It’s been a while, my children. As a prominent member of the Center for Inquiry Alberta (a meaningless thing to say, since I have had little to do yet in my capacity aside from contributing ideas at meetings), I will be attending (and perhaps becoming part of) a presentation about atheism/secular humanism in a local mosque. I don’t know how much I can say about it at this time, so I will leave it there. It should be interesting and I will be putting my thoughts about that here when I can. This invitation by the Islamic community is a sight better than Bishop (insert favorite expletive here) Henry and his brand of intolerance towards atheism. Well, coming from a guy who places the moral health (read: imposes what he believes is moral) of young women above their real health by making access to Gardasil (a vaccine against some strains of HPV, a major cause of cervical cancer), I’m flattered!
But I digress. At our last CFI meeting, we discussed what we are potentially going to be asked at this presentation during the QnA part. We think the first question asked of us will be (bets, anyone?):
Isn’t God necessary for the existence of morality?
If we atheists ever talk about our atheism with the religious – and it is an inevitability when we do- this response is devastating: the Euryphro Dilemma. In a previous post on morality and why neither god nor religion are my moral compass I dealt mainly with the evolutionary development of moral behavior and the significant body of evidence behind it. If there is a single response to the claim that God is necessary for religion, it is Plato’s Euthyphro Dilemma
Is something moral because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is moral ?
In short, there are two possibilities for God in relation to morality: either a) something is moral because it is commanded by God or b) something is commanded by God because it is moral. Both forks are fraught with peril for the claimant.
Many believers who claim that God is necessary for the existence of an absolute morality posit that without God morality would be arbitrary. However, if something is moral because God says that it is, does nothing more than remove the arbitrary nature of human morality and place it on God. In this horn of the dilemma, morality is merely God’s whim, which can change at a moments’ notice. Indeed, the Old Testament is rife with examples where despite the prohibition on murder (which is not strictly true anyway – killing an outsider was not considered murder at the time this commandment was written, and hence strong refutation of any absolute morality), wholesale slaughter of other groups was not only countenanced, but done under direct order from God.
Okay, I don’t believe for one second that the slaughter of the Canaanites and others happened because some supernatural being (that I see no reason to believe even exists anyway) told them to do it. Rather, it seems more likely that if these events occurred, it was simply a land grab in which the genocide was rationalized as being a moral action post hoc because it was by divine command. Since God is meaninglessly defined as good, rather than being judged by its actions, an command by God is necessarily good.
Ridiculous. This is an example from my previous post of how moral norms can be suspended to commit the most heinous of crimes in order to maintain this untennable position that God is by definition ‘good’:
…the [Canaanite] children, by being killed are really, in one sense, better off if we believe that children go to heaven, as I do, than they would be allowing them to live on in the circumstances in which they were.
William Lane Craig, you are son of a BITCH! If anyone out there is not outraged at this incredible and insensitive stupidity, there is something wrong with their own moral center. Something very wrong. I can honestly say that had he made this statement in my presence, it would rapidly have been interrupted by a slap topside the head. I kid you not. This is the kind of nonsense you get if you start from the assumption (NOT premise) that God is good. You end up doing incredible mental gymnastics to maintain this utterly ridiculous position. Defining God to be good is, as I said, meaningless. We do not prejudge individuals in such a manner without looking at intent and action, so why would we exclude God from this scrutiny? I certainly don’t. Craig is exactly the type of person Stephen Weinberg was talking about when he said
With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.
“But, hold on,“ a believer might say. “God is God, and He can do whatever He wants, right?” Sure. God is widely proclaimed to have infinite power, etc. God is then certainly able to do anything. I am not disputing this. But being able to do something does not mean that we should do it. The should part is where morals and ethics come in.
“But who are you to judge God’s actions?” If God exists, and if I have been endowed with the ability to judge actions, who am I to judge the actions of a deity? Because, I have the ability and power to do so. And more to the point, I should do so. If believers can call God loving and good because of his actions, then by the same token the possibility must exist that God can be called bad or evil based on his actions. Believers can not have their cake and eat it, too. If we consider genocide morally wrong, then God commanding genocide is also morally wrong.
What about the second horn of the dilemma, that God commands something because it is moral? The defender of the claim that God and morality go together like Mom and apple pie fairs no better here. If God commands something because it is moral, then this acknowledges that God is not the author of moral codes and is just a middleman. Thus, God is superfluous and unnecessary to morality in this case, so why not cut out the middleman?
“But,” a believer may reply, “without an absolute morality, isn’t morality relative?” I categorically reject this. This presumes a dichotomy and I dispute that absolute morality and relative morality are the only two possible choices. Morality is much more complicated than that. I also reject the existence of an absolute morality. Far too many examples can be found which run counter to such a concept, the aforementioned time-dependent definition of ‘murder’ being only one of them. The Bible represents a snapshot of morals at the time these literary books were written, and it is no surprise that a moral code is difficult to work into modern moral zeitgeist. Nor is morality necessarily relative in the absence of an absolute morality. While they change with time, I disagree that morals can be arbitrary.
Let’s get one thing clear before I get quote mined, or someone says “Aha! You actually believe God exists and are just rebelling!” or some other form of nonsense. I don’t believe for one second that any deity exists. I don’t feel it. I don’t sense it. To anyone who says that I really know that God exists and that I am rebelling because I want to keep my hedonistic (I wish!) lifestyle without answering to some higher authority, I say this: Please do not purport to know what I think, especially after I have stated in such categorical terms that I really, REALLY (in all caps, yet!!!) don’t believe, feel, sense any deity. I am arguing from the perspective of Devil’s Advocate because I am forced to do so. I must begin from the assumption that God exists in order to show the inconsistencies glaringly obvious in the belief in a loving Abrahamic God. There is simply no other way for me to do this, distasteful as it is. I do not believe that any deity has endowed me with a moral center. In my previous post on morality, I discuss the significant body of evidence which points to an evolutionary origin for morality based on social survival strategy that evolution stumbled upon. And since I discuss it there, I will not repeat myself here.