so long as you were careful. And his answer, if I remember right, was that he wouldn’t do that because he likes people.

Now, there are two routes I could have gone for here. I could have asked him if, not liking a person, and thinking he could benefit from killing him or stealing from him, and if he had confidence that he wouldn’t be caught, would he kill him? Steal from him? If he said no, then I could have used that to show him that even he doesn’t believe people are mere resources.

But instead I asked him if his “liking people” was just a personal preference, like chocolate or vanilla. And he said that it was a personal preference. So I brought up Hitler again and asked him if he thought Hitler was really bad or was just someone who preferred chocolate (not liking people) to vanilla (liking people).

He said, if I understood him correctly, and I hope I didn’t, that he thought the difference between himself and Hitler was really just personal preference: my conversation partner likes people too much to hurt them, and Hitler didn’t.

This is where I think I can prove that secularism destroys reason and truth. If secularism is true, my conversation partner’s preference to act as if people are more than mere resources does not seem to be rational at all, because, if secularism is true, then people, realistically, are not more than resources.

But, more than that, if secularism is true, there is no reason to follow your own preferences, whether they are for killing or against killing, because, if secularism is true, then neither of those is good or bad. If I was having this conversation with him right now, I think I would tell him that choosing between two options only makes sense if one option is better than the other. If I am right, rational choices presuppose the existence of good and bad.

[cont’d next post]

[cont’d from last post]

I remember that at one point in the conversation I said that I thought it was bad to view people the way he does because it devalues them, and he said that he thought it was realistic. And I think I responded that I thought the beautiful and the true are connected, and so his view was really not realistic.

I think he responded that he thought that was just my preference, and I said that I didn’t think it was just my preference, I think there is good evidence for the way I view the world. Then we stopped discussing it because we’ve been down that road before and neither of us has changed our positions.

The reason I bring that up is because I now think that the true and the good must be connected because there is no rational alternative. For example, suppose I was talking to a secularist and used the argument outlined at the top of this essay: truth is real only if there is good and bad.

An example is with rational choices: your choice to do one thing instead of another is only rational, it only accords with the truth, if you think the choice you make is better than the alternative. What that implies is that truth and goodness are connected.

But a secularist might respond that you don’t have to make your choices based on what you think is good or bad. If that was the response, I would ask, what would you do if a poor person asked you for help? You can either help or not, but what will your choice be based on?

Now a secularist cannot rationally say that he would choose based on whether helping this poor person is good or bad, because secularism destroys the reality of good and bad. But what other reason could he have for choosing to help or not?

The only other thing I can think of is that he prefers to help people and so he helps, or he prefers not to and so he doesn’t. But why does he even follow his own preferences? Why not follow the preferences of someone else, such as the person asking for help? Are your preferences more realistic than his?

I think that if secularists were honest with themselves, they would admit that secularism reduces all preferences to equal worth, or perhaps to equal worthlessness. Thus, if there is no good or bad, it seems to follow that it is neither more nor less rational to follow your own preferences than those of someone else.

As a rational believer in good and bad, I can say that it is rational to follow what is good because I believe the good and the true are connected. But if a secularist said that it is rational to follow his own preferences no matter what they are, it seems to me that he implies that what is true (rational) is what he wants (his preferences).

And that goes beyond moral relativism: it is absolute relativism. Truth is what you want it to be, and if I want it to be “X”, and you want it to be “not X,” then by golly it is both “X” and “not X” at the same time. Hopefully we can use this kind of analysis to help show secularists the contradiction within this secularist dilemma.

I couldn’t find the part where you explained why you believe that “good” and “evil” do not “exist” without God (just God in general, or your particular God?)

Could you highlight it?

I didn’t explain why I think that good and evil do not exist without God in this post. I recommend this Catholic Answers article for a short treatment.

This part-of-an-article is also good:

Stop right there.

One can choose between two different flavors of ice cream knowing that neither is objectively better than the other. It’s just a choice, that’s all, and it doesn’t make me irrational.

These types of discussions probably do better in the philosophy forum anyway.


You think that one flavour of ice creams tastes better than the alternative.

What I always heard growing up (60s through 80s) was that people take the option that makes them happier. Altruism doesn’t exist, it’s just that helping people makes some people feel better than they would if they didn’t help.

It’s actually a really awful idea…

Whatever dilemma you are trying to present in the rest of your post falls apart for me immediately in your first paragraph.
Your first four points in the first four sentences are already in error.

–choosing between two options can still be rational if one choice is not “better” than the alternative.
–One option can still be “better” if Good and Bad do not exist.
–Good and Bad can exist if there is no God.
–Secularism doesn’t destroy the basis for rational choices. In fact, in some instances it might make choices clearer and more rational.

