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My concern with Theism is not so much that it is false. It is false, but so is the belief in Bigfoot. The problem with Theism is that it distorts our perception of reality, it blinds us to deeply important aspects of our world and ourselves.

In this post I’ll explore an example of what I am getting at. And while it is true that not all theists fall victim to the distortion that I will describe, the example is illustrative nonetheless.

The example concerns theistic ethics, in particular the epistemological problem with the divine command theory. Briefly, the problem is that if the divine command theory is true, then given some plausible assumptions, we can never (or very rarely) have knowledge of what is right and wrong. If what is right is constituted by what God commands, then we cannot know what we ought to do unless we know what God has commanded. But how can we know this? We don’t hear a voice from the heavens saying, “don’t hurt one another” and even if we did, how would we know that it is God’s voice? Perhaps the guidelines written in some religious text are indicative of God’s commands. But it is equally (actually more) likely that these texts are culturally conditioned. Whether or not we believe that it is reasonable to believe that God inspired the Bible, it is at least as reasonable to doubt that He did. And if we can’t be sure, then we can’t be sure what God expects of us.

So this is the first distorting effect: Instead of proceeding rationally into an inquiry concerning morality, the divine command theory says that we need to consult an unseen supernatural deity. Now, without the divine commander, how can we proceed? Without God we can only rely on our own intuition, our reason, and the insights and arguments of thoughtful and insightful people from across the ages. But this actually gets us pretty far. Whatever you may think of his account of morality, Kant’s investigation into the concept of absolute duty is extremely insightful. An appreciation of the works of people from such diverse philosophical perspective as Buddhism, Utilitarianism, Judaism, Kantianism, (too name just a few) agree that morality is specifically concerned with how we treat others. The Buddha, Gandhi, Tolstoy, Schopenhauer, Mill, Confucius, and many more all agreed that morality requires that we treat the interests of others as in some sense equal to our own.

So we can gain important insight into the requirements of morality without worrying about God. Or so it would be if the divine command theory is false. Because the divine command theory tells us that we cannot know anything about what is morally required until we know what God has commanded. It is this idea that involves the distortion of reality I am talking about.

The truth is that we don’t need to know what God commands to know, for example, that hurting others just for fun is wrong. Indeed, out natural moral commitments are so strong that if any one of us (even a divine command theorist) found himself in the position of believing that God has commanded him to kill someone who does not deserve it, the only reasonable response would be to doubt that God had really issued this command.

Abraham, for example, should have told God (or, rather, the being who claimed to be God) that since God is a just being and since it is wrong to kill a young boy who does not deserve it, the fact that He has commanded him to kill Isaac is actually evidence that He is not God.

Philip Quinn disagrees with this conclusion. In a paper called “God and Morality,” Quinn argues that

It is therefore within God’s power to give Abraham a sign that would make him certain that he has been commanded to kill his son. Suppose, for example, that one night, in the twinkling of an eye, the stars in the sky are rearranged to spell out the sentence “ABRAHAM, SACRIFICE ISAAC!” Abraham observes this transformation of the heavens. Observers all over the world, some of whom do not even know English, testify that they now see this patter in the night sky, and Abraham learns of this testimony and uses it to rule out the possibility that he is hallucinating. . . In such circumstances, it seems to me, Abraham would be crazy not to believe that he had been divinely commanded to kill his son.

This argument suffers what I have previously called a stunning failure of imagination. Surely Quinn must admit the possibility that other very powerful beings exist that might want to get us to commit horrible acts. It would be reasonable for Abraham to believe that someone (someone very powerful) wants him to kill his son, but there is no way for Abraham to know that God has so commanded him. Consider the following four explanations for Abraham’s experience:

Explanation (G): God wants me to kill Isaac so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son. –From God”

Explanation (S): Satan wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.

Explanation (E): Some other sadistic supernatural and very powerful entity wants me to believe that God wants me to kill Isaac and so he has rearranged the stars to make it look like God is telling me to do so.

Explanation (A): An omnipotent evil deity (who I have previously called Asura) wants me to kill my son and so He has rearranged the stars to spell out “Abraham, kill your son.—From God.”

There is no means to adjudicate between explanations G, S, E, or A. Given the evidence, all four are equally likely. So it is just false that if Abraham saw the stars rearrange and spell out, “Abraham, kill your son.—God” that he would be foolish not to conclude that God wants him to kill Isaac. It would be just as reasonable to conclude that Satan or some very powerful deity is trying to fool him. So how is Abraham to decide? He can just decide to believe, on faith that none of S, E, A or any other alternative to G is true, and that he has been commanded by God to kill his son. But this will be a leap over his natural moral inclinations. Alternatively, he could decide the issue in just the way that a non-theist would: he could conclude that he is so committed to the notion that it would be wrong to kill Isaac that the being who is commanding him to do so is not worth worshipping or obeying. But this would be to acknowledge the failure of the divine command theory to guide our actions.

And this is the key point: A non-theist can rest on his/her own experience of reality (including moral reality) and insist that it could not possible be morally acceptable to kill a young boy who does not deserve it. But a theist who accepts the divine command theory cannot give this kind of priority to his/her own experience. Such a person must be willing to subvert her own deeply held moral commitments to the will of God (in whatever way the will of that being reveals itself).


Jason Thibodeau

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