These ideas you express in your first paragraph are all your opinion, I assume.
Because they definitely are not fact–not at all.


But Catholics do this all the time, too. Everybody does it. It’s common psychology.

It’s just that the Catholic perception and criteria of what would make them “feel better” and “happier” means following Catholic teaching.
So you are doing the same as everyone else, just tweaking your definitions of what “better” and “happier” mean.


All that is needed for anyone to identify Good and Evil is system of values, not a deity. As a result, Theravada Buddhism, Daoism, and even capitalism identify good and evil.

Also, that article attributes Hume’s Is-Ought comment to some John C Wright.

What a splendid example of pure unsullied liberalism. Words have no meaning; reality is defined in terms of “feelings.” (Obviously, since there is no objective truth, just individual feelings.)

I don’t know how you get “liberalism” from that.

(LIBERALISM: a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality.)

I’m talking basic psychology 101.

People do make choices based on what makes them feel happier, as the other poster was saying.

But to a Catholic, for example, it makes them feel “happier” to go to church every Sunday and take communion, because of what they believe it means.

To an Atheist, who believes differently, it makes them feel “happier” not to do those things.

It’s quite simple.
It’s got nothing to do with being “liberal”.
It’s the study of how the brain works.


You know your friend better than I do, but with some you would already be on a different page at this point if your usage of “good” and “bad” is different than their usage.

I certainly hope he doesn’t mean that either. That was one of the things expressed when the United States started their eugenics policy. It was argued that people in less advantaged places where right where they deserved to be and they should not be allowed to breed. This lead to involuntary sterilization (a person could go in for one procedure and unknowingly get sterilized while they are there) along with encouragement for people to be sterilized. This was applied against minorities, native Americans, or people that were “found” to be “mentally deficient” The euginics program of the United States was an inspiration to Nazi Germany.

Depends on what type of secularism you are refering to. By itself Secularism is a separation of religion and something else (ex: separation of church and state if you are talking about State Secularism). But that doesn’t tell you much about the person’s value system. Some one that is a Secular Humanist may but a high value on human life and the quality of life.

What does it mean for a separation of religion and something else to be true?

You’re invoking the term “secularism” but nailed down what value system is being discussed. That might help clear up your discussion a bit.

You may have lost your friend with this one too. Like I mentioned above your usage of good[ness] (and “truth”) might not be pursuant with what he has in mind and vice verse. There’s also information that suggest that very few things that people do are “only rational” and that some amount of emotion and feelings are a driving force for the apparently “only rational” behaviour. That’s probably better discussed in another thread of discussion. But if you ever want to see more information on this look for a book called “Descartes Error”

The question of why anyone bothers to do anything is the topic of an area of psychology that falls under the label “motivation.” There are a number of leading hypothesis on motivation that would also be worthy of their own thread.

A motivation doesn’t have to be realistic for some one to go after it. Some could (and did) argue that Werner von Braun’s life long work on developing “rockets” as a new type of vehicle to get people into space was unrealistic. (full disclosure, his work was also applied to automate the delivery of explosives to a target before the USA grabbed him up and had him helping them make functional rockets for primarily military motivations).

Relativism isn’t the same as secularism. You might be conflating principals.

The ones who are tweaking definitions are the people who came up with this idea. There are many times that people do something they do not want to do, which may benefit them in no way, which may even kill them, and to the people who came up with this idea, it’s all about what made the person feel the best.

It’s is totally ignoring the elephant in the living room: why do some people choose to pick up dying people and care for them and why do other people choose to spend all their time at the races and why do other people choose to hurt people?

The people who came up with this idea dismiss each choice with, “Oh, well, they’re just doing what makes them feel the best.”

They are totally denying what people actually say about themselves and their own decisions. When someone says, Yes, I did that because I thought it was right, or because it would help someone who needed help, or because it would help their community, the PWCUWTI (I have no idea who they are) *totally dismiss the experience of the person making the decision. *

And as a result, our society loses a huge part of what used to make it work. When every decision is robbed of any moral standing by the idea that the only reason people choose is because of what makes them feel better, then there is no reason to do anything other that what makes you feel good.

Came up with what “idea”?

Sorry…but I don’t understand what you are trying to say here.
Those experiences are not dismissed at all.

You are talking about something completely different here…
I’m not talking about a moral decision or not.

This is not an “idea” that someone made up. It just is. It is just how people’s brains work. No one tells people to do this.
In fact…let me put it into a religious context for you. If god made our brains, then god made our brains to want to make decisions based on what feels good to us.

But that includes…spending the rest of one’s live caring for sick, dying people. That makes some people feel good, so they go out of their way to do it.
Or it means being kind to strangers who need help. That makes many people feel good.

This is not a conscious decision. It’s brain synapses.


[quote=DaddyGirl]This is not a conscious decision. It’s brain synapses.

This is not an “idea” that someone made up. It just is. It is just how people’s brains work. No one tells people to do this.

Right. There’s no free will either. :eek:

The idea that people do what makes them feel good, better, or whatever.

This did not used to be an idea. No one thought this. In fact, few people thought about what would make them feel good when they were faced with the decision of getting out of bed to work at a muddy job in winter to support their families or staying under the covers.

Sorry…but I don’t understand what you are trying to say here.
Those experiences are not dismissed at all.

The statement itself dismisses those experiences. Take for example the most extreme case, that of a young soldier who throws himself over a grenade to save the lives of his fellow soldiers. Suppose he is an atheist, so has no thought of a Heaven awaiting him.

Now, the cost/benefit analysis theory proposed by the PWCUWTI would have him thinking that it would be better for him to cease to exist in order to save lives rather than wait for some other soldier to throw himself over the grenade, no? But no, instead we have an idea which proposes that a young man will commit a fatal action against himself because it will make him feel better, altho in reality he will end up feeling nothing.

And this is dismissive of his true motivation, which is love for others. It twists an act committed *for *others into an act committed for himself.

None of those whose lives he saved needs to feel gratitude towards him, because after all, he just did what would make him feel better—a decision each of them makes when they consider whether to volunteer to help others or stay home and play video games, right?

You are talking about something completely different here…
I’m not talking about a moral decision or not.

Precisely my point.

This is not an “idea” that someone made up. It just is. It is just how people’s brains work. No one tells people to do this.
In fact…let me put it into a religious context for you. If god made our brains, then god made our brains to want to make decisions based on what feels good to us.

But that includes…spending the rest of one’s live caring for sick, dying people. That makes some people feel good, so they go out of their way to do it.
Or it means being kind to strangers who need help. That makes many people feel good.

This is not a conscious decision. It’s brain synapses.

If it is nothing more than brain synapses, then any decision is devoid of meaning. That is why this idea is so pernicious.

The reality is that we need to decide *for *virtue, even atheists. We need to *develop *ourselves in that direction. Do you think Mother Teresa just woke up with a desire to pick dying people up off the sidewalk? What about the millions of people throughout Calcutta’s history who had passed the dying by? What was the difference?

The difference was that Mother Teresa had made a decision to be holy, and she had followed that up with years of self-discipline. She had “practiced” holiness in her life for decades. She was thus able to pick up a man who was ill, who was filthy, who stank, who had flies all over him, and care for him. And to do this for the next person, and the next, and the one after that, for years.

And it wasn’t because she was born with special brain synapses.

Please answer the points made by the poster above me, and then I’d like to see you post some kind of proof for this assertion. What proof is there that people only choose to do what makes them feel good? Do you have evidence from brain chemistry experiments? Psychological experiments? If so, please post it.

It sounds like what is getting touched on here may be something discussed in motivation theory in which it is thought that there is a basic impulse for one to see to the well being of their objects of concern. Happiness is a possible consideration for well being, but it’s not the only one and at times one may see happiness as being the less important of of other consideration. The objects of concern generally include the self and may extend to others to which a person has ties such as family, friends, others with which there is an emotional connection, or others that seem to be a member of a group to which the person of interest belongs where these in-groups could be formed because of association with the same nation, sports team, social classification, clan, religion, political orientation, and so on (the phrase “we look out for their own” comes to mind). In the example that you bring up you’ve mentioned that the person in the muddy job has a family to which I assume he or she has emotional ties and considers their well being of more importance than the self.

The empathetic ties or a resistance to them can be imbued within a person by their society, upbringing, and even direct interactions with people that are classified within a group. Statements about group xxxxx being savages, uncivilized, or not having a soul could result in more frequent occurrences of people in the groups in which such messages are said to have no or weaker empathetic ties to the group of discussion (establishes a stronger out-group division) which statements that blur or make insignificant differences may contribute to more frequent occurrences of stronger empathetic ties.

There are multiple motivations for why a soldier might throw himself on a grenade any of which may or may not simultaneously contribute to action. Throwing ones self on a grenade may be habituated through training with simulation. One might think that regardless of whether or not he throws himself on the grenade that his close proximity to it ensures he is going to get seriously injured/killed and feeling there is little for the self to loose do so to protect the well being of others for which has has concern or even to better ensure payback on the person that has dealt him this life altering injury or death. There’s a lot of potential motivations wrapped up in that situation. I’ve only named a few.

I don’t think there’s any way that a complete answer can be given to some of your questions within the space allowed in the messages in these forums. I’ve only references the information in a small section of a much larger field to which some people devote their lives to study and investigate.

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